If Your Church Doesn’t Have a Christmas Day Service…

Ah, Christmas! The Feast of the Holy Nativity is upon us!

That’s right! The centuries-old celebration by the Christian Church that’s spanned the globe and been considered by believers as an event of all events, second perhaps only to the Triduum—the Holy “Three Days” of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter—is just around the corner.

First, in the midst of this, most pastors are probably expecting Christmas Eve services to be well attended, but the actual festival day, the 25th, to be a bit thin. Speaking from experience, know your pastor is praying you’ll make time for both days. In a sense, the 24th and 25th are a singular event.

In contrast to my words, I remember seeing an article a few years back from a fairly popular Christian author saying he was thankful to all the Christian churches that don’t offer Christmas Day services. Being a pastor’s kid, he was trying to say that he was glad the pastors of those churches would be able to dodge another exhausting (and what often feels fruitless based on the attendance numbers) effort in order to better use the time at home with family like everyone else pretty much does.

Um. Wha—?

Okay, I get what he thinks he’s trying to say. I do. But he seems to have completely driven past the purpose for worship while saying it. In fact, at their root, his words make it sound as though it’s actually possible for time with the Savior in worship to be considered a tiring inconvenience, that it has the potential for getting in the way of more important things like cooking and opening presents and time with family.

As concerned for the mental health of pastors as his words might sound, again, they sort of miss the mark of what Christian worship is all about, and not to mention why your pastor is doing what he’s doing day in and day out in the first place. In fact, when it comes to enhancing your pastor’s mental health, I dare say you might actually accomplish that by just showing up in church to receive the gifts of Christ he’s been called to administer. I’m guessing that would make him smile, and it would probably lessen his inclination to whisper along with Isaiah, “O lord, who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?”

Even more, pastors, ask yourself this: When it comes to holding the line for Christianity in a world ever increasing in its hostility toward you and the Christ you proclaim, if the impression is given by the pastor that the most important celebrations of the year are negligible, what are you communicating with regard to the every-Sunday gatherings?

Actually, let me just go ahead and be as clear as I can. What that “pastor’s kid” author said was well-intended, but dumb. I get what he’s saying namely because I know the situation intimately. But he’s flat out wrong.

How about this instead? If your church has Christmas Eve services, but doesn’t offer a Christmas Day service, too—you know, the conjoined celebrations of the in-breaking of God into this world to conquer Sin, Death, and the devil—don’t be glad for that. Instead, take a moment and consider what it means. And then after you’ve contemplated for a good thirteen seconds or so, call the church office and transfer your membership to a church that does offer a Christmas Day service, because right now, you’re kinda getting shafted.

Having gone ahead and crossed the proselytizing line, if you have any friends looking for a Christ-centered celebration of the Nativity on both the Eve and the actual Day, tell them about that Lutheran church with the tuition-free school on the north side of M-59 (Highland Road) just a little east of Fenton Road in Hartland. No, not the ELCA church. That’s west of Fenton Road. You’re looking for the one east of Fenton Road with the sign that says “Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church and School.” Yeah, that one. The one at 13667 W. Highland Road. Not only have I heard that it’s a very friendly place, but I’ve heard worship means a lot to them. So much so, they’ve never closed their doors for a scheduled worship service opportunity in going on 66 years. Yeah, I know, right? Snow storms? Whatever. Power outages? They have candles. Furnace died? No biggie. Bundle up!

I short, I hear they’re pretty serious about what they do in that place. And why? Because they sure do like their time with Jesus.

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.

I’d Like to Tell You a Story

I’d like to tell you a story. I’ve been given permission to tell it for your benefit. In some ways, many of you already know the tale’s beginning, because it is a telling of familiar things.

What I’m about to describe happened last Thursday. Even at 9:00 AM, the December sky was successfully holding back the sun’s exuberance, leaving a pre-dawn feeling.

