Monday, December 29, 2008

Just One Picture


Here's one shot from Grandma Novak's camera of the bride and groom. Laura and I are next to Rebekah, and Gabriel's parents, Philip and Cassandra, are next to him. The last time I wore a tux was on my own wedding day! (Of course, I wore my pastoral robes for the ceremony itself.)

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Father of the Bride

Yesterday my daughter Rebekah was married to Gabriel Frusti. It was foggy and rainy outside, but it was beautiful indoors. I had the privilege of both walking my daughter down the aisle and then performing the marriage rite. What a challenging and emotional thing it was! I had tears in my eyes during the procession and a lump in my throat throughout the ceremony, but my voice only broke when pronouncing them to be husband and wife. Thankfully I had the assistance of Gabe's two uncles, the Rev. Dr. Joel Biermann and the Rev. Matthew Richardt, both of whom did a good job in preaching and assisting in Vespers. That certainly helped take a load off of my shoulders so that I could more fully enjoy the occasion of God joining my firstborn to her new husband. It was a great experience to have the congregation singing the hymns and liturgy in strong voice as we prayed for the bride and groom and rejoiced in God's gift of marriage and the forgiveness of Christ.

There's one thing that struck me at the end of the ceremony. It's nothing profound. In fact, it's sort of obvious, but it left me feeling just a little bit like Steve Martin at the end of the movie Father of the Bride. Of all the people in the procession, I was the only one who didn't get to walk out with the one I walked in with. All of the groomsmen were arm in arm with the same bridesmaids they entered with, but after processing in with my daughter I had to walk out with the other pastors. I was surprised at how lonely that felt. You go through all these preparations for weeks and months in advance to make sure everything goes properly, and then it's all over and your daughter is a wife and she's on her way to the beginning of a new life. And you don't quite know what to do next once that's all happened. It was a strange feeling--not really sad, just unexpected.

Of course, the next thing to do yesterday was simply to enjoy the reception and celebrate with friends and family and toast the occasion and slow dance with my wife and be humbled by the fact that God allows us sinners still to enjoy so much good in this fallen world. There were plenty of friends, and pastors in particular, who were more than happy to stick around and help drink all the unfinished bottles of wine! From beginning to end, it was a good day.

Rebekah, I'm so glad you found a good man, and a Lutheran one, in Gabriel. God richly bless your marriage and your household!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Holy Thief

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

In the Garden where Adam and Eve lived, there came a thief. He was a swindler, flattering with his tongue, smooth with his words, like a con man who bilks the unsuspecting out of thousands of dollars. He told Adam and Eve that they were missing out on a great deal that God was keeping to Himself. If they would just eat of the forbidden fruit, then they would be divine themselves. Turning them from God's words to his own deceitful words, this thief, the devil, robbed them blind. Enticing them to try to be like God, he stole away their humanity. He pilfered their very lives.

You sons of Adam and daughters of Eve are in the very same shape. Despite all of our knowledge and achievements and abilities, the fact is that we are now less than human, a disfigured shadow of what we were created to be. We can sometimes feel that in our very souls, that things just aren't right. This inhumanity manifests itself in anger and impatience and disrespect, in lusts, in greed and grudges and gossip. Even more subtly, it shows itself when we come to church more out of love of family and tradition than out of love for God. To be human is to live as God's creation, to receive everything from Him according to His will, to love and trust in Him as One who is good and gracious, and to be dependent on Him for all that you need. But by nature we would rather be independent. We don't want to be human, creatures who are under a Creator. We want to be like God, in charge, calling our own shots, doing our own thing. The truth is that all of us fell with Adam. We've been robbed; we've been mugged and left to die.

But in the Garden God promised to send One who would silence the lying tongue of this thief and crush his head and rescue us from his power. God would do this by turning the tables on the devil, using Satan's own tactics against him. This would be a sting operation. It was through a virgin, Eve, that the tempter worked his thievery, and so it is also through a virgin, Mary, that Christ enters into the world to undo and destroy the devil's work. It was in a quiet and subtle and shrewd manner that the serpent attained his plunder. And so it is in a quiet and subtle and shrewd manner that the Son of God comes to restore what was taken from you, masking Himself within weak flesh and blood, becoming a real baby boy, being laid in a feeding trough.

The Scriptures say that our Lord comes as a thief in the night (I Thess. 5:2; Rev. 16:15). That is a reference to Jesus' return on the Last Day. Like a robber in the darkness, He will come suddenly and unexpectedly to judge the living and the dead. But that phrase can also be applied to Jesus' first coming at Christmas. He comes like a thief in the night, that is, quietly, hidden in the shadows, with almost no one noticing His arrival. The Son of God, who upholds all creation, enters into His creation in the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary. Traveling curled up in her belly to the holy city of David, He is given birth in a barn, because there is no room for them in the inn. He arrives on the scene under cover, secretly–like a holy burglar–to win back for you what the devil stole away.

