Sunday, December 27, 2009

Sermon - St. John - John 21:20-25

December 27th 2009
John 21:20-25
“St. John”

In the month of December, we have had the opportunity to hear the Gospel in connection with various saints whose commemorations happen to fall on Sundays and Mondays throughout this month. St. Andrew, St. Nicholas, St. Lucia, and St. Thomas. One last saint in this crowded December lineup, one last believer of old who points us to Christ. Today, December 27th is the day remembering St. John, the apostle.

John was the writer of the Gospel account that bears his name, the fourth Gospel, with a different viewpoint than Matthew, Mark and Luke. A very distinct portrayal and emphasis on the same Jesus. John shows Jesus as the Word of God made flesh. John gets us thinking about deep mysteries wound up in simple concepts like light and darkness, the world, water, bread, and life. He shows Jesus as Yahweh with 7 great “I AM” statements, for instance, “I am the way, the truth and the life”, “I am the resurrection and the life” and “I am the Good Shepherd”. The Holy Spirit used John to give us great insight into our Lord Jesus Christ that we could find nowhere else.

John also wrote three letters and recorded his vision in the book of Revelation. Perhaps second only to St. Paul, John is our most important New Testament writer.

Like all the saints we've been hearing about, let's not look at John in his own right. Instead, let us see him as another lens for seeing Jesus Christ, John's savior and ours.

John, the disciple whom Jesus loved. Not that Jesus didn't love all his disciples. But that was John's way of referring to himself in the Gospel account he wrote. “The disciple whom Jesus loved”. Perhaps a way of showing his humility. Perhaps a way for John to show that the most notable thing about himself, about all of us really, is that we are objects of Christ's love.

Peter, James and John were the inner circle of the 12, the three closest to Jesus. With him on the Mount of Transfiguration. With him in Gethsemane. John was the only one of the disciples recorded as being present when Jesus was crucified. Jesus trusted him with the care of his mother Mary, “Behold your mother”. John was also first to enter the empty tomb on Easter morning, running past Peter in great excitement at the news.
I mentioned that John's Gospel gives a distinct view of Jesus as the word of God made flesh. John doesn't begin his Gospel account with shepherds and angels or wise men from the East. He says, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God... and the word became flesh and made his dwelling among us”. This is John's version of the nativity. That Jesus Christ is the living Word of God, and God himself from the beginning, by whom all things were made. And he, the agent of creation – pitches his tent in human flesh, among us. A profound mystery.

John was, like all saints, also a sinner. And perhaps we see that best in the account where John and his brother James request a special place in the kingdom. Through their mother, they request to sit at Jesus' left and right hand when he comes into his glory. This selfish request shows they had their own glory in mind, and totally misunderstood the point of Jesus' work. He was a savior from sin. But in John's mind, sin wasn't as big a problem as those Roman occupiers. In John's mind, he would share in the glory when Jesus led the rebellion to win Jewish freedom from oppression. He would sit at Jesus' right hand.

Not too unlike us, who sometimes want Jesus for our own purposes, rather than his. What can he give us, what prayer can he answer? How can he make me feel? Do we forget or ignore the true nature of his work, the real reason he came? He's here to deal with our sin. Which means we need to admit our sin problem.

Interestingly, it appears John did sit at Jesus right or left, at the Last Supper. He was “reclining at table close to [Jesus] and said, 'who is it that is going to betray you?” John was given a place of honor, though he didn't deserve it. And as we approach our Lord's table at his invitation today, we too are honored, even though we don't deserve it. We are forgiven for our betrayals and denials, our cowardice and laziness – every way that we fail as his disciples. Still he feeds us. Still he loves us.

Tradition tells us that John moved to Ephesus and served as pastor and bishop there, and that he was the only one of the 12 apostles not to meet a martyrs death, but to die instead of old age. That doesn't mean he didn't face persecution! He was imprisoned once with Peter, and later sent to exile on the island of Patmos. But as one of the youngest apostles became a last living link to those who had personally known Jesus... John had gotten pretty old. And the rumors began. Even as John was writing his gospel, he corrected the false idea that he, John, would never die. Jesus never said exactly that, John clarifies.

But still, he did say in John's Gospel, “he who believes in me will live even though he dies” and “he who lives and believes in me will never die”. What a great mystery John reveals, that in Christ we have life, even in death. In Christ we live forever, even when we die. And so, John did, and John does live – in Christ. As do we, and as we will forever.

Let John serve also as an example of lifelong faith in Christ, and as we grow into old age let us never forget the promise of life in Christ forever. Let John's words, God's words recorded by John, be a continual source of encouragement to us as we daily grow in repentance and faith through Christ.

The Christian church gives thanks for all the saints who have gone before us, who show God's mighty working in the lives of people like us. Thank God for John the fisherman, turned apostle and evangelist, and visionary and pastor. John who showed us Jesus, the resurrection and the life.

Sermon - Christmas Day - Luke 2:1-20

Christmas Day 2009
Luke 2:1-20
“Christmas is. Christmas isn't”

It's finally here. After all the preparations, all the waiting, all the expectation. Christmas is today. And Christmas is many things.

Christmas is decorations and celebrations. Christmas is Ham and Egg Nog and Cookies. Christmas is white, and red and green. Christmas is visions of sugarplums and big-hearted grinches.

Or is it?

Christmas is family. Christmas is spending time with loved ones. Christmas is love and joy and peace and good cheer. Christmas is giving, not receiving.

Or is it?

Is Christmas all these things? Surely it's not the crass and the outward, the greedy selfishness and sparkly lights. Perhaps it's the higher ideals, the love and generosity, the “spirit of Christmas” sort of thing.

Or is it?

What is Christmas, without Christ? It isn't.

And for all the moaning we do about “keeping Christ in Christmas”, for all the tisk tisks we point at our culture and world. For all the rightful criticism of those people who lose the true reason for the season... We aren't much better.

We are payers of lip-service. We say it's all about Jesus. We make of point of saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays”. We even come to church when everyone else is home unwrapping presents and relaxing. We look good on the outside. But on the inside, from within us, comes the rot. Sin. Deceit. Selfishness. Anger. Revenge. Doubts. Lusts. Arrogance. Self-righteousness. And when no one is looking, and even sometimes when they are, the fangs come out. We show ourselves.

Christmas is, for many of us, another opportunity to lie to ourselves. To find comfort and peace somewhere other than in Christ. To tell ourselves how good we are for all our generosity. To pat ourselves on the back for how hard we worked to bring it all together. To distract ourselves from reality with some warm fuzzies and fleeting nostalgia. But none of that is really Christmas.

For some, Christmas isn't even that. It's a time to remember, perhaps in great sadness. It's a time to lament the losses of our life, the loved ones who are gone. It's a time of loneliness and helplessness. A sad little corner of the year that no one else seems to visit like you do. Is this what Christmas is?

Whenever we take our eyes off Jesus, we lose Christmas, no matter the reason. No matter what the date on the calendar says.

If Jesus is the reason for the season, what is the reason for Jesus? Why did he bother? Why give up his throne, his honor, his power and glory? Why be born a human? Why follow all the rules, heal the sick, raise the dead and preach good news to the poor? Why the betrayal, the suffering, the mockery, the sentence of death? Why the cross?

Jesus has a reason. To save. The reason he was born, was to die. The reason he died, is to save. To save you and me and all people from sin. To save us from the devil's power when we were gone astray. To save us from death by his death. To save us for life by his rising to life again.

Without Christ – the Christ who lives and dies for us – Christmas is nothing. But with Jesus, Christmas is everything. It is cause for wonder and joy. It is a treasure for the heart. It is glory to God and peace on earth. With Jesus, and in Jesus, Christmas is cause for singing and rejoicing, celebration and good cheer. Because Christ comes to save us from sin.

Christmas isn't anything more or less than the recognition that God's own Son sets foot on our little pebble of a planet. That he stoops so low as to put on our skin and bones. That he fulfills his ancient promises to his people. That he, and he alone is the worker of salvation. Christmas is about Christ, what he does, and who he does it for. Jesus Christ – for you, for us all.

Christmas is life: it is the beginning of Jesus' earthly life, and the beginning of our eternal life. It's the first earthly step in the Son of God's walk to the cross, and of our flight with him to heaven. Christmas greens – evergreens – do well reminding us that in Christ, our life is forever.
Christmas is love: God is love, and that love became flesh at Christmas. But love isn't just feelings, it's action. And greater love has no one than laying down his life for his friends. That kind of love was just what this baby is about.

