Repentant Joy

In preparation for yesterday’s sermon, at one point along the way I found myself pondering the following sentence offered during the Eucharistic Prayer in the midst of the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper:

“With repentant joy we receive the salvation accomplished for us by the all-availing sacrifice of His body and His blood on the cross.”

That’s a strange sentence. It’s peculiar because within it, the petitioners fashion the words “repentant” and “joy” into a singular, personal descriptor.

At first thought, repentance would seem to bear an edge, to be the cutting result of receiving the harder news about oneself, a response acted out in humility, a response borne from a penetrating sorrow for Sin, a full-throated acknowledgement of who we are and what we’ve done. Joy, on the other hand, paints a portrait of one who bounds along without burden, happily unconcerned with the sorrowful things and smiling as though gravity is imaginary and the sun will never set.

In the swiftness of a prayerful moment, these two words seem to be the blending of passionate opposites—like the mixing of oil and water, darkness and light, pessimism and optimism.

To really get what’s behind their comradery, I suppose it’s imperative for us to first realize these words are aimed straight into our guts. In other words, as Christians, we own them in faith. But equally, as they burrow into us, they reach our center, grab hold, and then begin steering us intently toward the end of the sentence in which they dwell—to the sacrifice of Jesus for our Sin.

Both have their eyes set upon the crucified Savior.

The “repentant” half of the phrase reminds us the words aren’t careless. Life is not a bopping along with unconcerned steps. With the cross as the heading, we keep our footing and know our location. We’re bound to humility. We know that even as we live in the sunshine of God’s forgiveness of sins each and every day—that His love is given to us freely and fully—the work to accomplish our redemption wasn’t cheap. It was quite costly. The cross of Jesus Christ stands as the receipt for the dreadful expense. The image itself prompts the recognition that we are in daily need of what Christ won on that cross. Each day we fall short. Each day is encumbered by monsters—Sin, Death, the devil—all maneuvering to eat away at our inheritance as God’s children, and we should never take this lightly.

But deeper still, even as we live in this fallen world well aware of our jagged surroundings, the “joy” half of the phrase is an expression of Christian hope, a truth that knows the death of Jesus for our salvation as it meets with the “right now” but also the “not yet.” We are free to live in Christ right now knowing that our heavenly future is secure. By faith, as God’s beloved children, we are heirs of eternal life.

Repentant joy. Sounds good.

In my opinion, these words together are incredibly thick and immensely real, and even if they were spoken alone, they’d announce far more than the most eloquent and heartfelt pleas. In two words, we learn our identity as ones who live and breathe and move in this world with a joyful confidence located in the forgiveness won by Jesus for the world to come. Or perhaps another way—we live at the ready. We live knowing that in Christ we have the best of all things while remaining honest with ourselves, acknowledging that our Sin-nature knows this, too, and would see to it being snatched away.

I like the phrase “repentant joy,” and I don’t know about you, but I’m going to be more intentional about using it in my daily prayers. I’m going to be a bit more concerted about asking that the Holy Spirit continue to work this in me.

Preparing for that Last Breath

Throughout the year I hold worship services in various places offsite. One place I go to regularly is a retirement community in a nearby township. I’m there the third Tuesday of every month. I suppose, technically, I’m not necessarily obligated to go there, especially because it’s been five or so years since anyone in my congregation has been a resident there (although I should say that within the last year, family members of folks from my congregation have moved into the place).

Still, members or no members, I continue to go. I do this, first, because of the attachment. I’ve come to know the people there and it would be really hard to just sheer those lines, especially since most of them don’t see or hear from their own churches for what seems to be years at a time. However, I’ll admit to feeling a bit conflicted knowing that there are so many other things to attend to during the week here in my own congregation, and doing what I do there takes an irretrievable chunk out of one morning a month—a chunk I can rarely spare.

But still I go.

I suppose another reason I keep doing this is because of what I, as a Christian man, am so often privileged to behold there.

Take for example Helen. She’s 98. She’s completely blind. When she comes into the little room, she knows her way to the back left corner where she always sits. She can’t see the order of worship or the hymn page that I hand out before the service, but she asks for them anyway. And then all through the service, her head somewhat lifted up, an obvious happiness about her, she sings along with the liturgy, being sure to give the appropriate responses, singing the stanzas of hymns she knows, speaking the confession, praying the prayers. She knows it all. I love seeing just how deeply the Word of God by way of a memorized order of service can be embedded in a human heart and at the ready when the senses are failing.

