30 July 2009

Why I Cooled It on Matchmaking

I'm not sure anyone has noticed, because I still get ribbed about my matchmaking hobby, but I actually did reluctantly cool it on that whole gig some time ago. It was too often misunderstood and miscontrued, and therefore counterproductive to my purpose.

Purpose? Yes, there was a point to it. My comments on matchmaking have always been one part affectionate teasing and another part serious counsel, though not in the sense that some may have assumed. I've never actually presumed to matchmake anyone else's children; nor would I attempt to do so. Even in the case of my own children, I have neither dictated nor manipulated their relationships. I have involved myself in their friendships and romance, and I have endeavored to be both available for and welcoming of their conversation in such areas. Along with that, when I have spoken of matchmaking, partly in good humor and partly with serious intent, I have wanted to convey something about the nature of relationships; not only for my own children, but also for the young people entrusted to my pastoral care.

Regrettably, my matchmaking efforts, so to speak, have been regarded as too silly on the one hand, but have been taken too seriously on the other hand. That is why I have cooled it, even if no one has noticed. The point and purpose were being lost, and I feared that I was causing more harm than the good I intended. So now I'll spell it out forthrightly.

I have spoken of matchmaking in the past, because by such gentle teasing I have hoped to convey my affection for the young people in my life. I love my own children dearly, and I love the children and young people of my congregation, too. I care about them and about their lives. My teasing, of whatever sort, is always an expression of that affectionate care for them. It is never intended to shame or embarrass them.

With respect to matchmaking or romance, I have teased in part because I believe it can be helpful to a certain extent. Leastwise, that is how it was for me when I was an adolescent boy. My Grandpa used to tease me about the girls at school, and there was a part of me that really wished he wouldn't; but there was another sense in which I benefited from his teasing. I learned from him that it was normal and expected for boys to begin noticing girls and liking them. I also perceived that such attractions were not dirty or despicable, but something to be delighted in. There was an innocence and sense of fun about it, cradled in the safety of my Grandpa's love for me. Grandfathers, fathers and pastors can gently tease in a way that rejoices in the genuine goodness of romance, without the risqué innuendo of the world's perverse humor.

I have also spoken of matchmaking in order to convey several significant points concerning romantic relationships: First of all, I have wanted to emphasize that parents, fathers in particular, ought to be paying attention and being proactive in their children's relationships and plans for the future. Fathers are fundamental to the way that sons and daughters grow up and learn how to be men and women, how they relate to the opposite sex, and how they know what to do with their lives in this world. Fundamentalist approaches to "courtship" are prone to legalism and contrivance, but they have rightly perceived that a father ought to be actively involved in preparing his daughters (and sons) for holy marriage. Fathers are likewise key to discerning the relatively rare gift of celibacy; which may strike readers as quite the opposite of matchmaking, but is actually quite in harmony with the point of parental authority.

By speaking of matchmaking, I have also wanted to urge the goodness and rightness of marriage. The world in general disparages marriage, and even many Christians have bought into the mindset of delaying marriage on some kind of principle. My point has not been that everyone should or must get married, whether sooner or later, but only that marriage should not be feared, avoided or put off, but rather anticipated and approached with deliberate and conscientious intent. Marriage is a good gift of God; those who deny it are teaching the doctrine of demons, according to St. Paul. Marriage preaches the Gospel of Christ and His Bride, the Church. It is to be received with thanksgiving, and sanctified by the Word of God and prayer. In addition, by the grace and mercies of God, marriage is a powerful protection against the powerful temptations of sexual desire. Matchmaking suggests that parents and their teenagers should be thinking positively about the prospect of marriage, rather than striving to stave it off, leaving it to happenstance, or supposing that the lusts of the flesh are of little concern or consequence.

When I have teased the young people of my congregation about matchmaking, I have never meant to pressure them into anything, to compell or constrain them in any particular direction. I would not want any of them to rush into marriage apart from the carefully considered wisdom, counsel and advice of their own fathers and mothers. They ought to be seeking the counsel and advice of their pastors, too, and not proceeding without that guidance and direction of the Word of God. By the same token, young people should not be pressured or constrained to flee from the goodness of marriage, but catechized in its theological significance, its purpose and benefits. If I'm not able to make these points clearly or well with comments on matchmaking, I shall be looking for other ways to teach and convey the goodness and rightness of marriage, and the role of parents in preparing their children for that blessed estate.

27 July 2009

The Freedom and Fundamentals of Faith

For those within day-trip distance of the Indianapolis area, please take note of the annual Worship Workshop this fall, hosted by the Indiana District Worship & Spiritual Care Committee at Advent Lutheran Church in Zionsville (a northwest suburb of Indy). It will take place on Saturday the 19th of September, beginning with Matins at 9:30 a.m. and concluding around 3:00 p.m. with a hymn festival on the Nicene Creed. Information on the workshop and the registration form are available from the Indiana District Website here.

Yours truly will be thinking out loud in the plenary presentation on the Freedom and Fundamentals of Faith in Worship. I will be attempting to address the criteria by which adiaphorous rites and ceremonies are received, evaluated, selected and practiced in the service and support of the Word of God, in faith and love.

The workshop will also include sectionals by Dr. Paul Grime on the Church Year and on the criteria for the selection of choral music. Kantor Kevin Hildebrand will do a sectional on the criteria for the selection of organ music. Pastor David Koeneman will speak on Communion practice, and Pastor Richard Heinz will speak on the topic of the parish at prayer. Mrs. Lois Prahlow will do a sectional presentation on child-friendly ideas for visually adorning the church's worship.

The modest cost of the workshop ($25) includes lunch in the middle of the day. Again, more information and the registration form are avaible as a pdf from the Indiana District website. We'd sure be pleased to have you join us. Mail the registration by Holy Cross Day (14 September), if possible; or else, show up on the 19th.

