Friday, July 21, 2017

Commemoration of Ezekiel, Prophet

Today we remember and give thanks for the prophet Ezekiel.  Ezekiel, son of Buzi, was a priest, called by God to be a prophet to the exiles during the Babylonian captivity (Ez. 1:3). In 597 B.C. King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian army brought the king of Judah and thousands of the best citizens of Jerusalem—including Ezekiel—to Babylon (2 Kgs 24:8–16). Ezekiel’s priestly background profoundly stamped his prophecy, as the holiness of God and the Temple figure prominently in his messages (for example, Ezekiel 9–10 and 40–48). From 593 B.C. to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 587 B.C., Ezekiel prophesied the inevitability of divine judgment on Jerusalem, on the exiles in Babylon, and on seven nations that surrounded Israel (Ezekiel 1–32). Jerusalem would fall, and the exiles would not quickly return, as a just consequence of their sin. Once word reached Ezekiel that Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed, his message became one of comfort and hope. Through him God promised that his people would experience future restoration, renewal and revival in the coming Messianic kingdom (Ezekiel 33–48). Much of the strange symbolism of Ezekiel’s prophecies was later employed in the Revelation to St. John.

Collect of the Day:
 Lord God, heavenly Father, through the prophet Ezekiel, you continued the prophetic pattern of teaching your people the true 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.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Commemoration of Elijah, Prophet

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.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity - Lk 5:1-11

                                                                                    Trinity 5
                                                                                    Lk 5:1-11

