Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Are we closet Marcionites?

I was made to think about something. I wended my way into a Tradition vs. Scripture discussion, and once again it was put forth "Well, what about the Church before the written word, before Paul. . . see, it was the Words of the Apostles - Oral Tradition!"

I've seen that argument many times before. . . and I realized that it's utter bunk. Why? It wasn't as though the Scriptures were not read in the Early Church in 36 AD - they read from Moses and the Prophets. At the end of Luke our Lord describes what the preaching prior to the New Testament would have been - explaining how all that was prophesized in Moses and the Psalms and the Prophets has come to completion in Christ.

Of course there was a written Word - and the Apostles cite it!

So, why don't we bring this up? Why do Lutherans not shout this from the mountains - why do the Papists neglect this? Are we closet Marcionites? Even as we quote from Matthew over and over "All this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet" (especially at this time of year), do we end up chopping away the Old Testament?

In our discussions on the written Word, why do we so often forget the Old Testament?

Ours is Not a Hallmark Religion

Many people seem to view religion in this Country as a cute, sweet thing. Almost like a Hallmark card. You come to Church, you see something pretty, you open the card and get a nice little phrase that quick and easy, and then you close the card, put it away, maybe look at it if you get lonesome or wistful -- but by in large the pretty picture stands on the shelf while you go about your life. We want Church to be. . . simple, polite, unobtrusive, and mainly on the shelf.

I find this to be true more at Christmas time - partially because things can become so romanticized, so. . . picture perfect (like something by Courier and Ives). And partially because this is the time of year when many people will pull that religious card off the shelf, trundle off to Church for the first time in ages, smile wistfully, and then not be seen again for ages again. Back onto the shelf with the pretty card until I think it's time to see something pretty again.

But ours is not a Hallmark religion. Our faith is not something to be left on the shelf throughout the year. And at no time of the year is this more evident than at Christmas (well, perhaps Good Friday). Behold the setting - road weary people forced to a barn, even when one is pregnant and ready to give birth (oh, how kind!). Forced into a stall, piled high with fodder, and who knows when last it was mucked out (oh, how sweet!). The pain and agony of child-birth, woman's curse from the fall of Eve so that Eve and all after her might be redeemed (oh, how lovely!) Angels appearing before shepherd who fall to their knees in fear and must be told, "Be not afraid" (Oh, how beautiful!).

No, Christmas would have been a visceral, fleshly thing - all the muck and down in the dirt of this human life, all wrapped up there in that day. Christmas isn't the card on the mantle - it's the pain and sorrow and trouble and rugged beauty of this human existence in this fallen world -- it's the pain of human bodies, the sorrow of disdain, the troubles the rise up to meet us each day, the glimpses of beauty that fight there way through this - it's the very stuff we see every day of the year. . . yet with one wondrous difference.

This time, in the center of it, that Child is no mere Child - that Child is God. That Child is Emmanuel, God with Us, God Himself come down from heaven to burst into our fallen world, so that with His own Body He might redeem our own Bodies, with His life He might win for us Life everlasting.

The point of Christmas isn't that it is a pretty time on a shelf, but that God Himself breaks and bursts into all the hurt and pain that we face in this life, and He declares to us, "I Am your God, and I win you salvation, and I am with you, always and forever, even unto all eternity." This is our religion - the religion we celebrate whenever Christ comes to us in the Lord's Supper, the religion we live whenever we ourselves enter into the messy world and show forth Christ's love unto our neighbors.

Ours is not a Hallmark Religion - ours is a religion where sin is attacked, confronted, confessed, and defeated by our God, because He is the God who comes to be with us.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Which is the more important Clause?

“Now, Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His Name.”

John, towards the end of His Gospel, gives us these words. And there is a contrast set forth - two clauses. John notes that there is more that the disciples saw that isn't written. John notes that what is written is written for belief and salvation.

Which clause is more important?

This is what I find frustrating about so many of the Tradition vs. Scripture battles that come along. They end up moving into the realm of whether or not tradition is valuable, whether or not it is true, how much we use it. It puts all the emphasis and focus on that first clause -- is this part of that other stuff that the disciples saw, is this stuff that is rightly handed down?

We can surmise, we can come up with guesses - we can delight, even. (I myself love the tale of John refusing to enter the Bath when he sees the gnostic leaving - and on Christmas day the tale of Satan smacking the guy who doesn't doff his cap at "Homo factus est"). But is tradition and its veracity the thrust and focus?

It isn't for John. Yes, there is other stuff - but this, this here, this Gospel is written so that you may believe in Christ and have eternal life. The other stuff is nice, may be nice, but the meat, the real McCoy is here in the Word. If you want surety, if you want something concrete, go to the Word, because it has what you need.

Tradition informs. Tradition may safeguard. Tradition may even protect errors that have crept into the Church over time, (for as we see in John 21:23 - the brothers are capable of twisting the oral tradition as well). But the Word of God gives what we need.

While we make use of the first clause, we live in the second.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Advent 4 Sermon

Advent 4 – December 20th, 2009 – Luke 1:36-55

In the Name of Christ Jesus, our Advent King +
We are often told in the Christian Church that we should praise God. Let me ask the question. Why? Why should we go about and praise God? Now, do not misunderstand me – we should by all means praise God – but let us take the time this morning to consider the reasons why we are to praise God. Sometimes I think the reasons we think to praise to God, why we might want to praise Him, can be a bit off. Maybe we just want to fit in, maybe we just like the singing, the endorphin kick. Maybe we feel guilty about what we’ve done this week and we think that if we praise louder we ourselves can drown out our past. But why should we as Christians praise God?

