Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

Reading Ramblings – December 15, 2019

December 8, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Third Sunday in Advent – December 25, 2019

Texts: Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146; James 5:7-11; Matthew 11:2-15

Context: Strong words of encouragement continue to come from the prophet Isaiah, pictures of a restored and renewed creation made possible only in the Day of the Lord. All other sources of hope ultimately fail, the psalmist reminds us. Which means that we must patiently endure the failures and hardships here and now, which we are able to do knowing that our Lord’s return is imminent. The reality of this is driven home as Jesus works his ministry. Patiently revealing the prophetic fulfillment not just in his own person and work, but in that of John the Baptist as well. The forerunner prophesied by Malachi. Let he who has ears hear.

Isaiah 35:1-10 – We continue hearing from the prophet Isaiah in the 8th century BC as he glimpses a renewed and restored world. Is he speaking with exaggeration about the peace of God’s people when the Assyrians are defeated? When the strength of the Babylonians is broken and God’s people return to Jerusalem and Judea? To some extent yes. But his words clearly go beyond this. He clearly sees more than just restored fortunes in a sinful and broken world. He sees healing and restoration on a scale only possible from God, laying the groundwork for what God’s people should look for in anyone they suspect to be the Messiah. These are the signs John the Baptist has in mind as he sits in prison, wondering if Jesus truly is the Messiah or if he’s tagged the wrong man. Jesus’ response makes it clear John is not wrong, Jesus is the Messiah, and in his ministry is the start of that restoration not just of humanity but all creation to the perfection it was created with.

Psalm 146 – It’s easy to claim to be a savior. Easy to claim you have the answers to the world’s problems and if only you can be given enough latitude, you will set things right. We hear these promises during every election cycle. Only to be disappointed afterwards. Talking is easy. Action is harder. Even the best intentions come ultimately to frustration when someone dies and leaves nothing behind but a legacy to be gradually whittled away but successors and detractors. Only God’s promises can be trusted to be both complete and final. Only God is capable of maintaining faithfulness forever, seeing through is plan of salvation to completion perfectly and completely. Only He can restore creation to the perfection lost in Eden. While others may claim to aspire to this, they ultimately fail, and we would be wise as God’s people not to have our eyes distracted from our Lord’s return by the clamor of politics and human machinations here and now. We exercise our vocation as citizens faithfully and to the best of our ability, but we trust only and ultimately in the God who created us, redeemed us, and sanctifies us.

James 5:7-11 – But the Day of the Lord has not arrived in fullness and completeness yet. With God’s people since Eden, we continue to wait the perfect culmination of God the Father’s plan. Which means we must endure the evil and sinfulness in ourselves and the world around us, and we must wait patiently, trusting in our Father’s timing rather than our own preferences. This patience is something we commit ourselves to actively. It is a choice, a setting of our hearts. We will fail from time to time but we resolve to get back on our feet and remain patient in our endurance, persistent in our hope. After all, we certainly aren’t the first to suffer, and from our American Christian standpoint at least, many others have and do endure far worse as they wait for our Lord than we do. They should be our examples. God provides us with these examples and inspirations, strengthening our resolve and reminding us that we do not wait alone. We are not forgotten and orphaned. Our Lord the Holy Spirit is with us here and now, and so we can wait in confidence.

Matthew 11:2-15 – John the Baptist knows the Word of God. He also saw God the Holy Spirit come to rest on Jesus during his baptism. He knows that Jesus is the anointed one, the Messiah. And yet, as he languishes in prison, John has a moment of doubt and sends messengers to inquire. To make sure. What can Jesus say? He knows John’s faith and He knows John’s knowledge of Scripture. Jesus refers to signs given by Isaiah for the Messiah. Luke 7 drives the point home more firmly – as John’s disciples stand there, Jesus performs miracles in front of them. Can there be any doubt? Certainly there can, because John is still in prison, an unforeseen turn of events from his perspective, and one he might reasonably expect to be reversed, as per Isaiah 42. But while Jesus works many miracles to demonstrate his identity, He does not release John from prison. Jesus comes to initiate the kingdom of heaven, but not to reveal it fully. That awaits the Father’s perfect timing. John, like the rest of us, must wait for that perfect timing, enduring whatever hardships are necessary – whether imprisonment or just the challenges of getting older.

