Monday, December 28, 2015

A Christian New Year's

Our Redeemer will have a New Year's Eve service, with Holy Communion, at 6:30 pm.

"And at the end of eight days, when He was circumcised, He was called Jesus" (Luke 2:21).

A Christian celebration of New Year's would endeavor to include three things:

1. The ongoing celebration of Christmas (December 25-January 5)

2. The circumcision and naming of Jesus (Luke 2:21)

3. Prayer at the start of a new year

The following hymn, "Now Greet the Swiftly Changing Year," manages to incorporate all three things.

Now greet the swiftly changing year with joy and penitence sincere.
Rejoice!  Rejoice!  With thanks embrace another year of grace.

Remember now the Son of God and how He shed His infant blood.
Rejoice!  Rejoice!  With thanks embrace another year of grace.

This Jesus came to end sin's war; this Name of names for us He bore.
Rejoice!  Rejoice!  With thanks embrace another year of grace.

His love abundant far exceeds the volume of a whole year's needs.
Rejoice!  Rejoice!  With thanks embrace another year of grace.

With Him as Lord to lead our way in want and in prosperity,
What need we fear in earth or space in this new year of grace!

"All glory be to God on high, and peace on earth!" the angels cry.
Rejoice!  Rejoice!  With thanks embrace another year of grace.

God, Father, Son, and Spirit, hear!  To all our pleas incline Your ear;
Upon our lives rich blessing trace in this new year of grace.

(Lutheran Service Book, 896)

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, begun in the name of Jesus who shed His blood for us!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A Heroic God

By Richard Wurmbrand

"Unto us a child is born" (Is. 9:6).

In the Hebrew original this prophecy about the coming of the Savior continues as follows: "Unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, heroic God (El Ghibor)...."

It was surely a heroic decision to leave heaven and the world of angels, having decided for Himself to be born in a stable, to be in danger of death from early childhood, to live an entire life of sorrow which end would be crucifixion, for the salvation of mankind who would show no gratitude for this sacrifice.  Our Lord knew that ultimately good would triumph because of this sacrifice, so He made it.

Christmas is the memorial of the birth of a heroic God.

The main feature of His followers is heroism.  Shallowness and lukewarmness do not belong to Christianity.

A renowned preacher, whose father had been a drunkard and his mother a pious woman, was taught by the latter from early childhood a particular spiritual exercise.  He would put on the floor a wine glass, playing cards, dice, pornographic magazines, some money, his own picture, and would trample on it all, shouting, "No!  No!"  And again, "No!  No!"  Then he would say to himself, "I belong to a heroic God, and I will always say 'No!' to any temptation to sin."

Let us commemorate the Nativity of a divine hero, forsaking the comfortable ways and making the decision which all heroes in history have made: "To win or to perish, but never to yield."

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Christmas Is for Children

This Sunday, December 20, the Sunday School children will present their Christmas program.  The following devotion is in honor of that.  I wrote it years ago, but annually it helps me prepare my heart for Christmas.
 
God must have had children in mind when He planned the Christmas Gospel.  For the story is just full of the sort of things children like and can understand.
 
For starters, there are lots of animals: a donkey, sheep, camels.  There's a barn with hay, and more animals.  Add to that shepherds, angels, a special star, kings with treasures, and a curious object called a "manger."  In the middle of it all a mommy keeping her baby warm.
 
Luke 2:1-20 reads like a play for children to put on, complete with manageable speaking parts and a little carol for all to sing:
 
Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace, good will toward men.
 
The only one littler than the children is their Lord in the manger.  The children learn in this way to go near to Him, love, and trust in Him.
 
God is nothing if not a teacher, a teacher of children, and a teacher about Himself.  The Incarnation (God coming in our flesh) is the single greatest theological mystery.  Yet God conveys it in a way understandable to a child.  And then calls all of us to "become as children" (Matt. 18:3).
 
God grant you - this Christmas and always - the wonder, joy, and faith of a child!

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Comings of Christ

"Blessed is He who comes" (Ps. 118:26).

This time of year (the end of one Church Year and the beginning of another) we intensify our anticipation of the coming of Christ on the Last Day.  And soon we will celebrate Christmas and His coming from heaven the first time.  We speak, therefore, of the "first" and "second" comings of Christ.

But there are, all together, three comings.  A third coming of Christ is His coming in Holy Communion.  The three go together.  What they have in common is the true bodily coming of Christ.

It is helpful, though, to put things in order and so to refer to the "past," "present," and "future" comings.

Past = His conception, birth, life, words, actions, suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension.

Present = Holy Communion.

Future = "He will come to judge the living and the dead" (Apostles' Creed).

He came.  He comes.  He will come.

We keep a right and balanced faith when we put our trust in Christ and hold each of His comings in equally high regard.  No coming is greater or less than the others.

Yet, the present coming in Communion plays a special role in that it touches both the past and future and joins them together.  Listen for this (if you have the chance) in the Communion liturgy.  It looks both back and forward, even as it accents the forgiveness of sins delivered right here and now.

He camecomeswillcome!

Rejoice greatly that our King comes to us in such a marvelous threefold way!

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Mother of Covet

The Ninth and Tenth Commandments say, "You shall not covet."

But Covet has a mother and her name is Compare.  This means that before one can covet, he must first compare.  He must compare two things: what God has given him, and what God has given to another.  All coveting begins with comparing.  Even to compare your present situation with one you'd rather be in, soon leads to the sin of coveting: the desire to have what God has not given you.

Covet has a daughter and her name is Complain.  She has no friends.  Complaining is always the direct result of coveting, just as coveting is the direct result of comparing.  Hold in check your comparing and you will hold in check your coveting and complaining.