We hear the answer given most beautifully in the words of the Magnificat, the song here given by Mary. Indeed, these words are called a song because right away the Church put them to music and sang them – they are part of the Vespers service even to this day in our hymnal. And this song explains is such wonderful detail why we praise God, what our praise of God is to be for and about. It serves as a wonderful reminder of why we will be pausing this Thursday Night, and taking time away from our gifts this Friday morning to come to Church again and worship and praise God even in the middle of a busy holiday week.

Before we look at the words of the Magnificat, let’s review the situation. Mary is now pregnant with Jesus, and she goes to visit her old cousin Elizabeth who is pregnant with John the Baptist – and when Mary walks up, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, and she cries out, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greetings came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” So, we see an unusual occurrence here – the older relative begins to fawn over the younger – goes on and on about how wonderful Mary is. How will Mary react? If something like this happened to me, I’d probably clam up, cheeks red from blushing – I get bashful when the other, older pastors in the circuit give me a give me a compliment. Or I could see someone being overwhelmed, befuddled. There could be lots of different reactions to this. But Mary takes the best one – She decides to simply turn the attention away from herself, and rather place the focus upon God.

Mary says, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” We don’t often use the word “magnify” this way, but it means to make great, to make a big deal of, to focus upon. Your magnifying glass lets you focus upon something and see it clearly – and praise does this – it focuses us upon God and what He has done. This serves as a reminder of what all Christian praise must do if it is to be called praise – it has to focus upon God – it has to be about what God does. It has to rejoice in God and in His salvation. Christian praise is always tied, always points to the fact that God Himself acts on our behalf and saves us. This is what we praise God for – and Mary will continue to expand aspects of this in her song.

“for He has looked on the humble estate of His servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed, for He who is mighty has done great things for me.” Mary recognizes something about herself that we in America can forget. She sees that she is and deserves to be humble – that she is lowly, that there is nothing in her that demands success or praise or glory. And yet, God has beheld her, God has seen her, and God is the One who has elevated her – in fact, all generations, even our to day, learn of the Blessed Virgin Mary – her words will echo throughout churches, children will want to be her in Christmas programs – and why? Not because she herself is wonderful, but because God, the Mighty One, has done great things for her. If she were not the mother of our Lord, not a one of us would have even heard of her. Mary is acutely aware of God’s blessings given to her, precisely because she knows that she does not deserve them. She is humble.

Sometimes it can be hard for us as Americans to remember that we too are humble people, and that any good, any blessing we have comes simply from God’s blessing and favor upon us. That’s not the way we think as Americans. We don’t tell our children that they are humble and lowly – we say, “Someday you could be president.” We don’t say that God will use them and the talents He has given to them as He sees fit; we tell them that they can grow up into whatever they want to be. And sometimes we can forget that our talents, our blessings are all things that come from God, that the opportunities that we see, these are gifts from God. Mary though, she sees, and because she sees she praises God for the great things that He has done for her. And likewise, consider the wonderful gifts that God has given to you – your talents, your abilities, your opportunities. These are things He has given to you freely and wondrously, and for this we ought give praise to God.

“and Holy is His Name. And His mercy is for those who fear Him from generation to generation.” But it gets even better. God’s Name, the God who does all this for you, His Name is holy, and He is full of mercy. Mary sees that – and her name will ever be associated with God’s Name. She will forever be remembered as Mary, the Mother of God. And she sees the great mercy that she has received, that she, a sinful being, receives such wonderful things from God.

Now, dear friends, consider the fact that you are Baptized. You have been joined into God’s own Name, His own holiness has been applied to you. You are made to be part of God’s Family as assuredly as Mary, Jesus’ own mother is part of His family – for you have been Baptized, you have been adopted as sons and daughters of the Father, you now have Christ for your brother, you are His family – and as such, you receive His Mercy. The greatest and mightiest thing that God has done for you has nothing to do with your bank account, or your home, or how talented you are – those are wonderful, but they aren’t the greatest. You have been forgiven on account of Christ – you have been given the gift of faith and welcomed into the family of God. God in His great mercy and love for you has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light, and this is something that is for eternity – and it’s not dependent upon you, but flows totally from Him. God is rightly praised for this.

“He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate.” Mary brings out another thing that God does that we know yet often forget. We do not need to look very hard to see wickedness in the world, to see the mighty and powerful abuse and harm others, indeed, even harm us. But Mary’s words remind us of a truth that we can forget when we see the wickedness in this world – there is so much more that God prevents, there is so much that God brings to an end. The proud are scattered, their plans fall apart and often do not come to fruition. The tyrants on their thrones fall, the powers crumble – evil doesn’t endure because God brings an end to it. And this is a comfort to us, it gives us a new perspective – for even when evil is done to us, even when we are getting it heaped upon us – we know that God does not let it last, that it will crumble and fail sooner or later and that He will deliver us.