Christmas is gifts. It's not about your little gifts, given OR received. But it is about God's greatest gift, and the multitude of gifts he brings. Jesus gives life, salvation, righteousness, healing, relief, atonement, resurrection, new birth, new creation, a crown of victory, a place in the Father's house, God's love and favor. He gives water and word in a flood of blessings. He gives his body and blood in a feast of forgiveness. Christmas gifts, if you will, from God's gift to this earth.

Christmas is all about Christ. Have a blessed Christmas, in Jesus Christ our newborn king. Amen.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Sermon - Advent Midweek 3 - Matthew 2:10-12

Midweek Advent 3 – December 16, 2009
Matthew 2:10-12
“Myrrh for the Prophet”

The wise men brought their gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. The Gold reminds us of Christ's kingly office – for he rules our hearts by the Gospel. The Frankincense connects to his priestly role – the one who offers up the pleasing aroma of prayer and sacrifice, even self-sacrifice, to God on our behalf.

Today we come to that last gift, myrrh. Like the other gifts, there's more to it than something expensive and nice to show how much we appreciate this important person. There are hints of meaning in these gifts which point to the identity of this child. We'll draw connections between the myrrh and Christ's final office of prophet.

Myrrh is, like frankincense, an aromatic substance made from dried tree sap. It, too, was used from ancient times, and was very valuable. Myrrh cost up to 5 times as much as frankincense, and was sometimes worth more than its weight in gold.

While it was, like frankincense, a common ingredient in incense and perfumes, we think of myrrh mostly in connection with burial rites. It was burned along with the body in Roman cremations, and used to embalm Jewish bodies in preparation for burial.

Another way to understand the significance of a word is in Scripture is to see where else it is mentioned. Should it surprise us to see myrrh reappearing in the New Testament account of Christ's passion?

When Jesus was crucified, the soldiers offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he would not drink it. This mixture of wine and myrrh was a mild anesthetic – a small gesture of mercy afforded to crucifixion victims – a little something to numb the pain. But Jesus wouldn't take any less than the suffering that was appointed for him. He would meet his fate head on, no holding back. He would suffer the full measure of God's punishment for sins – our sins.

And then myrrh is mentioned again, after Jesus dies. In John 19, Nicodemus brings a mixture of myrrh and aloe, a hundred pounds worth, to prepare Jesus' body for burial. Perhaps Jesus' Mother Mary, when she smelled the myrrh on that good Friday, recalled the visit of the men from the East, and their unusual gifts.

Remember the woman who poured perfume on Jesus' feet, and he said she did a “beautiful thing” because she anointed him for burial. He knew ahead of time how he would face death. Just as he had repeatedly predicted it to his apostles. But he wasn't the only one.

John the Baptist called it publicly – that Jesus was the “Lamb of God” , foreseeing his sacrifice. The prophets of old – they saw it too. Isaiah: “he was stricken, smitten, and afflicted... wounded for our iniquities”. The Psalms: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and “You will not abandon me to the grave”. In fact one of the most striking predictions the prophets made about the coming Messiah was that he would die for his people.

The word of the prophets, you see, pointed to the Word made Flesh. Jesus, the ultimate prophet. King of Kings, Priest of Priests, Prophet of Prophets. The ultimate messenger of God.

He is the messenger, and he is the content. The medium IS the message! The good news is all about Jesus Christ – who he is, what he does for sinners like you and me. There is no gospel apart from him. There's nothing worth knowing or hearing, if not for him.

Most people think of a prophet as one who tells the future. Strictly speaking, the prophet is just a messenger, who might happen to tell the future. But Jesus does show us what is to come. The one who not only predicts but brings hope to our future. His resurrection is prophetic in this way – it shows us our own future. He goes to the grave and is raised again, and so shall we. He lives with God forever, and so shall we. Death has no power over him, nor will it over us for eternity.

To be a prophet is to bring a message, and often to die at the hands of men who don't want to hear it. Isaiah, Jeremeiah, Habbakuk, even John the Baptist. All slain by wicked men without ears to hear God's word.

The myrrh of the wise men reminds us that this baby Jesus was born to be a prophet – and to die a prophet's death. His message from God would be rejected by many, but received by some. Those in power would put him to death, but his message could not be silenced anymore than death could hold him in the grave.

What do we do with the word of our prophet? Do we seek to silence and bury God's word? Especially those words which expose us for our sins? Do we make our sins smell better with a thin perfume of good works or rationalizations? Do we try to point to the meager trinkets we think are fit to lay before him?

Or do we daily drown the Old Adam in repentance by returning to our baptism? Do you have ears to hear the good news of the Prophet – the message of Jesus Christ for you? He who died your death and gives you his life?

Can you see in the manger, not only the holy infant, tender and mild, but also the prophet, the priest and the king worshiped by the wise men? The one who was born to die, and to give us HIS gifts – not of gold, frankincense and myrrh... but of forgiveness, new life, and salvation.

As you celebrate Christmas, with all the sparkling lights, and all the smells and sounds and warm fuzzy feelings, and even as you receive and give gifts, give thanks for the one who received gold, frankincense and myrrh, but who gives us so much more – even himself, his life. What child is this? This, this is Christ the Lord. Amen.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


Interesting story about the Samaritans (still around today!) and their genes.

Sermon - Advent Midweek 2 - Matthew 2:10-12

Midweek Advent 2 – December 9, 2009
Matthew 2:10-12
“Frankincense for the Priest”

This Advent, we've been taking a closer look at the three gifts brought by the wise men to the infant Jesus. In particular, we're paying attention to what these three gifts say about the one who receives them – how they show him as our Prophet, Priest, and King. Last week we considered the gift of gold, and its association with royalty. Jesus is our king, but he is a different kind of king. He redeems us not with gold, but with something more precious – his blood shed for us. He's our king.

But the next gift mentioned is the frankincense. Tonight, let's consider the frankincense along with Jesus' role as our great High Priest.

Frankincense has been used for thousands of years. It's an aromatic ingredient in perfumes, but more than just the “yankee candle” of its day.

It's made from a milky tree-sap that was sometimes difficult to harvest. One story from southern Africa says the trees that were tapped for it were also home to highly venomous snakes. The natives would smoke the snakes out of the trees in order to collect the sap.

In any case, this substance was greatly valued by the ancients. Frankincense was one of the treasures found in the tomb of king Tutankhamen, for instance. So along with the gold Jesus received, it was a thing of value. But this sweet smelling substance also had a religious significance.

Frankincense was a major ingredient in the incense that was burned for the various rituals at the Tabernacle. It was associated with the prayers of the people and the sacrifices. “Let my prayer rise before you as incense” the Psalmist writes, and the picture was of the people's prayers rising like the smoke of the sweet smelling incense, the aroma of which was pleasing to God above. Some Christians still use incense, even today, to signify our prayers ascending to God. As the smoke of ancient burnt offerings arose, it was also mixed with the desirable scent of frankincense. And so both the prayers and the sacrifices were offered to God, on behalf of the people, by the priests.

To present Jesus with frankincense is a not-so-subtle reminder that he is a priest. Not just any priest, but the great high priest. A better and more important priest than any other. The priest to which all other priests point, and from whom they derive. But what is the role of the priest?

The priest is, chiefly, a representative. Someone who stands in the place of the people before God. An intermediary figure. A go-between.

We need a go-between because of sin. Sinful people like you and me can't stand on our own in the presence of God, for he is holy. We need a buffer – a mediator – a priest to get us there. And God, in his grace and mercy, provides the priests to stand in the gap and deal with those sins.

When the high priest of the Old Testament transferred the sins of the people to the scapegoat – he was doing it for all the people of Israel. When the blood of the bull was sprinkled on the Ark of the Covenant, it was for the sins of all the people. Everyday Israelites didn't make their own sacrifices. They bought or brought animals and grains and such, and these were offered on their behalf by the priests.

So too Jesus acts on our behalf. He is our representative, taking our place, before God, in life and death.

He lived for us. There's a reason he didn't come to Earth in majesty and glory, but as the humble babe of Bethlehem. There's a reason he took on human flesh, born of a virgin. He came to live a human life – as a priest – to walk the walk of humanity in order to redeem it. He lives the perfect human life we all fail to do. He upholds the law of God to a tee. He is like us in every way, yet without sin. And as our representative, he earns for us a righteousness we could never earn on our own. And his good works are pleasing to God, like the pleasing aroma of incense. God smiles on Jesus, and on us.

And Jesus died for us. The irony is that the priest is also the sacrifice. The Lamb of God who offers himself on the altar of the cross. Jesus' death is also a pleasing aroma to God, and as he commits his spirit to the hands of his Father, again it is for us. The price of God's wrath is paid by his substitution in our place. He took the punishment we deserve. He paid the debt we owe. And again, God is pleased with us, because of Christ.

