Up and Doing

So, have you made any resolutions for the New Year? I have. This year I’ll be giving extra effort to rebuilding broken relationships in my life. I want to do what I can to fix the fractures.

We’ll see how it goes. Only God knows what’ll happen in such circumstances. I just know I want to try to give it more attention, maybe be more deliberate in reaching out.

Making New Year’s resolutions gets a bad rap. It was F.M. Knowles who said, “He who breaks a resolution is a weakling. He who makes one is a fool.” I disagree. I don’t think it’s foolish. In fact, if you don’t already make resolutions, I’d encourage you to give it a try. You’d be amazed at how making resolutions helps to give focus in other parts of life. It helps to identify a destination of betterment and then to aim for it, even if only to get closer. That’s not a bad thing. From a biblical perspective, it can be considered “training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). In that sense, I suppose rather than being a fan of Knowles, I’m more of a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow kind of guy. Observing life, and in one sense, simply desiring to go about living in a way that tries to move goodness forward, Longfellow said, “Let us then be up and doing, with a heart for any fate; still achieving, still pursuing, learn to labor and to wait.”

I like that.

From the vantage point of Christianity, to be up and doing with a heart for any fate—learning to labor and to wait—certainly has resonating potential. We’re active in the world around us. We’re up and doing in ways that reveal a pursuing of faithfulness to Christ. With that, we learn to labor at certain times and we learn to wait during others. This is trust. And in the end, come what may—any fate, any and all results—we’re already comfortable with the fact that these are God’s to determine. We hold to the simple conviction that He will work for the good of those who love Him, and He will use our efforts (which are empowered by the Holy Spirit), even what we believe to be our extreme inabilities, to be a light to others to see His glory.

I like that, too.

And so I’ve made some resolutions. I told you one. I have another one, but I’ll keep that one to myself. Either way, with both I want to be up and doing to accomplish something beyond myself for others, and as I do this, my prayer is that I’ll be ready for any fate in each and every situation. I trust that God will handle the results. I just want to be faithful.

If you decide to do the same in the New Year, I pray that the Lord will bless you in your efforts. Know that I’ll be rooting for you. And know that if you don’t fully accomplish whatever it is you’re setting out to accomplish—at least not as you might interpret the word “accomplish”—by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in you for eyes set on Christ and a heart seeking faithfulness to Him, rest assured that God will use you to move His love a little further along in a world in such desperate need of receiving it. I guarantee this will happen even if you never see it.

With that, blessings to you in Christ, and have a wonderful New Year!

Tonight is the Night

Tonight is the night.

The whole concept of this night is beyond our ability to comprehend. There was an inbreaking between worlds. Yes, God is always with us. But tonight God became man.

Immanuel, God with us. Logos, the Word made flesh.

Tonight the divine Creator was born into human history as “us”—into the places we go, into the burdens of need that we own, into the whole of our existence. He became one of us in order to save all of us.

The inbreaking was signaled by an angel—a messenger—nine months prior to this night, as the timeline would go. The hymn joyfully embellishes, the angel came “with wings of drifted snow and eyes of flame.” He spoke to a young, unmarried girl in Nazareth, a virgin. Calling her by name, he said, “Mary, you have found favor with God. You will bear a son. His name will be Jesus. He will be the Son of the Most High.”

Luke’s Gospel tells us that Mary was troubled by the visitation. And rightly so. The appearance of an angel means one of two things. It means either the promise of deliverance, or a word of judgment ending in destruction. And so, as it must be when an angel has revealed his presence in order to bring good news, “Don’t be afraid,” he speaks kindly. The inbreaking he reveals will not lead to our death, but rather will set into motion the final stages of the plan to win our salvation through the death and resurrection of the child conceived in her womb.

Her child is the answer to the Sin problem.

Tonight is the night. It has finally happened. Angels have announced it, this time to the shepherds, telling them they needn’t be frightened by this otherworldly visitation. Jesus has come. He’s wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. He’s little. He has tiny fingers and toes. He has attentive eyes of love for His mother, Mary, and for His adoptive father, Joseph. He hears their voices when they sing hushed lullabies to Him in the crude feeding trough. He has begun as we began. And yet, He is Christ the Lord. He is the perfect inbreaking of God. This won’t be visible to the human eyes in these first few moments. In fact, His birth was just as painfully messy as any birth before or after. The condition of His context—a manger—something that is far less than grand.

But still, He begins as we begin, and yet, He is without sin. The inbreaking of the only One who can save us is finitely located here—right here as a sinless infant squirming in His lowly crib—opening and closing His eyes for the first time amidst the human experience, seeing and being all that it means to be us.

This little One will grow. He will live perfectly according to the Law. He will do the things that only God can do. He will raise the dead with a word, whispering into the ears of corpses and returning them to life. He will touch the lame and they will be in right measure again. He will preach the Good News of forgiveness to all and the sorrowful hearts of His listeners will be restored.

He will lean into the ferocious headwinds of a world spinning into undoneness and He will turn it back on its axis.

