Liminal Time

There is a word I love – liminal. Yes, nobody knows what it means. Or, you all do, just not as that word, but as a gut feeling. It means a sensory threshold. A liminal sound would be one that you can barely hear.  A liminal vision is that one just on the horizon.  But my favorite use, and probably its most common use, is in regards to things of the Spirit. A liminal space is that sense of walking on holy ground, or the other way might be “walking past the graveyard.” A liminal time is usually only noticed in hindsight. My middle child is in something of one right now in college applications.  As an old guy I can recognize it.  For him, it just expresses itself as procrastination. That’s a common way to know you are in a liminal state, you procrastinate.  You are trying to stay in the known, not willing to give way to the unknown just yet.  Liminal states are necessarily scary, because what is on the other side is unknown or at least unexperienced.

Advent for me has always been a liminal time.  The old year is passing away; the new thing is coming.  You have things like congregational meetings.  You prepare budgets. Officers are renewed.  In the church year sense the old has already passed away, but Advent is a strange season even on the church calendar.  It was added as a season of preparation for the staggering mystery of the incarnation.  Sometimes that preparation was penitential.  John the Baptist appears twice in Advent with his calls to repent and warnings about what is to come. I often try to imagine what a John the Baptist would look like today and usually fail to come up with anything convincing.  The Baptist is a liminal figure proclaiming things are about to change dramatically, repent in preparation. That penitential sense is usually captured in the purples of the season.  But the liminal nature of Advent to me is not so much about those purples, which are constant in this life, as about the blues. They are the blues of right before dawn.  It is still night, but the sun is just below the horizon.  As we sang at the end of last Sunday, “The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns.”

And that is what the historic text for the first Sunday of Advent shows us, Jesus on Palm Sunday entering Jerusalem.  Anytime the King arrives it is a liminal space because the King has absolute authority. His word is law.  But approaching the King is always scary because you don’t know the ruling.  But that is part of why Jesus presents himself twice.  The first time humbly, riding a donkey.  The first time toward the cross, which addresses all our sins, so that we know the judgement.  The second time to set us free.  To set us free from those sins that still encumber us.  To set us free from our fears of this liminal space.

Advent is the season we ponder living in a liminal space. Knowing and seeing what is on the horizon – the judgement and the New Jerusalem, the King arriving in power not grace. Yet, that dawn is not yet.  Today is still the day of grace. Today the King still comes humbly, as a little child, as that knocking at your heart.  It is a liminal space that says “repent and believe, for you salvation comes quickly.” A liminal space that reminds us “all idols than shall perish and Satan’s lying cease, and Christ shall raise his scepter, decreeing endless peace.” A Great and Mighty wonder lies just beyond this liminal time.   

Types of Thanksgiving

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people,  – 1 Timothy 2:1 ESV

I hope that everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving, officially the best American Holiday in my book.  I say that mostly for all the cliched reasons. It’s a day of hearth and home and football. It is a day that connects me with a childhood soundtrack that includes farm reports on the local AM radio and the end of harvest worries. It’s a day that doesn’t demand much.  Christmas always tries to bum rush everything before it.  Today the only thing standing in its way are the ghouls of Halloween.  I never thought I’d find myself cheering for the zombies.  Given two months run up, what is under the tree, even if it is a literal golden horde, doesn’t meet the hype. With Easter the American commercialization machine tried with the Bunny and some Cadbury Eggs to Santa Claus the Holy Day, but it just wasn’t able. The Schools moved breaks such that if you get Good Friday off you are fortunate, which I took as the cultural white flag.  Easter remains a Holy Day, not a holiday.  But that also means it isn’t really shared other than within the church. All Thanksgiving ever promised was a good meal and a pause.  A pause that you can fill with whatever wells up within you.

Thanksgiving itself is of course a completely natural expression of the faith.  If the people of God would not bring forth praise and thanksgiving, the stones would cry out.  But the American Holiday isn’t technically on the church calendar.  So every year when I think about a Thanksgiving service it is mostly about those hymns of harvest, hearth and home. But the big book of strong suggestions – that Altar Book – provides at least three modes of thanksgiving.  There are texts and prayers associated with a simple Harvest Observance. There are texts and prayers stipulated for a Day of Thanksgiving. And there are texts and prayers for a Day of Supplication and Prayer.

