This report describes how Lithuanian Lutherans are taking in Syrian Christian refugees. It is an example of Paul's words: "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2). The Lithuanian Lutherans have indicated that their own experience of suffering during the Soviet era helped to prompt them to respond to the suffering of these Christians in Syria.
As I read about this I had to wonder: Would I be willing to do this? Would my parish be willing to do this? Would the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod be willing to do this? These are hard questions that challenge our American expectations about how the Christian faith should not impinge on our personal comfort and economic circumstances. They force us to consider whether we understand what it means to be part of the Body of Christ through Holy Baptism.
It is very interesting to observe how the Lithuanian experience of suffering under the Soviet Union has shaped their response. Of all people, Lutherans who confess the theology of the cross understand that God is at work in the midst of suffering and hardship. As we observe the currents of our culture, it is not hard to imagine that hardships will be coming to the Church as she lives in the United States. We don't want these things. But most likely it is hardship and suffering that can chastise and restrain us as old Adam in ways that allow us as new man to live in faith toward God and love toward our neighbor - especially our fellows Christians (Galatians 6:10). It is hardship and suffering as the Church that will change our assumptions and expectations about what it means to live as Christians in the world. If this is God's will, then it will be a good thing.
Monday, March 10, 2014
Sunday, March 9, 2014
When you schedule a wedding for the beginning of July in central Illinois, there is an element of risk involved. There is always the possibility that you could get some atrociously hot and humid summer weather – the kind that makes a bride and her bride’s maids drip away in sweat as carefully coiffed hair comes undone. You can get the kind heat that really makes it day to remember.
Amy and I ran that risk in 1997 when we scheduled our wedding for July 5 in Danville, IL. Thankfully, we woke up that Saturday morning to an absolutely beautiful day. There wasn’t a hint of rain and the temperature was in the mid-70’s. It was a gorgeous day and provided the perfect setting for the photographer to take Amy outside and get some great shots of her in the wedding dress.
After the wedding the wedding party and those attending made their way to the Club House of the Harrison Park Golf Course which was now owned by the city and provided a very nice and reasonably priced setting for the reception. The meal and all the usual post-wedding festivities began.
While the day had been very comfortable, once everybody was in the Club House it did begin to feel a little warm inside. I was enjoying myself too much to really notice. But it turned out that there was one guest who did not feel that way. A family friend who is a Lutheran pastor was attending the wedding. He and his wife had brought their four year old son Patrick. He was dressed up for the wedding. But at some point, Patrick decided that things were just too hot. And so he carried out the natural response. He started taking off clothes to cool off. He started to take off his clothes … and he never stopped. He didn’t stop until he was standing there completely naked at the wedding reception.
Patrick didn’t have any problem with this. After all, he was feeling much cooler – all over. However, as you would expect people at the wedding reception did notice this naked little boy walking around. Eventually Patrick’s parents collected him and had him put some clothes on.
Patrick decided that naked was more comfortable. Clearly, he didn’t think it was any problem. He wasn’t ashamed. After all, he was just hanging out at the wedding reception in the buff. What could be more natural?
As adults, we know that naked is not the way the world works. And in our Old Testament lesson for the First Sunday in Lent we learn why. We learn that our need to cover up has been prompted by the entrance of sin into the world. We find that our need for clothing – our need to cover ourselves – is a symptom of the way that sin has harmed our relationship with God and with one another.
Our text this morning is the saddest chapter in the Bible – the account of the Fall. Of course to understand how bad this event is, we need to understand how good things had been. God had made a creation that he considered to be not just “good,” but in fact, “very good.” He had created humanity in his own image and given it dominion over creation as God’s representative.
In his loving care, God had created woman, Eve, as the helper corresponding to Adam. God created Eve from Adam because without her, things were not good. He created Adam and Eve as the perfect complement for one another, a fact that was grounded in the one flesh union of husband and wife. God gave man the vocation of tending the garden and he provided the means by which Adam and Eve showed that they the creatures worshipped God as God. He gave them one command to obey – one thing by which they showed they worshipped and acknowledged him as God. He told them that they were not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If they disobeyed and did so, they would die.
