Preach the Text

Early this past Sunday morning I posted something on Facebook that stirred a few distant friends to respond by way of Facebook Messenger. The conversations were rather interesting. But before I share the basics of the interactions, let me share with you what I posted. Here it is:

The Last Sunday in the Church Year. That final day of the Church’s calendar when we lean forward in anticipation of the One who comes again in glory to judge both the living and the dead.

I dare say it’s very possible that if ever there was a day your pastor might be bold enough to preach things that bother the tepid and less-interested, it is today. “Go to church!” he might say. “Be fed by Word and Sacrament!” he may call earnestly. “It is by these Gospel means that you will be made ready.” And then he’ll add, “A day is coming when neither reasonable excuse nor deliberate rejection will be tolerated any longer.” Tapping his finger upon the edge of the pulpit and jeopardizing the comfort of your friendship, he may be so daring to say, “The culture’s mythology of a Lord who never judges will have run its futile course.” And then with a posture that reflects the strangest mixture of both human joy and sadness, the truth will be given. “Those who are ready will be welcomed into the marriage feast of heaven. Behind them, the door will shut—never to be opened again.”

Go to church, folks. Listen to the preaching of both Law and Gospel. Divine love is being distributed there; one bit of love so kindly revealing a most desperate need, and the other a supernatural potency for knowing, believing, and confessing Christ—the Ruler of earth and heaven—the One who will return at an hour unknown and say, “Come, blessed of the Father, and receive the inheritance prepared for you from the foundation of the world,” or “Away from me, for I never knew you.”

Go to church. By the power of the Holy Spirit, refill your vessel with oil. Trim your lamp. Be ready for the bridegroom. The day is surely drawing near.

Late yesterday afternoon, I got a few notes from folks about the message. There was one in particular that stood out the most. It was from a fellow pastor who, even as he resonated with the message’s contents, was concerned that I’d overweighed the Law at the expense of the Gospel.

Maybe I did. Maybe I didn’t. For one thing, I’m not all that interested in preaching sermons that follow a particular formula. That is, as I’ve shared with the folks in my Sunday morning adult Bible class, I don’t necessarily make plans to tell of you off for five minutes and then tell you how it’ll be okay for another five. Some guys come to the preaching task thinking of Law and Gospel in that way. I don’t. I’d rather preach the text and let the Law and Gospel chips already inherent to the Scriptures fall where they may. It’s already there. If I preach the text, it will show up in just the right amounts—just as God would have it preached. And I told my friend as much. But what was most interesting about the conversation was that he said, “I wouldn’t have said it the way you did, but I’m more than happy to let you be the one to do it.”

I wasn’t sure what to make of that comment, but my sense is that he thinks that what I wrote was needed, but he just didn’t want to be the one to say it. I think that’s true for a lot of folks. Most often we’d prefer to let others say what needs to be said than actually say it ourselves.

There’s no way to get around it, folks. The core of the Gospel reading for the Last Sunday in the Church is a warning to be ready. And if those who are called to stand in the stead and by the command of Christ won’t preach it, who will?

And why does this matter, anyway? Well, I suppose it’s the same as asking why we would need warnings in general. I can’t help but think that for the most part, warnings are good, not bad. They communicate to us that something is lurking to our detriment, and in kindness, there is the desire that we be given the information we need to avoid it. With that, I don’t necessarily see a warning as unloving—and not necessarily even overly weighting of the Law. Certainly the seriousness of their nature can be hard to iterate and uncomfortable to share. Depending upon the type of warning required, a lot may be risked when you warn someone. Still, when it comes to eternal life, the warning of God’s holy Law is a loving revelation that works in tandem with the Gospel. It doesn’t give the Gospel its power for conversion of the heart, but it certainly sets the stage in a way that allows the Gospel to shine. In other words, if the seriousness of the bad news is excluded, what care is there for the glory of the good news? If I don’t know I’m in danger, what care do I have for the One who came to rescue me?

In the end, I hope that the words I choose to use are effective. Rest assured that I pray before I write anything that is intended to communicate the Word of God in a public way. I ask the Lord to use my fingers as I type, to guide my speech, to put all of the words not just in the right order, but in the best and most powerful order. With that, I often find that the fear that sometimes comes with saying what needs to be said will often dissipate into the atmosphere like raindrops in the summer sun.