The Son of God begins to do that in the very act of His becoming man. By taking on your body and soul, Jesus has redeemed and cleansed your humanity with His divine holiness. His incarnation permeates and hallows mankind. In the stable with the animals, we see Jesus as the new Adam. He has come to lift you out of your beastly inhumanity and recreate you by His coming in the flesh. "As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive." God the Son took your humanity into Himself so that your humanity might be restored and made new. God has greatly exalted you by becoming not an angel or any other creature but a true man, your blood brother. He partakes fully of your humanity so that in Him you might become truly human again.

That's why already here the heavenly host breaks forth in rejoicing. For the beginning of your salvation has been accomplished. Already now God has begun to break the devil's hold on you. The baby Jesus is delivered from the blessed Virgin, and in this way you are being delivered from the shadow of death. In Christ your humanity is recaptured from the tempter and given back to you. You who fell from God into the hands of darkness have been brought back to your Maker. That is the peace on earth that the angels sing of. God and man come together in Jesus who is Himself both God and man. Those who believe and are baptized into the body of Christ are thereby reunited with God. And so the angels sing, "Glory to God in the highest." For it is God's glory to come to your aid, to descend from heaven to help you and rescue you.

Think of it this way: By uniting your humanity with His divinity, God has made your cause His own. He is your powerful ally who alone has the power to defeat the enemy. Whatever the devil did to us, He has now done it to God, too; and that simply won't stand. But again, our Lord engages the battle under cover. Just as the Son of God was born in lowly state, so also His divine power to save us will be hidden beneath meekness and humility and suffering. The tender brow of this little one is being prepared to be pierced with thorns. His fragile hands and feet will feel the hammer's blow as spikes are driven through them attaching Him to the cross. The tiny beating heart of this baby will grow to be pierced with a spear, and from it will flow the blood that cleanses us of all sin.

Jesus was crucified between two robbers (Matthew 27:28), as if He were a thief Himself. And in fact He was. Not only did He come to rob the devil of His victory over you, He accomplished that by robbing you of your sin. He stole away from you every uncleanness, every failure to love, along with every hurtful and evil thing that has been said or done to you. He robbed you of it all, took it as His own, and demolished it in His death. It was through the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that Satan conquered man, and so it was also by a tree, the holy cross, that Christ conquered Satan and reconciled man to God again. It was by death that Satan sought to steal away man's glory; and so it is by the death of Christ and His resurrection that the glory of man is restored.

Listen carefully, then, and hear clearly what the angels declare and believe it: "Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." He comes as a thief in the night to take away your sins and heal your injured flesh and spirit with His own pure flesh and Holy Spirit. He is born to give you second birth to a new and everlasting life with God.

"And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger." Still today you will find the Christ, wrapped in bread and wine, lying on the altar. Bethlehem is here. Let us, then, with Mary treasure and ponder these holy mysteries in our hearts. And let us with the shepherds glorify and praise God for all of the things that we have heard and seen, just as it has been told to us.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Living Nativity

At this time of year some Christian churches will have "living nativities" with live animals and actors portraying the setting of Christ's birth; or they will have big musical stage productions telling the Christmas story. And of course, there's nothing necessarily wrong with those things.

But there's one thing I've noticed. The churches that tend to really go all out on such things also tend to de-emphasize or not to believe at all in the literal presence of Christ's body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar. The pretend portrayal is preferred over the real thing. The vacuum that is created in pushing aside the Scriptural teaching of the Lord's Supper is inevitably filled with our own creations. The works of man always appear to be more impressive than the works of God. I recall even one Lutheran pastor who would kneel before a plastic Jesus as part of a school Christmas program, but who thought it wrong to genuflect at the altar during the consecration!

Let us never forget, then, where the real living nativity is: It's on the altar and in the pastor's hand and in your mouth, the living body and blood of Christ wrapped in the swaddling cloths of bread and wine. To go to Bethlehem is to go to the Sacrament; for Bethlehem means "house of bread." And the Bread of Life, the Word made flesh, is here in God's house for you, as Jesus said, "I am the Living Bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world." Let us not only keep Christ in Christmas, let us also keep the mass, Holy Communion, in Christmass.