Adam and Eve lived in the one flesh union as husband and wife. God had personally created their bodies and so as they lived with one another according to God’s will, we learn in the verse just before our text, “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” There was no shame in being naked and there was no fear in conversing with the God who had created them.
However, in the very next verse our text begins by saying, “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made.” What you can’t see in English is that the Hebrew words for “crafty” and “naked” look and sound very similar. The devil had entered creation in the form of serpent. He, the crafty one, had come to bring sin into the world. He had come to bring the sin that would prompt shame at their nakedness.
The devil used the question that has been at the heart of every temptation he has ever employed. He asked Eve, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” Did God actually say? This invites us to question what God has revealed to us. It invites us to question whether God’s word is true, or reasonable. It tempts us to put ourselves in charge of evaluating whether God’s word is to be accepted and obeyed.
We face this temptation all the time. Did God really say, “Remember the Sabbath by keeping it holy”? Surely you can’t be expected to hold God’s word sacred and gladly hear and learn it when there so many other things you need to do with your time; things you want to do with your time? Did God really say, “You shall not commit adultery”? Surely you can’t be expected to live a sexually pure life when sex outside of marriage is what everyone is doing and when there is so much pornography on the internet to rev your motor? Did God really say, “Love your neighbor as yourself”? Surely you can’t be expected to put the needs of others ahead of your own when there is so much you need to get down for yourself? After all, you only live once.
“Did God really say?” The devil called God’s word into question. And then he delivered his lie. He offered the false god that none of us can turn down – ourselves. When Eve described how they were not to eat of the true he said, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
The devil told Eve that God was holding out on them. God was preventing them from being all they could be. He was preventing them from being like God – from being god, their own god. This was too good for Eve and so she bit – literally. She ate of the fruit of the tree and then she gave some to Adam, who just went along with her rather than clinging to God’s word.
The devil, the crafty one, promised that by eating of the fruit their eyes would be opened. And oh, he was right – just not in the way that Adam and Eve expected. Our text tells us that after they ate, “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.”
Their eyes were opened because of the sin their disobedience had brought into the world. And because of sin they now felt shame. They felt that they needed to hide. They hid their bodies as they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. And then when God came into the garden they hid themselves out of fear.
There was nothing that they could do about it. And there is nothing that you can do about it eitehr. Instead, God did something. He spoke Gospel – the first Gospel promise that we hear in our text. He said to the devil, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” He promised that a descendant of Eve would defeat the devil, even as he himself was harmed in doing so.
God sent forth his Son, Jesus Christ, into the world. The Father sent him to people who are ashamed of being naked because of sin. We are ashamed because we sense that there are parts that must be hidden. We are ashamed because our bodies reveal the impact of sin – our bodies show the effects of time and age. We are ashamed because nakedness prompts lust and desires that we know should not be there.
In order to save us from this, Jesus Christ entered into this world naked. Like all of us, he exited his mother’s womb with nothing on because though true God, he was also true man. And then he pursued a mission that led to the most shameful circumstances of death.
During Lent we will follow Jesus as he makes his way to the crucifixion of Good Friday. And we find here that most likely, Jesus Christ died naked. Roman crucifixion wasn’t meant just to kill you. It was meant to be the most humiliating and shameful death possible. Typically the Romans crucified their victims naked – what better way to strip away even the last shred of human dignity? Everything about the accounts in the Gospels leads us to believe this was the case for Jesus.
Jesus Christ hung in the shame of the cross. He did it because he was laden with your sins. He took them upon himself so that he could take away the shame of sin through his death. And then in his resurrection on Easter he began a new bodily existence that knows no shame.
We look forward to sharing in that resurrection when Christ returns in glory. Now we have not shared in this yet – not fully. But recognize that in the present you have already been clothed with something that covers all shame. It happened when you were baptized. Paul told the Galatians, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” In baptism you were clothed with Christ. You “put on” Jesus Christ and his righteousness. When God looks at you, he does not see the naked sinner. Instead he see’s Christ and his saving death and resurrection for you. He sees the victory that the offspring of Eve won over the serpent when he crushed his head on Good Friday and Easter.