25 July 2009

Through the Waters out of Death into Life

The cosmic deep of creation. The worldwide flood. The Red Sea and the Jordan. The waters of your Holy Baptism. Jesus Christ, the Word of God, is always bringing you through the water out of darkness into light, out of slavery into freedom, out of death into life.
He makes His disciples, including you, to get on board the boat in order to cross the water to the other side. His goal for you, and your destination, is life with God forever in both body and soul in the land of health and strength, flowing with milk and honey and every good thing.
Now you’re in the boat in the midst of the sea, with water to your left and water to your right and water all around you. And how is it going?
You’re tormented and tossed about by the waves, straining at the oars, because the wind is against you. The Law always accuses you, and your works do not avail. So there are turbulent winds and waves buffeting you inside and out. And it appears that Jesus has abandoned you. He’s gone off on His own, and left you alone, it seems.
Are you going to drown and die in the water forever? Will the Flood really end in newness of life for you and all creation, or in the permanent destruction of your flesh and your soul in death?
Truthfully, Jesus has not forgotten or forsaken you. He sees you in your distress, and He moves to save you in His love. He passes through the water to go ahead of you by His Baptism, even unto His death upon the Cross. He ascends the Mountain of God, finally by that very sacrifice, in order to pray and intercede for you, and to become your prayer and your sweet-smelling incense.
But even then, as the new Moses who has brought you out of Egypt, and as the new and greater Joshua who crosses the Jordan and blazes the trail for you into the heavenly promised land, He does not leave you alone but comes to you, to journey with you and bring you into life with Him.
Why do you harden your heart against Him? Why are you so incredulous and frightened by His presence? Why do you act as though death will have the decisive last word? Repent of that.
There is but one Flood that does put you to death: one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins, which crucifies and buries you with Christ, in order to raise you up with Him to new life, to eternal life within His New Creation. Never again shall any other such flood destroy you forever! Never.
You behold in the cloud of His Glory — which is the Gospel of forgiveness and salvation — He has set the sign of His Cross, with its crimson-colored rainbow of His holy and precious blood, as the seal of His gracious Word and promise to you: You shall not die but live.
That sign and seal of the Cross, with which He has marked your brow and your breast in Holy Baptism, is not simply a reminder to you. But, no, He sees; He remembers; and He moves to act in love according to His promise. He shall never leave you nor forsake you.
Consider the Covenant of the Loaves, which He takes, He blesses and breaks and gives to you — and with that Holy Food, also the New Covenant in His Blood, which He pours out for you.
Listen. He has come to you here, in His Boat, and He shall not pass you by nor leave you to die.
Take courage, and do not be afraid! He calls out to you in love. He speaks to you in mercy. His atoning sacrificial death has quieted the Law and brings peaceful calm to your troubled heart and mind. He grants genuine peace to your life in both body and soul, already now, and even forever.

He is here in the Boat with you, until He shall bring you safely to the other side with Himself. His Baptism avails for you. His death is your atonement and reconciliation with God. His Resurrection and Ascension are your prayer to the Father, who has given you His own Name in this same Lord, Jesus Christ; who has made you His dear child and loves you, now and always.
Rooted and grounded in His love for you in Christ, you are strengthened by the power of His Spirit through the forgiveness of all your sins (day by day), and you are filled with all the fullness of God Himself in the Body and Blood of Christ Jesus, His Son.
His Word to you — His Word of the Gospel, His forgiveness of all your sins — and His Holy Sacraments — are the hem of His garments, the fringe of His cloak, by which you lay hold of Him and are healed of all your iniquities; and, in the resurrection, cured of all your infirmities.
With these same garments of the Gospel, you are clothed with Christ Himself, and with His righteousness and holiness and innocence and blessedness.
With Him, in Him, through Him, by His Name which you bear, you pass through the water out of death into life. And out of the depths you ascend the Mountain of God to pray in His presence.
Even when it seems that Jesus has left you alone, or that He would pass you by, let not your heart be troubled; neither let it be afraid. The Lord is with you, and He is here to save you.
The waters of your Baptism will not destroy you forever, but the wind of the Spirit now breathes forgiveness into you, that you may live in peace and quietness, such as this world can never give.

Look, and listen: The incident of the Loaves has not ceased, but continues for you here aboard the boat. Take, eat, not a ghost, but the Body of Christ, His own sacred flesh; and drink His Blood of the New Covenant, which is poured out for you, and for the many, for the forgiveness of all your sins, for the resurrection of your body and the life everlasting.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Incident of the Loaves

What is it that you are looking for? What do you need?
You don’t know, really, unless you are taught. . . . But you do know need itself, because you hunger and thirst — not only for food and drink, and for clothing and shelter, but what else?
What satisfaction is required? What peace and rest do you long for?
Why is it so elusive, so impossible?
You are created for life with God, and you will never be satisfied, you will have no true and lasting rest, until you are filled with Him and find your peace and rest and life in Him.
What is it, then, that keeps you from Him? What is it that separates you from Him and cuts you off from Him? You know the answer; it is your own sin, by which you are always turning away.
It is already quite late, and you are in serious trouble if you don’t eat something that satisfies you. You’re in a desolate place, and there’s not enough money nor enough food to make ends meet.
But now the Lord has come ashore, and He sees you — He knows your need — and He has mercy upon you, and compassion for you. The One who created you in love for life with Himself, graciously opens His generous hand to provide for you.
Make no mistake, He does care about your body and life on earth, and He provides for all those needs, as He does for the lilies and the sparrows. But His care for you goes much further, and His provision likewise.
The divine compassion of the Good Shepherd is not merely an emotion of pity, but an active care and concern for you that springs from the very heart of Him; yes, from the entrails of His being. He suffers with you and for you. He bears your burdens and makes them His own. He gathers you to Himself, and takes your sin upon Himself. He suffers all the punishment of your sin, even the death of His Cross. He lays down His life for you, and sacrifices Himself for you.
The Good Shepherd becomes the Passover Lamb, the Sacrifice of Atonement for the entire flock.

Not only does He thus remove your burdens from you, but He then feeds you with Himself, with His sacrificial flesh and blood — and so He fills the deepest emptiness within you, with Himself.
How so? By the preaching and teaching of His Word, first of all; by the apostolic Ministry of the Gospel, which centers in the forgiveness of your sins and the gift of Christ Jesus. With Words? Yes, His preaching of Peace to you and to all, both near and far. Because He preaches nothing less than Himself to you, and reconciliation with God: into your ears, into your heart and life.
And He does more.
He takes the bread — He blesses and gives thanks — He breaks it and gives it to His disciples.
By the hand of His servant, He gives this Bread to you; for you are His disciple by the catechesis of His Word, and by the washing of water with His Word.
There is nothing lacking here, neither in quantity or quality. This Food that Jesus provides, His own Body and His Blood, feeds His entire Church in all times and places; and with this Food He satisfies your hunger, He quenches your thirst, unto life with God forever in both soul and body.
It is certainly not by my power or proficiency that I give you this Food! I could not do any such thing of myself. I too need the peace and rest that only Jesus provides by His Gospel. But for that very purpose, He has said to me: "You give them something to eat." So I do, at His Word, by His divine command. I preach and teach, and forgive, and distribute this Food of Christ Jesus.