Monday, December 22, 2008

I'm Sure This Will Help Study Habits

I wasn't aware that not just college dorms but even dormrooms were going co-ed; guess I haven't been paying close enough attention. One has to wonder at the wisdom of those who think that putting college age males and females in the same sleeping quarters "isn't aimed at romantic couples" or doesn't have the effect of promoting sexual immorality. Even if there are many examples of "platonic" male/female dormrooms, is that really something we want to encourage? Whatever happened to even the most basic standards of decency and ethics in the way men and women relate to one another? Not a good trend, but I guess it's hard to stop now that living together before marriage has become the accepted norm in our culture. Here's the article:

The University of Chicago is joining a nationwide trend of allowing male and female students to live not just on the same dorm floor, but in the same dorm room.

The school sent a letter out to parents last week informing them of the decision. The school says it was a student-led initiative that isn't aimed at romantic couples. However, the school says couples won't be banned from asking to be roommates when the program begins next month.

Nationally more than 30 campuses allow co-ed dorm rooms.

The University of Chicago program is called open housing and it won't include freshmen. Students do not need parental permission to participate. The school says students will not be assigned mixed-gender housing. Instead it's on a request basis.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Why Do We Practice Closed Communion?

(With the Christmas holy-day approaching and with the greater number of visitors we'll be having for divine service, I thought it might be good to post this recent newsletter article:)

The above question is one of the toughest for the average Lutheran to answer. At first glance it seems so contrary to our basic Christian instincts. Doesn’t Jesus welcome all people? Didn’t He die for everyone? Isn’t forgiveness and salvation something that is not dependent on anything in us? Isn’t it all God’s grace, anyway? Why shouldn’t we let people come to the Lord’s Supper who want to do so?

The answer to the above question comes from God’s own Word. First of all, not everyone who receives the Lord’s Supper receives it to their benefit. Some are actually harmed by it because they do not have the right faith. 1 Corinthians 11:29 states, “He who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.” Those who do not believe that the true, literal body and blood of Christ are being distributed, who believe that Communion is a just a remembrance ceremony using mere bread and wine, would eat and drink to their own condemnation according to this verse. To eat and drink in an unworthy manner is to eat and drink without penitent faith in the Lord’s real presence or in the promise of forgiveness attached to His real body and blood.

So then, first of all, out of love for our neighbor, we cannot simply let anyone come to the Lord’s table without first being sure they hold to this belief for their own good. Unfortunately, many Christian bodies–such as Methodists, Baptists, and non-denominational groups (to name just a few)–reject Christ’s true body and blood in His Supper. To admit them to the Lord’s table would be to dishonor Christ and fail to love our neighbor.

Second of all, God’s Word clearly teaches that we are not to have fellowship (communion) with false teaching. The Lord’s Supper is the highest and most intimate union that we have with one another as Christians on this earth. To permit a rejection of Christ’s Word into that intimate fellowship would be to love something or someone more than Christ. No one is saying that people from other church bodies aren’t Christian; we are not judging their heart or whether or not they will go to heaven. However, in these other church bodies there is false teaching that threatens saving faith, like a little bit of arsenic mixed in with otherwise good food. To overlook that false belief and say, “You can commune with us anyway,” would be to say that part of Christ’s Word doesn’t matter or that we can do without it. But what part of the Gospel can we safely sacrifice? Should we accept to communion those who reject infant baptism? those who say that good works contribute to our salvation? those who pray to and put their faith in the saints? those who ordain women as pastors? those who say that some parts of the Bible aren’t true and are not God’s Word? those who say that homosexuality is OK? those who water down the faith to be relevant to pop culture? It’s not just some esoteric ivory tower theological point that’s at stake but the very Gospel of Jesus Himself.

Once again, on the surface having open communion seems like the tolerant, inclusive, loving thing to do. But in reality it is the opposite of love for God or our neighbor. If we truly love our neighbor, we will want them to be freed from all false teaching. The temptation for us to compromise is high when it involves a relative or a guest whom we don’t want to offend. But God’s Word must be our highest love; for it brings Christ to us and gives His gifts. Since the Lord’s Supper is the Gospel, we want to administer it in the most faithful and loving way possible.

The practice of the early church backs up this practice. There was false teaching and heresy also in the days of the apostles and their successors, as well. And so when someone wanted to commune at a place other than their home church, they would actually get a letter from their pastor to give to the pastor in the city where they were going, certifying that the bearer of the letter held to the true faith. Apart from that, someone would not be allowed to Communion. (See Eucharist and Church Fellowship in the First Four Centuries by Werner Elert.) No one had the prideful notion that they had the “right” to commune wherever they wanted. This was a privilege given by Christ and administered by pastors who were given to be “stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Corinthians 4:1).

