A&tCL I

January 4, 2018

This is the first of what will likely be many entries, all introduced by this entry and focused on the topic of Alcohol and the Christian Life, which I will treat both individually and corporately as The Church.  I’ll use the same title for each one (A&tCL), incremented numerically so it should be easy for you to search and find the related posts.  Or you can read the next post here.

I’ve just finished combing through the entire Old Testament for references to wine as translated by 12 different English Bibles.  There are roughly different 20 Hebrew words in some way associated with wine or wine making, of which 11 seem to be pertinent to the drink itself (as opposed to machinery like a wine press, which I’m not addressing in this study) and occur in some form in the Old Testament.  There are at least 183 verses in the Old Testament that mention wine in some way.  Depending on which translation you’re using, there are roughly between 23,000 and 27,000 verses in the Old Testament.

Nearly every book of the Old Testament mentions wine.  Only the following books don’t:

  • Joshua
  • 1 Kings
  • Obadiah
  • Jonah
  • Nahum
  • Malachi

The first mention of wine is with Noah in Genesis 9.  So my first take-away is that wine is a prevalent part of Israelite/Hebrew/Jewish life, and by extension, human life.  It pre-dates the flood because Noah knows how to plant a vineyard and harvest and ferment grapes, which means he knew how to do that (likely) prior to the Flood.  The fact that it is mentioned throughout the Old Testament and spans roughly a millenia of divinely-inspired writing means that wine was a consistent part and presence of life for God’s people and therefore, by extension, just about all people.  This isn’t a judgment yet on whether that presence was good or bad, simply an acknowledgment that in some way or another it was present and being acknowledged in God’s inspired Word.

I’m using wine as the basis for this study because it is far and away (other than water) the most frequently mentioned beverage in the Bible and I believe that it is a good metric to use in determining what the Bible has to say about alcohol consumption in general.

The next stage is to examine each of the 11 Hebrew words that I’ve culled from the Old Testament books.  The goal is to understand any important differences or nuances between the words that might affect usage or reveal intent in choosing certain words for certain purposes.   Could it be that fermented/alcoholic wine is forbidden while non-alcoholic grape juice is not?  This kind of comparison of the words will hopefully enable me to pick up on this if it is the case.  I’ll be looking for patterns in the choice of words used by authors in similar situations.

I do this with no small amount of dread and trepidation.  I was required to learn Hebrew in Seminary (along with Koine Greek).  But I am by no means a Greek or Hebrew scholar.  In a decade of official ministry I can count on one hand the number of times where my knowledge of these languages has been inadequate or crucial to any particular ministerial or evangelical act or conversation, yet I carry a guilt that daily (or even annual!) study of these languages is not part of my ministry.  For the Hebrew study portion of this project, I’m referring to The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (BDAG) as my starting point.  I haven’t touched this book in over a decade.  It still smells and look new (if dusty).  I don’t pretend that my level of work is going to be very impressive, but I trust it will be good enough for my purpose.  I welcome (and will seek out to the best of my ability) wiser minds to weigh in on these words and their usage if it seems prudent or helpful.

I have two other resources sitting on my desk at the moment as well:

  • Analytical Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon – this appears to provide a more succinct definition of words, but doesn’t link to Strong’s Concordance numbers, which is the referent that e-Sword uses, so I likely won’t use this resource as much.  I inherited this from a retired pastor and it was the lexicon used by my seminary years prior to my time there.  I am gratified to see that his copy looks pretty new as well, despite being several decades older than mine!
  • A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament – again, very brief and not linked to Strong’s Concordance so it will be harder for me to use this because my Hebrew is so bad to begin with.  I picked this up at seminary as a companion to the BDAG and is in equally pristine condition.

Strong’s Concordance is shorthand for The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible.  First published in 1890 by James Strong, this has become the go-to open source for Biblical word study.  It is an index of every single word that appears in the King James Bible.  This means that it’s usefulness is limited, but it is a helpful starting place for me to get a handle on the Hebrew without having to reteach myself the language completely.  It functions as a link between my word search and the resources listed above.  It is integrated into e-Sword and I have a hard copy of it as well.

For what it’s worth, there are plenty of books I’m sure on this topic (though a brief survey of our denominational publishing house  was pretty disappointing).  But in order to try and ensure minimal theological bias (or at least a known theological bias compared to an unknown one!), I’m taking on this task.

All right.  Time to hit the book(s)!

 

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Alcohol & the Christian Life

January 3, 2018

Last week I was called an alcoholic by someone who has never met me or spoken to me.  Based on circumstances of their life experiences with addiction (first and second-hand) and the fact that I drink alcohol and also serve alcohol to other people from time to time, and based on their interpretation of Scripture, they concluded that I’m likely an alcoholic and that I’m leading others (including my children) into alcoholism.

