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Beyond Sunday Morning

Father in heaven, fathers on earth

Posted by on Tuesday, March 21, 2017 @ 11:10 AM

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ 14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’

19 But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 saying, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.’ 21 And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. 23 And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled: ‘He shall be called a Nazarene’”(Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23 ESV).

This past Sunday the Church observed the commemoration of St. Joseph, Guardian of Jesus (March 19). Why?

Because the Church has historically looked to Biblical figures as examples to us of God’s grace in action in human lives, and as encouragements to faithful living. Joseph is certainly that—especially for fathers.

In our day when many are bemoaning the “death of the nuclear family,” Joseph’s situation serves as a reminder that sin has wrecked the family as God instituted and intended it from the beginning (Genesis 2:18—3:24). Since the fall into sin, there has never been a “perfect family” on the dust of this earth. What we often refer to as “the Holy Family” is no exception.

Think about it: Mary, herself a sinful woman who needed God’s grace just like the rest of us, was an “unwed mother” (Luke 1:30). Though she was “betrothed to Joseph” (Luke 1:27), which was binding under the marriage laws of that place and time and so would require a legal divorce if Joseph declined to “‘to take Mary as [his] wife’”(Matthew 1:19-20), her marriage to Joseph had not been consummated when she was found to be with child”(Matthew 1:18 ESV). So all the social stigma we might think of today loomed over Mary.

But Joseph did take Mary as his wife—received her God’s gift of a spouse, we might say. It seems to me that the parallels between St. Luke’s report of the annunciation to Mary and St. Matthew’s account of the annunciation to Joseph both conveyed the grace (favor) of God—both centering as they do on the Savior.

“‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom, there will be no end’”(Luke 1:30-33 ESV).

“‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 2She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’” (Matthew 1:20-21 ESV).

While we often hear of Mary’s response of faith (“‘Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word’”[Luke 1:38 ESV] and bursting into the Magnificat [Luke 1:46-55]), Joseph’s actions sing as profoundly as Mary’s words:

“When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife,25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus”(Matthew 1:24-25 ESV).

Joseph, by the grace of God, became the foster father of Jesus. His God-given role was toJesus with Joseph provide for and protect, to nourish and to nurture, to teach and train this son entrusted to him by the Lord. Joseph was called to the vocation of father, just as every man who is blessed by God to beget a child. But, as noted above, Joseph faced special circumstances that no other earthly father has ever had to face. By the grace of God, he manned-up and met every challenge. In this, Joseph provides an example of grace and true manliness for us all.

But he’s not alone in this. I have known many men who have awed me with their strong, yet gentle, always loving fathering. I only wish I had been like this for every day that the Lord blessed me with the opportunity to represent our heavenly Father to the children He has given me to father on earth. For all my mistakes—unintentional and deliberate sins, I pray daily for forgiveness. And, believe me, I thank the Lord every day that He has now blessed me with a second chance of sorts with the grandchildren He has brought into my life.

Martin Luther, who did not have an “ideal’ relationship with his own father, Hans, clearly valued to the vocation of father (and mother) as God has defined these. Consider this gem from his treatment of the Fourth Commandment in the Large Catechism:

“God has given this walk of life [vocation], fatherhood and motherhood, a special position of honor, higher than that of any other walk of life under it. Not only has he commanded us to love our parents but to honor them. …. [H]e distinguishes father and mother above all other persons on earth, and places them next to himself” (The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Kolb-Wengert edition, pp. 400-401).

Yet Luther also had a realistic view of us poor, miserable men whom God calls to the vocation of fatherhood. Try as we might, to live up to the high and holy calling of representing our heavenly Father to the children He entrusts to our care on earth, we fail. Daily.Joseph and Jesus

Yet, if we are men of faith who look to Christ Jesus for forgiveness and guidance for life, we will teach our children to do the same. As we do this, we have the promise of God that the Holy Spirit will be effectively working through our humble efforts to teach and train up our children in the way they should go (Proverbs 22:6), that is, to follow Jesus. God will honor this, not because our efforts are worthy, but because of His gracious promises for the sake of His dearly beloved, well-pleasing Son who loved us and gave Himself up to death on the cross for us (Galatians 2:20).

Fathers, teach the faith to your children. Pray for them and with them. Lead them in worship, bringing your family to church, participating in the service and singing the hymns—or at the very least opening the hymnal to follow along with the text even if you don’t sing along. Show your children by word and deed that religion is not merely for women and children, but is as manly a thing as there can be.