And of course the practice of the early church reflected Scriptural admonitions: “Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10). Jesus said, “. . . teaching them to observe all things which I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19). “Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them” (Romans 16:17). “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house” [“House” in this context might refer to a house church.] (2 John 10). The last two verses apply especially to not welcoming preachers and others who teach falsely. But the principle remains the same. No false teaching is to be accepted alongside Christ’s truth, for Jesus said, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Corinthians 5:6; see also Galatians 5:9). Like yeast, once a little false teaching takes hold, it can spread throughout everything else the church teaches and practices. One only needs to look at the compromise that has occurred in many church bodies (including some areas of our own Missouri Synod) to see evidence of that.

Finally, we shouldn’t forget that closed communion is also practiced within the membership of a congregation, too. Our Lord says in Matthew 5 that we should seek to be reconciled with those who may have something against us, whom we need to confess wrongdoing toward, before we go to the altar. We should not go to Communion if there are grudges that we’re holding on to or vengeance that we’re seeking toward our neighbor. Being reconciled with God in Christ at His table also involves seeking peace with our neighbor, especially if that neighbor will be kneeling with us at the communion rail.

Pastors must sometimes refrain from communing their own members who are behaving impenitently, openly holding on to their sins, refusing to humbly turn to Christ and seek His mercy. Jesus said in John 20, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Sometimes a person needs to be barred from the Lord’s table to show the severity of their sin, that they might be brought to true repentance and seek the forgiveness the Lord gives with His body and blood.

So to sum up, the practice of closed communion is based on love for God and His Word and love for our neighbor, that they may receive and abide in the truth of Christ and His testament. It’s not a “we’re better than you” sort of thing. Rather, it is a practice which seeks to treat the body and blood of Christ as the holy, divine gifts that they are.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Mt. Zion Web Site Updated

Thanks to the hard work of our web master, Jon Kohlmeier, the web site of Mt. Zion Lutheran Church in Greenfield, Wisconsin has been updated and made to look much better. You can access the new web site here. There are still a few more things we will be adding and adjusting, but I'm glad we were able to get this live before Christmas. Good work, Jon!

Ethnic Jesus

It used to be bother me a little bit when I would see Nativity scenes from other countries that depicted Jesus as being of the same race as that country–in a Chinese painting Jesus looked oriental, in an African portrayal Jesus was black, or for that matter, in a German or Scandinavian portrait Jesus looked like a blue-eyed European. It bothered me because the Christmas narrative is a true story, real history, and Jesus is a middle-eastern Jew. To depict the Nativity in some other way seemed to me to be making it into a bit of a fairy tale that we can mold and shape and change to fit our desires and needs. But the account of Jesus’ birth is no myth. It doesn’t belong in the same category as flying reindeer and all the fantasy that has become so much a part of our culture’s Christmas holiday. The Christmas narrative is for real. Luke emphasizes that point by even giving you some of the historical details about who the Caesar was and the census and the tax and who the governor of that region was at that time. The Christmas story is an actual, literal account about the real Jesus and His birth.

And yet the more I think about it, the more I believe that those paintings may have it right, at least in this sense: The angel came with the message of good news for all people, “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” The Savior Jesus is born to you, for you; He is yours. He’s your kind, humankind. When the Son of God took on our human nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary, He did not just became a man. He became man. He took all of humanity into Himself in His incarnation. For He came to bear the sins of all humanity in His body. That includes every nation and race and people and language. Though Jesus was indeed a Jew, His birth reveals the truth that there is in fact only one human race, the fallen children of Adam. And in this newborn baby in the manger, every sinner is redeemed and restored to God. Jesus is the embodiment of all people from every corner of the globe, and in His body all people are put right with God again.

And so when Jesus is portrayed as African or Oriental or European, theologically speaking that’s true. By becoming man, Christ becomes one with all people to deliver all people. The Savior is born to you, for you. He’s one of you, your very flesh and blood, your true human brother. There’s no one that’s left out of the new life that comes from His holy birth. He’s like you in every way, except without sin, that you might become like Him in every way and share in His divine glory.

(The rest of this 2007 Christmas sermon can be accessed here.)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Two Shall Become . . .?

One of the last things to do for the wedding of my daughter on the 27th is to prepare the bulletin. It looks like we're going to produce our own "in house," though we did look at several of the full color ones offered by various publishing houses.

There's one thing that has always struck me as a little strange. All of the full color professional bulletins that I saw cut short a particular marriage verse by rendering it, "The two shall become one." But that's not how the Bible has it. It's not "The two shall become one," but "The two shall become one flesh." Why do they always cut off that last word, flesh, on their bulletin covers?

Perhaps it doesn't seem very spiritual to be talking about flesh in church, but the marital union is not just a generic spiritual union but, as the wedding liturgy points out, a union of "heart, body, and mind." It could be that the bulletin designers are not particularly Lutheran in their theology and so didn't want to emphasize this more, shall we say, "sacramental" aspect of marriage. But the sexual union is part of the gift that God created and that He gives to a husband and wife when He marries them. "The two shall become one flesh" is also fulfilled, quite literally, in the procreation of children, when God grants it, from this union of husband and wife.