Through my office window, I saw the counterpart to my morning meeting making her way from the parking lot to the church doors. I’d promised her the evening before following the Advent service that I’d have coffee ready and waiting when she arrived, and so I reached for and dropped a K-cup into my Keurig. A newly washed mug was already in waiting below. The reservoir was empty, so it took a quick moment to fill it. In an instant, the coffee was flowing. As it did, I was out and down the office hallway toward the darkened entryway searching for my guest.

I didn’t see her at first, although admittedly, I wasn’t wearing my glasses. Assuming she may have taken a sideway into the restroom, I stood near the door to the offices. The day school children—all but a few of the 131 of them—were already in the church nave, gathered at the chancel and practicing for the Children’s Christmas service only a few weeks away. They were rehearsing the final hymn, a masterfully orchestrated rendition of “Silent Night,” which, if you’ve ever been to this Office of Evening Prayer service, then you know there is little to compare. Because I’ve participated in it for more than twenty years, I can see it now as I think on it.

The air is cool. The pews are filled. Family and friends sit compactly, yet happily. The nave and sanctuary are dimly lit. The candles throughout are fluttering, each child holding their own light. The Advent and Christmas décor is twinkling. The voices of the children hover above all of it on the pipe organ’s melodies, as if the collective sound is coming from the heavens above, rather than the earth beneath.

It’s always quite moving. Even the rehearsals can carry a listener into divine spaces.

And then I saw my guest. Actually, no. I didn’t see her. I heard her. She was barely a step from the entryway into the narthex—and she was crying. When she saw me approaching, she quickly began wiping the tears away only to begin sobbing more deeply.

“I needed this, today,” she choked. “This is the first thing God gave me when I walked into this place this morning, and I truly needed it.”

I was gentle with my words, making sure there was no shame in the moment. What she was doing was well and good in such a place. The Lord Himself knows I’ve been in similar situations. It can be overwhelming to hear the Gospel wrapped up and delivered in a way that truly communicates its divine origin. Tears are sometimes the soul’s only reply.

We made our way down the hallway to my office. We spent the next hour sipping coffee and talking about a multitude of things. Amidst the confession of some harder histories, she noted there was no place she’d ever experienced like Our Savior. Having been raised Christian, she fell away in the years beyond her 18th birthday. But in these latter days, the need for something more had begun to overwhelm her.

She’d visited countless other churches—Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and mostly otherwise—still, she never found herself in a pew or stadium seat that actually communicated a station before eternity. She didn’t say it with the precision that I intend to share right now, but again, I’ve been given permission to tell this story.

Her words crafted a narrative of far too many churches that, by their practices, imply the selling of religion. They sought to draw her closer to their ranks in the same ways the world might try—rock bands, screens, you name it. But in the swirling confusion of their seat-filling stratagem, they never could quite reach that part of her insides that was suffering. Their Gospel of justification before God always seemed wired to her ability to produce good deeds (which, for the wayward, can only default into terror), or by making a personal choice (and yet, how can a spiritual corpse—someone who knows oneself to be dead in trespasses and sins—choose Jesus?). Their sacraments were symbols, bringing very little consolation or certainty to a broken heart in need of more than referring to Jesus, but actually meeting with Him—literally—and knowing He’s there for her.

But at Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hartland, Michigan, there was the sense of something unalike to these others.

“Our Savior is so different,” she said, repeatedly. “You’re not like the other places I’ve been.”

For her, the facility in which she was currently seated was different. For her, it not only had a sign that bore the title “church,” but once inside, it seemed to be a dwelling place for someone or something so much more—something holy. And over the course of the several Sundays she’d attended, of the people greeting and sitting beside her, none gave any sense to having been gathered by some sort of baiting impetus. None in the surrounding pews were there because of a lead guitarist with amazing skill. None were there because the pastors were stand-apart showman among a sea of humdrum preachers. None were there for a show.

And she wasn’t, either. She was in search of a place where the Divine might dwell, and her hope was that when she found Him, He’d take her back.