Then there’s Margarete. She’s a 95-year-old German. Literally. Her accent is thick. She was born and raised in a village outside of Berlin. She came to the United States after World War II, so as you can probably guess, she lived through some of the worst of times in history. She’s a dear woman who will sometimes call me just to make sure I’m coming for worship as scheduled. She got my number in a roundabout way. I didn’t see her one month at worship, and because she never misses, I asked the facility director about her absence. I discovered that she’d broken her leg and was in a rehabilitation facility nearer to where her son lives. Later that week after visiting one of my own members in the hospital, I made a quick trip down to see her to say hello. She was so happy for the visit, and she expressed an incredible sadness for missing worship and not telling me. No big deal, of course. She’s 95 and her leg was broken. The fact that she was so concerned was heartwarming, and so with that, I gave her my number to ease her worry.

What a sweet lady.

Then there are the married couples who attend. We have a few. One couple in particular (relatively new in the last year) is Wally and Edna. Wally is 88. Edna is 95. They’ve been married for 63 years. This past week they sat side by side so humbly in the less-than-spectacular setting of the little room in which the service occurs. Always a kind thing to say, Wally makes small talk with the folks around him. Edna smiles. The service begins and their reverence follows along in stride. They are absolved together. They pray together. They listen to the preaching together. They receive the Lord’s Supper together. This past Tuesday I saw the Christian togetherness of this couple take another form—a beautifully human and yet still Godly form—as Wally reached over and took Edna’s hand, even if only for a moment before letting go. A simple touch, a reminder from a loving husband to a dear wife that God continues to bless them with the joy of being together in worship.

I like seeing those things. They are revealing moments.

For me personally, they stir a holy jealousy. I want what they have. If I live to be 98—like Helen—I want to do so knowing my place in the Lord’s house. I want to be able to lift my head and rise up into the Lord’s immersing grace in the liturgy, still retaining its eloquence, still holding onto all of it within the innermost chamber of my heart. I want to continue to love it so much that, like Margarete, if I’m ever unable to be present there, I want the uncomfortably nagging sensation of the absence. I never want to become comfortable with being away from worship. I want to thirst for Word and Sacrament. And like Wally and Edna, I want to be before the Lord, sitting beside the ones I love and leaning into the forthcoming decades with hands close enough to grasp if the moment requires it.

The Athenian poet Solon said so plainly, “I grow old ever learning many things.” As I get older, I’ve learned to want the things that the Christians hovering near the century mark down at Independence Village in Brighton have. If I stop going to see them, I fear I might be distracted by other, less consequential things.

And so I keep going, because these people are continual reminders to me of the prominent rank that the regular receiving of God’s grace in worship is to have. They emit the essentiality of being together as a Christian family to receive God’s gifts of forgiveness. They beam the stamina that these gifts have for meeting the twilight hours of one’s life.

It might sometimes seem like the worship here at Our Savior in Hartland is not all that important, let alone impressive, at least not in comparison to so many other things. But when I’m with these gem-like people who dwell in the midst of humanity with the rest of us, I get a brief glimpse into just how important and impressive for the soul all of it truly is. Every last bit of what we do here is preparing us for the moment of our last breath—the moment we will step into eternity to be with Christ forever.

What could be more impressive or important than that? Not much, that’s for sure.

The Tragedy of Parkland, Florida

I meant to get word out to you yesterday, something of a comfort following the events in Parkland, Florida. And while I managed to tap away at the computer for a few minutes, seeing a scrap of my thoughts end up on Facebook, I hadn’t yet finished what I intended to share with you, my Christian family. There certainly was a lot more on my heart and mind.

And so, with that…

Once again as a nation, as a community, as individual members of the fellowship of human depravity, we find ourselves shaken by a horrific school shooting. Together, our guts are turning inside out as we watch the newscasts, read the articles, see the images—the terrible images—of one weeping parent’s outstretched arms as she receives her child with thankfulness while another portrays a parent wincing in collapse, embracing the pavement of the crime scene’s perimeter, having just learned her child is gone—snatched away so violently, so unjustly, so unfairly.

And what are we to do? Just like you, I ask myself this question. Of course, as a Christian, I know that God is the only One to whom we can turn. We do so in prayer. And this is good. But it is something that happens most often while we’re alone. We turn to our God in worship, too. We receive there the gifts that sustain not only for the good times, but also, and perhaps most importantly, for the bad. And we do it together. We stand beside one another, not necessarily knowing the deepest concerns, but more than able to admit to being equals in this world before God.

This is good, because even as we gather before him in the unified confession of our sins, we leave His presence as a holy people, justified by His grace, empowered by the Holy Spirit with hope, and enabled to endure in a world of uncertainty, sorrow, and pain.

There’s a lot to be mined from this divine reality.

