Wednesday, April 10, 2019

I. O. U.

When I was a child, I was always surprised to hear people saying, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” when they prayed the Lord’s Prayer.  I had learned “trespasses” so I knew that this had to be the right way!  I was even more surprised when I grew up and went to school and found that the original, the Greek version of the prayer in Matthew uses the word ojfeilhvmata, which means “debt,” or “that which is owed.”

In casual circumstances, we sometimes arrange debts with I.O.U.’s.  An IOU a promissory note.  Perhaps we borrowed money.  Perhaps we received merchandise on credit.  The IOU represents that which is owed.  So this evening I chose to link the idea of the IOU and the idea of the debt from the Greek text of the Lord’s Prayer as we discuss the Fifth petition with the theme I.O.U.̓s.

The Fifth petition is “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
What does this mean?  We pray in this petition that our Father in Heaven would not look upon our sins, not deny our petitions because of them; for we are worthy of none of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them; but [we pray] that He would grant all of them to us by grace; for we are gross sinners every day and genuinely deserve nothing but punishment.  So will we also forgive from the heart, and also freely do good to those who sin against us.

Most people think of sin as a mistake, a bad deed, or as some kind of corruption.  Here in the Fifth petition it is presented as a debt.  None of these ideas is wrong, nor do they contradict one another.  They simply express different aspects of the same topic, Sin.  Since we pray for forgiveness of sins in this petition, it might be useful to talk about the nature of sin at this time.

Sin is the breaking of, or violation of, the will of God.  It is something we can do by actions, by speaking, or by thought.  We can even sin by doing nothing.  Sin is divided, for teaching purposes, into different kinds of sins and different ways of sinning.  The two kinds of sin are Original sin (which we inherit and which completely corrupts our human nature) and Actual sin (which is the sin we personally do or “act out”).  Both are sin, and both deserve eternal damnation.  Then there are two basic ways of sinning.

The Church has long taught about sins of commission and sins of omission.  A sin of commission is a sin you commit.  Actually, it means that you do something which is wrong or sinful.  A sin of Omission is a good thing you omit to do.  This is not doing something forbidden, but failing to do something commanded, right, or necessary.  The Bible says, James 4:17, “Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do, and does not do it, to him it is sin.”

Christians spend so much time talking about sin because it is so natural to man and so very deadly in effect.  Sin is the issue, not just specific sinful actions, thoughts, or words.  Sin is the basic state of rebellion, the twisted-ness of the heart which will not and cannot obey or love God.  It is Sin in us which produces all those individual sins.  Those individual sinful acts are not all that damns us, they are part of the problem, but they are really primarily the symptoms and the fruits of Sin in us, and it is Sin which brings about our condemnation.

The Bible talks about the ways of sinning – or doing sin – by using a number of different words.  The New Testament word “sin” in the Greek means literally “to miss the mark.” We try and fail.  We aim at good thoughts and have evil ones.  We do not come up to the standard of holiness set for us.  What we do is not what God wants - and often not what we want.

Another sin-word is Transgression.  It means trespass (which is another sin-word).  It means to step over the line, or go where you don̓t belong.  Adultery is a transgression, going where we do not belong, using what we ought not even to touch.  When we say or think, “Oh-oh!  Now I’ve gone too far,” we have transgressed.  God has drawn a line in the sand, so to speak, and we have stepped over it.  You may desire to possess, but you are forbidden to covet.  You are permitted to become angry, but you must forgive and not let the sun go down on your anger.  You may righteously speak about a neighbor, but not gossip, judging him or her, and damaging his or her reputation.  Too much or too little is transgression.

We use the word iniquity.  It means un-equal, unjust, or uneven.  Inconsistent behavior is iniquitous.  It is behavior, speaking or thinking that doesn’t follow the even rule of the Law of God.  Prejudice is iniquity, it has a basic inequity or inequality.  When you treat someone poorly for no reason, or for a poor reason, that is iniquity.  When you favor someone for their money or looks or some other inadequate reason, that is iniquity.  James writes about this too, chapter 2, verses 2, 3 and 4, If a man comes into your church with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one wearing the find clothes and say “You sit here in a good place,“ and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,“ have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives?

Wickedness is another term for sin.  It suggests a twisted-ness.  Luther spoke of man’s inclination to sin with the Latin phrase “Curvatus in se,” meaning ‘twisted in on one’s self’. Perversion, rape, incest, abortion, and the like are wickedness.  They are twisted, and turn deliberately away from the way of God and the way of life.  Homosexuality - male or female -is wickedness, twisting the natural relationships of men and women.  Pornography is wickedness, it is twisted and perverse, using something delightful and holy for profane, cheap and illicit purposes.

Again, there is guile - deception, sneakiness, trickiness.  These are the things we often hear called “good business”.  Guile involves false weights and measures, fine print hidden to deceive, and such things.  Guile is lying and cheating.  But guile also includes clever advertising which suggests what it doesn’t clearly state, putting the best forward and just not mentioning the bad, painting over rust, or putting a good face on something bad.  Even make-up, as used by some women can involve a measure of guile.

Finally, sin is lawlessness.  Anything which does not recognize the order and will of God is lawlessness.  Lawlessness acts as though it were free to do whatever it pleases.  The false concept of freedom, which does not recognize the binding nature of laws, or the responsibility of the individual which always accompanies personal liberty, is lawlessness.  My ‘rights’ become sinful if they do not balance my responsibilities and duties.  The rights issues which are destroying the peace of America are just such sin.  They are lawlessness, and God is a God of order, and of Law – although not only of Law.

And the wages of sin is death.  I imagine that I have said things about sin this evening which make you uncomfortable.  If I haven’t, raise your hand and I will try harder.  We all sin.  I have and so have you.  We feel comfortable admitting past and minor-seeming sins, or generic sinfulness, as long as we don’t have to name the sin, the time and the place.  We don’t mind the generalized and sanitized sin, but not one of us likes the thought that we are gross sinners, really wicked and evil people, every day - but you are.  You sin all of the time, but those individual sins are not the issue - Sin is!  And the wages of SIN is death.  You and I deserve to die, right now, and go to hell.  Everyone does.  If you disagree with that, you argument is not with me, it is with God and with His Word.

And we pray in this petition that God would forgive us the sin, transgressions, iniquity, wickedness, guile, and lawlessness which we do and think and say every day.  We pray that God would forgive us so that these sins will not stand in the way of His blessing us and loving us here in time, and from saving us and giving us eternal life in eternity.  We ask God to forget what miserable sinners we really are and deal with us as though we have never sinned.  We ask Him to bless us as though we were good people.  We ask Him to deal with us according to His forgiveness in Jesus, because Jesus bought our forgiveness on the cross.

And – praise to His grace – He does!  That is the good news of the gospel.  He still loves us and he richly blesses us, because of Jesus.  He listens to our prayers and answers, because Jesus took our sins to the cross and nailed them there in His flesh.  Not just our sins, but Sin itself.  Then He died to sin, and in baptism He connected us to His own death and resurrection, with the result that we are now spiritually dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.  But our flesh is still sinful.  It has not died yet, and so we ask God every time we pray this prayer to forgive us anew and help us to start over and to live for Him.

I told you a couple weeks ago that this prayer was the most dangerous prayer in the world.  This is the petition that makes it so.  You pray here for God to forgive you as you forgive others.  “Forgive me God just like I forgive those who cheat me, steal from me, call me names, and are out to get me.  Forgive me like I forgive the insults.  Forgive me just the same way – and to the same degree – as I forgive my enemies and those who get in my way and those who hurt me.” That is what this prayer is about.

And Jesus makes it clear in Matthew that this is just the way God hears and answers this petition.  He says, Matthew 6:14-15 - the verses immediately following the prayer, for if you forgive men their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.

This prayer is dangerous, because you owe God your life.  You owe God obedience.  You owe God worship and praise and thanksgiving.  You have piled up the IOU’s of deeds of righteousness undone, and obedience discarded.  You owe Him holiness and glory and honor, but you give Him sin and selfishness and lawlessness and blasphemy and shame.

Then someone else who owes you courtesy forgets, someone else who owes you a kindness is rude, someone else who owes you love strikes you or robs you or calls you a name, or makes your life less pleasant, if only for a moment.  They sin against you, and you get angry and hold their sins against them and stew.
God says, I will forgive you your entire life of debt to me, and now you must also forgive the debts of those who owe you.

God has nailed the bill of debt, the IOU of your sins on the cross with and in Jesus.  The Bible uses almost those exact words.  And then God tells us that we must do the same, we must forgive those who sin against us if we will receive His forgiveness.

