31 October 2013

Well Done, Faithful Servant!

Today marks the end of an era at Hope Ev. Lutheran Church in St. Louis. Mrs. Carol Spyers, church secretary for 23 years, a great help to pastors and members, and well loved by all, is entering the next chapter of her life: retirement. In my October newsletter article, I took the opportunity to thank the Lord for a wonderful, faithful servant of the congregation:

The announcement is now official: Mrs. Carol Spyers, church secretary here at Hope for 23 years, is retiring. In a letter announcing her retirement, Carol said, “I feel it is time for me to put my family before my job and my commitments here at Hope Church.” She also wrote: “Hope Church has been and will always be very much a part of my life.”

Please allow me to take this opportunity to thank our Lord Jesus Christ for His gift of Carol Spyers to Hope Ev. Lutheran Church.

We all know and love Carol, and she has served Hope faithfully for the past 23 years. She has served in many and various ways. Not only has she carried out the usual tasks of “church secretary,” but she has always gone “above and beyond the call of duty.”

Her smiling face and cheerful, warm personality have greeted many people who come into the church office or call on the phone. She has always shown great dedication to publishing the bulletins and newsletters, to scheduling visits for the pastors, and to making sure the church office runs smoothly. And she has executed all of these ordinary duties with a wonderful zeal that reveals her love for her Savior and His Church.

And, as if that weren’t enough, Carol has always done so much more—helping people who come to the food pantry or who need help with grocery gift cards; filling candles on the altar; changing paraments for services; assisting with the payment of bills; helping with agendas and reports for various boards, committees, and the voters assembly; picking up the Communion wine; writing thank you letters for various donations. The list could go on and on.

Carol’s love and devotion to her Savior Jesus Christ and to His congregation named Hope have always been a wonderful witness to the hope that she has. Carol has certainly lived out her faith in her vocation of “church secretary” as well as in her volunteer “jobs” for the congregation.

So, I trust that you will join me in borrowing words from Jesus and telling Carol: “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little….” (Matthew 25:21).

On a more personal note, I thank our gracious God for His gift of Carol, not only as church secretary and faithful worker, but also as friend. (Yes, many others treasure her friendship too.) Proverbs 22:11 says, “He who loves purity of heart, and whose speech is gracious, will have the king as his friend.” Carol Spyers lives in that purity of heart given by Jesus. Her speech is always gracious. And she certainly has King Jesus as her friend.

We all wish God’s richest blessings for Carol as she enters the new chapter in her life called “Retirement.” We also know that she will remain a treasured member at Hope as well as devoted sister in Christ. The LORD bless you and keep you, Carol!

30 October 2013

"The Mission of the Church in an Age of Zombies"

Pastor Gregory Alms (Redeemer Lutheran Church, Catawba, North Carolina) has written a very helpful essay on the mission of the Church in our age. He calls it "an age of zombies."

Here's a snippet to whet your appetite:
The images that are used to speak about the church and the mission of the church are important. It is vital that the words and practices used to describe that mission match the actual situation. In a time of when Christianity is shrinking in the West and is under serious attack, popular arts provide a framework and a language for the mission challenge. Understanding that phenomena such as zombies, vampires, and fear of epidemics reveal in society an intuitive knowledge of deep-seated evil and the reality of demonic forces can help the church re-orient its missional stance. Mission in an age of zombies uses prayer seriously as a real outreach tool; so the church must remember the nature of prayer as an outgrowth of salvation through faith alone. We have no resources to combat Satan other than to ask our Father in heaven to deliver us. Such mission thinking also takes the reality of evil seriously and seeks both to protect the truth from error and contamination while also seeking to bring the lost into the church. The church can be seen as a place of safety in the midst of spiritual plagues and a sort of “monastic” fortress where the gospel is both protected and proclaimed.
How does Pastor Alms reach this conclusion? Read the whole thing!

