Advent Experiences

Biblical Text: Isaiah 64:1-9

It is the first Sunday of Advent. I typically use the traditional text for the Gospel lesson of the day, the Triumphal Entry or Palm Sunday. All the best Advent hymns for the day are keyed to that text. The story being told is the welcoming of the King. But I chose the Old Testament text to preach from today. This text is from the “third Isaiah” which I simple think of as the portion the prophet addresses to the those who have returned from exile yet find the experience not what was hoped for.

Isaiah’s plea feels like the plea of all those who believe they have the answers but are ignored. “Would that you would rend the heavens and come down.” It is not the lament of unbelief, nor is it the prayer of those persecuted. It is the cry of the dismissed. It is the ask of those more zealous for the Lord than maybe the Lord himself. Think Joshua running to Moses about Eldad and Medad. Or James and John seeking fire from heaven on a volunteer disciple. The plea is not in itself sinful, but we should examine our motivations. Do we desire God’s presence that we might be proved right over our enemies? Or do we desire it for the sake of His promises? This sermon meditates on faith, the promises of God and our desire to seem them in power.

I, I Myself Will Rescue

Biblical Text: Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24 (Matthew 25:31-46)

This was the Last Sunday of the church year. In the wordle picture over the last few weeks I’ve been making the green (the color of the season) darker and starting to bleed in the blues and purples of Advent. The Last Sunday is given over to the contemplation of Christ the King and more specifically the judgement. That is the Gospel lesson. But in this sermon I wanted to jump off of the Old Testament text from Ezekiel. The gospel message is clearer. God himself sets out to save. The picture in Ezekiel is the sheep of God – the people of Israel – who have been abused in every way possible by their leadership of every stripe such that they have been scattered. God himself promises to be the Shepherd and retrieve them from everywhere they have been driven. The sermon meditates on how this has been fulfilled and what remains by faith.

Starting from Nothing?

Biblical Text: Mathew 25:14-30

I’m endlessly fascinated with the parable of the talents. It puts forward some obvious truths, that our society rejects, in passing. It’s main comparison – the one the entire judgement is based upon – is something that we miss because we take it as obvious, but then don’t observe how we act. A couple of those obvious truths: 1) God is not about fairness. “He gave to the servants according to their ability.” 2) With what it given to us we have absolute discretion. God is much freer in how he entrusts than we ever are. 3) What God entrusts is never a small amount. Even the least servant got a full talent, a stupendous sum. I think those three truths might form our typically brief against God. He’s not fair; He’s not present to help; He hasn’t given us enough to work with.

And that brief against God, when you get people being honest, is what leads to the parable’s real comparison. The first two have faith in their master’s judgement. The last servant views his master as a hard man and stingy. It isn’t really the performance of the first two measured in money that gets praised. The master doesn’t take any of it back and in fact says “you’ve been faithful in little, I will set you over much.” In the sermon I take this roughly as “you’ve been faithful in this short sinful life, I will give you eternal life.” It’s the faith in the judgement displayed in their actions, not the absolute return. The last servant thinks what has been given – this life – is a complete set up. That the master is out to get him no matter what. The picture of God is of an ogre. When of course the revelation of God is Christ, on the cross, for us.

Real pagans I think tended to be much more honest. They did their sacrifices more to keep the gods far away from them. Running into a pagan god never went well for the human. They were ogres. (And well according to Paul they were demons, so…). I think our society has that view, but you have to scratch off the veneer. The veneer we have is that “of course God is good.” Of course we define good as nice. The first time we think God is unfair or doesn’t show up, the brief against God comes out. In some ways the modern church in what it teaches forms people into the servant with 1 talent. When what Jesus wants us to see is the stupendous nature of the grace that has been given. You have life. You have this life right now. You have the promise of eternal life. “The joy of your master.” God is the lover of mankind. He has set you up to succeed. Yes, not is the way we often define success, but in the way God does – the following of Christ, his son.

Anyway, this is getting as long as the sermon which is a meditation on these themes of life given to us, and our response.

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.