Jesus rose from the dead, and thus shows that God accepted his sacrifice. Which is good news for us! Jesus rose from the dead and shows that we too will rise to eternal life. He's not only the priest, but also the fore-runner, the first born of the dead, the priest who lives forever.

And Jesus is still our high priest, even now. Seated at the right hand of the Father, we understand he does so also for us, as our representative. His prayers for us still rise to God's ears, his intercession for us as pleasing incense to the Father. Jesus continues to serve as our go-between, bringing our prayers and petitions to God. That's why we pray “in Jesus' name”. That's how we can have confidence of our standing before God.

Jesus received gold, for he is the king of kings. He receives frankincense, for he is the priest of priests. He is the one who sacrifices himself for us. He is the one who intercedes for us. His person and work are a pleasing aroma to the Father. And through our Great High priest, we approach that same heavenly throne.

Thanks be to God for Jesus Christ, our prophet, priest, and king! Amen.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Church is a Family, Not a Business!

I live in a town in which the most influential company is SC Johnson, whose tagline is, "A family company". While I hear lots of nice things about this company, the fact is, it's still a corporation and not really a family.

Lately, I keep running across this little aphorism, "The Church is a family, not a business!" And it rings true.

So it got me to thinking about how a family is DIFFERENT from a business:
  • A family is based on relationships of love. A business is based on numbers and profits.
  • A family is about who you are. A business is about what you do.
  • The family is instituted by God. A business is founded by man.
  • The family is structured to reflect deep truths about our relationship with God - we are his children, we are part of Christ's bride. A business is structured for maximum efficiency toward the goal of producing and profiting.
  • A family thrives when it is spiritually strong. A business doesn't care about things spiritual.
  • Membership in a family is permanent. Employment at a business isn't so sure.
  • Families value each individual as equal members. Businesses pay employees based on value to the company.
Like families, churches have squabbles and tensions, and sometimes even that crazy uncle. We sin against each other, but hopefully reconcile under the cross. Dysfunctional churches are like dysfunctional families, and growing up in one can be just as damaging. But as a haven for the hurting and a place to learn what love is all about - the church is very much a family. We are God's children in Jesus Christ. We are Christ's bride, the church. We are loved by him and we love each other for Jesus' sake. We are HIS family, and he is the head of the household.

So why do so many want to make church a business? While some lessons can translate from the business world into the family (or the church), there is a real danger of "going corporate". Perhaps it's our American obsession with "success" that drives it. Or maybe its our declining ability as a culture to make distinctions. Certainly, we can point modern Evangelicalism which has imported business models and ideas and language into churches. Is it confusion about what the church is? Is it a lack of trust in churchly things to solve the church's problems?

Friday, December 04, 2009

Sermon - Advent Midweek 1 - Matthew 2:10-12

Midweek Advent 1 – December 2, 2009
Matthew 2:10-12
“Gold for the King”

For our midweek Advent series, we'll be looking at the gifts of the wise men from the east. These foreigners who worshiped the Christ-child brought gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. Each week we'll be looking at one of the threefold gifts for how it connects to Christ's threefold office of Prophet, Priest and King.

I won't belabor the background of the story. You know the account of the wise men from the East, and how they followed the star to the baby Jesus. We usually think of three men, though it's really only their three gifts that are numbered. We make the wise men and their gifts part of our nativity scenes, even though they probably came over a year after Jesus' birth. Still, Matthew's Gospel, which intends to show Jesus as the true Messiah, is careful to include these strange visitors and their noteworthy gifts. There's more than just Christmas card sentimentality here. There's a profound message that answers the question, “What Child is This?”

Tonight, let's take the first gift, gold. We hear a lot about gold nowadays. Companies are even offering to buy your spare gold – you can send it through the mail. It still is today like it was then – a precious commodity, one of the most valued substances on earth.

So much so, that when John sees his vision of Heaven in the book of Revelation, it is pictured as a city whose streets are paved with gold. Likewise, believers in Christ are promised a golden crown of victory. The Old Testament Tabernacle and Temple were adorned with Gold, including the Ark of the Covenant, the very throne of God on earth.

Gold is also a likely object of our sinfully placed affections. The Golden Calf incident in Exodus reminds us of the many false gods we construct and worship. Money itself, earthly riches, whether gold or green, are just as much a temptation to sin. Gold usually means trouble for us in our sins and temptations.

Sometimes we think we bring some value to God. That our gifts are worth something to him. But if that's why we bring our gold, it's insufficient. God doesn't need our money, and it can't buy us his favor. Likewise, some bring their good works and lay them before him as if he's impressed by such filthy rags. No, there is no gold ring that makes this pig pretty enough for God. Instead we need him to give us something. We need him to do something for us. The good news is, he does just that. Jesus our king, gives us better than gold, and does for us even better than that.

If gold is associated with anything in Holy Scripture, it might first bring to mind royalty. A gift fit for a king. When the wise men come to worship the Christ-child, their gifts make a statement. They speak powerfully. This child deserves such gifts, he is worthy to receive this gold, because he is a king.

Remember they asked crabby old Herod, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews?” Did they know who they were asking? Herod, who was appointed by the Romans to be king over the Jews? “Herod, where's your replacement? Where's the person who REALLY belongs on your throne?” No wonder King Herod was threatened.

Years later, Jesus would stand before another Herod. And while that King Herod wanted Jesus to do parlor tricks, Jesus gave no answer. He said little to that other earthly power, Pontius Pilate, either. Like a lamb before slaughter, he was silent. But he did tell Pilate this: “my kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, then my servants would fight...”

No, Jesus is a different kind of king. Kings of this world hunger for power, glory and honor. Kings of this world have armies and troops and wage wars. Kings of this world amass riches and wealth and silver and gold. But not Jesus.

He came as a servant-king. He came to rule not our land, not to take our gold, but to rule our lives in love. A benevolent dictator indeed.

His authority isn't by birthright or royal lineage, though he had that too. Son of David, descended from Israel's great king of old. Even today Jews look back to king David as the pinnacle of their ancient glory. David's rule was mighty, and his kingship worth remembering. But Jesus is great David's greater son. In fact, Jesus is David's Lord. Jesus is David's savior and ours. Jesus is the one to whom David looked forward, and in whom he trusted.

This king, Jesus, does have an army - a heavenly host of angels, sent with his message, sent as his agents. He sends them to guard and protect us, and one day to gather the elect and execute judgment on the wicked.

Pilate confessed it in spite of himself, Jesus was and is a king. “This is the king of the Jews” Pilate wrote, and posted the sign above the cross. This king wears a crown not of gold, but of thorns. This king doesn't kill his enemies, he dies for them. This king is not of this world.

We are redeemed, purchased and won back from sin and death by Jesus. And our king redeems us with some thing more valuable than gold or silver. He sheds his holy, precious blood. He endures suffering, death, and the wrath of God.

All this royal mystery wrapped up in swaddling clothes – or perhaps by the time of the wise men, toddling around in Bethlehem. And when Herod, the king of this world, tried to kill Jesus, the holy family fled to Egypt. They probably paid for the trip with the gold brought by the wise men. And when Herod died, they returned, and God's plan of salvation in Christ continued to unfold.

It would lead to Nazareth, to Jerusalem, to the cross, to the empty tomb, and from Judea, to Samaria, to Rome, to the ends of the earth. For Jesus is king of kings and Lord of Lords. He is king of the Jews, but also king of the gentiles.

He deserves all our gold and more – for he gave us everything he had, even his life. And he makes us rich. He proclaims to us the Gospel – more precious than gold – the message of salvation through Him.

Until his second Advent, we trust our king to rule well. Seated at the right hand of God, he oversees all things for the good of his church, his royal priesthood. We anticipate the day when our king comes again in glory. For he promises us a crown of gold – a victory at the last, and a reign with him for eternity. What a gift! What a king! Amen.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Tiger Woods

I've enjoyed watching Tiger golf over the years. I'm not huge into golf, but I'm much more likely to watch while he's in the hunt. I guess that's why I am mildly interested in the recent kerfuffle over his accident, and now, apparent marital affairs.

I read his statement. As a pastor, it interests me when public figures use words like, "transgressions" and "sins". Tiger makes the case that while his actions were wrong, they are a private matter between him and his family.

I don't think the media should be intruding here, and should really leave it alone. There's no good purpose in embarrassing him. There's no benefit other than the lurid details will make money for the media who report them.

But I think Tiger is missing something here: Marriage is a public estate. It's a legal arrangement recognized by the government and society. Marital infidelity is not, therefore, entirely a private matter either. It's one thing to get into a fight with your spouse. It's quite another to push the marital nuke button. There is a difference between a private matter and a public scandal.

His status as a public figure makes these sins all the more damaging. Not only is he embarrassing his family in an exponentially more public forum, but he's also contributing to the ever-declining cultural regard for marriage. People see what other people do, and people see what famous people do even more.