Indeed, the great example of that is the very fact that Mary is pregnant with the Christ Child as she says this. No more will God be content to have fallen king after fallen king come and rule on this earth – no more will He let this world’s prince have His sway – no, God Himself comes to be our king, to be our Lord, to defeat Satan – and because He has come we have victory assured. The brief battles we face now in this life will give way and yield to the eternal victory celebration of heaven, because God’s strong arm wins the victory by being nailed to the cross and rising again on the third day.
“He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent empty away. He has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to His offspring forever.” The coming of Christ changes things; things will be different because of Christ. Wickedness will be overcome, the powerful will be cast down. The failings and the disappointments that we face in this life eventually will go away. And instead, God fills us with all joy and blessedness. And as those of the New Testament, we see these words of Mary and the promises they point all gathered in to the Lord’s Supper. If you believe that you are spiritually rich, that you need no forgiveness, that you have no need for God’s mercy – you will remain as empty and shallow as you were. But for you, dear friends, you who see and know your own sin, who know your own struggles, who feel the pressures of life in this world and who are burdened – you who are hungry for righteousness – behold what God does for you. He calls you to His own table, and here He fills you with not merely good things, but the very best thing – He fills you with Himself – Christ Jesus gives Himself unto you, in a way most wondrous and amazing – He forgives your sins in His Supper, He gives you His own strength – He helps you face down the fears of the past and helps you to face the trials of the future, because in His Supper we see the proof that He is with us, indeed, in His Supper He is with us.

Dear friends, Christ Jesus, Immanuel, God with us, is here, and because He is Here, because He has called us unto His family through the waters of Baptism, because He gives Himself to us in His Supper, we see and understand His great love for us – we see and understand all that He has done and accomplished for us. For indeed, while we were humble and lowly, while we were weak – He is the one who is strong for us, strong to save – who comes to rescue us and free us, not merely for the brief span of our lives, but for all ages and ages, even unto life everlasting. This, dear friends, is why we magnify the Lord, this is why we focus our eyes upon Him and in thanksgiving sing His praise – because we see all that He has done for us, freely and without worth or merit in us. Christ Jesus came to be our Savior, and He shall come again to bring us unto heaven, and so we say again, Come quickly, Lord Jesus. In the Name of Christ Jesus, our Advent King +

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Go and Read

If you haven't, go and Pastor's Peter's thoughts on the different between Salvation and Spirituality. Fantastic

Being Busy and the Need for Study and Meditation

I find that the busier I am, the more I am aware of the need (and benefit) of study and meditation - be it from the pause for daily devotions or from gathering with other Pastors and discussing (going to a place where I will hear, not simply teach). It is when I am busy and running around and worn - especially when I am busy with multiple sermons and services bouncing around my head - that pause to be in the Word - to be a hearer is such a wonderful benefit.

The worst trick Satan has played upon us is the idea that we become too busy to pause and be hearers of the Word. Instead we become worn and worn and yet even more worn. Our work becomes more onerous. And we become slower and slower. . . and the work seems to pile even higher and higher (so of course we have less time for worship).

The Word of God refreshes. The Gospel gives joy. The Supper strengthens.

Sometimes we as Lutherans. . . okay. . . most of the time we as Lutheran shy away from speaking of the emotional benefits of worship and the Word -- and this is because we don't like making absolutes about emotions - we don't just say, "Worship should make you happy." Hearing the Word will not always make one happy (if you are content with your sin, it most certainly won't!).

But when you are weak, when you are heavy laden, when you are seeing the toil and wear of the world -- you are seeing Law, and the counter for that is Gospel, and the Gospel brings with it joy and refreshment and wonder. And not only the Gospel, but the joy it brings, is a good thing.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The mirror of existence

Advent is the season of the mirror of existence. One can speak of two sorts of law - direct law, where you have done something; and then the mirror of existence, where you just see that the world is broken.

Advent is the season of the mirror of existence. There will be signs and wonders, there will be good men tossed into prison. Things are falling apart and being shattered and broken.

It is into this broken and fallen world, amidst the shattered fragments of what amounts to life in this desolate place, God Himself steps, to rescue us, to restore us, to give us heaven.

Advent is such a beautiful time of the year, and all the more beautiful because we see just how much Christ restores when He comes and brings healing.

Advent 3 Sermon

Advent 3 – December 13th, 2009 – Matthew 11:2-10

In the Name of Christ Jesus, our Advent King +
Picture yourself in a prison cell, cold and dark and damp. You’ve not been treated well or respectfully, probably haven’t been well fed. The hygiene isn’t the greatest. And you sit there, waiting, your life in the hands of a king who isn’t all that stable. You have no rights, no protection under the law – you do not know what precisely will happen to you, but you know it will not be pretty. And you sit there, in that dark cell, all by yourselves. And why are you there, are you a thief, , a thug, a murderer? No, you are there because you came preaching the coming of the Christ. You declared out loud “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” You strove to prepare the people for His coming – including this King Herod who has you imprisoned, whom you admonished for his immorality. And now, the simple reality is that the next time you leave this cold, dark cell, it will be for when they come to take you and kill you.

You do get visitors – your students do come, they talk a bit about the news of the day. You hear bits about the stir Jesus is causing, the One who you had pointed to – but He’s out there, and you’re in here, and in here it’s dark and cold and you are so often left alone with your doubts and fears. Your life is on the line. Is it right? And so you ask your disciples, your friends, to go and ask Jesus a question. “Are You the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Is it really You, Jesus, who is the Messiah? Am I here for the Right Person?

John’s disciples go, and again, John waits, alone in that dark prison cell. We don’t know how long – he himself probably couldn’t tell, probably lost track of time. Time passes. And then, your disciples return. And they say, “He told us to come and tell you what we see, what we hear – the things that have been happening out here while you’ve been in jail. This is what He told us to tell you. “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. And blessed is the One who is not offended by Me.” And there, in that dark cell, John the Baptist rejoiced, was glad, was filled with joy and hope. There he would have been able to speak once again the words of our introit, Rejoice in the Lord always. And why – because of what Jesus says and does.

