25 February 2008

We Decided to Call Him Job

All mankind fell in Adam's fall; one common sin infects us all. From sire to son the curse descends, and over all God's wrath impends.

But Christ, the second Adam, came to bear our sin and woe and shame, to be our life, our light, our way, our only hope, our only stay.

We were expecting our tenth child. He was eight weeks in the womb, by the doctor's reckoning. I say "he," but we are not privileged to know whether this baby is a son or daughter; perhaps in heaven we shall know. It is sufficient for me that he was our child, either way, and thus a human being, not a random conglomerate of cells and tissue. The Author and Giver of life opened the womb and knit the little one inside; he was fearfully and wonderfully made in that secret, hidden place. What is not known to me is known full well by his Father in heaven. Not yet with any hairs on his head to be numbered, he was and is more precious to his Lord than are the sparrows or the lilies of the field. In Christ Jesus, we are all adopted and reborn as sons of God by grace.

He has no birthday on earth for us to celebrate, but he was delivered from the burdens of this mortal life and borne unto Abraham's bosom this past Wednesday, the 20th of February, Anno Domini 2008. God grant that his poor little body may now rest in peace until the day of the resurrection of all flesh.

That same day, I had earlier received word of another miscarriage, of another baby who had died in the womb (in anonymity). The serendipities of life are sometimes not amusing at all, but surreal. I went directly from such news of prenatal death to the impending death of my own unborn child. I do not recall the point at which I was turned from worry and concern over what might happen, to the realization of what had already occurred. The day proceeded with all its other cares and occupations, and I did what I was given to do. My sermon for that evening was on the Apostles' Creed — Creation, Redemption and Sanctification — or, life, life and more life, as I have often described in the past. This is most certainly true. It was only after the fact that I would realize the extent to which I was preaching to myself.

We had not yet shared the news that we were expecting a new baby. Our tradition has always been that we take the whole family out for a meal and let the other children be the first to know. In this case, we knew that wasn't going to be possible. We won't have our children all together again until May, and there would have been no secrets left to share by then. The baby was due in October, right around the time of our Nicholai's fourteenth birthday. We would not wait until May, but we were waiting for some final word concerning our Zachary, who fell and hit his head quite hard this past month. As it is, we are still waiting on the official results of a recent MRI to let us know that he has fully recovered from his injury. We should have that news in hand this Friday, and so I had anticipated an announcement regarding our baby this weekend.

Instead, as it has pleased the Lord, according to His good and gracious will, we are given to share the bittersweet news that our little one has gone ahead of us to abide in the nearer presence of his Savior and ours, Christ Jesus.

We have been granted peace and comfort in the Gospel, and in the precious words that so many brothers and sisters in Christ have written and spoken to us. We have taken firmly to heart that our Lord Himself, the very Son of God, was conceived in the womb of His own Mother, and that He also lived as true Man, our Brother in the flesh, through the same eight weeks of life as our little one. We know that Christ Jesus our Lord does not despise the little children, but receives them to Himself in love and mercy and tender compassion, with free and full forgiveness of sins. For death itself is the irrefutable testimony that our baby, even in the womb, was conceived a sinner like his parents. But Christ is the Savior of sinners, and He does not withhold His Word of forgiveness from even the least of these, His brethren. He causes His Gospel to be preached in all the world, "to all creation" (St. Mark 16:15). And if He has hidden these things from the wise and intelligent, He has revealed them to infants (St. Matthew 11:25, the Gospel for St. Matthias).

Woe to those who cause one of these little ones who believe in Him to stumble! But Christ be praised that He permitted no such scandal ever to afflict our infant child, who has now departed from the inner sanctum of his mother's womb to the safety and eternal Sabbath Rest of heaven.

As my own pastor has so wisely and beautifully counseled us, we did everything we were given and enabled to do for this child. For the eight weeks that he was entrusted to our care, while in the womb, we loved him and prayed for him and immersed him in the catechesis of the Word of God, both at home and in the congregation of the Church. We have not caused him to stumble, but have laid him upon the mercies of God in Christ, and have entrusted him in confidence to the One who created him for life with Himself forever. The Lord our God has exercised His own Paternal prerogative in this case, and has thus removed from us any cause for worry or anxiety. In how many ways, over the years, have we fallen short in parenting our other children? Always in our own works, there is such imperfection, and therefore uncertainty and fear. Even at our very best, the outcome of our efforts is beyond our control. Well-catechized children sometimes fall. There is certainty only in the Word and works of God, and we shall rejoice that He has acted.

We shall rejoice in Christ, the moreso as time passes and the tides of sadness retreat from washing over us so often. In the meantime, I am assailed and tossed back and forth betwixt the peaceful confidence of faith and the turbulence of grief and fear. Probably the most poignant moment was this past Friday night, when we told our other children that they have a younger sibling who has already died and gone to heaven. Such terrible sorrow I have never seen in my dear children all at once, though each of them reacted differently, in his or her own way. Poor Nicholai had guessed and happily anticipated that we would be announcing a new baby, and he was devastated to hear and comprehend the additional news of that child's death. Little Frederick was perplexed and frightened by the fact that his whole family was suddenly crying. Monica and Oly'anna wanted to know everything that could possibly be known about the baby, and it was heartbreaking to have so very little we could tell them. Justinian retreated to his bed with a sad little look on his face, while Ariksander simply sat in silence, his head bowed and his shoulders sagging. What could any of them do? They all cast about in their own ways, as LaRena and I have done, for some kind of handle on their grief, some way of mourning the loss of a sibling they never got to see or hold.

For myself, too, it has been difficult to know what I should do. The Lord has taken out of my hands all that I would have done for this tenth child of mine. I will not feed or clothe him. I'll never change his diapers or burp him. I won't take him for walks, to the movies or out for ice cream. LaRena and I were granted the profound privilege of being the instruments by which God the Father Almighty created and gave life to this little person. And for a little while, I was privileged to preach the Word of God to him, to pray with him and for him. But now what?

One of the primary ways that I have exercised and expressed my vocation as a father is by naming each of my children. Already I had begun the joyful task of ruminating over names for our new baby, considering combinations, rolling possibilities over my tongue, and testing them on my wife for her reactions. But there will not be a little boy or girl for me to name in October. The names I had in mind are just words again, not children. Nevertheless, I wanted to name this baby who has died, so that we would have a way to think of him as a person, to remember him rightly as best we can. So I suggested that we call him Job, after the faithful Old Testament father who did not curse but continued to bless God when his ten children were put to death by Satan's wicked machinations. This name has pleased our family, too, and has been helpful to us.

The world in which we live does not know how to think about life and death, because it does not comprehend the Word by whom all things are made. Only days before Job died, our DoRena was home for a visit and shared with us a discussion and debate over abortion that has been taking place in her medical ethics class. I was appalled at what she told us. Evidently, there is equivocation, even among conservative pro-life proponents, as to whether a fetus is really a person in the first two weeks of life. Theological arguments are out of bounds in the medical ethics class, but one can't get this right without theology. Science and legalities must finally bow before the divine Logos. In Him there is the bedrock of our human personhood, to begin with, as well as our eternal life and salvation. His Incarnation fulfills and perfects our humanity, even as He is the Image and Likeness of God in which we are created to begin with. And He did not cease to be a Person when He was conceived in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

This Son of Man, our dear Lord Jesus Christ, was born of the Woman to redeem us from the curse of sin and death. He has become flesh and blood like us; He has borne our sins and carried all our sorrows in His own body to the Cross; and He has conquered sin, death, the devil and hell, by His atoning sacrifice as the very Lamb of God. So has God the Father sacrificed His beloved and well-pleasing Son, in order that we and all our children may live forever by His Gospel, by His forgiveness of all our sins.

"Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal." (2 Cor 4:16-18)

How Does the Form and Shape of Worship Affect Faith?

At long last, here are the notes from which I gave my presentation to the North Texas Free Conference in Plano, Texas (24–25 January 2008), sans any real editing or spit and polish:

Faith comes by hearing the Word of Christ; and to have such faith is to live in fellowship with God in Christ (receiving and trusting His gracious good gifts of life).

The preaching of the Word is primary, beginning with the Father’s own speaking of the Son. It is by this Word (His Son) that God creates and gives life to man; by this Word that He breathes His life-giving Holy Spirit into man, in the flesh. It is a divine Word, the speaking of God Himself, by which He reveals and gives Himself to man. In its confrontation with sinful man, it both accuses and forgives (Law and Gospel), and thereby calls to repentance and faith (in Christ, the Word).

This same Word, which is the almighty and eternal Son of God, has become flesh — true Man — part of His own creation — so that, in Him, in His own Person, God and man are perfectly united and in harmony forevermore. It is therefore by and with and in Christ Jesus, the incarnate Son, that you live in fellowship with God (by faith), and not at all apart from Him. This is the case, both by His forgiveness of sins and by His gracious giving of Himself in love.

It is in and with Christ that you receive the Holy Spirit (the life-giving Breath of God) through the forgiveness of your sins. For Christ is the true and perfect Man, the new and better Adam, who has been anointed by the Spirit for you. He receives and bears the Spirit in the flesh on your behalf, in order to bestow the Spirit upon you (with the forgiveness of sins).

It is in Baptism that Christ Jesus received the Spirit as your Savior. And in your Holy Baptism, all that He received and accomplished — the Holy Spirit, the Cross and Resurrection, an open heaven, the declaration of divine sonship, and a well-pleased God the Father — all of this has been granted to you by grace. Hence, in St. Matthew 28, the authority that Christ has obtained by His Cross and Resurrection as the Son of Man, is the authority to baptize all the nations (and thereby to forgive their sins).