I take those three categories as general buckets of what wells up within us.  There is an internet invective – “Touch Grass” – that I find funny.  It is telling the too online to log off and go outside. We were made to tend a garden originally.  Even for the most city mouse imaginable, there is good in being connected to the rhythms of life.  And one of those rhythms is the harvest. Knowing that when you sow, you will also reap.  Knowing that you plant a seed and we know not how but it germinates and grows and provides a harvest – 30, 60 even 100 fold. Unless we have cut ourselves off from all things vital, a harvest celebration wells up good things.

The Day of Thanksgiving is more official.  If the harvest is bottoms up, the Day of Thanksgiving is tops down. The American Presidents have a tradition of issuing Thanksgiving Proclamations. They existed prior of course, but George Washington issued a famous one. And these are completely appropriate.  We can get wrapped up in work and play and life – like the 9 lepers – that we never stop for a second to reflect and return.  Jesus, the King himself asks “where are the other nine?” Having a leadership wise enough to say “today, stop, take stock, enjoy the blessings and return appropriate gratitude” is good and right.

It is the last category that maybe we – the children of materially fat years – pass over too quickly, that day of supplication and prayer. Satan’s tricks are many.  We don’t think about it, but the Northern Kingdom of Israel was the worldly successful one.  They were fat, dumb and happy.  It is the world before the flood.  It is Sodom knocking on Lot’s door, so attractive that his wife turned around in lament even knowing what would happen.  It is the merchants crying over Babylon in Revelation. They are no longer connected to the source of the rain that produces their prosperity.  They no longer have officials wise enough to remind them to give thanks. But the prophet Joel shows up and tells them, “Yet even now return to me with all your heart…the LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love…who knows whether he will not turn and relent and leave behind him a blessing, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD your God. (Joel 2:12-14).” Thanksgiving in prayer and supplication is a renewal of the covenant.  And the providence of God is always enough for his people.

Now thank we all our God, with hearts and hands and voices,

Who wonderous things has done, in whom His world rejoices;

Who from our mother’s arms Has blest us on our way

With countless gifts of love and still is ours today.

Light and Darkness

As I’ve been hobbling around with a bit of gout this week, one theological idea became clearer.  Just how scary the darkness can be. Swing your gouty toe into a carelessly discarded school bag or a dirty laundry basket taking up most of the space between the bed and the wall, because you refuse to turn on the lights, what seemed melodramatic in the prophets – “the sound of the day of the LORD is bitter; the mighty man cries aloud there (Zephaniah 1:14)” – can feel appropriate.

Both Zephaniah and the Apostle Paul pick up the metaphor of darkness and light for the Day of the LORD and the gospel.  And the theme of darkness and light might be the oldest one in the bible.  The first act of creation was “let there be light…and God separated the light from the darkness and it was good.”  Biblically the theme of darkness and light is part of creation and the created order. What does it mean when Zephaniah says that the Day of the LORD is “a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and think darkness. (Zephaniah 1:15)?’ I think there are three groupings of the darkness.

The first grouping is simply the unknown.  Life is full of things we don’t know.  From the day we are born we are learning things, but the horizon of knowing always seems to expand faster.  Maybe somewhere in your 20’s, when you safely know it all, you can feel like you are on the cutting edge living in the light by your own efforts.  The other not-so-effective strategy is often making your world so small that you know all of it.  Just hope that you never get thrown outside of it where there is darkness, the wailing and gnashing of teeth. This might be the hardest lesson.  We will never know everything, because we are not God.  But the Apostle sheds light on this area.  “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 1:9).” The unknown is rightfully scary, but living in the light is faith that the Father cares for us and intends good for us because of His Son.  We need not fear.

The second grouping of darkness I call intentional ignorance. It is me stumbling around on a gouty toe knowing full well that the kids have dropped school bags and laundry baskets are in the way but refusing to either go to bed earlier, clear the path before hand or turn on a light.  I can convince myself that I’m helping others already asleep by not turning that light on, but that doesn’t mean much when I’m screaming out because I’ve hit something. Likewise there are lots of things that we like doing, like eating fish, that bring on things like gout.  Paul address this type of darkness saying, “We are not of the night or of the darkness.  So let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. (1 Thessalonians 1:5-6).”  The law is given as a light to our feet and lamp for our path so that we might walk in the light.  Yes, we can convince ourselves that we are helping other by staying in the darkness.  The darkness can even feel good for a time.  But slamming a gouty toe into a box because you like the darkness, is a pretty good metaphor of sin.