You see, as the old saying goes, the proof is in the pudding. Do you understand John’s perspective? Is this Jesus really the Messiah, your Cousin who you knew growing up, is He really the Lord God almighty? You know, but you have doubts – and then you hear what He does. The blind receive their sight and the lame walk. Yes, that is something that the Messiah does – God Almighty who made heaven and earth will come, and He will fix His creation – the blind, those whose eyes have been destroyed in this sinful world, they are healed. Those who are lame, whose bodies are broken, they are healed. Creation is restored. That’s something the Messiah would do.

But more than just that – the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear and the dead are raised up. Leprosy and deafness, and even death, all had a common idea, a common theme. They separated people, they tore loved ones asunder. If you were a leper, you were banished, you would never see your family again. If you were deaf, you were cut off from your family, you could never hear them, never have a conversation with them again. Isolated and alone. And if you were dead, well, you were dead. But look at what the Messiah comes and does – He restores relationships – those lepers who were cut off from their family and friends now rejoice, now dance and touch and hold and hug their loved ones again. Those people who were deaf, who could not hear, now hear the sounds of their loved ones again. And the father weeping over his daughter, the mother weeping over her son, now hold in their arms their children alive again. The relationships that sin and the impact of sin tear apart – the Messiah has come, and He is beginning to put them aright.

But more than just this, the highlight of it all – the poor have good news preached to them. The poor, the ones whom the world overlooks, the ones whom the world would rather not deal with, they have good news preached to them. This Jesus is no charlatan trying to make a quick buck, this is no placater of persons, this is no false prophet trying to grease the wheels of sinful society – but the poor hear, the folks who have no way to repay, who have nothing in them that would make them worthy, the ones who are helpless and lost – they hear good news preached to them. Indeed, even those who are stuck in a prison like John is, who no longer will be able to do anything for this Messiah, people who according to the standards of this fallen world are worthless – they too have good news preached to them. This is the Messiah, come for them, come for all people.

But our Lord had included one line there for John, for uplifting him and supporting him. John’s disciples also add in that little line – Blessed is the one who is not offended by me. John would have heard what the Messiah is doing, what is going on, and he would not have been offended –rather, this was his hope – his hope that Jesus is the Messiah is proved true – and Jesus tells him that he is blessed. Do you know what that means? By saying this, Jesus says, “Yes, John, you are in that cold, dark prison cell. Yes, John, it will be your head on a silver platter. And yes, John, even with all of this, you are blessed, for I am the Messiah, I am God come to save His people, come to save those who are stuck blind in prison cells and shackled to the wall, those separated from family by prison bars, those who are even going to die – I am your God and Messiah, and because I am here whatever Herod does to you now, you are blessed for all eternity. This is what our Lord has John’s disciples preach to him, and John rejoices, and sounds of joy and wonder that cell had never heard echoed throughout Herod’s dungeon. And John was refreshed, and John was prepared to face whatever came. The Messiah had come, and all would be made right in the end.

This Sunday of Advent is named in the Latin “Gaudete” – the first word of our introit – Rejoice. That is the point, the theme of this day. That’s why the pink candle is lit today, why the 3rd verse of “Light One Candle” is “joy”. Because this is the Sunday where our focus is upon the fact that the coming of the Messiah brings joy even to the darkest, dampest places we are in. This story here of John in his cell serves to highlight the joy that we have as Christians in hearing of Christ and what He has done. It is a joy that nothing in this world can trump, can triumph over. Whether it be illness or frailty or poverty or loneliness or even persecution and death, the fact remains that the Messiah has come – that God Himself has come down from heaven, fulfilled the Law in our place, gone to the cross to pay the penalty for our sin, and He has been raised to life so that we too might have life ever lasting in His name. Nothing can change that – it is the truth – it is the truth that surpasses everything else. And so we are to take comfort, as Isaiah says, because our warfare, our rebellion against God is over – and Christ is the victor, and He gives us all the rewards and spoils of His battle to win us from sin and death and the devil. This is our joy – the joy that Christ tells John’s disciples to proclaim to him.

This is the joy that Christ wants us to be focused on. In our text, after John’s disciples leave to bring their joyous news to him, Jesus turns and asks the crowd a question. What did you go out into the wilderness to see?” You all went to see this John preach, why did you go? What did you want to see? “A reed shaken in the wind?” Were you going to see fluff? Someone who would put his finger to the air and just say whatever society wanted him to say? That wasn’t John. What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses.” Did you go to learn about earthly wealth and power and might? You wouldn’t hear that from John. What then did you go out to see? A Prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, who will prepare Your way before You.” No, you went because John was preaching the coming of the Messiah, and here I am. The focus of John was upon Christ Jesus – and that’s where John’s preaching and focus was supposed to be.