            Televisions shows have undergone something of a revolution during the last several years. The continued development of online capabilities allowed Netflix to move from being a service that sent you DVD’s in the mail, to one that has movies online.  But the bigger change occurred as they began to produce their own television series that are only available online through their service.  Amazon has also followed suit, and now it too produces television shows that can only be viewed through them.
            I was skeptical when I first heard that this was the goal for Netflix and Amazon. But I have to say they have pulled it off.  I have found “House of Cards,” “The Man in the High Castle” and “Stranger Things” to be very interesting.
            At the same time, this new way of producing and seeing television shows has created something of a problem.  When a new season of a show comes out, it’s all there at once.  Every single episode is there for you to watch. When people get into a series, they often “binge watch.”  On more than one occasion I’ve told myself, “Oh, I can stay up a little later and watch another episode.” You wait for the new season to come out, and then in a week you’ve watched all of it. 
            While that provides instant gratification, it does create a problem.  You then have to wait a long time before the next season comes out. For example, the second season of “The Man in the High Castle” was released on Dec. 16 of 2016, but the third season is not going to come out until late 2017. And if the series has a complicated plot, by the time the new season comes out I can’t remember all the details of what has happened thus far.  In fact, I will probably watch the second season again, before the new one comes out.
            We have a similar problem this morning with our Gospel lesson.  We hear about Jesus’ call of Peter, James and John as he works the miracle of a catch of fish.  But to really understand what is happening, we need to catch up on the details of what has just occurred in the previous chapter.  Jesus had been baptized by John the Baptist, and at his baptism the Holy Spirit descended upon him.  Then after he had resisted the devils temptations we are told, “And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and a report about him went out through all the surrounding country. And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all.”
            The next thing that happened was that Jesus taught in the synagogue at Nazareth.  There he read these words from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.”  Jesus said that he was the fulfillment of these words. And then Jesus went and showed that this was the case.
            We are told next that the people who heard him teaching “were astonished at his teaching, for his word possessed authority.”  Jesus showed he had the authority to release people from the bondage of sin as he then cast a demon out of man.  The demon cried out, “Ha! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are--the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked the demon and cast him out.
            Then Jesus went to the house of Simon Peter, where his mother-in-law was sick with a fever.  Jesus rebuked the fever, and it too left her. We learn that at sunset many sick people were brought to Jesus and he healed them. He cast out more demons, and rebuked them as they cried out, “You are the Son of God!”  The people wanted to prevent Jesus from leaving, but he told them, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.”
            When we know all of this, it’s not hard to understand why in our Gospel lesson the crowd was pressing in on Jesus to hear the word of God.  And it’s also not hard to understand why Peter was open to the Lord’s request to let him use Peter’s boat as a platform for teaching.
            Our Lord saw Peter and his companions cleaning their nets after a failed night of fishing.  He got into Peter’s boat and asked him to put out from shore a little so that he could sit in the boat and teach from the crowd on the shore line. And then, after Peter had heard Jesus teach the word of God, Jesus made an odd request.
            He said to Peter, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” Now Peter knew his stuff.  He knew that this was the exact opposite of what any competent fisherman would do.  He answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.”  And as we heard in the reading of the Gospel lesson the nets took in such a large catch of fish that they began to break. They filled not only Peter’s boat, but also that of James and John with such a weight of fish that they began to sink.
            What happened next is the really striking moment in our text.  We hear: “But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.’”  Peter sees the miracle that Jesus has worked, and he is overwhelmed. When we keep in mind what has just happened in the Gospel his awe becomes all the more understandable.  It’s the catch of fish – but it’s the catch of fish as the thing that caps off everything else.
            And it’s just too much.  Peter senses that he is in the presence of God at work in an incredible way. And all this does it to make him perceive his own sinfulness – the fact he that has no business being in the presence of God.  Peter’s response teaches us about our own sin. We like to minimize it – those words that hurt another person’s reputation were only said in jest; that anger at another person is really no big deal; that choice to blow off church or devotions is only about how busy we are.
            But that doesn’t cut it – not when you are dealing with the holy and almighty God.  Peter’s words prompt us to consider the sin that really is present in our life and the consequences that it has apart from Jesus Christ.
            Yet remember what we learned about why Jesus had come.  He had been anointed by the Holy Spirit at his baptism.  He had declared that these words of Isaiah were fulfilled in him: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.”  Jesus did not come to scourge frightened sinners.  He came to release them from bondage to sin, death and the devil.  He came to give forgiveness to repentant sinners.
            Jesus is the Son of God who cast fear into the demons. But into order to win forgiveness he came to suffer and die for you. As our Lord told his followers after his resurrection: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
            In our text, Jesus says to Peter, “Do not be afraid.”
Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead for you, so that there is now no need for fear.  Through water and the Word in Holy Baptism he washed away your sins and made you a saint – a forgiven son or daughter of God.  There is no need for fear. Jesus the crucified and risen Lord just said to you: “I forgive you all your sins.”  Jesus has released you!  His word continues to be one with authority.  It does what it says because he is the Lord. If he says that you are forgiven and free, then you are!
            Now you might be inclined to stop right there.  And if you are all about you, it is indeed the place to stop. But Jesus doesn’t.  Instead, he said to Peter, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.”  Then when they had brought their boats to land, Peter, along with James and John, left everything and followed Jesus. 
            The forgiveness and salvation our Lord has given to us sets us in motion to follow Jesus in the life of a disciple. The first thing this means for us is really simple.  Jesus suffered and died to forgive you. And so now, you forgive others. This means that it doesn’t matter that what your spouse, or brother or sister did was really dumb and hurtful.  You don’t get to hold onto that wrong and hold it against them. You don’t get to keep bringing it up in order to score points against them. Instead, Jesus’ forgiveness for you means that you do the opposite. You let it go.  You don’t bring it up.  You live with others in the forgiveness that Jesus Christ has given to you.
            And then let’s face it. There’s something else our text sets before us that is just impossible to ignore.  Jesus said to Peter, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.”  Our Lord called Peter to follow him and to be involved in catching men.  Now Jesus chose Peter as an apostle.  He didn’t do that to you.  He didn’t do that to me. 
            But Jesus has given you the good news of the Gospel.  He has given you the good news that gives you release from sin and the devil.  He has given you the good news that frees you from the fear of death because you know that Jesus Christ has already risen from the dead.  Death has been defeated in Christ!  It doesn’t get the last word, because Jesus already had it.  And so if you die, not only will you be with the Lord, but he will also raise up your body on the Last Day.  Death can’t win.
            You know this. You believe this.  But how can it stop there? This is not just rescue and release for you.  It is rescue and release for every person – for those friends and acquaintances in your life.  And so our Lord’s gift of the Gospel is the gift we share with others.
            This happens in different ways, both big and small.  It happens in the way you live – as people who know that you are a Christian see your love and care for others.  It happens as others share with you their hurts and hardships, and you have the opportunity to tell them how big a difference Jesus Christ makes in your life.  It happens as you tell others about how much your church and what takes place there on Sunday mean to you.
            This week I learned about a resource that can be extremely helpful as we seek to do this.  It’s titled, “A Simple Explanation of Christianity.”  It is the Small Catechism set in a visually attractive format.  They are not expensive – less than 50 cents a copy.  We have ordered them and will place one copy in every mailbox. Take that copy and think about one person to whom you can give it. And once you have done that and found it’s not that hard, I pray that you will think about one more person to whom you can pass it on.  I promise you that we won’t run out of copies for you to give to others.
            We do these things to share the Gospel, for the very same reason that Peter lets down the nets in our text this morning.  He said to Jesus that he did it “at your word.”  Peter did it because of faith in Jesus’ word – the same word that is described as the “word of God” in the first verse of our text.  Our assurance of forgiveness and our motivation to share the Gospel both are derived from God’s Word in which Jesus assures us that we have no reason to fear, because he has released us from sin, death and the devil.                 