And let us not forget that marriage portrays our one-fleshness with Christ. Our union with Him, too, is a concrete, tangible reality. For ultimately, Jesus is the one who (in the language of Genesis 2) left His Father and was joined to His wife by means of His incarnation and the cross. He was put into the deep sleep of death, and out of His side the Church was created to be His Eve by the sacramental blood and water that flowed. Baptized into the risen Jesus, "we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones" (Ephesians 5:30 NKJV).

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Alien Creation

This headline caught my eye this morning: 5 Projects Ask if Life on Earth Began as Alien Life in Space. Now I'm all for scientific inquiry and the pursuit of truly scientific knowledge, and this isn't the first time I've heard this theory proposed. But consider the lead paragraph from the article:

"For years, scientists have considered the possibility of exogenesis, the idea that life arrived on Earth from another planet, and not just the building blocks of life, but organisms that were ready to rock and roll when they arrived. It’s a Rube Goldberg scenario, however, dependent on several successful steps. First, life has to evolve on an alien planet. Then it must be blasted into space on a rock, probably from a large impact. Assuming it survives a long journey through harsh conditions—and makes its way into our neighborhood—life then has to resist fiery atmospheric entry and a brutal landing before trying to make a new home for itself. Here are several research projects looking at the feasibility of such a fantastic voyage."

Yet they think it's foolish and irrational to believe in Creation! And of course they never explain how the alien life came into being or how dead elements anywhere in the universe can become living organisms on their own. Maybe if we start referring to God as the ultimate Alien and His creating as Massive Exogenesis, then they'd give consideration to the Biblical account. Sheesh.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Issues, Etc.

Here's a nice little video/commercial promoting the Issues, Etc. radio program. If you haven't already checked in to what's going on there, be sure to give it a listen!

Luke 2 and Luke 15

As I was listening to a Christmas Concert at Martin Luther High School this past weekend, it struck me that there is an interesting similarity between Luke 2 and Luke 15 that I had never considered before. In Luke 2 the shepherds leave their flocks in the open field to go and find the Christ child, for they leave "with haste." In the parable in Luke 15, Jesus says, "What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it?"

Of course, at first glance these passages are the reverse of each other, since in Luke 15 Jesus is the One doing the seeking, whereas in Luke 2 Jesus is the One being sought out. However, in both instances, it is shepherds doing the seeking--something which I think has clear implications for the pastoral office. Also, in both cases the importance of the situation requires a certain "recklessness" in leaving the flock.

And then there's this: In both cases it is a sheep, a lamb, that is being sought out. The Lamb of God, Jesus, was even lost in a certain sense, that is, away from home, without a place to stay or to lay his head other than a cattle trough. And did He not come to take the place of us lost sinners? This is precisely how He seeks us out and saves us, by taking up our flesh and bearing in His body our lostness, our guilt, our death. There He is, wrapped like a mummy in the manger, a sign of how He would be lost to death that we might be found and raised up with Him in His resurrection. (Dare we go even further into Luke 15 and see Christ with the lost? "Your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.")

It is this Gospel of Jesus that shepherds "make widely known" still today, so that lost and straying sinners might be restored to the flock. No wonder that in both accounts the angels rejoice and men glorify and praise God for all the things that they have heard and seen.

Friday, December 12, 2008

You Proclaim What You Eat

In the Old Testament Ezekiel prophesied the words that the Lord caused him to eat. "'Son of man, eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.' So I opened my mouth, and He caused me to eat that scroll" (Ezekiel 3:1-2).

Therefore, I don't take it to be mere factual reporting when the Scriptures speak of John the Baptist's diet. "His food was locusts and wild honey" (Matthew 3:4). John preached what he ate. Locusts portray condemnation and the judgment of God, as in the book of Joel. John preached this Law sternly. "Repent! Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance." But then He also preached the Gospel in all its sweetness, like honey in His mouth. "The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!" This Law and Gospel is still the content of all true Christian preaching. "How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth" (Psalm 119:103).

You proclaim what you eat. Is this not what is meant when the Scriptures speak of Christians prophesying? We proclaim the praises of Him whom we eat in the Sacrament, that is, we confess the Christ whose body was sacrificed on our behalf and whose blood was shed to cleanse us of our sins. "For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death till He comes" (1 Corinthians 11:26).

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Real Christmas Trees Best for the Environment

Now for something a little less serious (since you all know how much I just love environmentalism).