The faith that is comprised of these things has eyes that are open to see what the world cannot see. It has ears to hear what the world cannot hear. It has a heart that is willing to admit to what is truly happening in this world and what is at stake.

I speak this way having participated in a press conference yesterday afternoon in which I stood beside a group of fellow Christian pastors in support of another pastor who’s received death threats from the LGBTQ community for, in essence, his biblical stance on sexuality. No, I am not in fellowship with this man theologically. He and I have very different views on any number of theological things. And I can say the same of a majority of the Christian pastors who stood there at the podium in solidarity. But that wasn’t the point. The point is that we have a common, external goal that involved protecting a Christian pastor’s freedom to submit to and ultimately proclaim the Word of God as the standard for faith, practice, and life in this world.

But here’s the more simplified take-away of my participation in the press conference as it relates to the events in Parkland, Florida…

If we as a society are willing to allow (and perhaps even applaud) any community to threaten another in such ways over such things—for what in the midst of common discourse would be considered differences of opinion—should we be surprised when the society’s children kill one another? Something else is behind this. So much more is going on.

I think that the most honest answer to this particular question was penned by Rev. Dr. Peter J. Scaer, a professor at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne and a friend of this congregation. Perhaps you remember him being with us last year to preach and to lead Bible study. I encourage you to read his words. I’ve shared them here. They beg you, the reader, to assess with honesty the compilation of situations in our culture and then to dig deep enough to admit to the findings—the God-awful findings.

Still, we’re asking, “What do we do?”

Go to church.

Heed the biblical mandate to be present in the house of God to confess your participation in sin. Be absolved of your failings, and then receive more and more of His blessed forgiveness by the Gospel gifts that preserve through this world’s darkness. Don’t look upon your time with God in holy worship as something so easily traded away for anything else in this life, no matter what it may be. Everything else is transient, and in an instant can be snatched away. Eternal life is just that: Eternal. Be immersed in the Word of God proclaimed and the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood administered for the forgiveness of sins. I’m absolutely certain that God will open your eyes in ways that such tragedies won’t surprise you, but also, they won’t overwhelm you to the point of uncertainty or despair. Instead, you’ll be equipped to grieve for and with others. You’ll be able to shine the light of Christ to those who need it. And if, God forbid, such a tragedy happens to you and your family, you’ll most certainly mourn deeply, but not as one with no hope. And I’ll be willing to bet that same hope will burst into a bright-burning pyre in others in your Christian family, folks who will wrap their arms around you, who will come down to you in your sadness, who will point you to the One who has borne your grief and sorrows in a way that certifies them as temporary and never permanent.

God be with you, my dear friends. Know that I am praying for you and your families.

But God Won’t

Can you believe that the Fourth Sunday in Advent is already upon us? I sure can’t. The days seem to have flown by, and before you know it, the New Year will arrive. I wonder what the Lord has in store for us in 2017. I know one thing He’s planning: Word and Sacrament. That never changes. And that’s good, because we need Him to be consistent, predictable, steady and sure. Why? Because we aren’t. And neither is the world in which we live.

Sure, the sun keeps rising and shining, the seasons keep changing so predictably, and the whole world seems to be about its regular business. But remember, the Lord is the One maintaining these things. The fabric of the world—all that comprises its nature—has been corrupted by sin. With this, it is both unsteady and untrustworthy. The world and its mammonous things will fail us.

But God won’t.

The next time you have doubts about this, take a quick look at a crucifix. You might not feel anything in particular, but you’ll see something. You’ll see in the image a hint as to God’s current and future plans for you because of the giving of His Son for your salvation. You may even be reminded that while everything else was and is even now sometimes very unsure—even our own selves—God acted on our behalf. Jesus, Bethlehem’s infant champion, set His face like flint to the edge and then into an utter darkness from which no one could ever emerge. His death beamed brightly in that blackness. It shattered the unsteady swirls and the unreliable messes that we not only make for ourselves, but those that we endure at the hands of the unholy trinity: the Devil, the World, and the Sinful Flesh.

My prayer for you is that you will behold the light of Christ each and every day, that you will be reinvigorated by the Christmas celebration soon to be upon us, and that you will be made keen to behold and expect the simple and mundane, but saving and most powerful gifts God gives with such regularity day in and day out throughout the year. Word and Sacrament is where it’s at, my friends—Absolution, the preaching of the Gospel, the Lord’s Supper, Holy Baptism—all God’s Word given in wonderfully tangible ways.

2017 is sure to be a medley of completely different challenges, but thanks be to God that our Lord will never let up with all that’s required for navigating into the safe harbors of His wonderful grace.