Rise Up O Men of GodRemember: our faith is in a Man who was a carpenter/mason (the New Testament Greek term includes both vocations), who was strong enough in body and spirit to fast for forty days and still do battle with the devil himself, who cared for his mother (after Joseph apparently died), who withstood flogging and crucifixion, and still had strength enough to pray for you and me, provide for his mother, and willing lay down His life that we might be forgiven and spared the pains of eternal misery and death. Jesus was no wimp.

During these penitential days of Lent, recall the final words of the Old Testament:

“‘Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.

5 “‘Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.’” (Malachi 4:4-6 ESV).

Ask yourselves, fathers, what is the most important legacy you can provide for your children?

PV

Nicodemus Old and New

Posted by on Tuesday, March 14, 2017 @ 10:14 AM

“Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him’”(John 3:1-2 ESV).

Old Nicodemus was obviously a learned religious man. Jesus recognizes this when He calls him “the teacher of Israel” (John 3:9), meaning that Old Nicodemus was a rabbi. As a Pharisee, Old Nicodemus was scrupulous in obeying the Law. His righteous behavior was apparently impressive to his fellow Jews, for Nicodemus was a member of the Ruling Council, the Sanhedrin (John 3:1 and also John 7:50). He appeared to have a lot going for him in religious matters.Jesus teaches Nicodemus

But Old Nicodemus came to Jesus under the veil of darkness—not merely “by night,” but also in spiritual darkness. Consider St. Paul’s words about the Israelites (Jews):

“Their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. 15 Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. 16 But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed”(2 Corinthians 3:14 ESV).

Old Nicodemus, though a member of God’s “chosen people” under the old covenant was not yet a member of God’s chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession”(1 Peter 2:9 ESV) under the New Testament which Jesus was ushering in even as He spoke to Old Nicodemus. In the Lord’s own words, Old Nicodemus had not at that point “‘enter[ed] the kingdom of God’” (John 3:5 ESV). Why not?

Basically, because Old Nicodemus was still relying on his reason and boasting of his accomplishments to make himself right with God. But it is not by our own efforts, or our accumulation of religious knowledge, or our “personal decision” that any of us sinners enter the kingdom. Instead, we are brought into the kingdom by the gracious working of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit does this work by means of the Gospel in Word and Sacrament (the Word of God preached and spoken in Absolution, the Word combined with the water of Holy Baptism, and the consecrated bread and wine in Holy Communion).infant baptism

Recall Martin Luther’s explanation of the Holy Spirit’s work from the Small Catechism’s treatment of the Third Article of the Creed:

“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.”

Because Old Nicodemus was still trying to puzzle out how to be right with God based on his efforts, he comes to Jesus questioning what he had seen and heard.

“‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him’”(John 3:1-2 ESV).

Old Nicodemus was skeptical. He admits to knowing certain facts and evidence about Jesus, but does not acknowledge the conclusion to which these point. The “signs” to which Old Nicodemus refers are the miracles Jesus had been performing. St. John in his Gospel uses the Greek word for sign instead of the word for miracle, which emphasizes an important function of the healings, etc.: the point to the fact that Jesus is God.

When Old Nicodemus says “‘unless God is with him,’” he is falling as short of confessing Jesus as “‘the Christ, the Son of the living God’” (Matthew 16:16 ESV) as the earth is below the heavens. The truth is that Jesus is “‘Immanuel’ (which means, God with us)’”(Matthew 1:23 ESV).

Such questioning and doubting is typical for unbelievers. But don’t be too hard on them! It does indicate that the Holy Spirit is working to lead them to faith in Christ. Nicodemus, who had heard Jesus preach and seen Him perform signs, did come to Jesus with his questions. Oh, that our unbelieving family, friends, and neighbors would do the same! How wonderful if our words and behavior would daily reflect Jesus to them so that the Spirit would move them to ask for a reason for the hope that is in us”(1 Peter 3:15 ESV)!

As Jesus says to Nicodemus, we can’t see the Holy Spirit working and more than we can see the wind (John 3:8). But we can see the effects of both! (Just remember the weather last week!) See the questions of family, friends, and neighbors as an indication of the Spirit’s work. Know that when you speak the Word of God to them in answer to these questions, that also is the Spirit at work (Romans 10:8-17). This is true even if the “questions” come as accusations during persecution (Matthew 10:19-20).

