grace

The Paradox of Freedom and the Christian

The history of the American experiment is making it less possible for Christians to live ignorant of the moral condition of our societal context. The Rev. Bart Day from the Office of National Mission of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, put it this way in his public response concerning the Planned Parenthood atrocities that are coming to light:

Today let us confess life with renewed vigor — to our friends over supper, through letters to the editor of our local paper, by writing our congressmen, in tweets and emails to Planned Parenthood, on our Facebook pages.

Let us pray that our Lord would bring an end to abortion altogether and that He would stop the horrible sale of infant bodies.

And let us pray that He would forgive us, renew us and bolster us to make a good confession in season and out of season: one that is always, no matter what, for life.

As I reflected on the news of the last couple of days while watching Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner’s acceptance speech after receiving the Arthur Ashe Award on the ESPY’s, my mind reeled trying to process the current zeitgeist of America. Then through the darkness, there shined a bright ray of commonality between it all. I do not just mean a commonality between Jenner and Planned Parenthood, but a commonality that traces back to the beginning of time – the idolatry of freedom.

God told Adam and Eve that they are free to eat of any tree in the Garden of Eden except the one that was in the middle. And placing freedom above divine mandate –  fearing, loving, and trusting freedom above God, if you will – they fell into sin as did the whole creation with them. So why are we surprised when the same ideas are expressed within a creation that is afflicted with the same sickness.

Throughout the entire abortion debate, pro-choice advocates cast their arguments in light of freedom. Whenever one opposes abortion, that person opposes the freedom of a woman to do with her body as she wishes. Is there anything that is more “anti-American” than opposing freedom? Whenever one speaks out against homosexuality, transgenderism, promiscuity, fornication, co-habitation, adultery, or anything else the Bible would call sin or a result of sin, that person is opposes the freedom of a person to be happy, love who they love, be true to themselves, etc. Is there anything more hateful than limiting someone’s freedom?

The hard answer to all of these questions is the fact that we are not called to be free or American (in this sense of the word). We are called to be God’s. Our freedom ends where it conflicts with the Word of God. Freedom is not all that it is cracked up to be. Freedom to ourselves means freedom from all that would confine us. Freedom to ourselves means freedom from God, and it does not take long for a Scripturally-minded Christian to see how scary of a place that is. If you want to see what freedom from God looks like, take a look at Christ on the cross. This is where God turns His back on His Son because of the sin of the world that He bears. It is where He turns His back on the one who bears our sins. All of them. It is in submission to God’s Law that we find repentance. It is in repentance that we find forgiveness. All of us. So to deify and laud those who celebrate freedom to themselves above obedience to God, is succumbing to Satan’s old tricks.

We cannot ignore this anymore. We cannot live as if we are of the world. We are not. We are of God. Let us find comfort, courage and peace in His blessings. His Word. His Sacrament. These are for you. Forgiveness and strength are found when we gather, we pray, we praise, and we give thanks. In this forgiveness there is true freedom. Freedom to be the people of God.

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What in the World Should We Do?

One of the greatest Lutheran theologians of the 20th century was a German Lutheran named Hermann Sasse. He was one of the first German clergy to rise up in protest to Hitler. He was, ultimately, a pastor’s pastor. He spent years writing letters around the world to different pastors. These letters encouraged men in their ministries. These letters spurred discussion about the actions that the church-at-large should take in regards the continued proclamation of the Gospel. As I was reading one of these letters today, the following passage hit me. In regards to the question of what the church should do to stem its decline and seemingly certain death, Sasse gives this counsel:

The third thing, however, that we must learn anew is Luther’s invincible faith in the power of the means of grace. Whatever the Church still has and still does should not be minimized. But she does not live from mercy, or from political and social activity. She does not subsist on large numbers. When will the terrible superstition of the Christendom of our day cease that Jesus Christ is powerful only there where two or three million are gathered together in His name? When will we again comprehend that the Church lives by the means of grace of the pure preaching of the Gospel and by the divinely instituted administration of the Sacraments and by nothing else? And for no other reason than because Jesus Christ the Lord is present in His means of grace and builds His Church on earth, being even as powerful as ever before in the history of the Church – even if His power and glory, to speak as our Confessions do, are cruce tectum, hidden under the cross (Ap VII – VIII 18). Oh, what secret unbelief and what little faith we find in the Church that calls herself the Church of the sola fide! May God in His grace eradicate this unbelief and strengthen this weak faith in our souls and renew us through the great faith of the New Testament and the Reformation. That, and that alone, is the manner of overcoming the urgent need of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the greatest and weightiest crisis of her history.