Replace all of these C's with Contentment.  She is the happy, beautiful daughter of faith and trust in God.  But do not stop at thanking God for what He has given you.  Thank Him especially for what He has given to others.  Pray that God will create in you this kind of heart.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Fourteen Words (Part 2)

"Take heart, child, your sins are forgiven."

The only thing more important than prayer is to become silent so as to hear the Word of God - the voice of God from the lips of Jesus.

When you pray, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner," what does this God say back to you?  His reply is found in Matthew 9:2: "Take heart, child, your sins are forgiven."  Understand that you are the one to whom these words are addressed.

"Take heart."  This means a cheerful, confident heart, full of courage.  For when you hear and believe that your sins are forgiven, then nothing big or small can take away your joy and strength.  Your heart becomes a place in which a bright morning sun is always rising.  Yes, the trials still come, but the verdict is in and it is final: Your sins are forgiven.

"Child."  Use the word "child" to remember your Baptism.  And will not the one who calls you "child" always love and care for you in every way?  Other times, in place of the word "child," use your full first name.  This can be a very powerful experience!  Try it: "Take heart, [name], your sins are forgiven."

So now you have your seven words: "God, be merciful to me, a sinner."  And God has His: "Take heart, child, your sins are forgiven."

Enter into conversation with Him often.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Fourteen Words (Part 1)

I'm taking two Sundays (November 8 and 15) to teach my congregation a devotion called "The Fourteen Words."  It's made up of two seven-word statements found in the Bible.  The first seven words are the subject of the following small devotion, and the devotion serves as a recap of Sunday's sermon.  Next Sunday we'll learn about the second seven words.

"God, be merciful to me, a sinner."

In Russian Orthodox circles, a "staretz" refers to a much-experienced spiritual advisor.  One day it was reported to a certain staretz that a man had experienced seeing angels.  Such a vision, it was thought, must mark great spiritual progress!  But the staretz answered very wisely, "This is not surprising, that he sees angels, but I would marvel at a person who saw his own sins."

In Luke 18, the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector is called a parable, but it should also be viewed as a miracle.  For in it, a man truly sees his own sins.

"But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner'" (Luke 18:13).

This tax collector, normally known for taking people's money, is here giving the world a gift: the perfect (seven-word) prayer.  "God, be merciful to me, a sinner."

This prayer goes to great spiritual depths and heights.  It accomplishes two things.  First, it keeps you from becoming proud, by remembering that you are a sinner.  In Greek, it does not say "a sinner," but "the sinner."  Think of yourself as the only sinner.  You will never look down on another.

Second, the prayer keeps you from despairing, by remembering that God is merciful.  The words "God, be merciful" are in fact a promise that God is merciful and forgiving.  It is a prayer of faith and trust in God's mercies.

It seems clear that the tax collector prayed this prayer several times.  You too pray it several times today - and often.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Remain a Pupil

Some Christians struggle to believe that Genesis 1 and 2 are describing an actual week and that Creation took place over the course of a literal six-day period.  Their pastors don't always help.  At a recent conference, one pastor publicly denied a literal six-day Creation.  I was both saddened by this and alarmed, recalling that the very first temptation (Genesis 3) was to deny God's Word.  When will we learn?

Luther called the article of Creation "harder to believe than the article of the Incarnation."  But he wrote: "If you cannot understand how this could have been done in six days, then grant the Holy Spirit the honor of being more learned than you are.  For you are to deal with Scripture in such a way that you bear in mind that God Himself says what is written.  But since God is speaking, it is not fitting for you wantonly to turn His Word in the direction you wish to go."

I agree, but I also add something.  I observe a strange focus on Creation Week and the question, "Is it literal?"  And I say that, because in the Gospel we are presented with another week, the one that begins on Palm Sunday and climaxes on Good Friday.  It could be called Redemption Week, through which the Lamb of God took away the world's sin.  How come no one has ever questioned the literalness of this week, especially when you stop to consider that to redeem the world was indeed a thousand times harder to do than to create it?  And that's because at Creation there was no resistance, no enemy.  Whereas Redemption fought a battle against sin, death, devil, and hell.

And so next to Redemption Week, I find Creation Week very easy to believe.  And I will spend the remainder of my life not wondering whether God created the heavens and the earth in six literal days, but pondering that He redeemed the world, and me, in six literal hours upon the cross.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Mother Love

"And a woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house.  And she had a sister called Mary..." (Luke 10:38-39).

Mary and Martha are sisters, each with a different personality.  Mary is passive, quiet, resting at the feet of Jesus, receiving His Word.  Martha is active, busy, constantly doing, serving.  Opposite personalities, and yet sisters.  Reflect on the fact that as sisters, Mary and Martha are daughters of the same mother.

In spiritual terms, that mother is Love.  God's love gives birth to two daughters.  One is named Faith (Mary) and the other Works (Martha).  Faith is passive, quiet, resting at the feet of Jesus, receiving His Word of forgiveness at all times.  Works is (are) active, busy, constantly doing, serving wherever there is a need.

The two sisters, born of Love, dwell together, as did Mary and Martha, in the same house.  And that house is your heart.

The only caution is that Martha (works of service) not be allowed to take Mary (faith alone) away from her resting place at the foot of the Cross.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

With the Whip

"And making a whip..." (John 2:15).

This week's devotion is by the late Richard Wurmbrand.

Paul said to a sorcerer named Elymas, "O full of all subtlety and all mischief, thou child of the devil," and he cursed him to blindness (Acts 13:9-11).  Paul would have sinned if he had been meek toward an enemy of righteousness.

Luther wrote to a duke who opposed the Word: "Ass of all asses, bloody dog, lying mouth, thick sausage, son of the devil."  In a later letter he expresses his wonder that he could have written so gently and explains: "A Christian is a man who has hatred and enmity against nobody, but nurtures only love and goodness; but a preacher must have guts, must bite salt, and say the whole truth, because this is what the Word of God does.  It hurts the whole world; it puts its hand into the throats of rulers and princes; it thunders and lightens and assaults big mountains....  As far as I am concerned, I would do no harm and say nothing against any man, but as regards the enemies of the Word of God, you should know no friendships and no love."

