Connecting the Dots

If ever there was a season for sharing our stories with one another, it’s the season of Advent. Advent is a season for gathering stories—the narratives of our lives. Even better, Advent leads the way as it ventures to gather up the accounts of the Bible—which are our stories, too—and it aims them at Jesus.

I like that.

I like that Advent plays by the all-important rule that Jesus is the key to understanding the Holy Scriptures. If you don’t approach the Bible through the lens of the Gospel, you won’t be able to see the whole picture. Your connect-the-dot picture of a puppy will look like more like a tornado of scribbles.

A big part of being a Christian is being able to connect the dots that no one else can. It means beholding this world’s monsters stacking tragedy upon tragedy and knowing the deeper concern behind it all. It also means seeing our God laboring in the middle of all of it for our rescue through the person and work of His Son, Jesus Christ. It means being able to see Him through the fog—to see Him when and where the world can’t.

Jesus said that would be the case for His believers. In John 14:19, He said that He was going away, and yet, even as the world wouldn’t be able to see Him, we would.

Now, you may be thinking that I’m carrying this toward Christians beholding God in the gentle display of a mid-summer rain shower or the majestic grandeur of an Appalachian mountain range in winter. But that’s not what Jesus meant, and so that’s not where I’m going. That’s natural revelation. Everyone, even unbelievers, can look to these things and know there’s a chance that a divine Someone is behind it.

I’m also not headed to where my confessional friends would expect, which is to the sacramental nature of the Lord’s words, being that He said them in context of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Yes, we see Him there, even as many can’t or just won’t. Still, that would be too easy, and that’s not what started this thread spooling in my head, anyway.

I’m thinking of something else. I have Matthew 18:1-3 in mind.

“At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’”

Perhaps one of the best ways to figure out what I’m talking about is to set yourself at the feet of a Christian child. Wind the child up for discussion by mentioning Jesus, and then let ’im go. Let the little one do the instructing. Of course, not just any child can do this, but rather, one who is actually being raised in the faith—a little one who is taken to church with devout regularity, a child immersed in the discussions of faith at home with family, a child who’d consider it bizarre to eat a meal without first praying, whether at home or at McDonald’s. These kids can connect the dots far better than most adults.

I’ll give you a very brief example.

This past Friday morning, my daughter Evelyn and I were making our way to school through the chilly darkness of a Michigan December. All the way there we listened and sang along to The Beach Boys.

California Girls. Good Vibrations. Fun, Fun, Fun. Surfin’ Safari. Little Deuce Coupe. I Get Around. All of our favorites were gushing from the roll bar speakers of the Jeep.

Winter was upon us, but our hearts proved a longing for summer. But then, right in the middle of it…

“If summer were Christmas,” Evelyn said, “these would be Advent songs.”

“Wha—?”

I was stunned, and I nearly drove off the road.

The ten-year-old girl was right. She could see a much bigger picture. She didn’t have to search for Jesus. She was proving herself attuned to Him, showing it was far too natural for her to know Him by faith in relation to even that very moment. In other words, she demonstrated her otherworldly eyesight by making the deeply intricate connection that Advent comes to us as people existing in the wintry darkness of Sin and Death. It sees us in our longing for rescue. And yet, it brings us along on hopeful melodies that look not only toward the warming sunrise of Jesus in Bethlehem, but to the full on summer of His second coming at the Last Day.

Evelyn had connected the dots. She could see Jesus where the world could not. By her leading, I saw Him, too.

My prayer for you is that you would see Jesus so easily—that you would know He is with you in each and every moment.

I’ll admit it can be a lot harder for adults in this regard. We’re carrying things children aren’t. Still, our Lord urges us to believe as they do, setting an even deeper plea before us: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

These are good words—just a few more dots in a design that sketches our kindly Advent King, Jesus.

Advent Recalibrates Us

We’ve arrived at the season of Advent. The Christian Church Year has begun anew.

Of course here at Our Savior, it’s a favorite time. This is true not only as we find ourselves brimming with excitement for Christmas—the bright-beaming décor and the colorful adornments—but because we’re conscious of the season’s purpose, and we know the deeper, recalibrating consequence Advent is in place to deliver into our lives.

It sets a very important pace for the whole Church Year.