Paradoxically, this divine life that is yours with the Father, through Christ in His Spirit, is by the way and means of the Cross. In this world, it is shaped and constituted by the daily dying and rising of repentant faith in the forgiveness of the Cross. As such, the character of the entire Christian life is one of repentance. This is true at all times in the heart before God, but it is exercised especially in the hearing of the Law and the Gospel, and perhaps most pointedly in Confession and Absolution.

It is from your Baptism into Christ, in repentance — in faith, by the Word and Spirit of God — that you live before God (instead of dying in your sin).

Thus, Holy Baptism is the front door and the foundation of this divine life, the heart and center of which is communion (or fellowship) with God in Christ Jesus. That communion is concretely located in the preaching of the Word of Christ, specifically the preaching of the Gospel, which is the forgiveness of sins (as also in Holy Absolution); and it is found most intimately in His Body given and His Blood poured out for you in the Sacrament of the Altar (the Holy Communion). It is there at the Altar that the Incarnation and Atonement of the Lamb of God come into sharpest clarity and tangible focus for you, and where you abide in Him, and He in you, both body and soul, most profoundly (a foretaste of heaven itself). Thus, if Holy Baptism is the floor and the door of the building, then the preaching of the Gospel is the structure of the building itself, in which we live, and the Holy Communion is the penthouse suite.

Or, to think of it in different terms, taken directly from the Gospel According to St. Matthew, disciples are made though baptizing and catechizing (St. Matthew 28), and it is to such disciples that the Lord gives His Body and His Blood (St. Matthew 26).

These means of grace and salvation — the Gospel–Word and Sacraments, actually preached and administered — are not simply means to some other end, but are already a very real participation (though hidden under the Cross) in the divine, eternal life of the Holy Triune God.

This manifestation of God in Christ by the means of grace — the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Holy Sacraments — which is the revelation of the Father and the breathing of the Spirit by the Son — this is the divine Liturgy (properly speaking, as defined in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession XXIV), by which faith and life are created and sustained in you.

It is this holy handing over of the Son by the Father, in whom the Spirit is also poured out generously upon us, with which we are chiefly concerned, and which we are given to receive, to confess, to share, and to hand over to the disciples who come after us within the Church.

There is no faith and life for us or anyone else apart from this divine Liturgy, which is the Gospel of Christ. (Thus, here we do not have in mind a particular order of Service, far less a particular "style" of service, but rather what is the heart of the matter: the preaching and administration of the Gospel. That is how our Confessions define the term, "Liturgy," as a synonym for the Ministry of the Gospel, and that is also how I deliberately prefer to use the term.)

As far as faith is concerned, in itself, there is nothing else (neither more nor less) to be considered; nothing more that needs to be said or done. Faith receives everything in the divine Liturgy of the Gospel, by which Christ bestows Himself and all His benefits upon His Church. So one might be tempted to suggest or conclude that everything else is either pointless or entirely up for grabs.

Yet, faith does not live all by itself. It is both served and sustained by the neighbor in the Communion of Saints (a double entendre embracing both the Holy Communion and the Holy Christian Church; as St. Paul writes in First Corinthians, that we are all one body in Christ, even as we all partake of the one bread which is His Body, and drink from the Cup of His own Blood). So also does faith, in turn, serve the neighbor in love (like that of Christ Himself for all of us).

Also, it is necessary that faith continue to be "maintenanced" and served by the means of grace; both because these are means of real fellowship with God in Christ, and because the Christian remains a child of Adam in this world, still subject to sin, until his Baptism is finally completed in death (and then comes the final judgment with the resurrection of the body on the last day).

Furthermore, faith does not lead to freedom from God and man, but rejoices to live in the freedom of true fellowship with God and Man, first of all in Christ, but so also with His many brethren. And as the Christian shares, participates in, and lives the divine life in Christ, so does he move in love toward his neighbor (as Christ has come down from heaven for us all): to serve the neighbor in body and soul. Living in Christ by faith, we bear fruits of love after His own kind.

So Christian life is not lived in "splendid isolation," but always in relationship with God and the neighbor. It is lived in faith toward God and fervent love toward one another, as Luther puts it so beautifully and succinctly in his post-Communion Collect. It is lived in the Liturgy of the Gospel, and from that Liturgy into the world within each Christian’s own vocations.

The Christian life is therefore lived "liturgically," that is to say, from Holy Baptism into Christ, and daily back to the significance of Holy Baptism through contrition and repentance, confession and absolution, unto faith and life in the forgiveness of sins. And from Holy Baptism, it is lived to and from the Altar (as Wilhelm Löhe has so nicely described in several different ways). To the Altar in faith, and from the Altar in love: into the various stations in life to which God has called you, in which you live in relationship to particular neighbors in particular contexts. (This is also both the impetus for and the content of genuine evangelical missions, something else that Wilhelm Löhe both understood and put into practice, both at home and far abroad.)

Such is the substance and reality of the matter. But none of this is obvious or transparent, nor at all believable apart from the Word and Spirit of God. Thus, again, everything depends upon the preaching and catechesis of the Word of Christ (by which the Spirit works and is given). If the preaching is gotten right, then everything else will follow. And if the preaching is off, then everything else will languish and may falter altogether. Thankfully, there are liturgical safeguards against bad preaching, such as the lectionary, the established and agreed-upon orders of service, the solid body of good hymnody, all of which "preach" and "confess" the Gospel in their own way. Where those safeguards have been gotten rid of, then bad preaching will be downright fatal.

Good and right preaching is necessarily liturgical; but that needs to be defined and understood correctly. "Liturgical preaching" is the confession of Christ Jesus (see St. Matthew 16 and the exposition of that text in our confessional Treatise on the Power and the Primacy of the Pope). It is preaching that speaks as the Father speaks the Son. For if anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracle of God.

Liturgical preaching is (again, as already indicated) always preaching to and from Holy Baptism — which is to preach repentance for the forgiveness of sins — which is to preach the Law and the Gospel, not as mere information "about" the Word of God, but as the putting to death of the sinner and the resurrection of the New Man (who is Christ in us). Such preaching is a living and active Word, which does not simply instruct and inform, but has its way with the hearer and does something to him; because it is the Gospel, which is the power of God unto salvation.

It is in this sense, and not simply by token references to the Sacraments, that "liturgical preaching" is sacramental preaching. Similarly, good and right preaching is liturgical, not simply by quoting or referring to the rites of the Liturgy and/or the Propers of the Day (though doing so is often a fine thing to do). Rather, it is properly "liturgical" as an integral part of the Liturgy itself, as it functions to bring the congregation from the lectern to the Altar; from the appointed Holy Gospel of the Day to the Gospel of the Verba; from the Word of the Holy Scriptures to the administration of that Word-made-Flesh in the Holy Communion. There are all sorts of different ways in which any particular sermon may do this, but in one way or another this is the liturgical point and purpose of preaching: to bring the disciples of Jesus to the eating and drinking of His Body and His Blood in the worthiness of repentant faith.

This preaching of the Gospel (from the font and the lectern to the Altar) is the most basic structure and substance of the Divine Service (the Liturgy). True Christian worship consists, principally and primarily, in hearing and receiving this Gospel, the Word and the Word-made-Flesh, which is Christ Jesus. This is the chief activity of faith (hearing and receiving the Gospel), and it is by such faith that God desires to be worshiped (rather than by works of the Law). Faith itself lives from this preaching and hearing, this giving and receiving of the Gospel.

In a very real sense, everything else is "adiaphora" (neither commanded nor forbidden by God). Everything else is entirely free to faith; although it is nevertheless bound by love for the neighbor, not for the sake of any merit or righteousness (which is neither necessary nor possible), but rather for the sake of God’s command and the neighbor’s need. In any event, whatever else is done to adorn and accompany the preaching and administration of the Word of Christ, must serve and support that Word (and Sacrament); otherwise it has no place.

Adiaphorous rites and ceremonies (and any other sort of practices) serve and support the Word (and Sacrament), and thereby serve faith and love, in two main ways: as catechesis, and as confession. For what is done, and how it is done, communicates, and thereby instructs and declares the truth of what is happening (though it is hidden under the Cross). A particular case in point might be the use of precious metals and fine art to adorn the cross and the vessels of the Holy Communion, in order to confess the glory of God that is manifested in the Cross of Christ and in the Body and Blood of Christ (under bread and wine), which is otherwise hidden from our eyes.

Over time, the Church on earth has corporately developed, handed over, and received a variety of outward forms, orders, settings, customs, and adornments, which (may) collectively assist in leading the congregation to and from the Word and the Word-made-Flesh. The traditional order of the Divine Service, for example, does this in a profound and marvelous way. The people of God are thereby guided to and from the means of grace by way of the Word, especially the Psalms; and in receiving and responding to these gifts, on the basis of the Word, the congregation prays and confesses and offers thanksgiving.

The "ordinary" and the "propers’ of the Divine Service, respectively, provide both consistency and movement, the center throughout being Christ and His Gospel of forgiveness. Here, too, everything (or very close to everything) is drawn from the Holy Scriptures, but arranged by the Church collectively over time. Thus we have the lectionary and the Church Year, which are truly a "school of faith," whereby we are annually lead through the life of Christ. Luther’s comments on the Second Article in the Large Catechism are insightful and instructive in this respect, as he remarks that the fullness of that confession is preached in the course of the year, especially at the various festivals of Christ.

Now, within and around this common heritage, there are always going to be local variations, as well as gradual developments and modifications over time, from one place to another. There may be differing translations (or paraphrases) of liturgical texts, and different musical settings, as well as small adjustments to the basic order of things. In some respects, there really is a lot of wiggle room in all of this, though for the sake of love pastors and congregations ought to use caution and act in concert with the whole Church (as much as possible). We remember that faith lives in love with the neighbor, and seeks to serve the neighbor for Jesus’ sake, rather than insisting on personal preference, proclivities, or tastes.