So let us then put Christ’s question to us. What do you come here to see? Do you wish to see a reed shaken in the wind – someone who will just tell you and teach you whatever it is you want to hear, whatever society says is good? Who will give you the good, entertaining song and dance? Is that what Church is supposed to be? Or should it be a time for learning how to get those fine clothes, that fine house, that nice car? A place to meet people and make connections so you can get that better job? Is that what Church is supposed to be? God forbid that this place ever crumbles and decays into that. No, this place is to be a place where Christ is pointed to and proclaimed – where we who are spiritually blind might be enlightened by God’s Word, where we who are made lame by sin might learn how to walk as God’s faithful, where our relationships with God and neighbor might be restored by the power of Christ’s forgiveness, where we might be given new and eternal life in Christ Jesus. And this is something that is done not by our strength, not by our power, not by our actions – but all of this is done by Christ through the power of His Word. St. Paul says that he, and those pastors after him, should be considered servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. And here we receive, we participate in those joyous mysteries of God – we hear absolution. We hear good news preached. We receive the very Body and Blood of our Lord for forgiveness and for life. These are the wonders and joys that happen here, that God brings to you and makes real for you here. This is the joy that you receive here no matter what your week was like, no matter what trial awaits you in the week to come. Christ Jesus has won for you forgiveness with His death and resurrection, and He now comes to you and gives you salvation. And we know that He shall come again. This is our joy, this is the joy to which we cling as we await His second coming, this is the joy that we hold to as we await the resurrection of the dead on the last day when we will be given glorious bodies like His. Christ has come to win us salvation, and He will come again to see that we have it in full. In the meantime, He comes in His Word, in His own Body and blood in His Supper as a pledge and promise and token of this that the world can never take away. Let us rejoice in the Lord always, again, I say rejoice. In the Name of Christ Jesus, our Advent King. Amen.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

"I married me a powerful ugly creature"

Quite often it is easy for those who would be devout Christians to become frustrated with the sad state of the Church -- and by this generally the sad state of the people next to them in the pews (or failing to be in the pews next to them) is meant. And throughout the course of history, no small lack of theological idiocy has arisen as people have tried to come up with new plans to fix this - whether it be pietism where you basically take the "scared straight" approach, or even the approach that seems popular today, where you focus so much on grow-grow-grow in order to just replace those slackers with a hopefully unending supply of new givers. . . um. . . I mean, new members who have full pockets. . . um. . . I mean are full of zeal.

When thoughts and frustrations like this arise, I would suggest that we would do well to remember two things about just who we are in the Church.

1. We aren't the hero, we are the damsel in distress.

What do I mean by this? In the story of our lives, we aren't the hero who comes in swashbuckling and saving the day. We aren't the clever ones who outwit the Devil, we aren't the ones who by our own strength knock down the foes. We are the damsels. We are the ones who are distressed by our own sin, locked in the tower of our wickedness. We are the ones who are rescued when Christ comes being born of a virgin, when He shatters the shackles of sin with His death and resurrection.

As such, we shouldn't focus on how WE are going to do something to make the Church grow. We aren't the ones who do the rescuing - Christ is. As such, let us simply attend to His Word, and let Him rescue people by His Word. Too often the temptation is to think things rely upon us - what are we doing to do to make things right. We forget that we are the ones who are made right by Christ.

2. In and of ourselves, we are some powerful ugly creatures.

(This phrasing is lifted from the show Firefly which you should have watched already by now. . . if not, it makes a lovely Christmas present)

What does this mean? When we start wanting to fix the Church, fix other people in the Church, make them better Christians. . . we forget how broken and in need of healing we ourselves are. Christ speaks to this with that whole speck in the neighbor's eye, ignoring the log in our own. I'll say this -- we are damsels in distress, but the hero doesn't come and rescue us because we ourselves are beautiful -- no, we are some powerful ugly creatures.

The problem is that we can. . . forget this. We can start playing the comparison game. The Christian faith is not a race to make sure you are better than your neighbor - it doesn't matter what your neighbor has done - the question is you and your actions. Are you perfect? And the answer is no, and so you've got plenty to tend to in yourself. You might be the prettiest girl in uglyville, but that still means you're ugly. And we can become filled with pride and just become nasty folk.

The Christian faith isn't our hero tale - it isn't where Christ comes to us because we are so lovely - it is the story of where Christ comes with joy and gladness, and He binds to Himself a powerful ugly creature, and He makes her to be His beautiful bride, without spot or blemish through the washing of the water and the Word.

He is the One who does this for you, and He is the One who does this for any and all. Let Him be the One who is active, let Him be the One who is active even in you.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Tell John

The 3rd Sunday in Advent has one of the semi-contraversial readings in Scripture, Matthew 11:2-11, where John sends his own disciples (he's in the clink) to ask Jesus, "Are You the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?"

Many people, good men who I know and respect, will explain so as John is really just trying to point his own disciples to Jesus so they are cared for after he is silver platter surprise at the royal party. However, that just doesn't sit well with me, because of what Jesus says.

"Go and tell John what you hear and see. . . ." Go and tell John. Jesus doesn't tell these folks to forget John and follow Him; our Lord instructs them to go and preach to John.

We can forget (or pretend) that the preachers of God's Word don't need to be hearers. That isn't true - we need to receive the Word ourselves. We need encouragement. We need to have the Word of God proclaimed to us - especially in life and death situations.

I am reminded here of the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, powerful Christian writings. Ignatius is on his way to death - and he writes beautiful words... but he also always gives thanks for the support, the preaching and succor of the Sacrament that he himself has received.

This is the point of the text - Christ Jesus is the Messiah, and that is something we always need to hear, to hear anew. Life in a fallen world can oppress us - even we who know the Truth - the world will try to stamp that out. Preachers - hear you the Word yourselves so that you are bolstered in the faith!

