Not Again!

Well, it’s happening again–some people have supposedly figured out that the Lord will come again this Saturday, September 23, 2017.  I’m not sure of their exact calculations, but I’ve been told it’s based on some counting of Jubilee years. Now for all I know these folks could be right–but I’m still going to have a sermon ready for Sunday, just in case.

Repeatedly the Lord’s disciples asked Him when the Day of the Lord would occur, and repeatedly, Jesus told them to mind their own business.  Now it seems to me that, if being faithful involves listening to God’s commands and obeying them, then the folks who keep trying to pick the date when the heavens will roll back and every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father, then, the folks who find messages hidden in the Bible text are straight up sinning.

I’m never quite sure why eschatological speculations are so pervasive in American Christianity.  Why can we not be content with the work God has given us to do and allow the hidden things of God’s plan to remain hidden?  Isn’t there something almost demonic about trying to discern those things known only to God?  Doesn’t attempting to know the things God has told us we are not to know seem very much like Satan’s temptation in the Garden of Eden?  “Go ahead,” the serpent told Eve, “eat it and you will be like God.”  Now the enemy says go ahead, don’t spend your time on teaching and baptizing and things like that, spend it trying to figure out when the Day of the Lord will be.

Now I know there are many good and faithful Christians who have been taught to spend their time thinking about this stuff.  But friends, it’s just plain wrong.  It’s bad Biblical study and it’s a waste of the precious time God has given us to do the work He prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)

So my advice to anyone who reads this is to stop worrying about the end of time and focus instead on who you’re going to tell about Jesus today.  Because today is the only day we can know for sure.

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Worship III

About 20 years ago we heard a lot about “worship wars”,  In other words, whether traditional worship forms and music should be replaced by more “contemporary” types of worship with upbeat “praise music” replacing hymns, bands replacing organs and pastors dressing in Hawaiian shirts and jeans instead of albs or suits.

It was said that non-churched people, also known sometimes as seekers” felt more comfortable in such settings than in traditional churches with their more elaborate settings and music.  “Contemporary” worship was, it was thought, also more appealing to young people.  This was what all the church growth folks pushed and we could see it was working in the American evangelical settings where mega-churches were showing up everywhere.  Chancels were replaced with stages, pews with theater style seats and everything was going to be so cool and new.

The problem with all of that is real worship was too often replaced with entertainment, doctrinally sound hymns with vapid praise songs, and theological depth with something a mile wide and an inch deep.  The focus of way too many services became emotionalism and feelings.  Instead of focusing on God’s self revelation in Christ Jesus, churches began to focus on how to make our lives better in this world.  Instead of preparing us for eternity, people were prepared for dealing with conflict in their daily lives.  Now don’t get me wrong, that’s not unimportant, but the Gospel isn’t about having your best life now, it is about Jesus Christ crucified and risen so that our sins are forgiven and we can have eternal life in presence of God Himself .

One of the country’s first megachurches publicly admitted a year or so ago that they did not do a good job keeping people, they could get them in the door, but once the people had been there for a while, they left because the church never moved from milk to meat in its teachings.

It is God’s desire that His people gather together.  But it is also His desire that people grow in the knowledge  of the Truth revealed to us in Scripture and in the person of Jesus Christ.  Anything that promotes greater understanding of the Truth of the Gospel is good, but anything that fails to do that should be tossed in the trash bin as the flawed idea that it is.

Worship II

I’ve been thinking a lot about worship lately and this is the second offering in this blog-series (!)  Anyway, I mentioned in my first blog that true Christian worship is not about us doing something for God but about God doing many things for us.  Today I want to think about how He does for us in the worship service.

First, God has chosen to work through what we call the means of grace.  The means of grace are the Word preached and read, and the sacraments.  There are many other things that are good gifts from God, but they are not means of grace.  For example, confession is not a means of grace.  The absolution given after confession is a means, but it is so only because it is drawn directly from God’s revealed Word in Scripture.  An absolution that requires some work to be done, such as found in Roman Catholicism, is not a means of grace because it is not an application of grace but an application of Law.  Neither is prayer a means of grace, but rather a means of communication.  Of course prayer can give us comfort, but the grace of God shown forth in justification comes by the revealed Word only.