Today – at my request – I sat down and spoke with that person, as well as her daughter and mother.  I was informed initially that they agreed to the meeting only to share their perspectives and experiences with me so I would understand where they were coming from.  Fair enough.  I arrived prepared to listen to their personal experiences.  However when I arrived, I was informed that their purpose had changed, and that their intent was to convince me that alcohol is evil and an inappropriate thing to either enjoy responsibly personally or to offer responsibly to another person as part of hospitality and generosity.  Especially for a pastor, and especially if a congregation was supporting this activity in some way.   And then to demand that I agree to certain things and that the congregation I serve agree to certain things.

All of this not because anything bad has ever happened at Sunday Happy Hour.  Not because anyone who has ever visited has complained about the presence of alcohol  or the way in which I serve it.  Not because of any actual problem at all.  Simply because some of these folks are convinced alcohol is inherently evil, and some of the folks are convinced that a pastor and a church should never utilize alcohol in any sort of public ministry (other than Holy Communion, I assume) because of our larger alcohol culture.

It hasn’t been a fun week.  Hopefully your end off 2017 and start of 2018 was more enjoyable!

My denomination prides itself on refraining as much as possible from saying things definitively that Scripture itself is not definitive about, just as we strive very hard not to ignore anything that Scripture is definitive about.  We are imperfect in this to be sure.  But if you hold that all of Scripture is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16) then you have to at least try.  So in dealing with the accusations and demands that have been made, my main concern is to go to Scripture and see what it has to say.  I don’t really care if a Happy Hour ministry is unconventional.  There are lots of unconventional approaches to ministry – ask any missionary.  Some mission approaches have elements of risk to them, but that’s not my primary concern at this point either.  Risk is not in itself sinful.  My primary concern is whether involving alcohol in a Christian function is sinful.  And to figure that out, I go not to personal experiences or popular practices or Twitter or Facebook but to the Bible to see what the Bible has to say.

And certainly on the issue of alcohol, Scripture has a lot to say.  Hundreds of verses that refer to wine in one way or another.  And we have to pay attention to all of it rather than just cherry-pick the few verses that support our position.  That’s how I’m attempting to deal with the things I’ve been called to my face as well as in other discussions that I’m not privy to.  I go to Scripture to make sure that I understand what it is saying to the best of my ability, so I can provide my congregation and family both corporately and individually with good theological guidance.  Any of you who wish to weigh in on this topic here are free to do so (including the folks directly involved with this who are likely still reading).  As long as you’re respectful, I want to hear what you have to say and I’ll post it in the comments section of the appropriate post so others can see and hear what you have to say and weigh in as well.

To start my study on this topic, I’m utilizing a basic multi-translation Bible tool called e-Sword.  I’ve been using it for years instead of paying big bucks for the more professional programs that I wouldn’t use very often.  E-Sword is available either as a downloadable program or an app (both free!).  I  think it’s a very good baseline tool for casual interaction with the original languages as well as multiple English translations.

I’m using a public domain derivation source for the Hebrew (Old Testament) verses, and the Textus Receptus and Westcott-Hort translations of the Greek New Testament in addition to the Septuagint (Old and New Testaments in Greek).  While these may not be the best translations, I trust that for basic word study purposes they’re serviceable.  If any of my colleagues out there have anything pertinent to share as a warning about these translations, feel free to let me know.

To start with I’m doing a basic search across multiple (12) recent and historic English translations for every occurrence of the word wine in Scripture.  I’m then going through every single verse individually to see what the original language word is that is being translated as wine.  Since different English translations sometimes translate differently (duh!), I’m getting an interesting cross-section of Hebrew words that are sometimes –  but not always – translated as wine by some, but not all, English translations.  I’m only through Isaiah but there are so far eleven different Hebrew words that are sometimes translated as wine and/or strong drink.  Some of them have only been used once or twice, but there are two that far and away have the most occurrences.  It will be interesting to see how many different Greek words are used in the New Testament!

Once I’ve done that, I’ll research each of the words, trying to determine important differentiations or nuances that govern their usage and occurrence.  That will help me when I attempt to clarify the use of the word within not just the single verse but the overall pericope or section of Scripture.  Sometimes the context is a warning.  Other times it’s a celebration.  Other times it’s a divine promise.  I want to be able to clearly lay out all the different contexts that wine and/or strong drink is referred to in Scripture.

Then it shouldn’t be too difficult to group these contexts into more general categories.  Does Scripture clearly and unambiguously prohibit wine and drink from God’s people?  If it doesn’t (which is my assumption and understanding going into this study), then what should God’s people draw from Scriptural discussions of alcohol?  If it does unambiguously prohibit God’s people from alcohol, I’ll have some major thinking to do about why my particular polity and a good chunk (if not majority) of Christian scholarship through the centuries has ignored or avoided talking about this.