Christians must be fighters against evil in the church and in the world.  They must fight for justice in society, for peace and progress.  "The kingdom of God suffereth violence" (Matt. 11:12).

The Christian does not indulge in small conflicts.  He would not quarrel with his wife or neighbor, but when he has to fight the evil which has penetrated the church, he must always have before him the image of Jesus with the whip in His hand.  He must hit and not have remorse.  Jesus never apologized to the merchants He had driven out.  Hatred toward sin cannot be expressed in dignified words, as love cannot be cold and formal.  There can be no politeness toward sin.  Love the sinner and awaken him through striking ruthlessly at his sinfulness.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

A Threefold Light

"...on the first day of the week" (Mark 16:2).

We should think more about Sunday.  For starters, we Christians need to remember that Sunday is not part of the weekend.  It is rather the first day of the new week.

Then, and this is the most important thing, we need to remember that Sunday is the day our Lord rose from the dead, and that for this reason Sunday became the primary worship day for Christians.

This is quite enough to think about, but there's more.

We may also remember that the first day of creation was a Sunday, on which God said, "Let there be light."  And add to this one other thing: the day of Pentecost.  It too fell (and falls) on a Sunday.

Now take a step back and see that the Father's first day of creating, the Son's rising as Victor over sin and death, and the Holy Spirit's coming to us with new life all take place on Sunday.  Extraordinary!  Glorious!!  Trinity!!!

Dear Christians, let us do so much more than go to church because we should.  Let us go gladly (Ps. 122:1) in the faith of the One who created, redeemed, and makes us holy.

This is the deep meaning of Sunday, and about which we sing in these words:

O day of rest and gladness, O day of joy and light,
O balm of care and sadness, most beautiful, most bright;
This day the high and lowly, through ages joined to bless,
Sing, "Holy, holy, holy," the triune God confess.

This day at earth's creation the light first had its birth;
This day for our salvation Christ rose from depths of earth;
This day our Lord victorious the Spirit sent from heav'n,
And thus this day most glorious a threefold light was giv'n.

(Lutheran Service Book, 906)

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Fighting from Victory

"But take heart; I have won the victory over the world" (John 16:33).

On Saturday I participated in a protest rally outside the Planned Parenthood in Providence.  Some five hundred people gathered, and similar gatherings took place across the country.  I was asked to say a few words and then lead the closing prayer.  I decided to share the best advice I ever got about fighting the pro-life battle: Always remember that you're not fighting for victory but from victory.  This changes everything.

By His bloodied cross and vacated tomb, our dear Lord Jesus Christ has already won the victory over all sin, death, and evil in this world.  By faith in Him, He makes us the victors too.  We fight the spiritual battle, taking heart and courage from the victory already won.  We are the spiritual fulfillment of the men of Israel and Judah who "arose and shouted and pursued the Philistines" after seeing that Goliath was dead and the enemy was on the run (1 Sam. 17:52).

Fight from the victory of Christ, the true David.  Apply this to every spiritual battle and especially to the personal ones.  Use the weapons of fasting, prayer, mercy, and joy - against which the enemy has no defense.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

That's Why I Pray

I came across this song and video by the duo Big & Rich.  It's a very honest yet hopeful look at our time.  I'll let it speak for itself, but do watch/listen for several key things: a crucifix at 0:55, the personal confession beginning at 2:43, and the sudden change at 3:09.

And be reminded that we "ought always to pray and not lose heart" (Luke 18:1).

www.youtube.com/watch?v=QjJyZfDCa88

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Taking a Stand

"I am the bread of life" (John 6:35).

A letter was recently sent to the Smithsonian by a group of pastors.  It's a letter that every American should read.

http://cns7prod.s3.amazonaws.com/attachments/ministers_letter.pdf

Dear Christians, never cease to pray
For faith and love these latter days,
For marriage, life, and family,
That all be held in sanctity.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Strength for Today

"Give us this day our daily bread" (Matt. 6:11).

God gives us what we need one day at a time.  He is determined to teach us trust.  He calls us to trust that He will provide again tomorrow as He did today.

In the Old Testament He instructed the Israelites to gather just enough manna for the day.  He sent it again the next morning.  In the New Testament, in which we live, He teaches us to pray, "Give us this day our daily bread."  In other words, just enough strength for today.  He will supply it again tomorrow.

All of this leads to two definitions:

Anxiety = looking at tomorrow's challenges without tomorrow's strength.

Trust = knowing that tomorrow's strength will be a match for tomorrow's challenges.

You are not yet in possession of tomorrow's strength.  It will be yours tomorrow morning, but not before.  You are given strength for today, bright hope for tomorrow, and the most blessed of all things: trust in your heavenly Father.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Siblings Day

"Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus" (John 11:5).

For a few years now, I have observed July 29 as Siblings Day.  A woman named Claudia Evart is working to establish a National Siblings Day to be observed every April 10, and I hope she succeeds.  But I prefer July 29, and that's because the church calendar encourages us to remember on this day Mary, Martha, and Lazarus - who were siblings.  We read that Jesus loved all three of them.  I apply that to my two sisters and me.  And if He loves all three of us, how could we not love each other?  His love becomes our love.  I'll be calling them both today.

As a pastor, I know that not everyone has a loving relationship with their siblings.  If that includes you, remember who the real enemy is - the evil one.  Pray for your siblings, thank the Lord for them, and then reach out to them in love.  Ask forgiveness if you need to.  Don't give up.