If Advent were just about getting ready for Christmas, the season’s prescribed readings would betray such an inclination. But they don’t. They’re fuller than that. Advent’s very first Gospel reading—the Palm Sunday reading from Matthew 21—is proof. As was preached yesterday:

Starting off the new Church Year by going straight to Palm Sunday teaches that we live our lives as Christians in a perpetual Holy Week. Everything and anything we do and say from the First Sunday in Advent to the Last Sunday in the Church Year is in motion toward the cross of Jesus Christ.

Advent helps to join our hopeful anticipation of the evening long ago when the Savior of the world was born to the dreadful day on Golgotha’s hill when that same Savior went into the darkness of sin and was crucified, winning our confidence against the looming reality of the day when Jesus will return and the world will be judged.

Advent preaches both the first and the second comings of Christ.

With such preaching, along comes the Law and Gospel, sin and grace, real warning and real hope that humans need. I suppose many church-goers, like the world around us, might prefer we remain in the frothier upland of “Jingle Bells” and such. But Advent digs deeper than that. It’s honest. It doesn’t hold back on the harder news of our spiritual blindness. Advent more than remembers the sightlessness of the sin-nature. The Word of God is clear that without the recreating work of the Holy Spirit by the Gospel message of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, the Savior is unknowable to us (John 1:9-10). In fact, by default, according to the sin-nature, we’re not even the least bit interested in knowing Him (Romans 8:7). We haven’t the slightest morsel of interest for seeking the love that God is bringing. But that right there is perhaps a wonderful glimpse the beautifully balanced gilding of Advent’s. 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 this message has its way with us, it changes the nature of things. The blur of sorts remains, but now as believers, it isn’t one that doesn’t know what’s coming. It isn’t one that doesn’t know where to discover this hope that helps us see clearly. We’re waiting for Christmas. We can’t see it yet, but we know it’s coming. And when it arrives, we know the substance of the celebration. We’re waiting for Holy Week. We’re not there yet, but we know it will arrive. When it does, we know its innermost drive. We’re always watching for the Last Day. It hasn’t arrived yet. But still, when it does, we’ll be ready.

“Your light will break forth like the dawn,” the Prophet Isaiah says of these things. Paul speaks similarly when he describes us as looking through a dimly lit glass (1 Corinthians 13:12). Both Isaiah and Paul mean to say that even as we are waiting, by faith in Christ, each of these moments already sits at the edge of arrival—and we’re ready.

Believers know this stuff. It’s craziness to the world. But for us, everything is different now.

For those who were with us in the Adult Bible study yesterday, you’ll remember I mentioned that I feel bad for churches that don’t use lectionaries or follow the Church Year Calendar. Those churches are more likely to miss these imports of Advent. They’re more likely to get immersed in a pastor’s favorite topics, being fed anecdote after useless anecdote about anything and everything except a determined preaching of Christ crucified for transgressions—which is the heartbeat of the whole Church Year and its Lectionary, the first of its cadence beginning with Advent.

A four week sermon series on how to be a better tither at Christmas just seems to miss the mark.

By the way, since I mentioned Paul and his dimly light glass, and thinking on a church that knows how to observe Advent in comparison to one that doesn’t, all of this sort of reminds me of a scene from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass:

———-

“I see nobody on the road,” said Alice.

“I only wish I had such eyes,” the King remarked in a fretful tone. “To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance, too! Why, it’s as much as I can do to see real people by this light!”

———-

The scene above might not be the tightest fit, but it did come to mind while typing. Even if only slightly, it reveals that while we and the world might be seeing the same things, we have completely dissimilar interpretations.

And so, in the end, what’s the message here? I don’t know. Again, I’m just typing stuff. I guess boiling it down, consider this visitation with the topics of Advent, the Church Year, and the prescribed readings of the Lectionary as an encouragement to go to church. Don’t just make plans for Christmas. Immerse yourself in Advent, too. You need what the season offers—perhaps more than you might’ve been taught to know.

Declared Innocent

Greeting cards are designed to communicate a crisp point in a few short words. In order to do this, they deliberately choose language that does not require much interpretation. In the words of somebody somewhere, “If you’ve used ten words, you’ve already used five more than you needed.”

Okay, so maybe I just made that up.

Anyway…

I received a greeting card in the mail last week from someone who attended our recent “The Body of Christ and the Public Square” conference. It was a kind gesture, one that was offered in gratitude for the boldness of this congregation as she continues to be a beacon in the gales of an ever-turbulent and ever-encroaching world.

