Opinions at Easter

The Lord is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

Don’t you just love that announcement? I sure do, especially during times of uncertainty. Standing on the foundation of Christ’s all-sufficient death and justifying resurrection, the rest of the world can do all it wants to terrorize God’s people, and yet we are unmoved in spirit.

He is risen. Death holds no dominion over us. And that’s that. We have life—real life.

A few times during this world-wide pandemic, like others, I’ve caught myself bemoaning what not only felt like the tragic loss of the final weeks of Lent, but of Holy Week and Easter. And please, don’t get me wrong. I more than wish we could have celebrated these times together. But the more I view the situation through the lens of God’s handiwork, the more I realize the importance of the strange context in which we heard and received some of the most important texts the Bible has to offer. We heard what God thinks about Sin and Death. We heard what He intended to do about it. We heard the story of His plan in action.

We heard God’s opinion.

Everyone has an opinion about what life should or should not be like in our nation and state right now. Unfortunately, part of the curse of social media is that we all get to read those opinions over and over and over again, and this includes the insulting ones. When it comes to opinions, I’m certainly no exception. I have mine, and I share them where and when appropriate. Interestingly, Voltaire mused something about opinions being more devastating than plagues.

That’s ironically fitting.

In the end, God’s opinion is all that matters. Once again, He is risen. Death holds no dominion over us. And that’s that. We have life—real life.

And so here we are in quarantine, and the world continues to preach to us what life is to be. Life is the economy. Life is civil freedom. Life is a vaccine. Life is a doctor saying the data is right. Life is another doctor saying the data is wrong. Life is family. Life is rest. Life is hand sanitizer, a face mask, and a pair of gloves in public. Life is curbside pickup. Life is whatever the governor decides. Life is what the citizens choose. Life is your terror. Life is your overreaction. Life is this and that.

As everyone funnels into these discussions, my hope is that for the Christians engaging in the conversation—the ones who know the deeper meaning of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection—the reality of Easter will be there for them like a lifeboat of truth in a rising flood of confusion. No matter the threat, Christians will always have in their pockets the reminder that Death has been conquered, and with that, the assuring knowledge that life—real life—is located firmly and surely in Jesus Christ alone.

It can’t be found in money. It can’t be found in fame. It’s not located in anything this world would offer. Apart from Jesus, real life in the midst of a world coming undone will always be a mist-like dream that shifts with every societal breeze. Apart from Christ, real life will always be the vaccine (or essential oil, if you prefer) that remains out of reach. It’ll be the foreign language that no one can read, write, or come close to pronouncing correctly.

In the days ahead, even as the Church continues to receive the Word of the risen Christ through some pretty weird mediums, my prayer is that you’ll commit to receiving that same Word—that you’ll remain immersed in it in every possible way, being sure to see it and hear it for all that it is during this time of questioning what life is all about. If you can, join the online Bible studies. Watch and re-watch the worship services. Listen and re-listen to the sermons. I can promise you’ll read or hear something new each and every time. Most importantly, you’ll continue to be nourished by the wellspring of real life, just as Christ said (John 6:63), and you’ll be more than ready for that future day when we can all be together to rejoice before the altar of God—and I’m not just talking about when the quarantine finally ends.

But you Christians knew that, didn’t you?

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.

The Concentrated Fire of Holy Week

We’ve entered Jerusalem with Jesus, and what a moving moment it was. And yet, the noise of the day has subsided. The crowds have dispersed. The colt, the beast that carried the Lord, has been returned to its owner. The palm branches once waved are now drying in the garbage. The garments once scattered along the road as a royal walkway for the King of kings are now piled in the peoples’ laundry bins.

This was not the D-Day landing of God’s victory, but merely the easy caressing of the ocean breeze, the pleasant undulation caused by the deeper tides, the sounds of lapping waves against a vessel on approach of a most violent shore.

Holy Week now begins. It is a vessel containing one man—the God-man, Jesus.

From Monday to Wednesday, it first makes its way to the shallower waters. Final preparations are made. On Maundy Thursday, its landing door will begin to open, and from its belly emerges the one soldier who, even as He was given and sent by order of the Father, willingly and humbly, He charges forth unarmed into Good Friday.

“This is your hour,” He’ll say, looking squarely into the eyes of the enemy at Gethsemane’s gate, “the hour of the power of darkness.” Those enemies will grin as they take to their guns, fully embracing the hour’s opportunity and giving Him everything their arsenals provide.

The razor wire of abuse amidst an imbalanced trial will cut Him. But He’ll press forward. The stinging shrapnel of Roman punishment—mocking, spitting, beating, a crown of thorns pounded onto His head with a staff, forty lashes minus one—all will tear through Him. But He’ll continue on. The speaking of the verdict and sentence will weigh heavily as it makes certain that He is alone in the battle. No reinforcements are coming. But He’ll pit Himself into engagement, anyway. The concentrated fire relentlessly spewed from the unholy weaponry of Sin, Death, and hell’s legions—Himself being nailed to a cross and propped in utter disgrace—these will pierce Him through. Still, He’ll keep on.

He’ll die on the shore of that cross. But by His death, the fuse to an extraordinary weapon will have been lit. With its detonation comes the complete annihilation of the enemy and the winning of the entire war.