Parents, teach your children how Jesus loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, and how His love for siblings turns into their love for each other.  Have each child think of something nice to say about the other(s).  Then have a time of sharing over a special dessert.

Consider well the fact that the Lord Jesus laid down His life for your brother, sister, and you.  For this reason alone, how could we not love our siblings, and from all our hearts?

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Faith Is a Candle

"Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, 'I believe; help my unbelief!'" (Mark 9:24).

What is clear from this man's prayer is that he should be teaching at the seminary.  For he understands the true theology of faith: that faith and unbelief are found in the same heart.  Looking in his own heart, he formulates a five-word confession and prayer among the most insightful in the New Testament.

He is saying to Jesus, "The problem is not that I don't believe.  The problem is that I don't believe!"  In other words, "I've got faith, but I've got unbelief too.  Help me!"

Let us make two points.

1. This prayer is reassuring.  If you're a Christian and experience doubt, you needn't worry.  It is to be expected.  But true doubt is only possible right next to true faith.  Think of faith less like a bright sunny day and more like a candle burning in a dark room.  Faith burns as a candle in the darkness of our own sinful, unbelieving hearts.

Our faith is not yet all it should be, but it is enough.  Luther said, "On earth the heart can never attain or feel faith to such a degree as it should; but it always stays in the stage of a wishing and a sighing of the spirit, too deep for a man to express.  Then the heart says: 'Oh, that it were true!'  Again: 'Ah, if only one could believe it!'  Nevertheless, this sighing and this spark of faith achieve so much that God regards them as a complete faith and says: 'According to your faith be it unto you; and because you believe, you are certainly saved.'"

Ask yourself not, "How much faith do I have?"  But rather, "How much Christ?"  And the answer is: All of Him, crucified and risen!

2. The Lord is responding.  Pray this five-word prayer and then know that your Lord is responding.  He comes running to anyone who prays this prayer and gives them His sure Word and strengthening Sacrament.  He is risen, dear Christian, for this purpose, and to keep your little flame from ever going out.

Now practice praying, "I believe; help my unbelief!"

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Home Is My Heaven

"You shall write them on the doorposts [in Hebrew, "mezuzoth"] of your house" (Deut. 6:9).

The Jewish mezuzah refers to a parchment bearing the words of Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21 and rolled up in a case or tube that is attached to the doorpost of the house and other rooms.  It is affixed diagonally, owing to the fact that authorities disagreed on whether to place it horizontally or vertically.  So they compromised!

The doorpost of your house signifies the dividing line between the goings on of the world and the sanctuary of the home.  God means to make of your home a little heaven on earth.  A place of faith, hope, and love in the midst of trying times.

How so?  His Word.  Luther wrote the Small Catechism as a way to fill the home with the blessing of the Ten Commandments, Creed, Lord's Prayer, Sacraments, Prayers, and an understanding of our Duties.

Reclaim your home as a place of peace.  Guard against strangers and "strange teachings" (Heb. 13:9) entering your home through the television and computer.  Make certain a cross or crucifix occupies a central location.  Invite the pastor over to give a house blessing.

And petition God to make your home your little heaven!

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Real Relationships

"Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete" (2 John 12).

If I had to pick one thing from Laudato Si' by Pope Francis, it would be this paragraph:

"Real relationships with others, with all the challenges they entail, now tend to be replaced by a type of internet communication which enables us to choose or eliminate relationships at whim, thus giving rise to a new type of contrived emotion which has more to do with devices and displays than with other people and with nature.  Today's media do enable us to communicate and to share our knowledge and affections.  Yet at times they also shield us from direct contact with the pain, the fears and the joys of others and the complexity of their personal experiences.  For this reason, we should be concerned that, alongside the exciting possibilities offered by these media, a deep and melancholic dissatisfaction with interpersonal relations, or a harmful sense of isolation, can also arise."

In other words, alongside the blessing of electronic communication is the risk of losing out on meaningful face to face relationships with those near to us.  Thanks to Holy Communion, we have and enjoy a flesh and blood relationship with our Lord.  And this should lead and inspire us to want the same with each other.  So God bless you as you reach out electronically, but never forgetting that this is no substitute for truly being with your spouse, children, family, neighbor, and fellow Christians.  If anything, we need to invest more, much more, in these real relationships.  And the real blessings await!

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Sure and Firm

"Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" (Heb. 13:8).

"Jesus Christ: yesterday and today the same, and forever" (my translation).

This line by the unknown author of Hebrews should be considered among the greatest in the New Testament.  You are able to memorize it and use it as an anchor and rock in a world, and personal world, of change.  In the words of the late Malcolm Muggeridge:

"Let us then as Christians rejoice that we see around us on every hand the decay of the institutions and instruments of power, see intimations of empires falling to pieces, money in total disarray, dictators and parliamentarians alike nonplussed by the confusion and conflicts which encompass them.  For it is precisely when every earthly hope has been explored and found wanting, when every possibility of help from earthly sources has been sought and is not forthcoming, when every recourse this world offers, moral as well as material, has been explored to no effect, when in the shivering cold the last faggot has been thrown on the fire and in the gathering darkness every glimmer of light has finally flickered out, it's then that Christ's hand reaches out sure and firm.  Then Christ's words bring their inexpressible comfort, then His light shines brightest, abolishing the darkness forever" (from The End of Christendom).

And in the words of the hymn: "Change and decay in all around I see; O Thou who changest not, abide with me."

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Quality over Quantity

In the study of Holy Scripture opt for quality, not quantity.  Choose to read one verse very carefully, over the reading of many verses and chapters.  A Russian Orthodox Psalter (Book of Psalms) includes the following story about a man who lived in the fourth century.