Printed inside the card was a short bit from God’s Word. The text in particular was from Proverbs 28:1, which reads: “The wicked flee though no one pursues, but the righteous are as bold as a lion.”

I’m guessing that the card manufacturer chose this particular text for the innards of a greeting card heralding courage most likely because it sounded good. I’m guessing the card-maker figured the text was fitting solely because of contrasting keywords like “flee” and “bold.” I’ll bet the word “lion” played a part, too. I suppose with this pre-packaged frame of mind, indeed, one could garner an image of courage in the face of struggle from this text.

Unfortunately, I’m not so sure that’s the meaning of this text..

The point of this text is the cold-truth examination of the distinction between guilt and forgiveness—wickedness and righteousness.

“The wicked flee though no one pursues…”

You know this feeling. This is guilt. It’s the feeling that people are looking at you, and they’re not just giving a glance, but rather they’re staring right into you. It’s the sense they know something about you. It’s the fear that at any moment they’ll discover the real you, who you really are deep down inside—the scars of your past, the dreadful memories you wish you could jettison into space. Guilt keeps you thinking that at any moment they’ll figure it out and come for you, and when they do, you’ll have to fess up, you’ll have to confess to the crimes and publically confront the shame you already know you deserve.

Or you could just cut and run before it happens. You could hold tightly to your guilt and flee before anyone gives chase. You could hide in the darkness with your shame.

Guilt brings this kind of inner terror and unending turmoil. With a subtle crafting of words, King Solomon paints it as seemingly foolish in Proverbs 28:1.

But then why in this inspired Word of God wouldn’t Solomon just go ahead and use the term “guilty” instead of “wicked”? Even further, in the text’s immediate counterpart, why not just say “innocent” instead of “righteous”?

Well, because the Holy Spirit certifies God’s Word as being far richer than that. He’s gathering various truths for us. He’s bridging certain gaps. He’s carrying us to a better plateau for a much fuller view of the world, ourselves, and our God.

In a simple way, we are to know that according to our sin-nature, we are guilty, and because of this, we must be counted among the wicked. To be wicked is to be tallied among the unrighteous and apart from God. This is a word of warning. It depicts the high drama of standing alone before the One who has every right to judge and punish us. In this, we find ourselves at a crossroads. One road leads along the foolish way of unnecessary turmoil in guilt. The other is a far different way. It’s first few pavers step along with Saint John, saying, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9).

The penitent Christians who are trusting in Christ and the forgiveness He gives are equipped for a better grasp of Proverbs 28:1. Such Christians are well aware of the impinging sadness of guilt. We are well aware of Sin’s daily attempts to pall the entirety of our existence. We know how easily it is to get caught in its web. In fact, we know it so well, we can chime along with someone like Cardinal de Richelieu who said, “Give me six lines written by the most honorable of men, and I will find an excuse in them to hang him.”

Christians know that of our own selves there is nothing good in us. Most importantly, we know the utter foolishness and haunting dread that infiltrates our lives when we deny this truth and run from it.

“…but the righteous are as bold as a lion.”

To be righteous is to be acquitted of our crimes. It is to be declared innocent. Before God, the innocent have nothing to fear. Christians know what this means, too. It means we know how this innocence has come about. We know that in the person and work of Jesus Christ, our unrighteousness has been exchanged for His righteousness. Through faith in Him, even as some might hound and accuse us, we cannot be found guilty. Paradoxically, are we guilty? Yes. Faith in Christ is humble, and it acknowledges the ever-present need for His mercy. And yet, are we innocent? Absolutely. Skip backward a single verse in the above text from 1 John and you’ll hear the apostle telling us that “the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from all sin” (v.7).

The Christian is now recrafted for a fearless admitting to the sinner/saint reality.

This divine knowledge is only born of the Gospel, and it produces lion-sized nerve in the face of anyone or anything that would seek to bind us to our sins and cause us to fear for our eternity.

As you can see, I appreciated the greeting card. It was a nice gesture. And in the end, it was an opportunity for thoughtful reflection, as well as an occasion for observing the truest platform for Godly courage.

I pray for this courage every day, and in those petitions, I ask the same for the people in my care. I do this already knowing that God is faithful, and that we have nothing to fear because of Jesus. His death and resurrection makes it so the burden of guilt and the frightful urge to run away begin to subside, and in place of that fear, a lion’s heart starts pumping. The Gospel of God’s merciful care feeds the wildcat’s muscles for immovability, and he’s found enabled for facing off with any accuser.