The last grouping of darkness is simply evil.  The evil in our own hearts that likes the darkness. But also simply the evil that wishes to bind us in the darkness perpetually.  Why is the Day of the Lord one of darkness?  Because the LORD comes not as savior, but as judge. “At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamp, and I will punish the men. (Zephaniah 1:12)…I will punish the officials and the king’s sons…those who fill their master’s house with violence and fraud. (Zephaniah 1:8-9)” The judgement comes upon all. The light of God – those lamps in Jerusalem – brings all evil into the light that it may be known before it is cast out eternally.  The Apostle Paul’s words here are both complex and easy.  The easy part is “For you are all children of the light, children of the day. (1 Thessalonians 5:5)” As God separated the light from the darkness as the first of creation, at the end the children of the light are separated from the darkness. And in Christ you have been made children of the light.  The hard part? The separation comes not like the moon and the sun.  The separation comes “like thief in the night.”  Until that Day of the LORD, the light and the darkness live side by side.  Often within the same heart.  “But since we belong to the day having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation (1 Thessalonians 5:8)” we need not fear the evil one. The faith, hope and love of God armor us for the fight.   And even death has no claim on those in the light, for He has dies and is risen “so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with Him. (1 Thessalonians 5:10).” 

The Day of the LORD

I have a sweet tooth for what are called the minor prophets – like Amos.  First they are short. They are more like a greatest hits album than a regular release. Every chapter is a banger. And you don’t have to make excuses for tracks that lag.  “No really, this concept album of Rush has to be listened to all the way through.  You can’t just listen to Tom Sawyer.”  “Ezekiel 28 is the key to the whole book.”  Part of being short is that they are pungent. They don’t hold back emotions even when coming from God himself.  Like this morning’s reading, Amos 5:18-24.

“I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.  Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:18-24 ESV)”

That is still sizzling after 3000 years! But what is God so offended by?  Is it the offerings themselves?  No.  Israel – and this is the Northern Kingdom about to be destroyed by Assyria that Amos is talking to – Israel is still making assigned sacrifices and observing the commanded days.  What was Israel’s condition?  Israel was fat and happy.   They were at ease in Zion and felt secure on the mountains of Samaria (Amos 6:1). They stretched out on beds of ivory and sang idle songs. (Amos 6:4-5). Amos calls them fat cows that crush the needy (Amos 4:1). It is not the offerings themselves that God disdains, it is the heart that brought them.  The heart of Israel brought them to Yahweh to check the box and be done with Him.  They would then turn and do the same thing in the high places to the idols.  “You shall take up Sikkuth you king and Kiyyun your star-god-your images that you made for yourselves. (Amos 5:26).”

Israel was unserious.  They no longer remembered why they were there.  They were sacrificing from abundance out of muscle memory.  Their hearts were not in any of it.  It was all superstition and mere culture.

They would hear the words of the prophets – “repent, seek the LORD and live, do not seek Bethel.  Seek the LORD and live before the fire breaks out (Amos 5:5).” – and they might respond with an offering.  An offering paid for by higher interest rates on their brother. “You trample on the poor and exact taxes of grain from him (Amos 5:11).”  At the same time they would sing the songs of Zion calling for the Day of the Lord.  They would sing them without understanding. “Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD! Why would you have the day of the LORD? (Amos 5:18).”  And the Lord’s response was that the day was coming.  They would receive what they asked for, even if they did not know it.  “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an every-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24).”

Who can stand in the day of the LORD?

The day approaches. Maybe the capital D Day of the LORD.  Maybe just a personal day of reckoning. When justice rolls down and righteous floods the earth, in whom are you trusting?  Do you know, or are you going through the motions?  Are you checking boxes here and there at various high places?  Going about the rounds of the day on muscle memory. The day approaches.  Do you have an ark?

