Cue the Bolt of Lightning

I pray all has been well with you so far this week, most especially since the recent snowfall made travel for some very difficult. It certainly does give each Christian behind the wheel an opportunity to pause before setting out to seek the Lord’s care and then pause once arriving to give Him thanks for the safe keeping. If in between those two points, an accident occurs, it remains an opportunity to call out to Him as Luther once urged: “O, you have helped me before, help me now!”

Speaking of Luther…

I read the following line from Luther in my morning devotions yesterday: “Man does not even know his own sin, and thinks his blindness is the highest wisdom.” When I finished that sentence, even as it was right in the middle of a paragraph, I paused. In a way, the comment struck like a lightning bolt to a weathervane, and it made me think. In fact, it sort of reminded me of the warning that God gives to His priests in Hosea 4:4,6: “For with you is my contention, O priest… My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge…”

The point: Without God’s help, without God revealing to Man in some way that he is doing wrong, it is highly likely that Man will continue to move along in the ignorance of his sin, perhaps even considering his own efforts—all things he does with the best of intentions, things he does for the benefit of family, for self, for work, for life in general—as being wise, when in reality it is harmful to the soul and dreadfully diminishing of his relationship with Christ.

I share this as I look back on the events of this past Sunday—Anniversary Sunday. As a good number of you know, Reverend Dr. Peter Scaer was with us, and at one point on Saturday evening while he and I were sitting together and visiting over a couple of my nicer whiskies, while Jen had gone upstairs to tuck the kids into bed, he asked about attendance numbers and the basic demographics of the congregation. I shared some of the details—about how things are really turning around in this place in some pretty amazing ways. But somehow in the midst of the conversation, I was drawn to confess to him a very personal frustration: Many of our families with young children appear to care so much more about making sure their kids are involved in sports—hockey, wrestling, or whatever—rather than being in worship and Bible study. Confirmation responsibilities on Sunday morning? Sure, when hockey season is done. Worship and Sunday School? No, not this week or next. We have indoor soccer tournaments that will consume the next two weekends completely.

Not all, but unfortunately, far too great a number of families are caught up in this swirling torrent of making sure that our children are socially adaptable or well-rounded individuals, seemingly unaware as to just how harmful it is, that by doing this we are actually training them to see time with Jesus as optional—and for that matter, that the time with the Lord isn’t even the most preferred option among the ones vying or our attention. All of this is pretty much an unabashed casting aside of the First and Third Commandments, as well as the duties of parents well-established by the Fourth Commandment. It doesn’t even seem to blush as it shuns all of the New Testament texts which mandate togetherness with Christ and His church for the benefit of our souls as He feeds us through Word and Sacrament.

I dare say, the attention given to these other priorities is the very reason we saw our usual 220-per-week attendance number drop to 165 this past Sunday. But in the end, I suppose that what bothers me more than anything else is the fact that we continue to do this deliberately. Christian parents are starving and killing the souls of an entire generation of children. And they think they are doing the right thing.

Cue the lightning bolt.

So, what did the good doctor say to me this past Saturday night with regard to this?

“You’re the pastor, Thoma,” he said in a round-about way. “What have you done to show these people their sins?”

Hmm. What have I done? I guess I sort of preach about it here and there. I touch on the topic in Bible study occasionally. But again, if people aren’t in regular attendance in these places, they will have missed it. Have I steered into it directly? Have I ever thought about dedicating an entire newsletter to the issue? Have I come right out and given the knowledge of the Scriptures to God’s people? Perhaps not.

For with you is my contention, O priest… My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge…

People of Our Savior, forgive me for failing you in this way—whether it was because of a fear of offending you or because of a level of apathy—forgive me. And hear now, first, the Word of the Lord’s Lawful warning as it meets this challenge among the gathering of saints in this place.

Worship and Bible study is not optional. Don’t ever fool yourself into thinking that it is. There’s only one other character outside of you with such a scheming intention: the Devil. He does not want you in worship (or study) because he knows that it is of the utmost essential for your life and faith and it is where you belong. And so, when you begin to consider it as just another gathering of like-minded people—a country club measure of sights and sounds that you can take or leave—behold as the writer to the Hebrews (chapter 12) pulls back the spiritual curtain on holy worship and warns:

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them… But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven… Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.