A case in point may be found in certain ceremonial practices, or even with some vestments, which can sometimes (in some places) evoke a visceral or volatile reaction. Chasubles, chanting, incense, kneeling and bowing, etc., all can be defended as meet, right and salutary in honor and support of the Word of God, but may sometimes occasion a distraction from that Word of God, depending on the context and the manner in which they are introduced and practiced. The issue is not so much a matter of simplicity vs. complexity. The goal is to serve and support the Word of God to the glory of Christ’s holy Name and for the benefit of His dear people. Thus, again, whatever is done ought to be serving primarily as confession and catechesis of the divine Word. In this both faith and love are exercised. Practically speaking, that amounts to reverence toward God and courtesy toward one another.

With that in mind, once more, there are always going to be local variations; not only from one locale to the next, but in the course of the year (and over time) in each place. Particularities come into play, such as architecture, the composition and character of the congregation, the language and history of the people in that place, cultural tensions and considerations, musical resources, etc. In addition to all of these factors, the Church is a living, corporate body, always growing in faith and love, and in maturity seeking to love and serve the neighbor in the name of Christ: with evangelical integrity rather than self-righteous legalism.

In short, it is not a question of minimalism, nor of what we can "get away with," but of how best to honor and serve the Gospel in loving service to one another in the world. The answer, and the form it will take, will differ from time to time, from place to place. We dare not lose sight of that, nor lose our bearings (in the Gospel) — lest what is free for all be turned into a "free-for-all"!

What God has given is a given, but what about the rest? Here time will not suffice to go into any great detail, but a few brief comments may be made. Adiaphora are neither commanded nor forbidden; thus, they are free, but not insignificant. They are gifts to be freely received (in faith) and used in love (or not used, also in love). There is an important place in this for honoring the traditions and the catholicity of the Church. Genuine Christian traditions are a handing over of Christ from one age to the next, from one generation to the next, by various ways and means. In a related way, catholicity refers to the unity of the Church in all times and places — in Christ. Sharing a common heritage enables us to make a clear and consistent common confession of the one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all. This consistency and continuity enable both the very young and the very old, the illiterate and the sensory impaired, to participate in the Church’s corporate life of prayer, praise and thanksgiving. And there is a solid stability in all of this, which is conducive to finding peace and Sabbath Rest in the Liturgy of Christ.

The administration of the Liturgy in the actual life of the Church on earth (comprised of sinners in an always-shifting context of multiple variables) necessitates pastoral discernment and discretion for the sake of genuine pastoral care. That requires a recognition of pastoral authority, which is defined by responsibility and self-sacrificing love after the example of Christ. Pastors are stewards of the Mysteries of God, and they shall be held accountable for their stewardship; it is not for the sake of personal glory, but for the benefit and salvation of those for whom the very Son of God gave His life and shed His holy, precious blood upon the Cross.

It is incumbent upon all of us as Christians, both pastors and parishioners — as well as brother pastors and sister congregations — that we bear with one another in love, and bear each others burdens with compassion and patience. True love (which proceeds from faith in Christ) covers a multitude of sins (with free and full forgiveness, for Christ Jesus’ sake). There is much that can be tolerated in love, in the freedom of the Gospel, even if this or that is not preferable or ideal; even though it may not be historically sound or aesthetically pleasing. The Church is constituted and defined liturgically, that is to say, by the Liturgy of the Gospel, but not ceremonially (though ceremony can help to identify and describe what is actually going on in the Liturgy of the Gospel).

Love can finally tolerate a rather wide variation and diversity in ceremonies. What love will not tolerate is a false Gospel. The preaching of the Gospel in its truth and purity must be given free course among us, for the edification of the Church and the salvation of sinners, to the glory of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Both faith and love depend entirely upon that Gospel.

The Gospel therefore ought to permeate and define our conduct of the Divine Service, as well as our conversation concerning the Divine Service. Where the Law is spoken, as it must be, this too is to be done for the sake of love and put into the service of the Gospel.

It is finally the Gospel of forgiveness — which we hear and receive in the Divine Service, and which we speak to one another — that alone serves faith unto the life everlasting. It is this life which God, in love for us, bestows upon us by His Liturgy; and we, in faith and love, will insist upon it for ourselves and for our neighbors in the world.

24 February 2008

Abraham Should Have Said No

In Luther's Lectures on Galatians, he describes Sarah's giving of her maid Hagar to Abraham an act of faithfulness on her part, whereby she was looking for the fulfillment of God's promises. It is always my aim to humble myself before my fathers in Christ, and to be instructed by them, but I did have to question whether Luther was really correct in this assessment. It is a different way of considering things, to be sure. It reminds me of the way St. Peter speaks of "righteous Lot," who acted by faith even in the midst of great wickedness around him. When I was a little tike, all I ever heard about Lot was that he was selfish and greedy in taking the good land while Abraham was stuck with the leftovers. Thus, it is humbling and instructive to be taught by the Word of God to honor Lot as a man of faith and righteousness. Not only that, but in the course of all that transpired, God was working everything out for the best, finally for the salvation of many nations. So does He do for His Church today, irrespective of our good or bad decisions.

At any rate, back to Sarah. Someone else questioned this morning whether she was acting faithfully or faithlessly. By all appearances, giving Hagar to her husband was a bad idea, which led to various other difficulties down the road. Clearly, it was not the way that God fulfilled His promises to Abraham and to his Seed forever. In fact, St. Paul (in both Galatians and Romans) distinguishes between the sons of Abraham by Hagar and by Sarah, Ishmael and Isaac, most deliberately and decisively. The one was conceived and born according to the flesh and under the Law; the other, according to the Word of God in the way of the Gospel.

In contemplating these events, I find it not so hard to envision, to some extent, what it must have been like for Abraham and Sarah. And considering that, I am also sympathetic. As the years continued to roll by, and Sarah's biological clock had long stopped ticking, and Abraham himself was "as good as dead," there surely must have been a restlessness and growing agitation in their hearts and in their home. We are told of times when Abraham seemed on the verge of despair, when he questioned whether a slave within his household would become his heir. And if there were such times when Abraham got a bit ornery and cynical with God (whom by faith he loved and trusted), no doubt there were times when he likewise became irritable and impatient toward his dear wife, Sarah. One can imagine the tension and frustration that likely intruded upon their marriage at times.

Perhaps the question surfaced in Abraham's mind and hovered in the air, verbalized or not, "Why does this woman not bear me a son?" It is the Lord who opens and closes the womb, but the hope and expectation of children can lay heavy upon the barren, as though it were a burden of the Law and a cause for condemnation. The very Word of God's promise and blessing can thus be perceived as though it were in fact a command and a curse. Our own culture has not helped these things with its pernicious lies of freedom and choice where the Lord has not given such prerogatives. Yet, even among the faithful patriarchs and matriarchs, there were doubts and fears and uncertainty, all of which stem from the perennial temptation to live under the Law instead of by faith in the Gospel.

One has to suppose that Sarah's own patience was sorely tested and tried, as well, being passed off as Abraham's sister instead of his wife: not once, but twice! Yet, as one of the faithful women of old, she obeyed Abraham and even called him her lord. In this she is set forth as an example of faith to godly Christian women in their own respective vocations. These are often hard crosses to bear.

The pressures that weighed upon Sarah, and the sense of guilt that may have weighed upon her because it seemed impossible that she would be able to deliver what the Lord had promised, led her to propose a possible solution. It seems inappropriate to me, to attempt any parsing of faithfulness and faithlessness in this action. Like all of us who are born again as the children of God, Sarah was both faithless and believing; simultaneously justified by the Gospel and accused by the Law, though ultimately hidden with Christ in God. She was not perfect in herself; yet she was accounted righteous, like Abraham her husband, by grace through faith in Christ. Hence there stands the testimony of the Scriptures: "By faith even Sarah herself received ability to conceive, even beyond the proper time of life, since she considered Him faithful who has promised." Her laughter, too, was both the incredulity of doubt and the joyful "Amen" of faith.

We do well to consider that Sarah did not know the vast majority of what has been revealed to us in Christ Jesus. The holy men and women of old proceeded in faith, in the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen, without receiving the fulfillment of the promises but pressing toward them and longing for them from afar. Even the Prophets who prophesied of the grace that has come to us in Christ, in which we now stand, sought to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating. For they were serving not themselves but us, and they were not to be perfected apart from us, upon whom the end of the ages has dawned.

If Sarah's offer of Hagar to Abraham was, in part, an act of faithless desperation, perhaps it was also an imperfect confession of her faith that God would indeed fulfill what He had spoken. I may be missing it this afternoon, but I do not see where the Lord explicitly stated to Abraham that the promised son would be born to him by Sarah until after the birth of Ishmael by Hagar (Genesis 16). So far as I can tell, that specificity came with the Covenant of Circumcision, when the Lord also renamed both Abram and Sarai to be Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 17). Prior to that point, it was implicit in the fact that Sarai was Abram's wife. But even then, after God made it explicit, Abraham still cried out to Him, "Oh that Ishmael might live before You!"

What did Sarah have to go by? The promises were spoken to Abraham; they came to her by way of him. The husband is the head of his wife; as Adam was to Eve, and Christ to His Bride, the Church, so Abraham to Sarah. In submitting to him by faith, obeying him and calling him her lord, she trusted him to speak the Word of the Lord to her faithfully.

In offering Hagar to her husband, Sarah was seeking the times and the persons by which the promises of the Lord would be fulfiled, and she was entrusting herself, her future and her family to the man whom God had given her. Whatever unbelief may have divided her believing heart, she here surpasses Eve, who listened to the voice of the serpent. Sarah does not look to the devil, but to her own husband for the way of wisdom. Abraham, however, in this case, walks in the way of his father Adam. He listens to the voice of his wife, instead of honoring the Word of the Lord and catechizing Sarah in the faith.

