Sunday, July 31, 2016
The prophet Jeremiah addresses the southern kingdom of Judah in our text today. He does so because he lived in the south, and because that was all that remained of God’s people to address. About one hundred and twenty years earlier the northern kingdom of Israel had ceased to exist. The near eastern superpower Assyria had conquered the northern kingdom, destroyed it capital of Samaria, and had taken the population into exile. Those Israelites were gone, never to be heard from again.
Jeremiah lived in the sixth century B.C. He spoke to what remained of God’s people of who lived in the land Yahweh had promised to give them. Since the nation and God’s covenant people were one and the same, he was speaking to what today we would call the Church.
Certainly not all in the nation of Judah were true believers in Yahweh. But then again, things are no different today in that the entity we call “the Church.” Article VIII of the Augsburg Confession says that “the church, properly speaking, is nothing else than the assembly of all believers and saints.” But then it goes on to acknowledge that “in this life many false Christians, hypocrites and even public sinners remain among the righteous.”
Jeremiah addresses the Old Testament church. And as we look at our text, the striking thing is that almost of all of it could just as easily be addressed to the Church today. This is true in ways that are obvious and very disturbing. But it is also true in ways that we don’t admit – ways that we may not even perceive.
At the beginning of the sixth century, Judah was circling the drain – they just didn’t know it yet. A long history of unfaithfulness to Yahweh was about to come to a close, because he was going to act in judgment. The root cause of the problem was idolatry. The leaders and the people were worshipping false gods. Just before our text in this chapter Jeremiah refers to “the sun and the moon and all the host of heaven, which they have loved and served, which they have gone after, and which they have sought and worshiped.” Immediately after the text Yahweh says through the prophet, “Why have they provoked me to anger with their carved images and with their foreign idols?”
The kings of Judah had not only accepted pagan worship, they had promoted it. They had even brought the statue of a false god into the temple itself in Jerusalem. Tied up with this paganism in many cases was sexual immorality. The near eastern pagan religions often had cult prostitutes. The myth of the religion was reenacted as a man had intercourse with the prostitute. This was done to bring benefits to the individual. Sex as worship – it’s not hard to figure out why many men were interested in going to this kind of “church.”
This idolatry was the root cause of a host of other issues. The nation had rejected Yahweh and so she also ignored his Torah. They ignored God’s way of living life. As Jeremiah says in our text, “everyone is greedy for unjust gain … everyone deals falsely.” They wanted money. They wanted the good life. And they didn’t care what it took to get this. They didn’t care who was hurt in the process.
God had sent prophets like Jeremiah to confront sin. He had sent prophets to call the nation to repentance. Yet for the most part, they had been ignored. As we hear in our text: “You shall say to them, Thus says the LORD: ‘When men fall, do they not rise again? If one turns away, does he not return? Why then has this people turned away in perpetual backsliding? They hold fast to deceit; they refuse to return. I have paid attention and listened, but they have not spoken rightly; no man relents of his evil, saying, ‘What have I done?’”
The nation was happy to continue doing what it was doing. Yahweh laments in our text, “Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush.” They weren’t ashamed. In fact they thought everything was just great. And in our text God identifies the reason why this was so. We hear, ““How can you say, ‘We are wise, and the law of the LORD is with us’?
But behold, the lying pen of the scribes has made it into a lie.”
Those who taught God’s Word to the people were giving them a lie. They were saying that the nation was being true to God’s Word and that all was well. They had not confronted the sin. Instead the Lord says, “They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.”
In remarkable ways our setting at the beginning of the twenty first century mirrors that of Jeremiah. The idolatry is, of course, no longer one of near eastern gods depicted with idols. But there is, nonetheless, a controlling idolatry that has caused people to abandon what God reveals in his Word. The false god is the belief that there is nothing but the self – the mental operations of the individual.
This idolatry rejects that there is anything that is eternally true or binding, because there is no truth. There is only what I decide is true for me. There is only what I decide is best for me. It is independent of all limitations – even of one’s own body. So it matters not whether my chromosomes are XY or XX. It doesn’t matter whether I have the parts of a man or a woman. My mind has the power to decide what gender I am – and that is reality. It is the reality that everyone else must accept.
And of course I have the power to do whatever I want with my body. So I can join in it sexual union with whomever I want, whenever I want. I can marry whomever I want. If there is a baby inside that body, I can choose to kill that baby and get rid of it in abortion because that makes life easier for me. The ultimate goal is to make me happy and so my focus is on getting the stuff that our western industrialized culture produces in ways that would amaze even King Solomon.
Now if you are at all familiar with the Scriptures, it is obvious that this is wrong. And yet there are many who call themselves Church and affirm these things. For in our day too, “the lying pen of the scribes has made it into a lie.” With pseudo-sophistication they have declared statements in Scripture to be culturally contingent expressions no longer binding on us. And let’s be very clear. It’s not just “Church” that does this. It’s others who claim the name Lutheran – those in the ELCA. They look at homosexuality and transgenderism and abortion and say “Peace, peace” when there is no peace.
