Let Your “Yes” be “Yes” and Your “No” be “No”

“Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”

Jesus said that in Matthew 5:37.

“But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.”

The Apostle James said that in James 5:12.

Plenty of folks spend time debating what is meant by either of these Biblical texts, but I suspect if you keep them simple—that is, you keep them in context, taking the words for what they are—you’ll find, ironically, that the way to interpret them is almost the same as their meaning: Keep things simple. In other words, know what you believe and take your stand.

Mean what you say.

Speaking of keeping things in context, I would add to the mixture the following text from Matthew 5:13-16:

“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

And now let me add one more from James 1:

“He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we would be a kind of first fruits of His creation. My beloved brothers, understand this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteousness that God desires.…” (vv. 18-20).

All of these texts stirred in together set the stage for us to know a couple of things.

First of all we learn that there’s really no arguing against the fact that as God’s people, we are a means for blessing the world around us. What we say and do as Christians—our words and deeds born from faith—have spiritual muscle. They have meaning as well as the potential for accomplishing both seen and unseen things.

Second, as God’s people, we can be certain that we’ve been established as those born from the Word of Truth—which is Jesus Christ, Himself. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. By our baptism into Him, we are the first fruits of truth in the world around us. This means that when someone is interacting with us, there’s a great chance they’ll be interacting with someone who will direct them to truth. And why might this happen? Because we’ve been re-created by the truth to be people who are quick to listen and slow to speak, not only as people interacting with other people, but as people facing off with so many various issues in general in this confusing world. We are a contemplative people. We don’t judge and then act in these circumstances based on our own opinions. In each instance, we align our opinions with God’s opinions—the truth—and then we move forward in response, doing our best to navigate the crazier details, weighing even these against the Word of God.

It’s a pretty neat thing to be a part of such a process. The ground is sturdy beneath someone who is a pursuer of truth for the sake of faithfulness to the One who is Truth in the flesh.

Bringing this to a point—and reflecting on the first two texts from the Bible I referenced above—we really can give very simple answers to complex questions, even in some very confusing situations, ones where 99% of the situation appears acceptable, and yet involve that pesky 1% that just doesn’t seem right.

Take for example what happened to me a couple of years ago.

I received a call from a representative of the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) letting me know that I’d been nominated as a “person of influence” in Livingston County and was being asked to participate with a handful of others in a fundraising event. They called it the “Livingston County Lockup,” and the details were that I’d be “locked up” at Aubree’s Pizzeria in Brighton for an hour or so with the hopes that people in my circles would donate toward my bail. In the end, all of the money collected would go toward the MDA’s research efforts toward to a cure.

It sounded great. But I said no. I’ve taken a position by God’s Word against supporting anyone or anything that promotes abortion or the trades that keep the vicious practice in business. The MDA is one of the worst offenders when it comes to fetal tissue research. No insignificant percentage of their samples are actually the remains of aborted children they’ve purchased from various sources. In fact, it’s no secret that Planned Parenthood has long been one of the MDA’s chief suppliers.

 

I can’t support that. I’ve taken a stand against ever doing so. And I’d be a pretty rotten person if I drew any of you—unwittingly—into giving money in support of it, too. As unfortunate as it is, raising money for the MDA is to put money into the pockets of the folks at Planned Parenthood and is thereby supporting an economic situation that actually gives them an incentive for staying in business. I want Planned Parenthood out of business. But here’s where it gets a little harder.

“Isn’t Planned Parenthood already funded by the US Government?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t you pay taxes?”

“Yes.”

“Isn’t there a chance that some of your dollars are going to Planned Parenthood?”

“Yes.”

“Are you going to withhold your taxes from the Government?”

“No.”

“But Pastor Thoma, wouldn’t it be great to find a cure for Muscular Dystrophy?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t you think that the cost is worth the gain?”

“No.”

“I mean, these kids were going to be aborted anyway. Some were even the result of rape or incest, so isn’t it better that they would have an ultimate purpose, and that it would be one for good, perhaps saving millions in the future from a debilitating disease?”

“No.”

Each of the above “yes” or “no” answers is grounded in the Word of God, whether its Ezekiel 18:20 teaching that a child shall not pay for his father’s sins; or Matthew 22:21 where we are instructed to give Caesar his financial due; or Romans 13:1-7 where we are mandated to honor those in seats of governmental authority. Each answer is shaped by the Word of God. And when we let our yes be yes and our no be no, we have a simple point of origin for getting into the depths of the truth as it arises from the Gospel of a love so incredibly wonderful that by the power of the Holy Spirit we can’t help but want to be in alignment with the One who won our forgiveness that we would be His own and live under Him in His kingdom.