So Luther says that we promise, in this petition, to forgive from the heart, and freely do good to those who sin against us.  We remind ourselves that our forgiveness goes hand in hand with us forgiving others.  The parable of the unjust steward, who was forgiven the 6 million dollar IOU but could not forgive the six hundred dollar debt is Jesus’ way of telling us again that this petition speaks the truth.

So if you want to carry the grudge - don’t pray this petition.  If you feel that it is only right to remember the wrongs done to you, an unkind word, or a hurtful deed, then don’t pray this prayer.  If you feel that the wrongs against you have been too often and too much, and now it is right to hold it against them, then don’t ask God to forgive you.  You can say all of the God-words and Jesus-talk you want.  If you don’t forgive others, all others, then you actually pray in this petition that God does not forgive you - and whether you pray it or not, He will not.  If you cannot forgive others, you are not a Christian in any sense of the word which ought to bring comfort to anyone.

The whole of the Christian faith is wrapped up here.  God forgives us for Jesus sake.  His love and forgiveness transforms us into new creatures.  We are dead to sin and alive to God because of and in connection with Christ Jesus.  But if we cannot and will not be like Him and connected to Him so that we also forgive, then we are not in connection with Jesus, and then we are not really dead to sin or alive to God, and we are not forgiven either.

IOU̓s.  We owe.  God has forgiven our debts to Him.  We owe Him to forgive others.  That is a debt we will gladly pay, and we pray for it in this fifth petition.  God grant our prayer to be forgiven and give us the grace to forgive others, for Christ’s sake.

Enough is Enough

Matthew 6:31, 32, and 34:  Do not he anxious then, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “With what shall we clothe ourselves?  For all these things the Gentiles eagerly seek; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  Therefore do not be anxious for tomorrow, for tomorrow will care for itself.  Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Enough is enough!  That is our theme this evening.  Enough is enough!  This old saying, a proverb really, is usually shouted out in frustration.  Enough is enough!  And then the hero goes on to set things finally to right.

As a saying, it is a tautology – saying that ends where it began, or begins with its own conclusion.  It is something like circular reasoning, except there is no reasoning here, just a declaration.  This is an identity statement, both sides of the equation are identical.  Picture it as math, and the “is” as an equal sign.  It says, “enough equals enough,” logically – and mathematically – identity.

The theme this evening is a truism - a statement so self-evidently correct that there needs to be no debate.  It would seem difficult to imagine building an entire sermon on the theme of a truism, but this is our theme.  It is our theme because it captures the truth of the Fourth Petition.  So this evening I invite you to consider the Fourth petition of the Lord’s prayer with me under the theme, Enough is Enough!  The Fourth petition is “Give us this day our daily bread.”

What does this mean?  God gives daily bread even without our prayer, even to all the wicked; but we pray in this petition that He would lead us to know it, and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.

This is the single petition in this prayer for worldly, physical blessings.  So it makes sense to ask what we are asking for.  We have six petitions for spiritual gifts and only one for the things in life that we often value and notice most.  So, logically, we would next ask, what do we mean by daily bread?  What is it that this single petition seeks?

Luther answered:
Everything which belongs to the support and needs of the body, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, land, cattle, money, possessions, a pious spouse, pious children, pious servants, pious and faithful rulers, good government, beneficial weather, peace, health, discipline, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.

What belongs to daily bread?  Everything.  Everything in this world which connects to our having or using our daily bread to our advantage and benefit.  What could we exclude?  We need health to earn the money to buy our daily bread.  The nation must be secure to guarantee it to us.  The economy needs to be healthy for employment to exist and provide a decent income.  Crime must be controlled or our daily bread will be taken away by force.

Merely examining the concept of food, we can see that we require so much in order to have just that.  The farmer needs good weather.  He needs strength and health.  The market needs to be functioning, the food-processors working, the stores open.  We need to be able to get to the store, to afford the products, and to be able to safely return home.  All sorts and every kind of worldly blessing is included in the fourth petition.  Not only may we say that enough is enough, but enough, in this case, is everything!

We pray in this petition for everything we need for life in this world.  We haven’t left out a thing.  And we do it all in just one petition.  This petition says “Give me today what I need today – anything I need and everything I need.”  Give me today what today requires.  Enough . . . is enough.  More would be nice.  Riches seem attractive.  Abundance seems desirable.  But enough is enough.  All I need . . . is all I need.  Anything more is extra - however pleasant the thought of it, or the enjoyment of it, may be.

In this brief petition we express and we teach a profound and yet simple trust in God. We say, just give me what I need today.  It is too late for yesterday and if I have tomorrow̓s stuff, I will just have to carry it around or store it somewhere.  Give me what I need today, God, and I will trust you for tomorrow’s stuff tomorrow.

In this petition, we express our confidence in His love.  He demonstrated that love for us in Jesus Christ.  He sent His Son for us.  He gave Him up to death for our sins.  And then God chose us to be His people.  He called us by the gospel with the sweet promise of forgiveness earned by Jesus but completely undeserved by us.  He enlightened us with the gift of the Holy Spirit, with faith, and through Baptism and the preaching of the Word.  He made us holy by forgiveness and keeps us holy through faith by means of the Word proclaimed and the Sacrament of the Altar, and by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

His love demonstrated in sending Jesus, His love at work in Him choosing us out of all of humanity, His love experienced in keeping us and blessing us - all these evidences of His love have taught us that we can trust His love.  This is the same thing St. Paul tells us in Romans 8:32; He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?

We know that He provides everything, and we here express our trust in His providing.  In effect, we say in this petition, “God, we know you can provide.   We know that you have provided whatever we have.  We are confident that You will continue to provide for us what we need to live in this world.”

We confess, in this petition, that we trust in God’s faithfulness.  He can be trusted.  He will not fail.  Enough is enough!

By praying this petition we place ourselves humbly under the mighty hand of God, just as Scripture instructs us.  We say here, in effect, “Thy will be done, not mine.  You take me and use me as You wish, for Your way is always best.”  We say, “If You don’t see fit to give it to me, Lord, I don’t need it.  If you don’t give it to me, Lord, I am not going to have it.  I don’t even want what You will not give.  Whatever you give me, I will be content . . . for enough is enough.”

If we pray this petition thoughtfully and seriously, we restrict greed and worry in our lives.  Our flesh, of course, wants more and more, bigger and better.  But this petition counsels our soul that today’s stuff is sufficient for today.  Nothing extra is needed.  Greed is fenced in and cut out and we seek only what we need from our God, who we are confident will supply it.

Worry is eradicated because we only need to deal with the present.  We can set all of our anxieties in His hands, casting all our cares upon Him, for He cares for us.  Jesus said, “Do not he anxious for tomorrow .  .  .  each day has enough trouble of its own.” God doesn’t want us to do anything but live today in His presence.  He will take care of tomorrow until it gets here  .  .  .  and then help us through it.  Tomorrow we can deal with tomorrow.  So, in the sense of Christian faith, this petition says to us, “Don̓t worry.  Be happy!”

This petition, short and simple, actually focuses us on the chief thing.  It sets aside the worry and the greed and the fears and the needs by turning them all over to God, and invites us to see the most important thing, our treasure in heaven.  Jesus said, in verse 20 of the same chapter of Matthew in which He teaches us the Lord’s Prayer, But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven where neither moth nor rust destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal; for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

This petition reminds us that these things around us are not the real treasures.  If they are, in our mind, then we do not have that most important, one good thing Jesus chided Martha about and praised Mary for finding.  This petition puts everything in perspective.  It says, as the Scriptures say in another place, “If we have food and clothing, let us be content.”

This world is just a way-station.  I’m but a stranger here .  .  heaven is my home.  This world is not permanent.  It is not the end, it is the means, the road.  It is like a hotel, we use it for our main purpose, which is His purpose.  Heaven is our goal.  Heaven is the point of all that we do or have here.  Heaven is the meaning of this, not earth, not life on this earth, not possessions.

So, enough is enough.  We pray, give us this day our daily bread, and teach us to know that it came from You, and give us hearts filled with thanksgiving.

Saturday, March 02, 2019

The Lenten Fast

      In the Small Catechism, under the topic of the Sacrament of the Altar, the fourth question, “Who then, receives this Sacrament worthily?”, Luther answers, “Fasting and bodily preparation are, in fact, a fine external discipline”.  Luther then goes on to tell us that true preparation for the Lord’s Supper is faith.  That is usually the entire discussion of fasting in the Lutheran Church.  For some reason, we tend to simply dismiss the idea of fasting with Luther’s words about how they are “a fine outward training” (or, as above, “external discipline”).