It is important that you realize this. It is critical that you raise your children so that they are not sucked in by this. But here’s the thing: you are this too. No, not in the all the crazy ways it manifests itself in the world – if you were, you certainly wouldn’t be here this morning! But you too are completely into the self. That is your false god.
You want proof? St. Paul told Timothy, “But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.” Deep down, you don’t really believe that. Your self is part of this culture in which you have no real needs, and so you consider your wants to be essential. You certainly aren’t going to sacrifice getting all those cool things and taking those fun trips in order to support the mission of the Church or to help others.
Or take sports: You will make every effort to see the games and read about your teams. You will move heaven and earth to get the kids to practices and games no matter where or when they take place. But the Divine Service every Sunday?; Attending Bible class?; Reading the Bible on your own?; Family devotions; Taking time to talk about the faith with your children and to teach them? - Who has time for that?
Like the idolatry of Judah, these are sins that break the First Commandment. They are sins that bring God’s judgment. In the last verse of our text Yahweh says, “Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? No, they were not at all ashamed;
they did not know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among the fallen; when I punish them, they shall be overthrown, says the Lord.”
Our text calls you to confess this sin. It calls you to repent and return in faith to the water of your baptism. Our text translates Jeremiah’s Hebrew as “when I punish them.” More literally it means “in their time of visitation.” This word in the prophets refers to God’s action in judging sins.
But here is the good news: Your visitation has already occurred. It happened on Good Friday. It happened when the Son of God, Jesus Christ took your sin upon himself and received God’s judging visitation in your place. When you were baptized, you shared in this saving death. You received the benefits the Christ’s sacrifice. You received forgiveness and become holy in God’s eyes because of Christ. You became a saint.
On the third day, Jesus rose from the dead. He began the new life that will be yours. You know it will be yours because you have been baptized. And so now you have real peace. The apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Because of Jesus, you have peace with God. Because of Jesus you have peace knowing that you will have eternal life – resurrection life in the new creation.
But all of this does not leave you the same. Jesus put you first in order win this peace and forgiveness for you. And now through his Spirit, he leads you to consider how you can put him first. If Jesus comes first, what will that mean for the way you use your wealth? If Jesus comes first, what will that mean for how you use your time and his Word? These are the things to consider, because you have received real peace in Christ.
Thursday, July 28, 2016
The recent death of LCMS President Emeritus Dr. Ralph Bohlmann has prompted many to recount his service to the Lutheran Church –Missouri Synod. He has been lauded as a true churchman, and in particular his faithful stand during the contentious 1960’s and 1970’s has been praised.
It is natural that in death we attempt to remember the good about a person. In Dr. Bohlmann’s case there certainly is much to recount as he helped the LCMS to remain faithful to Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions during a crisis in our history.
But we are not helped in our understanding of the present if we are not also honest about the past. As we look back, the question must be raised: Which Dr. Bohlmann are we remembering? Dr. Bohlmann was president of the LCMS from 1981-1992. During this period, a different Dr. Bohlmann emerged. I was not a pastor during these years (finishing college in the last year of his presidency). However, during that period I heard much about what Dr. Bohlmann was doing. My grandfather, Dr. Raymond Surburg, was on the faculty at Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, IN and during our many visits to see the grandparents I heard about the increasingly liberal approach that Dr. Bohlmann was pursuing. Indeed, it is not without reason that conservative and confessional Lutherans were thankful that Dr. Alvin Barry defeated Dr. Bohlmann in 1992 and became the new LCMS president.
The decade that followed the walkout and its aftermath was an important one for the LCMS in helping to chart the trajectory that has brought us to where we are today. Dr. Bohlmann’s leadership was a significant factor in this. This must also be remembered. And so I was very interested to see the piece that Dr. Matthew Becker wrote on his blog about Dr. Bohlmann. Dr. Becker was, of course, removed from the roster of the LCMS because he has long publicly advocated positions that are contrary to the biblical faith. His assessment of Dr. Bohlmann and the description of their interaction provides a needed balance to the recent discussion.
Wednesday, July 27, 2016
The following will appear in the August newsletter at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Marion, IL.:
When I entered Concordia Seminary as a first year student, I was quite sure that I was done with Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. As a pre-seminary student at Concordia College, Ann Arbor I had received an introduction into the study of theology. I was thrilled by the experience and was eager to learn more – to go deeper. The last thing I expected this to include was the Small Catechism. After all, what could a text I had studied in Confirmation class during seventh and eighth grade teach me?