A new axis will be anchored into the earth’s frame. It will be a center post that makes everything right, tall and mounted at the top of Golgotha. The baby you see here in the manger, He will be the man pinned there. No matter where you’ve been or what you’ve done, His pain will win your freedom. No matter how long you’ve been away, His outstretched arms of suffering are a welcoming into His embrace of perfect love. His tears will wash away your sorrow. His cry, “It is finished!” will be the moment when the steely underpinnings in the frame of Sin and Death begin to groan, buckle, and collapse.

Tonight is the night.

“Fear not,” the angels are repeating. Go and see. Go to the place where the Lord promises to be. Do as the others in your Christian family. Gather at the manger with the excitement of little ones overwhelmed by the joy of a newborn brother. Lift to your tiptoes. Peek between the shoulders and around the heads of your Christian siblings to get a glimpse of the One who is your redemption. He will be there. He’ll be in the absolution spoken. He’ll be in the preaching of the Christmas Gospel. He’ll be in the Sacrament of His body and blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.

Tonight is the night. Don’t miss it. Go to church. You’ll certainly be welcomed. You’ll most certainly be blessed, because the divine One born in Bethlehem will be there.

In Him you’ll know the truest joy behind the words “Merry Christmas.”

President Trump, The Apostles’ Creed, and a Promotional Christmas Video from a “Christian” Church

A fellow member of my congregation shared with me the following promotional Christmas video from a local church. Take a look.

A fun piece, I suppose. The production quality is certainly above reproach. They put a lot of work into it, you have to give them that. As a tool for communicating their identity as a church to the unbelieving world around them—that is, who they are and what they hold most dear—by way of the skillful grip of song, the video ponders the deepest of loves at Christmas, which we learn is, first, whether or not Santa loves the individual, and if so, will he deign to allow Rudolph to lead the rest of the reindeer to one’s house with something other than coal; and second, the individual sharing this message has braved Black Friday to fill his Chevy with things that he truly wants with the hope that the approaching Christmas-tide sleigh will be equally full.

I don’t exactly have the verbal dexterity to communicate this beautiful Gospel quite like the performer in the video, so I’ll just share the lyrics here:

“Santa, do you love me? And are you riding on a sleigh full of gifts to my chimney ’cuz I want them…”

That’s the well-crafted and easily discernible point at the center of this song of outreach to the community on behalf of a Christian church.

There was something else in the video that stirred a bit of confusion, though. For one reason or another, and for only a second or two, the video drifted into a more enigmatic arena, saying, “Pastor got loud in the sermon, talkin’ ’bout a dude who had a baby with a virgin.” For the whole two minutes and sixteen seconds of the video, it was the only of its kind, and I guess I’m wondering why it was there. It didn’t really fit. Although, as a Christian myself, I say “Whew! I’m glad they sprinkled that in there.” If they hadn’t, we might’ve missed a subtle truth that helps to portray what pastors do from pulpits—which is being loud and shouting at people, sermonizing and shoving stuff down our throats that none of us wants to hear. At least they were honest about that particular impression. And then that little piece about the non-descript dude impregnating a virgin, well, I’m not really sure what that means. Is that God? Is it Joseph? Maybe it’s just a little bit of moralism tossed in since that’s how the church would prefer that babies come along in this world. Personally, my guess is that the performer just needed to fill some space and the line fit the rhyme scheme.

…Eh-hem… Let me clear the sarcasm from my throat and shifts gears a little.

Did you watch the Bush funeral? I did. Did you see that President Trump didn’t recite the Apostles’ Creed? Did you hear or see anything in the news or on social media about it? I sure did. “Deeds not creeds,” I’ve seen heralded from Christian sources. “The church doesn’t need creeds!”

Puke.

For those in the church getting yanked into the “Deeds not creeds!” riptide that may or may not have resulted from President Trump’s silence at the Bush funeral, I’ll simply say, “Be careful.” Videos like the one shared here are what happen when there are no definable contours to the faith you confess.

Yes, there are those who just go through the motions. I get that point. Some believe that such repetitive staleness is the constricting enemy of free-flowing religion from the heart.

Whatever.

How’d you learn the alphabet? Repetition. How’d you learn how to speak? Repetition and by being repeatedly immersed in language. How’d you learn how to dress yourself? Repetition. How’d you learn anything of value in your life? Well, whatever it was, I’d be willing to bet repetition played a part.

Still, I get the premise. But again I’d urge folks to be honest. Even the churches with no creeds have the people among them who just go through the motions. Every church has those people. Just keep in mind there’s a huge distinction to be made between repetition born of “traditionalism” and repetition in service to “tradition.” Traditionalism is, for the sake of a definition, the dead faith of the living. It represents a somnolent faith. It is to do for the sake of doing and nothing more. And I dare say that it’s the traditionalists, the ones who can’t see the value in tradition, who get bored by substantive things and want to go off the sure path to things unknown, they’re the ones who lead the churches into mushy religiosity. Tradition is different. It is the living faith of the dead. It is a carrying on of the past into the future. It is an unbroken gathering of the one true faith spread across the generations and throughout the world. Time means very little to tradition because it is unbound by it. Tradition stands in place to say that the truths of the faith aren’t ours to change because they don’t belong to just us. Tradition isn’t a bending reed in the winds of culture. It’s a tree with endless rings in its core. Tradition is a binding thing that maintains identity for the whole and belongs to the whole.