Here, then, in the Lord’s Church, is the green grass of His Gospel, and the peaceful waters of forgiveness and life, and the banqueting Table with the overflowing Chalice of salvation.
Here is the Good Shepherd, who cares and provides for His whole Church.
What, then, shall you say or do?
How many loaves do you have?
Is it not enough to do what the Lord has given you to do?
Do not suppose that you will ever be able to make ends meet by yourself. You can’t, and you won’t. You’ll run out of money, out of food, out of energy, and out of time.
But do not be dismayed, and do not grow weary or lose heart. For the Lord Jesus, your Good Shepherd, is still moved with compassion for you, His dear lamb, His sheep. He will provide for all that you need, and far more than you could ever ask or imagine.
Do the work to which He has called you: in the confidence of His grace, mercy and peace. Let each day be sufficient of itself to concern you; and let that be to you according to His Word.
But now, come away from your work to rest a while. Find your place aboard the boat with Jesus and His disciples, which is the holy ark of Christendom. Recline in the peace of Christ within these fruitful pastures of His Word. Eat, drink, and be satisfied.
The Lord your God removes all of your sin and relieves you of all your burdens. And He Himself is your Food, your Meat and Drink indeed, who fills you with His own life & salvation.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

20 July 2009

The Four Things that Keep Me Going Whenever I Feel Like Quitting

1. My vocation as a pastor. Not because it keeps me busy with constructive activity. Nor because it gives me a sense of personal satisfaction. But because it is always forcing me back into the Word of God, and into the Gospel in particular. Consistently I have found that, when I study the Word of God and when I preach the Gospel, it is impossible for me remain so discouraged. I'm sure that I would have given up long ago, if not for the fact that, week after week, I am required to consider the Gospel carefully and confess it clearly.

2. The singing of good hymns. Because they confess the Gospel to me, and they open my lips to give thanks to God for all His benefits, and they assist me in praying as I ought to pray, that is, according to His Word and His promises in Christ Jesus. All of this, accompanied by the good gift of music, and placed upon my tongue by the grace of God, enables not only my mouth but my heart to sing with faith. That is why I love hymnody and revel in it to such an extent, and why I insist upon the singing of good hymns, for myself and for the benefit of others.

3. My children and my granddaughter. Not as though they were never a challenge and frustration, but because, of all the temporal blessings in my life on earth, there is nothing that gives me such unmitigated joy as my children, including now also my granddaughter. Truly, as far as the things of this life are concerned, nothing else brings such genuine happiness so immediately to my heart and mind as my children and granddaughter do. Along with that, knowing that I have a responsibility for my children, and knowing that they depend on me, prevents me from throwing up my hands in despair and giving up. Even if I mattered to no one else on earth, I do matter to them, and I derive both rejoicing and resolve from that simple fact.

4. The Resurrection of Christ. Not apart from His Cross and Passion, certainly, but as the accomplished victory and the harvested first-fruits of His Cross and Passion. It is only within the last year or two that I have come to recognize the comfort and benefit of the Resurrection. Now, whenever it is brought to my heart and mind by the Word and Spirit of God, it is like the opening of the heavens and the shining forth of the sun upon my troubled soul and spirit. That may sound like rhetorical hyperbole, but I honestly don't know how else to put it. Remembering the Resurrection of Christ, and my own share in His Resurrection by my Baptism into His death, it dawns on me and it becomes clear that nothing else matters ultimately. My life is hidden with Christ in God. So that is how I live, and that is what keeps me going when I feel like quitting.

18 July 2009

Baccalaureate Homily

By the Wisdom of Christ, Pursue Your Vocations in Love

(Esther 3:12—4:16; Colossians 3:1-4, 12-17; and St. Luke 10:38-42)

The future set before you is one of freedom, and of both present and coming responsibility. You are who you are, in the place where God has put you, set in relationship to various other people. And now you have new and immediate plans, with all the new things that accompany them.
You proceed with those plans in the freedom you enjoy as an American citizen, and in the more fundamental freedoms of faith.
It is not your faith itself, but the object of your faith, namely, Christ your Savior, that sets you free to live. Bear that in mind, and treasure that in your heart, because He makes all the difference: not only in this world, but for the life everlasting in both body and soul.
There are basically two ways, or three if you will, to approach the future and the living of your life on earth. The first way, which is the only good and right way, is by faith in Christ Jesus.
The other way (or ways) is to rely upon yourself — in other words, to be your own god; to fear, love and trust in yourself — which is the way of idolatrous pride or hopeless despair.
If you rely upon yourself, then nothing you do will succeed. It will mean nothing, and it will fail, sooner or later. Because there is a death sentence against you, the accusation of the Law, which condemns you; far more certain and deadly than Haman’s edict against the Jews. Unless that is dealt with and resolved, then, whether you do nothing or anything at all, you are lost. You, and everything you are and have, will perish utterly.
But the Lord has worked deliverance for His people. No less so than He delivered the Jews from Haman’s plots; because, in delivering them, He preserved the Seed of Abraham.
Now, you know what He has done: that He has borne your sin and condemnation in Himself, in His own body, in His own human life on earth, and that He has suffered and died for you. His death has removed the edict of the Law that stood against you, and has silenced your accuser. His death has reconciled you to God, the King, so that you are brought into His presence in Peace. He holds out the golden scepter of the Gospel to you, and so you stand before Him without fear of punishment. You are not condemned, but safe and alive.
You live, because He has removed your sin by His death, and because He who died for you has risen from the dead. You live, in Christ, with God, because He lives. That is how absolutely sure and certain your life is.
You live that life with God in Christ by His Word of the Gospel — the Word of forgiveness — and by faith in that gracious Word of Christ Jesus.
Listen, then, to what He speaks. Receive what His Word gives you. Everything flows from that. Really, it does.
It is by His Word — the Word of the Gospel of His Cross — that you have died with Him in your Baptism; and that you rise with Him, each day, from your Baptism unto the life everlasting.
It is by His Word that you now live that life. Not only because He orders your footsteps by His Word, but especially because His Word forgives your sins, each and all of them, and cleanses you inside and out, and gives you the One thing truly needed: Himself.
With His Word, you have Christ Jesus.
Apart from His Word, you have nothing (nothing but darkness, despair, death and damnation).
What, then? Is there no room for Kings and Queens on earth, fair maidens and sweet princes? Must there be no Marthas, but only Marys? Is there no place in your life for arts and sciences, for work in the world, for the labors and pursuits of heart and hand?
These are altogether the wrong questions and conclusions!
The Resurrection and the life that are yours in Christ Jesus, by His grace, do not mean that you must despise the life that you live in your body on earth. Just the opposite, actually.
You go about your vocations, and you serve your stations in life on earth, with confidence in Christ, in true peace (such as the world could never give), with love for others and with thanksgiving to God, because His Word of the Gospel sets you free.
That is the Wisdom of God in Christ, granted to you by His Spirit with the forgiveness of sins.
Do not expect the world to recognize or understand this. But you are in no competition with the world, which is perishing and passing away! Your life is hidden with Christ in God.
The Lord’s forgiveness of your sins, His life and salvation, grant meaning to your life, both now and forever. So that what you do in faith and love has divine significance and great value — to God, by His grace, and also for your neighbor’s benefit. Indeed, you have the great things of the Gospel to give your neighbor, to the glory of God. Your whole life sings with thanksgiving.
That song of faith and love embraces your studies and pursuits, your current and future vocations and stations in life, the labors of your mind and hands, the fruits of your heart and lips; even your relationships and romance. All things are sanctified by the Word of God and prayer, and so received with thanksgiving and used rightly in love.
It is a matter of priorities, ordered by faith in Christ and His Word. Thus, the manna is gathered daily, and then there is the Sabbath Rest that remains for the people of God. There is a time for fasting, and a time for feasting. Because the measure and meaning of all things, in heaven and on earth, is found in the Cross and Resurrection of Christ Jesus. You fast in order to hear His Word and give attention to it. You feast upon His Word, and in the hope of His Word.
There are many things to distract you, to bother you and worry you and make you anxious, nervous and afraid, including both good things and bad. Repent of the bad things and turn away from them. But let even the good things have only their proper place, and do not be anxious or afraid, but at peace.
Use your freedoms to make your plans and make your choices; to chase your dreams and reach your goals; to do what you are given to do; to love and serve your family, friends and neighbors. Not as though your life depended on it, but as living the life that is already yours most certainly.
The Word of Christ gives you that life, which is with God forever. It shall never be taken away from you. Because His Word freely forgives you all your sins, you shall not die, but live.
Hear and heed that Word of the Gospel, and believe it. Cling to it, and trust it. Do not crowd it out of your life, but let everything else flow from it, and back to it.
In the forgiveness of His Cross, you are at peace with God in Christ; and you are safe, and you are really alive. Because He is gracious and compassionate, gentle, kind and patient with you. And He is pleased with you. You’re not going to mess things up.
You truly are free to live, and to love. If you perish, you perish, and yet you live. For whether you live or die, you are the Lord’s, and He is yours, and that is for keeps.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