As a father, I raise my two sons to know just how important it is in this day and age for them to be men of their word. When they say they will do something, they are to do it. If they take a position on something, make sure it aligns with the Word of God and then be unbending—even when human reason might test the fences of the enclosure, even when they become tired and they see a way of escape to a safer but less truthful situation. I should add that all along the way, they must know that their efforts matter a whole lot less if they lack humility—even as their efforts relate to God’s Word. Simply put, if you discover by the Word of God you are in error, change. For example, you’ve got God’s Word all wrong if you refuse to do your homework because Ecclesiastes 12:12 says, “Much study wearies the body.” There’s no truth to be found in hearing Jesus say “Do not judge” and then refusing to call sin a sin. These statements teach us, but in such out-of-context ways, they are nothing less than God’s Word pit against itself in the same way the devil manipulated it in Matthew chapter 4. It was there that the old evil foe tried to turn the Scriptures against Jesus.

Not good.

Our “yes” and our “no” arises from faithfulness to Jesus and the whole of His Word. And I should add that in my experience, it’s pretty amazing the levels of courage to which one will ascend when challenged by a world seeking to consume everyone and everything that doesn’t get into line with its opinions.

Having said all of this, I suppose I’ll leave you with the encouragement to trust your Savior, to know that you are children born of truth who are seeking faithfulness to the One who is Truth in the flesh. Trust Jesus in the face of difficult situations that don’t make sense or appear to require an uncomfortable or counterintuitive answer. Rest your efforts on His shoulders. He’s stronger than you, anyway. Get behind Him. He is your ever-present help in trouble. Knowing this, be strengthened to let your no be no and your yes be yes—because in the end, odds are they’re His no and His yes, too.

You’ll be amazed at how much bluer the sky in any situation will become even when it seems gloomily dark. I can say this because the peace that God provides His people in times of struggle isn’t just something we talk about as an abstract. It’s real. Take a look around. You’ll discover Christians who’ve been through an awful lot—who’ve let their yes be yes and their no be no—and yet they’re still standing.

Our New Heraldry

It may sound a little nerdy, but I’ve set myself a goal of reading a little bit of Shakespeare every day until Christmas. I’m doing this because I’ve been feeling a little like I’ve been using some of the same words too often in my writing, and I know one sure way to expand one’s vocabulary is by reading from finer literature.

I took some time to read a little bit from Othello this morning, which is one of Shakespeare’s tragedies, and I came across a line that caught my attention.

“Our new heraldry is hands not hearts.” (III, iv. 48)

First of all, this caught my attention because of the word “heraldry.” Of course, I know the word “herald.” It can be both a noun and a verb. At Christmas time you’ll hear it used both ways in one of our most beloved hymns. You’ll hear of angels calling “Hark!” as they serve to herald the good news of the birth of Jesus. Shakespeare uses it here in a way that I’ve never used it, calling various messages into a general school of heralding that has one very important reason for existing.

Second, it caught my attention because of what it actually meant in context, especially since I’ve been spending some time in the adult bible class on Sunday mornings talking about how it’s one thing to believe something, but it’s something entirely different to act on that belief. It’s one thing to preach and teach and claim allegiance to the Gospel while living as though the Gospel has no real sway in your life. Here in this particular sentence, the listener is being urged by a different kind of message. The one speaking is beyond the moment of a rallying cry. He is now heralding that your heart is useless in any cause if you are not also willing to offer your hands to the effort. If you’ve been listening in the adult bible class, you’ve heard this. And I’ve said this same thing before, just in a different way, especially as it meets our efforts to engage as a congregation in challenges both internally and externally. You’ve heard me say before that it’s of little value for you to say to anyone going into a challenge in which you, too, are more than capable of helping, “I’m with you in spirit.” I can assure you that while it sounds nice, it isn’t enough to best the opposing forces, and it might not be all that inspiring to the rest of us in the darkest hours of the sweat and tears of the challenge. What’s needed is for you to get into the match and take every opportunity to drive the effort forward toward the victory, to jump in alongside and help, to rend your hands and not just your heart.

And by the way, all of this should already sound very familiar to any of the regular church goers within earshot of this particular heraldry. I’m not saying anything new, and neither was Shakespeare. Saint James already made this point to the Christians in the second chapter of his epistle when he wrote:

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds” (James 2:14-18).

You and I both know we won’t always find ourselves courageous enough to take that little step from comfort into discomfort for the sake of doing what’s right in service to the truth of Christ and His Word. It won’t be easy, especially when it means our reputations could be scarred, our relationships could be jeopardized, and maybe even our pocketbooks made a little thinner. But there’s one thing I can tell you for sure: You’ll never find the courage to live a life born of the Gospel if you aren’t being fed by the Gospel. You’ll never be able to flex the muscle of Christian freedom, service, love, mercy, and all of the other wonders that come from being a child of the living Savior unless you remain a branch firmly attached to Him as the nourishing vine.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5)

Jesus wasn’t just saying something that sounded nice. He meant those words. And what’s truly spectacular is that such a heraldry from Jesus Himself has an innate power to convince you to believe the very point His precise vocabulary is in place to communicate.

