Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Daily Devotional Thought--From the Psalms

Psalm 127
1 Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.
2 It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil;
                for he gives to his beloved sleep.
3 Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD,
                the fruit of the womb a reward.
4 Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
                are the children of one’s youth.
5 Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them!
                He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son
                And to the Holy Spirit;
As it was in the beginning,
                Is now, and will be forever. Amen.

In the name of + Jesus.

Scripture is clear, and this Psalm is but one example of Scripture’s clarity on the subject: children are a blessing.  Period.

It is the LORD who opens and closes the womb; who gives new life; and who knows us even before our parents have seen us.  Because the LORD loves life, created life, and preserves life, children are a blessing.  Period.

Today, we live in a world that wants to decide if, or when, a child is a blessing, or becomes a blessing.  When wombs are opened by God before we are ready to have them opened, we simply close them—and we’ll close them “on demand.”  When wombs are opened too often, and our families take on additional children that weren’t planned—we call the children a “burden” on society, we call the parent’s “irresponsible,” and we wonder if they know “what causes that.”  If we choose not to tame our sexual desires, and engage in pre-marital sex, we can avoid any temporal consequences of our actions by taking a pill, and ensuring that we won’t be unfortunately blessed with one of those burdensome children.

We live in a world that wants to build its own house.  We live in a world that wants to decide all things for itself; that thinks it knows best, and that the mind of God simply needs to evolve, or to lighten up, or to get with the times, or just to go away.  Because if we hear what God has to say; if we allow God to build the house, and to direct our thoughts and actions, He might build us a house that we didn’t want, or hadn’t planned on.

We live in a world that calls evil good and good evil (Is. 5:20).  We take what God declares to be a blessing, and what God desire to give as a blessing, and we call it a burden, and inconvenience, or worse.

And here we sit, in the Church, wondering where all the children are.

We confess that we have not always heard the news of another expected birth as Good News.  We confess that what God calls a blessing, we have called a burden, and may have even resented them being so demanding of our time, our money, or whatever else we love more than they.  We confess that there are empty seats in our churches because we have not understood this blessing.  We confess, that when our society speaks with ignorance, and hatred, and desires to kill, or to minimize, what God desires to give, we have remained fearful and quiet.  We confess, that we have tried to build our own houses, rather than letting God build the house which He desires for us to have.

And thanks be to God, through Christ we have forgiveness for all our sins.  Thanks be to God, Jesus’ death has taken our shame and our guilt, and His empty tomb show us that we have been given life.  Thanks be to God, that He teaches us to see children—the born and the unborn—as blessings which He gives to us, without any merit or worthiness in us; simply out of his Fatherly divine love and mercy.  Thanks be to God, that in learning to see children as the blessing He says they are, we are brought to repentance, and given by the Holy Spirit to confess.  And thanks be to God, that through this forgiveness of sins, the LORD continues to build His house.

Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! When God is building the house, we will learn to hear these words, and in faith, to say “Amen.”

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!

Fill our homes with devout children, our heritage from You. Give us this faith and help us build our homes and families on the security of Your Word. Amen (TLSB, p. 975).

Monday, April 29, 2013

Daily Devotional Thought--For the Family

Psalm 127:3
Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward.

In the name of + Jesus.

Yesterday, following the Divine Service, I had the distinct pleasure of sitting with Concordia’s latest confirmands, and hearing them confess the one holy, catholic, apostolic, Christian faith.  After two years of weekly catechesis (instruction), these two teenagers have the Word of Christ written on the hearts, and therefore, it flows forth from their lips.  Next Sunday, they will make this confession of faith publicly in the rite of Confirmation, and will receive the body and blood of Jesus for the first time in the Sacrament of the Altar.  Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD.

We tend to think that this just happens, that the annual Confirmation service should be routine…and maybe it should be.  But, when we consider that faith is a gift of God (Eph. 2:8-10); when we consider that no man can confess that Jesus is Lord apart from the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3); when we consider that the faith confessed in Luther’s Small Catechism is the “faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jud 1:3); when we consider that these two teenagers have confessed the very same faith which has been confessed by all the faithful for nearly 2,000 years; then we begin to appreciate, and to rejoice, and to give thanks for what the LORD has done in these two teenagers.

Of course, there were the many memory work assignments which they both completed; there were weekly vocabulary quizzes, which they both managed to pass; there were exhaustive tests on each of the Six Chief Parts of Christian Doctrine, in which both of them were able to demonstrate their understanding of Christ’s teaching; and there were 36 worship reports (sermon summaries) completed while sitting in the Divine Service each week, and even more than all of these “assignments,” there was the weekly liturgy of God’s Word, handing over Christ and his Word.

And that is where all of us become like them.  Most of us are long past the days of being assigned memory work by the pastor, and don’t plan on having flash cards with Christian vocabulary to go through before a quiz.  But all of us are called to gather together as the Body of Christ; all of us are called to weekly gather to hear the voice of our Good Shepherd, to be fed the food of eternal life, to be shaped and formed and molded by the Word of God heard in the liturgy (Psalms, Readings, Canticles, Hymns, Sermons, and more!).  All of us are God’s children, cared for by the Father when His Spirit delivers to us the Word of His Son.

And so, whether we’re thee or four; thirteen or fourteen; thirty or forty; seventy, eighty, or ninety; as we sanctify the Holy Day, and set it apart for all of God’s children to feast on the Word that gives eternal life, all of us, together, will be the LORD’s great heritage—for we will continue confessing that one Christian faith which only He can give.

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!