If he means what he says in the statement, then it's good as far as it goes. Obviously, it's not a Christian statement of repentance - it doesn't reference Christ who died for these sins and all sins. I don't know what, if anything, Tiger believes about that.

He wants to avoid a "public confession". I think that would be appropriate and helpful, considering what he's put his wife through.

But his stated intention to do better from now on is more we've seen from many public apologies. Let's just pray for his sake that he finds forgiveness not only from his wife, but from his Lord. Now THAT would be a good public example.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Gospel without Law = Law

OK I should probably expound on this...

Law without Gospel = Law.

Gospel without Law = Law.

This is my shorthand way of expressing one of the dangers of an improper distinction of Law and Gospel.

C.F.W. Walther, the founder of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and an expert in Luther's teachings, said, "Paging through Scripture before we know the difference between Law and Gospel makes us think it contains nothing but contradictions, even more than the Koran" and, "properly to distinguish Law and Gospel is so difficult and such a high art for the preacher as a Christian. In fact, this is the greatest skill a human being can acquire."

So first, maybe some working definitions:

"Law" is that category of Scriptural teaching which shows us the rules. It tells us what to do and not to do. It shows us, also, that we fail - constantly - to measure up to God's perfect standard. It has to do with punishment. The Law is the "bad news" of Scripture. The Law shows us our sin, always.

"Gospel" is the category of Scriptural teaching which stands in opposition to the Law. The Gospel, strictly speaking, is the good news of Jesus Christ and all he has does for us. But chiefly it's about his death and resurrection to pay for our sins. This strict Gospel plays out into and is connected with many of the other "good news" passages and promises. But all those are, ultimately, rooted in Jesus and his saving work for us.

We Lutherans understand the extreme importance of maintaining both Law and Gospel in all our preaching and teaching. We take great pains to distinguish and divide them, exploring the relationship between these two great teachings of Scripture.

But some take no such care. Some even teach, falsely, that we should not carefully balance and maintain the tension between Law and Gospel.

Some tilt to the Law. We might call this "works righteousness" or "legalism". The good news of what Jesus has done for you is minimized, or not even mentioned. Jesus becomes an afterthought to the real business of what YOU need to DO. Taking Jesus out of our preaching and teaching makes Christianity into nothing more than a religion of the Law... just like every other false religion of man. For with the Law alone we cannot be saved.

But some tilt to the Gospel. And while Walther rightly states that the "Gospel should predominate", that doesn't mean we shouldn't preach the Law, and forcefully so. A particular abuse here is anti-nomianism, or a teaching that the Law doesn't matter, or that it shouldn't be preached. That Christians don't need to hear the bad news, the condemnation, the stinging rebuke of God's Law. It's too much of a "downer". Some seek to preach and teach "only the good news", and divorce Law from Gospel.

So now to my point: When you remove the Law, you are not simply left with Gospel. For the Gospel apart from the Law is meaningless. "Jesus has forgiven your sins" means nothing without you knowing that you are a sinner, or what sin is. It's a solution to a problem we wouldn't understand. We need both the diagnosis AND the cure. We need to be shown our sin, to know our sin, to know our forgiveness.

But it's worse than that. The Gospel without Law is not just meaningless; it changes. No one would preach a bunch of nonsense about forgiveness while the question begs, "forgiven for what?" No one would talk about Christ crucified for sinners when there's no need for such a thing. So in churches where the true preaching of the Law is absent - a preaching of the Law with an eye toward the Gospel - in those churches, the Gospel becomes something else.

If Jesus didn't come to forgive sins, because there's no law, and no sin.... then why did he come? As an example for me to follow? That's just more Law. That's telling me what to do. Or some make him into a new law-giver. "He shows us the law of love". He said, "Love your neighbor", "turn the other cheek". He told us to care for the poor and downtrodden. Jesus is about social justice! And so the lack of Law leaves us not with the Gospel - but a meaningless gospel. And guess what fills the vacuum? More Law!

Our sinful nature loves the law - in a way. And so anytime we can migrate to it, dwell upon it, our Old Adam is happy. But it's usually a warped law. A law that leaves us with a false sense of security. A law created in our own fashion just so that we can fulfill its demands. We convince ourselves, like the rich young man, "all these I have kept from my youth".

But a true view of the law leaves us in despair. It pulls our spiritual pants down and embarrasses us with our total helplessness. We can't save ourselves. We can't do anything right. We sin ALL THE TIME. Poor, miserable sinners.

And then, and only then, are we ready for the true Gospel. What unspeakable joy to go from the depths of the Law's despair to the heights of the Gospel's grand promises. We've all heard about people who have a close shave with death, or a terrible disease from which they recover. They have a "new lease on life". That's what happens, in spiritual terms, with Law and Gospel. Only when brought low by the Law can we be raised by the Gospel.

While Jesus certainly did speak the Law, and raised the bar in many ways, his main message was one of forgiveness for our sins. Jesus preached and taught BOTH Law and Gospel, too! So should his faithful pastors and teachers. So should his faithful church. So should his faithful people believe his words of both Law and Gospel, never compromising or diminishing either.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Gospel Without Law

If you take away the Gospel, you have only the Law. (Legalism)

If you take away the Law (Anti-nomianism), you have only.... Law.

In other words, Gospel - Law = Law.


Sermon - Thanksgiving Day - Matthew 6:11

Thanksgiving Eve & Day – November 26/27, 2009
Matthew 6:11
“On Daily Bread”

Christians pray the Lord's Prayer as Jesus taught us to do. In that model prayer, we pray for many things – none of which we deserve. We pray that we may keep God's name holy, that his will is done in our lives, that his kingdom would come. We pray for forgiveness of trespasses, for strength amidst temptation and deliverance from evil. But we also have this little petition we'll concentrate on today. “Give us this day our daily bread”

We've already read aloud Martin Luther's brief explanation from the Catechism, “What does this mean? - God certainly gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people,but we pray in this petition that God would lead us to realize this and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving”.

And then he goes on to define daily bread including “everything that has to do with the support and needs of the body”. Or to put it another way, all our physical blessings.

As I've discussed this petition with various people over the years, I find that many who think of daily bread think first about The Lord's Supper. The bread that is also Christ's body in the sacrament. And while it's true that God gives us this bread freely and it is a great gift – here in the Lord's Prayer we're talking about the broad category of physical, earthly blessings – the “Things” God gives us every day.

It's worth taking some time to stop and count these blessings. It's good to set aside a day for Thanksgiving. But it's better to be thankful every day. Every time we pray the Lord's Prayer, to recognize that God blesses us richly – first of all with daily bread.

Some people would forget that's it's God who gives it. Our sinful perspective warps our understanding of God's gifts. We think we've earned them, that we deserve them. That I have good things in life because I am good. If we have a nice house or car or job, if we achieve some great task or possess some great talent – we feel it's because we are something special, and God must be rewarding us in kind. Nothing could be further from the truth!

Luther makes it clear. Daily bread is a gift. That means it is given, not earned. If we deserved or earn it, it would be a wages. And the only time Scripture talks about our wages – it's the wages of sin we deserve – death. Punishment – temporal and eternal. That's the daily debt of sin we incur. That's the tab we run with all our sinful and corrupt actions and thoughts and words.

Thanks be to God, first and foremost, that he doesn't count our sins against us, or treat us as we deserve! Because of Jesus Christ, the great redeemer, we are given what we DON'T deserve – the riches of his grace! Salvation! Forgiveness! Life – temporal and eternal! Because of his bloody self-sacrifice on the cross, we have the ultimate reason to give thanks! We have abundant spiritual bread for the hunger of our souls – our thirst for righteousness is quenched and we are sustained by him. But there's even more!

God's mercy and grace is so abundant that he adds to all this physical blessings – even for the wicked. Yes, the non-Christian, the unbeliever who lives and breathes and eats – does so only by the mercy of God. Their lives depend on him too. They don't know the hand that feeds them, but we do. The same hand that created and sustains us all – and feeds us daily bread.

Here, as he teaches us to pray for daily bread, Jesus also teaches us to trust. To trust him, and the Father, to care for us always. In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus gives the Lord's Prayer as part of the Sermon on the Mt. Where he also teaches us not to worry:

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is note life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”

These may be hard words for us to hear in times like these. When the economy is uncertain at best. When people lose their jobs, or have pay cuts. When it's getting harder and harder to make ends meet – our natural sinful reaction is to worry. How will I pay those bills? When will things get better? Will our family ever recover? How can Jesus say, “do not be anxious”?

Trust. Trust in his promises. Work, yes. But don't worry. Labor but do not be anxious. God will provide your daily bread. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble”.

