Wednesday, December 14, 2022
Let me see if I can help. The next time you hear it called a "holiday tree" instead of a "Christmas tree," or someone says "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas," use it to add to your joy. Yes, add!
How do you do that?
Simply remember that "holiday" comes from "holy + day." It is really "holyday." What a beautiful word! What a perfect description of Christmas! Who doesn't love listening to "O Holy Night"? "Holiday" is like someone singing "O Holy Day." Enjoy!
But now add in the word of the angel to Mary: "the child to be born will be called holy." This means that the "holy" in "holiday" is the Christ Child! And that means that "holiday" is not a secular substitution, but a sacred synonym.
That is how we can hear it, and then pray for people to know the love of God in Christmas.
Holy Christmas Day and its Twelve Days are the Happy Holidays. They are the holy days that make us sad sinners so very happy, because from them we learn and remember throughout the year that a Savior has been born to us!
God's holiness is on bright display when He moves into the world to save us. Meaning that the right response to "Happy Holidays" would be (happily spoken): "Holy days indeed!"
Saturday, November 5, 2022
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.
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.
Wednesday, October 12, 2022
Friday, August 26, 2022
"You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Rom. 13:9). The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus seems to teach this commandment only through a negative example. The rich man did not care for his neighbor.
But there is in the story also a shining positive example of loving your neighbor as yourself. It is the dogs who came and licked the poor man's sores. A dog is a man's best friend. In the case of Lazarus, they may have been his only friends.
Israelites thought of dogs differently than we do. They were unclean, scavengers, and a source of disease. So we think that Jesus mentions the dogs in order to underscore Lazarus's suffering. He could do nothing to keep the dirty dogs away.
But from another angle a love shines through. What do dogs do for themselves? They lick their sores and wounds (an action that removes dead tissue and promotes healing). In coming and licking the sores of Lazarus, they give a perfect lesson on the commandment: You shall lick your neighbor as yourself.
The dogs acted instinctively. The instinct of sinful man is to love himself. The love of Christ and the Holy Spirit implant a new instinct: to love your neighbor, especially the one who is hurting.
Let's all go to the dogs, and follow their example.
Monday, August 22, 2022
Jesus describes the door to heaven as narrow, and by the end of the Gospel it becomes possible to measure it exactly. The narrow door is the exact width of the holy cross. Another way of putting it is that the narrow door is fourteen words wide: "God, be merciful to me, a sinner" (Luke 18:13). And: "Take heart, child, your sins are forgiven" (Matt. 9:2). Pray and hear these words before the cross and you will enter through the narrow door.
But why does He say, "Strive (struggle, strain) to enter"? The Greek word is "agonize." Because it's going to be a fight. Jesus is calling you to a life of repentance and faith in Him. This is the life for you. But to live it will mean a fight against the devil, the world, and the flesh, all of whom want you to live for now, and not for heaven. But the Holy Spirit will aid you in the fight. The Holy Helper! And He will help you by the Holy Word and Sacrament!
Despite public pressure, don't be afraid to be narrow-minded in your faith. It is necessary in order to enter through the narrow door.
Let your faith be narrow, and let your love be broad!
Thursday, August 18, 2022
Three reasons pastors don't have an easy job:
First, the devil and world (not to mention the pastor's own sinful flesh) are dead set against the repentance and Gospel he preaches, despite containing the most loving message ever heard.
Second, sometimes members of the congregation will oppose the pastor when he is trying to be faithful to God's Word, the church, and the people's souls. They may leave, threaten to leave, or say the pastor should leave. This is especially difficult for a young pastor, and Paul's letters to Timothy and Titus offer the best guidance available. God remains in control!
Third, it can happen that when the pastor turns to his ecclesiastical supervisor for support in a position he has taken, he will not receive it. [Pastors make mistakes and need always to be open to correction, but I am speaking here about when they are being faithful to the Word.] This lack of support is the hardest to bear, because now the pastor feels alone and is tempted to doubt. But the Lord Himself stands by him and will give him courage and peace.
The flip side is that many pastors experience the joy of supportive, grateful congregations. I am one of them! And God blesses the church with many wise, strong, and fatherly supervisors. They don't have an easy job either, and we must pray for and encourage them!
But now you know what makes your pastor's job pretty tough. It has to be this way. But maybe you will look at him a little differently, and then do what you can to make it just a little easier.
Sunday, August 14, 2022
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.
Sunday, August 7, 2022
Sermons on this concept tell us that we should have more faith. But evidence points to a Lord who has come up with a loving nickname for us: Yeoflittlefaith. English hides the fact that in Greek it is only one word. It is used only by Jesus and it is unknown outside the Bible. It has the look and sound of a nickname. More than that, a term of endearment and affection.