Lord God, heavenly Father, in Holy Baptism You began Your good work in our catechumens, and You have blessed their instruction and training in Your Word. We implore You to pour out Your Holy Spirit on their hearts and minds so that they will truly love and revere You, confess the faith with joy and boldness, endeavor to live according to Your commandments, and praise and glorify You as their faithful God and Lord, for the sake of Your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen (LSB, p. 310, #178).

Joy in Knowing the Ending (Sermon Preached April 28, for Easter 5-C)

Sermon Text: John 16:12-22

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed.  Alelluia!  Let us pray:

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of (our) heart(s) be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, (our) rock and (our) redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).

In the name of Jesus.

            I’ve been reading the Chronicles of Narnia with Naomi and Micah.  We’ll sit down together for “story time,” and depending on their mood, I’ll read a chapter or two.  So far, we’ve made it through The Magicians’s Nephew, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, and we’ve just started The Horse and His Boy.  Since some of these stories have recently been made into major motion pictures, I thought it might be a nice reward for them to see the story come to life in a movie.  So when they got back into town, one afternoon this past week, we sat down and watched The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
            Now, I have to tell you, I didn’t make this decision without any reservations.  You see, in the world of Narnia, where these stories take place, there is good and evil; there are good armies and evil armies; there are battles and war and swords and shields and even life and death.  And so, the movie depicts these things.  And knowing that we’re usually fairly careful about what the kids watch on T.V., I had a sort of running debate with myself about whether or not it would be a good decision to let them watch the movie, and to see certain parts of the story.  But I decided to go ahead with it.
            And do you know what?  I was shocked.  When the movie came to the big battle, which would depict the fiercest fighting, and include some violence in telling the story; when I expected Micah to cower, and turn away, or even cover his eyes, I was shocked.  For there he was, laughing at it all.  Now, he wasn’t laughing at how the enemies were being defeated.  It’s not like he was finding delight in the violence itself.  No, what I figured out, was that he was laughing because he knew the ending.  He was laughing because he know that the good guys won in the end.  He was laughing because he knew, those big bad soldiers of the evil army, could growl as loud as they wanted and do whatever they wanted to show you how ferocious they were, but they were going to lose.
You see, I’ve seen Micah cower and turn his eyes at pictures that were far less intimidating.  But when Micah knew the ending, where there might otherwise be fear, and dread, there was joy and laughter and enjoyment.  You see, Micah knew the ending, and that made all the difference in the world.
In today’s Holy Gospel, when the disciples were gathered together with Jesus on the night of the Last Supper, the ending of Jesus’ story had not yet been revealed to them.  Like a movie preview that gives you glimpses of the story, without spoiling the story, the disciples had been given parts of the story.  Jesus had predicted his death and resurrection at least three times before that night, but without seeing the ending of things, the disciples were still unable to put the pieces together.
“I still have many things to say to you, but you are not able to bear them now.”  The disciples found themselves in the middle of the story, with the most important parts yet to come.  There they were, living through the events of Holy Week.  If Jesus would have taken that time to unload everything that was going to be revealed, the disciples wouldn’t have been able to bear it.  It would have made no sense to them.
Without his being handed over to sinful men; and without his being beaten and mocked and crucified; and without his being buried in a tomb; and without his resurrection; and without him standing in the midst of a room of frightful disciples, alive and in the flesh, and saying, “Peace be with you,” and allowing them to see him and touch him; without the disciples seeing the end of the story, so to speak, they would not have been able to make sense of all the things Jesus had to tell them.
And so, once it was finished; once he had given up his spirit in death, descended into hell to proclaim victory over sin, death, and the devil, and burst forth from the tomb, he would send the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of Truth—to guide them into all truth.  Once Jesus work was accomplished, and the story of salvation had been written, and everything that had to happen had finally happened, then it was time, for the Holy Spirit to come and help put the pieces together, and help them to see, and believe all things about Jesus.
You see, the Spirit would come, and the Spirit would not bring with him some new, contradictory Word that would have to complete what Jesus had failed to do.  The Spirit would simply take the Words which were given to him from the Father and the Son, and the Spirit would hand those Words to those who would hear them.  Like a three-person assembly line: everything started with the Father who had sent the Son, and the Spirit would receive the Words that pointed to the work of the Son, and deliver them to those whose ears would hear.
The Spirit would take the death and resurrection of Jesus and deliver that to the disciples, and with the death and resurrection of Jesus the Spirit would show the glory of Jesus.  The Spirit would teach the disciples rightly to know that the death of Jesus was not the end of Jesus but that place where death itself was be defeated.  And the Spirit would teach the disciples rightly to believe that when Jesus burst forth from the tomb, alive and well, He was simply the first of many who would one day burst forth from their own tombs alive and well because of Him.
That was the work which the Father had given to the Son, and it is the work which the Son accomplished.  And once that story of salvation, written long ago in the Words of the prophets, had finally come to its exciting conclusion in the death and resurrection of Jesus, then the Holy Spirit would act as the Spirit of Truth, and guide the disciples to see, and believe, and eventually, to write all things which were given by the Father, worked by the Son, and taught by the Spirit.