     What Luther said about fasting, however, was that it was a good thing to do.  It did not serve as adequate preparation for reception of the Lord’s body and blood, but it was a good discipline.  As a “discipline,” it is a training thing - what I often refer to as a “devotional exercise”.  Although it is not required, it is often useful and even beneficial as an exercise, to discipline the flesh as we live out our vocation as the holy people of God.  I bring this up because our topic for this month’s newsletter is “The Lenten Fast”.

     The Lenten Fast is what I first encountered in life as “giving something up for Lent”.  When I was a child, my mother, who had been raised Roman Catholic, taught us her childhood tradition of giving something up for Lent.  It was typically something like your favorite candy, or, perhaps, deliberately not watching your favorite TV program for those six weeks.  No one called it fasting, and I wasn’t always very clear on why we gave something up, but we did it every year.  It set the season of Lent aside as something unique and special.  Eventually, I learned that giving something up for Lent was a way of remembering the fasting of Jesus in the wilderness as He confronted the temptations of the devil head-on just after His baptism.  We gave up something small, and frequently failed to discipline ourselves to maintain the “fast” throughout the six weeks.  Our struggles to keep the fast disciplined us, that is, they taught us just a little about the enormous thing Jesus did when He went without food for those forty days and forty nights.

     Our culture teaches us that we are individuals.  Human society learned that principle from the Gospel.  It was the Gospel which taught us that each of us was counted worth the love of God – by God! – and valued highly by the death of His Son in our place and for our redemption.  Salvation was for each, individually, and suddenly we can to see ourselves as individual people rather than instances of a group, class, or caste.  This was wonderful news!  But our culture has evolved the notion of individuality into something radical and independent of anyone or anything.  That notion is simply false, and when taken to an extreme is deadly dangerous.

     Centuries ago this drift in popular philosophy - the way people tend to think - was already noted, and responded to.  “No man is an island”, was how the poet John Donne stated it in the early 1600's.  Donne wanted to remind people that all of humanity was interconnected - and that we all alike must die; “Don’t ask for whom the bell tolls (the church-bell tolling at the death of someone), it tolls for you.”  My point here is not exactly the same as Donne’s, but while we are valued by God as individuals, while we live, we are never entirely free of others.

     In the Church, we are taught explicitly that we are interconnected.  We are members of the body of Christ and members individually of one another.  Radical individualism and independence subvert the Gospel and the community of Christ’s people which we call the Church.  But our culture teaches us that we are free, and we have rights.  Neither statement is absolutely true.  Freedoms have limits, and none of our rights are absolute in the realm of civil government.  For the Christian, what society calls “rights” we call “blessings” or “privileges”.  They are what the Lord makes them, because we are His, purchased and won at the price of the cross.  We are not free, except as our God grants us liberties; but He never grants us liberties which set us free from Him or from the principle of love for one another.

     The resulting conflict between what we want and what God would have for us, and have us to be, causes us frustration and anxiety, at times, and stress.  For the Christian to live out his or her confession requires disciplining the flesh — which is where the fast comes in.  Fasting and bodily preparation are, in fact, a fine external discipline.

     The discipline of the fast is a way of training your flesh to walk in the light of faith.  We deny ourselves something here, for a specific time and with a specific goal in mind, to teach our flesh to obey our spirit, and remind ourselves that God will provide, so we can ‘do without’ for a time without the worry that we will suffer any great injury.  Somewhere in here comes the Lenten Fast.  It is not a rule or Law.  Many Lutherans are not even familiar with it as a tradition.  If it can be done as a devotional exercise, it can be profitable.  The idea is to keep one’s head in the game, so to speak.  It should help you remember that it is Lent, and act devotionally to remind you of what our Lord endured for you, to some small degree.
The Lenten Fast should be something simple, but something that you will notice is missing.  Giving up a food item that you really don’t like is not likely to serve you devotionally.  You might consider abstaining from an activity that you find enjoyable, and reserve that time for a Lenten devotional reading instead.  The goal of a fast should be to heighten your awareness of the season of Lent and prepare you to contemplate the Passion of our Lord and the joys of Easter more attentively.  The fast is a spiritual, devotional exercise.  It can be of great benefit as a discipline - a thing which disciples us.  It can only do so, however, if we are already disciples.  Because we make no command, one could look at the fast as a “voluntary law”.  It is such a law as we may choose to pick it up and exercise ourselves with it, or elect to ignore it without injury to ourselves.  It is also a manmade thing.  God nowhere commands a Lenten Fast.

     In the Old Testament, fasting was very much a part of repentance.  Over and over again Israel would fast and pray, often in sack-cloth and ashes – the symbols of repentance – as they sought forgiveness and divine protection.  In Isaiah 58, God even declares the sort of fast which He would see from His people - and why their fasts were so often unable to secure the blessings that they expected and desired from them.  “Is this not the fast which I choose, To loosen the bonds of wickedness, To undo the bands of the yoke, And to let the oppressed go free, And break every yoke?  Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry, And bring the homeless poor into the house; When you see the naked, to cover him; And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?  Then your light will break out like the dawn, And your recovery will speedily spring forth; And your righteousness will go before you; The glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.  Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; You will cry, and He will say, 'Here I am.'”

     Perhaps one of the customs of the Church that we have let slip away that we should not have is fasting.  It isn’t appealing to our flesh or fun, but maybe we can find some good in the devotional exercise and spiritual discipline of a fast.  If the thought is new to you, perhaps you could start slow and easy - like with a Lenten Fast, you know, giving something up for Lent, and thereby keeping Christ and Lent in the front of your mind this Lenten Season.  “Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; You will cry, and He will say, 'Here I am.'”

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Living in a post-America America

The nation I grew up in no longer exists.  That is a strange thing to say, but it is true.  The geography is still there, changing as it will through time, but the political and social structures are gone.

The news media that once prided itself on at least the pretense of objectivity does so no longer.  It is an active advocate for the socialist and communist agenda.  It no longer reports the news, but filters it for what will advance the agenda factually or emotively, and declines to report most everything else.  Facts actually play a very limited role in reporting and editorializing today, taking a back seat to agenda propaganda.

Laws are only selectively enforced, and always seemingly in line with the “progressive” agenda.  Among the political elite, one needs to be conservative to draw attention and face any legal sanction for one’s conduct.

Lies, deceit, violence and ignorance hold sway in public debate.  Anti-Semitism is on the rise, along with Christian-bashing and persecution in the public forum, and the embrace of Islam and sharia is now the filter for public discourse.

I could almost wish that those advocates for the embrace of Islamic violence could experience what they unwittingly promote, except for the damage that would befall all those around them as well.  It seems that the enemies of liberty always find ready ears and undeveloped minds to in which to fester.

The silent majority, the great hoard of deplorables as defined by Candidate Clinton, need to rise up, and force their representation in Washington  - and at the state level - to represent Americans, to enforce laws upon all, including the elected, equally, to protect the nation against the invasion of non-citizens, and to preserve our liberties against the foes foreign and domestic.

We could start by removing those who have taken office contrary to our election laws.  Secondly, we could enforce the long-standing law against any Muslim serving in public office, because their religion requires them to place Sharia law above loyalty to our nation’s laws.  Thirdly, we need to stop the legal murder of the pre-born, and address the judicial abuse of activist courts.

