Making What Case?

I see ads for a popular Lutheran Group’s next conference. It’s called “Making the Case”. The top two speakers are a Roman Catholic and a Baptist. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve read both of them, they are brilliant thinkers. They have both, in their own way, done a lot to respond to the challenges which we face today. They have both correctly diagnosed many of the problems with our culture. They are ardent defenders of the culture of life against the culture of death. And, a good portion of the time, they even offer the correct solution.

But.

They belong to churches which teach falsely on various issues. That is not my opinion. It is the confession of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. And it is a correct diagnosis. And that false teaching works its way into their solutions. So, if a member were to ask, I would say in each case, “Be careful reading that. It’s O.K. to a point, but then it seeks answers in places God has not promised to be.” And, because their writings are corrupted by false teaching, if someone didn’t ask, I would not recommend them. There are many Lutheran authors that speak to the same issues clearly, winsomely, and (most importantly!) 100% correctly. They also have some of those sorts of folks on the schedule of the conference. I’m grateful for that.

But I do wonder.

I wonder why they have two false teachers as headliners for the conference. Name recognition? Is it worth it exchange name recognition for faithfulness? I suppose they would say it is. But if my children insist on me adding arsenic to their milk because they think arsenic is yummy, do I do that? They need their milk. Most of it is nutritious. And it really isn’t a fatal dose. Does any parent think that way? As a pastor, that’s how I see it, and why I don’t recommend conferences like this one. And why I’ve cautioned my people when they ask, and try and divert them to more faithful resources. And when they don’t ask, I don’t push them that direction. It’s dangerous to allow false doctrine. In the Lord’s prayer, we pray “Protect us from this, heavenly Father!”

And then I wonder what case they are making. Not the case for the Evangelical Lutheran Church. I’m sure the Lutheran speakers will do that. But their witness will be muted by the potential for false teaching that is presented, and even (given their top billing) encouraged.

Lutheran is the only case I ever really make. My kids get tired of hearing me say “So-and-so would make a good Lutheran.” They roll their eyes and say, “Dad, you think everyone would make a good Lutheran.” And then I say “YES!” Because I truly believe that. We have the truth of God’s Holy Word taught purely, and others do not. (If I didn’t believe this, I would not be a very good pastor). Others teach it (to varying degrees) mostly truly. But at key points, they lead away from Christ and to the individual. And that leads to grief.

It would be nice if everyone were a Lutheran. Not because my churches would be huge. But because everyone would confess the truth, and reject harmful and painful errors. In this world, I know that won’t happen. And, I would never claim that only those who are members of the LCMS will be in heaven. But I do believe that when we get to heaven, and the sin and false teachings go away, then we will all confess the truth. And that will be the truth as revealed in Holy Scripture, and summarized in the Book of Concord. So, I guess you could say I believe that not only Lutherans will get to heaven. But everyone in heaven will be Lutheran.

And I say that not because Luther was so great. But because the Lutheran Church properly confesses who Christ is. And that’s what we will be doing in heaven as well – Confessing Christ without divisions. Sadly, that’s no longer possible in this world. But I look forward to the great day when our Lord makes all things new, and a joint confession of the truth will be on the lips of everyone that day.

Glorious!

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From Hero to Zero

Yesterday (Friday is my family day), I re-hung a replacement shelf in the kitchen that’s been gone since the bathroom remodel began – the old one was damaged when it was removed. I also did the first coat of mud on the drywall in the bathroom. We’re inching ever closer to normality. Woo-hoo!

As I finished the mudding, I got a call from wife that our Canyonero had a flat tire. I go to fix it. I do not manage to fix it. I do manage to break the passenger side retractable running board. Today, I head out again to get the tire swapped and bring home the beast. I manage it, but once I’m home I need to remove the broken running board. During which I manage to crack the glass on my phone.

I’ve ordered a new phone, new tires will be installed next week, all is well. But I am a little nonplussed at how quickly I went from hero (installing shelf, mudding drywall) to zero (breaking car and phone in the same project). For the rest of today, I plan to touch as little possible. Hopefully, my super-hero-dad powers will have returned by tomorrow.

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Chronicles of a Circuit Rider

Holy Communion Window at Trinity, Wheatland

I’ve been meaning to write about my circuit-riding life for a while. So many events passing by in the lives of three congregations. Lots of driving, lot’s of memorable things to talk about. But the press of time does not always allow.