"Pambo, being an illiterate man, went to one of the fathers who knew letters for the purpose of being taught a psalm.  And, having heard the first verse of the thirty-ninth psalm, 'I said I will guard my ways, that I may not sin with my tongue,' he departed without staying to hear the second verse, saying, 'This one will suffice if I can learn it in deed.'  And when the father who had given him the verse reproved him because he had not seen him for the space of six months, Pambo answered that he had not yet learned in deed the verse of the psalm.  After a considerable lapse of time, being asked by one of his friends whether he had made himself master of the verse, he answered thus, 'In all of nineteen years, I have only just succeeded in accomplishing it.'"

Less is more.  Simplify your study of Scripture, and you may just find your spiritual life enriched.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Flowers of Our Faith

When a Christian man died recently, I sent flowers to the funeral home where the service would be held.  I sent a red carnation and a red rose together in a simple vase.  Here's why.

"The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come" (Song 2:12).

Late on a Sunday afternoon I arrived at the nursing home to visit Eileen.  I am documenting what happened on that visit because it's going to be hard to beat.

First I stopped to say hello to Carol, the receptionist at the front desk.  She was putting the finishing touches on greeting cards she makes for her own use or sells for just two dollars each.  They're worth much more.  On the front of each one are bright, beautiful flowers.  She paints each and every one - no copies.  I marveled at the work and her talent.  I looked at all of them and then asked if I could borrow two of them to show Eileen.  I picked out the carnations and the roses.

Eileen was sitting on the edge of her bed as if waiting for me.  She enjoyed very much looking at the cards and hearing how Carol had painted them.  I suddenly realized that God had arranged something very special.

"Eileen," I said, "these flowers can teach us our faith!  Do you want to know how?"  She did of course.  "Let's start with the carnations.  They can remind us of the Incarnation, when God's Son was conceived by the Holy Spirit and became man for us."  We talked about that a bit more.  Then we looked at the roses again.  "Of what do they remind us?" I asked.  She correctly remembered that a rose is part of Luther's seal.  "That's right," I said, "but there's something even more!  Let's go find it together!"  So we began saying the Apostles' Creed slowly but surely until we came to the words: "The third day He rose again from the dead."

"There's the rose!" I exclaimed.

"There it is!" she said as excitedly as I.

We finished saying the creed.  We sang a hymn together and then, holding hands, prayed the Lord's Prayer.  Lastly I showed her a small crucifix and instructed her never to forget it.

"I'm going to go tell Carol what we did with her beautiful cards - and you helped me, Eileen!  It's because of my time with you that I have a new devotion to share with others!"

Four dollars later I left the nursing home with those two cards and a bright, beautiful way to teach others our holy Christian faith.


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

I with You Am

"And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matt. 28:20).

Many Christians are more than familiar with these words of Jesus in the final line of the Gospel of Matthew.  It ranks among the greatest promises of God and gives much comfort and assurance to Christians.

While in English it reads, "I am with you," the word order in the original Greek is this:

"I with you am."

It is a kind of word picture in which believers are protected in Christ.  And it gives new meaning to Paul's statement that we "have been baptized into Christ Jesus" (Rom. 6:3).  It helps visualize Philippians 3:8-9: "...in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him."  Or Psalm 139:5: "You hem me in, behind and before."

God introduced Himself as I AM all the way back in Exodus 3:14.  But the name reaches its final form in Matthew 28:20: I with you AM.  For in Christ, incarnate, crucified, and risen, God opened Himself up and has taken us in!

He is with you today, tomorrow, and all the days.  Better still, you are safely within Him.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Away Game

"And this is the victory that has overcome the world - our faith" (1 John 5:4).

As the Church, we simply can't expect the world to approve what we believe or to cheer us on.  When we believe in sin and see it first and foremost in ourselves, don't expect the world to cheer.  When we believe that Jesus Christ alone is the way, don't expect the world to cheer.  When we believe in the sanctity of marriage and the preciousness of every human life, don't expect the world to cheer.  When we believe that He is coming soon and so devote ourselves to lives of repentance and faith, don't expect the world to cheer.

Football coach Lou Holtz explained why it's so hard for a team to play on the road: "Because there'll come a critical time during the course of a game where if you aren't confident, if you aren't competitive, then you're intimidated and you need the crowd to encourage you.  But if you're winners and competitors, you don't care about it.  You'll say, 'The louder the crowd gets, the greater our resolve will become today!'"

Without knowing it, Coach Holtz has captured perfectly what it's like to be the Church in the world.  As Christians living here for a time, we are playing a road game.  This is true because our home is in heaven.  We can't look to the crowd to encourage us.  They will not be cheering for us but against us, and sometimes even jeering at us.

But the victory of Christ over sin and death makes us winners who compete confidently by our Christian conduct and love.  We say, "The louder the crowd gets, the greater our faith will become today!"

Coach always says, "Take heart, I have overcome the world!" (John 16:33).

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Finishing the Sentence

"And He said, 'Say this to the people of Israel, "I am has sent me to you"'" (Exod. 3:14).

What if I told you that a certain Biblical statement took 1500 years to complete?

In Exodus 3 the Lord instructs Moses to refer to Him as "I am."  Now technically "I am" is a complete sentence, having both a subject and a verb.  On the other hand, it sounds rather unfinished.

Finishing the sentence would have to wait until the Incarnation and the teaching of Jesus.  The Gospel of John records seven "I am" statements of Jesus, listed below.  The number seven in the Bible denotes completeness.  The Lord Jesus completes the sentence He began back in Exodus 3.

"I am...
the bread of life
the light of the world
the door of the sheep
the good shepherd
the resurrection and the life
the way, and the truth, and the life
the true vine."
 
So when Jesus says from the cross, "It is finished" (John 19:30), He could have been talking about the sentence.
 
"I am," by itself, is difficult to understand.  It is a lofty idea.  But Jesus brings it down to earth and makes it, and all of God, perfectly understandable.
 
See if you can memorize the seven I am's from John.  No other words were ever worth such a long wait.
 