And if you’re looking for some indication that the Spirit has done His work of bringing a person to faith, I suggest you notice when the questions become confessions of the faith! When Nicodemus first came to Jesus he asked,“‘How can these things be?’”(John 3:9 ESV). Later, St. John reports that Nicodemus asked a question of the Sanhedrin which had a different nature: “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” (John 7:51 ESV). It seems the wind was changing direction! And by the end of Jesus public ministry, look at Nicodemus:

Jesus taken down from the cross“After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away His body. 39 Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. 40 So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews.”(John 19:38-40 ESV)

Yes, Nicodemus came questioning and doubting what he had seen and heard. But by the grace of God and the effective working of the Holy Spirit in his heart, New Nicodemus was moved toward confessing the faith, in word and deed.meaning of anothen

Though Scripture does not record it, I hope that New Nicodemus was “‘born from above” (John 3:3), as Jesus tells him; “‘born of water and the Spirit’”(John 3:5), by Holy Baptism and was thus transformed, like Saul of Tarsus following his Baptism, when Ananias delivered this commission from the Lord:

“‘The God of our fathers appointed you to know His will, to see the Righteous One and to hear a voice from His mouth; 15 for you will be a witness for Him to everyone of what you have seen and heard.’”(Acts 22:14-15 ESV)

I hope that New Nicodemus eventually became like Peter and John, confessing disciples of Jesus Christ who responded to the warning “‘to speak no more to anyone in this name [of Jesus]’” (Acts 4:17) by boldly confessing:

“‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, 20 for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard’” (Acts 4:20

I hope you will be like the New Nicodemus too!

PV

Lost Hours

Posted by on Tuesday, March 7, 2017 @ 12:12 PM

Prepare yourself: this is the week we “spring ahead” as Daylight Savings Time begins.

spring aheadPeople often remark that during the night when the clocks officially change that we “lose an hour.”

But we don’t, really. It isn’t like the segment of time as we measure it gets bumped behind the dresser like your car keys. You can’t search the house until you find those sixty minutes. And just think how odd the excuse would sound: “Sorry I was late for service, pastor, but I lost an hour last night and it took this long to find it!”

The very idea of an “hour” as a sixty-minute measure of time is a human construct we use to keep track of that creation of God that we call “time.” Yes, time is a creation. The eternal Lord God brought it into being when He spoke into existence the “evening and morning” of the First Day:

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. (Genesis 1:3-5).

Biblically, time is measured according to days:

And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness 2 for forty days, being tempted by the devil(Luke 4:1-2a ESV);

weeks:

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, youcalendar pages, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy(Exodus 20:8-11);

lunar months:

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, 2 “This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year for you. 3 Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household. 4 And if the household is too small for a lamb, then he and his nearest neighbor shall take according to the number of persons; according to what each can eat, you shall make your count for the lamb. 5 Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats, 6 and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight(Exodus 12:1-6 ESV);

years:

The years of our life are seventy,

    or even by reason of strength eighty;

yet their span is but toil and trouble;

    they are soon gone, and we fly away.(Psalm 90:10 ESV);

and seasons:

And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” And it was so(Genesis 1:14 ESV).

In the New Testament when the word for hour is used the significance of it is not as a measure of sixty minutes. The Greek word means “time of day” in a more general way, or “a short period of time,” or “the time when something took place, is taking place, or will take place.” It seems the ancients were more interested in the events than fixing a precise minute (or even second, not to mention nanosecond!). There’s a lesson here for us moderns who fixate over quantity in ever-decreasing detail, often to the neglect of quality.

It would be well for us to return to the Biblical treatment of time. Approaching each day allotted by God as the time in which we have to accomplish the tasks set before us without worrying about “yesterday” or “tomorrow” we would no doubt be healthier and more content. But don’t take my word for this. The Lord Jesus says:

“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble”(Matthew 6:34 ESV).

Six days ought to be sufficient for our “work week.” Consider what the Lord God accomplished in that amount of time and notice His emphasis on quality in the accomplishments:

And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. 2 And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. 3 So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation (Genesis 1:31—2:1-3 ESV).