In short, the one hunted by his sin becomes the hunter, and that, dear Christians, is quite comforting.

Unearthly Courage

It was quite the lineup we had on Saturday. Charlie Kirk—someone I don’t know that well, but have gotten to know much better in the past few days—he did a splendid job. Dinesh D’Souza and Rafael Cruz—both men that I know and respect and call friends—they, of course, spoke to the issues facing the Church with passion and clarity. They were inspirational in so many ways, and their verve was contagious.

Then there was Jack Phillips. And I must say, I’m not the same man I was before I met Jack.

For those of you who attended, you know it sometimes took Jack a minute or two to find the words he wanted to say. And when he finally reached to where the words were hiding, he took them, wrapped them in an easy gentleness, and handed them to us in a way that warmed all in the room. The love in his family and the story of his new life in Christ made us all smile. Sometimes we gave a chuckle as he attempted to add humor in his descriptions of situations of sheer terror. Other times he brought us to tears as we saw him doing what he could to hold back his own.

After he and his lawyer, Jake Warner, were done speaking, I took Jack back to the green room so he and his wife, Debi, could rest a little before lunch. While there, we visited a little further on some things. Before I left to get back to the conference, I confessed to Jack that for all the good he is doing for the cause of Religious Liberty in America—and specifically in the moment for my own congregation and the community in which she is serving in so many ways as the tip of the spear—I confessed that I don’t think I like being responsible for Jack and Debi having to relive the horrors they’ve endured. The death threats. Terrorized children and grandchildren. The six-figure debts. The years in court he’ll never get back. The verbal attacks and the vitriol he endures day after day. The badgering from his own state rulers and the constant dread of a new lawsuit threatening to shatter everything he holds dear and to bury him in hateful rubble. With each moment that he struggled to communicate to us the seriousness of his predicament and the concern he has that the same things are facing many of us, too—each of his words being born from a severe and tortuous pain—I was sad that he was called upon to retell it. I wanted him to know how thankful I truly was that he took the time to be with us, and I told him I would forever be his servant in the Lord. He needed only to call me—anytime—and I’d be there to help, to speak, to pray, to listen.

Jack shook my hand and smiled. He thanked me and in a few short words reminded me that even as it hurts to tell the story again and again, such care from others makes it better. And ultimately, Jesus has already figured it all out. With that, everything will be okay. In the meantime, as a Christian family, we’re in this together.

Before worship yesterday, my own devotions began with a portion from Ephesians 3:16, which reads: “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being…” Luther offered the following regarding those words:

“Worldly people are full of courage and of high spirits, and so are Christians. Christians are much stronger through the Holy Spirit, for they fear neither the world nor the devil, neither death nor misfortune. This is called spiritual strength… Worldly courage endures no longer than there is some earthly good on which to rely; but the true courage trusts in God alone and has no other good or gold than God alone; in Him it withstands all evil and wins an altogether different heart and courage from that of the world.”

It would seem that we need that unearthly courage more than ever before these days. Those who attended the conference were fortunate enough to see such courage in full bloom in Jack and Debi Phillips.

This reminds me of something. Do you remember the shooting incident at the outdoor concert in Las Vegas a few years ago? Such a horrific tragedy. A day or so after the ungodly event, I remember reading a news article about reporter interviewing a survivor of the incident who offered some startling words. The survivor said, “I arrived at the concert an agnostic. I’m leaving a believer.”

While I don’t know the fullness of what the person meant by that, I assume from the context that his agnostic beliefs (which is the belief that it’s impossible to know whether or not there is a God, and so the person neither claims faith nor disbelief) this man’s position changed to one that admits God is real. Whether he saw God at work through the people involved in the rescue and caring for others (Matthew 5), or he was willing to admit that only devilry could move a heart to such darkness, thereby inferring such evil must have an opponent, whichever it was, this man took a step toward recognizing this world is coming undone and it needs rescue.