~Hermann Sasse, 1948~

In a world where innovation is often valued over substance… in a world where fads seem to rule the day, may we always strive to keep the simplicity of the the Gospel in front of our eyes and the eyes of our people. May the certainty of the forgiveness of sins and the hope of faith drive all that we say, do, and know. May this not be an encouragement to laziness, but a reevaluation of where the church should always begin. Everything we do is to proclaim and lift up those certain places where God distributes His good gifts to us. It is the place where “for you” renews a sinner in sainthood. It is a place where a simple word can uplift the soul and conquer the prince of this world. Amen and Amen.

Thus Says the Lord

The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes to pass, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet (Jeremiah 25:8-9).

jeremiah_the_prophet

The great kingdom of Assyria had fallen. Josiah had been king of Israel. He was one of the last good kings of Israel before their fall in 586 B.C. After Israel had freed itself from Assyrian oppression, it began to flex its muscle in the region, and began to get a little of the power back that it had under David… a very tiny bit of the power. It was under Josiah’s reign that the Book of the Law was recovered. So many sweeping reforms were being made in order that Israel would once again begin living like God’s people. It seemed as though Israel’s state of affairs were looking up. However, the power vacancy left in the area by Assyria’s epic fall from power left many other countries to squabble over the scraps. Egypt and Babylon began flexing their long atrophied muscles as well, and they were bigger than Israel.

So when Josiah’s son, Jehoiakim took over the throne, even though Israel was more stable than before, things were tenuous at best. Not to mention Jehoiakim was not the man that his father was. He neither trusted in the Lord nor held to the reforms put in place by his father. He began to make deals with Egypt and Babylon, pitting one against the other, hoping to be on the right side when one of them wiped the other out. Very rarely does straddling a fence end up in a pleasant situation. And it didn’t work out for Israel either. With Babylon bearing down from the north and Egypt coming up from the south, Israel was, once again, in dire straights. And so the people of Israel did the only sensible thing they could think of, they turned away from the Lord in their time of need, and sought to find solace in the power of men. In the history of Israel, we find the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Throughout their whole history, turning their back on God would ALWAYS lead to slavery, exile, war, pain, death, and devastation… but maybe this time would be different.

It was into this situation that Jeremiah was placed. From the time he was about twelve, he was called to be a prophet of God. It was not easy being Jeremiah. There is a reason that many Biblical scholars call him “The Wailing Prophet”. The great majority of the book that bears his name involves Jeremiah railing against the people of Israel because they had once again forsaken their covenant with Yahweh their God. They did not trust in His words of promise. They did not trust in His power to save. They willingly chose to go their own way. So Jeremiah was privileged to tell them things like:

Therefore thus says the Lord: Ask among the nations, Who has heard the like of this? The virgin Israel has done a very horrible thing. Does the snow of Lebanon leave the crags of Sirion? Do the mountain waters run dry, the cold flowing streams? But my people have forgotten me; they make offerings to false gods; they made them stumble in their ways, in the ancient roads, and to walk into side roads, not the highway, making their land a horror, a thing to be hissed at forever.

Everyone who passes by it is horrified and shakes his head. Like the east wind I will scatter them before the enemy. I will show them my back, not my face, in the day of their calamity.

Or my personal favorite:

For thus says the Lord of hosts: “Cut down her trees; cast up a siege mound against Jerusalem. This is the city that must be punished; there is nothing but oppression within her. As a well keeps its water fresh, so she keeps fresh her evil; violence and destruction are heard within her; sickness and wounds are ever before me. Be warned, O Jerusalem, lest I turn from you in disgust, lest I make you a desolation, an uninhabited land.