If you look at the occasions when Jesus uses the term, His followers are anxious, fearful, or confused.* What kind of Christ would scold people already in this condition? No, a more tender name for us Christians cannot be found. He is saying how much we need Him. Little faith doesn't need more faith. A little faith needs Christ.
In a way, "O ye of little faith" is a promise that He will never leave, based on the fact that He never could! And in a mystery, it is a little faith that holds all of Christ. But perhaps it is more true to say that He holds our little faith as a precious thing to Him - guarding and protecting it.
Remember the little children brought to Jesus? Bring your little faith to Him. He will take it, bless it, and say, "To such belongs the kingdom."
Rejoice to be called "Oyeoflittlefaith."
*Matt. 6:30, 8:26, 14:31, 16:8, and Luke 12:28
Sunday, July 10, 2022
Good Samaritan Hospital in Mt. Vernon, Illinois, has this most beautiful sculpture of the Good Samaritan,* with these words:
"In Luke Chapter 10, the parable of the Good Samaritan is described. Jesus said to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. Just as the Good Samaritan cared for and showed mercy on the beaten man, we are instructed to do likewise. By staying true to the mission, the physicians, employees, and volunteers of Good Samaritan Regional Health Center do just that."
To this I would add only that Christ is the Good Samaritan who saw and took pity on you, saved you from death and brought you to an inn, the Church, telling the innkeeper, your pastor, to take care of you, and giving him the Means: the Word and Sacraments.
*The sculpture is by Harry Weber of Wright City, Missouri.
Thursday, July 7, 2022
Among the multiple instructions given by Jesus to the seventy-two as He sent them out, this is the first: "Carry no moneybag." It's important for the pastor to understand. Paul puts it plainly when he writes that the pastor must not be "a lover of money" (1 Tim. 3:3). He must still, however, be a lover, but a lover of God's Word and people, and the congregation and Christ.
It must be evident to the people that what is important to the pastor is the salvation of their souls and their love for each other. I know a pastor who, to this end, asked that his salary be reduced. I myself make it a point not to touch the offering plates during the Divine Service.
The pastor is dependent on the congregation to take care of him physically, in the same way that the congregation is dependent on the pastor to take care of them spiritually. It's a beautiful, blessed codependence taught to us in Luke 10.
But money means little or nothing to the pastor made rich by the ministry of preaching and teaching Christ crucified and risen, baptizing, absolving, and serving Holy Communion. Made rich, in other words, by the chance to love a congregation the way Christ loves the Church.
Friday, May 27, 2022
Two weeks ago tomorrow something happened. And I have a feeling most of us missed it. I almost missed it. Something happened that is of national, spiritual, even historical significance. Dale Alan Goetz, a captain in the U.S. Army, became the first chaplain killed in action in either Iraq or Afghanistan.
Chaplain Goetz died Monday, August 30, in a roadside bomb attack in the Arghandab River Valley, Afghanistan. He was 43.
His funeral was on Thursday, September 9, at Fort Carson, Colorado. I decided to go. I wanted to take all of you with me. I hope that I did in spirit. Dale was a Baptist. I'm a Lutheran. But there is a strong, working, special bond between chaplains regardless of denomination or branch of service. (I'm a Navy chaplain.) And we share the same Christ, Word, ministry.
Prussman Chapel was packed, with people, many of them chaplains, standing down the side aisles. Hundreds more would have come, but you have to remember that this man's entire congregation is still in Afghanistan - without their "pastor." He was killed only a month into the deployment.
Four other Soldiers died with him (three staff sergeants and a private). But permit me to say that the chaplain died with them. It says in Ezekiel 34 that a shepherd is among his sheep. And it says in John 1 that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. In a similar way, chaplains are found among the men and women of our military - going wherever they go, experiencing whatever they experience. Even death.
There is really only one difference. All chaplains are non-combatants. They carry no weapon - that is to say, no earthly weapon. They are protected by specially trained assistants. An Army chaplain assistant named Christopher Stout was killed in July in Afghanistan.
Dale was a husband and father and leaves behind Christina his wife, and three sons, Landon (10), Caleb (8), and Joel (1). He enjoyed spending time with his boys on their go-cart. He treasured every moment with family and longed to get back to them soon. He prayed in a special way for his sons to grow up to be men of God. Pray for Christina and the boys, and for all families who have lost a parent or child, spouse or sibling.