John expressed doubt about Jesus but Jesus wants to be sure people have no doubts about John. John isn’t merely a has-been, eclipsed by a more spectacular ministry from Jesus. No, John is a prophet. The last of the Old Testament prophets who points forward to the Messiah that will come after them. He is the Elijah figure Malachi prophesied, Jesus assures the crowds. They were not wrong to listen to John, and because of that, they are not wrong to listen to and follow Jesus.

John must hear the words of his disciples reporting what they saw and heard. Likewise the crowds are expected to hear Jesus’ words and receive them. And you and I 2000 years later are expected to hear and trust the words passed down to us from those who saw them come to pass firsthand. We have ears, and we have the opportunity to hear the good news of the kingdom of God, the redemption of creation through the perfect life and death of the Son of God. The promise of eternal restoration and new life when He returns. We may have our moments of doubt and uncertainty but we are graciously invited into repentance to receive forgiveness and the reminder to pay attention to what we have heard and what we have experienced for ourselves.

Weekly Devotion

December 4, 2019

Romans 15:4-13

A few weeks ago I was leading a Bible study and they requested the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. You might remember the three guys in the fiery furnace? If you grew up in the church maybe you remember it from Sunday School. It does stick in the mind as a moment of miraculous preservation but also a miraculous witness to the reality and presence of God at all times and in all situations.

When is the last time you read that story? You may think I don’t need to read that story again. I know that story. I haven’t thought about it in decades, but I remember the gist of it. Isn’t that enough?

According to the Holy Spirit and St. Paul, no, that probably isn’t enough. Paul talks about the encouragement of the Scriptures. In other words, the Bible isn’t simply a moral guide book or a doctrinal handbook, it’s also a book of encouragement. And it is to provide both encouragement and endurance for tangible ends such as living in harmony with one another. Knowing the Bible is one thing. Believing the Bible is another thing. But allowing the Word of God to regularly encourage us? That’s something else as well.

Being able to remember the situation Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego found themselves in is important. But remembering their response to the king? Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up. What an encouragement! What a tangible reminder that our God is the God of history, and He is everywhere present and more than able to save us from the worst of our fears and realities. Whether He chooses to do so or not is his decision according to his perfect knowledge and will. Faith is proclaiming God’s presence and ability, not a retroactive response to things working out well.

Let Scripture be your encouragement. Let it guide you in living your life and guide you in what you believe and profess. But let it also draw you into greater harmony with one another. The God who created us, redeemed us and sanctifies us is also the God who encourages us each day through his Word!

Sin and Title

December 3, 2019

….But I am heartily sorry for them and sincerely repent of them, and I pray You of Your boundless mercy and for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to be gracious and merciful to me, a poor, sinful being.

So goes part of the corporate confession I’ve heard off and on either as parishioner or pastor for the entirety of my life, and that Christians have used prior to me.  It addresses one half of a complicated dual identity – that of being a poor, sinful being.  Not poor in the sense of material poverty, but rather poor in a sympathetic or empathetic way.  I am poor in that I am unable to fully change my sinful nature.  I am unable to fully refrain from sin perfectly in thought, word and deed.  I may put on a good show, but my thoughts and emotions betray me to God regardless of my self-control that might fool others.

I was talking with my parents this weekend and they were relating one pastor’s disagreement with this statement.  His argument is that we are no longer slaves to sin but rather we are free in Christ.  We live in the kingdom of grace rather under the tyranny of Satan.  This is who  we are, he  says.  And he’s half right.  Because the complicated, aforementioned dual-identity consists of this other reality.  Because of the sacrificial death of the Incarnate Son of God, Jesus  the Christ, and because of the faith worked in me by God the Holy Spirit that this historic and objective reality is also subjectively true and real and efficacious for me, I am now washed in his blood and raised from death to  my sinful nature with him.  I am now, this moment, perfect and holy and righteous.  This is how God the Father sees me.  Or more accurately, God the Father sees me this way through the blood of Christ, so that his perfect sacrifice becomes part of my identity.