Ebbs and Flows

“One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. (Rom. 14:5 ESV)”

Paul in that extended passage of Romans puts things like how you mark time into the realm of Christian Freedom. God neither demands days to be observed of the Christian, nor does he scorn such piety. The church in most times and places found setting aside certain days to be a healthy piety. We live in the United States, which is largely the creation of the Reformed strains of Christianity (Presbyterian, Congregational, Methodist, Baptist).  And the Reformed strains were the highwater mark of Reformation iconoclasm, the destruction of the icons or any other representational form, like a church year.  The Pilgrims would not have even marked Christmas.  The best construction on that is their assertion that every Sunday is Easter Sunday.  The week started on the LORD’s Day.  When that week to week same framework hits industrial capitalism you get how we mark time.  Monday starts the week.  Monday to Friday are for work with Saturday and Sunday being the weekend for play. 

The Christendom that inspired the Church Calendar marked time in a different way.  It didn’t run in machine like precision.  It ebbed and flowed, hurried and then waited. We move feasts – like All Saints – to the nearest Sunday after as a concession to the industrial-Reformed way. But we should recognize what this does.  We are moving the things of God, at least those that we supposedly are convinced in our own minds are important to piety, to satisfy the things of man. We should not be surprised then when other things insert themselves between what we say we are convinced of and our personal piety.  We neither have a Church calendar that affords us days of holy obligation which we take off from work to worship God, nor do we have the every Sunday is Easter piety of the Pilgrims.  We have 5 days of work and 2 days of play.  Worship doesn’t fit easily in that.

One of the religious effects of observing a Holy Day on the nearest Sunday is that the assigned texts for that Sunday get erased from ever being heard. The first letter that Paul ever wrote – 1 Thessalonians – is one of those that gets erased.  The Sunday prior to Reformation Sunday we read the opening, but the next two weeks get erased for the fixed Reformation and All Saints texts. In Sunday Bible study we have continued with the Thessalonians reading.  There are three short observations that I feel might be good to hear.

  1. “So as always to fill up the measure of their sins…” (1 Thessalonians 2:16)

There are two other such mentions of filling up sins in the bible. Genesis 15:16 where Abraham is told of 400 years of slavery in Egypt so that the sin of the Canaanites would be full.  Daniel 8:3, in reference to the final empire of this world.  This world has two streams.  The streams of the river of life which the children of God have washed themselves receiving forgiveness, and the stream of those sins collected until the day of the LORD.  Part of Paul’s message to the Thessalonians is his thankfulness that “you received the Word of God.” This causes trouble in this world, but it is because you are being prepared for eternity.

  1. “For you are our glory and joy.” (1 Thessalonians 2:20)

This is Paul’s expression toward the Thessalonians.  Those people that he has instructed in the faith are both his glory and his joy.  Jesus would tell the apostles that “they would sit on thrones judging the tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:28).” The glory and joy that Paul is talking about is that here is his tribe.  On All Saints we see the 144,000 in their tribal ranks.  This is in Paul’s mind. What is also in Paul’s mind is that these Thessalonians have imitated him in this.  They have “become an example to all the believers of Macedonia and Achaia (1 Thessalonians 1:7).”  The faith is received and spread by discipleship.  It is rarely learned mystically like Paul, but it is taught.

  1. “For this is the will of God, your sanctification…(1 Thessalonians 4:3)”

Paul’s metaphor for sanctification is walking. There is a way that we should walk.  It is a walking in the footsteps of Jesus which he has laid out for us (Eph 2:10).  It is a walking that is pleasing to God and which they learned from Paul (1Thess 4:1-2).  You have heard and believed the Word of God and so have been justified in Christ.  Now walk in His way.  Walk toward your glory and joy.

Three Things…

There are two things I wanted to write about, three things that this column is for.  If you were in our Wednesday morning bible study, you might get the joke about that opening.  The two things….three things is the start of a Hebrew wisdom poetry form.  You can see examples in Proverbs 6:16-19 and 30:15-16, 18-19.  So that would be the first thing.  That bible study meets at 10 AM weekly and you are invited.  I’ve called it “Necessary Stories”, but what it has been to date is a tour of the Old Testament. The goal was to provide a foundation for personal reading. Both in terms of the stories that always hover in the background and some methods for understanding the variety of genres and books that are in the bible.  Don’t worry about “being behind” because each session is meant to be a stand alone.  But also, if you are worried, there will be a couple of good jumping in points.  The last section of the OT tour which will start Nov 8th will be on the Prophets.  Then sometime after the New Year we will be starting the New Testament tour.