We must remember that what we know of God is only what He has chosen to reveal to us.  His method of revealing Himself is in His Word found in Scripture.  And therefore the written and spoken Word must be at the very center of all true worship.  While I see true and God given grace at work in the services of our Reformed brethren, I find it somewhat sad that the only text read in many of their churches on a Sunday is the text the preacher is expounding.  The Word of God from Genesis through Revelation is the means God uses to bring us to faith.  And the Holy Spirit uses the preached Word to bring faith to people. “But how are they to call on Him in whom they have not believed?  And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard?  And how are they to hear without someone preaching? … So faith comes from hearing and hearing from the Word of Christ.” (Romans 10: 14, 17)

The Sacraments of Baptism and Communion are also means of grace because they apply the Word of God through external means to enact and strengthen the faith of God’s elect.  “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved.” (Mark 16:16)   “Baptism … now saves you.” (1 Peter 3:21)  The question of why some who are baptized are not saved is always a sticky one until we learn to think about it rightly.  Baptism, the Word and water, saves because it works faith in the heart of the elect through the Holy Spirit.  It does not save those who are not elect.  In the same way Holy Communion strengthens faith in the hearts of those elect who believe, but it also works to the condemnation of those who receive it without faith.  That is why Communion is  only for the baptized.

So God, who has elected those who will be saved, has also chosen those means through which their faith will be birthed and strengthened.  There are no other ways because God has chosen only these.

The Ways We Worship

I’m preparing a few lessons for the adult Sunday School class on Lutheran worship–why we do it the way we do.  Now I’m perfectly aware that not all Lutherans organize their worship lives in the same way, and that’s generally okay with me.  But there are some things that I think must not be left out if our worship is to accomplish its principle goals.

Before we discuss the “ingredients” of proper worship we should probably say why we gather for worship at all.  Couldn’t we just be independent Christians happily reading our Bibles and meeting occasionally with friends to pray?  Well, the writer of Hebrews seemed not to believe that to be a good idea because he tells us we are not to cease to meet together as some have done. (10:25)  So Biblically  speaking, we are to gather with other Christians for worship.

There’s a funny web site called the BabylonBee which spoofs things in the Christian world that need spoofing.  One of the recent posts there referred to the many Bibles in America with heretical handwritten notes in the margins.  That is indeed a reason not to stay away from organized worship–we can err in our understanding if we lack proper teaching.  Satan would love nothing better than to have us all stay home on Sunday and develop heresies in our living rooms.  When I was ordained one of my clergy friends gave me this advice–if you believe you’ve discovered some new Christian truth that has been unknown heretofore–it’s most likely a heresy.  And his advise was quite wise.

In addition to avoiding heresy we also gather for worship because we need to worship.  We don’t worship to please God, we worship in order to be fed with His Word and strengthened in our faith.  The principle service done on Sunday mornings is not our service to God, but His service to His gathered people.  That’s what the Gospel is all about.

The traditional pattern of Lutheran worship makes this quite clear.  We gather before the Lord and confess our sins, after which the pastor assures those who have confessed that, if they are in Christ, their sins are forgiven–not at that moment and not just for what they’ve done in the last week–but forgiven because of Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the Cross at Calvary 2000 years ago.  And we say Thanks.

Then God’s Word is read that we might know and understand His saving grace even more.  And we say Thanks.

Then the pastor expounds on that written Word, bring its meaning and purpose to the lives of the gathered people of God.  And again we say Thanks.

Then God provides us with the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus, truly yet mysteriously present under the elements of bread and wine.  Our faith is strengthened and our hopes fulfilled.  And we say Thanks.

Then finally, at the end of every service we receive a benediction which sends us on our way rejoicing and saying Thanks.

I’ll write more about our worship lives in the weeks ahead, but I wanted to start by saying Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Laughing in the Heavens

My readings this morning included Psalm 2.  The psalmist touches on something that is important for Christians to remember–God will always have His way, no matter the vigor with which people oppose Him.  I thought I’d share some thoughts about this psalm.

The Western world is a mess.  If you don’t believe that, then you haven’t been looking.  Of course the great problem with the world is sin–believing that we can do a better job than God in the ordering of creation.  Mocking the Lord will always get a laugh on television and holding His people up to ridicule will always find its way into the editorial pages of our major newspapers (and not a few minor ones too).

But look how God responds to those who despise Him and His people.  “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.” (v.4)  The mighty of this world, the powerful men and women, the cultural leaders, the haters of all things holy–God does not try to make excuses to them or explain His will.  He does not call on His people to alter what has been taught amongst them from time immemorial, He does not bend to the fashions of the world and seek to seem relevant in the eyes of secularists.  No friends, God laughs at them for He knows who is in control of the universe.