Advent 2 Sermon

Advent 2 – Luke 21:25-36, December 6th, 2009

In the Name of Christ Jesus, our Advent King +
Ah yes, Christmas time approaches, when we all go out and decorate and put up little electric lights all over the place. And there will be signs in the sun and the moon and the stars. Ah yes, this joyous season where we all dream of a gentle snow to give us a nice, white Christmas. And on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves. Ah yes, a season where we all just are determined to get along and talk about pretty ideas, like peace on earth. People fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. Ah yes, a time of the year where we just sing happy songs whose meaning we have forgotten. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. This second Sunday in Advent, this reading of this Gospel lesson, always seems so. . . opposed to what we see running around in the world. December is the time of year where we put on our happy faces, get into the Spirit, get into the Christmas Cheer! That’s what we are supposed to do according to all the TV shows – go out and spend more and more, eat, drink, and be merry. And yet, here in God’s House, we hear Christ’s words of reality. So often our society will treat Christmas as a time to ignore reality, to try to forget what is going on. We will try to sweep our problems and sorrows under the rug. Money’s been tight? Who cares – look at all the wonderful deals, and we have financing! Relationships been rough? Who cares – put on a sweater and smile, we have guests coming over! Yes, we’ll talk about peace on earth, though we’ve had troops out in tents in the desert for years and years. The world makes pretend at Christmastime.

Our Lord, though, doesn’t call us to pretend-time. Our Lord deals with reality. And quite often, the reality of this world is harsh, it’s unpleasant – and while we might try to forget troubles for a while, to put them out of sight and out of mind, they will still be there tomorrow. Storms and wars and rumors of war, distress, violence, chaos breaking out. All these things still happen, even in December, when we try to forget them. But our Lord says, “No, don’t try to forget them, don’t try to numb your mind to them. Rather this. “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Don’t ignore the troubles of the world – but rather in the midst of them, take heart, stand up straight and tall and proud, for your redemption draws near.

Advent is the season where we focus on the coming of Christ – what it means that Christ is coming. And our Lord here reminds us that the coming, the approach of our Lord, is always companied in this sinful world with things that cause the sinful world distress. Consider our Lord’s first coming at Christmas. There were signs in the sky – you had the Star of Bethlehem. Rulers of the world were perplexed – Herod was driven to the point of killing children, Mary and Joseph had to take infant Jesus and flee for their lives. When Christ first came, the world was chaotic and messy. Or consider when Christ won our redemption – because this is what He was directly speaking to in this Gospel. When the Son of Man was lifted up upon the Cross – what happened? The sky became black, and then, when He died, the earth quaked, and even the Roman Solider, the sign of the height of earthly power, falls to His knees and says, “Surely, this was the Son of God.”

Likewise, dear friends, this season of Advent, where we focus on preparing to celebrate our Lord’s first coming, we are also directed to prepare for His second coming. The same signs are still here, we still see all the reminders of chaos and wonder in the world. And our Lord warns us not to miss them. And then He told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.’ Christ our Lord teaches us to be watchful – and as Christians we see things differently than the rest of the world does, we see all things through Christ and His Word. The world sees tough times which we would do well to forget for a while, that we should drown in holiday cheer. Our Lord says, “No, see the tough times, and let them be a reminder to you to stand up tall and joyous, because they let you know that I shall come again.” We don’t rejoice to forget, we rejoice because we see! To be a Christian, to see things through Christ is to be filled with all boldness, to be given a confidence that the world cannot know. For we who have been baptized and washed in the blood of the Lamb know that no matter what comes, what we see our days – Christ Jesus our Lord has won us salvation, and He shall come again, and Heaven and life everlasting is ours. And we are to rejoice in this always, not just for a few dark weeks in December.

But know this. The world seeks to shake this boldness that you have in Christ. The world seeks to beat down your faith, to twist your eyes off of Christ, to exchange His true Hope and wonder, for baubles and fleeting pleasures. Our Lord warns us of this. But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. The world wants you not to be bold in Christ, but to be weighed down – to where you no longer focus on Christ. Now, our Lord tells us three ways that the world will do this. First, the world wants to dissipate us. What does that mean? To dissipate means to shatter and spread out, to dispel – the frost on the grass dissipates as the day grows warm, a storm dissipates as it runs out of steam. This is what the world wants to do – to spread you thin, to evaporate you, where you are so busy and so into this and that, running to and fro that you have no focus and so that you’ll fall apart. The world wants you to be scattered, where you can’t focus on anything, and so you’ll fail to focus upon Christ. That’s one way the world attacks Christians. The second way is that the world wants you to be drunken fools. You’ve got problems, things to do that you want need to do – just get blottoed. Or. . . do whatever you have to do to forget about them. We shouldn’t think this is just a warning against strong drink – but it’s a warning against any type of behavior that we end up using to escape from reality, whether it’s drugs and alcohol, or spending money wildly, spending all your time doing this or that just so that you don’t have to face reality. When we ignore reality, of course we will ignore Christ Jesus – the Highest reality. We’ll be hungover, either from booze or our own busy-ness, and we will ignore Him. And finally, the world will attack you through the cares of life themselves. The world will try to make it where your problems, your struggles seemingly overwhelm you, where they are all that you end up thinking about, where you’ll focus just upon them and not upon Christ.

The world wants you to forget about Christ, period. But what does your Lord instruct you? But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place and so stand before the Son of Man. Pray. Focus not upon the things of life, but be focused upon God in prayer. Stand up straight, look to God, be focused upon Christ Jesus, so that you might not dismiss the troubles of life, but with all Christian boldness stand in the midst of them, stand until Christ returns.