The second thing.  If you are a visitor this Sunday, I’d like to welcome you.  Mt. Zion is a Lutheran church.  What is the Lutheran church?  There are different answers, but I’m picking a historical one today. Historically there is a period of time called The Reformation.  Roughly 1517 – when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to a Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany – to roughly 1563 – the end of the Council of Trent, is the time span called The Reformation.  You can back it up before then and it unwinds all the way out until today, but 1517-1563 is the basic time. Coming into that time span you had The Old Western Church roughly defined by the Scriptures, the Apostles Creed and the Bishops. (There had already been a schism with the Eastern Church in 1054 simplistically over which Bishop was more important.)  Over those years of the Reformation the various churches that we know today defined their particular doctrines.  The Lutheran church in 1530 with the Augsburg Confession.  The Anglican Church published their 39 Articles in 1563. The Reformed published the Heidelberg Catechism in 1563 summarizing various prior agreements. And the Roman Catholic in 1563 at the close of the Council of Trent.  Alongside those Magisterial Reformation bodies – meaning that monarchs and rulers signed onto those documents – you had the Radical Reformation which is represented today by Amish, Mennonites and Pentecostal groupings. So, what is a Lutheran church? It is a church that kept the Scripture and Creeds as the appropriate norms of our life together, it also kept as much of church life as was in accord with those, while holding that Bishops are a valid man made way to govern ourselves but not the final authority.  So how do we argue?  Which we are human and sinful, so we argue. We argue over Scripture.  The Reformation started with a phrase “Ad Fontes” – to the sources – and as a church body we are concerned with constantly renewing ourselves in those streams of living water.

Third thing. That historical answer and the doctrinal formulations often seem dry.  Why should we care about something so far away?  Surely there is nothing meaningful for us today?  But in an age of chaos and confusion, those simple doctrinal formulations contain a lot of wisdom.  What is the foundation? Augsburg Confession 1 (AC1): God. Proverbs would say “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom (9:10).” Without God we are just lost in foolishness. What is the problem with the world?  AC2, we are sinful beings. Which makes us deny God.  What is the solution? AC3, we can’t get to God, so God sent His son Jesus to us.  How does that help us? AC4, by faith Christ justifies us. You have been forgiven by the work of Christ.  How do we know this? AC5, to obtain this faith the ministry of the Gospel was instituted. That Gospel is proclaimed every Sunday and whenever 2 or 3 are gathered in Jesus’ name.  The map continues.  But if you are lost, and much of our world today is lost, here is a map, and food and drink for the journey. You are invited to journey with us.

Singing from the Same Hymnbook

Sometimes you write about topical things driven by events – like last week on Israel.  Sometimes you write about one of the texts of the week because there are good things in it, but it isn’t the sermon text.  Sometimes you write about a point of theology because from reading and meditation you have a handle on it.  And sometimes you write about purely local happenings.  There is an old phrase that “if you are explaining you are losing.”  It comes from politics and it is probably true. It is probably true because most people aren’t persuadable.  Explaining is attempting to persuade and if nobody is open to it, if you are doing it, you lose. Better off pandering even if badly. But while I might be that cynical about our body politic, I’m not ready to be that cynical about the church. I like to believe that the Holy Spirit still works.

So, I’m going to talk about “singing from the same hymnbook.” That is a phrase for a reason.  Institutions, like the church, used to form people.  You didn’t join something because you already agreed 100%.  You joined something, or honestly you were born into it, and how it behaved formed you over time.  Everyone grew together – like the body of Christ – into singing from the same hymnbook.  Now there are legitimate complaints about that, but we’ve heard all those complaints turned up to 11 for two generations.  To the point that I’m not sure how many hymnbooks are left. And what is the result of this? Weak institutions that can’t form anything and that nobody trusts. Is that really the world we want to inhabit?