Sunday, July 9, 2017

Mark's Thoughts: A brief history of private confession in the Lutheran Church

I am currently in the midst of writing the portion of the forthcoming Lutheran Service Book Handbook that will deal with all forms of Confession and Absolution in Lutheran Service Book.  The following a slightly expanded form of the first in a series of four church newsletter articles about private confession that I am writing for my congregation:

It has been noted by a number of scholars that the Lutheran Reformation began at the confession stool.  Although we associate the Ninety Five theses with the issue of indulgences, those indulgences were in fact part of the larger medieval belief and practice called penance, and penance was tied to confession.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century Christians were expected at least once a year to make confession in preparation for receiving the Sacrament of the Altar (usually at Easter).  Christians were also expected to confess when there was the danger of dying because of illness, childbirth, or dangerous travel; when there was someone available to absolve and it was doubtful the opportunity would occur again in the next year; and when they about to receive the other sacraments.  However, confession was not considered to be something repeated on a regular basis except among monks and very pious lay people (the strong link between regular confession and Roman Catholic piety is a product of the Counter Reformation).  In Martin Luther’s Augustinian monastic order he was required to confess once a week.

In confession the priest sat on a chair in the chancel (the confession chair) and the person confessing kneeled before him (the confessional booth was not invented until the second half of the sixteenth century).  The person was required to make a complete confession of sins in order to have a valid confession.  By the late medieval period the Church had developed the teaching that absolution forgave the guilt of sin before God.   However, because God had been offended there was still a temporal penalty that needed to be paid. This temporal penalty was called penance.  If a person did not complete the penance, the absolution was no longer valid.  Therefore priests were taught to assign a very small penance (prayer, fasting and alms were the most common).  However, this meant that the vast majority of the penalty was still owed.  Indulgences, paying for masses and going on religious pilgrimages were some of the ways that this could be addressed.  Whatever had not been taken care of during life, then had to be dealt with by time in the purifying fires purgatory.

In the Reformation, Martin Luther rejected confession and penance as it was practiced by the medieval Church.  He recognized that the idea of doing something to placate God was a rejection of the Gospel and God’s grace.  He understood from his own experience that the requirement for a complete confession was not only impossible, but also was torture for the conscience.

However, Luther did not in any way reject confession because of the absolution that was spoken.  He viewed this as a unique and comforting application of the Gospel. And so Augsburg Confession article XI says, “Concerning confession they teach that private confession should be retained in the churches, although an enumeration of all faults in confession is not necessary. For this is impossible according to the psalm [19:12]: ‘But who can detect their errors?’”

In addition to this kind of confession, there was since the ninth century A.D. a general form of confession in the medieval Church.  The medieval Mass was in Latin.  However, after the sermon there was a brief “service” in the language of the people.  It included a general confession (called the Offene Schuld) and an absolution that was based on the form originally used in private confession around 1000 A.D.

When the Lutheran Reformation was first introduced into an area, the practice of confession in its medieval form was abolished. Then, after time had passed (sometimes as long as a decade), an evangelical (Lutheran) form of confession was introduced. Lutheran churches practiced a new form of confession in which people did not attempt to enumerate all sins and only confessed those they knew and felt in their heart. Then the absolution was spoken.  Christ spoke through the pastor in absolution and having forgiven the sins, there was nothing more for the person to do! In addition, when a person went to confession, Lutherans also used this time with the pastor first as an opportunity for examination – catechesis in the faith.   The pastor made sure that the individual understood the Catechism, and especially about the Sacrament of the Altar.  This was a time of teaching, and was an important tool for catechesis in the early Lutheran church.  The Augsburg Confession states: “Confession has not been abolished by the preachers on our side. For the custom has been retained among us of not administering the sacrament to those who have not previously been examined and absolved” (XXV.1-2).

All Lutheran churches had private confession and people confessed before communing.  This took place after Vespers on Saturday (usually between 12:00 and 2:00 p.m.) and also on Sunday morning before the Divine Service (this time was supposed to be reserved for the aged, pregnant, handicapped and inhabitants of outlying villages, but others also came).  In addition to this, some churches also retained the general confession which could be found either at the beginning of the service or in its traditional position after the sermon. This was the practice in the sixteenth and most of the seventeenth century.  We must understand that while the Sacrament of the Altar was offered every Sunday, this does not mean that individuals communed every Sunday.  In fact the Church Orders regularly provided the instruction for the situation: “If there are no communicants.”  Church Orders also provided exhortations that were to be addressed to the people by the pastor when there were no communicants.