This one, though, could not go by without comment. It’s not my first confirmation in my new congregations. But it is the first time I’ve instructed and confirmed: Monday mornings (Summer) and evenings (Fall) for classes; crazy memory work schedules and reading assignments; three (or has it been four) different pastors conducting various parts of the instruction. It hasn’t always been what we in the pastor-business call “ideal”.

But here we are. Children about to be admitted to the altar mid-Advent. That’s a first for me too. Writing a confirmation sermon with John in prison instead of Jesus making a triumphal entry. Wacky – but actually a lot easier. Really matches with the theme of confessing the faith, even (and especially) under duress. I won’t give away too much, because I want to save something for people who come on Sunday.

But the strangest part is picking confirmation verses. Not sure why doing that at this season seems so much odder than all the other parts of this. But it does. Spring is the time to pick confirmation verses. But here we are.

Anyway, the point of confirming is not the pastor and his triumphant teaching, nor the catechumens (now confirmands) and their hard work to achieve mastery of the material. The purpose is, as always, our Lord whom we confess, and his body and blood, that is offered to these young Christians for the first time for the forgiveness of their sins, the life of their bodies and souls and for their salvation. That’s worth celebrating, and it’s worth taking a few minutes of my time to note publicly.

And, so noted, back I go into my Christmas preparation.

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The Doctrine of Scripture

A friend recently noted that if you look at the writings of our synod’s early fathers, you find much about the doctrine of scripture itself. But between about 1900 and 1945, that ended. Instead, you find occasional articles or conference themes, but no solid books. Even today, a quick search of the CPH catalog reveals basically one book on the doctrine of scripture, and that is by Johann Gerhard (Who is definitely NOT a 20th century theologian, thanks be to God!)

About the same time that we began ignoring the doctrine of scripture, we also began to struggle with the doctrine of scripture. One may say it culminated in Seminex, but we still struggle – and that struggle is once again increasing. We now have people teaching that one of the Sedes Doctrinae for Holy Baptism is more properly considered antilegomena than homologomena. Only an extremely low view of the doctrine of scripture could allow for such a thing.

So what happened? Did we abandon the doctrine and therefore stop writing about it, or did we stop writing about it and therefore abandon the doctrine. Like the chicken and the egg, we can’t get to the origin in that sense. I think the two probably happened contemporaneously, and fed each other. But this much is fairly certain: During the early 20th century, the LCMS abandoned a confessional Lutheran and scriptural view of scripture, and began accepting a modern textual critical method. When I was in seminary, it was explained that higher criticism was bad, but lower criticism was ok. I think both are a modern capitulation to scholardom. The pre-“enlightenment” church did not think in such terms. Questions about scripture were never questions of manuscripts and scientific inquiry into the psychology of the author, but attestation of the church. Canonicity was apostolically driven, not archaeologically driven.

I know I’ll have fifteen people arguing with me about this – you’re unfairly characterizing modern textual criticism, we need to keep up on current trends, our scholars need to be conversant with current scholarship, we don’t want to be fundamentalists,etc. But I’m not suggesting fundamentalism. I’m suggesting we stop treating every method of biblical interpretation that existed before 1850 as “historical theology”. Fundamentalism is a modern and very limiting way of looking at scripture. But it arose about the same time as modern textual criticism – so in that sense, they are both equally modern and I would argue both equally limiting.  Consider Chemnitz’s seven-fold definition of tradition, and compare that to what was taught in my hermeneutics and isagogics classes. And then compare that to the current seminary curriculum, which I’m told no longer requires a hermeneutics class.

I’ve had several people over the last few months – disparate situations, locations, and overall outlook – who have suggested that textual criticism is not really all its cracked up to be. I would agree. I’m glad there are people out there who understand it, are interested in studying it, and can respond to the challenges of it. The problem is, that few who study it see it as “learning the enemies tactics so we can effectively refute it and remain faithful”. It’s more likely to be seen as “a valuable tool that can help us unlock the key to the scriptures more fully than our fathers did”. It’s arrogant to assume we understand scripture better than Iraenaeus, Luther, Chemnitz, Gerhardt. But more than personal arrogance, it has lead many of those same people to deny Jesus said “whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved.”

And that’s a problem, no matter how you look at it.