You can access the entire article at http://media.ctsfw.edu/. Search for Concordia Theological Quarterly, volume 77, number 1, year 2013. Click on "Theologcial Observer 77:1-2," and download the PDF file.

29 October 2013


What does it mean to be blessed? Here's something to chew on, from an anonymous soldier:
I asked God for strength, that I might achieve;
I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for help that I might do greater things;
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy;
I was given poverty that I might we wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men;
I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things that I might enjoy my life;
I was given life that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for, but everything I had hoped for.
I am among men, most richly blessed.

(Anonymous Confederate Soldier; cited in T. Oden, Pastoral Theology, p. 248.)

28 October 2013

Right Worship of God

Sermon for "Reformation Day (Observed)," Sunday, October 27, 2013. This time I focused on the First Reading, Revelation 14:6-7.

In our first reading, St. John says: “Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people.” In 1522 the monk, and later pastor, Michael Stifel saw this angel as a prophecy fulfilled in Martin Luther. In 1546 Pastor Johannes Bugenhagen said the same thing in his sermon at Martin Luther’s funeral. And in 1887, C. F. W. Walther, first president of the Missouri Synod, had this to say: “Luther is the only theologian who is prophesied in the Holy Scriptures. He is without any doubt the angel of whom Revelation 14:6 spoke.” Well, we may have to wait until eternity to ask St. John and the Holy Spirit whether they had Luther in mind when they gave us this angel and his eternal Gospel.

But one thing is sure: God’s great gift to His Church IS the eternal Gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone, won for us by Christ alone. So, whoever the messenger--Martin Luther or any other preacher--this eternal Gospel gives us God’s own Word on how Christians worship Him: “And [the messenger] said with a loud voice, ‘Fear God and give Him glory, because the hour of His judgment has come, and worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.” We worship God rightly when we do three things: 1) when we fear Him; 2) when we glorify Him; and 3) when we worship Him where He wants--in Christ Jesus.

First, we worship God rightly when we fear Him. Remember what Luther teaches us on the First Commandment: “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” Does that mean we should be afraid of God? Well, yes and no. Yes, that fear of God can be a healthy “afraid of God,” because, after all, God is bigger and more powerful than you. Not only that, but you know you “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Just look in the mirror of His commandments. You have not trusted Him as you should; you have not loved your neighbor as you should. Pretty simple.

And yet the answer is also “No, you need not be afraid of God,” as though He’s constantly out to get you. The book of Revelation pictures and describes the power of the enemy in the dragon and the beasts. They induce the unfounded fear that God is out to get you. And it’s that fear that leads us sinful creatures to do our own thing. But that’s just plain stupid and unwise. No, you do not need to be afraid of God, because He is not out to get you. Your life is in His hands and He cares for you. After all, He has made you and all creatures; He gives you your body and soul and all your members; He provides for you and protects you.

We worship God rightly when we fear Him, because, as Scripture says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge … [and] wisdom” (Prov. 1:7; 9:10). When parents “fear for” their children, they actually care for their well-being. So, to fear God really means to care about Him. And since He is God, we care about Him--what He says, what He thinks, how He esteems us--more than anything else. So, fearing God is really all about loving and trusting Him … and thus having no other gods before Him.

And this fear of God is not servile or oppressive. Not only is He your Creator, but He’s also your Redeemer. Not only is He bigger and more powerful than you, but He also forgives you. Psalm 130(:4) says, “With You [O Lord] there is forgiveness, that You may be feared.” Your God has provided the Lamb that was slain; He has shown you His great love.

This great love is what gives people courage and strength to stand on the eternal Gospel. The Reformation shows us heroes of the faith as they relied on God’s Word and cross-won mercy. This same great love leads us also to make grand and weighty promises, as we do in our confirmation vows: “Do you intend to hear the Word of God and receive the Lord’s Supper faithfully?… Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it? I do, by the grace of God.” Yes, we worship God rightly when we fear Him.