Because the political will does not exist in our elected officials to represent Americans, but desire to rule over us and fleece us for their own personal advantage, the nation we once thought existed can exist no longer, sadly.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Saying “Goodbye”

     This year, March is the month of Ash Wednesday.  As I write this we are looking forward to the “Gesimas”, Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima.  The largest part of the Synod around us, and the church in general, I suspect, is celebrating the modern, longer season of Epiphany - seven weeks long this year, almost as long as it can get.  Then they have Transfiguration Sunday on March 3, which we will celebrate on February 10.  This time in the church year holds a special place in my mind, and it brings a mixture of emotions.  The one that struck me as I sat down to write this article was sorrow over how the Church Year we have all known is soon to be passing into history, and we must say “good -bye”.
     The Gesima’s are going, slowly but surely.  Time Marches On.  The historic lectionary, used by our Fathers back to the time of Luther (and beyond), is also being supplanted by those three-year series.  They were first created by the ecumenical movement people who wanted all of the Christian churches – so called – to use the same lessons every week and so show us that there is ‘really no difference between the denominations’ so we could all get together and forget all that doctrine-stuff that divides us and be one big happy family.  Happily, very few were deceived by that ruse.
     The point is, everything is changing and the old things are quickly passing away.  That is inevitable, I guess.  It is just a sorrow.  But it reflects a theological truth and can teach us something of value even if we don’t enjoy watching it happen.  Those wonderful old things are passing away, and among those old things, we must count ourselves.  We are passing away too.  We may even beat the Gesima’s into history!
     Change is the hallmark of the world we live in.  Some change is even good.  In the faith, however, change is not usually a positive thing.  Truth never changes, and when we change our truths, we are running the risk of losing touch with the faith once delivered to the saints.  Unfortunately, we can also run that risk by uncritically refusing any and all change.  As the world changes about us, we have to make some changes to keep our place in the world and to hold onto what we already have.
     That sounds so strange - you have to move to stay in the same place - but it can be true.  It helps to think of the world as floating on the stream of time.  If you want to hold your place in a river, you have to move against the current, or you just drift away.  In this world, language and customs and the conceptual framework of the culture around you is always changing, moving like a stream, and if you don’t move against the current, constantly adjusting yourself to keep your place, so to speak, you will drift away from where you think you are and where you want to be just as surely as you would in a boat on a river.
     Think about the changes in technology around you.  They make a good marker for the flow of change.  Our cars have changed.  Our telephones have changed.  Our televisions have changed.  How we approach most everything we do in daily life has changed along with the technologies we use to do them.  We have, for example, gone from party lines to individual phones for each person, and they are not connected to a place, but to a person now.  Many people have done away with home phones as redundant and unnecessary expenses.  I didn’t want a cell-phone at first.  I avoided getting one.  Now I cannot imagine what I would do without it, and I worry about how I am going to contact people when I leave my phone at home.
     Computers are another example of how technology has changed our lives.  I know very few people who don’t have a computer.  Some people who like to think that they don’t need a computer would be amazed at how many computers they actually use – in their cars, in their appliances, banking, and shopping.  They simply have avoided the step of owning a personal computer or learning how to use one, and limited their options in a number of ways by doing so.
     With life changing so radically, does it seem realistic to expect that church and worship and the ways we exercise our faith will remain unchanged?  People are already looking to podcasts for Bible studies, and even my sermons are on the internet, both in print and in sound, so some things have changed to a degree already.  But as things change, we have to approach change with our eyes wide open and shape how change effects what we do and what we believe, teach, and confess.
     In point of fact, what we believe, teach, and confess ought not to change, even while the vehicle for sharing the faith or learning it is undergoing certain unavoidable changes.  The more things change, they say, the more things stay the same.  Mankind doesn’t change.  Sin continues to dog our steps.  We continue to face frustrations, sorrows, loneliness, fear, and so forth.  We still need the Gospel, and we still need the gifts of God through Word and Sacrament, and we still need - even though some may have stopped feeling the desire for - the fellowship of the saints.  Just as the Church in every age gone by has had to figure out how to be church and do church in the face of their society and their culture and their technology, we have to figure it out for our age and time.  The challenge of our time is the nature and the speed of the outward changes, while we meet the same old needs of the inner man and inner realities.
      Among the changes that we cannot make, are changes in doctrine.  That is all God-given, and we cannot let go of anything God has spoken to us.  We can look for better ways for sharing it with people who are caught up in our changing world, but we have no desire to see a single ‘jot or tittle’ lost or altered.  We also do not want to lose the wonderful fellowship we have when we gather for worship.  Our age prizes individuality and independence, but the Church prizes our mutual love and support for one another.   We need the precious face-to-face time of the congregation and the worship service.  We delight in not just the familiarity of the liturgy, but in its commonality.  We share it.  We know it and one another and are encouraged and strengthened by the sharing together of our faith and confession.
     These are things that we have to fight to hang onto.  The world around us is trying to pull it away, and the church around us is sometimes too willing to set it aside and move on to whatever is next.  Before we let go of anything, however, we must be sure that we are not losing something precious and good and wholesome.  goodby to something old and familiar, or saying goodbye to the new and the modern.  It also means that we have to face saying goodbye, at least for a time, to one another, as our time of departure from this life approaches.  The changes of this life keep forcing that reality before us too.  It makes sense to prepare for that goodbye too.  But that is one goodbye we can welcome because it isn’t permanent.  It is only until the Lord returns and raises us up again.  Time marches on, and this month it is marching us toward Lent where we will celebrate and solemnly observe the crushing reality of our sins and the overwhelming reality and depth of the love of God for us. So, hello, Lent, and goodbye worldly comfort and ease.  Don’t you just hate saying goodbye?
Yours in the Lord,
Pastor Fish
So, we have a balancing act to do.  We have to say goodbye to anything that stands in the way of the Gospel - whether that means saying

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Signs

Spring is here.  You can see the signs of it everywhere.  The Redbud are in bloom, and the Service-berries.  Little green leaves are popping out of trees and bushes all over the place.  The temperatures are getting warmer, here in Missouri.  And traffic on Highway 5 is getting heavier by the day as the week-enders, the summer people, and tourists begin to descend on this vacation spot called the Lake of the Ozarks.

Just so, the signs of God’s love are everywhere to be seen as well.  I hesitate to point at outward signs of prosperity or blessings.  I know that each blessing is a sign of God’s love, but when people hear such talk they begin to think that the better you have it, the more God must love you, and, conversely, the worse off you are, the less He must love you.  Such an attitude is absolutely normal.  It is simply wrong.  The Bible teaches us that we cannot take our outward circumstances as a reliable indicator of our standing with God.

Good comes from God, but then, so do some things that we don’t enjoy.  Pain, sickness, suffering, these are all tools God uses.  Sometimes they are blessings that we don’t recognize until much later.  Misfortune and failure can be God’s way of steering us away from trouble ahead, or forcing us to go where we don’t want to go and do things we would never choose to do willingly so that we may discover greater blessings, or so that we can become the blessing God would have us be in the life of someone else.

Look at the example of Joseph in the Bible.  His brothers hated him.  Not a good situation in a world centered on family.  They sold him into slavery in a time and place where slavery was dangerous in the extreme.  He started to do well only to be sabotaged by a woman who felt scorned by Joseph’s commitment to morality.  That earned him a prison sentence in a world where prisoners died for lack of care and food and such, many times.  While in prison, he helped others out by interpreting their troubling dreams for them and when their situations improved, they forgot all about him, even though they had pledged to remember him.

Yes, God blessed Joseph with success wherever he went and in whatever endeavor he put his hand to, but Joseph had hard times and difficulties pile up around him for the simple crime of being the favorite of his father by virtue of being the youngest.  Well, that and a little youthful foolishness about telling his brothers about his dreams, which irritated them a bit more.  All of the misfortunes of Joseph put him in the place God wanted him for the purpose of preserving God’s chosen people through his management of resources during the famine in Egypt and the surrounding countries.  It also served to bring the people of Israel to Egypt to set in motion the horrible things that happened to them that led to their cry for rescue and the eventual rescue from bondage in Israel by means of the Passover and the Exodus.

Judging by how often the children of Israel grumbled during the Exodus, their status as the Chosen People did not bring them uniformly wonderful conditions – or at least conditions they liked uniformly.  They had free food fall from the sky, water pour of rocks, and a visible sign of the presence of God day and night with them for forty years, and still they grumbled.  In fact, their forty year camping trip through the Sinai desert happened because they did not trust God after He had rescued them in such an ostentatious fashion in answer to their prayers.  Instead, they chose to grumble.  But through it all, and through the hundreds of years of their personal and national unfaithfulness as a nation, God continued to call them “His people”. 

God continued to speak to them through the Prophets, although it appears that they did not trust the prophets much, or listen to them well.  The prophets often had to act out their prophecies in strange seeming ways.  I think some of that was to get the attention of the people and illustrate the message in very striking ways.  Ezekiel had to lay on his side, tied up for years and cook his very limited meals over burning dung. (Yummm?)  Yet he was the prophet of the Most High.  Hosea had to marry a prostitute, and he had to name his children really strange names.  And he was the prophet of the Most High.  Jeremiah had to prophecy and witness the near obliteration of his country and his people.  He was thrown into prison, tossed into a pit – an old cistern – ate very limited rations at times, and He was the chosen spokesman of God.  He ended up being put in a hollow log and sawn in two, according to tradition, for being the prophet of God.  Did that mean that these men were not beloved of the Lord?  No.  It meant that God had some special and difficult things for them to do.