God’s Word has the power not only to retool you to be one who is mindfully praying for and supporting the effort, but also to be one struck by a courage for rising from your knees, suiting up, and getting into the game.

My prayer for you at this very moment is that you will hear the Lord’s Word, that you will be moved by the Gospel of His wonderful sacrifice for your sins, and you will respond by this wonderfully rich grace to pitch in and help where you can—whether that be by way of your diligent prayers, your tithes and offerings, or your physical service. Stirred by the Gospel, these efforts become good works in the eyes of God because they are efforts born of a humble faith that knows and clings to Jesus alone for salvation.

Keep At It, Mom and Dad!

I love the fact that we have so many children in worship these days. Indeed, it serves the heart well.

This is true because it means that when you look around the room, you’ll see moms and dads taking very seriously the Lord’s words in Matthew 28:19-20 where He instructs and emphasizes that Christians are actually made through the two-fold event of washing with water and the Word (Baptism) combined with a regular diet of all that the Lord has given (teaching). Baptism and teaching are inseparable parts of the same mandate.

To put this into perspective, if someone were to come to me and ask that I baptize his or her child, and yet would state an unwillingness to raise the child in the Christian faith, I would say no. I’d have to. Baptism and teaching go together. You can’t have one without the other.

So, when I look around the church during worship and I see the little ones with their parents, it always makes me smile. It reminds me of the living faith that Christ gave those parents in their baptism, and it points all of us to a horizon where we see the next generation equipped to do the same.

It also makes me want to help those families with children in any way that I can. It’s one reason why we supply the pews with those Kids in the Divine Service booklets, which are designed to be a helpful resource for teaching the “why we do what we do” of the life of faith in worship. It’s also why we encourage parents to take the kids out when they get a little rowdy but then to bring them back in as soon as they are ready. Sure, every kid gets restless, and so when they decide to bang the hymnal against the pew, or shout at the top of their lungs, or run their Tonka truck up and down the hardwood pew, that can be incredibly loud and distracting and it’s a good idea to take them out in respect of others. But once the appropriate recalibration has happened, get them right back into the church as soon as possible. The little ones belong in there with the rest of their Christian family—with their Savior, Jesus Christ.

Are there other things that we can do as a community to help parents? You bet! We can be sure to give mom a hug and say, “Keep at it, mom,” or give dad a pat on the back and say, “Good job, dad.” These gestures and words make a difference. I know they helped us when our kids were smaller.

Another thing to keep in mind (and it’s something that many folks with older children already know so well) is that so often parents of little ones feel as though they are working so hard and doing all they can just to get to and keep the child in worship, all the while feeling as though as parents, they aren’t getting anything out of the service because they’re so busy with the child.

This is a very real concern, and it’s one that when I hear it, I not only do what I can to encourage the parents—reminding them that this is a very important time in their life when faithfulness to Christ in holy worship looks and feels less like something spiritual and more like riot control. Still, they are being faithful to Christ in their service, and He by no means intends to leave the parents out of the blessings being bestowed to the whole Christian family in the worship setting. With this, I also try to remind them that the Word of God is so much more powerful than we often give credit. When it comes to worship, just being there, just being immersed in the liturgy which is entirely comprised of God’s holy Word, is by no means an empty experience for the Christian. To this, in a practical sense, I try to add that for most who come to worship regularly, the liturgy gets written into the heart and mind in a way that allows a mom or dad to do mom or dad things and still receive. Because of the liturgy, the service becomes more or less memorized, and now mom and dad can follow along and be fed without needing to juggle a hymnal, ordo, baby bottle, and infant all at the same time. They become people who live and breathe the words of worship, and what better example do we want to display for our kids than this?!

Thanks be to God for the little ones in our midst. Thanks be to God for the parents who stick with it, who give it their all to make sure that their baptized children are being raised in the Christian faith. “Therefore, my beloved brothers,” Paul said, “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58). Of all efforts in the church, perhaps the job of parents doing all they can to get their kids to and keep them in worship is most appreciated by this text.

To such folks I say: Know that I’m rooting for you, and so are many others in our midst.

Letter to Pastors: “My People Are Destroyed for Lack of Knowledge…”

I was asked by Right To Life of Livingston County to write a “brief” article, and these were the simple parameters given in the email: “We would like your article to address how to reach other pastors to attend our church outreach meetings which are held only three times a year… The article would help our church representatives know how to better approach their pastors about this.” These are pretty clear instructions, but they assume three things. First, they assume that as a preacher, I can be brief. Second, they assume that I will leave the task of reaching out to pastors solely in the representatives’ hands. When it comes to doing the work of saving babies, born or unborn, I want in on it, too. Third, what I have to say is probably best coming straight from me, pastor to pastor, and not necessarily from the Right To Life representatives.