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The Bible Without Verses

I’m Preparing for next year’s tri-point parish bible study on the Book of Acts (One ten week bible study, repeated three times). Step one is to read the book of Acts. I thought I’d try out my Bibliotheca Bible. It’s formatted like a regular book: no cross-references, no footnotes, no verses, no headings, not even chapter numbers! I thought it might give me a better sense of flow and rhythm. What I didn’t expect is that it would make the entire book seem more… human.

With the bible chopped up into tiny little bits, it becomes informational nuggets. I was shocked to discover the personalities of the apostles in ways I hadn’t seen before. It’s not that I was unfamiliar with the words – I had many of the memorized, or nearly so. I knew what was coming next. It wasn’t that I hadn’t read it or was unfamiliar with it.

 

We don’t put up with that sort of nonsense in any other book. But for too long, we’ve thought that more information is better when it comes to the bible. It isn’t. It turns out, the Word of God is sufficient. I’ve found reading Acts to be a delight. Ok, so reading scripture is always a delight. But I’ve been able to just get lost in the Words which the Holy Spirit caused to be written, and in the thoughts behind those words. When I bought this set, I figured is was mostly a nice little novelty book, but not one I would ever seriously use. The last two years, it has sat undisturbed on my shelf. I have changed my mind. I think it may become one of my most used books. I’m kind of interested to see what happens to this Sunday’s Gospel, to say nothing of the Christmas Account, the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, the Ascension (recounted beautifully by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in Saint Mark’s Gospel).

The price has gone up significantly since I ordered it on kickstarter – more than double what I paid. But if you want something that looks like a novelty item but isn’t, the gift for the person who already has everything, instead of looking at high-end catalogs filled with gadgets, check out Biblioteca. Reading scripture, uninterrupted*, is a pretty good way to spend your time.

*by the book itself

 

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Sermon For Advent 1: Blizzard Edition

Lots of people couldn’t go to church today, and many churches cancelled services because of weather. So here is what was preached in Wheatland, in case you still wanted to meditate on the Word of the Lord this Lord’s day:

For the church, the new year starts today. The year of our Lord Two thousand Twenty. It starts today because we have finished looking at the life of the Christian, and we turn our attention, once again, to the life of Christ. Christmas is almost here. The songs are blasted in stores, the decorations, the parties, the travel – we are preparing for all of it. Are you ready? Oh not yet. But ready or not, here it comes.

In the church, we don’t prepare our floors and countertops and cookie jars. We prepare our hearts. The Lord comes! That’s what Advent means – he comes. Jesus is coming. Not Jesus in the manger – we’ll hear in a few weeks those familiar and precious words about how Jesus came with healing and mercy, and love and sacrifice for you for the forgiveness of your sins. During Advent we prepare for the king – Jesus enthroned at the right hand of the Father – who comes again in glory to judge the quick and the dead.

The question arose – when is the right time to put up the trees in the church? Before Advent begins? Midway through? The experts were consulted. The advice was – as close to Christmas as possible. The goal was to make a distinction between Advent and Christmas.

But no tradition can be cited for the timing of the Christmas Tree because the Christmas Tree – especially in church – is a recent thing. Only about 150 years. For an institution that’s been celebrating Christmas for nearly 2000 years, that’s pretty new. 150 years old is still an innovation. We’ll have to see how it goes. But so far, it’s going pretty well. Because the Christmas tree – like all ceremonies in the church – is there to teach us. And it does that quite effectively. (Our trees aren’t up yet – desire for early tree trimming yielded to reality of scheduling a decorating day between Thanksgiving and today. So, after church of Advent 1.)

Ultimately, when the tree goes up is not a tradition so much as a local custom need. The first we really hear of a tree in church is one of our own LCMS pastors – H.C. Schwan. His descendants founded the ice cream company. He was a pastor in Cleveland Ohio, and he brought in the Christmas Tree, explaining how it had been used in Germany as a symbol of life. That’s what we celebrate at Christmas – life. The life of Jesus Christ. At Easter we celebrate that life being given and shed for you, and then raised from the dead. At Christmas we celebrate the life of God being given to the world in Jesus – the Word made flesh to dwell among us.

And this life of God coming into the world comes into a dead world. Which is what we see around us. Flowers, trees, fields, all dead – if they weren’t before the storm already. But one tree stands tall and proud in the midst of death – the evergreen. It does not die, but lives. And so the evergreen praises God even in the midst of wintry death. And so the Evergreen – the Christmas tree – points us to Jesus coming into the this world of death to bring us life.