“A little while and you will see me on longer; and again a little while, and you will see me.”  In a matter of hours, actually, this statement of Jesus would begin to be fulfilled.  “A little while and you will see me no longer.”  By noon the next day, Jesus would be dead, and in a matter of moments he would be shut inside a tomb, and they would be able to see him no longer.  You and I hear these words of Jesus with the entire story in mind, but when the disciples heard these words of Jesus, they couldn’t make sense of them.  “What is this that he is saying, ‘a little while, and you will not see me?’”  I thought he came to be with us.  What is He talking about, ‘a little while, and you will not see me?’”
Of course, Jesus knows what they’re thinking.  He’s sitting with them, and all of them are repeating the question to one another, trying to figure out what he might be talking about.  And so he adds to these words: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice.  You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.”
Indeed, in just a little while, the world would be rejoicing, for the crowd would have its way: Barabbas would be released, and Jesus would be crucified.  The scribes, the Pharisees, sin, death, the Devil, and all who sought to destroy this man from Nazareth would be rejoicing as the blood began to flow from his open wounds, and as the nails were driven through his hands and feet, and as He wondered why the Father had forsaken Him, and finally, as he gave up His Spirit and died.
And as all the world was rejoicing at the death of Jesus, those who had not yet been able to understand why the cross was the necessary conclusion to the story of salvation, would be weeping, and grieving, and could see no possible way how those terrible events they had witnessed could somehow end in anything but defeat.  And so, in their pain, and in their sorrow, not knowing how the story ended, the disciples were overtaken by pain and sorrow, and ended up locked in a room together, dwelling in despair.
When I was reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to Naomi and Micah, there were a couple times when I thought one of them might end up doing something similar.  I remember getting to that point in the story where Aslan and the White Witch make an agreement with each other in order to save Edmond, one of the children.  You see, early in the story, Edmond had been fooled into believing that the White Witch was good, and the only way for Edmond to be saved from being taken over by the White Witch and her evil empire is for an innocent life to be given in his place.
As the story goes, Aslan—the Christ figure—walks by himself in the middle of the night to the middle of the enemy army, where they proceed to cut off his mane, and tie him to a stone table, in the midst of wild cheers and jeers.  And then, after making sure that Aslan has been securely fastened to the stone table, the White Witch plunges her dagger into his heart, and the lion is dead.  I remember reading that part in the story, and then looking down and seeing the fear in Micah’s eyes.  All he felt was pain and sorrow, and the only ending he could imagine was the one still in front of him in the death of Aslan.  And so, in the most calm, and soothing voice I could muster, I simple said to him—and to Naomi: “Remember, sometimes a story can look so bad, and still have a happy ending.”
When Jesus told his disciples that they would weep and lament when, for a little while, they would not see him, he also promised them that their sorrow would turn into joy.  In the middle of the story, without seeing any way that the death of Jesus could give way to a reason for joy, the disciples were dwelling in despair, just like Micah was fearful at the death of Aslan.  But in each case, when the end of the story had been written, and the end of the story had been seen or heard, there was plenty of reason for joy.
That stone table upon which Aslan had been slain, would be cracked in two, and there he would stand, with a gloriously new golden mane, and fiercely ferocious voice, that would cry out in prophetic victory across the land of Narnia.  At that moment, all pain and sorrow and fear was gone; the only wonder left in the mind of a once-fearful boy was how quickly the evil army of the White Witch would be defeated.
How much more is joy that is given where sorrow once lived in the heart of the disciples, when Jesus stands in the midst of a locked room, with a risen and glorified body, and the voice of victory, and says, “Peace to you!”?
For just a little while the disciples could no longer see Jesus, and the sorrow in their heart produced weeping and lamenting.  But then, again a little while more, and their sorrow was turned to joy when the crucified Jesus stood before them in a victoriously happy ending that previously they could never have imagined.  All that remained for those disciples was for the Spirit of Truth to help connect the dots, and put the pieces together so that everything Jesus had said and done might now be understood in the light of his death, and his resurrection.
And indeed, knowing the ending would make all the difference in the world.  Like a mother whose joy at the birth of her son or daughter makes all the suffering she endured for the sake of that child a distant memory, the risen and victorious Christ puts his death into perspective.  For just a little while, the disciples were made to suffer by being separated from their Savior, but all of it occurred, so that, in His resurrection, they might have a joy that would never be taken from them.
When Naomi and Micah watched The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I was worried that those scenes involving evil creatures, and a White Witch, and even painful death might be too much for them to handle.  But because they knew the ending; because they knew that Aslan did not stay dead, and that the evil army was defeated, and the White Witch cast out of Narnia, it didn’t matter how gruesome the battle became, their joy was not going to be robbed, and so they watched, and they laughed, and I was amazed.
But I was reminded, that when you know how the story ends, it can make all the difference in the world.  And you, my friends; you know how the story ends.  Sure, you live in the midst of a life in which sin is constantly plaguing your heart; and the brokenness of this world makes you wonder if you’ll be able to stand; and Satan tries to make you fearful that the story of your life will not end well.
But the Spirit of Truth would remind you, my friends, that Jesus did not stay dead, and neither will you who trust in Him.  For the risen and victorious Jesus is only the first among many brothers and sisters who will stand with glorious new bodies, and whose pain and sorrow will be forgotten in the joy of a new creation.  With the Spirit of Truth reminding you that with Jesus, all things will end well, who knows, maybe you’ll even be like Micah, and learn to laugh in the face evil.  Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed! Alleluia!  Amen.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Daily Devotional Thought--From the Confessions (The Augsburg Confession)