Oh it may not be easy. Jesus acknowledges that today may bring trouble. He knows it well. He lived an earthly human life. He knew poverty and temptation and hunger and thirst. And yet, God provided for him. And God will provide, does provide, for you.
Look at the birds of the field and the lilies of the field. God provides for them. Look at the evil and wicked people of the world, even those who hate God. God provides for them. So you, his child, don't you see, won't you trust, that God will provide for you?

He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not along with him graciously give us all good things?

God knows what you need. He's your loving heavenly Father. And he blesses you according to His grace, in his time, for his purposes. Not only the spiritual, but also the physical.

No, it's not that if you pray hard enough, or trust deeply enough, or do enough good works that he will provide what you want. But he will provide for you what you need, according to his grace. Just because he's good.

Faith which clings to these promises is also thankful. What's the opposite of anxiety? It just might be contentment. What's the opposite of greed? It just might be gratitude. The recognition that God gives us daily bread, brings about in us, an attitude of gratitude. We know and trust and believe and recognize the giver of all good things. From the grand spiritual blessings of eternity, to the mundane and minuscule – the daily bread. Give thanks for daily bread, be content. And trust in the giver of all Good things, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Sermon - Pentecost 24 - Mark 13:1-13

Pentecost 24 – November 15h, 2009
Mark 13:1-13
“Seeing the Signs”

Hollywood is at it again. There's a new movie called 2012, and it taps into the apocalyptic fears of end-of-the-world disaster. Maybe you've seen the previews: explosions, earthquakes, buildings collapsing and people narrowly escaping the destruction.

Much of the hype surrounding such events comes from what the Bible teaches about the end of days. Jesus himself spoke of the end times frequently, as in our text today. But we must rightly understand his teaching on it – teaching which speaks both terrifying law, and comforting Gospel for those who have ears to hear.

The disciples were awestruck by the beauty and grandeur of Herod's magnificent temple. It was considered a wonder of the world – huge marble stones, precious metals, elegant decor. One of the disciples makes an offhand comment about how it was all so impressive, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” And Jesus uses this as an opportunity to teach, and to prepare the disciples (and us) about the end.

“Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”

Jesus minces no words, sugarcoats nothing when he tells of the destruction that is to come. He surely spoke of the doom that was at hand for the city of Jerusalem. For just 40 or so years later, the Romans would come and lay siege to the city in a terrible war that would leave the Jewish people decimated and their beloved Jerusalem destroyed. Even the mighty temple would be brought down, never to be rebuilt again. But that's just the beginning.

Jesus tells of wars, earthquakes and famines. Natural and man-made disasters. Surely each will bring its share of suffering and woe. Surely each will seem like the end of the world to those involved. But these are just the beginning.

He goes on to describe the persecution the church will face from the enemies of the faith. Beaten in the synagogues by Jewish opponents, dragged before Gentile governors – tried and convicted for believing in Jesus. Already in the New Testament we see these events unfolding, as the infant church faced martyrdom and persecution. Even within families, Christians will be accused and abused by those who are against Christ.

But it got worse, and it's still getting worse. There have been wars somewhere in the world almost every year in history. We still have quakes and tsunamis, hurricane Katrina, famines, diseases, economic crisis, terrorism and the war on it.

And the claim is made that in the 20th century more Christians were martyred – killed for their faith – than in all the previous centuries combined. And that kind of persecution continues.

Looking at the signs, we can see Jesus is right. The creation is in birth pains. And like a woman in labor, the pains get worse closer to the end.

We know some of those pains in our own lives. Sometimes on the grand scale, sometimes on the small scale. But all of life's troubles and disasters are used by God to call us to repentance. They are reminders that sin and death are non trifling matters. Seeing the signs of the times, signs of the end, reminds us that there is a conclusion to this world, and without Christ we would be lost to the destruction.

But there's also good news in Jesus' teaching about th end. He says the Gospel will be proclaimed to the ends of the earth. That's happening here today. Right here at Grace, and in so many Christian congregations – every Sunday – the message of Jesus Christ crucified for sinners is proclaimed. We hear again and again how his blood covers us, his sacrifice atones for us. With his stripes we are healed. We proclaim and teach and preach that his life and death and resurrection are the basis for our salvation – and though we can do nothing to earn it, though we don't deserve it, his love, mercy and forgiveness are a free gift of God's grace.

This message, this sweet comfort of knowing God sent Jesus for you and that because of Jesus, you are right with God – this good news is also a sign of the times. It is a sign of God's love for us. It is a sign reminding us to stand firm in the faith, throughout all the chaos that may surround us. In the midst of disasters natural and man-made, the Christian has the comfort of the Gospel. In the midst of persecution and trial, we have the sure word of God on which to stand.

The impressive temple was a spectacle for the disciples, but it was nothing compared to the destruction Jesus foresaw. But even that destruction, even as we live through it in part or in whole, is nothing compared to the treasure of the Gospel. For this promise is given by our Lord, “the one who endures to the end will be saved.” There is a hope and promise for us, God's people, in Jesus Christ. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. Salvation awaits us.

By ourselves we cannot hope to endure. All the disaster and persecution and trouble would be too much for us. But we have God's promises that he will never leave us or forsake us, that he is with us always, and that his power is made perfect in weakness.

By ourselves we cannot know what to even say, but Jesus encourages his disciples that they will be given the words, that the Spirit will speak for them. Today it is much the same. We do well to rely on the words of the Spirit – written for us in Holy Scripture. When we speak and live by God's words, we have trustworthy words indeed.

So let Hollywood make its spectacles of destruction and disaster. We know we are secure, no matter what trouble comes. The signs are all around us. But we know our salvation is sure in Christ. And let all the wonders of this world, the spectacles of man's greatness, be kept in their place – for when it all comes tumbling down, faith remains. The Word of God remains. And in Jesus Christ, we will remain, forever. Amen.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Stand Firm on BRTFSSG

Scott Diekmann has an excellent post on the LCMS BRTFSSG proposals. These are the proposals for changing the structure and governance of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod which will be put forward at the 2010 convention.

Stand Firm should be required reading for all 2010 LCMS convention delegates!

"Remnant" Diagram

Have you seen this helpful little diagram? I took it out of the CTCR report on Eschatology, from the LCMS website.

"Close Enough" Communion

Paul McCain has an extensive post regarding the LCMS' historical practice of Closed Communion.

I added the following comment:

Quite common in our LCMS are the churches that practice a form of open communion which goes something like:

As long as you can agree with this statement:
(Apostles Creed)
(Something about the Real Presence)
(Sometimes something about being "Lutheran")
then you are welcome to commune....

People who support this type of practice are vehemently opposed to denominational membership holding any sway in the question of who may commune. They sometimes sarcastically refer to an "LCMS ID card".

Granted, this is a "closer" communion than the ELCA's "Y'all come", or "If you commune at your church you are welcome here" or sometimes "Baptized Christians". But it's still not what the LCMS officially teaches and has historically practiced.

I'd call the alternate LCMS approach "Close as in Close Enough" communion. Many call it "Open". Many who practice it call it "Close" or "Close(d)". But it is the main reason I prefer the term "Closed" for the historical and on-paper position of the LCMS.

I'm curious where this alternate, yet very common LCMS approach (that I described above) comes from. Does anyone know where or how?

Sermon - Pentecost 23 - Hebrews 9:24-28

Pentecost 23 – November 8th, 2009
Hebrews 9:24-28
“A Great High Priest”

Some people seem to think that sin and forgiveness are just words. That they are ideas or concepts which are hopelessly outdated and irrelevant, even if they ever applied. For the unbeliever, God's law doesn't matter – each is a law unto himself. And so forgiveness doesn't matter, because sin's not a problem.

And let's face it, even we Christians sometimes act as if we feel the same way. We act like sin's not something that matters, at least not all that much. Sure nobody's perfect, but no big deal right? Our reading from Hebrews today might make us think differently.

We don't know exactly who wrote the New Testament book of Hebrews. But we do know it was a letter written to Christians of a Jewish background. They would have been familiar with the priesthood of the Levites, the sacrificial system from the time of Moses, and all that went along with it.

Once a year, the High Priest would enter the holiest part of the Tabernacle. Only the High Priest could enter, and only once a year. And as he brought the blood of an animal which had been sacrificed, he would sprinkle it on the Ark of the Covenant. All this he did as a representative, on behalf of the people. And all this was according to God's instructions, by the way.

So what was the point of all this? And what does this all have to do with you and me, who aren't ancient Israelites? Nor are we Jewish Christians from the first century. But we have one thing in common with them – the need for forgiveness, atonement, someone to make satisfaction for our sin.