Sarah offered the proposition, it is true. She wondered in hope whether this might be the way to go. "Perhaps," she said, "I will obtain children through Hagar." But Abraham could have said no. He should have said no. He ought to have confessed and testified, "You are my wife, whom the Lord has given to me, and so by you will He fulfill what He has promised." Instead, without a word, he climbs into bed with Hagar, in no wise different than Adam quietly took the forbidden fruit from his wife. Sarah is right, therefore, when she declares to Abrahm after the fact, when she was despised in Hagar's sight: "May the wrong done me be upon you. May the Lord judge between you and me." Only then does Abraham finally say anything in response, and once more he abrogates his headship to his wife: "Behold, your maid is in your power; do to her what is good in your sight." If Sarah is at fault in all of this, Abraham is more so.

For all of that, we are admonished to "look unto Abraham our father and to Sarah who gave birth to us in pain; when he was but one I called him, then I blessed him and multiplied him," so that Abraham with Sarah is the father of many nations, of all who believe and trust in his Seed, the Lord Jesus Christ. By faith, we follow their good example, while refraining from their sins. Wives ought to look to their husbands, trusting the Lord who has given them; and husbands are to love their wives, as Christ His Church, teaching them the Word of the Lord, especially the Gospel, and forgiving them for Jesus' sake. Of course, none of us do this perfectly. We are certainly no better, no more faithful, than Abraham and Sarah were. Yet, their righteousness and ours is perfect; for it is not by our own works or wisdom, but by foolish faith in Christ. In that, like blessed Sarah, we have much to laugh about.

23 February 2008

Drinking Water from the Rock

The Lord your God has saved you. He has brought you ought of Egypt to receive His gifts in faith and with thanksgiving, and thus to worship Him, in righteousness and holiness before Him.

This is most certainly true, appearances and all experience to the contrary. For you do not see it or feel it, not yet. Not when you are surrounded on all sides by desert wilderness, and there’s no well or water to be found. Not when sin, death, the devil and hell still assail and oppress you, so that you are staggered and cannot stand.

It is still true, nevertheless, that God the Lord has saved you, and even now He is giving you life; even though your sinful heart is doubtful and afraid, irritable and quarrelsome.

In spite of His great and free salvation, your thoughts, words and actions — proceeding from your sinful heart — do not praise and honor the Lord Your God, but profane His holy Name. Instead of worshiping Him (in faith and with thanksgiving), you grumble against Him, and against His servant. And you put Him to the test: "Is the Lord among us or not!?"

You harden your heart against Him. You close yourself to His gracious gifts of life. And you go thirsty. In foolish desperation, you long to go back to your former idolatry, to the land of sin and death (from which the Lord has freed you), where all the water turns to blood, and the more you drink, the more you thirst. In truth, by such apostasy, you’re already there (back in Egypt).

Repent. Return to the Lord your God with all your heart. Turn away from your unbelief, despair and selfishness. Do not obey your thirst for that which is not God and cannot give you life!

Rather, seek the Lord where He may be found, where His Word is spoken, where His gifts are given. Find Him where He finds you: in the courts of the Lord’s House, in the midst of His Jerusalem. Not with grumbling, anger and complaint, but in faith and fervent prayer.

If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that speaks to you, then you would ask of Him, and He would give you living water. So, ask, and do not doubt, but firmly believe that He will give you what you need. Not on this mountain or that, neither here nor there, but in His Church on earth, wherever on earth it may be, established and built upon the Rock of Christ. Even Samaria or South Bend become the Mountain of God when Christ is at hand.

Here your thirst is quenched. Here you are cleansed within and without, body and soul, by the Spirit of Christ — from His Cross.

How can this be? How does the Lord put up with you? How shall He call you and receive you back to Himself, again and again? How is it that He tolerates your complaints and answers them?

It is entirely and solely for the sake of His own love. Not because you are so loveable — but for His own sake, because of who He is, He loves you. In some ways, it is that simple.

He remembers you and loves you. As in the past, so also now and forever. He remembers you by taking action to save you, to bring you out of Egypt to Himself. He moves to turn your idolatrous heart away from gods of stone back to Himself, your God in the flesh. All of this at His own expense, by His own sacrifice, by His holy and precious blood, by His innocent suffering and death.

For He is Christ, the incarnate Son of God, who has saved you. He is the Rock of your Salvation, your strength and your song, who has brought you out of bondage into life. He follows you in steadfast faithfulness, through the wilderness all the days of your life, even to the last.

When you grumble and complain — when you rumble and rage against Him — when you despise and reject His servants, the ministers of His Word — what does He do?

He admonishes, reproves, corrects and exhorts. He calls you to repentance. But He does not write you off. He does not make an end of you. He does not strike you with His Law to stone you to death and destroy you — though you deserve it.

His Law speaks to expose your sin; and your sin must be condemned and punished, put to death and dealt with, lest it bring you down to Sheol.

But see the staff which His Law wields, and hear how He strikes with it, not you, but the Rock (which is Christ). The Lord takes the blow and burden of the Law upon Himself. By the wood of the Cross, the heavy staff of Moses cuts Yahweh to the quick. He is stricken, smitten and afflicted, beaten and bruised, pierced and wounded for your transgressions. For your salvation.

He has been thirsty, even to the point of death, so that you may be given to drink from His well.

Behold the living water streaming from His open side, and with it flows His own Blood of the New Testament. From this Rock, the font and the chalice have been filled with His Spirit and His Life for you, for your salvation. Here is water. Drink. You shall not die, but live.

The same life-giving water of the Holy Spirit is poured out for you, even in the desert, in this very Word of the Gospel. It quenches your deepest thirst by forgiving all your sins. It cleanses your soul and body with the righteousness of Christ, your Savior. It gives you eternal life.

Is the Lord among us, or not?

Yes, He is here, for you, in love. He is hidden from your sight, for now, in the form of a hard rock — but His hardness is not set against you; it is for you, that He may be your sure foundation.

You are rocked and staggered by tribulation, by hurts and fears within and without, by trials and temptations, so great and so many that you cannot stand upright. You are always tripping and stumbling and falling, and dying.

But take heart, dear one. The Lord is with you.

Your tribulations shall not be permitted to lay you to waste on the desert floor. They rather produce in you hope and endurance, which shall not be disappointed. It does not depend on you, but Christ, and He does not fail; He shall not fall.

By your own strength, you cannot stand, but Christ sustains you. Even in His death, He is lifted up to save you, and it is in His grace and peace and righteousness, by His Cross, that you do now stand. His Spirit lives in you, and you live in Him. In Him you are strong and courageous!

Bride of Christ, rejoice! Here is your true Bridegroom.

Come, drink from His Cup, from His own hand. Drink the living water that flows freely from His open heart into yours.

Hear His Word, which is Spirit and Truth. Receive His gifts, which are life and salvation.

He is indeed the Savior of the world. But, more than that, He is your Savior and your God, and you are His beloved.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

21 February 2008

The Voice of the Bridegroom

For the Third Friday in Lent (St. John 3:25-36)

Always a groomsman, never the Groom. That is John's vocation. Among those born of the earth, he is the best man, but he is not the Christ. He is not that true Light which shines upon the Bride and makes her radiant.

John's voice heralds the Coming One, the Word-made-Flesh, at whose speaking death gives way to life. That One is the Bridegroom, the Son of God, sent by the Father from heaven to court His Bride, to call her to Himself, to cleanse and clothe her with His righteousness, and to consummate His marriage to her in both body and soul.

It is to this union of Christ and His Bride, the Church, that every earthly marriage testifies. Husband, love your wife, therefore; forgive her sins; give yourself to her, and live your life for her benefit. Woman, likewise, love and serve your husband; submit to him in faith, for Jesus' sake.

Receive the spouse that God the Lord has given you, and be content. Do not covet your neighbor's wife or husband, but cherish the one whom Christ has given you in love. Or, if you have not received an earthly bride or groom, be content with Christ and faithful to Him.

Each of you, let all your thoughts, words and actions be pure, unselfish and charitable, as Christ is. For He is your heavenly Bridegroom, and by the washing of water with the Word, you belong to Him, His holy Bride. In His Body and His Blood, you are one flesh with Him. You, therefore, be holy, as He is holy.

You have nothing at all apart from Him; nothing but divine wrath, condemnation, and eternal death. In Him, you have everything; everything pertaining to life and godliness. For the Father has set His seal upon His Son, not only from eternity, but also in the flesh: in the waters of the Jordan, upon the holy Mountain, and in the Resurrection of the Crucified One.

This Man, the Bridegroom come down from heaven, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, He is the beloved Son. All that belongs to the Father is His. He has received the Spirit without measure, also in His flesh and blood upon the earth, in order to pour out His Spirit generously and without measure upon you. He has done so in the heavenly washing of your Baptism; as He does also for you here, at the festal board of His Altar, in His Holy Supper.

And He does so, freely, daily and richly, in His Word of forgiveness. He does so because He loves you. He has pledged Himself to you, bound Himself to you, and given Himself for you, forever.

As you belong to such a beloved Bride of Christ, as one whom He has baptized to be a member of His Church, so do you belong among the true daughters of Zion, the daughters of Jerusalem. The Father's Son is your true Husband. Thus, His Father is your Father; His home and His inheritance are yours. As He increases, so do you.

Dearly beloved, be awake and alert, therefore. Your Bridegroom soon will call you from this vale of tears to Himself — to your true home in heaven. He shall come to carry you, body and soul, over that threshold — through the waters of the Jordan into Paradise forever.