So, this is how I’d like to do it…

RTL reps, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your service. Your work is not easy, and yet you are fighting the good fight. Rest assured that your labor is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). Having said this, here’s what I am humbly asking you to do. Take this article, make as many copies as are necessary, and mail it out “as-is” to all of the pastors on your list. Let this be a communication from one pastor to another.

Fellow pastors, as you probably already know, the fourth chapter in the book of Hosea is by no means soft. Rather, it is a singular chapter from within the entire trove of God’s Word that introduces a series of chapters, nine in a row, of brutal accusations by God against His people. But as the reader ventures into this particular section of the Holy Scriptures and reads the grisly details of the rampant faithlessness amongst God’s people, within the first few verses it is easily discernible that God wants the reader to know who is to be marked as the culprit.

“For with you is my contention, O priest… My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me” (4:4,6).

I learned a very interesting statistic recently. A large group of Christian pastors was asked if they believed that the Bible deals directly with the major issues of today, issues like abortion. Of the pastors surveyed, 90% of the pastors agreed. Those same pastors were asked if they actually teach their people what God has revealed by His Word, the Bible, with regard to these same issues. The survey exposed that only 10% of the 90% agreed. Did you get that? Only 10% of those pastors are communicating to their people that abortion is ungodly and then showing them where the Bible so clearly iterates this.

“My people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge…”

The job of a pastor isn’t easy. I know this. In fact, I’d say that this is true simply because we know that while we live and breathe and move within a gathering of people called “Christian”, we are cognizant that there exists in that same group a constant challenge, a great dissonance – that is, a frustrating lack of consistency between belief and action. There are those who claim faith in Christ and yet they have some pretty screwed up views regarding what Christ has given by His Word to His church. We see this translate in so many ways, but one of the most frustrating ways in particular so heinously leads toward mass slaughter. There are Christians in our pews who confess Christ and yet on Election Day, they wake up, read the Bible and pray their morning devotion, shower, get dressed, drive down to the voting precinct and stand in a line, sometimes waiting for over an hour until they are finally ushered into a booth where they choose to elect men and women who support the extermination of infants in the womb.

“My people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge…”

When it comes to the Christian church, we pastors are to blame. If we will not actively teach, then quite literally, in the case of abortion, people – infants – will be destroyed for a lack of knowledge.

If you are a member of the 10%, then consider this a commendation and keep it up! You can count on me to serve and support you. If you are counted amongst the remaining 90%, then consider this a call to get in the game. Oh, and by the way, technically you are already in it. You are already dealing in the slimy dregs and mire of sin and death in this world. The issue of abortion exists there. And no matter how pristine the appearance of the people in your church may be, you and I both know that they can’t fool us. We know what lies beneath the glossy surface of mankind because we know and have met the sinful nature in ourselves. There are people who may not necessarily tell you that they believe abortion is acceptable, but they are in your church. And there are people sitting right beside them who have had abortions and are suffering terribly from the decision.

The Word of God that we bring meets both right where they are. This is why we preach and teach Christ crucified and risen for our forgiveness! It is by the power of the Holy Spirit through this message that the heart of man is changed and we are made new. This is the fuller exposition of a wonderfully rich Word of God that not only shines the light of the holy Law upon abortion as a horrible offense that absolutely does not align with the Christian faith no matter how hard people may try, but this same Word of God carries the Gospel of forgiveness. It provides the necessary rescue and relief from the guilt and shame for those who have fallen into the pit of sorrow, proclaiming to them the Good News that Jesus Christ, by His death and resurrection, has reached to us in the darkness of our sin and has saved us. Through faith in Him, our sins are as far from us as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12) and God remembers those sins no more (Jeremiah 31:34).

Right now you are being offered a splendid opportunity through the “Church Outreach” meetings taking place three times a year and hosted by the Livingston County chapter of Right To Life of Michigan. These meetings present the opportunity to interface with Right To Life in the efforts and to join with other Christian pastors to learn. This is a chance for you, as the Lord urges through the prophet Hosea, to pursue knowledge. We won’t necessarily be assembling to discuss theology (although the Christian Gospel sits at the heart of the gathering), but we will be working to do what’s called “cooperating in the externals.” We will be sitting together to become better versed and equipped in and for the challenges so that we can go home to our own parishes and teach the people entrusted to our care.

Consider this your invitation to attend and to do so each time the meetings are offered.

If you have any questions that you’d like to ask me personally, feel free to call or send me an email. I am your servant and welcome any and all feedback. I will help as I am able.

God bless and keep you as you seek to pursue knowledge that you may serve your Lord and His people faithfully