So we can emphasize one part or the other of this dual-identity.  And one day, this dual identity will no longer be.  The sinful part of me that I confess daily and weekly privately and in corporate worship will be gone, and all that will remain is the holy and perfect and righteous me.  I look forward to that day.  I try to emphasize that reality here and now to myself  and my parishioners.  But I also know the sneakiness of  sin, and some of the dangerous tactics of Satan.  He can’t change the sacrifice of the Son of God on my behalf.  He can’t take away the grace and forgiveness that are granted to me in faith through my baptism.

But he could convince me I don’t really need these things.  He could convince me to ignore and neglect these realities until they are no longer my subjective reality.  Until I’ve committed the unforgivable sin of declaring sin to be righteousness, rejecting the good forgiveness of God as something evil and intrusive.  And because I believe – based on Scripture – that these tactics are deadly real and effective, I will  insist  on continuing to address both aspects of my dual-identity.  Because Satan is always prowling about, internally and externally.  And he isn’t always blatant and obvious about it.

This morning I returned to the office from taking Holy Communion to Suzanne and her sister as I do nearly every Tuesday, augmented with another visit on Thursdays to share another Word from Scripture but without Communion.  Her pattern now  at this care facility is to be lifted into her wheelchair for 45 minutes or so of fresh air and a cigarette outside.  A small freedom she dearly enjoys.  So if I arrive and she’s not in her room, I know to search for her outside.

And outside I found her this morning, surrounded by several friends and co-residents at this care facility.  They gather for cigarettes and coffee, to laugh and shoot the breeze and catch up on the latest goings on.  They feed the pigeons as they smoke and chat.  A few weeks ago I invited one of the other residents to join us.  This morning, he was back along with another two women, at least one of whom was Christian.  It was a beautiful time of sharing God’s Word with an unexpected number of people, and then figuring out how to make the Eucharist available to them when I only expected to commune two.  God is good and things worked out.

Which is all secondary to the whole point of this post.

When I got back to the office there was a car parked in the parking lot that I didn’t recognize.  Sure enough, when I got out, so did the man in the car.  He was sharing flyers for an ecumenical conference in 2020.  I’m generally skeptical of these things but didn’t want to be rude.  I flipped through the brochures as he pointed out the keynote speakers.  I presume he assumed I would know who they are and be somewhat impressed.  He then went on to list off some of the other people who have presented at this conference over the years.  Again, a list of names he assumed I would know and be impressed by.  I didn’t know any of them.  Doesn’t mean they’re bad or not worth knowing, but it’s just not my thing to get into the whole name dropping stuff.  I’ve run into this recently with several different evangelical Christians in different contexts.  Oh, you know so-and-so don’t you?  They’re starting up a new church plant.  Oh, I used to study under so-and-so but now I’m over with so-and-so.  I’m not sure if it’s a Lutheran thing or my own weirdness, but I don’t know these people.  I don’t care, frankly.  If they’re serving God faithfully, thanks be to God!  I don’t need to know  their names.  I probably don’t need to read their books or attend their workshops either, which are oftentimes – in my limited experiences – just a chance for social or professional networking and more name-dropping.  When the conference ends I never hear or see these people again.

Apparently I’m not notable enough for follow-up contacts – unless it’s a mass e-mail advertising the next conference.

Which brings me back to confession.  You know, where we started a few hours  ago?

I thanked the man and made my way to my office, where I flipped through the brochure.  It actually looks halfway interesting.  Focused on youth ministry and reaching young people, the Holy Grail of church focus these days.  But it struck me odd that instead of talking about the purpose of the conference, he chose to emphasize the cool people leading it and previous cool people who had led it.

And a little green voice reared up inside my head wondering why I wasn’t speaking at such conferences and having people drop  my name.

There it is.  That subtle little nudge.  Nothing over-the-top or too noticeable.  Something designed to cruise in under the radar and lodge in the mind and slowly begin taking root.  Did God really say….?

It’s easy to say I’m not speaking at conferences because I have nothing to say and have done nothing notable.  And this is true.

But it’s also true that I just communed five people in a care facility in varying stages of waiting to die.  I brought them the Word of  God.  I brought them the body and blood of their Savior in with and under the bread and wine.  I managed to drop half a wafer and feed it to the pigeons.

And that is something.  It’s not about me, of course.  And so I pretend not to hear the one person complimenting me to one of the other people as I’m nearly out of earshot.  But the ear pricks.  The imagination flares.  Conceit and vanity are stoked.