Yesterday, Sunday, those of you who made it to church here at Our Savior, you heard the Good News of that rescue. We were blessed to have some visiting clergy. Reverend Rahn from the Lutheran Heritage Foundation, and Bishop Peter Anibati, the Bishop of the South Sudanese Lutheran Church, were both with us. Reverend Rahn preached the Gospel, and as he did, you met with and received from the One—Jesus Christ—who provides for the rescue of a world steeped in terror. Last week you heard me preach, quite literally, that on the cross, Christ gave Himself over—horrifyingly, grotesquely, vividly. He plunged into Death’s mouth, down its throat, and into its belly to be digested. From there, he was the poison that killed Death. And then He tore back up and out of Death’s corpse by way of His resurrection at Easter. You were told by way of the story of the Widow of Nain that never before has there ever been someone who could contend with the terrors of this world, namely Death, and win. And yet, the Gospel declares that the day has come, and the One who can do it is Jesus. The week before that, Pastor Zwonitzer delivered the same Good News of incredible power. Receiving a steady diet of this Gospel here at Our Savior, whether you realize it or not, you are being forearmed for meeting with a world that would seek to crush and utterly destroy you. You are being fed by His Word and Sacraments for the courage Luther described in the portion above. This supernatural food meets you where you are, and it instills the very message that supersedes the world’s hope and gives true Christian hope.

This is the same kind of hope many of you saw beaming brightly from Jack and his lovely wife, Debi—two of the humblest, and yet fiercest, heroes in American Christianity. Period.

My prayer for you, dearest Christian, is that even as you go about your day and week and are confronted by struggles—as you watch and listen to the newscasts, as you behold the sadness, the terror, the creeping hopelessness that seems to pall a Christian’s world day after day—my prayer is that you would first be calmed by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel, which is a message not just of God’s existence, but one that actually displays and works His wonderful love revealed in Jesus Christ and His life, death, and resurrection. Sturdied by this, emboldened by this, made courageous by this and by this alone, go out into the world to be salt and light. Be the ones whom God will use to show a suffering world that He exists, He loves us, and He has reached out to us in our moment of greatest need. Be emitters of a Gospel that proclaims that on the cross, Jesus has already figured it all out, and with that, everything will be okay. And in the meantime, as a Christian family, take comfort in knowing we’re in this together. In Him, no matter the terrors that appear to consume this fallen world, we are and have been well cared for in and through the person and work of our rescuer, Jesus Christ.

God Forgets

I’m not sure what it is about the month of October this year. It’s almost as if something otherworldly has been perching in the branches of the trees—something dark—and as the leaves have begun falling away, the menacing creature has been exposed and is now swooping down to stir the hearts of God’s people to sadness.

I speak these words with great seriousness.

Within the past week or so, no small number of people—not only members of my own congregation, but others beyond our borders—have sought me out in order to confess haunting sins of the past. These deep-reaching glooms seem to have a permanent grip on their hearts and minds, and perhaps worse, are feasting on their joyful hope.

It’s no surprise. Guilt is a demonic beastie. He’s sturdy. He’s ferocious. He’s versatile. He’s enduring. He’s stealthy. Perhaps worst of all, he remembers everything. He observes the events of our past and present—everything that creates our history—and he records it in his ledger. The ledger has dates, times, images—everything needful for our indictment.

Of course, he doesn’t perform his work alone. Regret labors beside him. He’s equal to Guilt’s skill. Together, they scheme. They step in tandem. They slink into our circles of existence, and knowing the opportune moments, they strike. One and then the other. They grab hold, and as one shoves the ledger’s ugly and accusing contents in our faces, the other injects a stinging venom of hopelessness—the shameful memories, the disgraceful offenses, the reprehensible wounds on the soul so easily re-torn and bloodied.

In the scuffle with these fiends, it would seem the scene’s fittest description belongs to James Joyce, who said, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

Guilt and Regret are no small things. They’re real and they’re ruthless.

Still, I’m glad people have approached me—a Christian pastor—for help with these things. Not that I’m above the assaults of Guilt and Regret, or that I’m somehow immune to the venomous doses they’d try to administer. Believe me. I’m not. I know my own sins and I know them well. But I do have the antidote. And I’ve been tasked with keeping it on hand for you, too. The One in whose stead I stand—Jesus Christ—has charged me with bringing to others the only thing that can neutralize the venom and outmatch the darkly creatures of Guilt and Regret.

The Gospel.

Only the Gospel can bring these things into submission. A vacation can’t outwit them. They’ll be with you all along the way. Drugs and alcohol can’t do it. When the fog of inebriation lifts, they’ll be there to serve you another drink or give you another hit. Mortal distractions—a movie, a song, a favorite book—as nice as they might be, still, they can’t outrun them. When the credits are rolling, the last song fades, and the hardcover closes, they’ll be ready to resume their feasting.

Only the Gospel can meet these monsters.