Elijah found life so difficult that he prayed for death.  He was afraid for his life, and distressed by what he had to do and say, although some of it was downright miraculous.  In the end, he got a chariot ride to heaven, clear testimony to his relationship with the Lord, but only at the end of a long and difficult and distressing career as a prophet, and it was probably done as much for Elisha, his replacement, as it was done for Elijah.  Elijah got to do that amazing sacrifice thing in competition against the prophets of Baal and the prophets of the Asherah, but when all was said and done, he was running for his life from Queen Jezebel who swore an oath to kill him, and to do so within the next day.

King Ahab was rich and powerful, but he was not faithful nor did he stand in the favor of the Lord.  Jezebel was rich and powerful, and yet she was rejected by the Lord.  Elijah was the prophet of God and poor and hunted and frightened.  Throughout the Scriptures, we see the chosen and beloved of God facing difficulty and danger and even being killed, like Stephen in the New Testament, or all of the Apostles, except, perhaps, one.  The comfortable and natural notion that success and wealth and abundance indicated God’s particular favor is shown to be dead wrong.

So, even though every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift comes down from above, from the Father of lights (I’m loosely quoting James), the abundance of blessings do not mark the recipient(s) as necessarily God’s favorite(s), nor does the hard things and pain and privation and persecution mark the one as rejected or despised by God.  So, even though it is tempting to do so, we cannot mark our circumstances as a sign of God’s favor or love, or of His disfavor and judgment.  That sort of judgment is sinful, which is why it is so natural.  Our nature is sinful, and the devil, who is always around suggesting thoughts and attitudes to us, would love us to think that way.  We call such thinking a “theology of glory”.

The sign of God’s love is, first, the cross of Jesus Christ.  He loves you that much.  We think we have problems when, after sixty or seventy years of life, we develop a potentially life-threatening condition.  Jesus died at about thirty-three, in great agony.  We think God is angry with us when we face a financial reversal and have to struggle a little in the land of the greatest abundance ever known to man - an abundance that is almost always available to us to some degree, even in our distress.  Jesus lived in a third-rate country, known for its poverty and harsh conditions, under brutal foreign domination, and He was poor even by that nations’s standards.  And He is the Son of God.  He gave all of that up (being God and all) at least for a time, in exchange for the poverty, human hatred, abuse, and the passion and crucifixion, for us.  He loves us that much.

The cross tells you what God’s heart and mind is toward you.  He did all of that so that you would not have to, or worse, face eternal condemnation – you know, “where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth”, “where the fire never goes out and the worm never dies.”

Another sign of the love of God for you is the Church.  You were baptized, and there is a faithful church somewhere near enough to you to be attended, or at least shared in on the internet, although most everyone who receives this newsletter directly has a congregation to call home.  If it is not a faithful congregation, and you still attend it, the lack of faithfulness there is not a sign of God’s attitude toward you, but of yours toward Him.  The typical case here is that God called you to be His child through Baptism, and has nurtured you with worship and the Word and Sacrament for however long you may have been a Christian.  Since only those that believe – Christians in fact – have the hope of everlasting life, your participation in that group (Christians) marks you as one beloved of God.

Now, congregations have their struggles too, but where the Word of God is taught in truth and purity – meaning just the truth, not mixed with false doctrines – there is the Church, the family of God, where God is at work through His Word in the hearts and minds of His people.  There may be a number of those who don’t take it seriously, or don’t really believe, in the congregation as well, but the fact that God provides you with His Word, and works in you through it with His Holy Spirit, marks you as one He loves particularly well.  Word and Sacrament are signs of the love of God for you that should never be taken for granted or under-valued.
When people do take it for granted, it often goes away, sometimes permanently.

Having a Bible, and the skill to read it is also a sign of the love of God for you.  It tells you that God intends to take care of you even if the church around you should fail.  Having the Lutheran Confessions available to you is another wonderful gift and sign of His love.  The Confessions unscramble so much that the world around us has twisted up and confused so badly.  God is saying that He wants you to be well-grounded and clear on the faith when He provides these blessings to you.

Okay, I suppose it has occurred to you that many who do not believe, or who do not believe the truth much have these same resources available to them.  They may live just down the block from a faithful church that they never attend.  They may attend, but only for the appearance of it, or the social life, and don’t believe a thing.  They may have a fine display Bible in their home, but never bother to read it or study it.  If they have all those things, and yet they remain unbelievers and hypocrites, how can those things be a sign of the love of God for you?

Simple.  God loves them, too!  They just don’t love Him back.  They fight His influence and reject the approaches of His Holy Spirit.  God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.  Just because they spurn His love doesn’t mean He doesn’t love them.  But those same signs, ignored by so many in this world, are clear signs of the love of God for you.

When you approach the altar, for example, to receive the Lord’s Supper, take note that God has arranged for you to receive it individually.  He hands it right to you.  It is not the ‘firehose’ approach.  He doesn’t just spray everyone with it.  People can just sit there and not participate, and often do.  But when you come to the altar, the Lord has so arranged the things of this world that His body and His blood are placed into your mouth by His called servant, or at least placed into your hands to put into your mouth, for your blessing and strengthening and forgiveness.

Ancient Israel got accustomed to the pillar of fire by night and cloud by day.  Even when they could see the sign of the presence of God, they got so blasé about it that they could sin and grumble and complain that God wasn’t there, even while He clearly was.  The prophets of old were God’s men and messengers, but the people got so jaded that they would not listen, and could not tell the difference between the true prophet and the false prophet.

Today we have churches with pastors who, when faithful, are God’s men and God’s messengers.  We have Bibles to read so that we can identify who is faithful and who is false.  We have the Lutheran Confessions to remind us of how the world has twisted God’s Word and misconstrued it, and so taught falsely about it.  We have the tools, and we have the signs of God’s love for us.  We don’t want to make the same old mistakes of the past and fail to see the signs, or to use the blessings God has poured out abundantly around us.  Jesus pointed to the signs.  We should pay attention to them.

Yours in the Lord,
Pastor Fish

The Church of the Mercy Works

The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has taken a new direction, sort of.  When he became the new president of the Synod, Matthew Harrison brought in the three-fold emphasis of Witness and Mercy and Life Together (Service).  A quick check of the Synod Website shows a significant emphasis on the mercy aspect, with mercy works reflecting by far the longest list of programs in the Synod today.  Recent publications have focused on the Christian duty of mercy, and on the rising tide of human care works in the church.  The Seminary publication, Concordia Journal, recently dedicated an issue to the topic, in connection with Valparaiso University, printing articles from a Symposium dealing with the issue theologically.  The LWF publications are suddenly appearing with regularity in my mailbox.  It is a new emphasis for the LC-MS as a Synod.

These developments are not surprising, considering the history of our president.  Both as a pastor of an urban parish deeply involved in neighborhood Mercy works, and as a synodical administrator in charge of the Human Care Ministries for over ten years, Matthew Harrison has demonstrated a laudable commitment to human care and works of mercy.  Nevertheless, the change in direction for the Synod raises a question.  The whole world of the church (and the ethical centers of the secular world) around us is heading in the direction of social service to suffering humanity.  The Humanist Manifestoes stated that the church would have to make that change, if it were to remain relevant in our modern age.  Of course, their assertion was based on an absolute rejection of God and of any savior or salvation coming for us.  The Synod doesn’t have that motivation, but we are following their script nonetheless.

  Please do not misunderstand what follows: mercy works are good things for the children of God to do.  But as a church body with hundreds of pastors displaced from their parishes, forced out of the work they trained to do in service to the synod, and with no help from that Synod, the current emphasis on mercy is, in my opinion, somewhat misplaced.  It focuses on care for the stranger and neglects care for our brothers.  These pastors struggle with debt for their education, and the simple task of surviving economically with the career they chose closed to them, often due to no fault of their own.  The Synod at convention was tasked by resolution with forming a task force to look into the issues of those on the roster without calls, including returning missionaries and chaplains.  This is a good start, but hardly sufficient in the face of the need – which exceeds the numbers reported in the convention materials.

The administrative divisions of the synod, known as districts, are often hostile to these men who have lost their ministry and their livelihood.  CRM is often viewed as a “death-sentence” for a career in parish ministry.   There seems to be no mercy for such men.  They are out of office, and often offered no assistance with life, and no opportunity to serve a parish.  When they seek assistance, they frequently encounter a cold shoulder and a deaf ear from those who are supposed to be their ecclesiastical supervisors.  Sometimes they encounter open hostility.

Mercy is most appropriate to the people of God.  Jesus said, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another, . . . By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  The Apostle Paul wrote, “So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, but especially to those who are of the household of the faith.”  Somehow, mercy appears to have come to be understood in our Synod as to be directed primarily to others rather than to “those who are of the household of the faith”.