Yes, it would benefit us to return to the Biblical treatment of time—especially as it centers on the life of Jesus. The Rev. Dr. Arthur A. Just makes these observations about time:

Time in the Christian sense is a servant of theology, and in this time the church has taken the incarnation and the crucifixion [of Jesus], the two scandals of Christianity, and raised them up to be the two great festivals of the church year, Christmas and Easter. These are the pivotal points of the liturgical year. Within sacred time, the church has harmonized the seasons of nature with the seasons of the church year. Thus, as nature experiences its yearly death in the fall and winter of the year, the church focuses on judgment, the ultimate death of the world as we know it. … Then Christian time goes on to coordinate the rebirth of nature in the spring and summer with images of new life through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is not a coincidence that Easter occurs in the spring. … The church has transformed the world by its liturgy and served the Gospel’s goal. The church has raised secular time to the level of the sacred. This sacred time becomes sacramental because Christ now appears in it for the benefit of his people (Lutheran Worship: History and Practice, CPH: 1993, Fred L. Precht, ed., p.32).clock shop

While you’re pondering these ideas over the coming days, don’t forget to set your clocks ahead one hour when you go to bed on Saturday so that you’ll be right on time for church Sunday morning!

PV

Fat or Shrove

Posted by on Tuesday, February 28, 2017 @ 8:45 AM

Today is called Mardi Gras in French.Mardi Gras

In English, either “Fat Tuesday” or “Shrove Tuesday.”

The way one thinks about this day—one’s attitude—indicates much about one’s spiritual condition.

In the popular culture, I think it’s fair to say that Mardi Gras is thought of as the last big bash before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. It’s a chance to party before becoming penitent. That’s a problem.

Mardi Gras masque

Mardi Gras celebrations around the world are extravagant examples of debauchery. Drunkenness and gluttony, nudity, sexual promiscuity, and excess are on display.

Even nominal Christians get swept into the crowd of revelers as the parade passes by. “Tomorrow we’ll wear ashes,” they seem to say, “but for now we’ll eat, drink, and be merry!”

I wonder, do such merrymakers know the Lord’s response to the one who originated that phrase?

“‘But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you…’”(Luke 12:20a ESV).

The all-too-common attitude of “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” betrays a total misunderstanding of the Biblical doctrine of repentance. On this eve of the penitential season of Lent, it is well to review this most basic teaching of Jesus, who began His public ministry preaching:

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”(Matthew 4:17 ESV).

In historic, orthodox Christian doctrine repentance is not a one-time event. Nor is it a piecemeal thing, repenting for this sin and that. Martin Luther expressed the Scriptural teaching of repentance well in the first of his famous “Ninety-five Theses” when he wrote:

“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17),

He willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”

So repentance is an ongoing thing in the Christian life—“begun once and continuing ever after,” to borrow Luther’s words from the Large Catechism’s discussion of Baptism. These three really belong together: Baptism, repentance, the Christian life. The golden thread that binds them inseparably is faith, given by means of Holy Baptism, characterized by repentance, and lived daily.

The Augsburg Confession—which is the foundation document stating what Lutherans believe, teach, and confess—defines repentance in these words:

“Properly speaking, repentance consists of two parts: one is contrition or the terrors that strike the conscience when sin is recognized; the other is faith, which is brought to life by the gospel or absolution. This faith believes that sins are forgiven on account of Christ, consoles the conscience, and liberates it from terrors(AC Article XII, ¶3-5, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Kolb-Wengert edition, p. 45).

Put another way: when a sinner realizes he is a sinner, deserving of damnation; and also believes God’s gracious promise of forgiveness for Jesus’ sake, that person is repentant. Terror and trust are equally present in true repentance. Leave either one out, and the repentance is incomplete on the one hand, insincere on the other. True repentance then will show itself as genuine by changed behavior: “Thereupon good works, which are the fruit of repentance, should follow” (AC Article XII, ¶6, Kolb-Wengert edition, p. 45).

It is not only such blatant, public sinners as Mardi Gras revelers who are guilty of an unbelieving, impenitent attitude toward sin. Many church-going folk also deny, excuse, self-justify, and downplay their personal sins. “I’m not as bad as my neighbor!” “It’s really not that serious.” “God will surely overlook my peccadilloes.” God’s response to such claims is clear:

“The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart”(Genesis 6:5-6 ESV).

“Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die”(Ezekiel 18:4 ESV).

“…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (Rom 3:23 ESV).