Only the Good News that Jesus Christ has taken upon Himself all of our sins of past, present, and future can meet these monsters each and every day right where they are and exceed their command. Only the powerful message of Christ crucified in our place—the message of His deed of immeasurable mercy—can clad the Christian heart and mind with the steely knowledge that Jesus has shackled Guilt and Regret to an inevitable end in darkness far from the glories of heaven. This same Gospel clears the penitent sinner’s cloudy sky, urging him or her to recall that even as Guilt and Regret remember everything, the only One who has the authority to grant entrance into heaven forgets.

“I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Hebrews 8:12).

God forgets the sins of those who’ve been forgiven. And even as we so often try to present before Him our atrocious histories, He is far too preoccupied with the white robe of righteous we are wearing by repentant faith. He is far too mindful of you being His absolved child, and with that, the case on your sins has been closed. There is nothing left to discuss in the matter. Not that He won’t discuss it with you, of course. You belong with Him, and He loves you. When you’re hurting, He wants to help you. But as far as your sins are concerned, He’ll tell you the same thing I’m telling you—which is that no matter what you’ve done, the sacrificial blood of Jesus Christ has sealed the deal on eternity for all who believe in Him. No one can accuse you with any legitimacy—not in heaven, in hell, or in between. This means that at this very moment—and in every moment—you can live in the joyful freedom that “as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12).

If you’re going to remember anything, let it be that.

Christians Have No License to Hate

Minna Antrim once said, “To be loved is to be fortunate, but to be hated is to achieve distinction.”

I think on these words sometimes.

In one sense, her words are offered as a warning to those pursuing notoriety, reminding them they won’t be loved by everyone when they arrive at fame’s station. In another sense, she sets the words before her readers as a reminder, a prodding emblem for those laboring to achieve for the sake of a common betterment. We are to know that as we wrestle toward good, we’ll accumulate along the way some who despise us.

Why is this?

Because hate is natural to Man’s fallen fabric. It’s the oily-black blood flowing in the sin-nature’s veins, bringing malevolent nutrition to all parts of its body.

I think this proves Lord Byron’s words true when he wrote that “hatred is by far the longest pleasure; men love in haste, but they detest at leisure.”

Hatred is easy for us, and we can do it for a long time.

I remember a few months back I was listening to a fellow clergyman and friend (well, now I’d call him a former friend) making the point before a group of listeners that the Bible gives license to hate as God hates. He didn’t speak to anything specifically, and yet because I know the texts, I suppose I was assuming he was thinking on the passages that say God hates things like divorce (Malachi 2:16) and idolatry (Hosea 9:15) and other such resulting weeds that grew from the soil of man’s sinful heart. Paul says in Romans 7:15, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” And for the record, in the Book of Revelation, Jesus says, “Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” In context, the Nicolaitans were a group that more than proffered sexual immorality. And please take note that Jesus said He hated the works of the Nicolaitans, not the Nicolaitans themselves.

Having said all of this, what I remember most about my former friend’s overall words was the sense of defending a Christian’s right to hate in an emotional sense. I remember walking away with a sinking feeling of disconnect with his words. It seemed as though he was trying to cram the broader theology of God’s righteous anger against Sin into the lesser box of simple human passion and its fleshly responses. He seemed to be working to stir the already sin-capable hearts of his listeners to take up a cause, one that involved wielding the sword of God’s vengeance in hand under the guise of a righteous vigor against evil.

Friends, if this was the goal, it was wrong, and it just won’t do among us.

There’s an interesting passage in the Book of Hebrews which reads, “Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever; a scepter of justice will be the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy.”

The word “therefore” is pivotal here. What comes after it is to be understood as the result of what preceded it.

Contextually, the writer of the book sets the stage as having an inspired knowledge of God the Father having said the words to His Son, Jesus. And surrounding the short accolade of this particular verse, all of the Father’s verbiage points to His divine hatred and righteous judgment for evil, and how ultimately, it has been heaped upon Christ in His death on the cross. Christ was the propitiation of God’s righteous wrath against wrongdoing. From this, and finally, the anointing of Christ’s efforts for the extension of His kingdom—which is our anointing as well by virtue of having been baptized into the death of Christ—becomes one of joy.

That’s the word the writer uses to describe what’s driving our efforts for the extension of the Kingdom in this world. Joy.

By faith, we can hate evil in the purest sense of its ancient definition—meaning we despise it as the opposite of what God, who in perfect love, intended for His creation. But how do we wage war against others being consumed by this evil. The Book of Hebrews points its inspired finger at joy.