Who wouldn’t love to preach those things all the time? What’s even worse? There were other false prophets who were preaching the exact opposite. They were telling Israel, “Don’t worry! Things are going to get better! The Lord still loves you! You are His people! Surely, He wont disown His own people! Surely, God didn’t say you would die. You won’t die. The day of victory awaits!” Needless to say, the people would much rather listen to the good news than the bad… even if the bad news was the truth. Just a couple chapters before this, the people had grown so tired of listening to Jeremiah’s prophecies of impending punishment that they actually threatened to kill him… for the second time… in 3 chapters. Today’s text has Jeremiah confronting one such false prophet, named Hananiah.

Jeremiah even wishes that He could proclaim what Hananiah says to be the truth. He wishes that God would bring back the exiles and stay His judgment on Israel. However, that is not the true Word of the Lord. The Lord does not say thus, if you will. The Word of the Lord is not always easy to hear. It is not always fun. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes it kills. However, that does not mean that we cease to heed the Word of the Lord. Jeremiah knew that it is always far better to proclaim the words of God. So he did. And within a year later, Hananiah was dead, and the truth of Jeremiah’s prophecies were born out.

I wish I could tell you that Jeremiah’s life got easier. I wish I could tell you that he was somehow spared of earthly suffering. I wish I could tell you that the people of God repented and Jeremiah saw Israel return to greatness through faithfulness and dedication to the Lord. But that was not the case. It is likely that Jeremiah died in Egypt in exile. The kingdom of Israel fell to the Babylonians in 586 B.C. The truth of Jeremiah’s prophecies were seen after it was too late to do anything about them. This is the problem with false prophets. Their promises sound soooooo good. However, there is no hope in their promises. There is no hope because they do not come from God Himself. When we start pitting the words of man against the words of God, we find nothing but despair, disillusionment, and destruction.

How often we have been a carbon copy of the people of Israel? How often do we listen to the prophets and sages of this world rather than letting the Word of God be our source of strength and truth? We allow the world to define terms. We allow the world to teach us and our children about money, sex, love, marriage, devotion, obedience, honor, and the list goes on. But the world works with vastly different definitions than the Word of God does. The world defines love as that which gives us what we need instead of acts of service to one another and self-denial. The world wants to define marriage as that commitment between two individuals that might last or might not, instead of a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman that mirrors the relationship that God has with His church. The world has a way of turning things inward and making them about us, when, in reality everything we have… everything we do is supposed to be about or in service to our Creator. Yet, we find ourselves balking at the fact that a worship service might go more than an hour, willfully neglecting His Word in order to make room for ball games, time with nature, or even just sleep.

jesus-on-the-cross1

And we see the consequences of our actions. We see the punishments for our sins today. Every time we look forward and see the cross on the altar. Every time we see the processional cross or the cross that we wear around our necks, we see the punishments for our sins. Yes, there are earthly consequences to our sins also. Our children will grow up not knowing the Lord. It only takes one generation to lose God’s Word in our midst. We incur turmoil and hurt because of our selfishness and the selfishness of others. Our pride and arrogance escalates conflict and tears apart relationships. But the true terror of our sins, the true eternal punishment of our ill-fated plans is seen in the cross of Christ. The punishment that was ours due to our honoring of false prophets is carried out on Christ… and His blessings are given to us.

Throughout the entire life of Israel, God was never far from their groaning. While they turned their back on God, God was never far from them. Throughout the life of Jeremiah and all of His people, He always promised to keep a remnant. He always promised that His Word would endure through His people. That remnant is realized in Jesus. He was the perfect Israel who obeyed God’s commands, lived the perfect life, and died as the perfect sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins and the sins of the world.

Today, we, once again, see the blessings of Christ given to us. We hear the Lord speak through His Word. We hear His promises and grace through the font and the altar. We see the blessings of Christ poured on and out to us. We receive the strength and the necessary faith to be part of God’s holy elect… His Israel. We receive the power to live as His people in faith and love toward God and one another. We live in service to our neighbors. We hear the Word of God and learn it gladly. We honor our parents. We lead sexually pure and decent lives. We explain everything in the kindest way and put the best construction on everything. We don’t covet. We don’t steal. Why? That’s not what God’s people do. When we sin, we often suffer earthly consequences. But the eternal weight of our sins were born by Christ. There is no need to fear for our salvation because it is complete in Christ. Thus says the Lord: “Come to me you who are weary and I will give you rest. Surely, I am with you always to the very end of the age. I am the way the truth and the life. I am the light of the world. I am your Good Shepherd. It is by grace you have been saved. You are My workmanship. You are a holy people and a royal priesthood. A people belonging to Me.” The Lord speaks with grace and favor, and we listen.