“…all [people] are under sin, 10 as it is written:

“None is righteous, no, not one;
11     no one understands;
    no one seeks for God.
12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
    no one does good,
    not even one”(Romans 3:10-12 ESV).

But no of us need die in our sins. The Lord’s gracious promise—put into effect and completely fulfilled in the life and ministry, the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—give forgiveness to everyone living daily in repentant faith. This is how the Lord says it through the prophet Ezekiel:

“‘But if a wicked person turns away from all his sins that he has committed and keeps all myJesus and disciples statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 22 None of the transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him; for the righteousness that he has done, he shall live. 23 Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? 24 But when a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice and does the same abominations that the wicked person does, shall he live? None of the righteous deeds that he has done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which he is guilty and the sin he has committed, for them he shall die’”(Ezekiel 18:21-24 ESV).

What all these words of the Lord ought to make clear is the need for repentance right now. Waiting ‘til Ash Wednesday will not do. If Christ returns on a Tuesday, many, many people will regret their attitude and behavior for eternity. But those who heed the call of the Lord Jesus to repent of sin and trust in Him for eternal salvation will live to rejoice!

PV

Color and Light

Posted by on Tuesday, February 21, 2017 @ 7:48 PM

We’re nearing the end of the Epiphany season. The Feast of the Transfiguration is this coming Sunday, which means Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent are on the horizon.

I’ve been thinking how interesting it is that as Epiphany, the “season of light,” is waning as the days in our part of the world are lengthening. For those who relish every ray of sunshine during the winter months, Epiphany offers God’s encouragement as Jesus, “the Light of the world” (John 8:12), shines brighter and brighter until at last, we “behold His glory” atop the mountain with Moses and Elijah (Matthew 17:1-9). And what a welcome sight that is just before we pass into the shadows of Lent. Such is the ebb and flow of God’s creations (that is, the world and the Church).

sunshine and rainbowIt seems to me that there’s a transition of colors that happens as well. Perhaps a little earlier this year, due to the February heat wave we’ve been enjoying. The grays and white of winter start to shift to the greens of spring, beginning with the first blades of Crocus and Daffodils. I don’t think I’d ever noticed how varied those greens are until a dear friend, living in the high desert of Southern California pointed it out. “I miss the variety of green you have in Minnesota,” she said. And so we do.

There is, of course, an integral connection between color and light. Picture the pinks of a sunrise, the orange and purple of sunset. Or let the arc of a rainbow sweep across your mind’s eye. The colors are not possible without the light. Life would be dreary indeed with colors and light. Or would it even be possible?

Scientists have discovered species of sea creatures which live so deep that the sunlight never penetrates todeiopea comb jellyfish the places they call home. But the Creator has given these creatures the amazing ability to generate their own bioluminescent light. So maybe there’s more of a connection between light and life than we usually think.

Or perhaps we just need to listen more closely to Jesus:

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life”(John 8:12 ESV).

This is the same point the Evangelist St. John makes in the Prologue to his Gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and jellyfish textwithout him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth(John1:1-14 ESV).

Which brings us back to the Transfiguration, the event St. John is recalling in these words, the glorious moments when he and his brother James and Simon Peter saw in Jesus the glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth”(John1:1-14 ESV). Jesus’ glory, as revealed to the Apostles, who have passed down this revelation to us, is that by God’s grace, through the truth of God’s Word, those who receive from God the gift of faith (Ephesians 2:8-9) also receive new life in Christ—a glorious new life, lived in the light of God’s grace!

PV

Sanctified Love

Posted by on Tuesday, February 14, 2017 @ 9:49 AM

Everyone knows that today is, as my wife calls it, “The Luuuuuv Day,” right?

But not everyone knows it is historically a Christian holyday, to commemorate the real Saint Valentine, a Christian martyr of the 3rd Century.

Not much is known of Valentinius of Terni and the sources sometimes contradict each other. Then there’s the matter of others also named Valentine. Still, it’s worth knowing something about him and why the Christian church would choose to recognize such a man.Saint Valentine

Here’s what Wikipedia says (in part):

Saint Valentine is a widely recognized third-century saint commemorated on February 14 and since the High Middle Ages is associated with a tradition of courtly love.