Since the Friday devotional thought will be taken from the Lutheran Confessions (or an ancient Church Father), I thought it would be helpful to take up one of the documents contained in the Book of Concord and focus on one article each Friday.  Since all confirmed Lutherans should be familiar with the Small Catechism, I thought we would start with the Augsburg Confession.  I pray this little series, along with the other daily devotional thoughts, are a benefit to you in helping us to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith.  Enjoy!

Article I (God)
1 Our churches teach with common consent that the decree of the Council of Nicaea about the unity of the divine essence and the three persons is true. 2 It is to be believed without any doubt. God is one divine essence who is eternal, without a body, without parts, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness. He is the maker and preserver of all things, visible and invisible [Nehemiah 9:6]. 3 Yet there are three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit [Matthew 28:19]. These three persons are of the same essence and power. 4 Our churches use the term person as the Fathers have used it. We use it to signify, not a part or quality in another, but that which subsists of itself.
5 Our churches condemn all heresies [Titus 3:10–11] that arose against this article, such as the Manichaeans, who assumed that there are two “principles,” one Good and the other Evil. They also condemn the Valentinians, Arians, Eunomians, Muslims, and all heresies such as these. 6 Our churches also condemn the Samosatenes, old and new, who contend that God is but one person. Through sophistry they impiously argue that the Word and the Holy Spirit are not distinct persons. They say that Word signifies a spoken word, and Spirit signifies motion created in things.[1] (Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions)

Martin Luther never intended to start a new church, but rather to purify the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. The Augsburg Confession strongly affirms the doctrine of the Trinity confessed at the Council of Nicaea (325), and later affirmed by the Council of Constantinople (381). God is one divine essence in three distinct persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The Scriptures reveal this great mystery, confessed by all Christians.

During the Reformation, radical groups espoused various forms of earlier heresies.  The Augsburg Confession condemns the ancient heresies concerning God.  Article I proves that Lutheranism is deeply anchored in the historic doctrine of biblical Christianity.  It embraces the faith of the Church through the ages and rejects all the errors the Church has rejected (Editor’s Note from Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions).

Keep us, O Lord, in the true faith. Send Your Holy Spirit to use Your Word to create, sustain, and strengthen faith in the hearts of Your people that.  Amen.

[1] Concordia : The Lutheran Confessions. Edited by Paul Timothy McCain. St. Louis, MO : Concordia Publishing House, 2005, S. 31

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Daily Devotional Thought--From the New Testament

2 Peter 1:16
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.

1 Corinthians 15:6
Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.

In the name of + Jesus.

You may or may not be aware of it, but there’s a debate raging on today about whether or not conservative Christians have a faith that is built on historic events, or on cleverly devised myths.  Actually, this debate really began years ago, when critical biblical scholarship began to chip away at the narrative accounts of the Old Testament.  They wanted their opponents to believe that it really didn’t matter whether or not you believed that Jonah was a real man who really lived for a few days in the belly of a whale.  What was important, they said, was the morality which that story—and the others—taught.

Fast forward a few years, and today, it is not just Old Testament stories that involve supernatural events that are under attack.  It is the entire biblical account!  With the Old Testament having been crushed--in their own eyes!--those who would seek to destroy the foundational writings of the Christian faith have now moved on to the events of the four Gospels, specifically, the life of Christ.

A story on the NPR website tells of an historian who wrote a book defending the very existence of Jesus. Why would such a book need to be written?  Well, consider this quotation from that story:

"It was a surprise to me to see how influential these mythicists are," Ehrman says. "Historically, they've been significant and in the Soviet Union, in fact, the mythicist view was the dominant view, and even today, in some parts of the West--in parts of Scandinavia--it is a dominant view that Jesus never existed," he says.
And if you think that this is just a problem overseas, or that Americans would never be duped by such lies, you can do a quick Google search, and find any number of news stories of so-called "Christian" leaders who deny the resurrection.  Here is just one.

Bot both of the chief apostles (Peter and Paul) understood the importance of having a faith that is rooted in actual historic events.  They knew that if the Christian faith was based on "cleverly devised myths," or that the resurrected Jesus wasn't seen by plenty of eyewitnesses--"more than five hundred brothers at one time"--then the Christian faith would not stand up against its critics. But it does stand up!  Because when it gives us events, it gives us the stories of real events that actually happened.

Jesus was really born of a virgin. Jesus really did call disciples to follow him, and spend three years traveling and teaching.  When Jesus stood on a mountain with Peter, James, and John, and all of a sudden, Jesus appeared as dazzling white alongside Moses and Elijah and the Father spoke, well, that happened too.  In fact, that's the very event which Peter describes in the context of the passage above.  Jesus would suffer, be crucified, buried, and on the third day, rise again.  And yes, Jesus would ascend into heaven to take his place at the right hand of the Father.  These things happened.

But even more than that, because they happened, you are able to believe with confidence that the teaching which flows from these events is also true.  Because Jesus lived, died, and rose, He is the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one of God who has atoned for your sin, and been raised for your justification.  Because Jesus died and was raised, your sin has lost its hold on you.  Because Jesus died and rose, your death will finally give way to life as well.

If the Bible is a bunch of myths, cleverly devised for weak-minded people to have a crutch, well, then you're better off finding something else to do with your Sundays, because all of it is meaningless.  But if it is true; and if the events of which the Bible speaks are true events told by eyewitnesses which happen to change the course of life, then your Sunday mornings could not be more important.  For it is there, in the Divine Service, that the Jesus who lived, died, and rose, continues to dwell with His followers, and feed them with His life-giving Word.

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!

Holy Jesus  You died to take away my sins and rose to fulfill all the Father's promises in Scripture.  Send now Your Holy Spirit so that by Your grace I may stand in this faith always.  Amen (TLSB, p. 1973).

Additional Resources
If you're interested in learning more about the historical arguments IN FAVOR of the events surrounding the death and resurrection of Jesus, then follow these links, and watch these two videos:
Dr. Paul Maier, part 1
Dr. Paul Maier, part 2

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Daily Devotional Thought--From the Old Testament

Ezekiel 37:1-14
1 The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of the valley;1 it was full of bones.  2 And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry.  3 And he said to me, "Son of man, can these bones live?" And I answered, "O Lord GOD, you know."  4 Then he said to me, "Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.  5 Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath1 to enter you, and you shall live.  6 And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the LORD."