11 July 2009

In the Hope of the Resurrection

They buried his body in the hope of the resurrection.
Whatever grief wracked them, and whatever threat of hopeless despair assaulted them, they came for his body and laid it in a tomb in the hope of the resurrection.
That was the hope he had preached, to which he had pointed, in which he had baptized them and many others. That was the hope in which he lived, in which he died and was buried.
And that hope has not been disappointed.
For he was a prophet, and more than a prophet. He came in the spirit and power of Elijah to prepare the way of the Lord. He was the Forerunner of the Christ. He announced the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. To fulfill all righteousness, he baptized that same Lamb, Jesus, in the Jordan River, and saw Him emerge and arise from those waters, and the heavens opened, and the Spirit of God descend upon Him and remain upon Him in the flesh.
That is the hope of the resurrection for all who believe and are baptized into Christ Jesus.
That is the hope that St. John the Baptist preached, and the hope in which he preached. Even when his beautiful feet were shut up in prison, still he preached in that hope of the resurrection, until his beautiful lips were also shut up in death
That is your hope also. What? That you should suffer and die? No, beloved and well-pleasing child; you have already died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. Thus your body lives and dies and rises with Him, as sure and certain as your Baptism into His death, as sure and certain as His own Cross and Resurrection from the dead. Because He lives, you live also: body and soul, now and forever.
That is your hope, and that is your life.
Do not be afraid. Do not let suffering, sickness, pain or death perplex you. Do not despair, and do not grow weary of doing good.
Your life — your true and lasting, real life — your body, soul and spirit — are safe and secure in Christ Jesus. And He will not disappoint you.
Live in that hope, in Him. For His Name has not only become well known, but has been given to you, as your Name, in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. So it is that you are in Christ, and Christ lives in you.
For St. John the Baptist, that life in Christ meant preaching, imprisonment, and decapitation. What are your vocations, and what are your stations in life? What has the Lord your God called you to do, and where and how would He have you live in faith, hope and love?
If you are a husband and father, then you are the head of your wife and children. Serve them faithfully and wisely, with patience and gentleness, with compassion and forgiveness, in the way that Christ is the Head of His Body, the Church. Do not be driven by your selfishness, but give yourself for those whom the Lord has given to your care.
If you are a wife, submit to your own husband in the hope of Christ, your heavenly Bridegroom. And if you are a mother, then care for your children with mercy and kindness, in much the same way the Church shelters and protects the children of God. Feed them and clothe them, teach them the Gospel in word and deed, and love them.
Whether you have a spouse and children of your own, or not, cherish and serve your own parents as long as you are able. Love and care for your Church family, too, your brothers and sisters in Christ, as well as your neighbors in the world. Do your job carefully, honorably, gladly and well. Be content with what you have and where you are, even as you continue to work and grow, to study and learn, and to look for new ways to contribute to the benefit of others.
It is especially within your vocations that you bear the Cross of Christ for your neighbor, and it may well be that you suffer hardship, pain or difficulty on account of your vocations; sometimes precisely because of your faithfulness. That is how it was for St. John the Baptist, and for Christ your Lord Himself. To live in your vocations according to the Word of God, under the Cross, is to live, already now by faith, in the Resurrection of that same Lord, Jesus Christ.
Your God-given stations in life may seem like a prison, in which you languish and die a little more each day. Your commitments, obligations and responsibilities tie you down and hold you back, like a heavy ball and chain around your neck. You may feel yourself forgotten, neglected, overlooked, unfairly treated. So many demands upon you; so little freedom, it seems.
Lift up your head, your heart and your hands, in the hope of the resurrection. You have not been abandoned, nor shall you ever be forsaken. Fulfill your callings in life, and bear your afflictions patiently. The Lord knows where you are, and how it is with you, and what is good and best for you. He has not turned away from you. He has not withdrawn His gracious hand. His strong arms are still stretched out in love to strengthen and uphold you, even in death.
Your dear God and Father in heaven is pleased with you. He delights in you and rejoices over you. For you are righteous and holy in Christ Jesus, the beloved Son. Your suffering for His Name’s sake does not negate that, but confirms it by His own Cross. Which means that His Resurrection and the power of His indestructible life are also yours, and shall not be taken from you. Because you are His, and He is yours forever. Signed, sealed, delivered; as good as gold.
As your body shall be raised from death — like His own glorious Body — to the life everlasting in heaven, it is also in your body, now, under the Cross, that you already live with Christ Jesus, by grace through faith in His Gospel; which is your redemption, the forgiveness of your sins.
Therefore, do not give your body over to unrighteousness and impurity. That which is not lawful is not the way of life, either, but of death and destruction. To disobey the Lord your God, to disregard His holy Word, brings death to both body and soul, both now and forever. So does sin bring fear and sorrow and bitter regret, resentment and anxiety, doubt, confusion and madness.
One sin leads to another, and grief upon grief, further and further away from your faith and life.
To give your body over to sin, is to live as though there were no the resurrection of the body. Yet, apart from the hope of the resurrection, your life in the world is perplexing and precarious.
If what you see in the world is what you get, and if what you feel and experience in your body here on earth is all there is to it — if there is no resurrection of your body to the life everlasting — then you are driven to and fro, and tossed about by covetous lust and selfish greed, or by dark despair; by anger and dread, frustration and jealousy. Then you would never find or ever have any true or lasting peace or joy or rest; not at all.
Such denial of the resurrection is why you manipulate, use and abuse your neighbor, even your own family and friends. You entice and seduce, you trick or treat, you blackmail and bargain. Everything becomes a terrible game, a strategy, a con, designed to satisfy your unquenchable thirst, to feed your growling hunger, your restless appetite and craving.
But it is never sufficient, never enough. It does not satisfy, and it never lasts. It cannot keep you safe, and it will not save you.
Apart from the hope of the resurrection, you will never have what you want, but you will always want more and more. Your sin becomes more and more desperate, and goes from increasingly bad to increasingly worse, until it brings forth death and eternal damnation.
In all of this, tragically, you will not find what you really need, even though it is freely given.
The world holds out promises to you that it cannot keep or fulfill. Sex for power, power for sex, and a thousand other trade-offs, one sin for another. Do not chase after these things. Do not seek to seize what is not yours. Do not trade the resurrection of your body to everlasting life for the momentary gratification of your flesh. It is a lie that robs you of everything and leaves you with nothing; no matter how comfortable, luxurious and easy it may appear to be for a little while.
In the end, the world has nothing to offer but a tomb; and even that will be emptied in the final judgment. On the last day, you and all the dead will be raised from the dust of the earth to be judged according to your life in the body: the righteous unto life, the wicked unto punishment.
Where, then, are your righteousness and life to be found? The Lord has granted sure and certain promises to you — all of which He has kept and fulfilled, for you and for all people, from before the foundation of the world — in the Cross and Resurrection of Christ Jesus, the Incarnate Son. That is what is true for you, even under the weight and suffering of the Cross. That is what is true for you, even in the face of your sins and the fierce judgment of the Law against you.
Herod was not the first king of Israel to commit adultery and murder; nor was he the first to be confronted by a Prophet of the Lord. Even such wicked sins and heinous crimes do not undo the Word and work of God in Christ Jesus. Thus, St. John continues preaching repentance to Herod, for the purpose of faith and life in the forgiveness of sins. That is what and why he preaches.
King Herod listens with interest to St. John, but refuses to hear and heed his preaching. He is perplexed and intrigued by what he says, but finds more pleasure in the dancing body of his niece than the preaching of repentance. So what Herod trades for his lust is far more than half his kingdom. He forfeits his soul, by shutting the mouth of the preacher.
Do not do the same. Do not shut the mouth of the preacher by shutting your ears or closing your heart to his preaching of the Cross. Repent of your sins, and believe the Gospel, because the Kingdom of God is here at hand. The righteousness and holiness of God, which are proclaimed to you by this Word, are not only the condemnation of your sin by the Law, but chiefly His forgiveness of your sins in the Name and stead of Christ.
Do not fear men. Do not fear their power, nor covet their praise. But fear God, and love and trust in Him. Cling to His Word and promises. Rely upon His gracious gifts. Hope in the Cross and Resurrection of Christ Jesus. And live in that hope and confidence.
If your body suffers and dies, do not despair; you shall yet live. If your body is healthy and well, use it to serve faithfully. Do whatever the Lord has called you and given you to do, wherever He has stationed you, for Jesus’ sake, by faith in His salvation. Receive whatever He gives you with thanksgiving, and use whatever you have in love, because your life is safe with God in Christ.
The surety and guarantee of that good life has already been granted to you, by and with the Holy Spirit: in your Holy Baptism, in the forgiveness of all your sins, and in the Holy Communion.
For Christ Jesus, the Lord’s Anointed, the true King, the Son of David, has willingly suffered arrest and execution, the punishment of his father David’s sins, and Herod’s sins, and your sins, and the sins of the whole world. He has done so in order to make a great Banquet for you and for all, in which He serves you, His guest, with His own holy body and precious blood. He pleases you with His grace, mercy and peace. He gives you the fulness of the Kingdom of His God and Father. He covers your nakedness and shame, and clothes you with His own righteousness and holiness. He raises you from death to life in both body and soul, both now and forever.
The suffering and death of St. John the Baptist — like his preaching and Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins — proclaim the Cross and Passion of your dear Lord Jesus Christ. He is the Head of His Body, the Church, and as He has risen from the dead and lives and reigns to all eternity, so do you and all His members rise and live. For your sins are all forgiven. Therefore your body also shall rest in peace, and be raised in glory at the last to live with God forever, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
In Jesus’ Name, and for His sake. Amen.