No longer as we stand before God do we cower in loin clothes of fig leaves. Instead we stand clothed in Christ – the most magnificent clothing there has ever been. No longer is there need for shame. Instead in Christ we stand as those who are precious and valuable – we stand as those purchased by the suffering and death of the Son of God.
You have been clothed with Christ through baptism. Now we all know how some really nice, new clothes make us feel. They can make you feel like a new person and provide an extra spring in your step. And that is what happens because of your baptism – but with an important difference. In baptism you have been clothed with Christ on the outside, and you have also been born anew through the Spirit on the inside. Through baptism the Spirit joins you to the death and resurrection of Christ, so that in the present you can begin to live in new ways. Because of your baptism into Christ you can live in faith toward God and love toward your neighbor.
In our text today, Adam and Eve bring sin into the world in the Fall. They are tempted by the devil with the promise that their eyes will be opened. And indeed they are, as because of sin they find shame in their nakedness. Yet the good news of the Gospel is that God the Father sent his Son into the world. He entered this world naked so that he could die naked – so that he could die in the shame of the cross for you. Through baptism you have been clothed with Christ the risen Lord. Because of this, you can stand before God without shame as you can live as God’s servant in the world.
Wednesday, March 5, 2014
My dad and I have a number stories from our youth, that my children never tire of hearing. Now admittedly my dad has more of them and better ones – I mean how can you top the time that the death of President Roosevelt saved him from a spanking? However, I do have a couple and there is one in particular that Matthew always enjoys.
After eight years as your pastor, you are well aware that I grew up in Indiana for most of the years before college. I may live in Illinois, but I still consider myself a Hoosier. In fact I think there are really two major shortcomings with Marion. The first is that it is not about forty five minutes closer to St. Louis. And the second is that it is not in Indiana. But alas, we all have our crosses to bear.
While I have strong ties to Indiana, until I was nine years old I lived in Pensacola, FL. There in Florida we had large, red fire ants. When I was about seven I discovered a large fire ant mound at the edge of our lawn. Now the fire ants were fascinating because I knew that you had to be careful around them. I knew they could bite you. And so, I decided to show the fire ants who was boss.
Somewhere I found this flexible piece of rubber, and I proceeded to use the piece of rubber to whip the fire ant mound. It was great fun as sand and ants went everywhere. I lashed away at the mound, feeling very proud of myself … until I felt the first bite. In my enthusiasm for attacking the fire ant mound, I hadn’t bothered to notice that swarms of fire ants were pouring out of the mound and were covering the ground all around it. Very soon, they were on me too. Now the bite from a good sized fire ant hurts but is not that big a deal. However, dozens of them crawling all over you and biting is another matter altogether. In terror I ran away from the mound, and I have never messed with fire ants since.
One insect is nothing. You can step on it and squash with hardly any thought. But get a large number of them together in one place and you can have serious problems. That’s been the story with locusts, ever since man started farming. Swarms of locusts have descended upon the land and devoured everything in sight. They have eaten crops. They have stripped pasture land bare. And they have left behind desolation and the slow death of starvation.
That is the situation in the Old Testament lesson for Ash Wednesday. A locust plague had descended upon Israel. Joel says in the previous chapter, “What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten. What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten, and what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten.”
This was a terrible disaster. But Joel tells us that it was not random. It was not by chance. Instead, it had been sent by Yahweh. Joel writes, “Consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly. Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the LORD your God, and cry out to the LORD. Alas for the day! For the day of the LORD is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes.”
Joel describes this judgment as “the day of the Lord” – the day of Yahweh. He says at the beginning of this chapter, “Blow a trumpet in Zion; sound an alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming; it is near, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!”