How did we get into this place where we don’t even know our own hymnbook? From my observation there were two paths.  The first path is the one of decay.  The hymnbook – absolutely true – used to be called “the layman’s bible”. The most used religious book in any Lutheran household used to be the hymnbook.  The Anglicans called theirs The Book of Common Prayer.  And that is what the hymnbook used to be, a daily companion to personal and family prayer life. Part of the decay was the decay of personal and family prayer life.  As the hymnbook was less used in personal life, many pastors responded by shrinking the hymns used in worship.  Every congregation has a repertoire.  A healthy congregation should have at least 200 hymns in that repertoire. Many that I know of have about 50. The problem with this is that the overall service becomes non-sensical. For example, when the gospel reading is the Parable of the Wedding Banquet, it makes complete sense to sing a bog-standard Lutheran hymn LSB 514 “The Bridegroom Soon Will Call Us.” In a congregation that has decayed to 50 hymns, you sing Amazing Grace – a great hymn – once a month.  Even if Amazing Grace has nothing to do with the Wedding Feast which warns about our attitude toward that gift of grace. The second path was defection. There is something more popular over here.  Heck with the rest of the institution, I’m going to benefit personally at their expense by hopping on the bandwagon.  The result is churches theoretically with the same teaching pulling in separate ways.

Our hymnbook – Lutheran Service Book – along with those prayer and study supports and liturgies at in the start, has 635 hymns deemed appropriate to support a congregation’s spiritual life. They cover both church seasons – Advent to End Times – and topics – sacraments, sanctification, trust, praise and others. In 15 years at my prior congregation did we ever sing every one of those 635 hymns? No way. How many did we sing? Roughly 400. Ok, but how many yearly, or on a regular basis?  We sang roughly 200 hymns in a given year.  Say 4 per week for 52 weeks ignoring advent, lent and other occasional services. Now within those 200 there were probably 50 that were sang a couple times or more a year, think A Mighty Fortress or Jesus Sinners Doth Receive.  There were about 100 that would be sang at least yearly, think On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry or Stricken’ Smitten’ and Afflicted.  And there would be another 100 that would probably be 2 years out of the 3 year cycle of readings.  Out of that you form a congregational repertoire of about 200.   

Part of the job of the pastor is forming the faith.  I am not doing my job if I allow the faith to swim around in in a shallow pool.  Partly because that shallow pool might appeal to one section, but another truly hates it. And partly because life is ocean deep. And if all you have is Amazing Grace, and you don’t have I Walk in Danger All the Way, your faith might get eaten by leviathan.  So, my suggestion, if we sing a hymn you don’t know is take it home.  That is why we publish it with the melody line.  It will be coming back.  Use it for your personal piety during the week.  Let it form you for a week in your thoughts and words. Let us work toward being Christians who can swim in the deep.

All Israel Will Be Saved

Anytime Israel enters the news cycle, things get apocalyptic. And that is usually because of something that is only described with very big words. The short words would be Left Behind or The Late Great Planet Earth. If you have read either one of those works you have dipped your toe in dispensational eschatology of the premillennial variety. Now if I told you that this particular understanding of “what the bible teaches” comes from John Nelson Darby around 1830. It was incorporated into the Scofield Reference Bible in 1907 where it moved from being the peculiar teaching of the small Plymouth Brethren to being the in the air default of American Evangelicals.  If I told you that – all true – you wouldn’t believe me.  That is how potent an end times story it became. And for me it became so potent because of one particular quirk, it offered Christians what appeared to be a free pass to be “nice” regarding Jews after the holocaust.  They are part of an older dispensation is what it offered.

I obviously can’t summarize everything in 700 words. The best I can do is state the Church’s historic teachings and point at where they are based upon. 

1. Salvation is through Christ Alone.  Nobody has their own dispensation.

Jesus would say “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6).” He would also say things like “I am the vine and you are the branches (John 15:5).”  Paul would pick that idea up and talk about Gentiles as ingrafted branches and the ability to graft the Jew back in (Romans 11:17-23). Christ has always – even in the Old Testament all the way back to the first promise after the fall in the garden (Genesis 3:15) – been the only way.  Romans 9 through 11 is Paul’s pondering of this in regards to his kinsman. And his abiding prayer is “that they might be saved (Romans 10:1).”  And the meaning behind saved is come to faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed. Darby’s dispensationalism says you don’t have to preach Christ to Paul’s brothers of the flesh, which is contrary to the gospel Paul preached.

