Word of God

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.

Life, Death, and the Illusion of Autonomy

We are fast approaching the date of November 1st. While it is celebrated in the Christian Church as All Saints’ Day, the day will have a darker event this year for which the world wants to celebrate. It is the day that 29-year-old Brittany Maynard has chosen to end her life as opposed to suffer the effects of terminal cancer. While the news cycle has died and other stories have taken precedence in our minds, I would like to bring the story back to the forefront of our minds. If you need refreshing, here is the article.

Between when this story broke and now, I have read numerous articles that speak to the subject of suicide, physician-assisted suicide, Christian responses to suicide, etc. While many of the articles have good information, many of them miss the point. They miss the point because they start from the wrong point. Many of the articles debate whether or not her choice is the right choice. However, the distinct teaching of Christianity is that this decision does not belong to Brittany. At the risk of sounding like a raving jerk-face, let me state that again: Biblical Christianity does not give Brittany the choice to end her life in a God-pleasing way. Therefore, Christians should consider this topic with extreme care. As Christians, there are basically two responses to this story, and they both have to do with the subject of autonomy.

autonomy3

For those that are unclear:

Autonomy*

1.  the quality or state of being self-governing; especially the right of self-government

2. self-directing freedom and especially moral independence

3. a self-governing state

So, in response to this story, the Christian has two proper responses to this subject. The first response is to ask if Brittany Maynard is a Christian. If she is not a Christian and can appeal to no higher code of morality, her morality becomes subjective or, at the very most, collective. Subjective morality dictates that the idea of specific morals falls within the autonomous decision of each individual. In this case, one must tip their hat to Brittany and wish her “Bon voyage!” A collective morality would dictate that specific morals fall within the concept of “greater good” for humanity as a collective. In this case, once again, we must tip our hat to Brittany. What good is there to watching a loved-one suffer from a devastating disease? How does this benefit morality as a whole? One could very easily defend Mrs. Maynard’s position from collective morality.

However, what if Brittany Maynard is a Christian? It would follow that she believes in a deity that created her, loves her, and cares for her. She would also believe in a God who is always good. Always right. Always in control. The Bible (i.e. God’s revelation to us and the source and norm for the faith and doctrine of the historic Christian Church) is very clear that only One has the right to be in control of life and death. The One who made us. Even in the midst of this sinful world and the evils therein (i.e. cancer), God is still in control and working for His people. It may not seem fair. It may not seem right. But (here comes raving jerk-face again) that is inconsequential. What we think is fair or right does not matter. WE ARE NOT AUTONOMOUS!!!! God is. We are His creation. We do not get to pick and choose the parts of God that we like or understand. That is not how Christianity works!

And before you ask it, the question is NOT how could a good God allow this? The proper Biblical question, answer, and hope is: What is God doing through this? The answer is that God has not changed. God is working through the exact same means that He has always worked. He works through His Word to bring comfort, hope and direction to our lives. He comes to kill us with His Law and resurrect us with the Gospel. He comes in Holy Communion to cleanse of us of our sins, and strengthen us in our lives of faith. He uses His people of every time and place to provide the healing salve of comfort, the bright ray of perseverance, and the everlasting hope of a new heaven and a new earth where there is no more cancer or illness or death. The comfort of faith does not come through the hope that God will heal someone who is terminally ill. The comfort of faith comes through the promise that God will endure with us through every challenge with the same Means of His Grace that have functioned our entire lives. Life and death are not ours to control. That is not the fruit we should eat, if you will. Autonomy is only an illusion on which we, as American Christians, have gorged ourselves. God is in control. He is good. He loves us so much that there is life that awaits us beyond cancer, hospital, and grave.

All Saints' DayAs you gather with the saints of God in worship this Sunday and as you celebrate All Saints’ Day, remember the life and reunion that awaits. Partake of the means by which God gives you the strength to endure. Put your trust in Him who has the whole world in His hands.

*Definition taken from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary

The Lord’s Prayer: A Father’s Prayer to the Father

As my wife and I began to teach our children to pray, we began to have discussions about where to begin this endeavor. However, all of our discussions came back to recalling the same memories for both of us. Our parents.

prayers-for-children

I remember lamenting the constant praying of the Lord’s Prayer before bed every night. I wanted something new or inventive. I wanted to pray for my own things, and not just for these vague theological terms. Finally, I drummed up the courage to bring my concerns before my father. I asked, “Why do we always have to pray this prayer?” My father responded, “Son, sometimes you won’t know what to pray for but you will always remember this prayer. This prayer that Jesus taught his disciples and has been handed down throughout history for you. Now, at the very least, you will know these words.” 