Now we aren’t specifically told what Israel had done in order to provoke Yahweh’s judgment and wrath. In fact the absence of details means that we don’t really know when Joel wrote – it could have been early in Israel’s history or late. But given what we know about Israel’s history, it’s really not that hard to figure out. God was judging the nation because of its unfaithfulness. That is the common denominator that runs through all of the Old Testament. Israel refused to trust in Yahweh. Instead, she was constantly being drawn away in the worship of false gods – the gods of the pagan neighbors.
It is easy to read Israel’s history in the books of Samuel and Kings and wonder, “How could they be so dumb?” How could they experience God’s great saving action of the Exodus and then turn around and worship other gods? How could they experience his might in the conquest of the promised land, and then turn their back on him? How could they look at all the blessings that Yahweh had given them, and then go after false gods?
They did it because they wanted to make their own choice. They looked around and they saw peoples who were more sophisticated, and they wanted to be like them. They saw gods that allowed them to act in ways they wanted to act – indeed which sanctioned such behavior. And so they chose those gods, and they rejected Yahweh.
But let’s be clear. You do that too. You turn your back on the Lord every time you do not fear, love and trust in God above all things. You look at the smorgasbord of possibilities presented by the world and you don’t want to be limited by God. You want to use your time to do what you want to do. You want to use your resources for what you want. You want to be free to believe what seems right to you.
This is the struggle in every one of your hearts. No matter how pious you are the reality is that time and again you put yourself first and God second. He gets the leftovers. He gets the time, attention and effort that you haven’t allocated to the really important things – to the things that are your true gods.
Now we certainly don’t like it when people treat us this way. If we experience such blatantly dismissive behavior, we may give a person a second chance. If we are especially generous, we might even give them a third chance. But very soon we arrive at the point when we decide that we are just done. We’ve had it. We aren’t going to mess that person any more.
On this Ash Wednesday, God declares to you through his word that he is not that way. Instead, he is the gracious, merciful and forgiving God who wants to welcome you back. He wants you to confess your sin; he wants you to repent and return to him. In our text God says, “Yet even now,” declares the LORD,
“return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
Our text calls you to repent. It calls you to confess our sin – all the ways we put our desires first and God second. It calls you to return to the Lord. But take note of why you are urged to return. Joel says, “Return to the LORD your God,
for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.” Our text urges you to return to God in repentance because God is gracious and merciful; because he is slow to anger and abounds in steadfast love.
The call to return to God is grounded in who God is. And as we enter into Lent tonight we are reminded that God has shown who he is by what he has done. Just before our text, Joel describes the locust plague as “the day of the Lord.” He writes, “Blow a trumpet in Zion; sound an alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
for the day of the LORD is coming; it is near, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!”
In the Old Testament God’s decisive acts of judgment were described as the “day of the Lord.” The prophets often describe these events - like a locust plague or the approach of a conquering army – with language that went beyond the mere event. They did this because each day of the Lord pointed forward to God’s decisive act of judgment. They pointed to the end-time Day of the Lord.
In Joel we hear the day of the Lord described as “a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.” We are reminded that during Lent we are following our Lord Jesus as he makes his way to the cross. We are walking with our Lord during these forty days as he makes his way to Holy Week and his Passion. We are following him on the way that leads to Good Friday. On that day there will be darkness over the land from 9:00 in the morning until 3:00 in the afternoon. That darkness will signal God’s judgment. The day of the Lord will come upon Jesus Christ – the day of God’s judgment against your sin.
Jesus Christ will receive judgment on the cross because God the Father is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love towards you. God will condemn your sin in the flesh of Jesus Christ. And then on the third day – on Easter – he will raise that flesh up, transformed so that it can never die again. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ we will celebrate an end time event; we will celebrate the beginning of the resurrection of the dead that will be yours on the Last Day, the final day of the Lord.
On this Ash Wednesday as you begin Lent, you are called to repent. Through Joel Gods says, “Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” You are called to repent of your sins in the confidence that we can return to the LORD your God, because he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. You return to the One who poured out the wrath of the day of the Lord upon his Son Jesus, so that forgiven you can receive a share in the new life of the resurrection on the Last Day.