3 AM

Just when you think the bible is giving you shallow travel directions it opens up a deep picture.  The Gospel reading this week (Matthew 14:22-33) starts with those travel directions. The crowds have been fed, but as the disciples had remarked earlier, it is late in the day.  Even later after 5000 have eaten. And Jesus knows what the crowds want to do – make him king.  So, “Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side.”  And, “after he dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself.” How exactly does Jesus dismiss the crowd that wants to make him King?  We don’t know.  Why does he force the disciples into the boat?  Maybe because they would have been just as much caught up in making him king, but we don’t know.  But if we stop to ponder the scene, it is quite a view of the Christian life.

First, Jesus has sent us out at night onto the chaos of the waters. And somehow this is for our good.  Even though we might end up “a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, and the wind was against them, in the fourth watch of the night.” That fourth watch is the metaphorical 3 AM. If you are a horror fan, you know everything bad happens at 3 AM. If you are a worrier or an insomniac, and you are up at 3 AM, it has not been a good day or night and neither will the fast approaching day be good. We know what this feels like.  It is dark and we are exhausted and all the creepies come out.  Why did you send me to this place alone?

But the second part is the recognition that we are never really alone. Jesus on the mountain top – with apparently Moses’ 120 year old eagle eyes – has them on his disciples. Mark’s gospel is explicit, “he saw they were making headway painfully (Mark 6:48).” The eyes of God are always upon those he loves. And his compassion – his guts being churned – are not just for the crowds.  “In the fourth watch of the night he came to them walking on the sea.”  The chaos and darkness of the sea have no power over this one.  He walks on them. What are our reactions when God acts? 

The first one, “they were terrified and said ‘it is a ghost!’”  We expect the bad.  We expect the creepies that have come out to finish us off.  This is what the world does; it finishes off the weak and exhausted. Of course lurking in the background there is that saying it is a ghost is easier than saying “our deliverance has come.” Because if what comes to us at 3 AM is God, that comes with demands, with strings attached.  Not the least being that he has witnessed our state.  Jesus answers all this with the affirmative, “Take heart; It is I.” And yes, our translators wimp out. “Take Heart, I AM.”  The Almighty has been watching and has come for you.

The second one, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Ok God, I’m not sure about this, so tell me to get out of this perfectly good boat you placed me in, and walk by myself over the chaos to you.  Yeah, we don’t think too good at 3 AM. But Jesus goes with it, maybe for the same reason he sent them in the first place. Of course we were not meant to be on the waters outside of the boat. And that is not because we can’t.  Peter does manage it for a couple of steps.  But then we always “see the wind” and the fear returns.

So what does Jesus do?  Grabs Peter, puts him back in the boat, and joins the rest, who all then worship him.  We are meant to be in the boat (please see the church). We are meant to be with each other.  And yes the boat is sent out on rough seas, but God sees it.  And Christ comes and is with us and the winds cease. When we see God at 3 AM, we know.  He has not sent us out alone, and He Is.

The Missionary Way of Jesus

Biblical Text: Matthew 10:5, 21-33

The text for this sermon is often called Jesus’ missionary discourse. The lectionary divides it into three parts, of which this is the 2nd. Although this sermon backs up a bit (as I was on vacation last week and missed part one.) It is the sermon Jesus gives to the 12 as he sends them out. There are a bunch of ways that have been dreamed up to duck this sermon. I’ve heard people say “it was only for the apostles at that time.” And there are some textual things you can point at, but given the great commission that seems odd. I’ve heard people restrict it to just clergy. And again, I there are some textual things that might support it that. Also again, laying all of missions on a special class seems wrong, especially given the general “confess me before me” that closes this section. Basically, the church in most ages just doesn’t want to here this. And that is because this is the summary of the message to me.

  1. The Word of God causes division
  2. You are called to speak it anyway and deal with the resulting division and hatred
  3. The reason you do this are because the Christian must live, walk the way, with eternity in mind.
    • There is a necessary element of fear in this. “These men fear God (more than anything in this world”.”
    • But the more important part is the love of God for all his creation.

Missions are walking the way through this world. As we walk, we show others the way. And that way is faith. We fear, love and trust in the promise of Jesus, told to us by others who did the same. That is the Missionary Way of Jesus.

Anxious Hearts

Biblical Text: John 14:1-14

What do we really want? Another way of saying that might be what are we aimed at? The fancy term here is teleology. What completes us? Such questions typically fascinated most peoples. We are strange in that we’ve ruled out thinking about ends/goals in anything other than temporal and vague ways. And it is that refusal to think seriously about such things that I think puts all kinds of anxiety on our hearts. Jesus’ words in this gospel passage are a direct balm. “Let not your hearts be troubled.” Why? Believe. The rest is in the sermon.

