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.

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).

A Whole Lot of Nothing

There was a storm that passed through Livingston and Genesee counties last Thursday evening, one that put on quite the show as it approached. If you’re at all familiar with the show “Stranger Things,” from a distance, the storm was eerily similar to those lightning cast skies in the realm of the “Upside Down.” I fully expected to see the Shadow Monster hovering above Argentine, which is the town immediately west of us.

Jennifer and I spent some time on the front porch watching the storm roll in. It looked pretty threatening. It wasn’t until Madeline intercepted news from the frontline using her weather app that I decided to go the nearby gas station to fill up the gas cans I keep on hand for use with our generator. The forecast indicated high winds and large hail destined for Linden around 9:35 pm.

It was coming, and based on the reported time, I only had about 15 minutes to get to the gas station and back.

I managed the round trip in about 8 minutes. When I got home, the winds were picking up. What was once a relatively mild sky was now in the process of being palled by a shredded covering of blackness—a giant layer with tattered edges being pulled over the earth. There were moments when the portion of the storm creeping over our house actually took the shape of grizzled hands at the end of stub-like arms reaching after the calmer sky. Bright bursts of lightning coursed around and through all of it, and with the clouds being so low, each abrupt surge was powerful enough to rival noonday light, giving the impression someone was standing at the sun’s light switch turning it on and off again.

It was a menacing display, but it was also quite remarkable.

The storm didn’t fully arrive until about 10:00 pm, which was well after predicted. And when it did, it was a whole lot of nothing. The winds were strong at times, and there were a few periods of rain with larger-than-usual drops, but other than that, the intimidating forecast of its strength was far more than its actual grip. It appeared terrifying on approach, which stirred my worry, but in the end, it had barely enough force to knock the leaves from the trees let alone the power from the neighborhood.

Worry is a strange thing, isn’t it? Seneca wrote that there are more things “that frighten us than injure us, and we suffer more in imagination than in reality.”

How true. And while I’m one for the hearty employment of imagination, nevertheless, the mind’s eye still proves its binding to sin. Worry hires our imaginations in order to accomplish its dirty deeds of despair and trustless anxiety.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with reading the context of an uncertain scene, and by its cues, doing what’s necessary to prepare. We’d be fools to hear the forecast of a terrible storm and not do all we can to get ready. For example, our congregation just faced off with a pretty significant pile of bills. The mortgage, payroll, and a mass of other obligations came due all in the same week. We knew they were coming. We could see the clouds gathering on the horizon, and it was pretty scary. With that, we communicated and we prepared. I’m here to tell you that we navigated the winds and waves and did not sink.

A few years back, a former member of Our Savior told me to my face not only that he was leaving for a different church, but also that when such financial situations loomed at Our Savior (and such things were pretty regular back in those days), I’d miss his offerings in the collection plate. In fact, he was sure to tell others in leadership that he was giving us six months before we’d be forced to close our doors.

That was in 2011.

I’ll admit that in the moment, it was a worrisome thing to hear from him. Still, I knew right then and there that a man will only say such things if he believes the only way for success in this life and the next is by his own efforts—that everything depends on him—that the only way he can save himself and all he loves is if he shutters the windows and has plenty of gas for the generator.

I get the feeling that worry’s gravity is exceptionally heavy for such self-oriented people. Even the small storms become big for a person trapped within his or herself. The smallest things become destructive. A singular raindrop of an innocuous word from a friend has the potential for causing a massive divide between two people. That raindrop is like a torrential flood. It sends the person running for the sandbags.

As I type away at my keyboard and share these thoughts unfiltered or unfocused, I guess part of my point is to say that whether the challenge you’re facing is a monumental tempest or a raindrop of concern, steering into them believing you’re the captain is never a safe bet, and it’s dangerous.