It’s  not about me.  And that’s ultimately why I reject the popular Christian cult of name-dropping and professional networking.  Perhaps if we had more people focusing on bringing the Word of God to the least of these, the Church might be in a different situation in our culture.  Or perhaps it’s because that’s what the Church is doing that we’re in this situation of free-falling  membership levels.  It could work either direction, and I suspect Satan enough is experienced enough to tack into whatever breeze happens to be blowing.

Perhaps if more people focused on what’s important without thinking about themselves, like me, things would be better and the Church would be healthier.  And there’s the seed of sin and pride and vanity again.  It never stops.  Never goes away.  Not until I die in faith or my Savior returns.  And at that point, all those weed seeds will die off and I won’t have to worry about vanity and conceit or any other type of sin again.  I’ll be holy and perfect and righteous.  Just like I am right now.  Not because of me and my theories but because of the Son of God and his blood.  Because of the Holy Spirit pursuing me with faith that connects me to the grace and forgiveness of God.

But I still struggle with sin right now.  Sometimes I know it and see it.  Sometimes I don’t.  So I continue to confess.  Also imperfectly and incompletely, but as faithfully as possible.  To call  my sin out as sin rather than pretend it’s not.

….But I am heartily sorry for them and sincerely repent of them, and I pray You of Your boundless mercy and for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to be gracious and merciful to me, a poor, sinful being.





Apocrypha: Baruch

December 3, 2019

Sometime after 587 BC and the destruction of Judea and Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple, this piece of writing was crafted.  It claims to be written by the Biblical figure Baruch (Jeremiah 43:6).  However the Biblical record has Baruch relocated to Egypt, rather than Babylon as he claims in this writing (1:1).  Baruch also claims to take up a collection for continuing sacrifices and prayers to be made in Jerusalem on behalf of the exiles.  Scripture nowhere mentions this practice and actually claims that all feasts and the cycle of sacrifices and prayers were eliminated during the exile (Lamentations 2:6-7; Era 3:2).

While it’s possible that Baruch was first in Babylon and later in Egypt, or visa versa, it also seems reasonable that this was not written by that Biblical figure but attributed to him.  While this book doesn’t contain anything contrary to Scripture, it does seem to borrow heavily from many of the Old Testament prophets, rendering it derivative to a large extent.

Essentially it’s an acknowledgment of God’s righteous disciplining of his people by allowing them to be conquered and scattered in exile.  It also is a confession of sin and an acknowledgment that it’s their own fault this has happened to them.  It asks God to complete his cycle of discipline now that they have learned their lesson the hard way, and ends with assurances that God will indeed restore his people to their land and heritage.

Again, as with many of the other books of  the Apocrypha, this at best is repetitive.  And while it doesn’t contradict Scripture, it doesn’t really add much of any real value, either.


Reading Ramblings – December 8, 2019

December 1, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Second Sunday of Advent – December 8, 2019

Texts: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

Context: We think of Advent as having to do with Christmas, with preparation for the birth of the Son of God. But of course, no such preparation is necessary. This event occurred some 2000 years ago. We remember it and give thanks for it, but prepare for it? We can build anticipation for the actual day, but Advent comes from the Latin adventus, meaning arrival – particularly the arrival of a personage of some importance. And while Jesus fits that bill historically, Advent reminds us that He will return, and that we should be waiting for this. The readings turn our attention slightly from last week’s focus on Jesus’ promised return by reminding us that God already fulfilled his promise to send his Son a first time.

Isaiah 11:1-10 – We look forward to the arrival of a king, but a king like no other. All other, human kings are limited in what they can do, what they can know, what they can bring into effect. But the divine king has no such limitations. Not only will his source be unexpected (v.1), he will be graced with the Holy Spirit of God. A seven-fold description of this Spirit is given (v.2), leading to the outcome that he will be obedient to God (vs. 3-5). The effect of his reign will alter everything. Not just human relationships but all of creation will enjoy the blessings of his reign. The completeness of this king’s perfect rule extends to all aspects of creation, restoring an order we can’t even begin to imagine.