Needing a Sabbath

“The Lord will get his Sabbath, one way or another.”

That’s an older proverb I unexpectedly heard someone quote the other day.  I say older when I mean archaic.  Because you’d have to know what a Sabbath is first.  Then you’d have to know both who The Lord is and that he commanded one.  And it would probably help to understand that this Lord had a bunch of fights in his own day about the Sabbath.  All things which are no longer common knowledge. But it struck me that ears might be deaf to exactly the wisdom they need to hear.

The first thing I always ask when I hear a proverb is “Is it True?” In this world that is on something of a sliding scale and it often depends upon the context. There are rock solid proverbs – “A fool and his money are soon parted.”  There are marginal ones – “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” As long as you are content with marginal returns, accepting what the universe gives you, this is great advice (and holding an MBA and CFA exactly what I’d tell 98% of people), but it is terrible advice to anyone who is after excellence. Financially, you wanted all your eggs on Amazon at almost any time in the past 25 years. If you want to make the Big Leagues, that better be what you are doing all the time. In asking “Is it True?” one of the big helps I find is asking, “Is it biblical?” “Cleanliness is next to godliness” is not, neither is “God helps those who help themselves.” What about this one?

It is not directly a biblical Proverb. You won’t find it attributed to Solomon. Neither does Peter, James or Paul mouth it.  But there is a deep way in which “The Lord will get his Sabbath, one way or another” is biblical.  When the Israelites took the land of Canaan, God gave them larger Sabbath commands. Every 7 years they were to allow the land to lie fallow. Every 50 years, the completion of seven sevens, was the Jubilee year. All slaves were manumitted, all debts forgiven, any land sold reverted to the family who owned it originally. The Jubilee turned everything Israel thought they owned into a stewardship arrangement. You never actually bought a field, you stewarded it for at most 49 years. Of course there is no actual record of a Jubilee ever actually happening. The Sabbath of Sabbaths was not taken.  And no farmer let his field go fallow every seven years, are you crazy!?! What is God going to do, send manna? 2 Chronicles 36:20-21 tells us the 70 years of exile were 1 year for each missed Sabbath.  The Lord would get his Sabbath, one way or another.

The second thing I ask when I hear a proverb is “how is it used?” When would someone quote this proverb. The most logical time to quote this is to the work-a-holic. The point being that you should take a rest.  The implied threat being that if you don’t willingly take a rest, your body will probably fail in some way forcing a rest. But there is a second time it might be quoted.  When someone has put all their eggs in the basket of the world, you might quote this to them.  The intention being something like “don’t forget the sacred or the spiritual.” It would be akin to “man does not live by bread alone.” And that is where I wonder if we have become deaf.

Luther’s explanation of the Sabbath commandment is nothing about a seventh day, but about the deeper recognition of the Sabbath.  As the Lord of the Sabbath said, “it was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” And that deeper recognition is that we should not despise preaching and the Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it. Keeping the Sabbath day is about maintaining a proper reverence for the Word of God.  It is by the Word we were created.  It is by the Word that we have been saved. And it is by that same Word that we live in the promise of the resurrection. That day is coming when “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess (Isa 45:23).” The Lord will have his Sabbath, one way or another.  The question is: Is your Sabbath one of grace or compulsion and exile? Today we are invited to a Sabbath of grace made for us, but the Lord will have his Sabbath.

Remembrance and Proclamation

Text: Catechism Christian Questions and Answers 13-16

This is the 4th Lenten Midweek service. We have been working our way through the Christian Questions and their answer from the Small Catechism. These Questions and Answers are a model of “fitting preparation” to receive the Lord’s Supper. To me they run in expanding cycles. The first cycle is the simple proclamation of sin and salvation. The second cycle expands on that from the creed. This third cycle is very Lutheran. It always goes back to faith, but it also is not afraid to ask the question “why should or do I believe this?” The Lutheran understanding of the faith has an answer. That answer might not be satisfactory to all, but it has the advantage of being how the Bible talks about the origins of faith. And it has the advantage of being grounded in the cross. We remember and proclaim the cross as the ground of our faith. This sermon meditates on that.