At the beginning of Romans chapter 6, Paul writes, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:3-5). In this passage, Paul brings Christ’s death and resurrection together with the baptism of Christians. He says that through baptism we have shared in Jesus Christ’s saving death on the cross. Yet because Christ is our risen Lord, baptism provides the guarantee that we will also share in our Lord’s resurrection on the Last Day.
By the fourth century A.D. this biblical connection between the death and resurrection of Christ and Holy Baptism prompted the Church to make the Vigil of Easter the primary time for baptizing new Christians. The remembrance of Jesus’ death on Good Friday had just taken place and Saturday reminded the Christians that Christ has been buried in the tomb. Yet Saturday evening was also the first service of Easter and so it celebrated Christ’s resurrection that Christians have a share in because of baptism. Lent was the time when catechumens preparing to join the Church were in the midst of catechesis as they prepared to receive Holy Baptism at the Vigil of Easter. The presence of the catechumens reminded the Church that Lent is a return to baptism for all Christians. During Lent as we prepare again to remember our Lord’s death and resurrection, we are also preparing to remember that we have shared in that death and resurrection through the foundational event of Holy Baptism.
In Lutheran congregations that employ the catechumenate as the means for bringing new members into the fellowship, this continues to be the experience of the Church. On the First Sunday in Lent (Invocavit in the one year lectionary), catechumens are enrolled as Candidates for Baptism and (if they have already been baptized) as Candidates for Confirmation and Reception into Membership. On that day catechumens approach the chancel with their sponsor. Catechumens publicly affirm their desire for baptism, or that that in affirmation of her baptism they wish to confess the faith and be confirmed and received as a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church and of that congregation.
Sponsors attest that catechumens have been faithful in attending the Divine Service and in receiving catechesis; that they are seeking by study, prayer and example to pattern their lives in accordance with the word of God. At Good Shepherd Lutheran, Marion, IL the pastor then asks the congregation: “People of God, as you journey through Lent, will you support these persons through your prayer, presence, and example? As you observe the disciplines of Lent, will you be for them a community of love and growth in God’s grace?”
The congregation affirms that it will do this with the help of God, and then the catechumens are welcomed as Candidates for Baptism, and for Confirmation and Reception in to Membership. Then a blessing is spoken in the form of a prayer: “Almighty and merciful God, Creator of all that is, you have called your people from darkness into light, from error into truth, from death into life. In your pity you looked upon a fallen world, and sent Your only begotten Son among us to vanquish the evil one. Purify the desires and thoughts of this your servants with the light of Your Holy Spirit. Nourish them with Your holy Word, strengthen them in faith, and confirm them in good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
This same blessing is spoken on the Third, Fourth and Fifth Sundays in Lent. On these days after the sermon the candidates approach the chancel and join the Church in renouncing evil (Third Sunday), and they receive the Creed (Fourth Sunday) and the Lord’s Prayer (Fifth Sunday) from the congregation. The congregation speaks these words which summarize the catechesis in faith and prayer that the candidates have received, and emphasizes the importance of confession of the faith and prayer as the candidates enter into the fellowship.
The candidates then take part in Holy Week with the congregation and journey through the Triduum – the one service that runs through the three days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Holy Saturday. At the Vigil of Easter they approach the font in order to receive Holy Baptism or to affirm their baptism. Then they are be confirmed, received into membership and receive the Sacrament of the Altar for the first time as they share with congregation in the sacrament of unity.
This process during Lent serves two purposes in the life of the congregation. The first is to emphasize the role that members have in supporting candidates through prayer, example and words of encouragement as they prepare to be received in the fellowship of the congregation. The second is to remind the congregation that as the candidates make this journey, congregation members are also called during Lent to renew their focus on what Holy Baptism means for their life. Holy Baptism means that those who have shared in the saving death of Christ will share in His resurrection on the Last Day. And it means that already now the resurrection power of the Holy Spirit is at work in them so that they can walk in newness of life as they confess the faith in word and deed.