These men took years of their lives and spent their fortunes to prepare for service to the Synod and to their Lord.  Many left school with significant debt, a debt which they reasonably expected to amortize during fruitful years of service in their ministries.  Suddenly, they find themselves on the outside.  Many of these pastors have been removed from their parishes by very questionable procedures that seemed to be most unchristian and unloving. They long to serve, in a church body that needs their service, and yet they are excluded most often for the “crime” of being a faithful Lutheran Pastor.  They are ignored, in want, and suffering.  Still, we, the Synod, serve the world and ignore our brothers and our neighbors.


We serve those in foreign lands, those afflicted with malaria, those who speak a different language and live in a different culture, and we should!  That is a godly thing to do.  We work to meet their needs – medical, food, shelter, – and these things are also very good.  It appears at times that these needs are addressed with only an occasional connection to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and that limited connection is defended as good and necessary and appropriate to the work.  We do some of this service in concert with church bodies whose theological confessions many times fall short of being Christian.  We are presented a “theological” justification for this also – cooperation in externals, which we are assured is acceptable, and in certain circumstances may be so.  Although it doesn’t always seem sufficient.  The situation puts one in mind of what Jesus said, when He chastised the Pharisees for their outward, formal piety, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.”  We have ignored justice and mercy and faithfulness toward those who are our brothers.

Our church body has millions of dollars to pursue works of mercy in the world around us, but we ignore those for whom we have the command of our Lord to care.  “Love one another” appears 13 times in the New Testament and 3 of those times from the lips of Jesus, according to John.  Paul reminds us in Galatians 6:2, “Bear one another’s burdens, and thus fulfil the law of Christ.”  We have the resources to help in physical disasters around us, but our brothers who have been removed, often through no genuine fault of their own, must bear their burdens alone.  I can attest by personal experience that the training required to be a pastor is not valued as preparation for many other tasks by the world around us.

The Word of God exhorts us, “Through love serve one another.” - Gal. 5:13.  I teach my congregation that love for one’s neighbor does not always mean love for the stranger in a distant land, although that is a good thing to do if we have the resources.  Love for the neighbor is first about loving those near you, family, friends, actual neighbors, the people you can see and touch and directly serve and affect.  It is in serving our neighbor that we serve God.  You cannot love God, whom you have not seen, if you do not love your brother, whom you have seen.  Serving the stranger in a far-away land and the distant alien is not serving God if we are, at the same time, ignoring our neighbors and our brothers.  It is, instead, the avoidance of the command of God as regards our neighbor, and, in effect, tithing mint and dill and cummin while neglecting the weightier provisions of the law.

That is not the part of the people of God.  Tertullian, in describing how outsiders saw the Christians in his day, wrote the following: "Look," they say, "how they love one another" (for they themselves hate one another); "and how they are ready to die for each other" (for they themselves are readier to kill each other).  One has to wonder if we would be seen in the same way.  The outright abandonment of pastors who have been removed or forced to resign, without Scriptural cause, is a synodical scandal of long-standing.  If we are going to talk about and pursue works of mercy and compassion, it is only right that we begin close to home.

Mercy works mean nothing if ignore those who are our brothers.  The standard excuse often given is that somehow the pastor enduring such treatment brought it on himself.  This is simply holding those who have been wronged as guilty and excusing those who did them wrong and supporting them.  It is sin, plain and simple.

So, Missouri, are you serious about serving God by serving your neighbor and loving one another, or are you merely clamoring for the approval of the ungodly world around you?  Let us take care of those who are truly our brothers before we pretend to care for others!

April Showers

Spring is slowly creeping into Missouri.  The winter has been long and cold, for Missouri, and the welcome warmth of Spring is finally being felt more often.  The changing season put me in mind of the old rhyme, “April showers bring May flowers”.  I don’t know that I have ever lived anywhere where it worked just like that, but Missouri comes closest.  Between the weather and the changes spreading across our society, the poem caused me to think of Luther’s comments about the Gospel being like a shower, moving from place to place.  To save my describing it more fully, I have included a section (edited slightly for length) from Volume 23 of Luther’s Works, starting on page 261.

“[T]he Gospel will tarry in your midst but a short time, especially after we who are now proclaiming it have closed our eyes in death. It will not remain after our departure.” The Gospel has its day and takes its course from one city to another. Today it is here; tomorrow, there. It is like a heavy shower which passes from place to place, soaking and enriching the soil. Christ says (Matt. 10:23): “If they drive you from one city, go to another. When all the cities have been visited, then I shall come with the Day of Judgment.” Even if a certain place accepts the Gospel today, it will not stay there long. People hate it; they view it with envy; they curse it; yes, they starve it out. Therefore Christ declares: “I will not remain with you long. You need not persecute and condemn the Gospel so. I shall soon quit the field and make room for you. As it is, a darkness will soon descend upon you, leaving you in utter ignorance.” What will happen then?

You will seek Me, and you will not find Me.


These are horrible words. . . . When the Gospel vanishes, then the light, the proper understanding and knowledge of faith in Christ, also disappears. Then you will find one undertaking this, another that. Then they will all go in search of Christ, of forgiveness of sins, and of grace; but their search will be in vain. . . . One will pray and fast, wear cowl and tonsure; another will do something else. Then men will search for Christ. Thus it happened in the papacy. Christ was lost, and people went hither and yon. They sought Christ, but they did not find Him.
Christ remained with the Jews in person for three years, preaching to them. Later they were deprived of Him. After His departure He had the apostles preach to them for forty years. But the Gospel did not remain with them for a longer time. They lost Christ, and now they have been looking for Him in vain for over 1,400 years. They torture themselves severely; they lead an austere life. There is no more miserable and wretched nation under the sun than they. They claim that all their misfortune stems from the fact that the Messiah has not yet come to visit them. But that is an empty thought. Oh, it is a terrible word that Christ pronounces here: “You will seek Me, and you will not find Me.” Christ means to say: “You will fret and spend yourselves, devote yourselves to a spiritual life, carry on services, plague yourselves to death, castigate yourselves, pray and fast much, but all in vain; for you will not find Me.”


This also happened in the papacy. There the whole world was full of monks and nuns. Yes, many thousands of sects and factions arose. How many orders the barefoot friars had, each one boasting that he was better than others! There was not a Christian who did not embark on something special with which to serve God. The world was full of searching. People expended earthly goods and suffered endless physical hardships in the search; but they did not find Christ. All was vain and useless.


Therefore Paul, quoting from the prophet Isaiah (55:6: “Seek the Lord while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near”), says very correctly in 2 Cor. 6:1–2: “We entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says: ‘At the acceptable time I have listened to you, and helped you on the day of salvation.’ Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” As though he were to say: “Believe, respect the Word, and live in accordance with the Word while you have it. See to it that you do not neglect it; do not sleep your opportunity away. For it will not remain forever; it will not tarry long.” Therefore this advice is best of all: We should not suppose that the Gospel, which we now have, will stay with us forever. Wait, and see what the situation will be in twenty years. Then tell me about it again. After the death of the present pious and sincere pastors, others will appear who will preach and act according to the pleasure of the devil. Alas, just behold how many . . . have already forfeited the Gospel. . . . And that will happen everywhere.


The people become weary of the Word and suppose that it will endure forever. When a good beer is available at a certain place, everybody runs there without delay, knowing that the supply will not last long. This commodity is not to be had every day; therefore people get it while it is to be had. If it could be obtained for a long period of time, our appetite would become surfeited, and the beer would not be prized. But here we assume that the Word will remain with us always, although, in fact, it stays and endures but a short time before it is gone. If you do not accept it gratefully and reverently, you will soon be without it. And once the Word is gone, the time will come when you would fain be pious and be saved; you will want to obtain God’s grace, forgiveness of sin, and heaven. But all will prove futile. You will not find grace, forgiveness of sin, life, and righteousness. All will be under condemnation, even your best works.


The nobility, the imperial cities, the Sacramentarians, and other fanatics have already lost it. And now they prescribe rules by which everybody can become pious. At the same time they are not aware that this is all for nothing. They will wear themselves out, run around like mad dogs, and lose life and limb over it; and yet they will not find true help, for now they reject it. Well, we have been warned sufficiently. Our great ingratitude makes it impossible for the Word to tarry with us long. Our contempt of the Word and our satiety, which God cannot long overlook, drive it away.


Christ says: “I shall be with you a little longer. You will seek Me, and you will not find Me. Where I am you cannot come.” This involves two points: “It means, in the first place, that you will burden yourselves with many wearying tasks. For when faith is gone, people will undertake great spiritual endeavors; but these do not achieve forgiveness of sin. Secondly, heaven will be closed to you and your zeal and your holy works and activity.”


