Thursday, October 20, 2016

Mark's thoughts: A myth of "contemporary worship"

We are frequently told that the rite of the Divine Service and the hymns of the Lutheran hymnal are not welcoming to visitors.  Instead, if the Lutheran church is to be “missional,” something different is needed.  Almost always this something turns out to be some form of “contemporary worship” in which the texts and even the basic ordering of the Lutheran church’s rite are abandoned for an order of service that has been created by the worship planner and contains little connection to the catholic character of worship in the Lutheran church.  Lutheran hymns are cast aside for various praise songs which, like the order of service, are projected onto large screens.  Leading all of this is the ubiquitous “worship team” displayed prominently in the chancel/stage area in front of the congregation.

Now it is true that the rite of the Divine Service is often new and foreign to people who visit.  This is not surprising.  In fact, it is a good thing.  Christ has called the Church out of the world and made her his own.  Lutherans confess that we know the Church is present when the Means of Grace are being administered.  The Church is most herself when she is in worship, and therefore she looks very different from the world when this is occurring.

The Church has her own catholic culture – her own ways of speaking and acting – that separates the Church from the world and marks her off as God’s people. In the rite of the Divine Service these ways are made up of verses and phrases taken from Holy Scripture. The rite of the Divine Service is made up of Scripture and it has been built around the reading and proclamation of God's Word and the celebration of the Sacrament of the Altar.  It highlights and emphasizes the sacramental ways in which God comes to us and is therefore the best and most natural setting for these Gospel gifts.  The rite of the Divine Service is a very important part of this culture that marks off the Church as God’s own people who have been called out of the world and continue to receive his gifts.  As visitors encounter the rite of the Divine Service, they will often experience something that they find to be different and foreign to them.  This is not surprising because they are encountering a different way of doing the world – God’s Gospel way.  However in this recognition there is an invitation to learn more about God’s way of doing the world and to join the culture of God’s people.

Setting this point aside, the assertion remains that Lutheran worship using rite and hymns from the hymnal is less user friendly than “contemporary worship.”  Yet this is a myth that does not correspond to reality.  I was struck by this again recently when I was present at a service that incorporated elements of contemporary worship.  There was a song that the congregation was to sing in alternation with the worship team.  I immediately recognized that this was not something I had ever sung or even heard before.  All I had before me were the words of the text.  There was no musical notation of any kind.

The worship team performed their part in a manner that was done flawlessly.  The expressions on their faces clearly indicated that they were deeply involved in the music.  Yet when it was time for the congregation to sing, I realized that I had no idea how to sing it. I flailed uncomfortably in my attempt.  The bare words provided no assistance in how the piece was to be sung. There was nothing “user friendly” about it.

The music for the the rite of the Divine Service and hymns in the Lutheran hymnal may be new to a visitor.  But the hymnal carries a distinct advantage over contemporary worship: It provides music that helps guide the user.  Proponents of contemporary worship will argue that in the twenty-first century this is no longer really a factor.  They will claim that declining music literacy in our culture means that neither the presence nor the absence of music is a significant feature.

But this argument is overplayed.  True, music literacy has declined.  But if you add up all of the individuals who are or have been in grade school, middle school and high school band, orchestra and choir programs the result is a very large body of people with at least a rudimentary knowledge of music. At the very least you have people who know that the dots go up and down in ways that tell them the tune is getting higher and lower.  It may be new and different to them.  But the presence of musical notation makes the settings and hymns of the Lutheran hymnal easier for the visitor to use.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Feast of St. Luke, Evangelist

Today is the Feast of St. Luke, Evangelist. According to Colossians 4:14, Luke was a physician.  He joined Paul during his second missionary journey (Acts 16:9-11) and accompanied him during several portions of his travels.  He traveled with Paul to Jerusalem and was with him during the two years that he was imprisoned in Caesarea (Acts 21-26).  It is likely that Luke used this time to gather material he used in writing the Gospel of Luke.  Luke wrote the Book of Acts as the second volume that accompanies the Gospel of Luke (Acts 1:1-2).  More than one-third of the New Testament was written by Luke.