None of the sacrificial system of the Old Testament was by accident. God was very specific in his instructions on what was to be done, and when, and how. It was, first of all, a way he provided the people to deal with their sins – to have the assurance that their sins were atoned for. Those sacrifices and rituals weren't just for show – they really counted! God so promised.

But they were more. They pointed to more. They were a foreshadowing of something and someone greater which was to come. Something more perfect and fulfilled. The priests, the sacrifices, the Tabernacle, the Day of Atonement... all of these were shadows of the salvation of God that came in Jesus Christ.

The book of Hebrews goes to great lengths to show us that Christ is the great High Priest. He is the fulfillment and apex of all priesthoods. He makes the best and the most perfect sacrifice. A once-and-for-all-time shedding of his blood, a laying down of his life, for all the sins that ever were or would be.

That Day of Atonement was a shadow of what was to come. When the REAL High Priest would enter the true heaven (as Jesus is now ascended there for us). And before God, he makes his case for us – he shows God the basis for our salvation. It's not the blood of a goat or a bull, but his own blood.

No we're not ancient Israelites or early Jewish Christians, but we have the same problem of sin, and the same solution in Jesus. They could no more approach God without a mediator than we can. They needed a go-between, an intercessor. But even the High Priest could only do what he did on the basis of the coming Christ. All the blood of beasts, all the rites of priests, it all pointed forward to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Any forgiveness they enjoyed was won at the cross of Christ, and so too for us.

You see, Jesus is the center of all history, of all Holy Scripture, and of God's perfect plan for our salvation. The creation was made through him, redeemed by him, and will one day answer to him. We confess in the creeds that He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.

It's why all this business of sin and forgiveness really matters. There will be a final judgment day, and woe to those whose sins are counted against them! God doesn't simply look the other way when it comes to sin. There is blood to be paid in this serious business. And for those that reject the free gift of Christ's blood, they have only their own to pay – eternal punishment and separation from God awaits. God does not mess around with sin, he is deadly serious about it.

But, we read here in Hebrews that, “Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” There are no second chances on that judgment day. Jesus has already dealt with sin. But for us who receive his gifts in faith, for the believer, his day of return is a day to eagerly anticipate. There is no fear for us whose debts have been paid, whose sins have been forgiven, for whom only life and victory await.

Sin brings death. And death comes once. For Christ, and for us. He died once for all, and we will die once in him. But just as he lives and reigns to all eternity, so too is our day of resurrection on its way, and our eternal life in him assured.

What a comfort to know that our great High Priest has shed his own blood to make us right before God. What a blessing to know that our Great High Priest has fulfilled all requirements of sacrifice by his own perfect death on Calvary. What a hope we have in his resurrection – that we too will conquer death through him, and live and reign with him for eternity. And what a promise that he will return at the appointed time to make it so, when his day of final salvation arrives, when he comes again in glory, and brings us home.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Sermon - All Saints' Day - Rev. 7:9-17

All Saints' Day – November 1st , 2009
Revelation 7:9-17
“All the Sinners and Saints”

Greetings in Christ, you saints of God. Children of God. Redeemed of God – holy people. Saints. Not of yourselves, but in Jesus Christ. We are all saints. And this All Saints' day, we follow in the long tradition of Christians who have recognized this, as well as remembered all the saints that have gone before us. Here at Grace, we toll the chimes for the dead in Christ who have gone before us this past year. We sing songs about the faithful of generations past. And we think about the glories of heaven, when on the last day we are all reunited with the Lord and with each other.

Revelation 7 helps us to do this. If you sat down to read through the first six chapters of John's vision, you would have just finished a terrifying description of the 7 seals, and of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. War and bloodshed, famine and pestilence, and persecution of the saints. Pretty much all of the things that scare the socks off of people in the book of Revelation have just been described.

And in a sense it should scare us – for trouble and suffering are what we deserve as sinners. There's a part of us that always fears that we will be exposed as the frauds that we are. The thought that we will have to face God's wrath – that He will finally have enough of us sinners and our wickedness, that he will come in judgment and make us all pay. Many people, many Christians, read Revelation like a sort of Halloween scare story, or refuse to read it at all because they are so terrified by such thoughts.

Still, these visions are not meant to terrify us. They are more of a description of what troubles we already have. It's a vision of all the calamity and trouble that the church has faced, still faces, and always will face living in a sinful, fallen world. It's as if Jesus is saying to us, his people, “I know what it's like. I know how when a loved one dies it feels like the end of the world. I know what it's like to have your friends desert you and betray you. To be accused falsely. To hunger and thirst, to be imprisoned and reviled. I know when you suffer, and fear, and face persecution – for I faced it all too. I know what you're going through”

We are living in the end times, already, right now – also called, “the great tribulation”. We know is that there will be increasing trouble in these times – as Paul compares creation to a woman groaning in labor pains – and this trouble will continue until our Lord comes again to rescue us. And he will.

But let's not forget that there's more to the story. There's more to the vision of Revelation. God's word to us is not, finally, a word of judgment, but of mercy, salvation, and peace.

Through all of the troubles and plagues, God protects his people. And so we get to chapter 7, where a beautiful and comforting vision greets us – the great multitude in white. “These are they that have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb”. These are all the saints in glory. These are all those who have been cleansed and forgiven, made just and righteous by the blood of the Lamb – Jesus Christ our great sacrifice.

Here is a picture of the church and the angels in the final kingdom of glory! Here is a wonderful and powerful vision of the final and unending triumphal victory song. Here we meet “angels and archangels and all the company of heaven” and “laud and magnify His glorious name”. Here the singing of praises never ends.

God does not hold our sins against us, or make us pay for them. He doesn't punish us as we deserve, or smite and strike us as he could. Jesus took all the punishment. He paid the debt. He was striken, smitten, afflicted, for us. He sacrificed himself, the perfect Lamb of God without spot or blemish. He shed his holy, precious blood to redeem us. Our robes, even our very souls, are washed clean and lily white in that blood. A striking paradox that red could make white – but no more than that life comes by death.

So look into that great multitude of white-robed saints, and see your believing loved ones who have died but live eternally. Look and see the saints of old – Abraham, Issac and Jacob. Moses and Aaron, David and Solomon. The Apostles and Prophets, our forefathers in the faith – Martin Luther, C.F.W. Walther, Herman Bartz and Gerald Martin. Look and see those who have gone to be with the Lord this very year from our congregation....

And look and see yourself. For one day you will join that great crowd in victory and celebration. One day you'll be waving a palm branch and singing a new song of praise to the Lamb who was slain. In fact, that song has already begun here on Earth. We anticipate the final celebration each time we sing, “This is the feast” and each time we come to the Lord's table, “with angels and archangels and all the company of Heaven”.

And what a beautiful promise, that there in His presence, God's people are free of suffering and pain, and God himself wipes every tear from their eyes. From our eyes.

We are all sinners. We all deserve the plagues of Revelation and more. But we are all saints. Made clean and holy by the blood of the lamb, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Friday, October 30, 2009

A "Church" Wedding

Ran across this story from BBC about a Japanese developer who built an English-style church on the 21st floor of a high-rise. He did this because it's quite popular for Japanese couples to be married in English-style church buildings.

We've had it happen before - someone calls us up at church and wants go get married here.
"Oh, are you a member?"
"Have you ever been here?"
"No. But your building looks pretty from the outside."
"Are you a Lutheran?"
"What's that?"

Where does this desire come from - for church weddings among the non-church going, or even non-Christian types?

But the problem is deeper. I suspect many people want a God on their own terms, who will smile when they want him to, but then fade away for the most part. A God like a family member you see only at - yes - weddings and funerals! A generic and pretty God that makes them feel good. Not a crucified and bloody sacrifice for their sin.

"Aunt Tilly, it's been forever! Isn't it a shame that we only see each other at weddings and funerals!"

I know of pastors who will marry anybody, anytime, anywhere - all in the name of "outreach". But how effective is this? And a better question - how does it maintain the integrity of our confession, when we reinforce people's conceptions of a fair-weather God?

In contrast, a Christian wedding centers on Christ - the true Bridegroom - and offers the couple and all attending an enduring word of promise with a message much bigger than "have a nice marriage you nice kids". This is our Savior, who gives meaning to marriage - and to all of life. And his house isn't just for show.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Task Force Proposals: Part 2

There are a number of Appendices to this document. Take Appendix 5, "Funding the Mission Reflections"

The gist this of this Appendix is this: "The Blue Ribbon Task Force on Funding the Mission" (BRTFFTM) came up with some suggestions for the 2007 Convention, and though that convention didn't do much with them, the suggestions dovetail nicely with the proposals of the BRTFSSG.

One BRTF helps another BRTF!