“Why do we put an angel on the top of the tree at Christmas time, dad?”

“Well, Susie, because that angel has been in our family for a long time. Putting it on top of the tree is a tradition. I did it. Grandpa’s family did it. His dad’s family did it, and his dad before him did it. When we do this, we’re sort of, well, showing that we’re a family and that we’re in this together.”

There’s a reason the holy Christian church throughout the ages has subscribed to the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds. Creeds help to set the boundaries for this and stand in stark contrast to bad theologies that are more than capable of wiping out entire populations of faith in a single generation. The creeds bear no “non-descript dudes” that leave questions. Who is the virgin? It’s Mary. What child is she bearing? The Son of God, Jesus Christ, who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried, and then then He rose again from the dead. For what reason did this happen? To save the world from sin, which includes me! How did Jesus’ conception happen? I know it wasn’t Joseph, so then, was it God the Father? No, Christ was incarnate by the Holy Spirit. He is true God in the flesh, born to win salvation!

Creeds help to prevent confusion in these things, making sure the message remains crystal clear.

And by the way, for the record, “Deeds not creeds” is a creed. It is a confession of what you believe, albeit a little less thought out than most.

On another front of the same discussion, for the Christians in the political sphere doing all they can to say President Trump set a positive example by refusing to speak the Creed, I’d say in tandem that you’re speaking out of both sides of your mouth, especially when you clamor for unity around a party platform. The party platform is the party’s creed. Even further, I’d encourage folks to take a quick stroll through history. It is an observable datum that the beginning of the demise of any society or subset organization and its affirmed morality begins with the destruction of its creeds. When you see the citizens dismantling or simply disregarding the statements of the convictions and the language (the precisely selected words) that communicate those convictions, you’re watching a group lose both its identity and its way forward. They’re heading into treacherous waters. As the lines become blurry, eventually they dissipate and disappear. With that, if you can’t locate the border of what you know to be objectively true and untrue, you may find yourself standing on foreign soil.

To close, you should also know that the church that made this video is the same one in which one of their members told one of mine as he and his family were observing that there weren’t any crosses in the place that the reason they don’t have any crosses is because the cross is a disgustingly off-putting image. Go figure. Paul said “We preach Christ crucified!” When that message is disgustingly off-putting, you may have a problem with the internal, free-flowing religion emerging from your heart. My recommendation: Try one of the three ecumenical creeds. It’ll help.

Just a thought for you to stir into your eggnog and sip.

Your Light Will Break Forth Like The Dawn

Have you ever heard the phrase, “Advent begins in the dark”? Essentially it’s a way of saying that the season of Advent is a time of consolidated anticipation. This means that Advent focuses our attention for hopefulness toward that evening long ago when the Savior of the world would be born, the dreadful day on Golgotha’s hill when that same Savior would go into the darkness of sin and be crucified, and finally the Last Day when the Lord returns and the world is judged.

Each of these points is one that bears hopefulness, but each also has the sense of a tinge of blindness. In a Law sense, the blindness is the sin nature. The Word of God is clear that without the recreating work of the Holy Spirit by the Gospel, we’re not able to wait because we don’t really want to wait. We’re not even the slightest bit interested in seeking the love that God is bringing. But that right there is a wonderful doorway for a Gospel transition. Shakespeare said it well. “Love sought is good, but giv’n unsought is better” (Twelfth Night, III, i, 170). We did not seek the Lord’s love, but He reached to us in Jesus and gave it anyway. When that message has its way with us, it changes the nature of the darkness we’re in—at least as far as the message of Advent is concerned. We’re in the darkness of anticipation, now, rather than sinful ignorance. We’re waiting for Christmas. We can’t see it yet, but we know it’s coming. We’re waiting for Holy Week. We’re not there yet, but we know it will arrive. We’re always watching for the Last Day. It hasn’t arrived yet. But still, “Your light will break forth like the dawn,” the Prophet Isaiah says of these things. He means to say that even as we are in the dark, each of these moments sits at the edge of arrival. Believers know this. We’re past midnight and the blackness of night is turning into day. As time is concerned, Christmas and Holy Week will be here soon enough. As far as the Last Day, Jesus said, “Be ready.” And so, by faith, Christians are ready.

I know I’ve mentioned to you before that I love the liturgical color blue that adorns the Lord’s house for Advent. It’s because of everything I mentioned already. The deep, dark blue that we use here at Our Savior is the perfect color for communicating this hopeful anticipation. Still, this is the last year in our three-year cycle for blue. We’ll return to using violet next year. Violet’s a good color, too. In fact, I often get razzed by fellow Lutherans because we’re using blue when violet is the more traditional color. Well, okay.

Anyway, no matter the liturgical color, my prayer for you is that the season of Advent will carry you in these wonderful theological currents. For the one who trusts in the merits of Jesus, each current ends in a good place. Each ends one brings us to the redemptive work of Jesus on the cross and the wonderful reward of eternal life given, whether that be when we die or if the Lord returns first in glory.