Psalm 72:1-7 – A psalm fit for a king. Or more accurately, a psalm in need of a king fitting enough for it! A coronation prayer, that God would provide his justice and righteousness appropriately through the king, so the king might carry out his duties faithfully and obediently to God, and therefore as a blessing to all creation. A picture of perfect strength and perfect benevolence, no king has ascended to the lofty heights of good rule depicted here. But one will. The king we wait for, the king who will return – he alone bears the righteousness and justice of God perfectly. He alone is feared by evil and our ancient enemy, Satan, as He alone has already defeated Satan and when He returns will finalize this defeat, judgment, and punishment.

Romans 15:4-13 – The king we await is the king of all, both of Jew and Gentile, the chosen people of God as well as those grafted into their story (Romans 11). But perhaps the most powerful reminder in this section is in verse 4. Scripture is written for a purpose. It is written for an audience and we are part of that audience, today, just as God’s people always have been. God’s Word remains true. As such, we are to be instructed by it rather than presuming to teach the Word. As such we must always resist the ever-present temptation to reshape Scripture by omission or addition, so that it says what we prefer it to say rather than what God has said. No other word can be trusted like God’s Word, and no other word can counter it or replace it. The Word endures, and because the Word endures we are encouraged to endure also, knowing the Word will one day summon us from our graves to live forever in the Kingdom of God. But this isn’t an idle encouragement or an idle endurance. And we don’t get to shape our endurance any more than we can shape any other aspect of the Word. Encouragement and endurance should lead towards harmony among the faithful. It should lead to a unity of voices in worship. Would this happened in more congregations, let alone among denominations!

Matthew 3:1-12 – Matthew introduces us to John the Baptist. He summarizes his message (v.2), explains the relevance of it through the prophet Isaiah (v.3), describes him physically (v.4) and describes how he was received (vs.5-6). John’s message is appealing to many, but it turns harsh and condemning of some who feel no real call to repentance. Satisfied in their own righteousness John’s words pass through and over them without affecting any repentance, rendering their desire for baptism pointless. John speaks strongly – there is wrath coming. Wrath against evil. Wrath of the perfect and good king against any who would oppose him and in so doing be hateful or careless with his creation. Repentance is more than something we say. Repentance leads to change. Failure for this to happen – or when this ceases to happen – is a primary way of recognizing that we are in danger in this coming wrath, that we might be among those whom wrath is directed against.

The Word of God convicts us of sin and unrighteousness and offers us forgiveness and righteousness through the Son of God, according to the plan of God the Father and by the power of God the Holy Spirit. If we become so lost in our sin that the Word no longer does this, we are not bearing the appropriate fruits of repentance.

The King will be able to discern this. It is his job to discern repentance from apathy and those who love God from those who find it convenient or fashionable to live as though they did. Much is at stake here! It was appropriate for the people of God to come out for a baptism of repentance, confessing their sins in the water of the Jordan River. To accept the externals of repentance without real inward change is a deadly dangerous place to be.

Apocrypha: Ecclesiasticus

November 30, 2019

Also sometimes known as the Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach, this is an example of the literary genre wisdom literature.  And I have to admit, I’ve never been much of a fan of this genre.  The name Ecclesiasticus evolved because this work is  considered by  some a good collection of teaching, appropriate for church  use and spiritual discipline.  However, it wasn’t considered canonical by the Jews and therefore enjoyed a conflicted status among Christians as well.  Overall, they could affirm it as having a lot of good wisdom in it even as they cautioned against some of it’s blatantly unScriptural teachings (particularly in regards to women and their status compared to men, the freedom of the human will to not sin, and a very limited view of life after death).  It was composed sometime in the early second century BC and was translated into Greek about 132BC.

There are slightly different versions of this book, some shorter and some longer.  Mostly I see wisdom literature as reiteration or summary of what should have been taught to you as you were growing up.  Modeled  by parents and other elders and authority figures.  To come to it late would be confusing and probably not very helpful, unless you had reached a point where you knew you needed some other form of wisdom than whatever you were currently equipped with!

Many of the admonitions are good.  But helpful strategies for living are hardly new and hardly exhausted.  While it’s good such compendiums exist for the confused, they just aren’t very interesting to me.  And frankly, that’s because nearly all of the wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach is found already in Scripture, making this particular piece of literature redundant.  Particularly this is seen in the final few chapters, where a series of Biblical personages are each praised through a short list of their accomplishments.