With this in mind, step back in the same inspired Word to chapter 11, which speaks not only to the confidence of our baptismal right as Christians to be with God in worship, but to be careful not to refuse those who warn us when we fall away to other distractions, or even worse, when we set our hearts and minds upon other things and deliberately refuse Christ as He comes to be with us, most especially by the preaching and the Lord’s Supper:

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?

I know. These are tough words to hear. And not just because they speak to some, but because they speak to all of us. Every one of us is guilty of such spiritual recklessness. Even me. Again, please forgive me.

Now hear the Word of the Gospel—and I will most certainly be listening to it for myself as I write it.

God knows the heart of sinful Man. He knows the innermost desire to absent ourselves from His presence. He knows it well because it was the very first thing Mankind did in the Garden after the fall into sin. We hid from Him. But God did not leave us there. His first words to fallen Man were to seek and find him. “Where are you?” He called to Adam—to us. This tells you a lot about your God. He loves you. He does not give up on you. He does not want to lose you. He does not want to lose your children.

In Jesus Christ, He has reached out to all of us in the fullest of ways. He took upon Himself human flesh and gave up His life to redeem us—to buy us back from Sin, Death, and the power of the Devil. In our baptism, He has poured upon us the merits of this work and He has recreated us to be His children—little ones of faith who see the world and all of its trappings around us in a very different way; to have priorities that are no longer as that of the world. How can this be? Because we are forgiven. We are holy. The Holy Spirit lives in us as God’s people. We are no longer as we were before.

Thanks be to God for this!

Now, repent. The Gospel gives all that is necessary for amending the sinful life. Repent and change. Don’t be mad. Don’t get angry and begin seeking out a church that keeps silent on these things, one that is unwilling to steer into this with you for fear of offending you. You don’t want that. The Lord’s Word already told you that you don’t need that. You need truth. Rejoice now that the one God has set in place to give this to you has indeed given it. Why? Because it stems the results of God’s own dreadful foretelling: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge…” I don’t want this for you.

Now, before closing, I should make a quick clarification. If you are planning to be away for a tournament, no sweat. Just be sure to find a faithful Lutheran congregation and go to church. I know for a fact that some of our families do this, and for that, I commend their faithfulness. Either way, just know that you don’t have to be here, but you do need to be in worship. That’s the priority. Be fed. Don’t skip it and think you’ll pick it up next week. Habits form and it becomes all too easy to slip away. And if you don’t know which church to go to, let me know. I can help with that. I want to help with that!

And so, with all of this being said, know that I’m praying for you. Know that I am trusting that by the Gospel truth that has been given, God—the Father, the + Son, and the Holy Spirit—will strengthen you, and He will bless and preserve you as His holy child.

I won’t stop moving with this important kind of encouragement. You need it. I need it. We all need the rightly divided Law and Gospel. Thanks be to God that our Lord has given these to us as the treasures that they are!

Indeed, thanks be to God!

A Child in Prayer

I don’t know if I’ve shared this with you or not, but throughout the school year, I’ve called up the eighth grade boys to something new. I’ve scheduled them to help serve as lectors during the Monday chapel services. This means that sometime between arriving at school and the beginning of the Matins service at 8:10 a.m., the one on duty for that day makes his way down to the nave, gets vested, and then looks over the Epistle reading appointed for the upcoming Sunday. And then during the service, he reads it to the children.

I can say that over the course of the year, the young men have gotten much more comfortable in the effort and are doing a splendid job. But simply to report this is not why I am sharing the account. I want to share something a little more inspiring—something that serves as a reassurance to all of us that our Christian Day School is worth every bit of toil and tears we’ve put into it over the years.

When I walked into the nave to set the lectern and lectionary in place for the service (which I usually try to do long before anyone else is in there), the student for the day was already there, vested, and kneeling at the altar rail praying. I, of course, did not do what I’d gone into the nave to do until he was done. I didn’t want to disturb him.