Back in the day the tree was covered with candles – lit only once on Christmas Eve. The fresher the tree, the better the chance you’d survive the encounter. So fresh cut trees for Christmas Eve. Electric lights, fake trees, they change things. Now we can safely have those lights on day after day as we prepare our hearts. Pointing us to, reminding us of, the king who comes to bring us  life.

And so, early trees it is. As soon as we can arrange to have them set up.

And today, as we prepare our holy places for Christmas with decorations, as we begin to prepare our hearts for the Lord who comes, we hear… Palm Sunday.

The Lord comes! Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. No palm branches today. It isn’t Holy Week. But boy does it set the tone for the whole church year. We’re going to be hearing a lot about Jesus. We’re going to be hearing that he came to die. That’s the focus, the center of our year. And so we start with the beginning of Holy Week. Because if we’re talking about dead sinful hearts being made alive in Christ, that’s crucifixion talk. The world was dead when Jesus came. Our hearts are dead to God until Jesus sends his spirit into them to establish in us a living faith. So we start the “Jesus is coming!” talk with talk of Jesus coming to die for us.

Because Jesus did not come into this world to judge. He came to save. And we want to prepare ours hearts to hear and receive that good news of great joy which shall be to all the people – that Jesus came into this world to save sinners.

What a wonderful gift – what a wonderful salvation. And, like presents under the tree, we know where to hear that salvation. God gives his holy church during this time of grace, so that all men might be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. So that we can hear the word of the angel.

Because this time of grace will not last. There will still come – even for the Christian – a final breath in this world. A final moment to confess Jesus as the Son of God, to receive forgiveness of sins, before we return to the dust. And there will be a final moment for the church in this world – marked by that last trumpet. We’ll hear more of that next week. But it marks the end of the time of grace. Then it will be a time of judgment. The living and the dead will be judged, and then… eternity.

That’s why there is an urgency to Advent. The time is short. The judgment is coming for all. We prepare our homes for Christmas. So let us prepare our hearts for Christ. The king is coming. And yet, even as we hear of the judgment, we begin with mercy and grace – Jesus coming, the crowds cheering, the multitudes worshipping, and the focus of it all – the death on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins.

Paul summarizes the entire Advent season in our Epistle reading – We don’t go after the things of this world. We hear the word of God, we come before his throne of mercy asking forgiveness for our sins. We cleans our hearts, because our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. Jesus is coming. The time has come for us to cast off the works of darkness, and to put on the Lord Jesus Christ. And make no provision for the flesh to fulfill it’s lusts. Don’t trust your heart – it is sinful. Trust only the Word of God. That stands as the immovable rock on which all your hopes and desires must be based. Place your trust in Jesus. Turn away from your self, to the things of God.

And so in the church, even with all the decorations and so on, this is not a time of celebration. It is a time to look at your own conduct in light of the Ten Commandments. To repent. To prepare your heart as surely as you prepare your home, meals, programs, visits, presents.

It’s all because of Jesus birth, and he does not need a gift from you. But you can prepare your hearts be hearing and heeding the Word of God.

The Lord comes. Hosanna!

 

 

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Liturgical Chaos 2

A long-time friend was disappointed with my last post. He was hoping it would be something with wider implications than mocking a miniscule and laughably bad suggestion that is more ignored than kept. I think the two are related inextricably: Use of the Divine Liturgy in the broad sense is not at all saying right thumb over left. “The Liturgy” tells us what to do when we enter the house of the Lord. The specific ceremonies attached to that are, while not entirely optional (you can cross thumbs or not, but the thumbs will be doing something), certainly subservient to the overall grand sweep of salvation history which is recounted and given to us each week in the Divine Service. But, fine cars are praised because of their attention to detail, just as cheap cars are known for having less diligent craftsmanship in the finer points. Certainly, our worship of God is worthy of some thoughts on the finer points.

But those finer points must be drawn from broader principles. The one that the liturgical among us have been pushing for the last few generations is “reverence”. We should not come into the presence of God irreverently. Our confessions say “frivolity”. It’s the same basic idea.