God calls for faithfulness. But He only does so when and where He promises to provide all that is necessary to make faithfulness possible. And that makes the job of telling both the harder news and the easier news a little less terrifying.

A Thanksgiving Invitation

The Lord is with you this Thanksgiving Day!

I’m writing this quick note to invite you to join with your Christian family in worship this morning, wherever that may be, in thanksgiving to God for His mercies, His love, and His abundant kindness given in and through Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world.

I know some of you may be preparing a turkey with extra-special dishes to adorn it. Others may be getting ready to kick their feet up to watch a parade or enjoy a football game. But having said all of this, I know for a good number of you, there’s something else—something you know—and it will affect your Thanksgiving Day festivities.

You’re going to church because a day specifically set aside for Thanksgiving, but one that is without God, doesn’t seem right. You want God to be a part of it. You know that the Turkey you’re about to eat and the TV you’re about to enjoy watching and the house in which your family is gathering didn’t just materialize out of thin air. But instead, you know that these are gifts from a God who loves you, who has given His all that you would be with Him in the midst of eternity.

The church isn’t just a place. It’s a people. God’s people are born of God’s sacrifice in Jesus. By this, God’s people are born of a Spirit for thanksgiving, praise, and honor of and to the giver.

Join us for worship this morning. This message is going out at 8:00 a.m. Service begins at 10 a.m. There’s still time to hear the Gospel of the ten lepers who were healed, but only one returned in thanksgiving.

There’s still time this morning to be the one leper—the one who knew his need and then returned to the One who wants nothing more than to continue giving the abundance of His restoring grace.

God bless and keep you by His grace. I sure hope to see you!

Serving in the Church

I’m getting a little bit of a jump start on the eNewsletter. As I write this particular introduction, it’s Friday, November 17 and I’m sitting at gate A45 in McNamara Terminal at Detroit Metro Airport waiting for a flight to Louisville, Kentucky. I should probably be working on the sermon for this Sunday, because I don’t have very much of it completed. In fact, I only have a few paragraphs. The whole thing has been somewhat elusive to me this week. I’m sure it will come to me. God is good that way.

Anyway, I’m on my way to visit a congregation in Louisville, and it looks to be a promising time divided into two parts.

The overall effort will be to speak to a gathering of laypeople and pastors regarding Religious Liberty issues facing the Christian church in America. For the first part, I’ll be spending about an hour talking about the Two Kingdoms doctrine and taking questions. But then for the second part, we’ll shift gears significantly. Knowing that I’ve authored a few volumes on whisky, the gathering’s organizers have arranged for me to lead anyone who wants to stay for an extra-curricular whisky tasting.

What fun! Being smack dab in the middle of Bourbon country, I’m looking forward to the event.

This has stirred a thought.

As I sit here at gate A45 watching the masses pass by, I realize that while many are toting various things—suitcases, children, you name it—the fact is that all are toting something that’s invisible to the naked eye.

I’ll bet you thought I was going to say “the sinful nature” or something like that. Well, I wasn’t. And while you’re right, the sin nature is there, I was thinking of something else entirely.

Each person passing by, whether they realize it or not, is toting along gifts they’ve been given by God. This reminds me of Saint Peter’s words in 1 Peter 4:10: “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”

Pondering this further, it carries me back to a conversation I had with Deaconess Bielby a few days ago about certain things happening in our school—how we have so many wonderful volunteers serving in various capacities, all of whom make our Christian family a community and place of which we can be proud. But then as the conversation unfolded, we began to talk more about others in the parish who might have certain skills—gifts—that we could tap into for the sake of enhancing what we’re already doing. For example, I suggested that I’ve long wanted to see our students have a space in the building—perhaps a corner of our library—that was made to look like a newsroom, and the kids would participate in weekly newscasts to the rest of the school. But among other things, this would mean finding funds, a volunteer coordinator, and some staging volunteers. I can think of quite a few students who would truly learn and shine by doing something like this, but of course we’d need people with the right skills to help make it happen.

We also talked about topics like chess, quilting, and among other things, soap-making—all things that the kids might only have the opportunity to experience during special times like Lutheran Schools Week. I think we were both contemplating how these ideas might become more than that.