But there he knelt in the vastness of an empty nave—the candles aglow beyond him, the windows darkened by the early morning snow—and he prayed silently. One of God’s little ones was acting on God’s promise that he had complete access to His Savior, offering petitions from his heart that he had, in that moment, been moved to speak.

If I could’ve taken a photo, I would’ve. It was an instant reminder that we aren’t just trying to educate children according to the typical philosophies; that is, we aren’t just trying to create workers who have skills and personal styles to fill and perform jobs, or to develop active citizens who recognize their own capacity for personal achievement and contribute to the society. Of course we try at these things, but in the end, we have a much more important goal behind our efforts. Everything we attempt to do here at Our Savior arises from the objective truth of the Gospel—the good news of the forgiveness of sins through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And with that as our constant heading—our north star of calibration—we are really striving toward a better thing, which in my opinion, Luther defined pretty well when he took a moment to comment on the goals of Christian education. He said so simply that the job of a Christian school is to bring children “to believe, to live, to pray, to suffer, and to die.”

In any school, there are struggles and there are successes. I just witnessed one of the fruits of success, and for that, I am humbly thankful to God that Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran School exists and that it continues to move forward supported by you as you are moved by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel!

Keep it up! Consider this little story for all that it is: a Gospel-driven encouragement to “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58)!

Twenty Go In, Nineteen Leave

I want to start off by repeating what I’ve said in a few places already, which is that I am so thankful to all who stepped up to help with Pastor Heckert’s funeral this past Saturday. I know that many of you know exactly what I mean when I say that it’s sometimes hard enough to actively serve when you feel a little more like you belong in the pews alongside everyone else in the church family receiving the ministering of the Gospel. It’s a strange dynamic, and yet your diligence to see to the care of Ilona, Paula, Mark, Stephen, and all of the Heckert family illuminated the event with the love of Christ in ways that I’ll forever struggle to describe with words that do justice.

Your faithful deeds—offshoots of the Holy Spirit alive within you by the Gospel—were pleasing to the Lord, and neither I nor the Heckerts will ever forget them.

And so now, as we go forward knowing that God will bring to us comfort and peace…

Even though it’s often very hard to see in the midst of what equally seems to be a swirling tempest of worldly reason, I know by faith that this is true. I know as Job knew that even as my flesh will return to the dust, I will stand before the Lord and see Him with my own eyes. I, you, all of us will rise again in the flesh and we will be together in the glories of heaven for all eternity.

Let me put this into the perspective I had just before I left for the cemetery on Saturday.

After the luncheon, I made my way back to the church where I put some things away and then made some preparations for the Sunday morning Divine Service. Knowing I had about five minutes before I needed to leave to get to the cemetery on time, I sat down and rendered some thoughts on Facebook. Here’s what I wrote.

——————–

We’ll be leaving in a few moments to put into the bosom of the earth the mortal remains of our dear friend and pastor, Jakob K. Heckert. The words of the Creed regarding our Savior, Jesus, ring in our ears: “…was crucified, died, and was buried.”

Buried. Considering the events of Death, the stinger at the tip of this word carries a very unique venom.

Of course Jakob is in heaven, but in a very human sense, until the cemetery he was with us. There he was in his bed at home. There he was in the casket at the funeral home. There he was in the casket in the narthex. Even though the lid was closed, there he was beneath it and under the pall during the Divine Service. There he was in the back of the coach. There he was for any of us at any moment to reach out and touch.

There he was.

But now twenty of us will enter the cemetery and only nineteen will leave. We will be less one person, one friend.

In such a moment, the words from the Creed just beyond those describing the Lord’s victorious death and consequent burial are so desperately needed: “He descended into hell. The third day He rose again from the dead.”

Resurrection. Think on this.

“I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus said. “He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in Me will never die.” Twenty believers enter the cemetery sturdied by the Gospel for faith. Twenty believers traverse a muddy landscape pocked with headstones, and they go knowing that even if any or all must remain behind, all twenty will rise again.

That’s the anti-venom of promise given in the moment that disarms the sting.

——————-

These words are a reflection of the wrestling between the sinner and the saint—the sinner seeing a somber gathering of people in a place full of dead bodies; the saint seeing that which the Holy Spirit has worked in believers, which is full trust in the promise—and eventual reality—of the resurrection of all flesh as it has been won by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our Savior.