The doors of Our Savior in Hartland, Michigan will close if God wants them to close. In the meantime, the words of Nick Fury to Agent Hill in the movie “The Avengers” comes to mind: “Until such time as the world ends, we will act as though it intends to spin on.”

Of course for Christians, there are better words we can consider when facing insurmountable odds:

“But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint” (Isaiah 40:31).

These are better because they’ve been given not from fiction but from fact. They roll from the divine mouth of our loving God—a Captain who stands unrattled against any and every gale, a God who sent His Son into the cyclone of Death to defeat it from the inside, stealing away its supremacy in this world—and giving the fruits of the victory to all who trust in Him.

By such a Gospel, mistakes can be made among friends and the world they share will spin on. An alp-sized avalanche of expenses can drop on us and we’ll be okay. It won’t be easy, but in the end, the worst we have to fear in any situation is Death, and that has already been brushed aside as a whole lot of nothing.

Like the storm that passed through Linden, Michigan last Thursday.

Even Jesus Took A Break

A two week vacation is one thing. The regimen of actual life is quite another. I’m sure you realize this.

It might sound unbelievable, but Jen and I figured out that the vacation we just ended was the seventh in my twenty-five years of church work. What’s unbelievable to me is that before we started taking a vacation, I never knew just how much I actually needed one.

As a kid growing up in central Illinois, it was never assumed that at some point during the summer break, the family would board a plane or jump into a car and leave everything behind. Summer wasn’t much more than freedom from the school day’s shackles. It was about getting up and feeling like every morning was Saturday. It was about counting out a hundred pennies from the penny jar (which was the entry fee to the local pool), putting them into a paper cup, and doing my best not to spill them while holding a towel and riding my bike. Or perhaps my day would begin by eating a bowl of cereal, putting my ball glove through the handlebars of my bicycle before hopping on, and adventuring through the streets of Danville with my neighborhood friends until the sun went down. Somewhere along the way, we’d find food and water. Somewhere along the way, we’d jump ramps and play games like “hot box.” Somewhere along the way, we’d make new bike trails through mid-city fields and forests behind familiar neighborhoods. Somewhere along the way we’d end up in a wrestling match—sometimes for fun and sometimes not. And always before the last of the street lights came on, my bike was back in the shed and I was ready to call it a day—at least until the late night monster movies slid in behind the evening news. Then it was time to sprawl out on the living room floor, my head resting in my hands on propped elbows, and doing my best to see if I could stay awake through to the end of the double feature.

I suppose beyond any of this, getting away meant going camping at a state park just outside of town, a place we knew just as well as our own neighborhoods. And while there, the kids would do the exact same things we did in the city. We’d ride our bikes, play hot box, cut trails, and get into scraps—all coming to an end when the campfire lights were brighter than the sky and the mosquitoes were on the hunt.

I guess what I’m saying is that I’ve never really known how important it is to actually take the time to put some distance between “self” and “actual life”—to actually go and do and be something that’s a little bit different than what you are the rest of the year.

For me, the going, doing, and being has pretty much become about my role as a husband, father, and writer. Yes, I experience these roles every day of the year, but admittedly, they’re more than overshadowed by my role as “pastor.” I’m a man who is and must be accessible to hundreds of others who aren’t my wife or children. As someone who enjoys the creative writing process, most of what I scribe ends up in sermons, eNews articles, or other such outlets aimed at the fulfillment of others.

It might sound like what I do all year long isn’t fulfilling, but that’s not what I mean. On vacation, things are different. Very different. And this good. And I’ve learned just how healthy it can be. Knowing this, I continue to sort out the boundaries for protecting the Thoma vacation.