My wife remembers her parents always praying this prayer together before going to bed at night. They might have fought during the day. The day might have been crazy-busy, but they would always lift up their thoughts and words in the form of this prayer… together.

With these images solidified in our remembrance, we endeavored to teach the Lord’s Prayer to our children. It has become a handbook for how we address prayer; how we address God; and how we endeavor to fulfill our vocation as parents.

Luther put it this way in his Large Catechism:

This we must know, that all our safety and protection consists in prayer alone. For we are far too weak against the devil and all his might and forces arrayed against us, trying to trample us underfoot. Therefore we must keep this in mind and grasp the weapons with which Christians are to arm themselves for resisting the devil. …Now they may confidently laugh and make their snide comments. But by prayer alone we shall be a match both for them and for the devil, if only we persevere and do not become weary. For whenever a good Christian prays, “Dear Father, your will be done,” God replies from above, “Yes, dear child, it shall be done indeed, in spite of the devil and all the world.”

The very first thing that Jesus teaches in the Lord’s Prayer is that we should address God as our Father. The perfect Father. It is a welcome thought that when I fail as a father, my children still have their perfect, heavenly Father caring for them despite my failures. And when I lift up the same words, God smiles upon me as a vocational steward of His Fatherly provision. My children have someone better than me that is truly watching over them all the time; listening to their prayers; providing for their needs; protecting them from the evil one.

As I teach my children how to pray, it is upmost importance that they come to know the “fatherly divine goodness and mercy” provided by their heavenly Father. Yes, it is chiefly seen in the person and work in Christ, but it is also seen in me teaching them how to pray. Teaching them how to pray the same way that God taught me to pray… every night… with the same words… the words of Jesus. May God continue to grant you the patience and peace to teach your children the same.

Our Father who art in heaven.

What does this mean?

With these words God tenderly invites us to believe that He is our true Father and that we are His true children, so that with all boldness and confidence we may ask Him as dear children ask their dear father.

Punishment, Providence, and Pentecost

And Joshua the son of Nun, the assistant of Moses from his youth, said, “My lord Moses, stop them.” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.

Throughout the course of your life, have you ever had those things – events – happenstances that you are warned about over and over again but, for one reason or another, you never heeded the warnings? Have you ever had those diabolical situations that you have to learn for yourself? You have to explain the broken window because you were using the real baseball that is never supposed to be used in the back yard. The black eye that you have to live with because you smarted off to a guy who was bigger than you.

Our lives are full of the repercussions of our actions. The child who sneaks a cigarette from his uncle’s pack and gets sick after smoking it. The one who imbibes too much alcohol and pays the awful consequences the next day. The one who crosses to the other side for greener grass only to find that the grass is greener but only because the manure is deeper. We have stories that could fill embarrassing volume after embarrassing volume of “America’s Funniest Fails”. When we are honest with ourselves, however, these things are often not funny. These repercussions… these punishments often wound our pride, affect our attitude, and can even leave us angry and bitter that no one stepped in to bail us out. What hurts even more is that, if we really take a look at the events that fill the volumes of the library of our life, the fateful pages hurt us because the pain and anguish suffered therein are much our own doing. We have been warned. We have been shown the consequences of sin.

In our Old Testament lesson for today, we have a sobering example of the arrogance and stiff-neckedness of God’s people. God had done so much for the people of Israel already and yet they complained. They wanted out of Egypt so God led them out with His mighty arm. They had to get away from Pharaoh so God parted the Red Sea for them. They were thirsty so God gave them water from a rock. They were hungry so God gave them manna to eat. And still in the section before our passage for today, we read that they complained.