Buried in this Appendix 5 is the following paragraph:

It is time to grow this church. As a natural outcome of the goals of Ablaze! and the investment of Fan into Flame dollars, this Synod needs to organize a strategy to increase our membership by the 400,000 souls we lost in the last 20 years and stop the bleeding of those for whom our Lord bled and died. It is a disgrace to our faith and practice that we are losing membership.

I have to say this is one of the most straightforward admissions of Church Growth ideology I have seen. Usually the un-scriptural preoccupation with numerical growth is at least thinly veiled behind verbiage like "contacts" and "critical events" and "opportunities" or "life-cycle of a church".

Quite to the contrary, it is a disgrace to our faith and practice that we think WE can grow the church, and not the Lord alone.

Thanksgiving As Privilege

Thanksgiving as a privilege
(November Newsletter Article)

Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever! Psalm 118:1

I think most of us know we should be more thankful to God for his blessings. We know it's a good thing to celebrate a day set aside for giving Him thanks. But we all know we should do more thanking, and be more thankful. This is a recognition of the law, that Thanksgiving is an obligation. God deserves our thanks, and is due much gratitude. We SHOULD, we MUST thank him. But oh, how we fail.

There's another way of looking at thanks-giving, and that is as a privilege. We GET to thank God. Think about it. We Christians have the privilege and honor of knowing God's name – so we know who to thank! I'm always struck by a popular song on the radio that says, “at the end of the day, we should give thanks and pray to the one....” The one what? The song never says. But we know who to thank, for He gives us His Name – the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Giver of all good things.

And we have the confidence to call upon him. He actually wants to hear our prayers, and is receptive to them through Jesus Christ. We are not only commanded to pray in thanksgiving, but we are also blessed to be able to do so. If God were deaf to our prayers of thanks, if He didn't hear our words of appreciation, there wouldn't be a relationship between us. But through Jesus Christ, there is a relationship – we are his children forever. As his dear children, God gives us all good things, and in return he receives our thanks. He delights in our prayers and our thanksgiving – and receives them.

And don't forget, thanks-giving is good for us, too! It teaches us to recognize our blessings, to understand rightly that we don't deserve these gifts. It teaches us that God is the one to approach for every physical and spiritual blessing. And it helps us not to worry about tomorrow, to be greedy or wasteful, but to appreciate fully the present gifts we enjoy. We can also give thanks for the promises of many more gifts to come.

So give thanks for your body and soul, eyes, ears and all your members, your reason and all your senses, your house and home, clothing and shoes, food and drink, spouse, children, land, animals and all that you have! Give thanks for Jesus Christ's death and resurrection, and that His holy precious blood redeems you, an otherwise lost and condemned person. And give thanks that His Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies us in the one true faith, and keeps us with Christ forever.

There is so much for which to be thankful! May all your days be spent in the privilege of thanks-giving to the Giver of all good things. Amen.

Observations on the Task Force Proposals, Part 1: "Exclusive"

The Blue Ribbon Task Force on Synod Structure and Governance (BRTFSSG, or TF) has released its final recommendations for changes to the LC-MS in the summer of 2010.

As many of us pore over the 148 page document, I expect much discussion. I'll post some of my observations here.

One of the first things I noticed was a proposed change in what is required of membership:
Old Wording:
"Conditions of Membership"
4. Exclusive use of doctrinally pure agenda, hymnbooks and catechisms in church and school.

New (proposed) Wording:
"Requirements of Membership"
B.2. Use of worship and catechetical resources that are in harmony with the confessional basis of the Synod.

NOTICE WHAT'S MISSING? "Exclusive". No longer will we require, on paper anyway, that all our resources be doctrinally sound. Instead, we must use doctrinally sound resources, but not exclusively.

The new language permits what is, admittedly, already widespread: the use of unsound, impure, and doctrinally lacking resources for church and school: Baptist church-transformational programs. Non-denominational VBS curriculum. And of course, all manner of "contemporary" music from whatever hymnal or resource is popular and "reaches people".

This is one of the major divides in the LCMS today - between those who like to "borrow and baptize" and those who prefer to simply use the excellent resources we already have. I used to be the former, and have become a strong advocate of the latter. There are tremendous advantages to using sound, throughly and carefully reviewed LUTHERAN materials.

There are serious dangers to using resources that come from other denominations and traditions - whose contents and perspectives are unknown to us and different from us, both in what they teach and fail to teach.

So no thanks, Task Force. Let's keep the old wording on this one. Put me down as an excluder.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Every Bad Argument - ELCA Gay Clergy

This article from the Wasau Daily Herald (online - and previously in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel) is a one-stop-shop for just about every bad argument rhetorical tactic that is and has been made to defend the ELCA's recent gay-clergy decisions. I don't know if the professor is affiliated with the ELCA or not (he teaches Sociology). But he's well acquainted with the rhetoric.

The bad arguments/tactics include:

- Labeling the conservatives as "dissidents"

- Asserting that everyone chooses to emphasize certain parts of Scripture
(an easy way for him to marginalize the "dissidents" AND Scripture - which he compares to a Rorshack test!)

- Comparing the conservatives to snake handlers

- If you believe what the Bible teaches on this, you must be over-fixated on someone else's sexual orientation (an attempt to turn blame around, change focus of the issue)

- Misunderstanding/misapplication of Leviticus and the distinction between moral, civil, and ceremonial laws

- Marginalizing Scripture as "Bronze Age Morality". We're much more enlightened today!

- Misunderstanding of the role of polygamy in Scripture (hint - God never says to DO it)

Yes, we've heard all these before in one form or another - and any of these arguments or attacks is easily parried if our opponents were willing to listen. But it strikes me that these sort of rants are not meant to inform, debate, or persuade as much as they are to shame and silence opposition.

Monday, October 12, 2009

LCMS President at South Wisconsin District (Video)

President Kieschnick came to the South Wisconsin District and held a Q& A at the district office on October 5th, 2009. The district website has posted video here:

*note: there are two videos, the DP's devotion/introduction is first, then the Q&A.

After some opening comments, President Kieschnick answered questions from those gathered on the following topics:

1. Cost of upcoming extended-length convention
Synopsis of PK's answer: He made the call, based on lots of input from others.

2. Recent actions of the ELCA regarding gay clergy
Synopsis: He has thought of "pulling the plug" but doesn't believe he has the authority to do so. However, if something "egregious" happens before the convention acts, we may dissolve specific relationships with agencies.

3. How do you respond when media outlets, etc, lump us in with the ELCA?
Synopsis: It's a pain. We answer as best we can. Better to explain who we are, rather than what others are doing.

4. A question on District pre-seminary interview committees, and the future of the seminaries.
Synopsis: A variety of benchmarks for a student to enter seminary - sometimes unqualified applicants make it through the screening process for various reasons, and even become pastors.

November 4-5 the Board for Pastor Ed and others are meeting to discuss the future of the seminaries - including the sustainability/stewardship of having 2 seminaries. Both seminaries have financial challenges.

5. What is it you do to encourage us to be healthy, missional, confessional parishes?

Synopsis: I try to help provide a sense of wholeness and health in biblical and practical guidance. Figure out how to meet the needs of your community's demographic, in a way that gets their attention. Get outside comfort zone, leadership of pastor. Schools, particularly preschools are a good way (and even profitable!). Pastors need to balance work and family.

6. Question on 2004 Convention resolution 8-01A on Ecclesiastical Supervision

Synopsis: CCM opinion which said if you get counsel from your ES, and act on it, then you are defended or supported, even if your action goes against scripture and confessions. CCM also opined, later (in a little known opinion), that if that counsel of the ES is incorrect, then he is held to correct that counsel. PK is asking the CCM to take another look at those opinions, pull them together, or somehow fix it.

7. Is the Nov 4-5 meeting, mentioned earlier, the first of its kind? Who will be there?

Synopsis: No, he called for a summit on pastoral formation 3-4 years ago, with representatives from many perspectives. At that time, SMP was conceived. Who will be there: BPE, Boards of Regents, responsible people.

8. Can we get something prepared to put in local papers, etc., that defines us as "not THAT Lutheran church body" in an evangelical way?

Synopsis: Yes, in a way which is winsome and positive. We have a plan on the table to do a nationwide campaign largely through USA Today - but it's very expensive. Send me an email to remind me of that suggestion.

9. As LCMS churches see refugees from ELCA, how are we instructing these people, and do you share concerns that we need to?

Synopsis: This is so fresh, he hasn't heard much input, but suggests parish pastors deal with people from ELCA same way you deal with non-Lutherans (i.e. via a membership class). We have other disagreements with ELCA beyond homosexual issue (ecumenical issues, authority of scripture, etc). LCMS parishes should welcome them to the regular class they offer.