Listen for His Voice. He speaks to you, even now, by the mouth of His friend, His groomsman at this Altar. It is His own Voice, which He speaks to you in love. Consider what He says, and rejoice: "Take and eat." "Drink." Receive these gifts Christ freely gives. Believe His Word; believe also in Him, and have eternal life. So shall your joy be made full.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

18 February 2008

Perhaps We Should Survey the Top 5 Percent of Soul Bearing Marriages

Normally, I would never suggest such a thing. It seems rather presumptuous. But I've been inspired by the new Commission on Worship to think about things differently. Those folks are working up a survey of the top 5 percent of "soul winning" congregations, as I mentioned this past week, in order to determine what those best and most successful congregations must be doing right in their critical "worship" events each Sunday morning. Then, presumably, those of us who are doing it all wrong can be told how to get our act together, so that we too can set the world on fire and win souls for Jesus. Too bad the Lord and His Apostles didn't think of this.

As I have had this in mind over the past several days — while also continuing to spin my wheels with such mundane, non-soul-winning activities as preaching and teaching and catechizing and administering the means of grace (to those poor souls who were already bagged and tagged a long time ago, and so no longer count for anything with the Generation-Next Missouri Synod) — I hit upon a wonderful idea. I would have shared it sooner, but of course I had to spend some time patting myself on the back and congratulating myself first. Now that my right hand has an accurate accounting of what my left hand has been doing, I can pass my brilliance on to others.

Everybody's into family values these days, and parenting how-to books are always in demand. Clearly there's a need for wisdom in these critical areas of life. How are mothers and fathers to parent their children in the best and most successful way? Then it dawned on me: Obviously, the parents who have the most children must be doing something right, and they are evidently doing it more effectively than those parents with fewer children. It's only logical. The numbers, they don't lie. Parents, by definition, are people who have children. Clearly, then, those with more children are better and more successful parents.

So, I propose that a survey be prepared for the top 5 percent of soul bearing marriages, defined as those with the most children (whether by natural delivery, c-section, or adoption). Once we have determined the secrets of their success, we can inform all the other husbands and wives as to what they need to be doing differently in order to become better and more efficient parents.

There's just a couple hitches that I haven't been able to work out, yet. To begin with, in no particular order, there's this whole quality vs. quantity thing. That is to say, so far as I can tell, the skill of good parenting is not directly related or proportional to the number of children a couple has. My wife and I have nine children; we do our best to parent them faithfully, and I suppose it is true that, by trial and error, we've gotten somewhat better at it over time. But the fact is that I know couples with fewer children who are more consistent, more attentive, more patient, and more effective parents than we are. There must be some kind of glitch here.

Even more troubling and difficult is the copyright issue. I've not yet contacted CPH to get the definitive answer, but I'm given to understand that the Holy Triune God retains the rights to procreation as the Author and Giver of life. I was assuming that He'd been forced to give those up, what with a million different forms of birth control, "emergency contraceptive," and abortion on demand. Evidently not. It seems that He is still the one to open and close the womb. This is very frustrating, especially because He appears to be so inconsistent. He keeps opening the wombs of unmarried teenagers, and closing the wombs of faithful loving wives. Oddly enough, the same behavior does not always produce the same results. It is just a statistician's nightmare.

This will sound shocking, I realize, but I'm starting to have my doubts about the whole survey thing, after all. The Commission on Worship probably knows all sorts of things that I don't, but I just can't figure out how to measure the will and workings of God with statistical analyses. Since He is not only the Author and Giver of life, but also the Author and Perfecter of faith, I have to admit that I'm befuddled by the prospect of identifying the top 5 percent of "soul-winning" congregations. And there's still that irksome quality vs. quantity thing. I mean, it really would be so much easier to conclude that having more people indicates a better something-or-other. Yet, it strikes me that smaller congregations are sometimes more faithful (sometimes not), while larger congregations are sometimes more heterodox (and sometimes not). I do assume that faithfulness is still the Church's calling and aim, rather than outward "success." Otherwise, I suppose we ought to all be reading Joel Osteen's books and forget about theology altogether.

The truth of the matter is, in all seriousness, that marriages and congregations alike live under the Cross, and under the providence of God. Faithfulness is by the Word and Spirit of Christ, and by no other ways or means than that. The Church on earth with all of her members, both collectively and individually, lives by faith and not by sight, in the midst of hardship and adversity, as also in prosperity and advantage. Children are a heritage of the Lord, as are new members. We know the ways and means by which the Lord gives life, in either case, but new life comes about according to His good pleasure, not upon demand. Pastors and congregations may labor faithfully for years without seeing any measurable results, just as many husbands and wives who long for children of their own are disappointed. By the same token, careless couples in the back seat of a car may find themselves expecting, and reckless congregations may be attracting large crowds by way of entertainment models that give the people what they want.

Faithfulness will not be so concerned about numbers, but with the Word of the Lord, the Law and the Gospel. Parents, pastors and congregations are called daily to repentance for their past failures — not to despair, but back to the Lord in faith and hope. Whether with few or many children, with few or many members, marriages and congregations serve the souls (and bodies) entrusted to their care by quietly and steadily doing what they are given to do. To that end, they will simply use the ways and means that God the Lord has provided for that purpose. As for the fact that none of us are as faithful as we ought to be, Christ be praised for His grace and mercy and forgiveness; else who could be saved? With man it is impossible, but not with God.

17 February 2008

Hannah and Samuel and the Single Most Important Thing a Parent Does

We've just begun studying First Samuel in the Sunday morning Bible class, and we're in the middle of Hannah's story. In some respects, it's one of those basic Sunday school stories that I've known since I was a little guy. In other ways, I'm finding that it's really more profound than I had ever realized before. In the entirety of the Holy Scriptures, I doubt there is any other woman, save for that most highly favored lady, the blessed Mother of God, St. Mary, who exhibits greater piety or faithfulness than Hannah. Her words and actions, her prayer and confession, are exemplary. Considering her character and conduct makes it easy to understand why Hannah has stood out as one of the more prominent Old Testament saints commemorated in the Eastern Churches (and now also in our own LSB on 2 September).

Hannah's son, Samuel (commemorated in the LSB on 20 August), is also more significant than many might expect. He is a second Moses, so to speak, a prophet, priest and, if not a king, then certainly a judge, a ruler of God's people. In both his birth and his eventual anointing of King David, he is a type of St. John the Baptist, going before the face of the Lord to prepare the way for His Messiah. In all of these ways, Samuel is instrumental in the Lord's fulfilling of His promises and the accomplishing of His purposes for Israel. For which we rightly give thanks, above all to the Lord Himself, but so also for His servants Samuel and Hannah.

My study of the Scriptures has persuaded me that Hannah's prayer for a son was not primarily for her own benefit, but for the salvation of Israel. She is troubled by her rival, her husband's other wife, Penninah, to be sure, but I believe that Hannah's greater grief and sorrow is caused by the wicked apostasy of Eli's sons, who daily profaned the Name of the Lord, despised His gifts, and abused His people in a variety of heinous ways. She prays for a son, not that she would have the joy of rearing him to adulthood, but that she may dedicate him to the Lord for lifelong service, to live before Him in righteousness, and to bring His deliverance to Israel. Her prayer is answered, and the Word of the Lord is confirmed, not simply in the conception and birth of a son, but when young Samuel is presented to the Lord and his entire life is offered as a living sacrifice. It is then that Hannah sings her powerful song of praise, which confesses the Lord and His great salvation, anticipating in faith and hope the anointing of His King, the Messiah, who would come.

Hannah keeps her baby Samuel with her until he is weaned, probably until he was three. In the past, I've taken it for granted that she simply wanted to have him for herself for as long as possible, and that a certain reluctance and regret tugged at her maternal heart. Surely she would have experienced sadness in giving him up to the Lord, as would any parent, but I have been led to rethink her motivations in this case, too. She cares for her son, as a mother for her child, in ways that old Eli will obviously not. She lives in her vocation and fulfills it (as did the mother of Moses in his infancy). But this not only with respect to the care and tending of his body. While nursing Samuel at her breast, she is likewise also catechizing him to long for the pure spiritual milk of the Word.

Mother's are always teaching their children, even from the womb. They speak words of love, and words of knowledge and wisdom. The faithful women of God speak, not only their own love and knowledge and wisdom, but especially that of the Lord. Hannah would have done so for Samuel, as she dandled him on her knee, and in this way she prepared him for liturgical service in the House of the Lord, and for the special revelation that he would receive when the Lord summoned him to be, not only a priest, but a prophet and a judge.

I'm convinced that Joakim and Anna did the same for their young daughter, the Blessed Virgin Mary, as she was growing up, until that day when she would be summoned to conceive and bear such as Son as the world had never seen before. Why is it that her Magnificat is so similar to the Song of Hannah? Certainly these two canticles have the same Author in the Person of the Holy Spirit; but the Spirit does His work with earthly things and sings with human voices. Both Hannah and Mary speak and sing, and pray and confess, with the faith of the Church — but where does such faith come from? It is by the Word of the Lord. Thus, Hannah believes and confesses what she has been taught from the Torah.

Dear St. Mary, likewise, sings with the voice of praise that she has been taught by the Law and the Prophets, including the Song of Hannah. Her language of faith is the language of the Holy Scriptures, with which she has been catechized. How else would she pray, praise and give thanks, than with the Word of the Lord that her Mommy and Daddy have taught her? As she has conceived the Lord's Anointed in her womb, the Son of David who shall reign over the House of the Lord forever and ever — and as she visits her who once was barren, who has conceived a child in her old age, a son who will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His way — what better Word for St. Mary to recall than Hannah's song? With that Word, in particular, the Lord opens her mouth to show forth His praise, even as that very Word is confirmed in the Fruit of her womb.