All that is reliably known of the saint commemorated on February 14 is his name and that he was martyred [killed because of confessing Christ] and buried at a cemetery on theVia Flaminia to the north of Rome on that day. It is uncertain whether St. Valentine is to be identified as one saint or the conflation of two saints of the same name. Several different martyrologies [a catalog or history of the lives of martyrs] have been added to later hagiographies [biographies of saints] that are unreliable.

Because so little is reliably known of him, in 1969 the Roman Catholic Church removed his name from the General Roman Calendar, leaving his liturgical celebration to local calendars. Saint Valentine is also commemorated in the Anglican Communion, as well as by many Lutherans.

A popularly ascribed hagiographical identity appears in the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493). Alongside a woodcut portrait of Valentine, the text states that he was a Roman priest martyred during the reign of Claudius Gothicus. He was arrested and imprisoned upon being caught marrying Christian couples and otherwise aiding Christians who were at the time being persecuted by Claudius in Rome. Helping Christians at this time was considered a crime. Claudius took a liking to this prisoner. However, when Valentinius tried to convert the Emperor, he was condemned to death. He was beaten with clubs and stones; when that failed to kill him, he was beheaded outside the Flaminian Gate. Various dates are given for the martyrdom or martyrdoms: 269, 270, or 273.

There are many other legends behind Saint Valentine, none of them based on historical facts. One is that in the 3rd century Valentine, who was a priest, defied the order of the emperor, Claudius, and secretly married couples so that the husbands wouldn’t have to go to war. The legend claims that soldiers were sparse at this time so this was a big inconvenience to the emperor.

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Valentine, adapted)

Whatever the facts—and perhaps the so-called legends are based on facts that we simply haven’t or can’t yet verify!—St. Valentine is associated with love, whether the “courtly love” of medieval literature, or “marital love,” or modern “pop-culture love,” or God’s love for sinners.

Let me offer a few thoughts on these “types of love.”courtly love

First, the notion of “courtly love” is originally a literary fiction. It certainly sounds romantic, this special love between a knight and his lady—a woman married to someone else (recall Lancelot and Guinevere)—which may or may not have been consummated. Still, there is an erotic element to it and, from a Christian perspective, it violates the marriage vows on an emotional level and so comes under God’s prohibition in the Sixth Commandment (Exodus 20:14). Not incidentally, let me point out that such “emotional adultery,” if I may call it that, is very often the first step in a married person having an affair and so is a sin of the heart to be repented of (Matthew 5:27-28).

Second, “marital love” is a great good gift of God which has been under constant assault ever since Eve said to Adam, “Have a bite of this fruit!” (Genesis 3:6). Satan attacks God’s institution of marriage—even with the sin-corrupted idea of “love” as the “real basis” of marriage—because the devil knows that by destroying marriage, and thus family, he undermines all of human society. Still, marital love as God intends it is a gift of God to be enjoyed and celebrated and is, in St. Paul’s words “a profound mystery” that reflects the love of Christ Jesus for His bride, the holy Christian Church (Ephesians 5:25-33).

What I’ve called “pop-culture love” is all the so-called romantic, sappy, greeting-card stuff that characterizes (caricatures?) this holiday. While there is some small grain of truth hidden within it, for the most part, this is not real love at all. In fact, sadly, much what you’ll find communicated in the cartoon-styled valentines exchanged today mocks love under the guise of “humor.” Now, you probably know if you’ve been reading this blog that I have a penchant for puns and do enjoy a good joke, but the fact remains that the expressions of “love” which bear the hallmark of “pop-culture” fall short of real love.

So let’s talk about real love.

Many people don’t know that the Greek langheart cross puzzleuage has different words for love. The one used in the New Testament for God’s love for us is agape (agápē). This has been variously described as “self-giving love,” as “unconditional love that transcends, that serves regardless of circumstances,” or as “charity,” which is the English word used by the translators of the King James Version back in 1611.

I like the definition “love that sees the need in another and acts to meet that need, even at the risk of personal cost.” Lengthy, yes, but it covers the important points.

This agape is God’s love for sinners in Christ Jesus. Seeing our need for forgiveness, God took action by sending His Son to fulfill the Law in our place and then suffer the punishment for sin on our behalf. St. Paul states it succinctly when he writes God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”(Romans 5:8 ESV). Talk about personal cost! It leaves one’s mouth agape! (Can’t resist that pun.)