So be honest. Can the word “joy” at all—or could it ever be—an emotionally hate-filled word? Is it possible to ever say that you joyfully hate someone? If you can, you’ve got serious problems. If you try to defend it as such, you are a liar and unable to see that Godly joy is incapable of producing hatred, but rather it is unbreakably intertwined with the other eight fruits of the Spirit, which are love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22,23).

In short, Christians do not hate anyone. We are to love others. We are to seek peace with others. We are to be patient and kind. We are to exercise and amplify goodness. We are to seek faithfulness to Christ and thereby be found faithful to our neighbors. We are to engage with others gently, employing the carefulness that comes only by way of self-control.

And should any of us ever give the impression that we hate anyone while claiming the Bible as our justifier, I’m willing to say such a person will have stepped beyond the truest borders of the Word of God, and frankly, is no longer holding valid citizenship in the Kingdom of Christ until repentant faith is restored.

I suppose if you disagree, you could take it up with the Apostle John—the disciple whom Jesus loved (John 13:23)—who wrote, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:21); and “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:15); and “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness… But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes” (1 John 2:9,11).

If you need more help with this, knock on King Solomon’s door. He’ll be sure to remind you that “hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses” (Proverbs 10:12). And I suppose if you need a final lesson, sit at the feet of Jesus and hear Him say so gently and plainly, “But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27).

I suppose my point in sharing this is, first, because I sat down to type something—anything—and this is what came out. But second, because we are dwelling in some rather confusing times, ones that call for us to be vigilant and steadfast in the face of some pretty unsettling efforts against us. Still, our Lord’s superior Word doesn’t change. It is immutable. And so we trust Him. He knows far better than we do what will win the hearts of others, even those who’d rather see us fed to the lions.

And so, Christians, do not hate. Love as Christ loved you and gave His own life for yours. Only the love of Christ—lived out through us—can meet with courage the opponents of the Church and expect to be blessed. Such love is truly a fearless love, for “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).

The Devil and the Liturgy

It was Henry David Thoreau who said that “life is frittered away by detail.”

I can’t exactly say why this comes to mind this morning. But since it’s out there, now, I suppose what he meant was that it’s very possible for us to travel the vast and winding lanes of our lives spending far too much time concerned over the throwaway minutiae rather than enjoying the actual journey. Perhaps this applies to people, as well. Perhaps the lens of our examination is often focused too finely that we miss the human being for the over-magnified imperfections of the individual.

Perhaps.

In a sense, I think this maxim can be applied to the Church.

As a side to the Gospel of Matthew, I’ve been working through The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis with the sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students in my theology class on Wednesdays. We’re taking careful steps through the volume. Last week we happened upon a portion of advisory text from the well-experienced demon, Screwtape, to his nephew-demon, Wormwood, which offered, “There is no need to despair; hundreds of these adult converts have been reclaimed after a brief sojourn in the Enemy’s camp and are now with us.”

By “the Enemy’s camp,” Screwtape means the Church. He goes on to say, “One of our greatest allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy.”

I’ve read the book no less than fifteen times, and so I know where he intends to go with this. Nevertheless, notice the elementary nature of Screwtape’s vantage point. He knows and understands the Church to be a singular entity spanning the entirety of human history and finding itself born from something eternal. His words assume a culture, a language, and way of life that belongs to all believers and not just a few. It isn’t born from any of us in particular, but rather is rooted in Christ and His Word.

In other words, the Church’s identity isn’t the sole property of any one generation, thereby giving it that generation license to change what it looks and sounds like just because it no longer appreciates the details.

Screwtape continues, “But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is…”

It’s from this point forward that Screwtape turns the lesson to the things a Christian might see as flaws in the people sitting in the pews around him, and Screwtape suggests that Wormwood might begin cultivating in his patient the feeling that the Church—the true Church—is nothing more than one giant mechanized establishment of hypocrisy going through the motions.

“I don’t go to church because it’s full of hypocrites!”

Have you ever heard this? It’s certainly not new to me—or most pastors, for that matter. It’s a tired go-to excuse that I hear quite often when chatting with inactive members, and every time I do, I hear the words of Jesus from Mark 2:17 ricocheting in the empty spaces of my feeble mind: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” And which of us pastors in such a moment could forget the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18:9-14, which begins with the words, “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable…”

“I don’t go to church because it’s boring. They do the same thing over and over again.”