Scripture reading:
After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go. And he said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go your way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. Carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’ And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him. But if not, it will return to you. And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages. Do not go from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ (Luke 10:1-9 ESV)

Collect of the Day:
Almighty God, our Father, Your blessed Son called Luke the physician to be an evangelist and physician of the soul.  Grant that the healing medicine of the Gospel and the Sacraments may put to flight the diseases of our souls that with willing hearts we may ever love and serve You; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Commemoration of Ignatius of Antioch, Pastor and Martyr

Today we remember and give thanks for Ignatius of Antioch, Pastor and Martyr.  Ignatius was the bishop of Antioch in Syria at the beginning of the second century A.D. and an early Christian martyr. Near the end of the reign of the Roman emperor Trajan (98–117), Ignatius was arrested, taken in chains to Rome, and eventually thrown to the wild beasts in the arena. On the way to Rome, he wrote letters to the Christians at Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Rome, Philadelphia, and Smyrna, and also to Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. In the letters, which are beautifully pastoral in tone, Ignatius warned against certain heresies (false teachings). He also repeatedly stressed the full humanity and deity of Christ, the reality of Christ’s bodily presence in the Lord’s Supper, the authority of the bishop, and the unity of the Church found in her bishops. Ignatius was the first to use the word catholic to describe the universality of the Church. His Christ-centeredness, his courage in the face of martyrdom, and his zeal for the truth over against false doctrine are a lasting legacy to the Church.

Collect of the  Day:
Almighty God, we praise Your name for Ignatius of Antioch, pastor and martyr.  He offered himself as grain to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts so that he might present to You the pure bread of sacrifice.  Accept the willing tribute of all that we are and all that we have, and give us a portion in the pure and unspotted offering of Your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity - Isa 55:1-9

                                                                                                  Trinity 20
                                                                                                   Isa 55:1-10

Recently, I received an email that said the following, “I am Private Adviser to former Minister of Petroleum (Diezani Alison-Madueke). I want you to help my boss receive [US$70.5Million US Dollars] for investment. NB: This became imperative so we can avoid total lost to the on going onslaught against my boss by the present government in my country. Your share shall be 25% of the total value upon the completion. Please kindly send email below and your data so that I can send you more details. Respectfully yours, Deribo Agidigan.”

Now of course, as soon as I received this email, I wanted to help. After all, how could I not be concerned about the ongoing onslaught against the former Minister of Petroleum of this unnamed country? The present government simply could not be allowed to get away with this!

And in this case being helpful actually had a great reward. I could receive $17.5 million dollars just for helping to overturn this injustice! This was a clear win – win situation. All I would have to do is contact Mr. Agidigan, and probably give him some personal information like my Social Security number and maybe my bank account information so that he could send me millions of dollars.

Of course, as you have already correctly surmised, I never responded to this email that showed up in my junk email box – the place where spam emails are deposited. I deleted it because it is obviously a fraud. If it sounds too good to be true, it certainly is. Emails like this have been sent for almost as long as there has been email, and at this point we just laugh at the absurdity of the story.

We quickly learn in life that if it sounds too good to be true, it almost certainly is. You don’t get something for nothing. That’s just not how life works. And that is why the Gospel words of the beginning of this morning’s text are so striking. God exhorts the people of Israel to receive from him food and drink that truly satisfy – and he declares that this is free and without cost.

The prophet Isaiah wrote in the eighth century B.C. But the thing that is interesting about this part of Isaiah’s prophecy is that while he is writing in the eighth century, he is actually speaking to events that won’t happen for nearly two hundred years in the sixth century B.C. He speaks about how the southern kingdom of Judah will be taken into exile by the Babylonians. This will happen because of Judah’s sin and rejection of Yahweh. But God’s love for his people will not come to an end. Instead, he will graciously act to return them from exile to the land he had promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Isaiah speaks about the return from exile that God’s people will experience in the future. Yet when Isaiah does so, he is not only talking about this event. In the Old Testament, the great Gospel event was the exodus from Egypt as Yahweh rescued Israel from slavery. He redeemed them. And this rescue from slavery – this redemption – becomes an important way that the New Testament talks about what God did in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In Christ, God redeemed us in an even greater way – he freed us from slavery to Satan, sin and death. 