Just to give you some perspective on this, while sitting on the couch watching “Shark Week” reruns with the kids, I heard a ping to my phone. It was a text from the congregation president. He’d just finished a special council meeting and was asking if I might send out a quick email to let folks know about the congregation meeting being scheduled for July 21. The meeting has to happen soon in order to complete the efforts of the Call Committee. Now, this gent is more than mindful of the sanctity of my time away, and so his text was somewhat sheepish. He just didn’t want to bother me. Still, I understand why he sent the text. As the congregation president, he had to. I’m the only one who has access to the eNews mailing list, and our by-laws require a two week notice for a congregation meeting. But no sooner than I sent that email did I receive a collection of reply messages, phone calls, and texts from folks inside and outside of the congregation—all on the mailing list—who thought I was home from my vacation. I sent a text back to the president—one adorned with a smiley face to let him know I wasn’t bothered by his request, but that next time I would just give him access to the mailing list.

Lesson learned, just like others the Thoma family has cultured over the years.

Now that we know the joy-filled rejuvenation of vacationing, we have established a family rule that we cannot vacation within a one thousand mile radius of our home. It’s kind of a mental thing. It stems from the attempts we’ve made in the past to take vacations only to be called back a few days into the getaway because of an emergency. With that, we decided that if we’re ever going to accomplish an actual vacation, we’d have to kick for the goal line. That’s when we started going to Florida instead of places like Traverse City. When we’re only a few hundred miles away, it seems easier for me to just pack up and head back home, leaving the family behind to finish the vacation.

But mentally, a thousand miles seems a lot harder. And it’s certainly more convincing on the phone.

“Pastor, there’s been a zombie outbreak in Hartland. We need you to come home and provide spiritual care to the ones who’ve been bitten and are dying. And while you’re here, we sure could use your help fighting the ones who are turning.”

“I’m a thousand miles away. Grab a Bible and pray the Psalms with them. Just be sure to do it wearing body armor—in case they turn before you finish. I’ll be back on Friday night. On Saturday, I’ll finish unpacking, and then I’ll grab my bat and get down to Hartland to help you fight the undead.”

If the caller is persistent, I’d remind him or her that rest is essential, even for Christians. We’re the ones put into place to hold the lines against both visible and invisible forces. And don’t forget, even as God doesn’t necessarily need to rest, He certainly set the stage for us to know what it means after He created the world. Ultimately, He ended up mandating rest. And then the Son of God, Jesus Christ, came along and put another divine stamp of approval on the idea of rest when He reminded us that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). A few chapters later, He urged His disciples to join Him in a much needed time of rest away from the busy cadence of serving the people (Mark 6:31).

Even Jesus took a break.

Yes, I know at a base level, when we’re talking about Sabbath rest, we’re being led to the importance of holy worship—that time of respite in the arms of the One who cares for us, giving us the forgiveness of sins and strengthening us for life in this world. But the theme of mental and physical rest is woven into these details, too. God sometimes has to mandate the good things, the beneficial things. He has to mandate silence. He has to mandate reverence. He has to mandate prayer. He has to mandate rest. He knows that if He doesn’t tell us to do it, we won’t, and then we’ll miss the benefits inherent to these things.

I guess the reason I’m spending so much time with all of this is because, first, I haven’t written an eNews article in two weeks and it’s sort of bottled up. Remember, when I sit down to write these things, it’s more or less a “say whatever comes to mind” scenario. But second, be sure to take a vacation. It doesn’t mean you have to go anywhere. It just means separating from the regimen of everyday life in order to rejuvenate the “self.”

We all need it. We might not think we do. We might think we can continue to go and go and go without ever slowing down, but we can’t. God knows it. And it’s been a hard lesson for me to learn over the course of twenty-five years.

And so with that, if you haven’t already, I hope you’ll find some time this summer to land at a restful place—whether that be a cabin up north, a place somewhere down south, or your own back yard. I hope it’ll be a time of thankfulness to God for His merciful kindness. I hope you’ll find rejuvenation, so that when the dust of everyday existence kicks up again, you’ll be just as ready as the rest of us to lock arms and hold the line in the trenches.