After completing seminary in 2000 and then serving First Baptist Church in White, South Dakota, Dale became an Army chaplain in 2004. He soon deployed to Iraq for one year, and served in Okinawa, Japan, from 2006 to 2009. He loved his Soldiers and wanted to help transform their lives, marriages, and military service.
Chaplain Goetz made known several unique goals. He was working to reach 300 Soldiers for Christ, and he was hoping to find ten who would later go into the ministry. He may have died but his goals don't need to. He prayed for an end to the war, and he prayed - and taught the Soldiers how to pray - for their Taliban enemy.
In Acts 1 Jesus says, "You will be My witnesses to the end of the earth." Dale expressed his belief that Afghanistan is the end of the earth.
He enjoyed reading theology but was known for keeping it real and practical. Ephesians 3:14-21, a passage he and his wife shared throughout their life together, was read at the funeral along with John 3:1-16. "Shall not perish but have eternal life" assures Christina, the boys, Soldiers, and us that on August 30 Dale did not perish. He lived and died for people to have that knowledge.
The Army chaplain motto is "Pro Deo et Patria," For God and Country. It means that Dale had a foot - a boot - in two countries, but that now he is safely in heaven with both feet.
Following the funeral service at Fort Carson, we made the long drive in procession to Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver. I learned two things. First, the only thing louder than a 21-gun salute is taps. Second, a national cemetery is a great place for a walk and some thinking. To think about the cost of freedom before deciding how to spend it.
These few thoughts may not sound so much like a "sermon." That's by design. The real sermon, the loudest of all, was the life, the love, and the faith of Dale Goetz, the first chaplain killed in action in Iraq or Afghanistan.
In Jesus' name, amen.
Tuesday, May 17, 2022
The entire Christian faith can be accurately described using the word "little." At Christmas we sing, "O little town of Bethlehem," as well as, "The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay."
Jesus teaches us to become like little children in order to enter the kingdom (Matt. 18:3). He calls His followers "O ye of little faith," and His promise is that we will see Him again in "a little while" (John 16:16).
In Luke 12:32, the Shepherd tells His "little flock" not to be afraid. Children of all ages love to sing, "I am Jesus' little lamb," and, "Little ones to Him belong; They are weak, but He is strong."
God is a big God - far beyond anyone's comprehension. But He has gone to great lengths to make Himself and His religion little. He has done this so that we can understand Him and come to Him.
Resist the pride and temptation to make God and His church big. He made Himself little enough to fit in a manger, and has made His kingdom little enough to fit within you (Luke 17:21).
"And now, little children, abide in Him" (1 John 2:28).
Friday, May 13, 2022
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.
Wednesday, April 27, 2022
The Lord's Prayer is also found in the Small Catechism. It is the third part, following the Ten Commandments and the Creed. In the Ten Commandments, God gives us a mirror in which to see our sin. In the Creed, God gives us His Son in whom to see our righteousness. And in the Lord's Prayer, God gives us His ear.
The Lord's Prayer contains seven petitions (the perfect number) together with an introduction ("Our Father who art in heaven") and conclusion ("For Thine is the kingdom...").
What if there could be a near-perfect sermon on the Lord's Prayer? A sermon that wasn't too long, wasn't too short, and made you want to pray the Lord's Prayer from all your heart.
I think that maybe that sermon exists. Found in the Small Catechism, it covers each of the nine parts in a way that is both simple and rich. For example, it says about "But deliver us from evil":
"We pray in this petition, in summary, that our Father in heaven would rescue us from every evil of body and soul, possessions and reputation, and finally, when our last hour comes, give us a blessed end, and graciously take us from this valley of sorrow to Himself in heaven" (emphasis mine).
How much that means to me!
Pray the Lord's Prayer. And for the near-perfect sermon on it, turn to the Small Catechism.
Thursday, April 7, 2022
"Be still, and know that I am God" (Ps. 46:10).
On Christmas Eve we love to sing "Silent Night." What many don't realize is that Holy Week gives us a Silent Day. And that day is Wednesday.
The Gospel has plenty to say about the first Palm Sunday, Holy Monday, Holy Tuesday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday. It even mentions Holy Saturday, the Sabbath, on which our Lord rested in the tomb. But about Wednesday the Gospel says nothing - not a word. This is surely intentional on the part of the Holy Spirit, and full of meaning.
The fourth day, the middle day, of Holy Week is a day of silence. The lesson? The words and works of Jesus are essential, and so is a period of silence in which to reflect upon them deeply. But often this silence and stillness is missing from our lives.