Second, we also worship God rightly when we glorify Him. You see, fake worship happens when we give glory to ourselves, or to other false gods. Fake worship happens when we put ourselves or other false gods up on a pedestal. What could those false gods be? Money and possessions. Great learning and skill. Lofty fame or the bottom of the bottle. Martin Luther said, “A god means that from which we are to expect all good and in which we are to take refuge in all distress” (LC I:2). Fake worship happens when we look to ourselves or other false gods for all good and refuge.

No, we worship God rightly when we glorify Him. We truly give God glory when we acknowledge and praise Him for what He has done, and for what He will do. He has created you. He has redeemed you in His Son Jesus Christ. He has made you holy through the Holy Spirit, and He promises to keep making you holy as you hear His Word and receive His Sacraments.

And what will God do? He will come to judge the earth. All people will be accountable to Him. Now, we can either deny this fact, or we can praise Him for His promised return and judgment. We can deny that He will come. We can try to shield ourselves the best we can from His scrutiny and prying eye. We can try to hold up all our good works as our own, home-made shield and fortress. But that won’t do. Our home-made defenses for the soul amount to nothing but duct tape and bailing wire. Actually, St. Paul said it better: “By works of the law no human being will be justified in His sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” We call that “works-righteousness.”

No, God will come, and He will judge. But we can praise Him--give Him glory--nonetheless. You see, the eternal Gospel tells you that God has already judged you in Jesus Christ. The eternal Gospel tells you that you have already been judged, the verdict is in, and it’s “Not guilty.” Yes, you have already been declared “not guilty,” judged as righteous, all because of Jesus Christ, His death on the cross, and His glorious resurrection. You “are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation--as a means of forgiveness--by His blood, to be received by faith.”  We worship God rightly when we glorify Him for what He has done, and will do, in Jesus Christ.

And the third way we worship God rightly is when we worship Him where He wants to be worshiped. Now, that may sound easy, but don’t forget the Israelites. They fell into that whole worship the golden calf thing. And that was right after God had revealed His eternal Gospel by delivering them from slavery in Egypt. Not only that, but the Israelites also worshiped at the high places, sacrificing to fertility gods called Baals and Asherah. They had a continuous battle against false worship and false gods.

Also, don’t forget the world around you today. People worship all sorts of man-made gods--power, pleasure, money, you name it. They even worship according to their own thoughts: “My God is bigger than that.” “I don’t think God is that way.” “God would want me to be happy.” And you and I are not immune to those thoughts of false worship.

You and I especially do not worship God rightly when we despise His Word--when we do not gladly hear it and learn it. How so? When we base our worship on our feelings, wishes, and hunches, rather than on God and what He says in His Word. How else? When we tolerate false worship and false teaching.

So how and where does God want to be worshiped? In Christ Jesus. You see, God has sent His only-begotten Son to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life by His death on the cross. Jesus is the very temple of God--the dwelling place of  God--who was torn down on the cross and raised up on the third day. So, we worship God rightly when we gather to listen to His words and believe them. After all, they proclaim Christ Himself. And this right worship also includes trusting Jesus’ work in your Baptism and His work in the Supper. In these you receive life and salvation itself. That’s the eternal Gospel at work.

One of the fruits of the Reformation is the Apology of the Augsburg Confession in 1531. This document defends the Augsburg Confession, from 1530. The Apology says this about true worship: “Faith is the divine service that receives the benefits offered by God…. God wants to be worshiped through faith so that we receive from Him those things He promises and offers.” (Ap. IV, 49; Concordia, 89) You and I worship God rightly when we receive--when we receive in faith all the gifts that Jesus Christ achieved by His cross. So, right worship is depending on the gifts of God in Jesus. And those gifts bring forth our praise and our good works in all of life.

So, the angel flies overhead and brings that “eternal Gospel.” And that eternal Gospel has a goal: the repentance and salvation of all people through the message of forgiveness in Jesus Christ. How can we not worship Him? As Dr. Louis Brighton, a current day messenger with the eternal Gospel, says, “For the end purpose of God’s redemption is the restoration of his creatures so that they recognize and worship him as their God and Creator.” (Revelation, 382) That, dear friends, is what the Reformation was all about: the eternal Gospel and the right worship of God. Amen.