Missionary Thanksgiving

November 28, 2019

We hosted Thanksgiving dinner, as we have practically every year for the last 15 years, since we moved away from our home  state and our families to embark on the process of graduate work and ordination and life as a pastor and family.  And while we miss family this time of year, we also appreciate the opportunity we’ve been afforded to establish our own traditions, the foremost being opening our house to whomever wants to come by and join in.

This year we had two and a half Russians, two Swiss students, a Brazilian girl, a Belgian guy, a retired lawyer from the eastern United States, the spouse of one of the Russians, and a South African surfer/photographer/missionary.  There were at least two others who were slated to come but didn’t.  It was a big group, when you add these to our family of five and our two dogs!

We’d never met half of these people.  The other half have gradually become part of our extended family over the past months and years.  Most people think we’re crazy for doing this sort of thing, and there are moments throughout where we know we are.  But, it’s who we are.  If God the Holy Spirit grants gifts to his people, they aren’t all going to look and act the same.  And what is well out of one person’s comfort level may fit someone else just right.

And that’s what it comes down to.  As a family of mostly introverts, it isn’t that we open our house and our lives for comfort or because it’s our first inclination.  But we do it in hopes that somewhere along the line the Holy Spirit will prompt something that leads towards a Gospel conversation.  We love these people, friends old and new.  We love them here and now and as they are, but hoping and praying that we can love them as brothers and sisters in eternity as well as for Thanksgiving dinner.  It isn’t bait and switch, it isn’t I’ll-be-nice-to-you-now-so-I-can-ambush-you-with-Jesus, but rather a continuum.  I love you here and now ultimately because of Jesus and his love for you eternally.  I prayed before the meal, and not one of those generic sort of un-offensive things that doesn’t address anyone or anything, but a good Trinitarian prayer with Jesus and everything.  Not the Gospel, but a statement that we are Christians and perhaps that is why we do what we do.  And we pray now for opportunities to follow up, to continue discussion, to deepen relationships to the point where talking about Jesus isn’t weird.

It takes time, but the Gospel is being shared.  Repeated conversations with some of these people where we address larger cultural issues and have the opportunity to share what our faith and the Bible has to say about these things.  Finding places of overlap and commonality that can lead back to the God who created all things and our responsibility in messing them up and his faithfulness in insisting on restoring them.

That’s what matters most, is giving thanks to the God who does everything for us and despite us.  Not just once a year but every moment.


Be at Church

November 25, 2019

I came across this article a few weeks back and tucked it away.  Go have a read for yourself.

First off, yes, it is hard to find a church.  Showing up at any new place where you don’t know anyone and aren’t sure what is going to happen is uncomfortable and difficult.  This  doesn’t make you a bad person and it doesn’t mean you aren’t a church person and it doesn’t necessarily mean this isn’t the particular church for you.  It just means you’re human.  Take a deep breath, own this, and push through it.

I recommend trying a church for a minimum of three weeks.  This  should give you a fairly good idea of what that church is like.  Are people friendly or stand-offish?  How is the pastor?  What is  his (or her) style?  How  is the sermon?  Yes, the sermons matter, particularly when you’re evaluating whether or not a church is for you.  Down the road, when the pastor changes and the sermons are not so good, that’s the time to take the author’s advice and stick  it out for the community.  Church is not a sermon.  Church is the body of Christ, and you need to be a part of it if Jesus and the Biblical Triune God is your higher power or the God of your understanding.  For you, church is not optional (Hebrews 10:19-25).  That doesn’t mean church is a new law or requirement of faith.  Rather, it means we were designed for life together, rather than apart.  If you’re trying to justify not going to church, odds are something deeper is at play than you just being a particularly spiritually sensitive soul.

Three weeks.  You’ll have a good sense of a place by then.  How do they handle the Sacraments?  What is fellowship like before and after?  If the pastor seems good but the congregation is  not welcoming, make an appointment to talk with the pastor to ask what’s up.  Don’t be accusatory, just point out you’ve been there three weeks and nobody has said hello or introduced themselves.  Pastors need to know this.