 7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling,1 and the bones came together, bone to its bone.  8 And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them.  9 Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live."  10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.

 11 Then he said to me, "Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, 'Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off.'  12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel.  13 And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people.  14 And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD."

In the name of + Jesus.

In days gone by, churches were often built with their own cemeteries.  And if there was sufficient land, the church’s cemetery would be placed right behind the sanctuary, or in some other nearby spot. Now, keep in mind, that this occurred in a time when the bodies of the deceased would often be brought into a home’s “parlor” for visitation.  Which is to say, churches which were built with their own nearby cemeteries where built during a time when people saw death, and what it did to the body.  Maybe you've seen these sorts of churches while on vacation, or have lived in another part of the country and have worshiped in such a church.

Admittedly, if a congregation—even our Congregation—was thinking about building a new building, a cemetery would not be at the top of the list of “must haves.”  There may be other reasons for this, but most of us have grown up in a culture separated from having to see the effects of death.  Sure, the news places images of violence before us, and movies are filled with the dead.  But apart from a “made up” body at a visitation or funeral, where every effort has been made to make the deceased look…well…”not dead,” I can’t count on one hand the number of times I have seen death come—and I’m a pastor! 

Today’s passage from Ezekiel may give us a bit of insight into the mind of those church architects who decided that the church cemetery should be built right along with the sanctuary.  In this valley of dry bones, the Spirit of God, by the spoken Word of God, goes out over death and brings life.  With the command of God, unnumbered bones, with no sign of life in them at all, would begin to come together, bone to bone.  Sinews and flesh would be put upon them, and flesh would cover them.  Finally, bodies needed to be made alive with the bread of life—Kind of like Adam!—and so the breath (of life) came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.”

You see, in passages like Ezekiel 37, and 1 Corinthians 15 (and more!!), the Scriptures teach us to live in hope for the resurrection.  Our culture tries to distance itself from the painful realities of death—and to be sure, none of us desire it—but Scripture has a different answer.  Rather than putting it off, and pretending it isn't all around us, Scripture would have us look forward to its end.  Rather than locking ourselves away from death because of fear, Scripture would have us live with Easter expectation, and in anticipation that Jesus’ resurrection is coming for all who have died in the faith.  Why were those cemeteries built along with the sanctuaries?  Because the Christians who built those churches couldn't wait to see their brothers and sisters in Christ again.  And even more than that, they couldn't wait to stand with them, and look at Jesus face to face!

Christ is Risen!  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!

Almighty God, You alone speak the words of eternal life. Save us, Lord, for we cannot save ourselves. Amen (TLSB, p. 1371).

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Daily Devotional Thought--From the Psalms

Psalm 23 (The Psalm for Good Shepherd Sunday—this past Sunday)
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.
3 He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

In the name of + Jesus.

If the Lord is your shepherd, then you are His sheep.  And if the Lord is your shepherd, and you are His sheep, then you need not want, for your shepherd is the LORD.   The LORD is the one from whom come all good gifts.  And whether those gifts have to do with the support and needs of the body, or are the gifts which supply your every spiritual need, the LORD is giving those gifts, freely, to you.  For He is your Shepherd; and you are His sheep.

In the LORD, you can sleep in peace.  Luther’s Evening Prayer reminds us of this; at its conclusion, he writes, “Then go to sleep at once and in good cheer.”  No matter what you did, or didn’t do, that day, when you sleep in Christ, you sleep in the green pastures of peace, for He has died for your sin, and been raised to give you life.  That’s how He restores your soul.  He leads you in paths of righteousness, paths of holiness, paths that lead you to hear the Good News of the Gospel.

And this is why, even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we fear no evil.  After all the LORD is our Shepherd.  He is with us.  He is our Shepherd: assuring us of forgiveness; renewing us in His Word, and strengthening us with the very body and blood he gave for us, His sheep—to eat and to drink.

If the LORD is your shepherd, and you are His sheep, then goodness and mercy will follow you, because Jesus will be with you.

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!

Good Shepherd, open our eyes to see Your blessing. Open our ears to hear your voice. Open our hearts that we may love you. Amen (TLSB, p. 866).

Concordia Lutheran Church
Jackson, TN 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Daily Devotional Thought--For the Family

1 Thessalonians 4:16
16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

In the name of + Jesus.

It wasn’t good for Adam to be alone in the garden of Eden; it isn’t good for me to be alone either.  For mutual companionship, help, and support, God created Eve, and gave her to Adam.  Together, the two became one—a whole.

Without any merit or worthiness in me, the Lord has blessed me with Jamie, and together we are a whole—a family.  And for the last 11 days, I’ve had a helpful reminder just how great this gift really is.  As many of you know, Jamie took the three youngest—along with her folks, Allen and Shirley—to WI for an 11 day trip.  And it was a great trip. Lots of time with family and friends.  The kids were able to spend extended time with Grammy and Papa, and with their aunt, uncle, and more.  Naomi and I enjoyed special time together as well, something we both enjoyed.

And even with all of this good, there was something which wasn’t quite right.  Like leaving the house without my wallet, something was missing.  Actually, there were four people that were missing.  And while Naomi and I were still together, the other kids were gone, and Jamie was gone.  Sure, we had plenty of food; I know how to do the laundry; and others were helpful in keeping an eye on Naomi when I had another obligation.  But like I said, it wasn’t good for Adam to be alone, and for 11 days, I learned that it isn’t good for me to be alone either.

Of course, the truth is, death is always threatening to separate what the Lord has joined together.  And when it is death that separates us from one another—rather than a vacation—the separation doesn’t come to an end after 11 days.  There are no evening phone calls to see how the day went.  There are no text messages with cute pictures of the kids’ activities.  When death causes the separation, there is an eerie quietness in the house where there had previously been conversation.  When death separates us there is something missing, an emptiness, even an isolating grief that is not going to go away after 11 days.