With that, there’s a reason we say the Christian creeds each and every Sunday. The words of such a Gospel confession are important enough that they must be ever at the edge of our hearts and minds, as well as resting at the tip of our tongues. We need a clear confession of the Christian faith when the fog of reason is threatening to overcome us.

It sure did threaten me on Saturday. But I’m confident that the Holy Spirit worked within me trust in the promise to know that even in such moments, Christ holds onto me with both hands, and He will never leave nor forsake me. He intends that I would look upon Death—the formidable foe that it is—and see a toothless, clawless, and defeated specter; one that has no hold on me. And if this is true, then the graves of the faithful are little more than beds in the earth that keep our remains until our God says the word, the angels move into place, the trumpet sounds, and the souls of God’s people in heaven are reunited to their resurrected bodies—now perfected—and we are ushered before the throne in the flesh.

That’s the endpoint for the buried body of a Christian—eternity in heaven, and not the ground.

I pray this same comfort and knowledge for you. It certainly is yours as much as it is mine.

In the meantime, call me if you need me—if you are struggling, need help with some tougher questions, or just want to talk to someone who will listen as God’s servant and respond with His voice. These are some of the many reasons I’m here, and second to the preaching and teaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments, they are some of the most important.

Beyond “Therefore”

I suppose that many of you have the day off from work today in celebration of the national holiday remembering Martin Luther King, Jr. It certainly is a worthwhile day of remembrance honoring a man of diligent service to humanity. He accomplished much, and he did so in a way that was shocking to his enemies.

When they threatened him with violence and death, even the death of his wife and children, he spoke to peace.

Interestingly, while Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t necessarily align with the Lutheran theologies that would have put us in altar fellowship, his theological understandings of what to do in the midst of persecution and his fundamental thoughts on being a slave to Christ as opposed to a slave to man should leave most of us in awe. He got those things so incredibly right, and for that, he is to be wholeheartedly appreciated.

We just heard in yesterday’s preaching (which focused primarily on the Epistle reading from Romans 12:6-16) that quite a bit hinges on Paul’s usage of the word “therefore.”  It was noted that the word wasn’t in the actual reading, but had we gone back and collected Paul’s thoughts from the beginning of the chapter (as well as other chapters), we would’ve heard it, and we would have been situated to see that the long list of “do’s” and “do not’s” in chapter 12 isn’t necessarily an exhortation, but rather a description.

The texts that come before the “therefore” are ones that speak of God’s mercy to us. This teaches us that what follows the “therefore” is not a list of demands, but rather a portrait of who we are because of what Christ has done for us and works through us by His grace.

By the power of the Holy Spirit, God creates a different kind of person, a person who fits the description and is capable of seeing himself as one who is no longer in bondage to the world, but rather serves Christ and is capable of doing so in ways that simply flabbergast the world around us.

We are made into those who can have hope in the midst of struggle. We can pray for our persecutors. We can love our enemies. We can confound the world in these ways, and in so doing, we are found to be lights of Christ leading others to Him even in the midst of sin’s darkness.

If anything, Dr. King understood these things, and I appreciate his unbending fervor for living it out and being a real, tangible, national icon of this biblical truth. It certainly would seem that his cause is being lost on so many, nevertheless, history’s record unarguably stands in favor of a man who sought faithfulness to Christ in his effort to rid the world of the tarry and vile tendency to see others according to the color of their skin and not the content of their character.

Few come along with a willingness to do what he did. Maybe it’s because few are called to do so with such a courage in a public way. Nevertheless, each of us has been recreated to be God’s people in the simplicity and normalcy of our daily vocations. This, too, takes courage, and in the end, is never to be considered small. In fact, it’s really quite grand. It’s grand because of the gravity God attaches to it. It’s in these daily interactions that others behold the Gospel of Christ at work in a real person, and by this, onlookers are affected (Matthew 5:13-16). Not necessarily changed into believers. The actual message of the Gospel does that. But still, they are affected in a way that turns their attention to God. They are found curious, thoughtful, concerned, questioning—interested. And God worked this out by you just being you.