Then the discussion becomes one regarding the role of God’s corporate people – The Church – with alcohol.  Is alcohol something that should be condoned in the lives of God’s people grudgingly or reluctantly, but strictly forbidden in the corporate Church?  All of which drives towards the ultimate question – is it sinful for a Church to sponsor or engage in a ministry where alcohol is served to people, even if it is being done in a prudent and careful manner?

As part of these discussions, there has also been an argument made that alcohol itself – the fermented byproducts of fruit and other organic materials – is inherently sinful in and of itself.  It isn’t part of God’s goodness in creation, but rather something the Devil has injected into the mix.  Again, what does the Bible say on this topic and how do we determine practice based on what Scripture says?

The issue of alcohol is a complicated one because, as I’ve often noted on this blog, it can be so destructive in people’s lives.  My working presumption is that rather than just avoiding the topic and practice completely, the Church can and perhaps even should model what responsible alcohol consumption looks like.  If our culture dominates the discussion about alcohol and dominates it with an insistence that it should be enjoyed to excess more often than not (legal disclaimers aside), is there a place for the Church to say not simply no, but rather not so much?   Again, my working practice has been to say yes, and Sunday Happy Hour is a place where this has and does happen.

There are certainly Christians who insist that alcohol cannot be partaken without sin, or that the odds of sin are so great that it should just be prohibited.  Some of their Biblical arguments towards this end rely on arguments that wine in Scripture isn’t wine like we think of today (fermented and alcoholic), but rather grape juice – negligibly fermented, essentially non-alcoholic freshly squeezed grape juice.  Just in my preliminary foray into the word study it’s clear that the Hebrew is able to make this distinction (but more often than not does not – or doesn’t appear to use it purposefully).  Do their arguments have linguistic merit?  Or is it an attempt to justify their theological conclusions and doctrines by reinterpreting Scripture to their liking?  Is that what I’m doing just because I enjoy cocktails?

Time will tell, but I’ll keep all of you informed as I move along the process.

 

 

Avoiding the Peace

January 2, 2018

Traditional Christian worship often includes a Rite known as the Passing of the Peace.  While it may well be that this was once observed within worship with the sharing of a holy kiss (Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, 1 Thessalonians 5:26) the practice these days is usually sufficed with a handshake.  Sometimes people will say The peace of the Lord as they shake someone’s hands.  It’s supposed to be a brief exchange with the people nearest you, but it can easily get out of hand in a friendly congregation, with people traversing the entire nave (church space) to say hi to all their favorite friends.

It’s beautiful, but it can be difficult for new folks because regulars aren’t going out of their way to come and say hi to them, so they’re standing there awkwardly while others are going through elaborate greetings.  It can also be very difficult for introverts, for whom large-scale social interaction can be uncomfortable.  I know this.  I’m an introvert.  I became a pastor in part so I wouldn’t have to share the peace.

Not really, but I can certainly empathize!

I believe that the ritual has a very specific purpose.  Certainly in early Christian congregations you had people from all walks of life – the rich and the poor, slaves and free, converted Jews as well as non-Jews.  Yet in Christ these divisions cease to hold the same importance that they do without him (Galatians 3:28).  It isn’t that these divisions disappear – they still exist (much to the consternation of some very idealistic Christians across two millenia!), but as a reminder to everyone that they may matter in the world but not in Christ, we share the peace.  We share the reminder that we are united in the forgiveness of Jesus Christ, won by his very real suffering, death, burial, resurrection, ascension and promised return.  What we now have in common far outweighs our differences.  It transcends them and starts to transform them as we extend forgiveness to one another.

But it’s still difficult for some.  I imagine they might appreciate this little tome.  I haven’t read it, but it was referenced in a high school buddy’s annual missive and I know there are more than a few folks out there who would probably find it very relevant to their struggles.

Happy Common Cup!

January 1, 2018

Well, Happy New Year as well.

But here’s another article from smart science folks reminding everyone what the Church has been saying for a very long time – the risk of contracting an illness from partaking in the common cup at Holy Communion is negligible.  Certainly no greater than the risk from shaking hands with and talking with sick people after the service.  Or sitting next to them during the service.

While the theological description of what the Lord’s Supper is and why we do it  is inaccurate, the rest of the article is very helpful and hopefully reassuring.  If you’re sick, don’t take the Common Cup.  Consider it common courtesy to your neighbors and a way of reassuring them.  Also, if you’re terrified and can’t think about anything else the whole time, then don’t take the Common Cup.  While I prefer the continuity of the Common Cup, I don’t argue that there is a strong theological or Biblical argument against using individual cups.  And this article is a reminder that there is no strong medical or scientific evidence to argue against using the Common Cup.