Christ told the Jews this, but to no avail. That will be the lot of all the work-righteous after faith has vanished. The fate of the Jews will overtake us also. The world cannot be helped; it will not believe this. I am weary of trying, but I must continue to preach for the sake of myself and a few godly people. Apart from this, it is useless. People will not believe; they persist in finding out for themselves. That is the story of the Jews. Christ Himself, God’s Son, came, and then the apostles appeared to warn them; but they would not believe. Thus [our land], too, must go its way and bear the consequences. The same fate will befall us. It is inevitable. We are insisting on it.”


So far, Luther.

A long quote, I know.  But Luther says it so well.  We are witnessing the moving of the shower in our day and age.  This shower, however, does not produce flowers once it is gone.  More and more congregations are shrinking dramatically.  Many that seem to be holding their own are doing so by allowing names to sit on their rolls of men and women who have stopped worshipping and no longer participate regularly in the fellowship of the saints.  When these are challenged about that absence, they talk of rights and how they have not really changed even if their attendance has.

Christians do not talk of rights, at least not in religion.  Politics perhaps, but before the Lord we are not free men and women with rights.  That is a political condition – one which is also swiftly changing in our day.  In matters of faith and religion, we Christians are slaves of Christ and the recipients of great gifts of grace.  On the other hand, the missing brethren may be correct when they say that nothing has really changed with them.  They may never have believed, never have trusted the grace of God, never have felt that they stood in need of the work of the Holy Spirit in them.  Now their absence simply correctly reflects how they have always stood in their own minds before the goodness and grace of God.
We who remain need to recognize what is happening around us and live in the bright light of reality.  We are the truly blessed.  God has poured out on us His grace and love and taught us to know Him and to believe His will for us is salvation.  He has bestowed on us the clear understanding of His Word, and provided us with that light of which Psalm 119 verse 105 spoke, Thy word is a lamp to my feet, And a light to my path. 

Of course, a light is of absolutely no use if you do not use it.  That was Luther’s concern.  The pressure of the world and the tendencies of our own flesh is to take the Word for granted and dismiss any need to attend to it.  We don’t feel the need of Bible Study.  Life is pressing on us too heavily to take that time.  Midweek services are not all that important, as is reflected by the diminishing attendance at them.  It is too late, and too inconvenient, to attend.  Besides, we have Sunday services, most of the time.  Anyhow, we know what the pastor is going to say, more or less.  We can make up for our absences by reading the sermons on line and doing our daily devotions, right?

The problem is that while we might be able to do those things, most people do not.  It is like the man who moved to the lake for fishing.  Once he was there, everything else consumed his time.  He could always go fishing, so he always put it off until tomorrow in favor of something that seemed more immediate at the moment.  One day he discovered that he had not put his boat into the water for years.  Fishing is of no ultimate importance, of course, but the behavior of the fisherman is an ordinary human behavior.  It works that way with more important things too, like church and the Word of God.

Just because we believe today does not mean we can take God and His Word for granted.  Luke 11:28 says, “Blessed are they that hear the Word of God and keep it.”  Jesus also said, “If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”  It is not our wisdom, strength, or choosing that makes us Christian.  It is God at work in us that accomplishes that, and He works in us through His Word, heard and received in the Sacrament, the absolution, and the fellowship of the Saints – which only occurs around Word and Sacrament in what we call “worship”.  If we take it, and ourselves, for granted, we can fall away.  Jesus said that no one could snatch you out of His hand, but He did not say that you could not jump out on your own.  Many have.

The point of all of this is that we are presently still enjoying that “shower” of the Gospel, but you may have noticed that it is getting lighter.  The Gospel is harder to find.  That shower seems to be moving on.  It will prove to be a great blessing for those upon whom it next begins to pour, but it will be a great loss for those left behind when it moves.  After all, what happens when it stops raining?  Things dry out pretty quickly.  If it stays dry, we have a drought – as we have experienced in Missouri the past few years.  When there is a drought, things don’t grow and food can become scarce.

The prophets warn of a famine of the Word of God.  That famine was what Luther was describing.  He predicted it would come to Germany, and his homeland later was formerly part of East Germany, an atheistic communist state.  All of Europe is only nominally Christian today, with serious Christian congregations few and far between, and usually very small.  That is the famine that Luther foresaw.

Our nation is drying out, in terms of the Gospel.  There are lots of churches that teach works and decisions coupled with personal piety.  There are some that teach some bizarre form of personal self-approval, but very few who teach the forgiveness of sins by grace alone, through faith alone, even among what calls itself “Lutheran” these days.  We need to fight for the Gospel and cling to it earnestly before it vanishes.  We need it for ourselves.  We need it for our children and grandchildren.  We need it for our friends and neighbors who obviously have very little awareness of their own need.  Each and every one of those we know needs the Gospel, and faith in it.

When the Gospel fades away, there may be small outposts of it here and there in America, but I would not want to depend on being able to locate one nearby.  Even today, I hear reports of people driving an hour or more one way to go to a church where they hear the Word of God clearly and honestly proclaimed.  Denominational labels mean very little in this circumstance, except that it is most probable that you will find the Gospel clearly proclaimed only in a church that boldly identifies itself as Lutheran, but even the name “Lutheran” is no longer a guarantee.  The congregation and her pastor actually needs to be truly Lutheran.
As Luther pointed out, you don’t find forgiveness in those places that teach that it is by your own works or piety or decisions that you will be saved.  They must preach Christ and Him crucified.  Only there is that shower still pouring down.

Yours in the Lord,
Pastor Fish

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Good Old Saint Pat

The only holiday of note in the month of March is St. Patrick's Day, known in the Roman Church as the Feast of Patrick.  He was fabled to have driven all of the snakes out of Ireland, his color is green, and he is connected with the shamrock, which he is said to have used to teach the concept of the Trinity to the Irish peasants.  Here in America, the holiday is associated with Corned Beef and Cabbage, although that is an American Irish custom.  The day is connected with green beer because green is the color associated today with the holiday, and beer is enjoyed as a special dispensation for the holiday during Lent from the normal fastings and what-not that used to mark Lent, particularly among the Roman Catholics.  "The wearing of the green" originally referred to wearing a shamrock in one's lapel.  By the by, the original color associated with St. Patrick was, I am informed, blue.  There is even a color known as "St. Patrick's Blue".

What Patrick is really known for is missions.  Born in England, he was captured by some Irish pirates and made a slave in Ireland for about six years before he escaped and worked his way home.  He then became a priest, and felt drawn back to Ireland (reported to have had a vision calling him back to Ireland) to teach the pagans there the Christian faith.  He was Bishop of Ireland and a general missionary there for over thirty years, until his death.  Although he did not have the most successful mission to Ireland (according to the internet), he did capture the hearts and imagination of Ireland and has become the patron saint of the Emerald Isle.

If we want to celebrate St. Patrick, we can do no better than to celebrate Missions.  He may not have had any real effect on the snake population, since no one knows of any history of snakes in Ireland, but Patrick did spend a good portion of his life sharing the Gospel with people who did not want to hear it.  He wasn't numerically the most successful missionary, but he was faithful and persistent, and is credited with planting three hundred churches and baptizing thousands.  He credited his ability to work among the Irish to his captivity and slavery in his youth, where he learned to speak the native language, showing how God can use even our misfortunes to good effect.

He also demonstrated that one does not need to be visibly, outwardly successful or effective, as our world measure such things, to accomplish significant things for the Church.  After all, we are not the power in the church.  God and His Word is.  God grants success, and He alone determines what is effective for the spread of the Gospel.  The best we can do is be willing to confess Christ, and be steadfast in that confession.  God doesn't ask us to win great victories or be outwardly successful in our endeavors, He only asks us to be faithful and to do what He gives us to do - and say what He gives us to say.

We modern Americans live in a time not so very different from the times of St. Patrick.  Oh, the technology is different, and we are far more prosperous in the things of this world.  But people are still the same, and our culture is rapidly becoming every bit as pagan as the world of St. Patrick.  The biggest difference between his world and our is that many in his world had not yet heard the Gospel and the world around him was on the 'upswing', if you will, toward Christianity.  Our culture has heard the Gospel, and a couple of horrendous distortions of it, and our society is on the 'down-swing' away from the Christian faith and into a profound paganism.