I maintained this attitude during the first year of my seminary education. Yet during my second year at the seminary I received my introduction to a professor who would prove to be one of the greatest influences on me as a pastor and theologian: Dr. Norman Nagel. Dr. Nagel is a brilliant theologian and I did indeed learn much from him that is profound. Yet I also soon realized that that Dr. Nagel was not finished with the Small Catechism. In fact he often quoted and made reference to it. And eventually I concluded that if Dr. Nagel was not finished with the Small Catechism, then I wasn’t ready to be done either.
It is, of course, important to distinguish between the Catechism and the Small Catechism. The Catechism is the collection of basic Christian texts that state the Christian faith. Luther and the Lutherans did not invent these, but rather received them as part of the catholic heritage shared by all Christians. The Catechism consists of: 1) The Ten Commandments 2) The Apostles’ Creed 3) The Lord’s Prayer 4) Matthew 28:19 (Holy Baptism) 5) John 20:22-23 (Holy Absolution) 6) The Words of Institution (Lord’s Supper). These texts are the Christian faith “in a nutshell.” They are a summary of the essentials of the Christian faith.
Martin Luther wrote explanations for each of the parts of the Catechism in the Small Catechism. The intended purpose and audience is quite clear because almost every section is introduced by a statement that says, “As the head of the family should teach it in a simple way to his household.” There are two things to note about this statement. First, we learn that the Small Catechism provides a simple and basic explanation of the faith for those who need it in this way (usually children and youth). Second, we find that the Small Catechism was written as an instrument for parents. It was written so that they can teach the faith to their children in the home.
In the Small Catechism, Luther explains the parts of the Catechism in a simple way. But that doesn’t mean that the explanations are simple. In fact, in their wording and organization they contain deep theology. The words Luther has chosen to use invite deeper reflection and express profound truths .
At the same time, the explanations also provide language that guides the way we think and talk about the faith as Lutherans. This is important for two reasons. First, it equips us to speak to others about what we believe. And second, it keeps us grounded in the evangelical catholic faith as we are surrounded by a culture that wants to draw us into error.
In order for the explanations of the Small Catechism to function in this way, they need to be in our head. This happens as we learn them by heart. The first step in this process is to begin using them as we seek to commit them to memory. The second step is that we continue to use them so that they go beyond memorization. Memorized items are learned and then forgotten. Items we have learned by heart are things that we use over and over until they become part of us. Once they are part of us, they begin to shape and form the way we think and speak.
With this goal in mind, I am challenging each member of Good Shepherd to commit to memory, (re-commit to memory?) the explanations of the Small Catechism during this school year and to begin to make them part of your devotional life. If we use them daily, they soon begin to stick in our mind (though as our mind gets older we may have to be a little more intentional about trying to commit them to memory). And by continuing to use them daily we move beyond memorization to learning them by heart and all of the benefits this brings.
Each Sunday our Learn by Heart text is printed on the back of the bulletin and we speak this during the opening announcements. We will begin the Small Catechism anew on Sunday, August 15. For the most part we take up one explanation a week (two weeks on some of the longer ones). Use this as the Small Catechism text in your personal and family devotions. Work on this as families and couples. Challenge one another to learn these by heart. Speak about what they mean with one another.
A flash card format supplied by Concordia Publishing House is available, as is the Small Catechism set to music for children. These are simple words and they are profound words that equip us to think and speak about the faith.
Wednesday, July 20, 2016
Today we remember and give thanks for the prophet Elijah. Elijah, whose name means, “My God is Yahweh [the Lord],” prophesied in the northern kingdom of Israel, mostly during the reign of Ahab (874–853 B.C.). Ahab, under the influence of his pagan wife Jezebel, had encouraged the worship of Baal throughout his kingdom, even as Jezebel sought to get rid of the worship of Yahweh. Elijah was called by God to denounce this idolatry and to call the people of Israel back to the worship Yahweh as the only true God (as he did in 1 Kgs 18:20–40). Elijah was a rugged and imposing figure, living in the wilderness and dressing in a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt (2 Kgs 1:8). He was a prophet mighty in word and deed. Many miracles were done through Elijah, including the raising of the dead (1 Kgs 17:17–24), and the effecting of a long drought in Israel (1 Kgs 17:1). At the end of his ministry, he was taken up into heaven as Elisha, his successor, looked on (2 Kgs 2:11). Later on the prophet Malachi proclaimed that Elijah would return before the coming of the Messiah (Mal 4:5–6), a prophecy that was fulfilled in the prophetic ministry of John the Baptist (Mt 11:14).
Collect of the Day: Lord God, heavenly Father, through the prophet Elijah, you continued the prophetic pattern of teaching your people the truth faith and demonstrating through miracles your presence in creation to heal it of its brokenness. Grant that your Church may see in your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the final end-times prophet whose teaching and miracles continue in your Church through the healing medicine of the Gospel and the Sacraments; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.