This is the love that is supposed to be reflected in the love of a husband for his wife and in the responsive love of a wife for her husband (Ephesians 5). But it is also the love that Christians, as the bride of Christ (the Church), are to have for others, both fellow believers and also (especially) unbelievers. When we see the need of our fellow sinners (in or outside the church!) for forgiveness, we are to risk loving them unconditionally, sacrificially, completely, as Christ has first loved us. This responsive love of Christians, expressed in words and deeds of service to our neighbors, is how Christ Jesus continues to love sinners through us, through His disciples.

That’s certainly the truth which underlies the commemoration of St. Valentine, whether he was martyred for Ephesians 3:18lovingly serving young soldiers by marrying them to their loved ones, or loving a pagan emperor by lovingly telling him who Jesus is and what He has done to save sinners, Valentine exhibited true, Christian love.

That’s worth celebrating every day!

PV

Fulfilling the Law

Posted by on Tuesday, February 7, 2017 @ 9:50 AM

Matthew 5:17

Jesus was pretty clear in His preaching and teaching that the Law of God didn’t “go away” when He came along. In fact, the Law continues in effect even today—in spite of what the godless in our modern society believe and profess. The Ten Commandments (the epitome of the moral law given by the Lord through Moses) is not “a quaint, but outdated list of dos and don’ts” that modern man has advanced beyond. What God says still goes.

But what does this mean for us as Christians, as disciples of Jesus Christ? How does God’s Law affect our lives? Do such commands apply anymore, now that we have come to believe in Jesus as our Savior?

The truth is, our faith and life are to be based completely on God’s revealed will as recorded in Holy Scripture. Foundational for us is the moral law. But none of us achieves this. We cannot, because we are by nature thoroughly sinful (Ps 51:5; Ps 143:2; Rom 3:10; 1Cor 2:14; Eph 2:1-3; Titus 3:3 ).

It does us no good to wear ourselves out trying to fulfill the righteous requirements of the Law as the basis of our faith and life in God’s sight. It does no good because, first, you and I cannot fulfill the Law of God (Rom 7:15-24); and last, because Christ has already done this for us (Rom 7:25—8:4)!

That’s what Jesus means when He says, “‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them’” (Mt 5:17 ESV). One Lutheran Bible scholar (R.C.H. Lenski) helpfully pictures this as “a vessel which is filled to the top.” One thinks perhaps of the image of a clay pot so often mentioned by the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah and the Apostle Paul (though with a different application). Lenski writes this:

“The vessel here referred to is the written Word, the Law and the Prophets; and this vessel is filled when what the Word records occurs. The mission of Jesus was to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, not partially, but in clay pots filled to the brimtoto [i.e., completely]”(Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel, R.C.H. Lenski. The Wartburg Press: 1942, p. 205).

Filling a clay jar with water does not change the size or shape of the jar. The jar remains as it was, except no longer empty. So the Law of God, which is to be the foundation and provide the form for our lives as Christians, must be fulfilled. But it is clear from our own personal experience that our thoughts, words, and behavior do not “fill” this jar. You and I do not keep the Law as God requires of us.

Matthew 5:48

But Christ has fulfilled the Law in our place. Its righteous requirements have been fully met by Him, in thought, desire, word, and deed; not only the letter, but the spirit of the Law (2 Corinthians 3:5-6). Now, by God’s grace, through faith in Christ, that is, by believing that Jesus has done this for us, God credits Jesus’ keeping of the Law to us. In Christ, wcracked clay pote are perfect in God’s sight!

But that’s not how we see ourselves and others, is it? If anything, we appear as “cracked pots” when it comes to living our Christian faith each day. On the negative side, this means that try as we might, we will never fulfill the Law. On the positive side, it means we “leak God’s grace” into the lives of people all around us. (Thanks to Pastor Matthew Harrison, President of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, for that verbal picture of believers).

PV2 Corinthians 5:6-9

 

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Sing the New Song

Posted by on Tuesday, January 31, 2017 @ 10:13 AM

childrens choir

Last week I suggested a practical self-help step a person can take to deal with sadness, depression, grief, or the routine frustrations of life: Sing! I said that I’m convinced everyone’s life would be better if we all sang more. But I also pointed out that it does make a difference what you sing.Luther's catechetical hymns

Music unquestionably has an effect on our mood. That effect can be positive or negative. Words can do the same (remember, “sticks and stones”?). Combine words and music and the result is powerful. Martin Luther understood this, so he composed (music) and wrote (texts) hymns designed to teach the Christian faith.