Of course, victory in death makes little sense to any reasonably created mind. As the Palm Sunday hymn muses, even the angels look on in curiosity:

“Ride on, ride on in majesty!
The winged squadrons of the sky
Look down with sad and wondering eyes
To see the approaching sacrifice.” (LW, 105)

We’ll need the preaching of the Gospel to understand. It is the power for faith. We’ll need the Holy Spirit at work by God’s Word to interpret this blood soaked scene into our hearts. Only then will we be rightly positioned at a safe distance to see the One who died in the goriest of warfare suddenly take to His feet in a magnificent resurrection, shred the enemy, and plant the flag of victory.

This Gospel will be preached here at Our Savior in Hartland each sacred day of Holy Week. The effort began on Palm Sunday. It continues every day until Saturday. Monday to Wednesday this week, the services begin at 7:00 PM. On Maundy Thursday, the Triduum (“three days”) begins with a service at 7:00 PM. Good Friday continues the Triduum with a 1:00 PM Tre Ore (“three hours”) service and a 7:00 PM Service of Tenebrae (“darkness”). The Triduum comes to a conclusion at the Lord’s tomb with the Vigil of Easter service at 7:30 PM on Saturday.

My prayer for you is that you will make time in your schedule as a citizen of the Kingdom established by the events of Holy Week to receive God’s gifts for you. And if you aren’t a member of this congregation, then make plans to attend Holy Week services in your own church. If your church pays no mind to Holy Week, then go somewhere that does. As I’ve urged you before, you’re truly missing out. Be gathered together with the Christian family to hear the reports sent back from the frontline of God’s campaign on your behalf. Learn of the fierce combat. Know the cost. Understand exactly what it was that won your eternal freedom. And then from the Good Friday news of the divine Captain’s death, discover yourself equipped with a strange and wonderful hopefulness that will have you teetering at the edge of your seat in joyful anticipation of the Easter headlines: VICTORY! HE IS RISEN!

I promise it will be well worth your while.

Life is Short. Eternity is Not.

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Job 1:21

God is good. Even when the terrors of mortality are befalling us, He is good. That’s what this whole week is about—the fact that Jesus has stepped into the darkness for us.

In last night’s sermon (Holy Wednesday), I preached, essentially, that a major theme of the whole Bible is the affronting knowledge of human beings’ inabilities to get free from the darkness. I even gave my humble opinion, sharing that I truly believe that the myth of human moral progress or longevity or innate goodness dies more and more when we behold events like sarin gas attacks on civilians, or situations involving a father having to put his son’s body parts into a plastic bag after a bomb goes off in a Palm Sunday worship service. I could add cancer to those examples. I shared rather straightforwardly that the most valuable thinkers in the Christian communities are the ones who can admit to the fact that any optimism about the capability of human nature against the darkness of Sin, Death, and the Devil is, as the Book of Ecclesiastes says, “the sacrifice of fools.”

And so, when we consider the darkness, when we look into it, we are taught by the Word of God to understand it rightly. It permeates not only the world, but also our very selves, and we are helpless against it.

But now, Jesus steps onto the scene. God takes upon Himself human flesh and reaches out to us. Serving us, loving us, caring for us, He calls Himself the Light of the world. He makes sure that we know—and He proves it over and over and over again—that He is the only One who can venture into this darkness and dispel it. And He does. His life, His suffering, His cross, His resurrection, His ascension—these events change everything; almost as if the world was spinning in one direction and then suddenly it was reversed.

Because Jesus changes everything, faith in Him changes everything, too. Terror isn’t dominating. Hope is there. We have hope because we have Jesus.

This is the message of Holy Week and Easter, and this same message is the good word that we need each and every day of our lives. Before I gave you an update, I wanted to share that Good News with you, and not just because what I need to share is tough, but because I love you in the Lord and I want you to be steadied with the same muscle that has steadied every true believer throughout the history of man.

Pastor Heckert, our dear friend, has stage four lung cancer. Without sharing all of the details, the doctor has indicated that without treatment, we are looking at a window of mortal life of about three to six months. And yet, the doctor also indicated that with an immediate beginning to some aggressive radiation, as much as two years may be gained. As it stands, Pastor Heckert will begin the radiation this week, starting first with the tumor on his hip.

I want you to know that when I was at his home yesterday, he expressed his love for the Lord so very clearly—as always—and that he is trusting firmly in the will of God. This is the Holy Spirit alive and well in a Christ-centered Christian human being. I dare say that in that moment of pastoral care, being that I love the man so very much, it was almost more difficult to serve him the comforting Gospel as opposed to seeing that he wanted to serve me, too, so that I would not be sad. This is a testament to his calling as a pastor and a witness to the fruits of faith being borne and shared.

Please keep him in your prayers. As I learn more, I will communicate with you.

In this, God grant to you His eternal peace as you cling to the Savior and His promise of love, forgiveness, and eternal life.

Also, come to church tonight. If you had something planned, put it aside. Reschedule it. Come and be strengthened by the Maundy Thursday proclamation and the reception of the Lord’s Supper. Join your Christian family in the pews and at the Lord’s Altar.

Life is short. Eternity is long—timeless, in fact. Receive what surpasses all understanding and keeps the heart and mind of the believer in Christ Jesus, our Lord, for and into this eternity.

In Jesus,

Pastor Thoma+