Especially as my own children are growing up, and now that DoRena and Zachary are preparing to get married, establish homes and start families of their own, I have been thinking more and more about my place and purpose in the world. I am daily given opportunities to serve my neighbor. I have my vocations as a husband and father. I have been called and ordained to preach and teach the Word of God, to administer His means of grace, and thus to catechize and care for the sheep of His pasture in this place. From time to time, I am also enabled to serve the Church at large with the gifts that God the Lord has entrusted to my stewardship. All of this is significant and important, whether noticed or not, whether remembered in the future or not.

As I get older, I am increasingly comfortable and content with that which God has given me to do; despite the fact that, yes, my sinful old Adam can still manage to get me riled up, restless and agitated for something more. The words of St. John the Baptist are instructive, when his disciples were distressed that Jesus was baptizing more people than John: "He must increase, but I must decrease." No man can receive anything unless it is given to him. We serve for a little while in our own time, in our own place, and the Lord accomplishes His purposes according to His good and gracious will. It is not our work but His gift that bestows life.

Anyway, I have been contemplating the fact that, one hundred years from now (if the Lord should patiently allow this world to continue that long), it may well prove to be that the most significant contribution I have made, by the grace of God, is simply to have catechized my children for whatever service they are given. I cannot know what their future will hold; no more than Hannah could know what the Lord would ultimately accomplish through her son, Samuel. In rearing our children in the fear and admonition of the Lord, we live by faith in His Word and acknowledge that they are His, not ours. They may live in quiet faithfulness and simply catechize their own children in turn; or the Lord may change the world and deliver His Church through them, in the vocations to which He calls them. Whatever the case may be, they are prepared to receive and respond to the Lord's calling by the catechesis of His Word.

My wife and I are given to care for our children's bodily needs, as Hannah was given to nurse her baby Samuel until he was weaned. We feed them and clothe them, shelter and protect them (so far as the Lord enables); we teach them how to read and write, how to calculate numbers, how to understand the world and our society, and how to get along with their neighbor. But the single most important thing we are given to do for our children, is to speak the Word of God to them: to catechize them with His Word. To pray and confess and sing the Word of God, and the Church's faith in His Word: to our children, with our children, for our children, so long as we have breath. In the womb, at the breast, and as they daily increase in wisdom and stature. We catechize and train them by example, by taking them to Church, by making time for daily prayer in the home. But along with our example (which is never as faithful and flawless as it ought to be), we ought never to refrain from confessing the Word of God, from saying what He has said, and saying it again, and repeating it, and having our children repeat it — so that it penetrates deeply through their ears into their hearts and minds, and then proceeds out of their mouths and into their lives.

Sometimes, even when we catechize our children faithfully and well, they do not receive it in faith or follow in the way they should go. We cannot make them believe the Word of the Lord; we can only speak it to them. In this, also, we entrust them to the One who is alone their Creator and their God. Maybe Eli catechized his sons; maybe he did not; either way, they rebelled against their father and more tragically against the Lord and His people. The answer would come in the person of a prophet, Samuel, who would speak the Law and the Gospel, and by this Word the Lord would kill and make alive, bring down to the grave and raise up again. The Word of the Lord remains the only real answer, the only real hope and help in time of need. He is the One who closes and opens the womb, who closes and opens the heart. Hannah trusted Him for both, and He remembered her, His people and His Church.

It is not worse for the Church in our own day than it was for Hannah and the people of Israel then. Faith does not despair, but prays and confesses, and hopes in the Lord, who is faithful. Hannah lived within her vocation, even when it seemed as though her vocation was for nought. When the Lord opened her womb and gave her a son, it was for her to give him back to the Lord all the days of his life. We do the same when we catechize our children in the Word of the Lord: when they wake up in the morning, when they go to bed at night, and as they go about their days; in the house and in the car; at the gate and on the sidewalk; when they sit down to eat and when they get up to play or work or study. Such catechesis is not silly or a waste of time; it is the single most important thing that parents are given to do.

16 February 2008

Your Father's Eyes to See, Your Mother's Ears to Hear (St. John 3:1-17)

Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a ruler of the Jews, a teacher of Israel. But he is in the dark and does not understand. He tries to come to Jesus by the Law instead of by faith, but it doesn’t work. He reasonably considers himself an expert in matters of religion; he’s evaluated Jesus on the basis of what he knows, and he’s reached a preliminary conclusion that is flattering and complimentary. Yet, for all of that, he is ignorant and naive. Jesus has to stop him in his tracks and take him to school: not for academic information, but to be entirely reborn as a new person.

You also are in the dark, conceived and born under the Law; and you cannot see the Kingdom of God — you cannot perceive or recognize it — except that you are born again, enlightened by the washing of water with the Word and Spirit of God in Holy Baptism. Otherwise, you would still have the same problem that Nicodemus did on the night when he first came to Jesus.

By your own natural reason and strength, you think you know what God is like, but you are wrong. You imagine that God must be like you; that He must think like you, and act like you, and deal with you in the way that you would deal with your neighbor. Not so. You suppose that you know what "spirituality" is, and what it ought to look like, but really you don’t have a clue.

You cannot recognize God when you see Him, and you would never have been able to find your own way to Him. You could never have ascended into heaven by any way or means of your own (though in your sin you presumptuously make the attempt). But Christ the Lord, your God, has descended from heaven to you, in order to raise you up with Himself in His Ascension.

By your first birth (of flesh and blood), you have inherited your parents’ sin and death, which blind you to all that pertains to God. It is only by the new birth of the Spirit (by Holy Baptism) that you have entered the Kingdom of God — through the Cross & Resurrection of Christ Jesus. Through Him, the promised Seed of Abraham, you have become a child of Abraham by faith.

All of this is the gracious good work of God for you, His gift; and yet, you could not recognize it, nor even receive it, by your own perception or insight — not by any ingenuity or understanding of yours. It becomes all the more impossible for you (and Nicodemus) to see or understand, when it comes down to the Sign that Jesus performs in the Hour of His Glory: in His Crucifixion. There He glorifies the Father’s Name, but He surely does not look like a teacher sent from God upon the Cross; far less does He there appear to be God Himself, manifested in the flesh; yet, so He is.

Indeed, it is by His Cross and Crucifixion, first of all, that He is lifted up for you, in order to atone for your sins, to call you to Himself, and to bring you with Himself back to the Father in heaven.

You are born again, through His death, unto life with God. There is no Resurrection or Ascension for you, except by the Cross of Christ. Only by the Cross and Passion of the Lord Jesus Christ are you set right with God and brought into harmony with Him.

Look to Christ, therefore, hung upon the Cross for your life and salvation. For all who look to Him in faith, all who believe and are baptized into Him, shall not perish but have everlasting life. Look to Him, and live. He has not come to judge you or condemn you, but to save you.

Still, none of this is within your own natural grasp. You could not see it, nor comprehend any of it, much less believe it. Nor can you even now by any will or wisdom of your own heart or mind.

But the Holy Spirit calls you by the Gospel, enlightens you with His gifts, sanctifies and keeps you in the true faith, unto the life everlasting. That is the essential key to everything, by which you enter the Kingdom of God through Christ Jesus, the incarnate Son. The Spirit reveals Him to you.

It is the Holy Spirit, by the Gospel, who fixes your eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of faith. Because He loves you, He lays Christ upon your heart with the Gospel, and He lays you upon the bosom of the Father in and with Christ Jesus.

So has He also given you the new birth of Holy Baptism.

The Church, therefore, the Lord’s own beloved Sarah, has thus become your Mother in Christ, having given birth to you from the womb of the font (by the Word and Spirit of God); so that, not only Abraham, but God Himself is now your Father, and you are His own dear child and heir. But you do not have the Father without the Mother. You do not have the Lord your God apart from His Bride, the Church. You do not have your Father’s eyes to see the Kingdom of God, unless you have your Mother’s ears to hear the Spirit's Voice in the Word of Christ.

The Holy Spirit is actively present and at work within the Church on earth, and He speaks the Gospel to you by such earthly ways and means. Here He is breathed upon you from the Cross of Christ in words of forgiveness, in the water and the blood. Do not suppose that you will lay hold of heavenly things apart from these earthly means. You won’t. You can’t. But the Holy Spirit performs His work upon you with earthly things that you can see and touch and handle and taste.

You cannot see the Spirit with your eyes, nor can you predetermine His comings and goings. Do not even try. But you do hear His Voice, because He calls you by the Gospel out of darkness into light, out of the nighttime of your sin and death and unbelief, into the Day of the Lord.

You have known His Voice in the waters of Holy Baptism, when He came down to rest and remain upon you in the bodily form of that Sacrament, and the heavens were opened to you.

You still hear the Spirit’s Voice in this very preaching of the Gospel, and in the spoken Word of Absolution, which is the free and full forgiveness of your sins, in Jesus’ name and for His sake.

So do you hear the Spirit’s Voice in that Word of Christ with which He bids you eat and drink His Body given, His Blood poured out, for you.

It is by this Word of Christ, the Voice of the Holy Spirit, that God the Father declares you to be righteous, His beloved and well-pleasing child.

And at the last, this same Voice of God, by which all things were created out of nothing, will raise your body from the grave (as Christ Himself is raised) and bring you into His Kingdom forever and ever. Amen!

The Temple Made without Hands

For the Second Friday in Lent (St. John 2:13-22)

The Lord's Passover is at hand, and the firstborn Son of the Father shall be put to death as the Lamb of God, that His people may be spared from death, and saved from sin, and set free from bondage.

You live, therefore, by abiding in the Father's house in peace, where the blood of this Lamb marks the door, where His flesh is eaten in hope and with thanksgiving.