In case you’re wondering what is wrong with the description of the Lord’s Supper in the article, my denomination would alter the statement this way (I think):

  • Holy Communion does not replicate the Last Supper, it continues it.  There was only one historical last supper, and Holy Communion is not a historical reenactment of that evening.  Rather, it is the faithful response to Jesus’ instructions to “do this in remembrance of me”.
  • But it is more than mere remembrance, because Jesus told his followers – and by extension those who followed after them – that they were actually receiving his body and blood.  The bread doesn’t just represent Jesus’ sacrificed body, it contains it and is it in a fundamental way we can’t explain adequately.  Likewise the wine is not merely symbolic of Jesus’ spilled blood, but it actually is his spilled blood.  Yet at the same time the elements remain also actual bread and wine.
  • As such, when Jesus says that we participate in this for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26:26-29), the opportunity to taste, to physically connect with the spiritual reality of our forgiveness, we actually receive what He promises – his body, his blood, and therefore forgiveness.

 

 

Reading Ramblings – Epiphany – January 6, 2018

December 31, 2017

Reading Ramblings

Date: Epiphany Sunday – January 6, 2017

Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-15; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

Context: Epiphany is like the second half of Christmas. Whereas Christmas celebrates and emphasizes that God became human, Epiphany celebrates and emphasizes that the person Jesus of Nazareth is also the divine eternal Son of God. The celebration dates from at least the fourth century, where observances are recorded in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Isaiah 60:1-6 – A restoration of Israel’s glory and preeminence is prophesied here, bound up with the Lord’s appearance. This appearance seems specific to God’s people – causing a light to be witnessed by the other nations and prompting their journey to God’s people. Curiosity is no doubt a motivation, but perhaps ultimately it is recognition of God’s presence with and among his people, so that other nations and leaders come to bow down and worship. In the process, they bring with them God’s dispersed peoples from near and far. This all corresponds with a restoration of God’s people’s wealth and prestige in the world. The coming of the Son of God among the people of God has established this reality in part already, and it will be fulfilled completely in the day of his glorious return.

Psalm 72:1-11 – This coronation psalm was likely used at the installation of a new king. It begins as a prayer for God to bless the king with gifts necessary for the well-being of the king’s subjects – God’s people. Justice and righteousness are the foremost requests (vs.1-4) because when these are in place, the people can prosper under God’s blessings (v.3). The kings enemies should be put in fear of him (v.5), but to his friends and loyal subjects his reign and power should be gentle and soft (v.6). As he receives the Lord’s blessings, a long reign is a desirable thing (v.7). Verses 8-11 elaborate on the breadth of the king’s rule, indicating peace from troublesome neighbors and within Israel’s borders. Verses 12-15 elaborate further on why the king should be honored so – namely because he does not simply dispense justice to the wealthy and privileged, but uses his power and position to protect the vulnerable and marginalized. It’s obviously a wonderful list of attributes for any ruler, but certainly one that we will never witness fully and completely outside of the reign of the King of Kings, the God-man Jesus.

Ephesians 3:1-12 – Paul’s evangelistic ministry is to take the good news of Jesus the Christ to those unfamiliar with the prophecies concerning him, those who don’t know that they should be waiting for him. Some of this is also new – the Hebrews received the Word of God in prophesy and promise, but it wasn’t fully revealed until the Incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth. This was a surprise to God’s people, but it also needs to be explained to the non-Jews because part of the unexpected nature of Jesus is that He comes for the non-Jews as well as the Jews! God himself has enabled and equipped Paul for this specialized ministry. The amazing thing is that this isn’t just good news for humanity, but it is a witness of God’s power and wisdom to spiritual entities. In other words, God’s plan of salvation is intended not simply to reconcile a fallen humanity but to speak of his greatness to the spiritual powers. Does this mean angels? One would expect that angels would be well aware of this already as they serve God! Could it be that the witness is to those spiritual entities who have set themselves in opposition to God, namely Lucifer and his followers? The possibilities are fascinating but Paul does not give us more insight here.

Matthew 2:1-12 – The visit of the magi is a traditional emphasis (along with Jesus’ baptism) for Epiphany. We can certainly see how this episode in the early life of Jesus fits in well with the prophetic nature of the reading from Isaiah 60 as well as the psalm for the day. Here, foreigners come from afar in search of the fulfillment of prophecy. Who they are is never fully disclosed. The Biblical etymology of magi in the Bible can infer magicians, but this is not the more common, non-Biblical association. Long-standing tradition dating back to Herodotus is that these were priests from Persia, though there is no explanation for this assertion. In any event, there is no suggestion from extra-Biblical sources that these might have been literal kings, and the early Church Fathers did not assert this either. The Biblical text does not specify a number, but early on the tradition of three developed in association with the three named gifts (gold, frankincense, and myrrh), but in the Eastern church the tradition is of 12 magi. In the West, their names are allegedly Balthasar, Melchior, and and Gaspar, but again there is no historical basis for this tradition.

The tradition of the magi visiting the Holy Family in the manger is likely erroneous. Given that Herod slays all the boys in Bethlehem two years old and younger (Matthew 2:16),it is possible that the magi arrived much later. Some favor the idea that they visit the Holy Family in Bethlehem but not at the manger, and prior to the angel’s warning to Joseph to flee to Egypt.