But St. Paul reminds us in the passage above, that even the separation caused by death will be undone with a great reunion.  For those who have died in the faith, the return of Christ will bring about a reunion of those from whom we’ve been separated by death.  Those who were dead and buried long ago will be called up from the ground to be given their glorious new resurrected bodies.  Those who are blessed to still be living, will be transformed, in the twinkling of an eye.  And those who have been separated by death; those who have grieved their separation from spouses, children, parents, and other dear loved ones; those who have learned that it is not good to be alone, will experience a joyful reunion of family that will never again be separated from one another.

I’m glad that Jamie and the three kids were able to go to WI.  And I have new cherished memories of spending one-on-one time with Naomi.  But as Jamie made her way back to Jackson yesterday, her return, and our reunion, brought a joy that is just a glimpse—a glimpse—of the joy of that Last Day, when all who have been separated will be brought together forever in the presence of Christ.

St. Paul wanted his words to be used as an encouragement for those whose lives had been affected by death.  I pray that this little devotion would serve, not only to help us treasure those with whom we have been blessed to be together; but that, even more, those who have known the terrible pain of the more permanent separation caused by death, my look forward to that reunion, for which we hope, and which Jesus will bring, when He comes again.

Christ is risen!  He is risen, indeed.  Alleluia!

O Lord of Life, whose death has destroyed death, and whose life gives life to all who trust in you. Comfort us, we pray, with the promise of resurrection and reunion.  For those who live with the pain of separation, give them hope and certainty to look forward with confidence to that glorious reunion.  And give all of us an appreciation for those through whom you provide the gift of companionship today; through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

A Sheep and His Shepherd (Sermon preached April 21 for Easter 4-C)

Sermon Text: John 10:22-30

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed.  Alelluia!  Let us pray:

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of (our) heart(s) be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, (our) rock and (our) redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).

In the name of Jesus.