 

The Body of Christ

*Caveat: This sermon was preached as part of a series of sermons addressing a Capital Stewardship Campaign in the congregation. So there is part that, while having broad application, refers directly to the context in which I am a pastor. Hope you still enjoy!

Christ is risen!
He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.

Do you ever remember seeing something that was really neat the first time you saw it? But then afterwards, you may have seen it a hundred times, maybe a thousand times. Now, it just doesn’t hold any luster. Now it might even annoy you a little? A movie? A commercial? That song you heard a year before they started playing it on the radio? The disappearing coin trick? Magic tricks are notorious for this. Once one knows how a magic trick is performed, it is really easy to lose interest. The mystique is gone. From magic tricks to movie trailers… from pop songs to commercial jingles… once we over-familiarize ourselves with something, it is very easy for that something to become second-rate… boring… disposable. We tune-out. We ignore. We change the station. We go get a snack or something to drink so we are ready for when the good stuff arrives… the new stuff.

We’ve seen a lot of the body of Christ lately, haven’t we? For the most pious among us We had Maundy Thursday service, Good Friday Service, Easter Vigil, Easter Sunrise, and Easter Sunday service. Now, we are back here again. We have seen the supper of the body of Christ instituted on Thursday. We saw the body of Christ on the cross on Friday. We saw the body of Christ risen from the dead in all of the services from Holy Saturday through Easter Sunday. I don’t care who you are. That is a lot of the body of Christ.

Here this morning…. Just 7 days later, we have it again… the body of Christ. He actually shows up twice in our account for today. The disciples are scared to death that what happened to Jesus might happen to them also. They are cowering in together behind locked doors. Then, all of a sudden, Jesus was standing among them. Gasps of ghostly shock. Shrieks of terror sounded from the disciples until Jesus speaks, “Peace be with you!” They see His hands and side. They see He is not a ghost. Then, they calm down and are glad. But one was not with them. Thomas. The Bible doesn’t give an account of where Thomas was, but He was not there. So the disciples tell Thomas. As can be expected, Thomas meets this news with skepticism. Who wouldn’t? A dead person raised to life? That doesn’t happen. Bodies put in tombs do not come out. But He did. It happened to Jesus, and Thomas got to see it the next week. They were all together again. Afraid of the Jews again. Doors locked again. And Jesus stands among them again. His hands and His side again, but this time especially for Thomas. Thomas exclaims, “My Lord and My God”. Jesus responds, “Do you believe just because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

Most of you are probably familiar with this account. It is the Gospel reading for the Second Sunday of Easter every year. The same room. The same scared disciples. The same doubting Thomas. The same Body of Christ. You might feel like a you’ve just heard the latest pop song on the radio for the 3000th time? It might have been great the first 50 times but it is getting a little ridiculous? It just loses its impact when we know the trick. It loses its hit when we know the punch line. We know that Jesus is going to appear. We know He’s not going to leave Thomas hanging. We know that Thomas is going to believe. Some of you have changed the station in your brains already.

However, like most of what we talk about here, our reaction to the same old Word of God is not new or avante-garde either. So typical of us in our American culture, isn’t it? As much as things are often way overdone, we also have a propensity to think that things should always be new. We think that they should always be exciting. If something doesn’t have to do with me, then I tune out… become disconnected… complain about not having my needs met… search for the next new thing. Our application-addicted culture is always looking for the next thing that will be catered to my life to make it easier, more productive, new, exciting. So when we sit in the same pew, Sunday after Sunday, hearing the same accounts, receiving the same Body of Christ, in the midst of the same Body of Christ, our commitment can often be lackluster. While we might continue to utter the same words of support for proclamation of the Gospel in our midst, our commitment often gets stagnant and stale. Other problems… other grudges… other axes to grind often pop up to steal away what really happens here.