Have you heard this one, too? Again, I have. Although, there’s something else worth considering here. Screwtape already hinted to it. There’s a very real difference between Tradition and Traditionalism. I like to think of Tradition as “the living faith of the dead.” It’s the life and culture of the Church unbound by time—just as Screwtape described fearfully. The going-through-the-motions of Traditionalism is “the dead faith of the living.” I suspect that while Screwtape would prefer a Christian not locate himself in a liturgical church because of the possibility of what a liturgy properly understood might ultimately reveal and teach, but if his “patient” must end up there, Traditionalism would be the best he could hope for. He would prefer that the Christian interpret all of the gloriously Gospel-centered words and actions as Traditionalistic, as little more than the mechanically necessary, but soullessly hollow, placating of a deity—just in case that deity is actually real.

That’s dead faith. The demons are just fine with folks going through the motions.

By the way, Traditionalism isn’t owned by the liturgical churches alone. This more than happens in the ones with coffee bars in their narthexes, too. It happens in every church building in every nation across the world.

But steering away from all of this, my interest remains back at Screwtape’s point of origin. It’s quite the calibrating assessment that a demon would surmise that a gathering of worshippers that looks and sounds nothing like the Church of history—a church that shuns the liturgy—is fertile ground for the greatest success among the ranks of the underworld. And why? Well, in the end, the details of personal preference—what I like and dislike—reign supreme in such worship spaces. What makes me happy becomes the standard determiner, and when that happens, Sin is not so easily defined, and if that’s true, then neither is the Gospel remedy. From this, the only result would be that objective truth is obscured and Christian hearts are more easily led into uncertainty.

Don’t lie to yourself. It’s true. People are naturally desperate to chase after what they like. In this case, I’d say it’s how so many in mainstream evangelicalism find room for slandering the Church’s historic liturgy—and guys like me who appreciate it. The liturgy takes Man out of the driver’s seat, while Man wants God as his co-pilot. The liturgy doesn’t steer us where we want to go, but rather where we need to go. From its organic origins in the early house churches, all the way through the centuries, the liturgy has been a means for seeing that the shifting uncertainties of anthropocentric tendency aimed at doom are exchanged for Christocentric truths that establish certainty and save. They’re not just words and motions—rites and ceremonies—but rather they’re Godly contexts born from eternity that keep your eyes on Jesus. Every turn of the liturgy is in place to take the spotlight from you and put it on Christ.

The liturgy isn’t oppressing you. It’s serving you. It’s keeping you from frittering away at the wrong things and missing the point of the reason you’ve come into the presence of Christ at all.

This is why the historic liturgy remains so important, especially today. It’s why words like the following from Rev. Dr. Norman Nagel come to mind as so penetrating:

Thus, the liturgy can be a great gift, haven, and joy to people who live in a society and a world where they can’t be quite sure what things are going to be like five years from now, or whether tomorrow everything will be changed. In a world where everything has gotten to be so transitory and “throw it away tomorrow,” is there anything that they can count on as lasting, that they can be sure will still be there tomorrow, next Sunday, next year, and when they die? The liturgy delivers the answer, “Yes!” Same old liturgy every Sunday. You can count on it like it’s been there for a thousand years and more. When people bump into that in a world where there isn’t anything else they can be sure of like that, there is something real! And so we decline the demands of a consumer society which has to have a new model every year or every week if you’re going to sell. For then you’re talking marketing, and you’re not talking the Church of Christ and the holy liturgy. (“Whose Liturgy Is It?” Logia II 2, [April 1993]: 7.)

Liturgy. Leitourgia. Λειτουργία. This is the word the Bible uses. Jesus participated in liturgy. The Church lived it out in the Book of Acts. Paul encouraged it in his Epistles. He even instructed on how to do it. I guess if the Bible and its central figures are keen to the importance of liturgy, then perhaps we ought to be as well.

I suppose lastly, from the profoundly faithful and deep-thinking mind of C.S. Lewis, it would appear that the demons know the importance of the liturgy, too, and they have a justifiably deep-rooted fear that if we were to somehow come to the realization of its truest benefits, we might actually embrace it and be far harder to catch. We may even demand it of our pastors and defend it in our churches. I mean, which demon losing a patient in this way would want to hear as Wormwood heard from Screwtape: “Do not indulge the hope that you will escape the usual penalties…”