While I get the author’s reluctance to put too heavy an emphasis on the sermon, you should pay attention to what is being said.  Is it Biblical?  Is the focus you or Jesus?  Is the focus grace or law?  Is the focus punitive or threatening?   Do you live more aware of the love of Jesus or the condemnation of the law?  These things matter.  Pay attention.  If the focus isn’t Jesus but rather what you need to be doing to change the world, or what the congregation needs to be doing to change the world, or which political party or candidate to vote for, be wary.   Especially if all three weeks focus on this topic.  It’s easy to preach something other than Christ, and if that’s what is happening, this is not a good church.  Well-intentioned, no doubt.  But not healthy.

Don’t simply look for  what you like.  Don’t pin it all on the music, just as you shouldn’t pin it exclusively on the sermon.  The people in the community go a long way, but they aren’t the whole enchilada either.  Cults can be very friendly and welcoming while providing a deadly poisonous message.

All of this assumes that you’re in the Word.  That you have someone you can read the Bible with and who can help you make sense of it.  Otherwise, you aren’t necessarily going to know whether the sermons are on track or not and you may end up relying more on whether you like the music or not or whether people look and sound like  you.

I find the authors suggestion of trying a radically different kind of church a very interesting one.  Certainly, if you have bad experiences with a particular type of church or denomination, consider another one.  And the idea of trying to hear the gospel from a different point of view or perspective is fascinating and potentially very helpful – as  long as it’s still the Gospel of Jesus Christ!

Yes, finding a church is hard, but necessary.  For lots of reasons.  Doctrinally.  Socially.  We have an enemy and he works best by isolating us from other believers.  Those who might hold us accountable.  Those who might steer us back onto the right path if we get off course.  And as you grow in the faith, remember that you have an obligation to your brother or sister in the faith.  You need to be in church not  just for you, but because someone else  might need you to be there.  To welcome them.  To empathize with a situation you went through in your life.  To speak the word of forgiveness in Jesus Christ in a way they need to hear.

Reading Ramblings – December 1, 2019

November 24, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: First Sunday in Advent – December 1, 2019

Texts: Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:(8-10)11-14; Matthew 21:1-11 or Matthew 24:36-44

Context: Advent is a liturgical season of preparation, remembering our Lord’s incarnate arrival as a baby some 2000 years ago. The season of Advent has murky origins, historically. Some speculate the season as we know it to be a blending of two separate traditions – one penitential, similar to Lent, and the other more celebratory. As such, Advent has elements of both. While many churches recognize a deep blue as the color of Advent, it was until recent times purple, just like Lent. Properly understood, we are not anticipating the birth of our Savior. That is a historical reality that cannot be anticipated. But as we prepare to celebrate that birth, our eyes should be drawn to the promise of his return, which is the focus of Christian faith (John 14:1-7; Acts 1:6-11).

Isaiah 2:1-5 – To a people living in fear of the growing power of the Assyrian empire in the mid to late 8th century BC, these words must have sounded strange. Predictions of dominance and authority and power? How strange when the gods of the Assyrians seemed to dominate the stage! How odd for us, in an age and culture where science and scientism have become the new idols of the age. That our God is and will be declared the greatest power of all? That the Word of God increasingly despised and ignored in our culture will one day be sought out for guidance and direction as the best and highest truth and rule for human life? It seems hard to believe, and there are many who would scoff at the notion. Yet many scoffed at Jesus during his ministry. Yes his tomb remains empty to this day, and his promises of grace and forgiveness through repentance and faith remain extended to anyone. The promises of God, starting with Eve in Genesis 3, always seem outrageous. Yet God is faithful to his Word, and calls us to trust his promise of our Lord’s return and the establishment of his kingdom based on his faithfulness to his Word in the past.

Psalm 122 – This psalm dovetails beautifully with the reading from Isaiah, and likely the Holy Spirit directed Isaiah to this psalm as a basis for wording his prophecy. While this is one of the psalms of ascent, psalms sung and recited by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for celebration, it is also fitting for people of all backgrounds drawn together in one family through faith in Jesus Christ to use. Jerusalem in this sense is more than just the historic or contemporary city. It exemplifies the City of God, the city of the faithful as Revelation 21-22 point us to. There thanks and praise will be given to God and the Lamb forever.