But you cannot remain in His house forever, nor can you live with Him in His presence, so long as you remain in your sin. For your sin has put you at odds with your Father and would separate you from His house and home altogether. If you are to abide under His roof, safe and secure, when the Angel of Death passes through Egypt, then you must be forgiven of your sins and reconciled to your Father; else you die.

Do not cast about frantically for some way or means of appeasing Him. You'll not buy or earn God's favor by any coin or sacrifice of your own. Atonement and reconciliation are not a business transaction that you may negotiate. Attempting to barter or bargain for your life with God only alienates you that much further from Him.

Rather, see here that the Son of God has been entirely consumed by His zeal for the Father's house, that it would be, not a marketplace of works righteousness, but a place of peace and rest for you and for disciples of all nations: a mighty fortress, a refuge and stronghold, a place where you are safe from sin, death, the devil and hell, and from the condemnation of the Lord's own Law.

It is by His Cross and Resurrection that Christ Jesus has become, not only the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, but also the true, divine eternal Temple of God among His people, established here for you.

His Body has been sacrificed, once for all, to atone for the sins of the world; and His Blood has been shed for reconciliation with God. Thus, His Resurrection from the dead is the opening of heaven to you and to all who believe and are baptized into Him. His open tomb is now the ever open door back into the Father's house.

It is by this authority of His Cross and Resurrection that Jesus calls you to repentance and brings you to faith by forgiving your sins. So also from His Cross and in His Resurrection, He feeds you with His own holy Body, which is the very Temple of God.

Thus, He abides in you, and you abide in Him, who is the Lord your God. And abiding in Him, you dwell in the House of the Lord all the days of your life, both now and forever.

For His House, His Temple, is no one building — neither here nor in Palestine, nor in any other single place on earth — but it is His own Body: conceived and born of the Blessed Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, risen and ascended to the right hand of the Father, but given to His disciples in His Supper in His Church on earth.

His Church also is one Body in Him, because His disciples from all nations eat of His one Body and drink from His one Cup. They are all together built into a living Temple of living stones, of which you also are one, built upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, Christ Himself the Cornerstone.

Wherever in the world His Scriptures are read, wherever His Word of the Gospel is preached in its truth in purity, there is His Church gathered — His Body, His Temple — to feast upon His Body and Blood.

You, therefore, here receive what you are, and be what you receive: the Body of Christ. Be cleansed and sealed by His Blood for life and salvation in Him, and be at peace with God your Father. Here you are already at home with Him, and death shall not touch you forever. Though your body shall die and be buried, you also shall rise, in and with your body, and live.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

13 February 2008

"Soul Winning" Worship?

I am constrained to put the best construction on things. Which is good and right and as it should be, because I am not omniscient but finite; and not only that, but I am sinful and unclean in my own thoughts, words and deeds. Yet, I am hard-pressed to know how to put any "best construction" on a proposition of the new LCMS Commission on Worship.

Set aside for the time being that — despite the beautiful opportunity which the Lutheran Service Book has provided for a restoration of unity in practice — the Commisson on Worship is now pursuing its mandate "to provide guidance and direction for use of diverse/contemporary worship resources" (2007 Res. 2-02A). I simply hope and pray that the criteria for doctrinal review of "the top 100 CCLI songs most commonly used in LCMS congregations" will be truly Christological, evangelical and catholic. For surely anything that would be sung in a Christian congregation ought to be, not only "Scriptural," but a proper dividing of the Law and the Gospel, finally focused and centered in Christ Jesus, and thus confessing the external Word and Sacraments as the only means by which the grace of God in Christ is bestowed. If the Commission will have the intestinal fortitude and loving integrity to admonish, correct, exhort and reprove those congregations that have utilized less than salutary "CCLI songs," well then, praise God. Until I see evidence to the contrary, I'll assume that is the goal. (I don't like it when people make presumptions about me, nor when they judge me on the basis of their presuppositions; so I prefer not to proceed in such a fashion with others. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, even if they don't.)

But the proposition of a "worship survey of the top 5 percent of LCMS 'soul winning' congregations," is offensive right out of the blocks. I frankly don't know how to interpret it otherwise. I'll readily grant that it surely stems from some kind of well-intentioned zeal, but to say that it is misguided would already be stretching the limits of charity.

Here is what the Commission on Worship's Reporter insert says: "The commission is working on developing a survey of the top 5 percent of LCMS 'soul winning' congregations, defined as those congregations with the greatest number of adult baptisms, adult confirmations, and professions of faith. This survey is to determine what happens during the most visible hour of a congregation's week that helps them be the soul winners that they are."

I suppose I can figure out what is intended by this "soul winning" terminology, but that doesn't make such a grotesque use of language right or salutary. The Scriptures do on occasion speak of "winning a brother," by which they refer to the calling of a sinner to repentance, and especially of reconciliation between Christians. Over such things the angels in heaven rejoice, and so do I. But here this "soul winning" is defined with quite different parameters. Not only is "adult baptism" distinguished from infant baptism, in a way that ought to make any Lutheran blush with shame, but the man-made rite of confirmation is set on par with the God-given Sacrament of Holy Baptism, and "professions of faith," presumably by those who are already baptized Christians, are evidently interpeted as though they were conversions (unless "winning souls" refers to some kind of inter-denominational contest). All of this is sloppy and unbecoming, but it is not the worst aspect of this undertaking.

Since when do Lutherans need a survey to determine how souls are won? Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ. In order to obtain such faith, God has instituted the Office of the Ministry for the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. Through these means of grace, the Holy Spirit works faith, where and when it pleases Him, in those who hear the Gospel. One servant of the Word may plant the seed; another may water; but it is God the Lord who gives the growth (or not, as the case may be). He adds daily to the number of those being saved, but with the Gospel comes the cross and persecution and rejection. The implicit notion of some further tricks or techniques, programs or propaganda, which are supposedly making the Word more effective (sic) in some congregations, as measured by outward numerical growth, is contrary to the Word of God. It may be Methodistic or Revivalistic, but it is certainly not Lutheran. Souls are won by Christ and His Spirt, by the ways and means of the Gospel, and not by any of the clever machinations of man. It is likewise the Word and Spirit of Christ by which pastors preach faithfully, and by which the people of God receive the gifts Christ freely gives in faith and with thanksgiving. And where that is happening, by God's grace, look for the Cross and suffering, not impressive statistics.

How is it that well-meaning Lutherans can wander so far afield from the Holy Scriptures? It certainly hasn't helped that "we" insist on using this word, "worship," as the comprehensive term for "what happens during the most visible hour of a congregation's week." There is a place for this word, as there is certainly a central place for worship in the Christian life. But as the chief worship is faith, and all other true Christian worship is by faith, it is ever and always contingent on that which is prior and primary, namely, the Word and work of God in Christ: His speaking of His Gospel, His giving of His gifts. "Worship" refers to that which we do and say to honor God. A term that our Lutheran Confessions use to speak of that which God says and does for us is "Liturgy," which accords with the Ministry of the Gospel. I've been told that we maybe ought to avoid this confessional, Christocentric term and stick with "worship," because of popular opinion and usage. But I don't buy it. I'm all in favor of pastoral sensitivity, and I recognize that terms can be somewhat plastic, but so long as "worship" is allowed to function as the key word, I don't believe that we'll ever be able to avoid the false assumptions and conclusions that everything hinges upon man's doing of stuff for God.

And here's what happens then: Not only is "worship" approached as the congregation's work for God, but it is also then bastardized into a malleable evangelistic tool. Not only is God dethroned from being the One who works for us to give us Sabbath Rest in Christ; He's also then required to share our attentions with outsiders. Does no one detect the idolatry in this? That the Church's "worship" should be aimed, not at glorifying God, but at "winning" over pagans to our side?

To be sure, the world is often watching what we do on Sunday morning. Let us then hold fast to our confession of the faith. Let us find our Sabbath Rest in Christ. Let us set aside our own works and efforts, our own reason and strength, and be served by the Word and Spirit of God, who calls us by the Gospel, enlightens us with His gifts, sanctifies and keeps us in the one true faith. Let us set an example of giving our utmost attention to His Word and the preaching of it. Let us not be ashamed of the Gospel, which is alone the power of God unto salvation to all who believe. Let us find our hope, and stake our lives, and risk our necks on the simple, outward, foolishly cruciform means of grace, on words and water, bread and wine. Let every word we dare to speak in the presence of God be a confession of His speaking to us by His Son. Let us worship the Lord our God, and serve Him only, by receiving His Liturgy of forgiveness.

11 February 2008


No, that's not a typo. Those are my wife's initials, she being the lovely LaRena Marjorey Chancellor Stuckwisch. Today is her birthday. Logically, I know that she can't still be 29 and counting, but she has been aging gracefully and is becoming more beautiful as the years go by.

She was seventeen when we met and fell in love, nineteen when we got married, and almost twenty-one when she delivered our firstborn (who is now as old as we both were when she arrived). Whenever I look at pictures of the two of us back then, I marvel at how young we look; it's no wonder that everyone else marveled a bit at the time. What can I say? We probably weren't ready to get married (though who ever is?), but it's all worked our rather wonderfully, and I don't suppose that we'd be the people that we are today, nor would we have the family that we do, if we had proceeded with more caution. I don't chalk any of it up to luck, nor even love, nor good planning on my part, but simply to the grace of God.

I would have liked to wine and dine my dear bride on this day, but, alas, there was no time in the schedule for it. Shucks, I hardly got to see her. I did get to give her the present that Zach and I picked out and bought for her together while I was in Texas. And I was tickled for her to have such a great mail day: several cards and a package! That's cool. I'm aiming now for Valentine's Day. I figure, if I could feast with Justinian on his Ash Wednesday birthday, it'll be okay to feast with my wife on the commemoration of a holy martyr during Lent. (For the record, though, let me say that decadent extravagance is not usually the best or most salutary way to honor the memory of any martyr, even if he did set a precedent for sending heart-shaped cards to people. Maybe the chocolate hearts and flowers could be saved for the dawning of Easter?)