24 October 2013

Christ Builds His Church

Here's a goodie from Dietrich Bonhoeffer on just who builds ("grows") the Church. This is much needed wisdom in a time when so much energy and attention is given to "being missional" or "growing the church." It's also a much needed antidote for pastors and congregations who insist on judging their "successes" or "failures" merely on the outward, visible numerical statistics.

(It shows up as the writing in Treasury of Daily Prayer for yesterday, October 23. I meant to post this yesterday, but....)
It is not we who build. [Christ] builds the church. No man builds the church but Christ alone. Whoever is minded to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it; for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it. We must confess—He builds. We must proclaim—He builds. We must pray to Him—that He may build

We do not know His plan. We cannot see whether His is building or pulling down. It may be that the times which by human standards are times of collapse are for Him the great times of construction. It may be that the times which from a human point of view are great times for the church are times when it is pulled down.

It is a great comfort which Christ gives to His Church: you confess, preach, bear witness to Me and I alone will build where it pleases Me. Do not meddle in what is My province. Do what is given to you to do well and you have done enough. But do it well. Pay no heed to views and opinions. Don’t ask for judgments. Don’t always be calculating what will happen. Don’t always be on the lookout for another refuge! Church, stay a church! But church, confess, confess, confess! Christ alone is your Lord; from His grace alone can you live as you are. Christ builds.

21 October 2013

Are Christians "Horrible Sinners"?

According to God's Word, we know the truth that all human beings are fallen sinners. We all fall short of God's glory and sin in thought, word, and deed.

But does that mean the pastor should preach to his congregation as if they are "horrible sinners"? Should the truth of the universal corruption of mankind lead the preacher to address the members of his flock as though they are ruled by deliberate sin?

C. F. W. Walther would say, "No way!" Thesis XVIII of Walther's Law and Gospel says,
You are not rightly distinguishing Law and Gospel in the Word of God if you describe the universal corruption of mankind so as to create the impression that even true believers are still under the spell of ruling sins and sin deliberately (C. F. W. Walther, Law and Gospel: How to Read and Apply the Bible, p. 355).
Walther explains what he means by looking at various Bible passages. Here's what he says when he considers Matthew 3:17 and Romans 6:14:
When we speak of "horrible" sinners, we must not refer to Christians, in whom we find weaknesses, which are covered with the righteousness of Christ, yet also good deeds, which God does through them and which are pleasing to Him. All baptized Christians may apply to themselves the declaration of God: "This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased." [Matt. 3:17]

Romans 6:14: "For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace." [Paul] is actually saying not only that sin should not dominate Christians but also that sin is no able to dominate Christians. In fact, it is absolutely impossible for a person who is in a state of grace to be ruled by sin. When a pilgrim traveling on a lonely road is attacked by a robber, the pilgrim will escape from the robber at the first opportunity because he does not want to be overcome and killed. Christians are pilgrims in this world and are on their way to heaven. Like a highway robber, the devil assaults them, and they collapse before him because of their weakness--not because they want to collapse. When true Christians collapse, they are forgiven because they turn to God in daily and tearful repentance--or at least with heartfelt sighs, begging for pardon. But if a person allows sin to rule him, that is a sure sign that he is not a Christian but a hypocrite--no matter how pious he pretends to be (C. F. W. Walther, Law and Gospel: How to Read and Apply the Bible, p. 357, emphasis original).
Sounds like some sanctified fine-tuning and honing of our preaching is always in order!