            What is a shepherd without sheep?  That sounds like the beginning of a joke, doesn’t it?  It’s actually a really good question.  What is a shepherd without a sheep?  A man with a wooden stick?  A man who knows a lot about sheep?  A man who wants to be a shepherd?  You see, if there aren’t any sheep, a man can have all the qualifications necessary to serve as a shepherd; he may have even served as a shepherd in the past; but if there aren’t any sheep to tend, what is he?
            We could ask the same question about pastors?  What is a pastor without people?  He may be caring and compassionate; he may be a top-notch theologian, and be able to speak about the complex mysteries of God in simple ways that even children can understand; he may be the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, gentle, generous, and every other attribute which the Scriptures use to describe a man fit for the Pastoral Office, but without people, what is he?
             You see, pastors and people go together because pastors need to have people to serve or they aren’t really pastors.  And shepherds go together with sheep because shepherds need sheep to serve or they aren’t really shepherds.  And all of this has been said so that you might rejoice in knowing how it is with Jesus.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd, which means that Jesus is going to have a flock of sheep.  It means that Jesus is always going to have a flock of sheep.  Yesterday, today, forever: Jesus will have a flock of sheep because the Father has given him a flock of sheep as His eternal reward for living in perfect obedience and for giving his life on the cross as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the entire world.
Jesus did not flee from the flock like a hired hand when danger threatened to kill the sheep.  On the contrary.  In order to keep his sheep from being damned by their sinful thoughts and actions; in order to preserve his sheep from being ravaged by death and being destroyed; in order to stand between His sheep and the accusations of that roaring lion we know better as Satan, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, laid down His life so that His sheep would have life.
For living that life—for giving His life—and for paying that price on behalf of each and every person, the Father has raised Jesus from the dead, and given Him a flock of sheep that forever He will love, and forever He will serve, and forever He will feed, and protect, from every evil foe.  Of this you can be certain: Jesus will always have a flock of sheep.  After all, He is the Good Shepherd.  If He didn’t have a flock, and if He didn’t keep a flock, and if He didn’t serve this flock, then what kind of shepherd would He be?
Unfortunately, not everyone is a part of His flock.  He says this plainly in today’s Holy Gospel.  When confronted by the Jews in the colonnade of Solomon, and when asked to tell them plainly whether or not he was, in fact, the Christ, he does not pull any punches, or tell them that they are free to believe whatever they feel in the hearts is best for them.  He says, “I already told you and you didn’t believe.”  “Haven’t you seen what I’ve been doing in my Father’s name?  I preach clearly from the Scriptures, and I forgive people of their sins, and because I know that people are slow to believe I have even accompanied my Word with powerful and miraculous signs so that you would know that I and the Father are one.  Everything I’ve been doing bears witness, and should be sufficient to answer your question.  The truth has been right in front of you.  But you do not believe because you are not part of my flock.”  You aren’t my sheep.
It’s tragic, really.  I mean, these Jews were religious in every way.  They gathered in the synagogue for prayer; they read the books of Moses; they read the Psalms; they read the Prophets, and yet, when the Christ about whom all those writings were about was standing right in front of them, they would not believe it.  They read the words, but they did not know the voice of their Shepherd, because they were not a part of the flock.
            Today, some of the leading biblical scholars in the world are some of the fiercest opponents to Christ and His Church.  If you were to attend a meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, you would be hard pressed to find more than a handful of members who believed that the Bible was actually the authoritative Word of God, or that Jonah was a real man, or that Jesus was actually raised from the dead.
            And while a majority of Americans still claim some form of Christianity, the latest numbers I’ve read indicate that on an average Sunday, only 15-17% of Americans are going to a church to hear the voice of their Good Shepherd.  Which means that the rest of those who call themselves Christian believe that they can be a part of the flock without hearing the voice of Jesus in the Word of Jesus.
Maybe those numbers are better here in the Bible belt, but even then, there is a difference between hearing the words of Scripture, and hearing the voice of the Shepherd.  Those Jews had read the Words of Scripture, remember, but they had never heard the voice of the Shepherd.
There are people within every Christian congregation who are there against their will; attending in order to check a box, or to keep so-and-so happy.  And there are those in every Christian congregation for whom the Bible is nothing more than a book of quotes that get you motivated to go about your day.  And in every Christian congregation, there are people who are bored with the preaching of Christ, and would rather have the pastor move on to something more exciting, or something that made them feel better.  And believe it or not, because the Holy Christian Church is made up of all true believers in Christ, it is tragically true, that there are people in every Christian congregation who appear to be religious in every way, but who do not know the voice of Jesus, the Good Shepherd.
Those who are not a part of the flock do not believe.  But Jesus is the Good Shepherd, which means that Jesus continues to have a flock of sheep.  Jesus will always have a flock of sheep.  Yesterday, today, forever, there will be a flock of sheep who hear the voice of the Shepherd and follow it.  Jesus says.  “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”  My sheep hear my voice…and they follow me.  The Sheep hear the voice of the Shepherd, and the follow that voice, because that voice is full of Good News.
Have you felt like you’ve been walking through the valley of the shadow of death lately?  I’ve almost been afraid to turn on the news.  Some days I’d rather not know what’s going on around me.  Bombs exploding in Boston; explosions in Texas; an earthquake in China that has killed at least 179; 5 snowboarders killed in a Colorado avalanche; 200 homes in California are evacuated because of a fire; and this is just a glimpse of what is happening this week around the world.
You are sheep who are walking through the valley of the shadow of death.  And if the events of the world aren’t enough to bring you to despair, there is your own list of faults and failures, we call sin.  And even though you try to do what is right, and to love and serve your neighbor, you know that daily your heart is full of sinful desires, some of which you act upon, and that you have fallen short of the glory of God.  And Satan does his best to bring up that list, and uses that list to in an attempt to make you do one of two things.  Either He will tempt you to believe that if you just work a little harder, you will be able to please God with your works.  Or, on the other hand, he’ll try to lead you to despair, and to believe that there could be no hope for someone with your sinful desires.  Either way, all he’s doing is trying to keep you from hearing the voice of the Shepherd.
For if you hear the voice of the Shepherd, even though you are walking through the valley of the shadow of death, you will have nothing to fear.  When death surrounds you on all side, the empty tomb is the Jesus’ testimony that death has been defeated, and that even if our bodies would thus be destroyed, yet, in the resurrection, we will live with Him victoriously.
If Satan shows you that you have not kept the Law of God, and have sinned in every way, simply remind him, that your Good Shepherd was perfectly obedient, and kept every bit of the Law in your place. When Satan puts your sin before you, put Jesus’ life before him.  For what the Law of God demands, Jesus has already accomplished in your place.
When the devil, the world, and your sinful flesh attack you, it is the voice of your Good Shepherd that calls to you, and comforts you, and strengthens you who walk through the valley of the shadow of death, so that you would not need to fear any evil.  The voice of Jesus announces that your is forgiven, and the cross is its proof.  The voice of Jesus testifies that even death cannot hold you down, and the empty tomb bears witness to this truth.
The voice of Jesus declares you to be holy and righteous—a forgiven child of God—not because you have been able to stop sinning, but because Jesus’ blood and righteousness covers your sin, and in Holy Baptism, He has given His own righteousness to you as a gift to wear as your very own.  When Satan seeks to devour your faith, and to silence the voice of Jesus who seeks to renew you in the forgiveness of sins, remember, that in the waters of Holy Baptism, the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit was placed upon you and marked you as one redeemed by Christ the crucified.
This is the voice of Jesus, your Good Shepherd.  It is the voice of one who has a flock.  It is the voice of one who will always have a flock.  And that flock—the sheep—will always hear His voice and come to Him.  You see, even if there isn’t much Good News on Television, or in the newspaper, the voice of Jesus will always be heard as Good News by those who are His sheep.  And that’s why the sheep and the shepherd will always be together.
Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed! Alleluia!  Amen.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Daily Devotional Thought--From the Confessions

The following is taken from Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (A Reader's Edition of the Book of Concord).  It is an excerpt from Robert D. Preus's book, Getting into the Theology of Concord: A Study of the Book of Concord.  It speaks to a common question regarding the proper role of statements of faith, confessions, catechisms, and other extra-biblical documents in the Church.  Enjoy!  And if you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment!