07 July 2009

What to Look for in a Church

I've offered that reverence and courtesy are the underlying criteria and the baseline rubrics with which we ought to approach the conduct of the Liturgy. Pastor Cwirla has written of "relaxed dignity," and another colleague has referenced the "evangelical decorum" of the Formula of Concord (Solid Declaration, Article X). These several ways of speaking summarize the intersection of faith and love in the broad consideration of liturgical practice. They are general principles, which provide helpful perspective and guidance to pastors and congregations who seek to be faithful in receiving and handing over the Gospel of Christ Jesus. The specifics of a particular case, and the actual practices of a congregation, depend upon pastoral discernment, discretion and care. Such pastoral care belongs to the stewardship of the Mysteries of God.

Now, then, to speak more concretely to the receiving of those sacred Mysteries: What should a Christian look for in a congregation of the Church? If you are moving to a new location, or if you are sending your daughter or son off to college, how do you decide where you or they should be on the Lord's Day? This way of asking the question presses for a tangible and realistic response. As my children have grown up, moved away from home and gotten married, hardly anything has been more important to me than their continued hearing and receiving of the Gospel. And as the young people of my congregation graduate and leave for college, I have similar concerns.

It's not as easy as it ought to be to find the ideal congregation, if there is such a thing anywhere. If the Gospel is being preached faithfully, and if the Sacrament of the Altar is being administered regularly and reverently, there is true Paradise on earth for the pastor and people of God in that place. But words like "faithfully" and "reverently" still beg the question. What is the measure of faithfulness and reverence? We understandably and rightly grow attached to the congregation in which we have been hearing and receiving Christ Jesus, but, when we move to a new place, finding another congregation just like that one is unlikely if not impossible. In many parts of the country, there may be nothing at all that looks or sounds or smells or seems even remotely like the familiar church "back home" that we have known and loved. So what is a Christian to do?

Here are the ten most important things that a Christian ought to look for in a church, more or less in order of significance:

1. Faithful Preaching: Pastor Petersen has recently posted an excellent summary of what such preaching ought to be, and in his usual fashion he has said it clearly, succinctly and well. For my part, I have also commented on what I prefer to describe as "liturgical preaching." I still believe that, "if the preaching is liturgical and right, then everything else will follow as it should." Not every sermon will be great; nor should every sermon be the same. But you should be able to tell within a few weeks or a month whether the preaching is consistently faithful or not. If not, then you should look elsewhere; because, if the preaching is not right, everything will languish.