Isaiah describes the return from exile as a kind of second exodus. And this alerts us to the fact that here too, a saving action by God points forward to the ultimate rescued that God has provided in Jesus Christ. And so Isaiah is also talking about the salvation that we now know God has provided in Christ to all people. In the case of our text, Isaiah’s language speaks directly to us as God’s people today. He says, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.”

God exhorts people who are thirsty and hungry to come to him because he offers drink and food. He offers it without cost. It’s free! And this is not just water or bargain off-brand stuff – instead he offers milk, wine and rich food. He offers the good stuff. He gives it away without cost. It all sounds too good to be true. It sounds like it is foolish to believe these words.

But through Isaiah, God says that all too often, what we do is in fact really foolish. He asks, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” Of course, in the poetic language of the prophet, Isaiah is not talking about what we put in our stomach. Instead this is a metaphor that describes the things that we strive after in life. It describes those things that become our focus; the things to which we look for security, worth and value; the things we look to for enjoyment and satisfaction.

If you are honest, you know what they are in your life. They are the things for which you apply more attention, effort and energy than you do to God and the life lived by faith in Jesus Christ. They are the things that seem to promise peace, happiness and satisfaction. 

But God warns us that in spite of the great cost we expend in order to obtain them, they do not satisfy. They cannot satisfy. They cannot satisfy because we were created for something more. We were created in the image of God to live in fellowship with God. As St. Augustine expressed it, “Man remains restless until he finds his rest in God.” All of the other things are a mirage. They tantalize, but they cannot provide the contentment and peace for which we were created.

When we seek all of these other things; when we put them ahead of God, we sin. We break the First Commandment. It was the same for Israel. In spite of the covenant God had established with them as he made the nation his unique possession and gave them the Torah to guide their life, they had rejected Yahweh. They had worshipped other gods. They had put the things of the creation ahead of the Creator.

Sin is the problem for all people. But just two chapters earlier in his prophecy, Isaiah had described how God would do something completely unexpected in order to provide the answer to sin. He would act in his Servant, the Servant of the Lord. Isaiah wrote about him: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.”

This Servant of the Lord would bear the sins of all in order to give us forgiveness and peace. And because of what has happened in the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ we now understand a shocking truth. We understand that Servant of the Lord is also the Christ – the Messiah – descended from King David. The suffering Servant of the Lord is the same one about whom Isaiah says in our text, “Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.  Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples.” The Messiah who is described in the Old Testament as a figure of might and power is also the humble Servant of the Lord who bears the sin of all in suffering and death.

God the Father sent his Son into the world as he was incarnate by the work of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He was born in Bethlehem, the city of David, and because Joseph claimed this virgin born son as his own, Jesus was the son of David. Anointed, not with olive oil, but with the Holy Spirit at his baptism Jesus was the Messiah – the Christ – described by Isaiah. Yet at this same baptism he stepped into our shoes as he took on the role of the suffering Servant and began his journey to the cross. There he offered himself on the cross for your sins in order to give you forgiveness. But on the third day he rose from dead as he defeated death – a victory that guarantees you the same resurrection of the body on the Last Day.

This is what God has done for us in Christ. And so, when we stumble in sin, we know that we can trust in God’s call to repentance. Isaiah says in our text, “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” 

We turn in faith to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We do so in confidence we because we have seen in Jesus that God wants to have compassion on us. He wants to abundantly pardon. He wants to give us what we don’t deserve. He wants to give us the riches of forgiveness, resurrection and eternal life with him for free.

Does it sound too good to be true? Does it sound like it makes no sense? That is precisely the joy of the Gospel that we have seen in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ! In his grace and love God does what makes no sense to us. But he does it in order to give us forgiveness and salvation with him. In the end, the amazing grace of God’s salvation in Christ really shouldn’t surprise us. After all, he tells us in our text, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth,so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”