2. The modern nation state of Israel is not The Israel of God.

The idea of Israel is being a “chosen people” (Deuteronomy 7:6). This chosen-ness is to be in Christ by faith.  It is not based on anything in us, but in God’s faithfulness to his promises.  Paul says in Romans 9 that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel…the children of the promise are counted as offspring.” Israel is not Israel by genetic descent, but Israel is Israel by faith. This is how Peter can say the same words in 1 Peter 2:9 that “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” to the church – Jew and Gentile.  The Israel of God is always by faith by God’s sovereign choice in Christ.

3. This does not mean that “The Jews” are without purpose.

The opposite of dispensationalism’s desire to be nice has often been a Christian hatred of “the Jews”. Luther himself was not beyond such, but it should also be said that Luther was basically expressing common ideas. This misses Paul’s warning in Romans 11.  “Do not be arrogant toward the (cut off) branches…”. If God can graft in wild branches, how much easier to restore the cultivated ones?  It also misses Paul’s prophecy, “a partial hardening has come upon Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.  And in this way all Israel will be saved.” Paul doesn’t elaborate on that, and given the shifting meanings of Israel the saying is complex, but what most have thought is: a) even unbelieving Israel is a witness to the faithfulness of God in that they are not lost to history in that God preserves a remnant and b) all Israel – Jews and Gentiles who believe – will be saved which very well might include a ingathering at a late date after the fulness of the Gentiles.

What does this mean for our current intrigues?  The purpose of the Apocalyptic (Revelation, Daniel and a few other places) is not to establish a timeline or a checklist of events.  “You know neither the day nor the hour (Matthew 25:13).”  Don’t be searching for Gog and Magog to meet at Megiddo.  This is just an image of the nations of the world at war.  “There will be wars and rumors of war (Matthew 24:6).” “Why do the nations so furiously wage together? (Psalm 2:1)” Because the nations of this old world have always usurped the power of Christ. Gog is always meeting Magog at some Megiddo.  But the end is not yet. Likewise, don’t worry about 3rd Temples.  The 3rd Temple is already built. It is built of living stones on the cornerstone of Christ. The end has already come in this way.  The purpose of the Apocalyptic is to remind you that however big and wild things appear in this old earth, God is steering them for his people.  And you have eternity. “But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the Kingdom forever, forever and ever (Daniel 7:18).”

I’ve blown past my allotted limit. None of this says anything about what our national foreign policy should be.  Which is in the realm of sanctified practical wisdom anyway. What it hopefully has done is remind us of the basics. This world is passing away. Its ruler, Satan, knows his time is short. But all Israel will be saved. Have faith.

Pastoral Anxiety

When I go to a Pastor’s Conference I usually try and share a few things. Not a travelogue; Nobody wants to see your vacation pictures. An attempt to extract some wisdom.

All pastor’s conferences have two expressions.  There are the “right hand kingdom” issues.  These are the anxieties and efforts to rule, govern and guide the church in the world, to make decisions and address problems.  There are also the “left hand kingdom” issues.  These are the worship, prayer, study and consolation of the brethren. Depending upon the group you are in, networking can be in the right or the left. Using right and left is theological language for those things which are of power and the law and those things which are of grace.  The right, the power-hand (sorry lefties), is the straight ahead law, commands, hierarchies and governance. “Do this, and you will live.”  The left, the sinister sneaky hand (sorry lefties), is the one that you don’t see coming. We never expect grace.  “Believe this, and you are already good.”

In that right hand kingdom stuff I had three observations.  And I don’t mean any of these observations to be positive or negative.  Most things in the right hand kingdom simply are.  Being humans we are all struggling toward the best outcomes we can imagine.  Sometimes there is a lack of imagination, sometimes too much.  But we tend to fall in predictable paths. First observation, The Eastern District is probably the poorest one in the LCMS which colors my visions, but man there was a lot of money floating around the PSD.  Having money allows for less anxiety and more imagination of what we might do.  Lacking money, a certain fatalism sets in. The hopefulness of the PSD was refreshing.  Second observation, the political reality of the district is that CA drives everything.  The money and the weight of congregations is Southern Cal.  The third observation is that the pastors of the PSD clearly see themselves apart from the larger Synod. Not that they would separate, but the anxieties are different. And they believe the anxieties of the rest of Synod are misdirected.  There are deeper conversations that could be had around each of those, but that is enough for this space.