My better half is not without her faults and weaknesses, I realize. That's probably a good thing, lest she would otherwise outshine me all the more than she already does! Her righteousness and holiness are by grace through faith in Christ, to be sure, but her civil righteousness surely must include her patience in putting up with me. For that, she ought to be canonized as a saint of exemplary virtue. Really, she is amazing in her encouragement and support, and in all the ways that she has sacrificed for the sake of my vocations and stations in life. Being a pastor's wife is, I think, one of the most difficult and thankless occupations in the world, but she handles it with real grace and charm and poise. I've long since lost count of the times that people have complimented her to me, because she simply radiates genuine care and concern and compassion for others. She's got a clever and creative mind, interesting thoughts and observations on life, a seemingly neverending capacity for great ideas, the drive and energy to make things happen, and a general enthusiasm for the little things that mean a lot. Living with such a remarkable woman has spoiled me, and I far too easily take her for granted, I'm ashamed to say. I need to be a better listener, and for my own sake as well as hers I need to more attentive.

I'll never forget the time when she conveyed to me that her hopes and dreams and aspirations were tied up in mine. I still find that incredibly humbling, and sometimes overwhelming. I think that's how it is for many wives; their identity is wrapped up in their husbands, despite the fact that we husbands too often fail to consider it or take our wives into account as we go about our routines. The fact of the matter is that I wouldn't be the man I am today, nor where I am today, if not for LaRena. So, how is it that I can sometimes go days at a time without thinking of that or acknowledging that? Her birthday is certainly an appropriate occasion to recognize her importance and significance, but such things ought to be the norm and not the exception. That would be a gift that keeps on giving. Mental note to self: Do better.

There are lots of things I love and appreciate about my wife. She's smart and conscientious. She's got energy and enthusiasm for all sorts of plans and projects. She's naturally friendly and a great conversationalist. She's got a neat artistic flair, as well as both a passion and a knack for gardening. She knows how to stretch a dime and make the most of what she's got to work with. Along with all of that, she's quite pretty, too. And there's lots more that could be said, but I have to add that I treasure her commitment to being a mother, and I give thanks for all that she has done (and continues to do) in bearing and rearing our children. As much as she loves it, I know that it's not easy. That's something I don't ever take lightly or for granted.

09 February 2008

Hunger and Thirst for Christ

If you’re trying to beat the devil on your own, you’re fighting a losing battle. And if you give in to him, you’ve already lost. He’s crafty and enticing, savvy and subtle, deceptive and dangerous. He’s got the sinful world on his side and a hoard of demons; and your own heart and mind are perverted by your native sin and unbelief. The odds are stacked against you altogether.

The good news is that Jesus has defeated the devil on your behalf — and He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. The Lord Jesus Christ, the beloved and well-pleasing Son of God, has been tempted in all the ways that you are, but He has not sinned.

What He has done, though, is to bear your sins in His own body, and those of the whole world, along with all their deadly and damnable consequences, even to His Crucifixion. Thus, all of your sins have been dealt with and done away with. The innocence and righteousness of Christ covers you entirely, and Satan has nothing left with which he may legitimately accuse you.

That’s why the devil was so desperate to tempt Jesus away from the Cross — and why he is so frantic, now, in his efforts to seduce you away from Christ Jesus and His Cross.

When you hide yourself in Christ (by faith in His Gospel), when you find your rest in Him, then you dwell in the shelter of the Most High and abide in safety under the shadow of the Almighty; while that old serpent, the devil, lies trampled under your feet, along with sin and death.

In this New Adam, Jesus Christ, God has provided every good thing for you, and all that you need for faith and life forever with Him.

Only do not reach for the forbidden fruit, for that which God has not given but has warned you against. Do not listen to the voice of the devil, who lies through his teeth with his forked tongue, and who calls into question the sure and certain Word of the Lord.

You live (really live) by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God, and by the Bread of Life from heaven, which is the Word-made-Flesh, the Word of Christ. He is your Lord, your Savior and your God, and He is your true Meat and Drink indeed. But know that He feeds you from the Cross, by the ways and means of the Cross, often now with adversity and sorrow.

In contrast to and competition with this Food of the Cross, the devil presents you with pretty fruit that is delightful and desirable, which appears to be good and wise and advantageous.

So, what are you hungry for? And what do you choose to eat? Do you reach for the Tree of the Cross, or for the knowledge of good and evil?

How often do you make excuses for yourself, rationalizations, and conspire to make or take bread for yourself that God has not provided? You suppose that you know better — or that you can handle it (take the heat and manage on your own) — or that you are the exception to the rules. So you take and eat what God has forbidden, which brings death and the devil with it.

Repent of your misplaced appetite and gluttonous idolatry. Hunger instead for God the Lord, for Christ and His Word. Seek first His Kingdom and His Righteousness, and all that you need for life everlasting will be yours (in Him), though it is given you in, with and under the Cross.

Hunger for God. But receive Him by His grace, through faith in Christ, according to His Word of the Gospel, and not by any efforts of your own to scale the heights of heaven.

Works righteousness and self-righteousness within the church are no better — but perhaps even more perverse — than the false belief of pagan idolatry.

The way in which you are to go is not one of your own design or choosing. Walk within your God-given vocations in life, whether glamorous or mundane, tedious or exciting. As a disciple of Christ Jesus, take up the Cross in faith and bear it in love for those whom God has positioned in relation to you. Honor your father and mother. Love and cherish your own husband or wife, and be faithful in all things. Serve and support your neighbor’s body and life, his household, home and family. Do your job. Fulfill your office. Be satisfied with whatever you are given.

Your life is sanctified by Christ, by His Word and Spirit, by faith and prayer; not by impressing the world with grand achievements. It is not what you accomplish, but what you receive from Christ, that avails before God your Father in heaven. It is the righteousness and faithfulness of Christ Jesus that sustains you, unto the life everlasting.

Don’t trade that for anything; neither for a bowl of porridge, nor for all the kingdoms and power and glory of the world.

You should know better. You should know that the wicked devil, the sinful world, and your own covetous flesh are lying to you. Why do you fall for it? Why do you buy into that scam?

Still you keep on reaching for that which God has told you not to touch. You bend your knee before the ruler of this world, while refusing to humble yourself under the mighty hand of God. You bow down and worship the toys and entertainment, the frivolity and self-gratification of man, and sell your soul to the devil for treasures on earth that will decay and waste away, along with yourself, if they are not lost or stolen or destroyed even sooner!

Why? Because your heart burns with desire for that which God has not given (for that which is not God). Because you want to be in charge and call the shots and make a life for yourself.

You want to be God.

So you make of the one true God your enemy (although He is in truth your Savior). And you harden your heart against your neighbor, as well, because you make of everyone your opponent and competitor. Your stomach twists and turns with envy and jealousy. You resent what God has given your neighbor (even your brother or sister in Christ), and, what is worse, you crave that which your neighbor has acquired by his sins. You love such things more than you love God.

With such a sinful heart, you are no match for Satan. It really is a losing battle, and you’ve lost already before you’ve begun. The serpent so easily beguiles you to sin, and then he stands the first in line to accuse you and press charges. You are left naked and afraid, guilty and ashamed.

You try to run, but you can’t escape. You try to hide, but there’s nowhere for you to go.

Thank God. Thank God that He searches you out and finds you, that He exposes you to His light and speaks His Word to you. You would be lost and gone forever if He did not. You are not better off without Him. Though His Law judges and condemns you and punishes your sin, His Law is not His last or final Word concerning you. He crushes the devil’s head, not yours. And this He does, He beats the devil for you, by taking all your guilt and punishment upon Himself!

He has taken your nakedness and shame upon Himself. He has suffered your death and damnation in your stead. All of this upon the tree of the Cross. Even though He alone is without sin; He has not given in to any temptation. He suffers and dies in perfect righteousness, innocence and blessedness; in steadfast faith toward God, and in absolute love for God and man (for you!). He goes to the Cross voluntarily, in humble obedience to His Father for your sake, to save you.

It is from the Cross that He washes you with tender care, so that you are clean within and without, in body and soul. It is from the Cross that He clothes you with Himself, so that you are adorned all-glorious like a beautiful bride, like the most handsome Prince (the fairest of them all).

It is from the Cross, the Tree of Life, that He feeds you with His Body and His Blood. Here is the fruit that God has not forbidden, but gives to you freely for the forgiveness of all your sins and the strengthening of your faith, that you may live forever.

He knows that you are frail, weak and helpless. He knows that you are weary and worn, burdened and beleaguered. He is a great High Priest who sympathizes with you, because He has been in your shoes, in your wilderness, in your long hot 40 days, your dark and dreary 40 nights.

He has been there for you, and He is still here with you. Not simply to help you (though He does) but to save you. He stands beside you on the plain with His good gifts and Spirit. It is no angel, but He Himself ministers to you. He forgives your every sin, every fall into temptation.

He returns you to the waters of your Baptism, to the Word and promises of God: You are a beloved son of God, for Jesus’ sake. His Father is your Father, and He is well-pleased with you.

Don’t look at your sin and failings; for He does not. Don’t listen to the devil, but hear the Word of Christ. He will never leave you nor forsake you; He will not lie to you nor fail you.

You shall not die, but live.

See here, He feeds you. Take and eat. Drink from His Cup of Salvation. It may not look like much, but here is true wisdom. It is the best of foods, the finest of wines. It is given and poured out for you. As great as your trespasses have been, this gift and grace of God in Christ is greater. Here the Lord is your refuge, the Most High your habitation. Welcome home!

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.