Now to bring the conversation back around to the people who are walking past me right now… Maybe you’re toting a special skill that you’d like to share with the school children, something that will serve to enhance God’s gracious care of the students in our midst, something that will make their time together here in our Christian family that much more edifying. The folks I’m preparing to go and visit called upon me in a way that I might expect, but at the same time, they were keen to another facet of my personality, and took a chance at asking if I’d be willing to share with them in a more light-hearted, fun, “Angels’ Portion” sort of way. And of course, because it’s something on the inside that I tote around to events like this, I was happy to oblige.

Anyway, if you can think of someone or some skill I should know about—something that could be shared with our students and families as an extra-curricular effort—let me know. We want to continue to make our school the best it can be.

This Is Really Not Cool

What a joy it was to receive the proclamation of the Gospel from Pastor Heckert yesterday, even by way of the video. I hope that all in attendance were able to hear it well, and that they were edified by the love of Christ proclaimed through Pastor Heckert to the body of believers.

I’ll admit that I was concerned as to how well the sound would work in a room full of people. Even though I’d already spent a lot of time working with the audio stream in the video, I just didn’t feel comfortable with it. And then the unthinkable…

When I arrived at the church yesterday morning—right around 6:15 a.m.—I went into the nave and did one more test drive of the sermon in order to adjust the TV’s equalizer even if only a little more and I discovered that the video file wasn’t working as before. Somehow the file on the thumb drive that I had plugged into the Blu-ray player had become corrupted, and so the image was jittery and the audio was the same. I don’t know what happened, but it was what it was.

Needless to say, I started to sweat because while my video camera is pretty decent—recording in HD—it’s no small thing to convert the HD MTS video files it creates into MPEG-2 files we can watch on a DVD or Blu-ray player—which is the technology I was working with. Not to mention I would need to boost the audio and do some processing to remove a strange hissing sound that came out in the recording while we were at Pastor Heckert’s house. With the acoustics of our church, the hissing sound made the video almost unwatchable.

But there is a lesson to be learned in all of this.

Even as I started to worry, I knew I’d need to get in gear and start the whole process all over again. And so I prayed. It was a short prayer, one I said as I jogged back to my office. I think it went something like this: “Heavenly Father, this is really not cool. You’re gonna need to intervene here—big time—because I can only make my computer process at certain speeds and I don’t have much time. I’m in a mess. Help. Please. I ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

With that, I got to work on it right away, and after about an hour and a half, I had a video that, in my opinion, was far better than the first. Imagine that. In other words, what had unfolded as a nightmarish scenario, God used for good, and from it I believe a better, more easily viewed/heard sermon video was produced.

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7).

You know, Saint Paul’s words above apply to more than just last-minute crunches like the one I described. These words, inspired by the Holy Spirit, cut to the heart of who we are in the midst of a fallen world. There’s plenty out there to cause us worry—sickness, messy finances, broken relationships, you name it—but God has given us a promise that He will hear our prayers, and He will act according to His good and gracious will, all of which leads to our salvation. That’s what Paul means here. In the midst of a cold world, God’s holy will for our eternal future will produce a peace like a super-heated fire burning in the furnace of our souls. It will warm us to the knowledge of His ever-present love—to the knowledge that He will always have a care for us. And what is that peace? It is the peace proclaimed by the angels to the shepherds in Bethlehem—peace between God and man, peace located in the person and work of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world.

My prayer to God for you this day is that no matter the challenges you may be facing—big or small—trust your Savior. Pray to Him. He loves you, and He love to listen to you. And whatever He does to help, just know that it will be worked for your good according to His will. That’s a peaceful thought. Actually, it’s more than a thought. It’s a powerful knowledge and reality worked by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel message. Hear it often. Receive it with joy, knowing that you mean so much to your God.

The World’s Rip Current of Busy-ness

Can you believe that Thanksgiving is only 16 days away? That’s only 23,040 minutes! Considering that many among us plan our schedules by the minute rather than by the day, all of the events that land on our calendars with the intent of consuming our time sometimes leaves us thinking that life feels a little more like a rip current—a turbulent flow carrying us away from shore even as we try to swim against it—rather than a sometimes slow and sometimes fast stream that provides for both leisure as well as challenge. I read an article last week about how this is affecting children. In it, the author said:

“For years now, a consensus has been emerging that a subset of hard-driving, Ivy-longing parents is burdening their children with too many soccer tournaments, violin lessons and cooking classes. A small library of books has been published with names like The Over-Scheduled Child, The Pressured Child, Pressured Parents, Stressed-Out Kids and so on.”