It seems clear that they were unusual visitors at the very least, and a curious interjection into the Gospels and birth narrative. Similar to Melchizedek in Genesis 14, to me the magi represent the reminder that while God has worked through his own chosen people, it is not as though nobody else in the world is aware of what God has promised through his Scriptures. The Holy Spirit works in his own way to accomplish the plans of God, and the foreign visitors are a reminder that the Holy Spirit is in no wise limited as to who or where or when He works – something we would do well to remember also!

Jesus is the baby in the manger but also the King of Kings, worthy of rich offerings such as what the magi offer. While partially prophetic fulfillment, they are a reminder to us of who it is we proclaim to be Lord, and what the proper posture is before our Lord and Savior.

When we were still under the papacy, they used to tell this story. Once a time the devil attended Mass in a church where it was customary in either the Lord’s Prayer or in the Creed to sing: “Et homo factus est,” that is, “Gods’ Son became a human being.” While they were singing this, the people just remained standing and did not kneel down. The devil was so incensed, that he slammed his fist into one man’s mouth saying, “You boorish bum, aren’t you ashamed to just stand there like a post and refuse to kneel for joy? If God had become OUR brother, as he did YOUR brother, our joy would be so great that we wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves.”

~ Martin Luther – Fourth Sermon for Holy Christmas Day, 1534 ~

YFA – December 24, 2017

December 24, 2017
A Weekly Devotional Resource

 

  • Sunday: Reflect on today’s sermon & service
  • Monday: Old Testament Lesson – Isaiah 61:1062:3
    • What is the primary reason we should praise God (v.10)?
    • Where should righteousness be sprouting up (v.11)?
  • Tuesday: Epistle Lesson – Galatians 4:4-7
    • How would you explain or interpret the fullness of time (v.4)?
    • Read Genesis 3:15.  Why does Paul emphasize Jesus’ human origins?
  • Wednesday: Gospel Lesson – Luke 2:22-40
    • How old is Simeon?
    • What is the revelation the Gentiles are to receive through Jesus (v.32)?
  • Thursday: Psalm – Psalm 111
    • What should our response to God’s wonders be (v.2)?
    • How does God’s wisdom compare to our own knowledge (v.10)?
  • Friday: Luther’s Small Catechism – Fourth Commandment
    • How does Luther extend the scope of this commandment?
    • Why might God link this commandment to the promise of long life?
  • Saturday: (LSB #366) It Came Upon the Midnight Clear
    • How might angels still be singing the good tidings today (v.1)?
    • How would you interpret or explain the ever-circling years (v.3)?

 

 

Reading Ramblings – December 31, 2017

December 24, 2017

Reading Ramblings

Date: First Sunday after Christmas, December 31, 2017

Texts: Isaiah 61:10- 62:3; Psalm 111; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:22-40

Context: Christmas is not just a single day, but an actual season of the Church year! It lasts for twelve days, until Epiphany. So keep playing those Christmas songs a little longer yet as we continue to explore the miracle of the Son of God made man in Jesus of Nazareth.

Isaiah 61:10-62:3 – The proper response to the birth of the promised Messiah and Savior is one of unmitigated rejoicing. This rejoicing, properly, is not separated from the sorrow of Good Friday or the joy of Easter morning, but forms a continuum that runs through and is the focus of the first half of the Church year. More than any other baby ever born, we have reason to still celebrate God the Father fulfilling his promise to Eve by sending God the Son as one of her descendants, to tread upon the serpent’s head and free us from sin, death, and the power of Satan. With the divine victory banner implanted in the heart of enemy territory, can there be any other result than righteousness? Is there anything more fitting than to tell it on the mountains that Jesus Christ is born, and in this every man, woman and child is offered amnesty and forgiveness through the baby in the manger who is also the God on the cross? We are transformed! And it is to God alone that the glory should be given now and forever.

Psalm 111: A common identity and purpose undergird this psalm of praise to God. The first verse indicates that it is appropriate among God’s people and during worship. Praise can begin immediately based on a common understanding and experience of who God is, and the psalm can be offered in the shorthand appropriate to a shared faith that results from and leads to shared study of God’s mighty works (vs.2-4). Verse 5 begins to allude to specifics – the feeding of his people in the wilderness with manna and the establishment of his covenant with them at Mt. Sinai. Verse 6 may refer to the establishment of the nation of Israel in the Promised Land, first under Joshua and then more fully under King David. The goodness of God is also evident in that He has shown his people how to live (vs. 7-8), and his precepts and guidelines are alone trustworthy among all the myriad ideas people have about right and wrong and how the world should work. Ultimately though, the Lord is to be praised for providing salvation to his people, redeeming them, which implies a need to be redeemed, an acknowledgment of our estranged position with God because of our sinful rebelliousness. His covenant is not just a temporary arrangement but rather the eternal work and purpose of God with his creation. Likewise, our praise of Him and our immersion in his Word should and will be eternal as well.