And yet, the church continues to struggle against those who would bring secular and worldly things (eg. rock music, which is secular and worldly, no matter what words you put to it) into the sacred space and time of the Divine Service. In this, we both agree that the church is “asking for it” from God for such irreverence. And I think that is worthy of a few thoughts as well. So here they are:

In Genesis, proper worship is such an important issue that someone was killed over it. I question whether we moderns are willing to give up even our country club membership for such things. When I was in seminary – already a generation ago – the soccer fields there were rented out on Sunday mornings to local clubs. The seminary’s argument was that they needed the money. So, they needed the money from the godless as they were violating the third commandment in order that they could teach us to fear and love God and to gladly hear and learn his word. I’ll be honest, I think God would place such funds in the “Cain and his sacrifice” category. I pray the seminary has seen the light on this one.

In Leviticus, Nadab and Abihu bring unauthorized fire(?) before the Lord, and are consumed by fire for their offense. We don’t know what unauthorized fire means, but we know that God takes seriously the idea of coming into his presence, and we should perhaps come with some fear as we enter into the holy places.

Lest we argue that the Old Testament laws have been abolished, the New Testament record is also instructive.

Jesus poured his own blood into the ground in order to gain us access to our heavenly Father. Perhaps we should consider what that means when we come into his presence. He is not our buddy. He is the Divine Judge of all the earth. He loves us, but our proper worship is to hear and believe that Word, not engage in frivolity.

In Acts, Ananias and Saphira are killed by God. Their offense? Lying on the Stewardship form about the percent they gave. (Oddly, I’ve never seen this passage on the list of “Stewardship Sunday Sermon Ideas” – wonder why?)

Paul tells the Corinthians that their worship is so disorderly and frivolous that they no longer have the Sacrament. Jesus body is not present for them because the worship is disordered. In Addition, their behavior is why many are sick and some have died!!! God sent some sort of sickness among the Corinthians – and it was so severe that some died – because their worship was so frivolous that it was no longer acceptable to the Divine Majesty.

We live in an era that is without the fear of God. People celebrate one of the seven deadly sins with parades. People attempt to enter into the presence of God with electric guitars and snare drums placed front and center so the performers can be seen and applauded. We are asking for the judgment of God to come on us. And, looking at the statistics, it has. Pastors no longer speak against bi-vocational ministry (which Paul says will bring judgment on the church), because it is the reality now for many. District Presidents struggle to find positions for pastors that can actually support the pastor and his family. In the next couple of decades, three, four, and even five point parishes are likely to become the norm. And our members (and even pastors!) begin to wonder if maybe we should try something that is less faithful, but gets people excited. Maybe it really is just about the number of people we can drag across the finish line, not about how faithfully we followed the course to get there. Looking online, few congregations with a web presence do not have a so-called contemporary service. The worship wars are over, and faithful worship of God has lost. It seems, like Elijah, that “I, even I only, am left.”

And yet, God preserves his remnant. Those who abandon the truth of God’s Word, those who go against the scriptural and confessional prescription and description of worship will not long endure, will not long prosper. There will come a day when all is revealed, and those who were faithful will no longer be mocked, but praised by God himself. Think I’m being too persnickety?

Look at the descriptions in Leviticus. There is only one place I know of that has such ordered and liturgical worship. And for those claiming “but that’s the Old Testament!”, here is the bad news: That one place is the book of Revelation. The New Testament worship in the kingdom of God will be more orderly than anything we have seen on this earth. If we wish to mock that true worship of God, to ignore the biblical mandate and prescription, we do so at our own peril.

By way of encouragement to more faithful practice, let me merely note the following:

Jesus is not our fishing buddy, that we come before him in cut offs, with a beer in one hand and worms in another. Consider when Jesus did go fishing. Peter ended up confessing sins and seeking to send Jesus away. He knew that he should have been more inclined to listen to God, and shown more respect for the Divine Majesty.

Paul tells us that every knee shall bow. That’s not drinking-buddy behavior. That is “The king is coming, and he is greater than I” behavior. That’s what we must model in the church, if we are to give an accurate picture of who God is in Jesus Christ, and what he has done for us.

If you wanted to sum it up with one word, you might use the word “Reverence”. Two words, perhaps something like “Divine Service” or “Divine Liturgy”, which don’t really lend themselves to rock ballads or Arminian histrionics and frivolity.

Unfaithfulness will not be rewarded by God. So, when we come together, we must be careful not to be unfaithful. That doesn’t mean that faithfulness will reap many worldly blessings. That’s not what we’re after anyway. But faithfulness does bring us closer to the things of God, and more importantly, it brings the holy things of God to His Holy People. That’s worth doing. And it’s worth doing well.  It means the details matter.

We attend to the Word. We speak it reverently and truthfully to the people. And we let God worry about the results.

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