This is what our Lord trains you to do – when you face trial or sorrow, when you are overwhelmed with abundance or stretching to make ends meet – whatever situation you are in, you are to look to Christ, to be focused upon His Word. Heaven and earth will pass away, all the things that trouble and vex you so, they too will go away, but the Word of Christ Jesus will endure forever, because the Word of Christ is about Christ, and He endures forever. Our Lord, in this Gospel text, is doing nothing else than teaching us to be focused upon Him, at all times and in all situations to wait with humility upon Him and His deliverance, a humility that makes us bolder than the most brash person in the world – for we rest upon Christ, we lift up our heads because we know our King of Glory is coming. At all times, Christians are to look to Christ.

And Christ gives Himself to you, Christ our Lord comes to you. Indeed, on the last day He shall come again, but until that day, lift up your heads here in His House, for here indeed He comes to you. His Word, focusing you upon His love still rings out here and will continue to do so. His Supper will be given to you who are in need of forgiveness and strengthened faith until He comes again. Here we will be gathered in prayer, so that together we all might encourage one another with His Word, so that you remember that you are not alone but that we are together in Christ. His House is a House of Forgiveness and prayer. And we together see here things the way they really are, the way that our Lord tells us they are in His world – here we understand the world and why it works the way it does. And we see it, and with joy and hope we stand up and raise our heads, for we know that Christ our King is coming, as assuredly as He came that first Christmas, to be our Savior and to win us salvation and to give us heaven.

Remember this during this coming week, after you’ve walked out those doors and you end up facing all those things in this world that can be scary and intimidating. When you see them, lift up your heads, for they are nothing but reminders that your Lord Christ Jesus has defeated this world and your sin, that He has won you salvation, and that He shall come again to bring you to heaven for all eternity. Lift up your head and celebrate, and let your celebrations be true celebrations because of what Jesus has won for you. In the Name of Christ Jesus, our Advent King +

Thursday, December 3, 2009

You know what the Law is like?

The Law is like Gordan Ramsay coming into a restaurant on Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares (I highly prefer the British version).

***Note - Ramsay is highly vulgar and coarse. Lots of foul language. Seriously, former Scottish footballer, horrid langauge, but. . . you know, the law doesn't treat us gently either. The broadcast on BBC America is somewhat bleeped - what you hunt on youtube may not be****

I watched a new episode last night - the restaurant was "The Runaway Girl" in Sheffield - and the owner just kept following his own ideas, which in the food business were the height of folly, and wouldn't listen.

And Ramsay just pounded him, over and over - and the fellow didn't listen, the fellow complained because Ramsay wouldn't point out the good things that he did. And Ramsay said something along the lines of (and this is a paraphrase): You are losing your business, you've lost your house, you're losing your best friend and girlfriend (who were working with him and frustrated), 98% of what you do is wrong, and you don't listen, and unless you start listing you will fail.

It was a textbook example of how people wish to self-justify ourselves. The house could be burning down around us, and we'd complain that the matches didn't have any warning label telling us not to play with them.

Ramsay is relentless. When we preach the law, we need to be relentless - we need to provide no escape - just show sin and fault until all the excuses are gone and there is repentance. And that is hard to do.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Few things are better for a Pastor

Few things are better for a Pastor than when you realize that the kids in your congregation are getting it.

Two of the folks that I confirmed last year ended up going to various other churches with other people this past month. One ended up going to a "revival" meeting. . . the other to the big mega Baptist church in Enid with a friend after a sleepover. And both were able look at what happened at these services and realize that they were. . . bad.

The revival was a few weeks ago - the mega church was just this past Sunday. As for the one this past Sunday, on the board in the Adult Study room I have written "We repeat what should never be forgotten" - a fine statement regarding the liturgy. The baptist "preacher" was apparently preaching against those small churches that are traditional and just keep doing the same thing. . . and my member thought of the board.

Things to make a pastor's heart happy!

Advent Midweek 1

Texts - Isaiah 9:1-8, Acts 13:32-39, John 12:27-36

In the Name of Christ Jesus, our Advent King +
This advent season, our focus will be upon the idea of hope. When we talk about hope as Christians, we do not use the term as the world uses the term. When the world uses the word “hope”, it uses it to speak of something that might happen, but might not. I hope OU wins it's bowl game, but this year, I'm not so sure. However, when we are in the Church, the way in which we use the word “hope” is different. Our hope in the Church is a sure and confident hope – something that we know will come, something that we know will be - because God has said so, because God Himself has done it. Our Hope is our Faith – the two are one and the same.

Advent is the season where we consider what our Hope as Christians actually is, we see our hopes placed and fulfilled in Christ Jesus, for He is the true source of all our hope. However, while we in the New Testament Church see Jesus as the source of our hope, for many folks in Jesus' day, He was a disappointment. Their hopes had become skewed, their hopes had slid off – they heard part of the Word but didn't think things through, and so they slid off into error – and thus, when Jesus came, He was disappointing. Tonight, we will consider the fact that Jesus is the true Hope for the Throne of David, over and above the low, misguided expectations people had.

Now, as we live in America and have no king, we don't quite understand the way the people of Jesus' day thought about the Throne of David. Today, we say, “No king – fantastic, let's go vote on something.” But for the folk of Jesus' day, not having a true king of your own meant that you were a conquered people, that you were defeated and subjugated to another. For them, the idea of having someone sit upon the throne of David as King meant basically what we think of when we think of freedom – no other country bossing them around, a peaceful existence, a just government, good economic growth – all the things we hope for in this world. And they had reason to think this would come – Isaiah had said, “Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.” The Messiah would come, and He would make the throne of David something for the people of Israel to be proud of.