He concluded with a story about a pastor who declined a unionistic prayer service and gave the impression he didn't care about the drought (the issue about which they gathered to pray). He believes we have to take opportunities to speak the truth in love, like he tried to do at the ELCA convention. Appealed to J.A.O. Prues (via paraphrase) that we need to re-think how to relate to other church bodies, to reach out etc..

Preaching at St. James

This Sunday, October 18th, I will be preaching at the congregation of my youth - St. James Lutheran in Baltimore (Overlea), Maryland. We will be observing the commemoration of St. Luke the Evangelist.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sermon - Pentecost 19 - Mark 10:17-22

Pentecost 19 – October 11th, 2009
Mark 10:17-22
“You Know”

The Rich young man makes a big show about falling on his knees and asking Jesus, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers, “You know the commandments....” and then lists some off.

You know. You know what you need to do – keep the law.

You know the law – the law God. The rules and regulations he sets forth in Holy Scripture, and has even written in the hearts of all mankind. You know it, right? That little voice we call the conscience, that tells you when you are doing something wrong.

Oh, but many people don't. Willful ignorance, perhaps. How many have hardened hearts that obscure that natural law? How many consciences are numb and dead to sin?

And how many people could recite all 10 commandments (much less what they mean)? Do you know the law even as well as that rich young man who came to Jesus? Oh, but pastor, I know the basic gist.... Is that how seriously God wants us to know his law? He wants us to know the gist of it? Or does he say, “Talk about these laws when you sit down and stand up; write them on your doorposts; teach them to your children”?

But what you know and the rich young man didn't know, is that you can't keep the law. He tried to fool himself (and Jesus too). “All these laws I have kept since I was a boy!”. Was it arrogance? Self-delusion? Or a false understanding of just what the law requires – which leads to a false sense of security and righteousness before God? What he didn't know was his sin – at least he didn't take it seriously.

Jesus pointed him to the law, not so that he would be self assured of his righteous state. Jesus was holding up the mirror – so he could see his own shortcomings and failures. Take a look. Do you keep all these laws? Are you kind and loving and respectful and generous? Do you watch your tongue and defend your neighbor? Do you obey the authorities, or do you cut corners here and there? Do you think you can get away with it? No one is good but God alone, Jesus reminds us. Not the rich young man, not you or me.

You know, don't you, that you can't keep the law?
You try, of course, we all do... but not as hard as we should. We try, but we make excuses. We try, but fail in deeds, words and thoughts. Sometimes we fail in little ways, sometimes in spectacular ways. But failure it is, for God demands perfection.

Or maybe you know the law well. And you know your sin well. Maybe there's that one sin that troubles you, that one dark deed from your past, or that one vice or habit you just can't shake – you know it oh so well. But maybe it drives you to despair. You fear God can't or won't forgive the burden of guilt you know so well. Or maybe you just don't know.

You need to know the law, and to know your sin. The rich young man may have fallen on his knees, but he wasn't there in confession. He knew the law, but only a thin outward veneer. He didn't know – didn't want to know – the depth and reality of his sin.

The first thing you need to know is your sin. But if that's all you know, you will only know despair. You know the bad news. And if you truly know the bad news, then you need to know the good news!

Know he Gospel – and know it well! Not in a book knowledge sort of way, but in faith and trust – to know the Lord. To know Jesus Christ, your Savior. To believe that God forgives your sins for Jesus' sake.

You know he is the “good teacher”. No one is good but God alone – it's true. But God Alone he is! Jesus Christ, Son of God in human flesh. He knew the law, and he knew how to keep it. Though he was like us in every way – he was without sin. And we know that he was good FOR us. He kept the law that we can't and don't keep. He earned the inheritance that was out of our reach.

Still he knows what it is like to be tempted, to thirst and hunger, to grieve at the grave of a loved one. He knows us – better than we know ourselves.

We know who he is – for he tells us and shows us. He is the one who came from the Father, and he is the only way to the Father. He is the one who lays down his life, and he takes it back again. He knew he would die. He knew he would be buried. He knew he would rise again!

We know he sits at the right hand of God, ruling all things for us. And we know he will come again to judge the living and the dead. We know his kingdom will never end.

We know him, by his word. But even better, he knows us. He calls us, he seals us, feeds us and leads us. “I know my sheep” he promises. And again, it's not an intellectual exercise. His knowledge of us means care and love – it means a relationship in which we belong to him, and he belongs to us. It's a blessed assurance that he will not forget you or forsake you. He knows you. And that's good to know!

Knowing the Gospel of Jesus Christ means knowing where true treasure is found. It's not in your wallet or you bank account. It's not even in the people you know and love. True treasure is in heaven – it is the eternal life that Jesus delivers to us by his perfect life, death, and resurrection. Knowing him is the true and lasting wealth. You can't take earthly riches with you, but Jesus takes you with him to eternity.

In the Christian faith, there's always more to know. We grow and learn and expand our horizons through study and devotion to his Word. The faith is incredibly deep and profound. But it's also very simple. There's really only one thing to know – one person to know – the Savior, the Christ, and him crucified for you.

You know the law. But you also know the Gospel. You know the Lord, Jesus Christ, and you know what he has done for you. Know it, believe it, and live it, for his sake! Amen.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Tork on KFUO Sale

Fellow South Wisconsin LCMS pastor from my district, Rev. Dan Torkelson, has posted the following insightful thoughts regarding the sale of KFUO-FM radio station in St. Louis. (posted with his permission)

Today, word is out that my beloved church body, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, has finalized the sale of its historic radio station, KFUO-FM, in St. Louis.

KFUO-FM was sold by a church body which is, for all intents and purposes, bankrupt, and this in more ways than one. It is one of a growing list of symptoms of a cancer in my beloved church body which needs serious treatment. The leadership of the LCMS needs to feel "the burn" of what it takes to kill a cancer.

The symptoms of the LCMS' remarkable decline can be seen in the legacy of the past 35 years. Quite famously (some have said infamously), Missouri won a "battle for the Bible" in the 1970s when it ousted liberal professors at the St. Louis Seminary who were teaching higher criticism and denying fundamental teachings of the Bible. Pres. J.A.O. Preus, acting on initiative from the congregations of the Synod, handed down an ultimatum which effectively reclaimed the SL Seminary for the Bible and, thus, for a faithful church body.

Pres. Preus's action was indeed necessary, even if it was a political, authority-driven, action. Sadly, the legacy of his action has been that an entire generation of leadership has led the LCMS in a political, authority-driven manner. The bureaucracy of the LCMS expanded precipitously as a result. Contentious issues were settled by presidential fiat and not the earnest goodwill and input of the congregations.

And now, the LCMS is facing a $17 million dollar financial shortfall. Bankrupt. Hence, the sale of KFUO.

In recent years, the LCMS has become a pale shadow of its former greatness. The leadership complains about "incessant internal purification" by faithful members of Synod who only wish to see our confession rise to prominence once again. The truth is actually quite the opposite. The LCMS suffers from a generation which has engaged in "incessant political purification" and the legacy of this politicization of the church is the bankruptcy we now see.

Our current leadership is responsible for the pulling of the most missionaries from the field we have seen since the debacle of the 1970s.

To cover for this anamoly, the leadership forced a "mission movement" called "Ablaze!" down the Synod's throat at the 2004 Convention. Despite Ablaze's high and lofty rhetoric, five years later it has only managed to accomplish the goal of only talking a good game about missions. If has failed to actually do any significant missions.

Now, in a move which seems more and more like hubris every day, the same generation of leadership which has created this sad state of affairs is proposing to fix it through a set of restructuring proposals which seeks to disenfranchise the vote of the local congregation, pit large congregations against small congregations (the majority of the Synod in numbers and finances to this day), disenfranchise the lay voice at legislative conventions. The force of these proposals is that the congregations need to change. Meanwhile, there is little given in the way of specifics in these proposals for the changing of the bureaucracy itself.

In other words, the leadership of the LCMS clearly seems to be saying one thing: "It's the congregation's fault. They are not giving enough to keep the ship afloat. They are ones who do not engage the mission."

Never mind that the Synod cannot specifically account for how many cents on the dollar actually gets to a real mission and/or missionary. If congregations aren't giving, it's because the Synod has not given them a good reason to do so.

The sale of KFUO will offer only short term relief of the financial problems which beset the LCMS, but long term success will require a new generation of leadership. Once again we see the short-sightedness of our leaders. We have the best trained pastors and church workers in American Christianity, but our Synodical leadership has not yet trusted them enough to involve them significantly in re-righting the ship.

The only good long-term solution ahead of us is to clear the decks of our leadership and start over.

IT'S TIME for a change.

God bless this mess.

Rev. Dan Torkelson, Pastor
Zion Ev. Lutheran Church, Clyman, WI