Then, when Jesus seems to get a little old, it is easy for us to want to give Him a bit of face-lift. We are tired of the same-old-Savior who dies for the same old sins, so we try to dress Him up in a clever congregational program, a pithy sermon series, and maybe even some new music. This is where it is easy for us to run. When we feel that Jesus is tired, we run to make Him better. The unfortunate part being that is the exact opposite of what we should be doing. The fact that Jesus is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow is a good thing… indeed, it is the very best thing. The fact that Jesus appears to us in His very body and blood every week is a good thing… indeed, it is the very best thing. Time and time and time and time and time again, your same old sins (and your new ones) are forgiven right here in the stead and by the command of your same old Jesus. And that is a good thing… indeed, it is the very best thing. It is the reason that Jesus appeared to the disciples and to Thomas. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed! That is you! You are blessed by the Body of Christ as you are in the Body of Christ. Your sins of idolatry, profanity, neglect of God’s Word, parental disrespect, murder, theft, adultery, false-witness, coveting, and EVERYTHING in between have been forgiven in the exact same way they have always been forgiven. You are made new, in the exact same way that all of the Body of Christ has been made new since the beginning of time.

And that is why we do what we do here. It is why we endeavor to do everything to the best of our ability and resources. It is what we have school that is constantly trying to adapt and improve the education that it gives to the students. So that the sins of God’s people may continue to be forgiven in this place for years to come. It is the reason that we seek to maintain and improve the sanctuary. So that the body of Christ may continue to gather here around the Body of Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of faith. It is the reason we update our sound system and add new fangled contraptions to record video and what-not. So that the same Word of God might be proclaimed to the best of our abilities. We are stewards of God’s abundant grace by which we grow in Him.

There is something else that you might be getting tired of hearing about. In a couple of weeks, we will be having a commitment Sunday for our Stewardship Campaign. It might sound like the same old plea for money. It might make your stomach wretch the same old way it always does when the church starts talking about money. You’re going to tune out. You may or may not fill out a commitment card. Frankly, on most days… on those days when I am not in an Administrative Council meeting, I give very little thought to how much you give. That is not for me to know. As a pastor, though, I implore you to remember what matters and stewardship is one of those things that matter. It is who we are as the Body of Christ. We take care of all the blessings that God gives to us. We seek to proclaim the Word of God so that those who have not seen might believe and by believing might have life in His name. Jesus appeared to the disciples. He appeared to Thomas. He comes and dwells with us in the same, wonderful, and comforting way. Your sacrifice and commitment is an integral way that God works in this place.

I, often, wonder what it would have been like for the disciples and Thomas during that week in between the two appearances in our readings for today. Did Thomas tease the disciples? Hey guys, did you see Jesus again? Did the disciples ridicule Thomas? Hey Thomas, remember that time when Jesus showed up in the room even though the doors were locked? Oh, that’s right! You weren’t there! These are things that we will never know. But we DO know that Jesus did show up. He did forgive their sins. He did show up for Thomas with precisely what Thomas needed to believe. We do know that He continually shows up for us in His Word and Sacrament. He continually calls us to be His people. We are called to live lives of faith and trust in God’s care. We are called to teach our children and strangers about Christ’s love… His same old love that is always here. We are called to be stewards of the mysteries of His grace. God continues to grant us the grace to endure the hardships of our lives. He continues bless us as the Body of Christ with physical and spiritual blessings beyond measure. It starts with forgiveness and flows out into every aspect of our vocation as God’s people. May God grant you joy in your place within the Body of Christ… the same old wonderful Body of Christ. Amen.

Light in the Darkness

The darkness shades and gives me needed rest
It masks my fear, and hides my guilt behind
The black of night – the haunted old crow’s nest
The place where deeds are hidden from my mind.

Dark place

My pride, my friend, is there to welcome me.
He builds me up and offers sustenance.
The price he quotes is far from being free.
The payment increases my arrogance.

The flood comes forth with water burning me.
Light blinds my eyes, enveloping the world.
It shows the truth of what I ought to be.
The water cools and soothes as grace unfurled.

waterfall

In light, I live with eyes open to see
The darkness is not where I’m called to be.

~JPN 2014~