“Now the rabble that was among them had a strong craving. And the people of Israel also wept again and said, “Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”

The people wanted meat. They got meat, and God gave them something more. They also received the Word of God for the betterment of their souls. Instead of giving thanks and treasuring this benevolent act of God, they wanted it stopped. “Moses, stop them!” Joshua cries. “Its not their job! We shouldn’t have to listen to them! We don’t even like listening to you!” The gift of the Spirit is a great gift for God’s people. It is the Spirit that allows them to see God’s providence even in the midst of sin and punishment. It is the Spirit that allows them to understand the will of God and heed His Word, and, yet, they reject it. Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His Spirit on them! This was the wish of Moses. That all would understand. In short, Moses is wishing that the Spirit’s work would happen in everyone’s life… that all would be called, gathered, enlightened and sanctified. But they turned it away. They denied the Word and ate their quail and the Lord’s anger was kindled. They rejected their Lord. Israel had ceased to live as His people, and just like He promised on Sinai, God stopped treating them as His people. A plague wiped out a good many of them, as Numbers 11:33 states, “while the meat was still in-between their teeth”. I wonder if Joshua would recall that day in the near future when He would take over for Moses and address the people of Israel.

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.”

The people of Israel, even though they saw mighty acts of God after mighty acts of God, still had to be reminded not to reject the same life-giving acts of God. It seems that even the people of God are slow learners.

The same kind of response is given in our reading from Acts for this morning. The Holy Spirit descends upon the disciples with the sound of a rushing wind. The gathered travelers making their pilgrimages to Jerusalem began to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ in their own language. People believed, but many were skeptical. The most cynical of the responses doubted the disciples’ sobriety. However, Peter responds that there was no drunkenness at fault here. This is the work of the Spirit. People believed and were saved. The church began to grow throughout the world from that point forward. Yet there were still people who doubted. There were those who didn’t want to hear the words of the Spirit. They didn’t want to know the Word of the Lord. I guess it seems that the people of God have always been slow learners.

The Lord constantly puts the same thing before us each and every day. The same Spirit that fell upon the Moses, the seventy elders, Eldad, and Medad is the same Spirit that is given us in our Baptisms. The same Word of God that caused the manna to appear, the quail to come, and the providential care of God for His people is the same Word of God that comes to us in Scriptures, in worship, in preaching… it is the same Word of God that is taught in Bible classes, Sunday school, and in our grade school. The same life, forgiveness, and faith-sustaining care is given to us in the safety of our homes in books that are barely opened. It is given to us through the mouths of faithful preachers, teachers, patriarchs and matriarchs of the faith that are ignored, silenced, or pushed to the periphery of our lives. It is given to us in the words of the liturgy, hymns, font, and table as we gather united by the Spirit in this place but only when it is convenient, when it doesn’t cramp our schedule too much, or as long as we have nothing else at all to do because then, I guess, we might as well show up and get some Jesus.

Brothers and sisters, I regret to inform you that this beautiful house of God often reeks of the stench of the death that we often choose instead of choosing life. Our sinful nature distracts us, deceives us, and disillusions us. It decries the Word of God in our midst. It hates the words of the Spirit. Our sinful nature hates the words of the Spirit because they mean death for our sinful nature. The daily drowning of our Old Adam that happens through God’s Word and Spirit. Our sinful nature tries to convince us that this place is not worth our time and effort, because this is the very place where our sinful nature is drowned time and time again this side of eternity. Martin Luther speaks this way in the Small Catechism. When speaking about the baptized life of God’s people, he says,

What does such baptising with water indicate?

It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

Where is this written?

St Paul writes in Romans chapter six: “We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”

We have been raised to new life in Christ. The gift of the Spirit in our lives through Baptism, God’s Word, the Lord’s Supper, the forgiveness of sins, the strengthening of our faith in Christ. These are real gifts. They have real power, and no matter how many times we have forsaken them in the past, Christ is here with them for you again today. All of the forgiveness you need… all of the faith you desire… all of the hope that you long for is here as your God, once again, visits you with life and salvation. Through the wondrous acts of our loving God… every week… every day, the stench of death is taken away. The Holy Spirit continues to make Himself present for us. That is the beauty of God’s providence and care for you. He does not only take care of your physical needs, but He takes care of your soul also. That’s the beauty of Pentecost. God does not just restrict the Spirit to 70 elders or just the disciples. In Pentecost and in every day since, we witness the wish of Moses realized. The people of God are called, gathered, enlightened, and sanctified through the work of the same Holy Spirit. You are God’s people called by the Gospel, enlightened with His gifts, sanctified and kept in the true faith. We do not treat God’s Word with the disdain or indifference as the world because God’s Word, spoken, read, and received, is the very gift that gets us past this life to life everlasting. May God who has begun this good work in us, bring it to completion in the day of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

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.