A New Year’s Day “Thank You”

I thought I’d take a quick moment and offer an anticipatory New Year’s Day “thank you” from a pastor’s perspective to all the faithful Christians who make up all of the Christian congregations.

Thank you.

Thank you to the one who sees visitors, and without hesitation, greets them with a beaming smile and a genuine welcome.

Thank you to the one serving on the altar guild, the one who won’t leave until that one flower that just won’t sit correctly among the bouquets adorning the Lord’s altar is right, the one who will take such great care well before and after worship to see that the Lord’s holy things are kept in careful ways, ways befitting of royalty.

Thank you to the one who will traverse the aisles of the church nave, doing what he or she can to see to a presentable place of worship.

Thank you to the one who gives hours of time to decorate the church nave by season, the one who carries and lifts and unfolds and irons all so that in a few short weeks it will be necessary to carry and lift and fold once more.

Thank you to the one who stands near the entrance of the church nave before worship being certain that all in attendance have what they need before worship begins.

Thank you to the one who gives a smile of encouragement to the young father and mother struggling with their little ones.

Thank you to that young couple for wrestling through a challenging morning, for getting the little ones breakfast, for getting them dressed, for doing all they can to teach their little ones the vernacular of the Church’s faith and worship in the same way their parents taught them.

Thank you to the single parent who does this alone.

Thank you to the one who serves on a board or committee, giving tirelessly so that a specific gathering of people in a particular place might be a useful tool in the Lord’s hands for the extension of His Gospel kingdom.

Thank you to the one who sees a crooked banner and gives it a nudge to straighten it.

Thank you to the one who walks through the entirety of the church/school campus after worship or an event in order to make sure that doors are locked, the alarms are set, and that the facility that the Lord has seen fit to grant is safe and ready for the next day’s potential.

Thank you to the one who vacuums the floors and takes out the garbage, the one who sees a wall that needs some care that can only come by way of a paintbrush and then paints it.

Thank you to the one who sees a light bulb in need of replacement and gets a ladder and changes it, the same one who spends countless Saturday afternoons traversing the halls to find and make repairs.

Thank you to the one who makes sure that the coffee and snacks are plentiful and ready before the gathering of God’s people for study of His Word. Thank you to the one who cleans it all up, puts away all of the supplies, and begins to prepare for the next gathering.

Thank you to the one who teaches Sunday School, the one who gives of oneself Sunday after Sunday for the sake of Christ’s littlest lambs.

Thank you to the one who helps find and recruit the Sunday School teachers, who spends time petitioning God for faithful servants to go before Him with His holy Word.

Thank you to the one who teaches in a Christian day school, the one who dedicates a lifetime for the sake of the eternity of others.

Thank you to the one who volunteers in the day school, the one who helps with crafts, with reading, with special luncheons for the teachers and children, with playground supervision, with field trip chaperoning, with office help, and with so much more.

Thank you to the one who gives time and effort to comfort the bereaved, the one who cries with the widow, the one who makes and delivers a meal in a time of crisis, who sends note cards with comforting texts from God’s Word edged with personal words of loving kindness.

Thank you to the one who refills a luncheon attendee’s coffee just because, and the one who helps take down tables and put away chairs.

Thank you to the one who steps up to meet burdens borne only by principle leadership, the one who sits in meeting after meeting making the most difficult of decisions, the one who takes those hours-long concerns home at night and wrestles with them there, too.

Thank you to the one who learns of a need and adds an extra zero to his or her offering check before putting it into the offering plate. Thank you to the one who does this not just stirred by a particular need, but because of a continued evaluation of one’s giving, a careful reconsidering of the commitment made and the desire to reach higher if possible.

Thank you to the one who shows such incredible love to the workers—to the pastor, the school principal, the day school teachers, the office administrators, and all others—the one who writes kindly notes of encouragement, who helps fold and send congregation letters, who takes time to diagnose and then fix a problem with a vehicle, who bakes a little something extra for a servant’s family to enjoy.