Faithful preaching will take up the readings of the day, especially the Word and works of Jesus from the Holy Gospel, and proclaim that to the people as the speaking of God to them. The sermon will not only talk about the Law and the Gospel, but will command what God commands, forbid what God forbids, and forgive sins in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. It will thus be the preaching of repentance, unto faith in the forgiveness of the Cross: preaching to and from Holy Baptism, to and from the Holy Communion. Such preaching is not a break in the midst of the Liturgy, but a fundamental and constitutive part of the Liturgy. It moves from the lectern to the Altar, from the Word of the Holy Scriptures to the Word-made-Flesh in the Sacrament.

2. The Regular and Reverent Administration of the Holy Communion: Look for a congregation where you will be given the opportunity to receive the Lord's Supper every week. There may not be any such congregation in some areas, but that is the benchmark. Frequency by itself is not the sole criteria, however. Look for a congregation that clearly practices "closed Communion," because that is the catholic and evangelical practice of the Church. Look for a prominent use of the chalice, even if individual cups are also offered as an option. Look for a congregation in which the younger children are being catechized and communed. In general, ask yourself whether the Sacrament is being administered with care and dignity. That's a judgment call, obviously, but you should be able to tell whether the Sacrament is being handled as the very body and blood of Christ, or as though it were little more than fish 'n' chips at the pub.

3. Hymnody: Not every hymn will say everything, but every hymn should say something, and what it says should be a faithful confession of the Word of God. Look for a predominance of strong, solid hymns, which fit the season of the Church Year, touch upon the readings of the day, and serve the liturgical purpose of their place in the Service. A few weaker hymns in the course of the Service are not necessarily a problem, so long as the larger context bolsters them with a real meat-and-potatos diet. If the majority of the hymns are mediocre fluff-and-stuff, and if the stongest hymns in the Service are typically those of Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley, then look for another church. Look instead for the hymns of Luther, Nicolai, Gerhardt and Heermann. Rarely should there be a Service in a Lutheran congregation that does not include at least one hymn by at least one of these men.

4. Catechesis: Look for a church in which the pastor is personally and actively involved in the ongoing catechesis of the young and the old. Along with that, look for a congregation in which the parents are seeking ongoing pastoral catechesis for themselves and participating in the ongoing catechesis of their children.

5. Confession and Absolution: Look for a church where regular opportunities for Individual Confession and Absolution are provided and publicized. If you are not able to find a congregation where that is the case, then look for a pastor who readily responds to your request for Individual Confession and Absolution.

6. Daily Prayer: Look for a church where regular opportunities are provided for the parish to be gathered together for the Word of God and prayer during the week, whether for Matin and Vespers, or Evening Prayer. Likewise, look for a congregation in which the people are encouraged and assisted in the practice of daily prayer within their homes and families.

7. Service Book and Hymnal: Look for a congregation that uses the Church's service book and hymnal; whether that be the LSB, or TLH or LW. If everything is printed out every week, look for a consistency of practice from one week to the next, preferably following the order and form of the Service as published in one of the Church's books. Every congregation has its own local practices, but those should not deviate widely or wildly from the agreed-upon norms of the official service books. Parishioners should not be asked to confess words they have never seen or heard before (and which they will likely never see or hear again).

8. Vestments and Other Adornments: Look for a church in which the pastor is vested in his conduct of the Liturgy. Vestments cover the person of the pastor while adorning the office he serves in the name and stead of Christ. These are good things; not absolutely necessary, but significant and important. Likewise, look for a church in which paraments, architecture, artwork and other adornments are all used in such a way as to focus on Christ and His Cross and His means of grace. In particular, look for a crucifix; not because it is necessary, but because the prominent display of a crucifix is a good indication that the focus of a congregation is on the Cross of Christ.

9. Decorum and Demeanor: Look for a church where the decorum of the Divine Service and the demeanor of the pastor convey an ambience of dignity, rather than a casual sloppiness. You should be able to discern that there is a seriousness about what is being done, and that the pastor and people actually believe themselves to be in the presence of the Holy Triune God. At the same time, look for a relaxed confidence in the pastor's conduct and the congregation's practice. Anxiousness and overearnestness do not resonate with the Gospel.

10. Parish Communications and Announcements: In whatever is posted, printed and announced, look for a focus on the Church's life in the means of grace and in works of mercy. Other things happen in the routines of a parish, but it ought to be clear that the Gospel of Christ is the heart and center of things, the defining emphasis of the congregation. Faith and love depend upon the Gospel, and Christians live from the Gospel. So look for a church in which the Gospel is the focus of everything that happens.

05 July 2009

Reverence and Courtesy

There's been a lot of discussion of reverence recently, which I have found both fascinating and at times frustrating. The subject of reverence came up repeatedly at the CCA, although it there seemed to be aimed primarily at musical considerations. An insistent focus on music is significant and telling, I think, but I am of the opinion that reverence is deeper and broader and ultimately more comprehensive than even the musical realm. It may also be more elusive and amorphous than music is.

In conversation with one colleague at the CCA, regarding "reverence," he posed the question: "Who decides?" Again, he was thinking chiefly of music, though I didn't fully realize that at the time. It is a good question, in any case, and I have been trying to formulate a response. Is reverence a matter of convention or taste, an aesthetic, or a programmatic body of rubrics? Is it objective or subjective (whatever those words mean!)?

It is easier to identify irreverence than it is to specify what reverence will look like or sound like. Or so I am presently convinced. Certain manners of speaking, dressing and acting would surely be recognized as rude and inappropriate, and therefore irreverent, because they flaunt the public mores, the social etiquette that polite adults and even children learn from the culture. There may be points of debate on the fringes of those standards, and the particular group one is with will make some difference in where the lines are drawn, but I believe there are boundaries outside of which everyone would agree: We just don't do that.

It is much harder to say what reverence is or ought to be. Some recent conversations would suggest that one man's reverence is another man's robotics. I have argued, and I still maintain, that genuine reverence is a matter of faith in the heart. It is the prostration of the heart in the fear, love and trust of the Holy Triune God, such as the First Commandment calls for. That reverence of the heart will manifest itself outwardly in the confession of the lips and the actions of the body, but I resist attempts to specify the details of those bodily actions or the particular qualities of the confession. What we speak in reverent confession will be as the oracles of God, but whether we speak, chant or sing, and whether we do so together or in turn, in unison or harmony, in English, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, German or Spanish, will depend. What we do or don't do with our bodies, in reverence, will also depend.