The comforts of our age, and our culture's long encounter with and battle against the Gospel, have silenced any sense of sin or consciousness of the brutality of the godless world around us.  We can often watch horrifying conflict in other places on earth and not even recognize that there is real pain and real human suffering going on.  It seems to far too many of us, many times, as though the troubles of the world distant from us is a movie.  Our comfort continues.  Our food remains.  We can flip off the TV and it is as though nothing is really happening, and if it is, it is happening to someone else and seems oh-so-much-less than real.

We have often placed death in a hospital or nursing home, or a hospice facility.  Severe sickness is hidden in a hospital.  Pain is muted and medicated into a stupor.  Until it comes calling for us personally, many people can turn a blind eye to the grim reaper and so when someone talks of sin and its consequences, it is far too easy to pretend that any concern over it is overblown and hysterical.  Confessing Christ and proclaiming Law and Gospel in such a world is a difficult task.  Speaking, of course, is not the challenge.  The challenge lies in getting the world around us to listen and to care about something that seems so unreal and distant to them.

That is where the example of St. Patrick can be of help.  He went where he was not particularly wanted - at least not as a Christian.  The Irish pirates that kidnapped him wanted a slave, but they had no apparent desire for a missionary.  Patrick also had to have some personal issues with going back to the place where he had been a slave.  He felt called to do so, none the less, so he went.  He went and he preached and he endured beatings and abuse, and slowly his work prospered.  He was not as famous, or as appreciated, during his life as he was after his death.  God did what He wanted to do, and at his own pace.  Patrick was charged with being faithful, and, to a large extent, it appears that he was faithful to what he believed.

Part of the problem that the church has in our society today is that the spirit of humble faithfulness is not all that common.  We crave success, with all the trimmings we have come to identify with success.  People seem oh-so-impressed with the fancy, wealthy-looking preachers on TV.  Some of them even preach about how their success is a sign from God, and try to tell others how to emulate them.  It should be clear that what they are proclaiming is not Christ, but themselves and outward, worldly success.  They say, "If God loves you, He will abundantly bless you!"  If that were true, one would have to wonder about Jesus Himself.  He did not have the trappings of worldly success.  He had scorn and persecution during His life, and false imprisonment, torture, and an ignominious death at the end.  He had no fancy suit, no expensive wrist-watch, no stadium thronging with adoring fans, except when He was feeding them a free meal, and that outdoors!

Our schools seek men of academic respectability, and certification by the world rather than men of faithfulness.  Sometimes the two can and do go together, but not as often as our leaders like to suggest.  We simply like to look good to the world around us based on standards that have nothing to do with what the Church is about.  Similarly, congregations sometimes seek to hide their identity and mask their confession to keep from offending people who are responding to God's Word from the flesh just as the Bible teaches us the flesh will respond.  They don't want to hear about sin, so we stop making confession of sin - and the absolution - part of the public worship.  People don't understand what "Lutheran" is, so some churches drop the name to avoid offending.

On the other hand, our leaders are sometimes quite willing to step into the public limelight and do things that deny our doctrine and mute our confession because it makes them look good in the eyes of the world around them and dresses them up in the appearance of compassion and what-not.  Joining with non-Christian religious leaders in a community service during a time of crisis may look good and feel all compassionate, but at the precise moment that people need the clear comfort of the Gospel, such leaders are proclaiming by their actions - and sometimes their words - that the Gospel is nothing unique and has nothing to offer them that the pagan religions cannot give them.

The problem seems to be that for many, the concern is for how we look to the world around us and not for the welfare and salvation of others in that world.  The so-called great commission in Matthew does not command us to go, as so many quotations of it make it sound, it commands us to make disciples by Baptizing and teaching once we have gone - that is, wherever we may find ourselves!  It says, literally, "having gone, make disciples". 

Nowhere are we commanded to come up to the expectations of society in accomplishment or prosperity, or to look good to our neighbor - except that we be decent and honorable in the sight of all men, as far as it depends on us.  The modern desire to look successful or respectable in any way other than being moral and godly is just one of the desires of the flesh that actually works against the Spirit and the spirit-worked desire to confess Christ and the Gospel.  The Gospel is the power of God to the salvation of all men - the Jews first (as Paul says it in Romans 1:16) and then the Gentile - everybody else.  We will not make the difference, if the Word of God is being used and confessed.  The Word of God will.

Our part is to confess that Gospel both in what we do and in what we say.  We need to live lives that reflect the Gospel - and set us apart from the world around us.  If we try too hard to 'fit in' with the world around us, they will not see any difference.  They will not see Christ or what difference being a Christian makes, because, as we try so hard to look like the world around us and win their respect by being what they want us to be, being a Christian will make no difference in us.  We have no call to be deliberately strange, as snake-handlers are, for example, but we do have the call to live as God's holy people, and in a way that reflects what we believe, that is to say, the hope that is in us.

St. Patrick demonstrates the power of a consistent, faithful confession of both  life and lip.  While we are not all called to become missionaries in a foreign land, we are all called to live out our confidence in God, to show what forgiveness means and what difference it makes in life, and to be the sort of people that we know by the Word of God that we ought to be - patient, kind, decent, compassionate, forgiving, and so forth.  Just run through the lists that appear in the New Testament of the gifts of the Spirit or the characteristics of the Spirit as opposed to the flesh and you will see that the same sorts of things pop up in each list, "love, joy peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control".

The need here is not a legal need for salvation, the sort of thing you must do in order to get into heaven, but the need of the world around us to be able to see Christ through us and distinguish us from the unbelieving, pagans around us.  We can talk endlessly about the joy of salvation, but if we reflect no joy ourselves, the talk doesn't make much sense to anyone.  We can speak about peace, but if we are never at peace ourselves, we won't be very credible.  Forgiveness as the gift of God makes no sense if it is proclaimed by someone who never has any for anyone else in their life.  If you don't appear to enjoy being God's child or have any happiness that you are a Christian, what about your conduct would make anyone who sees you want to be a Christian, or to share in that Gospel you confess?

The power of Easter is tremendous.  It is the power of resurrection from the grave.  It is the power of the knowledge of the love of God for us - and we can all use that knowledge when times get difficult.  It is the ultimate answer to every fear - particularly to the greatest fear of mankind - the fear of death.  If God is for us, who can possibly be against us?  Oh, we know who the enemy is, but the victory is already won, and has been given to us.  That is the power of Easter.

And, like St. Patrick, we have the charge of God to share the news of that victory both by how we live and then by what we proclaim and confess.  The grace of God is one of the few things that you cannot diminish your possession of by giving it away.  Now, don't misunderstand me.  Patrick was a Roman Catholic - although very long ago, before many of the errors and abuses that Luther tried to set right had been developed - and I am not endorsing Rome's myths about him or every Roman doctrine, but one thing he surely did right was set the example of sharing the Gospel and confessing Christ.  So, if you want to celebrate St. Patrick's Day, have some Corned Beef and Cabbage, and maybe a little green beer, and think about sharing the Gospel.  Do missions right where you live, among the people you live among.

Yours in the Lord,
Pastor Fish

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Important Truth

This was in my daily devotion today.  It just struck me as too good to be lost between the pages of a book.  Every Christian should be confronted by this trusth regularly.

"At the beginning of the fourth century, the church historian Nicephorus informs us, the entire Christian congregation at Nicomedia in Asia Minor was suddenly attacked on the orders of the emperor Maximian.  They had been instructed to sacrifice to the gods, but instead were celebrating the joyous Christmas festival.  Their attackers quickly surrounded and burned the church, killing more than a thousand worshipers,

These were indeed hard, sad times.  It is still a sad situation when a Christian is unable to gather with his brothers in his church without the threat of persecution.  Yet it is incomparably sadder — and more dangerous — when Christians possess a beautiful church where they are free to gather peaceably and unhindered and they either abandon or falsify God’s Word.  A church in which man’s delusion and wit are proclaimed instead of Holy Scripture is nothing but and open gate to hell, a butchering table of Satan, a house of plagues to the soul.  Whoever enters such a church of unbelievers and enemies of Christ would have done better to come into a den of robbers and murderers, for there only his mortal body would have been killed, In a church of unbelievers, it is his immortal soul that is slain.  There are also churches in which the Word of God is indeed read aloud, but it is either taught only in part or interpreted falsely.  Here soul are led on dangerous detours and Satan sows handfuls of poisonous weeds next to the good seed of the Scriptures, tempting the hearts of the hearers, Christ Himself said of such churches, “‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers” (Matthew 21:13).   A person would be better advised to read the Word of God alone at home, even in tears of loneliness, that to attend such a church."

God Grant It, Daily Devotions from C.F.W. Walther, Trans. By Gerhard P. Grabenhofer, Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, 2006, p. 218-219.