During this period the practice became one in which individuals usually spoke a memorized formula of confession that had been provided by the Church Order of that area and taught by the pastor.  A great challenge was the lack of time: especially on the occasions of the great feasts, pastors faced the challenge of hearing confession from hundreds of individuals in the larger cities.  Wherever people desired to receive the Sacrament regularly (such as the Leipzig of Bach’s day), pastors struggled to hear confession from all who wished to commune. This left little opportunity for the teaching that was intended in the examination. While these problems did exist, “confession piety” was a central feature of Lutheranism.  Confession, the confession chair, absolution, the power of the keys and the confession of sin occupied a large space in prayer and hymn books of the period.
However, during the last forty years of the seventeenth century Pietism complained that private confession did not allow for the heartfelt spiritual discussion with the pastor that it believed was necessary for people to be built up as "real" Christians.  With its great emphasis on a personal and earnest confession, Pietism tended to elevate the confession over the absolution.  Because it did not emphasize doctrine, Pietism did not view catechesis as a goal in confession.  In order to accomplish the purposes of Pietism, pastors instituted the practice of “announcing” for communion at the pastor’s study on a day during the week. Pastors began to speak absolution to people at the Saturday Vespers in a group.  Eventually the Vespers became a confessional service in which a general confession and absolution prepared people to receive the Sacrament (this confessional service is the source of the Rite of Corporate Confession and Absolution in Lutheran Service Book). For a time in many places, private confession and the confessional service existed side by side.  The inevitable result was that the practice of private confession declined.

During the eighteenth century, Rationalism rejected those things that reason could not understand.  The very idea of sin was dismissed and theologians rejected the idea that a pastor could speak absolution in Christ’s place and stead.  It was in this environment that regions of Germany began to abolish private confession altogether.

The practice of nineteenth century German Lutheranism that immigrants brought with them when the LCMS was founded involved announcement to the pastor during the week (often Friday) and then attendance at a confessional service on Saturday before receiving the Sacrament on Sunday.  It must be recognized that at this time, the Sacrament of the Altar was often only celebrated four times a year.

Private confession never completely disappeared from German Lutheranism, even if it became rare. During the nineteenth century in Bavaria, the pastor Wilhelm Loehe worked to re-establish the use of private confession alongside of general confession.  Many of the pastors who helped found the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod were trained and sent by Loehe.  LCMS pastors continued to defend the practice of private confession against those shaped by American Protestantism and also against charges that it was “Roman Catholic.” 

Beginning around the middle of the twentieth century the practice of announcing for communion along with the confessional service in preparation for receiving the Sacrament began to diminish and eventually disappeared in most areas.  Instead, the general confession at the beginning of the Divine Service became the sole form of confession before reception of the Sacrament.   The low tide of private confession in the LCMS began in 1943 when the synodical catechism did not even include Luther’s “Short Form of Confession” (nor was there a rite for private confession in The Lutheran Hymnal of 1941).  There was no guidance about what the practice of private confession looked like.

However, things began to change in 1969 when the Worship Supplement provided a rite of private confession that was modeled on Luther’s “Short Form of Confession.”  Lutheran Worship (1982) then included a rite of private confession based on Luther’s “Short Form of Confession.” This "Short Form of Confession" was again included in the 1986 synodical translation of Luther’s Small Catechism, and appeared in the 1991 synodical explanation of the Small Catechism.  The Rite of Individual Confession and Absolution based on the Luther’s “Short Form of Confession,” is also included in our current hymnal Lutheran Service Book (pg. 292). These resources have been used by pastors in the effort to renew the practice of private confession in the LCMS during the last thirty five years.  Many pastors today make regular confession to another area pastor and receive absolution.

Lutherans have retained private confession and absolution because it is a uniquely comforting means of receiving the Gospel.  As the Apology of the Augsburg Confession puts it: 

It is well known that we have so explained and extolled the benefit of absolution and the power of the keys that many troubled consciences have received consolation from our teaching. They have heard that it is a command of God—indeed, the very voice of the gospel—so that we may believe the absolution and regard as certain that the forgiveness of sins is given to us freely on account of Christ and that we should maintain that we are truly reconciled to God by this faith. (Ap. XI.2).

Next: The Blessings of Private Confession