Actions that are sinful are not reverent, surely, but there is a large realm of freedom in which we live with our bodies. As faith is free before God, so is outward bodily reverence free to that same extent. Genuine reverence neither derives from nor depends upon any predetermined dance of the body. Whether we stand or sit, kneel or bow; whether we fold our hands in one way or another, or not at all; and whether we bow our heads and close our eyes, or lift our heads and our hands to heaven, may or may not coincide with faith in the heart.

So what difference does it make, then, what we do with our bodies? Or does it matter at all? Is everything a free-for-all, barring outright sin or blatant impropriety? Already there are those boundaries, which suggest that other considerations may also be helpful and appropriate.

Pastor Cwirla has frequently called for a "relaxed dignity," which I have found a helpful way of thinking about these matters. He stresses that a man, a pastor in particular, must be comfortable with himself as a justified sinner before he will be able to conduct the Liturgy with "relaxed dignity." Then he will be able to wear vestments and follow rubrics in a manner that is neither slavish or awkward, but reverent and respectful. In general, I concur with these observations, but I believe there is still more to be considered and said.

For a pastor or any Christian to be comfortable with himself as a justified sinner is, indeed, to possess and exercise the reverence of faith in the heart. For a pastor to conduct the Liturgy, or for any Christian to receive and participate in the Liturgy, brings that reverence of the heart out into the open, into the public sphere of words and actions. That is where and when and why reverence goes hand-in-hand with "respect," as Pastor Cwirla has noted, or "courtesy," as Arthur Carl Piepkorn so helpfully indicated many years ago. It seems to me that respect or courtesy for the neighbor, and for the Church as the Body of Christ, is the key to discerning the outward contours that reverence will follow.

Reverence and courtesy are the baseline rubrics, from which everything else may be measured and determined, so as to serve and support the Gospel. I have very much appreciated this rule of thumb for some time now. It is simply another way to speak of faith and love, which is the way that Dr. Luther also approaches his writings on liturgical practice (and, really, the entire Christian life). Before God, by faith, we are utterly free, the slave of no man; in love, however, we are the dutiful servants of all. Likewise, the reverence of the heart before God is manifested in the courtesy of love for the brother and sister in Christ, together with whom we worship the Lord. Individual freedom is tempered by the pastor's public office, within which he administers the Liturgy as a public service. So, too, individual freedom is tempered by the Christian's participation in the public worship of the Church.

The dual criteria of reverence and courtesy are not simply parallel considerations. The reverence of faith before God is primary and determinative; however, such faith is never alone, but is always moving in love toward the neighbor, and dealing with the neighbor in courtesy. If one claims to love God, whom he cannot see, and yet hates his brother whom he can see, he is a liar. But, no, faith and love toward God are verbalized and visible in words and actions of love for the neighbor. That love is guided and governed chiefly by the Word of God, which reveals what is His good and acceptable will. Similarly, the pastor loves the congregation chiefly by his faithful preaching and administration of the Gospel. But in working out the details within the freedom of adiaphora, where God has neither commanded nor forbidden anything in particular, there love will seek to be courteous by setting aside personal proclivities for the sake of corporate unity.

Not only should a pastor be comfortable with himself as a justified sinner, but he should also be content and willing to discipline his outward actions in courtesy or respect for the congregation. He does not follow the rites and rubrics of the Church in order to impress or appease the Lord, but out of courtesy for the people of God, whom he has been called and ordained to serve. His reverence before the Lord is thereby manifested in love for his neighbors. The pastor does not insist upon this-or-that ceremony in order to impress the people, but in order to catechize them in the Word of God and in the confession of faith in His Word. In such matters, clarity and consistency are meet, right and salutary; thus, the heart that is utterly free before God reverently reins itself in, out of courtesy for the Church, in order to serve the people in love.

I like Pastor Cwirla's "relaxed dignity," but I shall prefer to speak of "reverent courtesy." Either way, it is not a matter of prescribing a predetermined set of particular rubrics, rites and ceremonies, but rather of guiding the free heart of faith in its external confession of words and actions. There is no assumption that reverence will always look or sound the same. Love does not force itself upon the neighbor, but first of all considers the neighbor's circumstance and need; and not only those of one neighbor (vs. another), but the circumstances and needs of the congregation as a communion of saints in a particular place and within the corporate life of the entire Church on earth. In the fear, love and trust of God above all things, we shall then love our neighbors and serve them in the catechesis and confession of the Word of God.

"Who decides?" Faith and love determine what reverence will do and say in a given time and place. If that answer is frustrating to our desire for more specific rules and regulations, it is only because we are still learning how to live in the freedom of faith and in the service of love. Daily we are called to repentance, to find our righteousness in Christ and not in ourselves, and to exercise ourselves to the glory of God and the benefit of others, rather than serving to our own glory and benefit. Clearly we are not to despise the Word of the Lord, which is the true Wisdom by which we live; nor ought we disregard the truly catholic and evangelical traditions of His Church on earth, which are among His gracious good gifts to us. But let us receive and use these things in faith and love and with thanksgiving. That is the way of reverent courtesy.

03 July 2009

Laugh and the World Laughs with You, But if You Cry, What Then?

I remember an episode of the Simpsons, many years ago now, in which Lisa was feeling quite sad. When Marge dropped her off at school then, she gave Lisa the same advice that her mother had once given to her as child: Smile, and put on a happy face! So Lisa bravely got out of the car, and went to face her day with a forced smile threatening to crack her careworn countenance. As Marge sat there in the car, watching her daughter go, she recalled the times when she herself had faked such a smile at odds with her actual emotions, and how yucky that had made her feel. Then she hopped out of the vehicle and ran to give Lisa a different word of motherly advice: Be yourself, and smile when you're ready. Marge loved her either way.

Theologically speaking, "being yourself" is no real remedy or solution. We are sinful and unclean, and being our sinful selves is at the heart of the problem! But putting on a happy face, faking a smile, and pretending to be chipper are not the answer, either. It is the Father's love for us in Christ Jesus, and His forgiveness of our sins, that rescues us from the deadly despair of unbelief. That gracious forgiveness and steadfast love grant the true peace and joy of faith, with which we do rejoice, give thanks and sing. But let us not confuse that rejoicing of the heart with particular personality traits. It is a false gospel when we admonish a melancholy heart to fake a smile.

I resonated with that episode of the Simpsons, and with Lisa's mood in it, because I am also somewhat disposed toward melancholy. There are seasons of the year, especially from November through February, when it is hard for me to feel chipper. I've learned to cope with that, more or less, but coping is not the same as being cheerful. Even aside from that seasonal depression, which follows the waning of the sunlight, there are other times when my mood is on a low ebb. It's an aspect of my personality that I don't particularly care for, and I don't offer that as an excuse; I know that it is also linked to my sinfulness. Nevertheless, the remedy is not to be found in forcing myself to be happy, if that were even possible. I know that what I need is the preaching of repentance, the forgiveness of my sins in the name of Jesus, and the fellowship of my family and friends, my brothers and sisters in Christ. Those good gifts of God pull me out of myself and out of my hole, and set me before my Father in heaven, safe and secure in Christ Jesus, my Savior. That almost always makes me feel better, too, but not necessarily carefree and easygoing; it doesn't necessarily translate into grins and giggles galore.