Thank you to the one who keeps the same pew warm Sunday after Sunday, the one who never misses because to do so would to be found hungry—no, starving—for that which is needed for life in this world and a heart set for the next.

Thank you to all who truly emit what the Psalmist meant when he wrote by the power of the Holy Spirit, “For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness” (84:10).

Thank you.

By God’s grace alive and at work through you, I am more than confident that 2019 will be even better than 2018. You will continue to be salt. You will continue to be lights in the world and a collective city on a hill (Matthew 5:13-16). The Lord’s Word will continue to go forth through days of both persecution and rest. His mighty arm will be evident among us, and many who walk in darkness will see a great light; and those who dwell in a land of deep darkness, on them a light will shine (Isaiah 9:2).

Again, thank you. It is a privilege and pleasure to serve beside and among you. And may the one true God—the Father, the +Son, and the Holy Spirit—bless and preserve you for such faithfulness.

Tonight is the Night

Tonight is the night.

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

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

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

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

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

Her child is the answer to the Sin problem.

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

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

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

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

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

Tonight is the night.

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

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

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

Even the Sun Will Blush

I hope you had a wonderful and restful Thanksgiving time with your family. I know I did. I had a chance to play with the kids, do a little reading and writing, and enjoy the Christmas décor we managed to get into place the weekend before.

Speaking of reading, if there were ever a reason to read from Luther besides his theology, it would be because of his practiced handling of language. He sure has a way with words.

I recently read a small devotional portion from one of his sermons from 1532. In particular, he was dealing with the text of 1 Corinthians 15:42-44 in which Paul describes the resurrection at the Last Day:

“So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that was sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.”

Luther said a lot of things about this text. Still, there were two parts that peeked through to the forefront. The first was the following:

“If we stand firmly in (Christ) and do not waver, our righteousness is so great that all our sins, whatever their name and nature may be, are like a little spark, and our righteousness is like an ocean…”

Did you catch that? He just set forth a most splendid image of what it means to be counted righteous before God at the Last Day because of Jesus. Imagine the ability of a tiny spark to maintain its life let alone grow to become a fire while the entirety of an ocean’s vastness is washing over it. That spark is anything and everything pertaining to your Sin. Covered in the ocean-sized righteousness of Christ, it doesn’t stand a chance.

Simply wonderful.

The other portion that resonated with me was this:

“Further, our shame which we shall bury so ingloriously is covered with a glory that is called ‘The Resurrection of Christ,’ and with this it is so beautifully adorned that even the sun will blush when it sees it and the angels will never be able to turn their eyes away from it.”

Wow. Even the sun will blush. Even the angels will be entranced, their attention held captive.

All of this matters to us as we come up and out of the Last Sunday of the Church Year in preparation for the holy season of Advent. Both of these have as their focus the return of our Lord in glory, but also the fulfillment of the promise that we, too, will see the resurrection of our bodies at the Last Day and will stand before the throne of Christ and behold him with eyes of flesh. Not with failing eyes, but rather with perfected and gloriously restored eyes. We will be united with our bodies that went into the ground, but in an instant, they will be changed and fashioned as unto the Lord’s own body for all eternity. Luther says that the glory of this event and all who comprise it will be an astounding emittance, a shining of magnificence that outpaces the sun in its brightness. Even the angels will be amazed.

Again, wow. Can you imagine it? By the inspired Word of God through Saint Paul we know it’s true. With Luther’s skillful help, we can almost see it.

I pray that this wonderful Gospel brings you peace as you enter into a time in the new Church Year designed to remind you of your salvation while at the same time setting your heart in anticipation of the coming Lord, not only in Bethlehem, but at the Last Day. I pray that your anticipating heart is filled with a faith that stands firmly in Christ and the knowledge of His immense love. I pray that by that same love, you will be stilled to know by faith you have a place with Him in the glories of heaven when your last breath comes.