Galatians 4:4-7 – Christmas is inextricably linked to Easter. It is God’s salvation plan incarnate, the fulfillment of God the Father’s promise to Eve in Genesis 3:15. God the Son is adopted into humanity, and in exchange we are adopted as heirs into the forgiveness and grace and promises of God the Father. The proof of this is the Holy Spirit of God now in our hearts, now operating on our behalf, constantly interceding with us and calling out to God our Father in the most intimate of terms, as only a true child can ever do comfortably or rightfully. Christmas begins the real-time breaking of our slavery to sin, death, and Satan. Paul beautifully summarizes the heart of the Gospel.

Luke 2:22-40 – The Christmas story doesn’t end in the manger. The birth of Jesus renders Mary ritually unclean, as per Leviticus 12, and requires sacrifice. While it is conceivable that they could have fulfilled this back home in Galilee, both Mary’s physical condition after the birth as well as the proximity of the temple in Jerusalem likely made it reasonable and desirable that they stay on with relatives in Bethlehem for 40 days after the birth.

The reality that Jesus is also the Son of God does not negate the Levitical law. Jesus will later state that He has not come to abolish the law but fulfill it (Matthew 5:17), and this is true even from his infancy. Mary and Joseph adhere to the expected requirements of the Law pertaining to their newborn son. But in case they might begin to say to themselves after the birth that the visitations and dreams were flights of fancy, they meet Simeon and Anna in the temple grounds. These devout figures serve as prophets – speakers of God’s Word and wisdom. Simeon’s primary message is to Mary and Joseph, who are astonished (despite the angelic dreams and visitations!) at what he has to say. Anna speaks to others, linking Jesus to the anticipated redemption of Jerusalem. It must have made for quite a spectacle!

Luke nearly completes his narrative of Jesus’ early years with the summary verses 39-40. By ancient standards, this was certainly more than adequate in terms of biographical detail. Ancient biographies emphasize what a person did to become noteworthy. Our modern ideas of biography are heavily influenced by modern psychology and the idea that in order to understand a person fully we need to understand everything about them, not just the noteworthy things. So it is that we hunger to know more about Jesus’ childhood. Luke only tells us that the child grew and was strong and wise and favored by God. The implication is also that his parents, who began so faithfully fulfilling the requirements of the Law in his regard, continued in this fashion.

Simeon’s words have come down through the Church as the Nunc Dimittis – the opening words of Simeon as translated in the Latin Vulgate of the Bible by St. Jerome in the fourth century. Simeon’s words are also seen as the last of the three great canticles (or sacred songs) of the New Testament – the first being Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1, then Zechariah’s song also in Luke 1.

While it has often been traditional to interpret Simeon’s words as indicating that he is ready to die, this is certainly not a necessary interpretation and may be overstating Simeon’s point. The assumption is that Simeon was advanced in years, but the text doesn’t specifically tell us this. Rather, Simeon’s song is an acknowledgment that God has fulfilled his promise to him to see the Messiah. He can leave the Temple grounds secure in this knowledge, and no longer needs to look anxiously each day to see whether today is the day that he will see the Messiah. His words ring true to us today, and particularly at Christmas time. By the eyes of faith, through the historical words of eye-witnesses, we too have seen God’s salvation incarnate. We anticipate eagerly when we will see him face to face in glory and for eternity!

Don’t Get Cute

December 21, 2017

Someone – someone I’m not sure I even know – sent me a hard copy of this missive today.   What a great Christmas present.

Because of course pastors are stressed out about Christmas Eve service.  As my buddy notes, there is an added pressure to this service, perhaps more so than any other service the entire year.  Additional people present.  And not just extended family of current members, but others as well.  Perhaps estranged former members of the congregation.  People that had a falling out with a pastor some years ago – or perhaps with me! – might show up for some reason they can’t even define well themselves.  People injured by the Church in the past, stepping their toes back in the water after years or decades away.

To have the perfect message – witty, sparkling, engaging – could mean so much for these people and my congregation!  Old faces returning and new faces showing up on Sunday mornings.  Is there a better feeling as a pastor to be told that you’re the reason that someone has decided to return or come to church or the faith?  The monstrous pride that lurks within many preachers and pastors, sometimes masquerading as pious humility – that monster gorges itself on those sorts of comments.  It’s not that the comments are bad, or shouldn’t be shared.  It’s just that the sin within me wants to lead me down dangerous, dark roads of self-congratulatory ego-caressing.