I've always believed that in the debate between real and artificial Christmas trees, real ones are the way to go. This seems only logical to me as a Lutheran. The holy day of Christmas is about the Word becoming flesh, truly human, which we celebrate by receiving the real body and blood of Christ in Holy Communion. How could I then have a fake tree in my house for the festival? Lutherans always prefer the real thing, even if it's a little bit earthier, messier, and less convenient. That's the nature of a theology that's grounded in the creation, the incarnation, the cross, and the sacraments.

OK, so perhaps I'm overdoing it a bit trying to apply this to Christmas trees. I know it doesn't really matter one way or the other what kind of tree one has. But after hearing the news on the radio this morning, somehow I now feel even better in my preference for real trees. They're environmentally correct! According to this article, the debate is settled. And here are more arguments for the real thing.

So if the theological argument doesn't persuade you, maybe the environmental one will. Get a real Christmas tree!

George Bush: Bible probably not literally true

For all those who liked to portray President Bush as a right-wing Bible thumper--not really so. Of course, that was obvious after 9-11 when he continuously referred to Islam as a religion of peace. But recently he was quoted as saying that the bible is probably not literally true. He was referring to his belief in the "scientific fact" of evolution and how he didn't find it incompatible with belief in a Creator.

Evidently, what he's not taking literally is Genesis 1-3. For there is no compatibility at all between believing that death only came into the world as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve (full-fledged homo sapiens) and the belief that death after death and mutation after mutation is what actually caused human beings to come into existence as a species.

Then there's this little problem: If death isn't the wages of sin, then why did Jesus need to come and die to break the curse of sin and redeem us? For that matter, why did Jesus Himself refer to the Creation account literally (as in Matthew 19)? Or why did Paul (as in 1 Corinthians 15:22)? The fact that the President refers to God sending "a" son rather than "His Son" or even better "His only Son" is telling. (Come to think of it, that language sounds a lot like a certain Synodical District President a few years back at Yankee stadium.)

Once you start discounting or rejecting some parts of the Scriptures, the Gospel itself is threatened. Creation and Salvation belong together. If you attack one, you attack the other. Salvation is our re-creation in Christ. For "all things were made through Him (Jesus), and without Him nothing was made that has been made" (John 1:3; see also Colossians 1:16-17). "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14).

Anyway, here's the article.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Gay Marriage, Scripture, and Culture

One of the ways that traditional Christian teaching and morality is attacked in the culture is by trying to reinterpret it in terms of a bland, generic ethic of tolerance and "niceness." This is especially so when some try to argue for the acceptance of homosexuality and gay marriage. An example of this recently surfaced in a Newsweek article. To those uninformed about Scriptural teaching this article might seem persuasive. But in fact it is a shallow distortion of what the Bible has to say on the subject.

Here is a nice response written by Wall Street Journal writer Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, who happens to a member of our Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. She does a good job of dissecting and destroying the arguments set forth in this article. More and more I think Christians are going to need to be better versed in Scripture and its teaching to respond to the many corruptions of the faith that are presented in secular and popular culture. Here's a snippet of the article that I hope you'll read in full:

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I knew we had to take a look at this week’s Newsweek’s cover story when I read the first line. It was just that bad. It was written by senior editor Lisa Miller who oversees all of the magazine’s religion coverage. Which is pretty shocking when you look at the unbelievable ignorance on display in her grossly unfair first paragraph:

Let’s try for a minute to take the religious conservatives at their word and define marriage as the Bible does. Shall we look to Abraham, the great patriarch, who slept with his servant when he discovered his beloved wife Sarah was infertile? Or to Jacob, who fathered children with four different women (two sisters and their servants)? Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon and the kings of Judah and Israel—all these fathers and heroes were polygamists. The New Testament model of marriage is hardly better. Jesus himself was single and preached an indifference to earthly attachments—especially family. The apostle Paul (also single) regarded marriage as an act of last resort for those unable to contain their animal lust. “It is better to marry than to burn with passion,” says the apostle, in one of the most lukewarm endorsements of a treasured institution ever uttered. Would any contemporary heterosexual married couple—who likely woke up on their wedding day harboring some optimistic and newfangled ideas about gender equality and romantic love—turn to the Bible as a how-to script?

How many things are wrong with that opening line? (Beyond the junior high-worthy snarkiness of the “let’s try” opening, I mean.) How about that “religious conservatives” don’t argue that civil marriage should be defined “as the Bible does.” I mean, it would be nice if Newsweek or other mainstream outlets took the time to learn what religious conservatives have to say about marriage before they attack it. Is that so much to ask?

. . .