Confessional Subscription:
An Evangelical Act
Lutherans have always held that creeds and confessions are necessary for the well-being of the church. Just as Christ’s church and all Christians are called upon to confess their faith (Matt. 10:32; Rom. 10:9; 1 Peter 3:15; 1 John 4:2), so the church, if it is to continue to proclaim the pure Gospel in season and out of season, must for many reasons construct formal and permanent symbols and confessions and require pastors and teachers to subscribe these confessions. It is impossible for the church to be a nonconfessional church, just as impossible as to be a nonconfessing church. And so today and ever since the Reformation Lutheran churches over the world have required their pastors to subscribe the Lutheran Confessions.
What does this mean? With her confessions the church is speaking to the world, but also to God, who has spoken to her in His Word—speaking to Him in total commitment, speaking to Him by an unequivocal, unconditional response in the spirit of, “We believe, teach, and confess” (FC Ep, Rule and Norm, 1). This response is Scriptural, taken from Scripture itself. How often do we read in our Confessions that the teaching presented is “grounded in God’s Word”! And so the Confessions are no more than a kind of “comprehensive summary, rule, and norm,” grounded in the Word of God, “according to which all doctrines should be judged and the errors which intruded should be explained and decided in a Christian way” (FC Ep, Heading). This would be an unbelievably arrogant position to take, were it not for the fact that all the doctrine of our Confessions is diligently and faithfully drawn from Scripture.
And so when the Lutheran pastor subscribes the Lutheran Confessions (and the confirmand or layman confesses his belief in the Catechism [LC, Preface, 19]), this is a primary way in which he willingly and joyfully and without reservation or qualification confesses his faith and proclaims to the world what his belief and doctrine and confession really are. Dr. C. F. W. Walther, the father of the Missouri Synod, long ago explained the meaning of confessional subscription, and his words are as cogent today as when they were first written. [From Walther’s essay delivered at the Western District Convention, 1858.]
An unconditional subscription is the solemn declaration which the individual who wants to serve the church makes under oath (1) that he accepts the doctrinal content of our Symbolical Books, because he recognizes the fact that it is in full agreement with Scripture and does not militate against Scripture in any point, whether that point be of major or minor importance; (2) that he therefore heartily believes in this divine truth and is determined to preach this doctrine.… Whether the subject be dealt with expressly or only incidentally, an unconditional subscription refers to the whole content of the Symbols and does not allow the subscriber to make any mental reservation in any point. Nor will he exclude such doctrines as are discussed incidentally in support of other doctrines, because the fact that they are so stamps them as irrevocable articles of faith and demands their joyful acceptance by everyone who subscribes the Symbols.
This is precisely how the Confessions themselves understand subscription (FC Ep, Rule and Norm, 3, 5, 6; SD, Rule and Norm, 1, 2, 5).
Needless to say, confessional subscription in the nature of the case is binding and unconditional. A subscription with qualifications or reservations is a contradiction in terms and dishonest.
Today many Lutherans claim that such an unconditional subscription is legalistic. Sometimes they assert that such a position is pompous and not even honest.
We might respond: What can possibly be wrong about confessing our faith freely and taking our confession seriously? For it is the freest and most joyful act in the world for those of us who have searched these great confessional writings and found them to be Scriptural and evangelical to subscribe them. Of course, to force or bribe or wheedle a person into subscribing them would be an awful sin and a denial of what our Confessions are, namely symbols, standards around which Christians rally willingly and joyfully in all their Christian freedom.
From Robert D. Preus, Getting into the Theology of Concord: A Study of the Book of Concord (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1977), 15–16. For more information, see Doctrine Is Life: Robert D. Preus Essays on Justification and the Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006), 195–212.
FC Epitome of the Formula of Concord
LC Large Catechism
SD Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord
Concordia : The Lutheran Confessions. Edited by Paul Timothy McCain. St. Louis, MO : Concordia Publishing House, 2005, xxviii

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Daily Devotional Thought--From the New Testament

Colossians 3:1-4
1 If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and our life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

In the name of + Jesus.

Christ was killed, but Christ is risen.  Alleluia!  By virtue of your baptism, you have been crucified along with Jesus, and, amazingly enough, have been raised along with him also (**Read it in Romans 6:4-5 below!).

Jesus’ resurrection occurred all at once, body and soul together for all to see.  Your resurrection, however, occurs in parts.  For the bodily part of your resurrection, you will have to wait for the Last Day, and Christ’s return (see 1 Cor. 15).  But even now, by the work of the Holy Spirit in Holy Baptism, there is a new man which lives in you by faith, and trusts in the Words and promises of God.  This new man is a man raised from the death of the Old Man who was yours by nature, and whose death was accomplished in your Baptism.  The Old Man despised God’s Word and preferred to be his own God.  But the new man; the new man loves God’s Word and delights in it.  The Old Man sees God’s word as an intrusion on personal freedom.  The New Man knows that true freedom only comes because of God’s Word.  The Old Man desires to gratify the sinful, fleshly, desires.  But the new man desires to daily live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

This is what St. Paul means when he encourages you, who have been raised with Christ in your Baptism, to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is.”  What you think about is what you desire.  And now that you are raised with Christ, and the New Man lives in faith, you need not continue to think about, desire, and crave those things through which the world promises pleasure.  The world promises life in ways that the Old Adam finds pleasurable, even fulfilling.  But the New Man seeks the things that above, where Christ is.  The New Man seeks holiness, righteousness, and purity.  Even as he fights against the desires of the Old Man, who still clings to him, he who has been crucified with Christ learns to crucify these desires, and to say “NO!” to the Old Man so that the New Man can continue to think about those things which are of Christ.

On the last day, when your resurrection is complete, and you have your new and glorified body, there will be no need for the Old Man to be silenced and crucified, for that day will bring about his death forever.  Which also means, that day your New Man—that faithful man living in you—will no longer be hidden (v. 3) behind your sinfulness, but will be all of who you are—forever.

Jesus’ victory of sin, death, and the devil are not meant to give Christians license to go on sinning, and be taken over by that Old Man.  On the contrary, by virtue of your baptism, you are incorporated into Christ, and his life becomes the life you now live in faith.  While the Old Man fights against the things of Christ, the New Man will never be satisfied until the things of Christ are all he has.  Until then, let us set our minds on the things above—the things of Christ—and by the Holy Spirit, pray that they may even be done in and among us.

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!

Almighty God, You gave Your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon Himself. Grant that we, Your adopted children by grace, may daily be renewed by Your Holy Spirit; through Jesus Christ, our Lord (LSB, p. 312; #204).

**Romans 6:4-5 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.