Richard Wurmbrand wrote: "We are victims of a plot against silence, without which no spiritual life is possible. We are subjected daily to the noise of cars, trains, planes, radio, TV, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, fans, etc. I have known Christians who have spent years in solitary confinement in complete silence. When they once again heard humans speak, they wondered that so much of their speech lacked content. If you wish to reach God, create some silence around you. Switch off the many intruders on silence. Enter your closet, or teach your loved ones to be quiet at certain hours."
Turns out that Holy Week comes complete with a day for being quiet - for being still, and knowing that Jesus is God in the flesh, and blood, for our salvation.
Wednesday, Holy Week's silent day. Amen.
Thursday, February 24, 2022
For all the people of Ukraine who are experiencing military aggression, that they might be kept from harm, let us pray to the Lord:
Lord, have mercy.
For the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ukraine, that their hearts might find rest and comfort in Christ, let us pray to the Lord:
Lord, have mercy.
For government leaders everywhere but especially in Russia, that they might be inclined to walk in the ways of righteousness and peace and cease military hostilities, let us pray to the Lord:
Lord, have mercy.
Our Father who art in heaven...
Wednesday, February 23, 2022
He was a disciple of John, he was the bishop of Smyrna (in today's Turkey), and he was martyred in the year 155 or 156.
We have a letter he wrote to the Christians in Philippi, and we have an authentic first-hand account of his death. The latter is only thirteen pages long and should be required Christian reading. Read it devotionally and it will strengthen you. For me the lessons learned are: Be brave, be loving, and be faithful - all things we need today, and all things God will work in us!
But the standout thing for me is the meaning of the name Polycarp. It is Greek and means "much fruit" or "fruitful." Very interestingly (remember that John was Polycarp's teacher) the name Polycarp may be found in the Gospel of John. John 12:24 reads, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit."
The witness of Polycarp has encouraged countless Christians, and all these years later he is still bearing fruit. God is living him up to his name - Fruitful!
For Polycarp we praise You,
Who did not fear the flame
But filled with joy and courage
Confessed Your holy name.
Lord, give Your Holy Spirit
To our timidity
That filled with joy and courage
We too may fruitful be!
Monday, February 14, 2022
The first time is John 3:16: "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life."
The last time is John 21:20: "Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them...."
The lesson is this: God loves the whole world and all people to the point of freely sacrificing His only Son. But this cosmic, worldwide love is at the same time a personal love felt deeply by the one who believes in Jesus.
Make the Gospel of John your own. Believe that "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29) knows, loves, and forgives you personally.
Tuesday, February 8, 2022
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.
Monday, January 17, 2022
The Wedding at Cana is my favorite Holy Gospel. It was Sunday's Holy Gospel. When I hear this Holy Gospel it fills me "up to the brim" with joy because it makes me think of three beautiful weddings.
In 1994 a movie came out called Four Weddings and a Funeral. I never saw it and probably don't recommend it. The point is, I would title John 2:1-11 Three Weddings and a Resurrection. I'll explain.
The first wedding is the most obvious: the wedding of a man and a woman. What a remarkable design! And it goes all the way back to Genesis 2 and the very first wedding. It's no accident that the Wedding at Cana is found in John 2. Genesis 2 and John 2. God is saying through this: "I came up with marriage, and now in Christ I've come to renew it and bless it again, forgive all the sins committed against it, heal and help it!" Let us rejoice, therefore, and not give up hope for this holy institution!
The second wedding is not as obvious but it's there: the wedding of Christ and the Church. I think that when John mentions the bridegroom at Cana he wants us to begin thinking of Christ. And sure enough, in the very next chapter we learn that Christ is the Bridegroom and we are the Bride, and that John the Baptist is the Best Man in this eternal wedding (John 3:29). In this wedding story the Bridegroom gives Himself up for His Bride, making the Cross the greatest love story ever told!
The third wedding will likely be new to you: the wedding of Christ and faith. The faith in your heart, to believe and trust in Christ, is His true bride. In languages like Greek and Latin, "faith" is a feminine noun. And what is true grammatically is true spiritually also. So Christ and faith, though two, become one. Luther put it, "This faith couples Christ and me more intimately than a husband is coupled to his wife." What a way to think of your faith in Jesus Christ!
Three weddings and a resurrection. I've spoken about the three weddings. What about the resurrection? How does Cana make us think of that? In its opening words: "On the third day." That's resurrection talk, and have a look at the nearby John 2:19-22! See, it's the resurrection of Christ that means everything for the three weddings. It means that a husband and wife can invite Him now to come and bless their marriage. It means that He is with the Church, for whom He died, all the days until the end. And it means that my faith, your faith, is in the crucified-risen Christ Jesus our Lord - and that nothing can separate us from His love!