Stirring in this humble hope, she discovered herself sitting, standing, kneeling, praying, confessing, singing beside hundreds of others—acknowledged sinners, just like her—being carried along by a historic liturgy of solemnity and reverence. She was immersed in a service that, while strange in comparison to everything she’d collided with prior, she knew could only have been born from the same soil as countless generations of worshippers before her, a framework that began in the tiny house churches of the first century, built on the teachings of the Apostles and Prophets, all in place and sprouting up through the centuries to aim penitently grieving offenders to a gracious God who desires nothing more than to come and sit with them, to give them a Gospel of power that assures our deeds play no part in our salvation, a Gospel that takes hold of spiritual corpses and brings them to life, a Gospel that heals them and draws them close to the Son of God, Jesus Christ. This is a Gospel that heralds our God as one who holds no ill will for the sinner. He loves us. He forgives us. And He promises to be with us no matter how dark our days may be.

We left the conversation as only the Word of God could rightly describe, with the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guarding our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:7), and we made plans to meet on Thursdays at the same time in order to dig deeper into these things.

So, why I am sharing this with you, especially since in this post-modern, radically individualized age such situations happen frequently enough around here that they can barely be considered peculiar?

Chiefly, because I want to remind the members of my own congregation (and I suppose anyone else who may be on their tiptoes peering through the window of our seemingly mundane, but otherworldly, lives here at Our Savior in Hartland, Michigan) of two things in particular.

First, be glad that there are churches that still deal in the more reverential realms of “holy.” Be glad there are churches that keep the boundaries between the Church and the culture as crisply distinct as can be. Such places are in the divine business of building foundations for the long haul. Sure, people have the things they like, their preferences, their styles. To each his own, I suppose. “What works for some might not work for others,” we’ll hear said. Still, I wonder if perhaps that’s a somewhat loaded response for protecting a church formed to oneself, a worship community created in one’s own favorite and time-limited self-image. When you’re gone, what’s next? Whatever the next guy likes to do, I guess. True or not, at a minimum, be well aware that people know—they just know—when they’re being entertained as opposed to being led into the substantive presence of a divine Someone who is far deeper than the wowing experientials indistinguishable from the world around them could ever reach. Sure, the self-image ways may speak of Jesus, but do they really point to Him? Do they really give nothing else but Him? Do they make the introduction? And will it last? Will it survive wars? Will it persist even among the prowling monsters of this age and the next? I wonder.

The second reason I share this returns us to the tears being shed in the Narthex. There’s a reason Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hartland, Michigan continues putting our time, treasure, and back-breaking muscle into a tuition-free, preschool through eighth grade school. Not only is it an incomparable opportunity set before our community for getting kids out of the mind-bending education system that’s shoving ungodliness down their tiny throats, but most importantly, it stands as a beacon for immersing generations of little ones in the only message that saves. From this, it becomes nothing less than a longstanding avenue for others to hear that same message through those same little ones. All a person has to do is walk in the doors, and it won’t be long before the bright-beaming light of a Christian child will have its effect on the visitor. Children are the consequential emissaries of our school’s existence. And whether this work happens through the Children’s Christmas service, or it happens among their neighborhood friends, or it happens twenty years from now in a conversation with a fellow employee in the neighboring cubicle, what we’re doing here has limitless horizons that prove themselves as thriving in our children right now. And so we put everything into our efforts here. We give it our best. We teach and preach of Christ. We train in Godliness and reverence, learning the rites and ceremonies, the creeds, the prayers, the hymnodies sung by the early Church Fathers and their people before being fed to lions. And we gather all of it up and cherish all of it together as the wonderfully sturdy gift from a loving God that it is.

It becomes a home base for the kind of Christianity that doesn’t roll over, whether it’s before the next big distracting, anthropocentric, contemporary trend, or it’s an armed regiment sent by Caesar to snatch you away to your mortal doom.

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.