Where to find the I am's in John: 6:35, 8:12, 10:7, 10:11, 11:25, 14:6, 15:1.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Defense of Marriage

Last week an important one-page letter was released, signed by 35 religious leaders, including President Matthew Harrison of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, the church body to which I belong.  Click below and then click "Download and read letter."

www.lcms.org/freetobefaithful

Dear Christians, never cease to pray
For faith + love these latter days,
For marriage, life, and family,
That all be held in sanctity.

Monday, April 13, 2015

70% Off

"...so that our joy may be complete" (1 John 1:4).

Last week I walked into a local arts and crafts store and asked if they still had any Easter things.  The young lady pointed me to the back of the store where they had gathered the leftovers.  The sign read, "70% Off All Easter Merchandise."

Easter is arguably the happiest, holiest day for Christians, on which we celebrate the resurrection of the Savior, Jesus Christ.  Chances are, you had a wonderful Easter.  But what percentage of that joy do you have today?

Where I pastor, church attendance went down over 40% the Sunday after Easter.  Something is wrong.

We need to ask ourselves whether we really, truly believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Or whether Easter hops in and then right back out of our hearts and minds like the bunny and like many other holidays.

The joy of Easter is a spiritual one that runs deeper than our emotions.  The joy of Easter lasts longer than a day.  It is everlasting!  For the joy of Easter is the risen Christ!

As Christians, we should celebrate Easter every day, with each new sunrise.  And we should go back to the way the early Christians looked forward to every Sunday as Easter!*

Christ is 100% risen!  And the joy with which He comes and fills our hearts can never be any less.  Alleluia!

*"The Lord's Day of the first Christians was therefore a celebration of Christ's resurrection.  Each Lord's Day was an Easter Festival, since this was not yet confined to one single Sunday in the year.  This meaning of Sunday is repeatedly forgotten today" (from Early Christian Worship by Oscar Cullmann).

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

When the Sabbath Was Past

Every year on Easter I feel a sense of guilt.  On Good Friday I have only just begun to consider and ponder Christ's sufferings and death.  But then before you know it, not thirty-six hours later, I am saying and singing, "Christ is risen!"  Isn't that a little quick?  Shouldn't we spend more time in Good Friday meditation?  I need to remember that the timeline is God's own, not mine.  But we would do very well to ask why there is only one day between the death and resurrection of our Lord.  The following devotion, several years old, addresses that question.

"When the Sabbath was past..." (Mark 16:1).

Here is a question seldom asked.  Why did Jesus spend only a short time being dead?  In all, He spent: a little bit of Friday, all of Saturday, and a portion of Sunday.  This is not very long.  Even the body of a person who died just one year ago has already spent well over one hundred times as long in the grave.  I will give two answers to this question.

1. I believe that Christ was concerned only with keeping the Sabbath.  Of the three days (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday), only one did He "keep" in its entirety: Saturday, the Sabbath.  Throughout His ministry, Jesus was accused of breaking the Sabbath.  Although He never actually did break it, He observes the Sabbath following His death as no man has ever observed it.  He rests wholly and completely from His work of redeeming the world, stopping even His heart from beating.  We learn that He fulfills the Sabbath and every other part of the law for us.  He rises on Sunday, after the Sabbath has been kept.  This is one reason.

2. Another reason is that His disciples could not have lasted much longer without Him.  It is doubtful that they ate or even slept.  How heartbroken they must have been!  And afraid.  How then could Christ be "taken away from them" (Matt. 9:15) any longer?  He rose as soon as possible to give them - and us - peace, joy, and courage.

Christ is risen!

Sunday, April 5, 2015

See It?

Take a moment to study this picture.


It was taken on Easter 2013 at an outdoor sunrise devotion.  We sang, prayed, and read Luke 24:1-12, including:

"But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared.  And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb...."

Do you see what we saw?  The strange cloud just to the left of the sunrise now seemed to be "the stone rolled away from the tomb."  It was incredible!  Then someone suggested that the pole in the foreground resembled a cross!

"Do not be alarmed.  You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has risen; He is not here.  See the place where they laid Him.  But go, tell..." (Mark 16:6-7).

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Two Weeks' Notice

Two times in the Bible, and no more, we are given the account of a week.  The first is found in Genesis and presents the six days of creation and the seventh day on which God rested.  The second is found in the Holy Gospel and records the events of the first Holy Week.  God means for us to consider these two weeks together.

As God made the world in six days and then rested, so on Palm Sunday He entered Jerusalem to redeem the world.  He "finished" (John 19:30) that work by day's end Friday and then used Saturday to rest.

We know from Genesis that man was created on the sixth day (Gen. 1:26-31), that is, Friday.  No coincidence then that Jesus died for man also on a Friday.

The Bible's two weeks and the parallels between them must not go unnoticed.  The One who made the world without sin in the course of a week, in the course of a week saved it from sin.  More personally, He who made you head to toe has redeemed you body and soul to be, again, His own.

To you and yours a very blessed Holy Week!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Make a Holy Week Plan

"So from that day on they made plans to put Him to death" (John 11:53).

Sunday morning in church the children and I practiced saying the days of the week: "Sunday, Monday, Tuesday...."  I taught them, then, that while every week is special, only one is called "Holy Week," and it's almost here!

According to the above verse from John, the seventy-member Jewish Council, or Sanhedrin, made plans to put Jesus to death.  They were not the first.  Long before, God made plans to give and sacrifice His Son for our sins.

The question now is, Have you made plans?

Holy Week is the heart and highpoint of the Christian year.  Everything moves either toward it or away from it.

Take time this week to make a plan.  Plan to attend the special services.  Plan to invite a friend to go with you.  Plan extra Scripture and devotional reading at home.  Plan to turn off the TV.  Plan possibly to see your pastor for individual confession.  Plan to clean the house on Holy Saturday in joyful preparation for Easter!