It was roughly around the same time as that episode of the Simpsons, when a coworker of mine, a Pentecostal, made a comment that totally floored me. This young woman came to work one day, visibly anxious and weary, but with her usual toothy smile plastered across her face. She remarked that she was at her wit's end, but then she also went on to say that she had to keep smiling, because, as she put it, if she let her smile slip it would mean that she had lost her faith and forfeited her salvation. It's been almost two decades ago that she said that to me, but I've never forgotten it. Sadly, I don't remember what I said in response, because at the time I was so flabbergasted I didn't really know what to say. I hope that I would do better now, given the chance. What concerns me, though, is how often Christians seem to proceed with the same sort of mindset with respect to one another.

Laugh and the world laughs with you. We all know the saying, and who's to wonder? It's fun and easy to be around people who are happy and cheerful. But as members of the body of Christ, we are called to bear each other's burdens in love, with patience and forgiveness. In fact, it is all the more important that, when we cry, we not be left to cry alone. I don't mean to suggest that there's never a time for quiet solitude. As a man, I retreat to my "cave" from time to time, and I often find that helpful to prayer and meditation on the Word of God. But when the melancholy blues wash over me, I know that what I need is not time to myself, but the communion of my fellow Christians. I need to hear the Word of God, and to receive the love of God in Christ. At such times, especially, it is not good for the man to be alone. Yet, it is the most difficult at such times to reach out to others for conversation and companionship. Depression and despair tend to collapse the person inward. So it becomes all the more important for the neighbor to take the initiative and reach out to the brother or sister who is sullen and sad. Tragically, with few exceptions, that doesn't seem to be the case.

I understand and sympathize. It is hard work and exhausting to befriend the person who is down and seemingly bent on frowning. It is all the more difficult when that person resists the efforts of neighbors to draw close and engage in conversation. I've been on both sides of that equation too many times to count. For all of that, I have also come to know this: On the one hand, a melancholy disposition does not mean that a person is faithless or unbelieving; no more so than a cheerful disposition equates with faith and faithfulness. On the other hand, the person who is struggling with sadness, for whatever reason, needs the mercy and compassion, the patience and long-suffering, the love and forgiveness of our Lord Jesus Christ, as much or more than anyone else. And such a person may be less likely to seek out the Gospel or to avail himself of the means of grace than others might be. Therefore, rather than passing judgment on the person who is glum or down in the mouth, and rather than avoiding the melancholy soul, the Christian is moved by love to befriend and uplift such a person. Not to suppose that the goal is a smile, but simply to love with the love of Christ.

Sadness, or even a personality prone to melancholy, is not the same thing as depression; nor are any of these things coterminous with the despair of unbelief. The sourpuss may be every bit as pious and faithful as the interminably chipper and cheerful person. Sweet and sour alike live by the Gospel of forgiveness, or they do not live at all. For that very reason, we should resist the temptation to avoid the dour, but instead make a point of loving and caring for that person; even if it never results in a smile or a happy face. The laughing will never be lacking in company, and let us hope and pray their companions are Christians. But those who weep are too often left alone. It should not be so among those who belong to the Body of Christ. In fraility and weakness, let us love one another; for love is of God, whose power is made perfect in weakness.

For those who may suffer from the melancholy blues or clinical depression, I won't advise or admonish that you fake a smile or plaster on a happy face, but in my empathy for you I will recommend a new book by my dear friend and colleague, the Reverend Todd Peperkorn. It is entitled, I Trust When Dark My Road: A Lutheran View of Depression, and it is available free from LCMS World Relief and Human Care. Check it out.

01 July 2009

Precious Vessels Consecrated for the Sanctuary of the Lord

Rahab the harlot is set forth as an example of faith by both St. James and the Epistle to the Hebrews; and St. Matthew identifies her as an ancestress of our Lord Jesus Christ. There is some irony in that, but what a beautiful paradox and blessed comfort, that the harlot should become the Bride, sanctified and cleansed by the precious blood of Christ.

I've been struck in recent years by the specifics of her case. She lives in the wall of Jericho; which is all the more remarkable in retrospect. According to the Law of Moses, there should have been no treaty made with her. As a citizen of Jericho, in particular, her life was subject to destruction. Yet, upon her confession of the Lord, the treaty is made, which both Joshua and the Lord honor and uphold. When the walls of Jericho come down, the home of Rahab is preserved; and when the people of Jericho are put to the sword, Rahab and her family are not only spared, but given to live in the midst of Israel. The Lord's almighty power is manifested in such mercy.

Everything sings of the atonement, of the Christ who will eventually be born from this foreign harlot woman who is saved from the city of man for the City of God. Joshua leads the priests with the ark of the covenant, and all of these signify Jesus the Christ. The sound of the ram's horn marks the days, circumscribing the city, the enemy fortress; recalling the ram caught in the thicket by his horns, provided by God in place of Isaac, the beloved son of Abraham. Six days pass, then peace and rest are granted on the seventh day, the Sabbath, when our Lord would rest in the tomb after completing His work of Atonement. The people march and shout, but the Lord brings down the wall and defeats the enemy for them. Only not Rahab and those with her.

Every man, woman and child is to be destroyed; every living creature is to be killed; and everything else is to be burned, except the precious vessels of gold and silver, which are dedicated to the Lord for use in His sanctuary.

The consecration of those precious vessels parallels the salvation of Rahab and her family, who are not put to death but saved for life among the people of God. The whore becomes the Bride, not only rescued but redeemed, sanctified and cleansed; not simply tolerated, but truly precious and valuable in the sight of the Lord.

It is because the Lord Himself, who has become the flesh and blood of Rahab and of us all, has suffered the divine judgment and destruction of Jericho, wholly dedicated to His God and Father. He is the new and greater Joshua, the great High Priest, the Ram whose horn is mercy and compassion, whose blood poured out is the New Covenant of forgiveness. He dies the death demanded by the Law, that we might live by the grace of the Gospel. Neither the gates of Hades nor the walls of Jericho can prevail against His shout of victory; nor against the confession of faith in His Cross. Thus are we consecrated as vessels for the sanctuary of God, precious and valuable to Him. For He has brought us out of Egypt and through the Jordan into Canaan; out of Jericho into the courts of His new Jerusalem; out of our own little hole in the wall, to become a living stone in His holy Temple. All of our adultery and worse is forgiven, and we are spared, freely granted to live by the mercies of God in the midst of His people, Israel.