Sunday, May 18, 2014


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.