Plan to be strengthened in your faith and love.

Make a Holy Week plan, for it's almost here!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Luther on Annunciation

In 1532 Luther concluded his Annunciation sermon this way.  It's as though he spoke these words this morning.

"It almost seems as though God is at enmity with the world.  Present conditions are so shameful all around us in the world, as God allows murderous mobs and rabble, so much violence and so much misfortune to prevail, so that we might think God is only Lord and God of the angels and that He has forgotten about mankind.  But here in our text we see that He befriends us humans like no other creatures, in the very closest relationship, and, in turn, we humans have a closer relationship with God than with any creature.  Sun and moon are not as close to us as is God, for He comes to us in our own flesh and blood.  God not only rules over us, not only lives in us, but personally became a human being.

This is the grace which we celebrate today, thanking God that He has cleansed our sinful conception and birth through His holy conception and birth, and removed the curse from us and blessed us.  By nature our conception and birth are flawed and laden with sin.  In contrast, Christ's conception and birth were holy and pure.  Through His holy conception and birth our sinful nature, flesh, and blood are blessed and made holy.  It is on this basis that we are baptized, so that by means of God's Word, the sacraments, and the Holy Spirit we might have the fruit of His holy conception and birth.  May we always thank Him for His grace and never become weary or surfeited in hearing and learning this.  Unfortunately, most people in the world think they know it all, after they have heard it once."

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Coming March 25

We're halfway through Lent.  We're looking forward to Easter.  But don't miss Annunciation, coming March 25.

March 25 should be considered a great holy and happy day!  Called "Annunciation" for the angel Gabriel's announcement to Mary, it comes nine months to the day before Christmas.  If on Christmas we celebrate the birth of our Savior, on Annunciation we celebrate His conception.  "Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary" (Apostles' Creed).

Let's go for a moment to Nazareth as it stands today.  We enter the Basilica of the Annunciation, built over the Grotto of the Annunciation, held by tradition to be the place where the angel came to Mary.  Inside the grotto, or cave, is an altar bearing five Latin words: "Verbum caro hic factum est."  They belong to John 1:14.  One word, however, is added: hic (in English, "here").  And so it reads: "Here the Word became flesh."

While there is no way to confirm that this was the exact location, the words should be understood more deeply as pointing to the Virgin's womb.  Of that location we can be certain!

Sadly, many Christians miss the significance of March 25 as an opportunity to remember, ponder, and celebrate the Incarnation: God's Son putting on our flesh.  But you needn't miss it at all!

Take time to read Luke 1:26-38, say the Creed, and sing perhaps this ancient hymn:

Not by human flesh and blood,
By the Spirit of our God,
Was the Word of God made flesh -
Woman's offspring, pure and fresh.

Here a maid was found with child,
Yet remained a virgin mild.
In her womb this truth was shown:
God was there upon His throne.

And celebrate the day with your family and Christian friends!  Forget your Lenten fasting for a day and prepare a feast instead!  Give thanks with greatest joy for the love of God shown to us in the incarnation of His dear Son!

Pray the Holy Spirit to come upon you.  See your faith as the womb in which Christ is conceived and grows.  Then give birth to Him through words and works of love so that He may touch the lives of others.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Unashamed

"For whoever is ashamed of Me and of My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels" (Mark 8:38).

By Richard Wurmbrand

In a theater in Moscow at the premier of a new play, Christ in a Fur, the hall was overcrowded.

The actor Alexander Rostovtsev had to play the main role.  He belonged to the high circles of Soviet life and was a convinced Marxist.

On the stage was a mockery of an altar.  The cross on it was made of bottles of wine and beer.  Full glasses surrounded it.  Fat "clergymen" said a drunken "liturgy" consisting of blasphemous formulas.  In this sham church, "nuns" played cards, drank, and made ugly jokes while the "religious service" went on.

Then Rostovtsev appeared as Christ, dressed in a robe.  He had the New Testament in his hands.  He was supposed to read two verses from the Sermon on the Mount, then throw away the book in disgust and shout, "Give me my fur and my hat!  I prefer a simple proletarian life."  But something unexpected happened.  The actor read not only two verses, but continued, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth" (Matt. 5:5), and so on to the end of the sermon.  It was in vain that the prompter made desperate signs for him to stop.

When Rostovtsev came to the last words of Jesus, he made the sign of the cross in the Orthodox manner, said, "Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom" (Luke 23:42), and left the stage.  He was never seen again.  The Communists disposed of him.

Let us, like this actor, forget the ugly roles imposed upon us by the world and allow ourselves to be enraptured by the beauties of the Savior's words.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Jesus Loves Me! This I See

I wrote the following hymn stanzas as a way of teaching children about Holy Communion.  It is to the tune of "Jesus Loves Me," and these two stanzas could follow stanzas 1 and 2 in Lutheran Service Book, hymn 588.

Jesus loves me when He says,
Take and eat this piece of bread.
It's My body, yes, it's true,
Which I sacrificed for you.

Jesus loves me!  This I see
In the cup He gives to me.
It's My holy blood, He says,
Which for you I gladly shed.

May we all believe so simply!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The One Prayer God Always Answers No

There is a prayer found in the Bible, and you can pray it, but the answer will always be No.  The Lord's Prayer ends with "Amen," meaning, "Yes, it shall be so."  But for this prayer you'll need to find a different word, because, "No, it shan't be so."  Jesus says about the Father, "Whatever you ask in My name, He will give it to you" (John 16:23) - with one major exception: the one prayer God always answers No, as in, No way, absolutely not, not in a million years!

Here is the prayer: "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord" (Luke 5:8).

The dear Lord Jesus Christ says No to this prayer.  A gentle, but firm, loving No.