But the perfect message isn’t mine, it’s God the Holy Spirit’s.  And while the Holy Spirit deigns to work through imperfect pastors that fall out in different places on a dizzyingly broad spectrum of speaking skills and writing mastery, the message that counts is the message of salvation in Jesus Christ.  The baby in the manger and the God on the cross.  I should care about delivery and about making it enjoyable for the people festively attired in the candlelit pews, but only towards the end that the Holy Spirit’s Word might penetrate the heart, might strike the lethal blow that leads to the death of the old Adam within us, and raises up a new creation in Jesus Christ.  I can’t do that, only the Holy Spirit can.

So I will endeavor, as I like to think I always do, not to be cute.  To make sure the full message is delivered, and that the results of that are to God’s glory not mine.  On Christmas Eve and during every other worship service of the year.

True Worship II

December 20, 2017

Thinking further about this, it came to me that it isn’t just a matter of people deciding not to go to church any more on Christmas that is at issue.  Once again, it’s a complicated subject.  One that is complicated to great extent by our mobile culture and our oft-cited idea that one can (or even should) work and live wherever they want.

I’ve ended up doing this more by hook than by crook.  I understand the appeal of living in different places and seeing different parts of the world and learning about culture and food and all sorts of ancillary aspects of God’s amazing creation (and sometimes our sinful twisting of it).  We recently bid farewell to a young woman headed for multiple parts of the world over the next six months, after living four years away from her family so she could attend university and then another two years after that as she waited to figure out what her next moves (heh) in life would be.

But this mobility is a somewhat new phenomenon, historically speaking.  It used to be that in general, you stayed where you were raised.  In great part because work and family were more closely intertwined, and so the odds of going away from home and finding work were much smaller for most people than the odds of already having work at home.  Most people didn’t go off to work, but lived and worked all in the same or closely related setting.

Family members were more apt to stay put, which meant you had larger networks of extended families all in the same location.  Which meant that Christmas worship wasn’t something that was separate from all your other Christmas traditions – it was a part of them because practically all of your extended family was going to be at church as well.  Church was a more natural part of the larger family celebration of Christmas (or Easter, or just an average Sunday).

Now that’s not as often the case.  Most of the members in my congregation have to travel somewhere else to be with their kids and grandkids for the holidays.  Or their family has to travel to them, often from multiple locations around the country, which of course is hard to coordinate and often doesn’t happen.  Our Sunday Happy Hour Crew is mostly still of the age (early 20’s) that they go home to be with their parents for Christmas.

This sounds at one level as though not much has changed.  Family is still together on Christmas, so they should naturally be at church, right?  Sure, I can agree with that.  Except that mom and dad’s church may not be son and daughter’s church.  Or it may be the same church with a new pastor.  Or the pastor may be the same, but son and daughter were whisked away to children’s church every Sunday and never formed relationships with the pastor or the other adults in the congregation, so effectively their parent’s church really is a different church from the one they went to, even if the location and the preaching pastor is the same.

All of which continues to contribute to a sense that church really isn’t part of the family’s Christmas observance, even if technically they were all at church together before.

I’m not advocating throwing our hands in the air and saying well that’s that, we might as well cancel our Christmas worship.   There are plenty of people who still incorporate church as part of their Christmas day celebration.  There are still a few who will wander out on Christmas by some indefinable prompting even if they don’t go to church the rest of the year.

And while people may relocate away from family more often these days, this highlights the important aspect that church can play as a new family to transplants.  Few of my parishioners were born and grew up here.  Most came from elsewhere, generally in their 20’s with spouses and children in tow.  But they found a home away from home, a family away from family in their congregation.  I visited a woman in the hospital who is 91-years old.  She was sitting and talking with a woman she has been best friends with for 60 years.  Many of the people in my congregation have known each other for more than half a decade.  They are family to one another, which is an incentive for them to come to worship regularly.  They’re getting to see their family that they didn’t get to see most of the rest of the week.

Just like people did centuries ago.

The rise of the Church and particular celebratory observances was facilitated in great part by the fact that families – extended families – would all go together.  It was part of their tradition (and if they were Roman Catholic, also an obligation on their part!) together.  While we can lament that this is no longer the case, we should at least acknowledge that this will have an impact on church attendance patterns on holy days.  And we should, as the church and parents and grandparents, be encouraging our kids and grandkids to plug into congregations where they live, so that they can begin building the relationships that will serve as surrogate family to them all the rest of the year when they don’t travel home to be with Mom and Dad and the rest of the clan.

True Worship

December 20, 2017

Since this is the time of year when many Christians take up the familiar lamentation about how our culture is forgetting the real meaning of Christmas, I read this article the other day arguing that it isn’t secular cultural we should be mad at for being, well, secular.  Rather it’s Christians we should be mad at because they don’t prioritize Church for Christmas.

Which of course, got me thinking.

Growing up, our family tradition was to go to a late-night Christmas Eve worship.  Probably not technically midnight, but maybe 10pm or 11pm.  It was great as kids because we’d get to stay up late and sing some cool Advent and Christmas hymns.  Then we’d get a paper bag with some peanuts and an orange and a candy cane in it on our way out of church.  We had no idea why this combination of things was supposed to be in some way valued, but we’d at least eat the candy cane.