This is such hackery that it’s offensive. Abraham and Sarah, while certainly noted for their eventual trust in God were basically poster children for marital disobedience when they didn’t trust God to provide them with children. Even though he promised them they would have offspring. Sarah was a jealous and cruel slavemaster and Abraham was pliant and cowardly during their Hagar offensive. In fact, if you are reading the Old Testament as a self-improvement book based on anything other than the commandments from God, you are an idiot. God’s chosen people, some of them with great and abiding faith, are sinful disasters — the lot of them.

I hold sacred the New Testament model of marriage and find Miller’s comments to be beneath contempt. I also wonder what, if anything, she has read from the New Testament.

When my husband read the opening graph of this train wreck of a hit piece, he wondered if these words of Jesus, found in the Gospel of Matthew, indicated indifference to family:

And He answered and said to them, “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.”

Would that be the indifference that Miller is referring to? Because it really just doesn’t sound indifferent to me. This quote from Jesus comes in a larger section on, well, earthly attachments. One part notes that only those who have the gift of celibacy are to be celibate. I have no doubt that my elementary school-age nieces know these things. Shouldn’t Lisa Miller?

And while St. Paul does endorse single life enthusiastically, for those who are able (a key point left out of Miller’s little opening paragraph), he writes extensively about marriage. In fact, he’s normally picked on for his clear endorsement of traditional marriage, as in Ephesians 5:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.

There is nothing lukewarm about this. In fact, there is nothing lukewarm about any of the writings of Paul.

. . .

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And here's a Protestant perspective on the article.

Monday, December 1, 2008

A Roman Catholic Take on our Congregation

From the weblog of a Roman Catholic visitor to Mt. Zion on Easter Sunday (2006)
http://pawlakimprov.blogspot.com/2006_04_01_pawlakimprov_archive.html#114533144772489981

Why Can't We?

I went with my father-in-law to Mt. Zion LCMS in Greenfield for breakfast and Divine Service.

Some things I observed:

A sense of reverence. This particular congregation is very "High-Church". The pastor wears a chasuble; the Sign of the Cross is made; the people bow when the processional cross (with corpus) passes them; and the elements are elevated during the chanted words of institution. Also, there are icons on the walls and even on the altar. And I wonder, why can't we be more like that?

Solid preaching. Pastor Koch preached a very well-put-together sermon about the truth of Christ's resurrection, beginning with a fisking of the "Gospel of Judas", complete with a citation of St. Irenaeus. Granted, I naturally won't agree with all of his content, but it seems like your average Lutheran pastor can out-preach your average Catholic priest. And I wonder, why don't we do a better job on homiletics?

This isn't to say that we Catholics don't have our stalwart preachers. But they seem to be more the exception than the rule. Even if you're in a solidly orthodox parish, you run the risk of listening to a sermonette with little substance, or a poorly planned and poorly delivered ramble .

High-caliber music. I need not go into the condition of Catholic music; it's been gone over enough. But one still wonders, why does a Lutheran congregation of a few hundred have better music than a Catholic parish of several thousand? Mt. Zion has a choir of eight, and they did a beautiful job. The organist provided solid accompaniment, and the hymn selection was impeccable. Too often we Catholics seem satisifed with mediocrity. We refuse to challenge ourselves musically (and otherwise).

Of course, none of these things are going to make me desert the Barque of Peter. That being said, I'd love to videotape Mt. Zion's service and send it off to certain people, with a note saying, Why can't we?

Should I Commune at Other Churches?

The answer to that question depends on the other church. If you're away from the area and are unable to commune here at Mt. Zion, you should seek out a church which believes and teaches and practices what we do. The only churches in this country which have committed themselves to doing so are the congregations of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. We are not in fellowship with other Christian and Lutheran church bodies because of important differences in what we believe and teach.

You should only commune at a church that has the same teachings and beliefs as Mt. Zion does. To commune at a particular church means that you agree with what that church stands for, its doctrine. A Christian cannot commune at two different churches which do not agree in doctrine. You cannot be in fellowship both with falsehood and with the truth.

Therefore, you should not commune at a non-Missouri Synod Lutheran church or any church (even an LCMS one) which engages in or allows the existence of false teaching or practice in its midst, even if you think that false teaching is only a small matter. The fact is that no false teaching is a small matter, because it threatens the truth of the Gospel of Christ; just as you would regard even a little poison in your food to be a very dangerous thing.

This is not only a private matter between you and the Lord. By communing you are also uniting yourself with the others who commune with you and with the teaching that is proclaimed in that place. Receiving communion is a public act by which we proclaim the Lord's death until He comes (I Corinthians 11:26). May God grant all His churches to make this Gospel proclamation clearly and purely to His glory and the salvation of many!