18 October 2013

The Hearing of Gladness

Great words from Martin Luther:
"...in the use of the Sacraments and in confession we teach men to look mainly at the Word, so that we call everything back from our works to the Word. The hearing of gladness is in Baptism, when it is said: “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19); “He who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16). The hearing of gladness is in the Lord’s Supper, when it is said, “This is My body, which is given for you” (Luke 22:19). The hearing of gladness is in confession, or, to call it by its more proper name, in absolution and the use of the keys: “Have faith. Your sins are forgiven you through the death of Christ.” Though we urge the people to the Sacraments and to absolution, still we do not teach anything about the worthiness of our work or that it avails by the mere performance of the work, as the papists usually teach about the Lord’s Supper, or rather about their sacrifice. We call men back to the Word so that the chief part of the whole action might be the voice of God itself and the hearing itself."

Martin Luther
Luther's Works, AE 12:369,
Selected Psalms I, Psalm 51:8

17 October 2013

The Making of a Christian

According to TheBlaze.com, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson "says he became a Christian after Jesus appeared to him in a dream." This story may certainly capture the attention, but does it tell the Scriptural truth?

Apparently, Wilson discusses his Christian faith in a new video called "The Making of a Champion." The Blaze summarizes Wilson's story: "...the NFL player says his pinnacle moment came when he was 14 years old and Jesus Christ appeared to him in a dream and told him to learn more about the faith."

Wilson is quoted: "I had a dream one night I was at ... football camp ... my parents were supposed to pick me up on Sunday to go to church," he said. "I had a dream that my dad passed away and that Jesus came into the room and he was just knocking on my door saying, 'Hey you need to find out more about me.'"

The Blaze then says, "While Wilson's parents regularly took him to church, it was this dream that truly moved him to change his ways."

I do not disparage Wilson's Christian faith in any way - not at all! In fact, I rejoice that he is a Christian and is eager to bear witness to his Savior. However, the making of a Christian does not occur via dreams.

First, the reporting by The Blaze must be critiqued. The headline on The Blaze leads one to presume that Wilson had not been a Christian before the dream. However, the story reveals that Wilson had attended church - and presumably heard the Word of God, at least to some degree - prior to the dream. Why assume that he was not a Christian prior to the dream, even though he apparently had been a practicing Christian with his family?

In addition, "becoming a Christian" is quite a different thing from "learning more about" Jesus. As The Blaze reports, Wilson's dream of Jesus simply told him, "Hey you need to find out more about me." Everyone who already calls himself/herself a Christian needs - indeed, wants - to learn more about the Christian faith and more about Jesus Himself. That's normal for all who have already become Christians.

Second, the making of a Christian happens, not via dreams, but only by means of the Holy Spirit working through the Word of God. According to Romans 10:17, faith in Christ comes, not by dreams, but by the Word of God: "So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ."

The Lutheran Confessions explain and testify to this Scriptural truth quite clearly.
  • "God the Holy Spirit ... does not bring about conversion without means. For this purpose He uses the preaching and hearing of God's Word" (Formula of Concord, Epitome, III, 4).
  • "Through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given. He works faith, when and where it pleases God, in those who hear the good news that God justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ's sake" (Augsburg Confession, V, 2-3).
  • "I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord,or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith" (Small Catechism, Creed, The Third Article).
Let's rejoice that Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is a Christian who proudly confesses his Savior. But let's also keep it straight on what makes a Christian: not dreams that make headlines, but the Holy Spirit working through the Word of God proclaimed and given out in the Sacraments.

Faithful Pastors

A little gem from C. F. W. Walther, on faithful pastors:
Faithful pastors must not only avoid being lukewarm or cold. They also must be warm. Their hearts must burn with love for their Savior, Jesus, and for the congregation that their Savior has entrusted to their care, so that they may be able to say with St. Paul and all the apostles: "For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you."....

Every sincere preacher and minister of Jesus Christ should demonstrate much enthusiasm and earnest determination, even if the congregation responds with disdain, hatred, and enmity. A sincere pastor will suffer such experiences rather than gain anyone for himself by downplaying the truth, hiding it, or dulling its sharp points."

C. F. W. Walther, Law and Gospel: How to Read and Apply the Bible, 342