A little further into the article, he suggested a solution:

“The antidote to the problem… is to make sure children have enough time with no activities, parents have enough time with no work and the two sides come together to create activities of their own.”

As I read this, I couldn’t help but think that God provided the solution to this problem long before the clinical child psychologists ever started pondering it.

Take a look at the following portion from Luther’s Large Catechism regarding the meaning of the Third Commandment, which is, of course, “Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy.”

“To offer ordinary people a Christian interpretation of what God requires in this commandment, we point out that we keep holy days not for the sake of intelligent and well informed Christians, for these have no need of them. We keep them, first, for the sake of bodily need. Nature teaches and demands that the common people—man-servants and maid-servants who have attended to their work and trades the whole week long—should retire for a day to rest and be refreshed. Secondly and most especially, we keep holy days so that people may have time and opportunity, which otherwise would not be available, to participate in public worship, that is, that they may assemble to hear and discuss God’s Word and then praise God with song and prayer.”

I think it’s kind of interesting, too, that in the very next Commandment—the Fourth Commandment, which deals with the honor due parents as Godly authorities—after some pretty lengthy instruction for children, Luther turns toward the parents and writes:

“Parents should consider that they owe obedience to God, and that, above all, they should earnestly and faithfully discharge the duties of their office, not only to provide for the material support of their children, servants, subjects, etc., but especially to bring them up to the praise and honor of God. Therefore do not imagine that the parental office is a matter of your pleasure and whim. It is a strict commandment and injunction of God, who holds you accountable for it.”

When you put these two commands together, first you see the one particular time and place that God has given for us to rest and be refreshed together as a family—holy worship. And second, you see how important it is to God that parents would be faithful in setting aside all of the busy-ness that would distract from or take priority over being together as a family and keeping the Sabbath day holy. A thorough reading of both explanations of these commands and you’ll more than see the urgency for doing this, not only for the sake of rest, but for the sake of establishing the right foundations for faith.

God knows the world tries to pull us into the rip current. He knows that if we try to swim against the current, we’ll become exhausted. With this, He has given His Son to die and rise for us, giving us the Holy Spirit through the Gospel to see that there’s a way out. In a real rip current, to escape really isn’t that hard. You need only to swim to the right or to the left of it. In this life, getting what God has for your refreshing and re-strengthening isn’t that hard, either. It happens every Sunday. And what’s even more amazing is that to be in holy worship is to be lifted up and out of the rip current completely. You don’t do any swimming. He does all the work. There is worship you are rescued, your are set on shore, you are given dry clothes—the robe of Christ’s righteousness—and you are well nourished for the next wave that may come and try to sweep you away. If you and your children don’t receive this nourishment, if you try to swim without what God provides, you will drown. That’s the hard truth.

By God’s grace, be encouraged to be with Him in His presence to receive this nourishment as often as it is provided. He loves you, and He wants for you to be refreshed alongside your resting Christian family.

The Tragedy in Sutherland Springs, Texas

Perhaps you heard the news tonight about the tragedy in Texas—the church members gunned down during worship. With that, I wanted to reach out to you with a brief word of comfort—the same words I just shared with friends on Facebook looking for answers, words stirred by the certainty of faith we have in Jesus Christ:

“Twenty-six Christians killed in worship. Twenty wounded. The suspect is dead. Little ones, teenagers, elderly, too. Evil is a formidable foe. Death, its emissary, has a capital D in its name. There’s a reason our deliverer must be God in the flesh. And so we ponder what was required—the unfathomable love—of the One who would pit Himself against these enemies in order to save both the shooters and their prey. This love will continue to eat bullets and change hearts, and as much as it drives the devil mad, in the end, this love incarnate will be—and already is—the last one standing.”

God be with you tonight, dear Christians. Trust Jesus. With the stamina of that same trust, be sure to pray for your brothers and sisters in Christ at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs. God hears the voices of His people.