Because as much head space that we give to the anxieties and expressions of the right hand kingdom, the church is ultimately about the left.  How do we proclaim the grace of Jesus Christ and him crucified for our salvation? One of the biggest anxieties of the conference is the current state of the pastorate.  The two expressions of this anxiety being a perceived shortage of pastors and specific to CA congregations a shortage of pastors willing to move to CA.  And this is not a small issue for a Lutheran Church body that confesses “so that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. (Augsburg Confession Article 5).”  The primary study of the conference lead by Dr. Leopoldo Sanchez I felt was spot on.  Dr. Sanchez, who I had for a couple of classes back in Seminary, is “Mr. Holy Spirit.”  And you could summarize his study as “It is OK to Pray to the Holy Spirit.”

An older book was titled “The Half Remembered God” and the Holy Spirit is often that, half-remembered. But it is the Spirit that works in the life of the church.  The Spirit is half-remembered because He is always testifying to Jesus, also because He works through means – Word and Sacrament. We see the effects of the Spirit, like the wind in the trees, but often miss Him.  What Dr. Sanchez shares was a summary of his book “Sculptor Spirit”.  And in that work he outlines five different models of sanctification, five different biblical ways the Spirit works. And the two that address the expressed anxiety I felt were what he labels renewal and dramatic.  Renewal is the fact that “The Holy Spirit works through death and resurrection.” Dramatic is that the life of the church is one in the wilderness.  We learn to trust God and prayer as the Spirit leads us through trail and temptation.  Wherever we find ourselves, we have been lead there by the Spirit. And it is for our good that we might know God more fully.  It is only in God that we find our true rest from all our anxieties. 

God Draws Near

“Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near.” – Isaiah 55:6

When I think of everything that runs under the banner of religion or spirituality – from rules for life to teachings of grace, from ritual to ecstatic outburst, from relationships to doctrinal definitions, from civic duty to kingdom’s not of this world – there are a lot of polarities that people might think religion is about.  And it is not that they are all wrong. Religion in this world does take on a lot of secondary traits.  And it is dealing in stereotypes, but most institutional forms of religion end up being more about those “distinctives.” Ecstatic religion? Head on down to the Pentecostal gathering. Relationship driven sanctification awaits at the Wesleyan Methodist Assembly. And if want ritual, you really can’t beat the Orthodox Church. And those are just within Christian religions.  The Buddhists seem to be a home for the philosophically inclined. The Muslims will give you the five pillars of the good life.  Us Lutherans?  Well, we used to be a bit more united: some solid ritual, the pastors will argue to death over doctrine but the laity keep congregations going through steady relations.

Now I don’t want to say all of that is meaningless.  It is not.  But none of it is the real point of religion.  If your religion in not the place where God draws near, you are missing the point.

That assertion is a live wire.  So I’m going to cover it a bit.  Saying that God draws near is not just confined to ecstatic experience or feeling, although it might include that. Saying that God draws near is not about saying the right words in the right order as if you were conjuring Him, but He has promised to be present in some rituals, like baptism.  Saying that God draws near is more about having faith in the promises of God.  Without faith we would not recognize His presence. Most people might look at the cross and see another poor revolutionary receiving just rewards. It is faith that sees the innocent Son of God drawn near to save.

When the prophet tells us to seek the Lord while he may be found, that time is the time of grace.  And the time of grace is when you hear it proclaimed.  Like right now.  The Lord has drawn near to you with his grace right now, if you should accept it. And if he has drawn near, Call upon him.  Like the boy Samuel hearing his name.  It took Eli a couple of times to realize that God has drawn near.  “Tell him, speak, for your servant is listening.” Call upon him with all your heart.  Call upon him with the biggest request possible. Create in me a clean heart O God, and renew a right spirit within me.  Cast me not away from your presence.

The Grace of God is like the sun. There are days that it might feel too strong and overpowering, that we must withdraw.  And maybe we move a bit away.  Find some shade. But when it is gone, all you can think about is how cold and dark things are. Seek the Lord while he may be found.  Because today is the day of grace.  The sun comes up every day and follows its course.  But the day shall come when the sun does not give its light. And you do not know that time. Call upon Him while he is near. Work while we still have the light, for the darkness comes when no work can be done.  Pray, praise and give thanks while the day is here.