May God bless your day and week as you stand in His grace and beam this mighty and courageous love to the world around you. I know he will. As I mentioned in the sermon yesterday, I see this each and every day through so many of you. I have no doubt that Romans 12 is a description of our little church.

In that Hour, Pray

A happy New Year to you and blessings!

So, did you make any resolutions for the New Year? I did, and by God’s grace, I hope to keep them. Making changes in life, especially when it feels like the changes go against the basic grains of one’s character, is really hard. Even the Lord acknowledged this to the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane when He said, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” and so in that same instance, the Lord urges us to pray for the strength of spirit to overcome the desires of the flesh.

Prayer.

How often do you pray? And I’m not so sure the slip-up on the icy patch of freeway where you repeated His name over and over again actually counts. Although, I wasn’t there, so I don’t know for sure. Either way, the question still stands: How often do you pray?

I can say that I pray relatively often. You should expect that of your pastor, to be sure. I’ll add that I’ve been praying a lot more than usual these days, especially at the bedside of people living through special circumstances that call for the prayers of others. Pastor Jakob Heckert is one of those people. I pray there with him often. Almost daily, in fact.

But before I share more about that, let me get back to my original question one more time. How often do you pray? I hope it’s an everyday thing for you—or at least that it’s often. If you don’t, I don’t mean to make you feel guilty about it, however, I sure would suggest that you’re missing out on the opportunity to participate in the wonderfully free gift of speaking to the One who, as Isaiah said, made the entire cosmos, the One who made the stars and calls them all by name. The Creator of the world loves you, and He has opened Himself up to us in Jesus Christ in a way that allows us complete and total access to His throne of grace with any and all request. And ultimately, this has no lesser result than that He hears us, and He responds to the petition with that which will serve for our eternal life in Jesus.

For those of you who do pray fairly regularly, I’ll bet you have those times and places where it happens the most. For all others, I would suggest the same. Think on a place where you find yourself almost every day—whether it is in the car driving to work, before meals or bedtime, or any other time or place that you can think of—and make it a priority to speak with your God. If you don’t know what to say, grab a Lutheran Service Book and open up to page 305 (“Prayers, Intercessions, and Thanksgivings”). There are plenty of prayers from which to choose. Or you could pray the best prayer that was ever written: The Lord’s Prayer. Christ gave us that prayer for a reason, in one sense, because it is both centrifugal and centripetal in nature, that is it concerns itself with others around us while at the same time speaking to each and every concern that meets ourselves—and that’s pretty great, I think.

And while I’m on the subject, if you need help with devotional materials, let me know. I’m sure I could send you in the right direction for acquiring some good spiritual resources. Perhaps that could be your New Year’s resolution.

Anyway, I just got back from Pastor Heckert’s home a few minutes ago, and you should know that the end of his earthly journey is not far away. Still, even though his eyes have grown much dimmer and he struggles to speak, his line of sight to Christ is unhindered and his voice is confident. His last words to me today before he fell asleep were, first, that he loved me. I, of course, told him I loved him, too, because I do. It will be very hard to say goodbye when the hour comes. But then he said rather softly that he has no doubt, that he has certainty in the face of death. Then he went on to confess his faith several times—almost creedally, so—saying over and over that he believed in the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and that he believed that Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation. And then he asked me to help him pray to this same God who loves him and was listening to his words. And so I did. We prayed several Psalms, the Lord’s Prayer, I prayed several spontaneous prayers, and then it was Pastor Heckert who sort of brought it to a conclusion, and I think because he was having difficulty staying awake. Essentially, he said that he knew that he had lived, that he would die, but that in Christ he would never die. He said one more time that he has no doubts.

And then he fell asleep.

Imagine if God was closed off to us in such an hour.

But he isn’t. Go to Him. Speak to Him often. Even better, be present in worship where He gives the gifts of His forgiveness for the strengthening of a faith that knows without a doubt that His love is preserving and He will never let you go—not even at the hour of death. Don’t starve yourself of such confidence. Don’t neglect the right you’ve been given to approach God—to call Him “Father” and to know that you are His dear child.

Pray. He is listening. As His baptized child, you will always be someone for whom He has a care.