I serve a congregation with a tradition of worship on Christmas morning.  I don’t have any problem with this tradition and am happy to continue it and foster it.  But if I served a congregation who didn’t have a tradition of meeting for worship on Christmas morning, I wouldn’t be inclined to start one.

Some might say this just reveals my lazy, self-centered nature.  I’m guilty of what the article author blames as the demise of Christmas in Christian culture.  But my wife and I have intentionally set up ground rules to buying into (heheh – that’s a pun, get it?) the consumer mentality that does tend to overwhelm all other aspects of the Advent and Christmas season.  The author sets up an either or without an in between and without necessarily questioning the validity of the one pole while presuming the other pole is of course evil.

But here’s my radical thought.  You don’t need to go to church on Christmas morning in order to have a Christ-filled Christmas.  You may not have the technical Christ Mass which the author likes to emphasize, but this is, after all, not a Biblical mandate either.  It’s a tradition, to be sure, and a tradition that had great value perhaps in an age when persecution was rampant.  Perhaps as our culture becomes less Christian on the surface, Christians will once again see value in gathering communally to celebrate the birth of Christ.

I’d argue that while it’s fine to go to Church on Jesus’ birthday, if that’s how you define putting Christ back in Christmas, you’re woefully missing the point and settling for the very surface-level sort of lip service that the author tries to decry.  In other words, the Church should be in the business of teaching people how to celebrate the birth of Christ in their families.  Before church.  After church.  For the whole season of Advent and Christmas and Epiphany (gasp!).  Heck, every day of the year, every day of our lives.  If putting the Christ back in Christmas consists simply of attending the literal Christ’s Mass, we’re actually no better off.  And perhaps, this is actually the reason we’re at this point of apparent Christian decay in our culture.

There is no glory or benefit per se in Church in and of itself.  Yes, we are to continue gathering together as the faithful, to be certain (Hebrews 10:25).  But why do we do this?  Because there is intrinsic merit in this?  No.  But rather because of what Christian community can and should do.  It enables us to hear the Word of God – but this should be something we are doing in daily prayer and devotion.  We receive the gifts of God in his Sacrament, and to be sure this is something that traditionally only happens in Church as believers gather together.  Church should be equipping people to live out their faith in their daily lives, as parents, siblings, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, employees, employers, citizens, etc.  Church is supposed to help connect our faith to all the aspects of our life.

Simply equating church with having a Christ-filled Christmas is oversimplification.  And I could conceivably see myself saying to people wondering whether or not they should start a Christmas Day service – No problem, as long as you’re going to sing or listen to the Christmas hymns at home as well.  As long as you’re going to pray together at home as well to give thanks to God for sending his Son into the world.  As long as you’re going to read the Christmas story to your kids and talk about what it means to you so they can learn what a life of faith looks and sounds like by watching and listening to you.  So long as you’re not going to spend the rest of the day focused only on football or food or drinks or whatever other good gifts and creations of God may really fire you up.

In other words, Sure, let’s gather together to praise God for sending his Son, so long as you don’t think you’ve fulfilled your ‘Christian duty’ in this act alone, and the rest of the day is yours to spend without a second thought for God.  Sure, let’s celebrate together, as long as you’re celebrating with your family at home as well.  Because Church is NOT supposed to be a substitute for that most primal and critical congregation of faith, the family.  The Church should strengthen that smaller congregation.  Equip it.  Minister to and with it.  But never set itself up as the replacement for it or to it.

Just like the family should never, under ideal circumstances, be the substitute for Church.  Just like those folks who insist on worshiping alone in their family or in front of their television instead of plunging themselves into the messy world of congregational relationships are in error.  Just like those who insist that they can worship alone better than they can worship with others are waving a massive red flag about something in their heart or past that the Holy Spirit should be working through to resolve, not reinforce.  Circumstances may dictate that Christians worship in hiding or only as families, but this is the exception to the rule.  The healthiest life of faith consists of a strong grounding at home reinforced with regular involvement in the larger community of faith, where forgiveness of sins, the Sacraments, and as necessary even private or – God-forbid, public – rebuke is possible for serious misunderstandings or misappropriations of the life of faith.

The author is dead on – Christians need to keep Christ at the center of Christmas as well as every day of their life.  The Church should help them do it.  But let’s not oversimplify things to the point where Church becomes the definition of a Christ-centered Christmas.  If you have the ability to gather with other Christians to celebrate Christ this Christmas, by all means do so!  Do it week after week, frankly.  Maybe even do it on Christmas Day at church!  But by all means, make sure that in your private life of faith, in your family life of faith you’re doing it as well.  Don’t assume that just going to Church puts Christ back at the center of Christmas for your heart or your family.  Don’t separate or confuse Church and everyday life.  Keep them both together and in proper relationship.

Thoughts?