Peter was one part right and one part wrong.  He was right to confess himself a sinful man.  That was true.  No argument there.  But how was he wrong?  Very!  He was wrong about Jesus who came for the very purpose of getting close to sinful people.

How does this apply?  You're a Christian, baptized, righteous in the eyes of God because of Christ.  But what about in your eyes?  You remember sins, you still see sins in your life, you still sin.  And you will think like Peter and try to send God away.  This often shows up in thinking, "I can't go to church.  I shouldn't go to Communion!"

But do you know what that's like?  It's like saying to the doctor, "I shouldn't come see you right now, because I'm sick.  And that medicine you want to give me, let's wait on that till I'm better."

Listen.  You go to God in the very moment you think you should go away.  Go to His Word, Sacraments, Church, and Cross.  Because the very reason you think God should go away from you is the very reason He doesn't and won't.  "I made you, I redeemed you, I make you holy.  I love you.  And so the answer is No, I will not depart."

No has never sounded so good, so completely the Gospel!

And it may be that this one No is like all the other Yeses put together.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Who, Me?

"...He saw a man called Matthew" (Matt. 9:9).

The Dutch painter Terbrugghen has provided deep insight into the calling of St. Matthew.  The painting shows Jesus pointing at Matthew from close range.  We can almost hear the words, "Follow Me" (Matt. 9:9).  Matthew is shown pointing at himself.  Clearly he is thinking, "Who, me?  You must be joking."  And so the very center of the painting features two fingers: Christ's and Matthew's.

Because Matthew was a tax collector and "sinner," he considered himself a most unlikely candidate.  To Christ, this made him a natural choice.  "For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners" (Matt. 9:13).

Christ calls you to follow Him and His Word.  You are permitted sometimes to wonder, but never to doubt it.  The decision is Christ's - all Christ's!  We gain the ability to share the forgiveness of sins with others only after learning, and remembering, that it applies to us.

God used Matthew to write the very first book of the New Testament.  Through Matthew, we have the beautiful and life-giving words, "In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28:19).  Remember your Baptism.  It is your call to follow.  God will use you today.

Who, me?

Yes, you!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Carried by Four Men

"And they came, bringing to Him a paralytic carried by four men" (Mark 2:3).

The healing of the paralytic in Mark 2 is recorded also in Matthew 9 and Luke 5.  But only Mark, a Gospel known for its details, mentions the fact that the litter on which the paralytic lay was "carried by four men."

Now why would the Holy Spirit include such a detail?  Could it have been to lead us to another question?  Namely, who are the four who carry you to Christ?  Think about it.

God uses different people in our lives to help bring us to faith.  Parents, pastors, teachers, a good friend.  But the four men whose mission it is to carry you to Jesus are named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  The very purpose of their Gospels is to bring you to Christ, crucified and risen, who says to you, "Child, your sins are forgiven" (Mark 2:5).

The Four Evangelists are the authorized biographers of our Lord Jesus Christ, and their writing takes you into His life.  Learn to see Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John not only as books of the New Testament, but as your four friends who carry you to the Savior.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Priority and Place of Prayer

"And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, He departed and went out to a desolate place, and there He prayed" (Mark 1:35).

In Mark 1 Jesus gets up in the (very early) morning and prays, teaching and inviting us to do the same.

He makes time for prayer.  He had had a busy day and was about to have another.  Still He makes prayer the priority, the first thing, the foundation for the rest of the day.

He finds a good place to pray.  He finds a "desolate" place, a quiet place, free of distractions.  A place to focus the heart and mind.

These are things we can do.  We can begin each day, especially the busy ones, with prayer and God's Word.  We can make it the priority, the first thing, the foundation.  It doesn't have to be a long time, just a quality time.  5, 10, 15 minutes will do.  And find a good place.

Get excited about it, look forward to it!

Do it with your wife if possible, and with your family, as the case may be.

There are lots of resources, guides, orders, and ideas for morning and daily devotions.  Find something that works for you, or try different things.  Talk with your pastor.  And consider using Martin Luther's Morning Prayer:

I thank You, my heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, Your dear Son, that You have kept me this night from all harm and danger; and I pray that You would keep me this day also from sin and every evil, that all my doings and life may please You.  For into Your hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things.  Let Your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me.  Amen.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Be at Peace

Richard Bowry, who has been 11 weeks now at Elmhurst Extended Care in Providence, gave me a yellow card with words of St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622).  I, in turn, want to give it to you.

Do not look forward in fear to the changes of life; rather look to them with full hope that as they arise, God, whose very own you are, will lead you safely through all things; and when you cannot stand it, God will carry you in His arms.  Do not fear what may happen tomorrow; the same everlasting Father who cares for you today will take care of you then and every day.  He will either shield you from suffering, or will give you unfailing strength to bear it.  Be at peace and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

When Man and Wife in Love Conceive

With the anniversary of Roe v. Wade on January 22, many congregations will observe a special Sanctity of Human Life Sunday.  I wrote the following hymn several years ago, and it could be sung by a cantor, choir, or congregation.  To hear the hymn, and for congregational (bulletin) and accompaniment versions, go to www.oyeoflittlefaith.org/new-hymns/.

When man and wife in love conceive,
They have, O Lord, from You received
A holy gift beyond compare:
A child placed within their care.

The mother's womb is safe and warm,
The father's love will shield from harm,
And You, O Lord, together knit
The human body intricate.

"In pain," You said, "you will give birth;"
The woman feels the sin-brought curse.
By labor's end, the lesson learned:
"Your sorrow into joy will turn."

Your infant son or daughter bring
To be reborn through baptizing.
There I, the Lord, will take and bless
And robe each one in righteousness.

Dear Christians, never cease to pray
For faith and love these latter days,
For marriage, life, and family,
That all be held in sanctity.