However, they miss the point. They kept thinking in earthly terms, they kept thinking in terms of a line of kings, one after another – or maybe even someone who would live hundreds of years like the patriarchs of old. But that isn't what Isaiah points to – it points to One King, and His government and rule will increase and will not end – we aren't just talking about the way things ran in some idealized past, this isn't misguided dreaming about some golden age – but it is a description of reality – that the Messiah will bring everlasting peace and everlasting righteousness. This is what Paul points out when he preaches in Acts 13 – the kings of old died and remained in their tomb – they served for only a time, but Christ Jesus has risen from the dead and He lives and reigns to all eternity.

When Christ comes, He preaches to His own death and resurrection. He speaks to how He will suffer and die and rise again in order to defeat sin, to make open the path to heaven and to ensure His eternal reign. And the people really dislike this idea - “We have heard from the Law that the Christ remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?" They understood what Jesus was saying when He said that He would be lifted up – that was a way of speaking about crucifixion – a kind of death that was public and shameful and horrid. How does death come into our dreams of an earthly kingdom? If your king gets put to death, that doesn't mean good things for your kingdom. In fact, that pretty much means that your kingdom is done for.

But Christ's kingdom isn't meant to be one just of this world, it isn't meant to be one simply for the Jewish people – no, the Throne of David will be much bigger than that – it will be the Throne of Heaven itself – it will be the Throne before which not merely the Jewish people but all the people of the world will fall down and worship for all eternity. This is the true hope for the Throne of David, this is the hope which we are part of. The Throne of David is a truly eternal Throne – one which outlasts this world which will pass away – it will be the Throne around which we are gathered. Do you see how God's plans are so much more and higher that what people expect – we might expect a good life now, comfort while we grow old and die – yet Christ says, “I will call you forth from the grave and give you eternal life and have you be by my side in heaven forever before My throne.”

This is what our Lord accomplishes when He comes. Our Lord comes not to simply take up an earthly throne, not just to be a worldly ruler – but rather, to defeat Satan, the ruler of this world. This is what He does when He goes to the cross. Our Lord comes to the manager precisely so that He might go to the Cross, He is born as a Man so that He might win for us men our salvation by His innocent suffering and death. And then, He rises – and as a Living Man, never to die again, He ascends and, as we confess, He is seated at the right hand of God the Father. He is seated upon the everlasting Throne of David, where He is our God right now, from whence He gives us all the blessings we have in this life, and from whence He shall come again at the last day to deliver us from all wickedness and call us to His eternal and perfected Kingdom.

Dear friends in Christ, we too have hope in Christ, hope that is centered around the everlasting Throne of David. And we have learned from our Lord what this means – that He is our Savior and our life, and that we shall have peace and security and blessing far surpassing anything we could think of in this life – all because He came to earth and suffered and rose. This is our Hope to which we cling. In the Name of Christ Jesus, our Advent King +

The Slow but Sure Victory

"So what I told you is true. . . from a certain point of view. You are going to find that many of the truths to which we cling depend greatly upon our point of view" - Obi-wan Kenobi.

Yes, I just quoted Obi-wan. . . I'm a nerd, so sue me. However, this is a response to my last post. My wife read it yesterday, and she thought about it, and she said, "I suppose it makes sense, but I think it's more a slow victory."

This raises the question - what's your point of view. If we look at things in this earthly life - it is the long defeat, the slow decay of things here until the end. If we look at things from the perspective of heaven and eternity, the kingdom ours remaineth - it is victory, though sometimes seemingly slow in coming.

Whenever we look at things in this world with honesty, we will see the Law, we will see the impact of sin. Whenever we behold Christ and what He has done for us, we will see His triumph over all. Which way you look, what lens you peer through, shapes what you see. We can see through a law lens (let's call it a blue lens), and we can see through a Gospel lens (let's call it a blood red lens), and when we see them together, we get the full, 3-D picture of life. Heaven and earth shall pass away, but Christ's Word shall never pass away. Come quickly, Lord Jesus!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Rereading Tolkein - the Long Defeat

I have been rereading Tolkien's Lord of the Rings again, and I was just struck again how much theological imagery and such is in the book, how I don't think you can understand the book unless you come from a Christian, and in reality, a sacramental Christian background.

A thought for now - the elves in Lothlorien speak of how they are fighting "the long defeat". Of course it is the long defeat - they are still in Middle Earth, they have not gone over the sea into the West, and while there are joys and wonders, there is also wickedness and strife and encroaching evil. And while they desperately love their forest and land, they know that they are losing, that it will fade.

They called this "the long defeat". And Tolkien thought this described human existence in a fallen world quite well - "Actually, I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect 'history' to be anything but a 'long defeat' - though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory." (Letters of Tolkien, 195)

There are many times when being a Christian, when dealing with a church, when being a pastor makes clear that this life is indeed the long defeat - where things get diminished and fall and fail, where nothing is what it was. And we may have brief flares of new piety, new devotion. . . but they flicker and fail, and we compare ourselves to our fathers in the faith, and we see how flat and weak we are, even for all our own triumphs.

Here is the thing. This is the way it is, this is the way it has to be in a fallen world. In Ezra 3:12 when the temple is being rebuilt, the foundations relain, we hear "But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid." It was just going to be. . . less than it was. Or imagine Noah's approach to the world after the flood - of seeing all the change, of having there be rain and rain over and over again, of eating meat. . . things not the way they were.

That is Advent - where we see and remember that this life, for all its glitz and glamour, really is just the long defeat - and hence we look towards our Lord's coming. He came once, and He shall come again.