Romans 13:8-14 – The summary of the Law is to love God and love our neighbor. Culture may tell us it is possible to love one another better by ignoring God’s Word, but clearly this is not the case. The author of creation is the one who best knows how it works, and whenever we substitute our own ideas and preferences for God’s, disaster inevitably ensues. Christians profess this truth and seek to live it out to the best of their abilities. We have been called from darkness into the light. And with that call comes the assurance that history and time are not circular and endlessly repetitive but rather linear, with a clear beginning point and end-point, and we are moving towards that end-point which is the return of our Lord in glory and power to usher in a new creation, a reunion of heaven and earth, God and creation. Our lives of obedience, imperfect as they are, anticipate this end-point which is a beginning point. We seek imperfectly to live now as we will one day live perfectly. We seek to obey the Law of God not from fear or to earn his love or forgiveness, but as acknowledgment we have already received these things in Jesus Christ, and one day this will be made plain as our sin is stripped from us, enabling us to continue living the way God created us to but without the impediment of sin. Living in this way ultimately is not depriving ourselves at all, but rather a rejection of those sinful impulses which one day will be removed.

Matthew 24:36-44 – We begin a new 3-year cycle of readings with the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) – LC-MS edition. As such, the Gospel for this year is Matthew. The majority of Gospel lessons will come from Matthew. Does it seem odd to talk about our Lord’s return? While our television sets and radios and Internet feeds constantly try to draw our attention away towards the latest disaster, the latest catastrophes, and the latest promises about who and what can prevent them from happening again? Does it sound strange to talk of our Lord’s return as we deal with the day-in and day-out issues of paying bills, managing medications, looking for time with family and the countless other issues that demand our focus?

Such is our life, but these things must occupy our attention only as foreground. We engage in them always with the knowledge that our Lord will return one day, and this and only this is the ultimate hope and goal of every Christian life. We pay our taxes, perform our work, fulfill our duties as neighbor and citizen, our blessings as family members with the knowledge that one day all of these things will be transformed, purified, even as we are already purified in our Lord’s sacrificial death and resurrection. We do not wait in fear or anxiety but in joy. We wait in anticipation, knowing that nothing can be better than that day and hour, and every day and hour until then is an opportunity to grow in love of God and love of neighbor.

We will be surprised by his return, but not as those who never thought it would come. We will be surprised, but not dismayed. We wait in his grace and forgiveness and therefore we can wait joyfully. The Master is returning home. All will be well again.

Weekly Devotion

November 20, 2019

Colossians 1:13

Thirty years ago, the world was surprised and delighted when almost without warning, the Berlin Wall fell. The bitter bricks that divided a nation, a city, a people – suddenly gone. People clambering from the eastern side of the wall safely to the western side and, before long, the wall itself dismantled. Portions spirited away for personal and family memorabilia and public museums.

For 28 years life in Berlin was defined by which side of the wall you lived on. On the Eastern, Communist side, life was conditioned by the State. Eyes and ears were everywhere, listening in on citizens held captive. Many of them never had the opportunity to decide which side of the wall they lived on. They were born there. It was all they knew. Drab architecture, the bleakness of food and other essential shortages. Lack of opportunity to pursue the kind of work they wanted or the type of education they wanted. Lack of freedom to discuss certain topics. Lack of freedom to worship. Hemmed in on all sides by the State who desired to keep captive those who would not choose its authority freely.

And then in October 1989, those who had spent their lives imprisoned were set free. They entered into a new city, a new nation, a new state of being. They were free. The State no longer had any control over them. That State continued to exist for some time, but they were no longer part of it. They had crossed over into a domain not of darkness but light. Not of enslavement but freedom. There could be no comparison between the two. A whole new way of thinking, acting, and living was required. It was an adjustment, but one happily made!

This is what has happened to us in Christ. We have been brought through faith and trust in the Son of God’s death and resurrection on our behalf, out of the slavery of sin and death and Satan. We are no longer subjects in that domain. We are transferred by God the Father to a new domain, to the domain of forgiveness, grace, and Christ. We had no choice about which kingdom we were born into, and we were helpless to change it. But in accepting the good news of Jesus Christ for ourselves, we have received new identity and citizenship that will never end. All of this not of our own doing but solely the good grace of God the Father conveyed to us by God the Holy Spirit through trust and faith in God the Son. To God alone is the glory – to us is the blessing!