Children in Church

(From a Mt. Zion newsletter article in the late 1990's)

As attendance at the divine service begins to increase here at Mt. Zion, most of you have begun to notice that there are several more children in church. Thanks be to God for this! It is a great blessing that baptized Christians of all ages, from the youngest to the oldest, can come into the real presence of the Lord Jesus to hear His holy Word, to worship Him, and to receive His eternal gifts.

One of the results of a greater number of children, of course, is that there is sometimes a bit more noise to contend with during the service. Most aren't bothered by this at all; a few are. Either way, this is a good time for us to consider the children's place in the divine service and what should be done when young children are noisy or are misbehaving. I offer two basic points:

#1) Children do belong in the divine service! Some people have the attitude that children can't or shouldn't take part in church until they're "old enough." But that's not a Lutheran way to think. For children are old enough to come to church as soon as they are baptized into the body of Christ their Savior. These children are no less a part of the worshiping community of believers than are the adults, and they should not be separated from them. For it is written, "Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants You have ordained praise" (Psalm 8:2). And, of course, Jesus said, "Let the little children come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these" (Mark 10:14). And where is Christ more concretely present for us to come to Him than when we are gathered around His words, His baptism, and His holy supper? Certainly we should not be excluding our children from this divine service of our Redeemer.

By being consistently present in church and with proper parental guidance, children will learn reverence for God; they will learn that the church is a holy place where holy things happen; they will learn how to worship and receive the gifts of God which He gives in the holy liturgy, a liturgy that connects them with believers throughout the centuries; they will hear the very words of God through which the Holy Spirit is working to sustain the faith of His people; they will learn the hymns of the church which sing of Christ and teach us His Law and Gospel. In other words, with the Lord's blessing our children will learn to be Christians and children of God.

It's been my experience that the best behaved children in church are the ones who are there the most frequently. To them, church is simply a regular and normal part of life. Indeed, such consistency and good habits can begin even within the womb. For then, the child begins to hear and learn the liturgy even before he is born.

#2) Children should not become a distraction or an impediment for others to hear the Word of God and worship Him. In order for the above benefits to be achieved, children must be taught how to act appropriately in church. Inappropriate actions must be dealt with and corrected. Not only will this be for the good of the child, it will also help to keep obstacles from being placed in the way of the others who are present for worship.

The divine service is not the time for children to be cute or funny. It is not the time for them to wave or make faces at the people behind them. For that is a distraction from the purpose for which God has gathered us together. It takes our focus off of God where it belongs. Such actions may keep people from hearing the words of God which they need to hear. It may keep them from following the train of thought of a Scripture reading or from getting the message of the sermon. Parents and other adults should be careful not to encourage this behavior.

In the same way, noisiness in church should be kept to a minimum. Children should not be allowed to have loud or rattling toys in the pews. Nor should they be allowed to talk freely. Rather, they should be encouraged to take part in the service as much as they can--folding their hands at appropriate times, standing and sitting with the adults, singing or saying the prayers that they know.

When children are fussing, parents should try to do deal with it in the pew. However, if the fussing or talking or crying can't be stopped within a short period of time, the child should be removed from the church. He can then be taken to the narthex or to the Parish Hall where the situation can be dealt with better and where appropriate discipline can be administered if necessary. The Parish Hall has speakers in it through which parents can hear the service, should they need to remain with their child outside of the church for a short time. It is very important that parents (or grandparents) do this so that everyone in church can clearly hear the Word of God. For it is written, "Faith comes by hearing" (Romans 10:17).

All of this can be quite a challenge for parents and will require some creative thinking and some positive incentives for the children, but it is well worth the effort. For this is one of the primary ways that we "bring children up in the training and admonition of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:4). Let us all resolve, then, to help and support one another in this very important process. For Jesus said, "Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me" (Matthew 18:5).

-Pastor Koch-

Why isn't it murder when the government carries out the death penalty or makes just war?

The answer to that is found in the distinction between the 4th and the 5th commandments. In the 5th commandment we are told not to murder, nor to do anything that hurts or harms our neighbor in his body. But as Luther points out in the Small Catechism, "Neither God nor the government is included in this commandment . . . God has delegated His authority of punishing evil-doers to civil magistrates in place of parents . . . Therefore what is forbidden here applies to private individuals, not to governments."

According to the 4th commandment, which establishes parental authority and all other forms of authority, God acts through civil officials to execute judgment on wrongdoers. Though this authority is sometimes abused, God nevertheless is the source of the authority and is the One who is behind all proper exercises of it.

Romans 13 says, "Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore, whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God's minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. . ."

Therefore, when a government executes a criminal worthy of such a punishment, or when it wages just war, particularly in defense against foreign aggression and threat, it does not sin, for it is acting as God's agent to punish evil and to protect its people.