The next time someone attacks your faith or attempts to tell you God is simply a myth we have created to make ourselves feel safer–well, you can just smile at them because you know exactly what God thinks of them and what that will mean in the long run.

Oh, and in case you’re unsure about God’s victory, you can believe it because I looked in the back of the Book, and He wins.

What’s A Preacher To Do?

I’ve heard a lot of sermons in my life and I’ve preached a lot of sermons too.  Any preacher who is serious about his calling spends a lot of time each week preparing for those 20 or so minutes on Sunday morning.  Sometimes we get feedback on how we did, sometimes we don’t.  So we don’t always know if the words of our mouths or the meditations of our hearts have been pleasing either to God or to the congregation.  We can only pray that something good will result from our efforts.

The question that always stands out, though, is what makes a good preacher.  Some people have honed the art of public speaking to such a sharpness that they are bound to surpass your average run of the mill speaker.  I’ve read that Patrick Henry was such a talented public speaker that people would often lose track of time during his orations, thinking only a few minutes had passed when it was actually over an hour.  Must a good preacher have such a skill?  Or maybe a good preacher is a man whose knowledge of Scripture astounds even other pastors and who fills his message with a list of supporting passages almost too long to follow.  Or maybe a good preacher is a man who can, in the pulpit, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Well, in my opinion, there is only one way to measure whether or not a preacher was good on any given Sunday—did he proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen for you?  I don’t care how clever the argument, how well delivered the sermon, how sonorous the tone of his voice–if a preacher doesn’t tell you that you, yes you, are a sinner deserving of eternity in hell but that Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, bore your punishment on the cross at Calvary, rose from the dead on the third day and promises salvation to all who confess with their mouth that He is Lord and believe in their hearts that God raised Him from the dead–if you don’t hear that the preacher wasted 20 minutes of your life.

St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that he came among them determined to know nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.  That is what matters in the pulpit.  It is a message so profound, so filled with meaning that every preacher ought to be able to find 60 different ways to express it every year of his ministry.  I pray God shows each of us who dare to speak to His assembled people in any congregation how to do this small but immeasurably great service.

 

As One Approved

I am working now to refocus my ministry.  I’m doing a number of things to help me in that–rereading my ordination vows, reading books on pastoral theology, focusing my prayer life on this effort and reading what Scripture has to say about the work of those called to pastoral ministry.  Paul’s second letter to Timothy is of particular importance in understanding what a pastor’s role is to be.  It was most likely Paul’s last writing and in it he encourages his protege Timothy and all the others who have followed him in ministry.

There’s a lot in the short letter but I want to write today about an encouragement that isn’t meant just for pastors, but for everyone who serves in ministry in the Church–in other words to every Christian.  It’s the 15th verse of the second chapter.  “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the Word of truth.”

Paul wrote elsewhere that he was not ashamed of the Gospel (Romans 1:16).  And his encouragement to Timothy and to us also carries this message.  Don’t be ashamed of being a Christian in a pagan world.  The Gospel is the only true good news in this present darkness and we are called to witness to it everywhere we go.  Sometimes this will be uncomfortable, for us and could lead to difficult situations in our lives.  Indeed Paul writes a bit later in 2nd Timothy that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” But that doesn’t change the charge Christ has given to all His elect people.

Another aspect of this charge not to be ashamed relates to what we will experience on the Day of Judgment.   On the day of the Lord’s return everyone will be judged–even those who are destined for salvation.  We will see and know all that we have thought, said or done that is contrary to God’s will.  We will know in a extraordinarily powerful way just how great our Lord’s atoning sacrifice was for us, how much we deserved eternal separation from the Holy God.  I am sure that shame will fill our consciousness as we look back on our sins.  But Paul tells us that one thing that should not cause us shame is the work we do in handling the Word of Truth.

I read recently that only 17% of self identified Christians in this country actually live out a Biblical worldview.  The influence of our secular culture seeps into our lives and teaches us to deny the plain teachings of Scripture about so many things.  Everything from divorce–a violation of the 6th Commandment–to the common desire of Americans for more and more material things–violating the 9th and 10th Commandments–to even qualified approval of abortion–violating the 5th Commandment–to whatever else you want to list–all such opinions represent a failure to rightly handle the Word of Truth and will cause us shame on the last day.

If the Bible is the inerrant and infallible Word of God it is our responsibility as His witnesses in the world to proclaim what it teaches, even though it’s teaching is an offense to the world.  Just because the world around us doesn’t live a Christian life–that is no reason why Christians ought not live as true followers of the eternal Word–Jesus Christ our Lord.