It’s been said of Luther’s hymns that they “were meant not to create a certain mood, but to convey a message. They were a confession of faith, not personal feelings” (Luther’s Works: American Edition, Vol. 53, Liturgy and Hymns, p. 197). As such, the Word of God is the source of Luther’s hymns.

Since God has commanded that His Word be preached and taught, Lutheran hymns have always sought to convey the doctrine (teaching) of the Bible for it is the Word of God which both creates and sustains faith. Hymns therefore teach, as well as comfort, encourage, and nourish our faith.

Luther’s hymns on the “Six Chief Parts of the Catechism” are an enduring example of how music in service of a text from God’s Word can convey the teachings of Scripture in a manner that is easier to “learn by heart” as the music “fixes” the Word in a person’s memory. But this idea of using songs to convey and help memorize the Word of God was not original with Martin Luther.

“I have stored up your word in my heart,
    that I might not sin against you.
12 Blessed are you, O Lord;
    teach me your statutes!”

—Psalm 119:11-12 (ESV)

These words from the Psalter, the divinely-inspired “hymn book of the Bible,” express the very idea that moved Luther to write catechetical hymns. Using the arts of poetry and music in service to the Word of God, the psalms also are wonderful examples of setting the divine Word in a form that human minds can comprehend and remember. And since it is the Word of God, it is “living and active” (Hebrews 4:12) and does not stick in the mind without touching the heart.

When considering what hymns or songs are best for accomplishing the purpose of conveying the truth of God’s Word to create and sustain faith, it only makes sense to look at the Biblical songs (psalms) and canticles to learn from their content.

[The Hebrew alphabet consists of 22 letters. The chart below shows each character, its "name," and the corresponding letters we are familiar with in English.]

Hebrew Alphabet

Psalm 119 is a good place to start. This is longest of the 150 psalms included in the Bible (176 verses). This psalm is an acrostic poem of twenty-two stanzas, following the letters of the Hebrew alphabet; within a stanza, each verse begins with the same Hebrew letter.

The entire psalm is a meditation on the Word of the Lord, the Torah. Various synonyms are used throughout the psalm, each expressing a different aspect of God’s revealed word and will; for example, law, testimonies, precepts, statutes, commandments, rules—and those are only the ones used in the first stanza (vv. 1-8)!additional hymns

So one principle to use in judging hymns and songs is how accurately and completely the text (or lyric) communicates the word and will of the Lord.

Other psalms very clearly relate the mighty acts of God on behalf of His people, recounting, for example, the Exodus, the wilderness wanderings of the Israelites, and the conquest of the “Promised Land” of Canaan.

Psalm 78 (the second-longest psalm) is a great example of this. And the point of this psalm is explicitly to teach God’s people what the Lord has done for them:

Give ear, O my people, to my

teaching;
  incline your ears to the words

of my mouth!
I will open my mouth in a          parable;
  I will utter dark sayings from of

old,
things that we have heard and

known,
  that our fathers have told us.
We will not hide them from

their children,
  but tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the Lord,

and his might,
  and the wonders that he has

(Ps 78:1-4 ESV)

So a second principle for evaluating a hymn or song is to ask if it tells what God has done or is doing. It’s clear that the human writers of the psalms, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wanted to make sure that God’s people learned and remembered what the Lord has done for them. What makes the eternal difference for us sinners, after all, is what God has done for us, especially in the life and ministry, the suffering and death, the resurrection and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the single most important thing for us to learn and to teach our children, to tell to the coming generation”(Ps 78:4).

The psalms continued to be sung by God’s faithful people into New Testament times, both in their public worship and in their private lives. There is little doubt that Jesus and His disciples sang the appointed psalms as they celebrated His last Passover supper, although the Greek word hymneō is used:

“And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives”(Matthew 26:30 ESV; also Mark 14:26).

It’s also likely that St. Paul, himself a well-educated Pharisee prior to his conversion to the Christian faith (see Philippians 3:3-6 and Acts 22:3), also sang from the Psalter, for example during his imprisonment in Philippi:

“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns [hymneō] to God, and the prisoners were listening to them…” (Acts 16:25 ESV).

The churches founded by St. Paul during his missionary journeys followed his example of using the hymns of the Scriptures in their worship, clearly with the intention that what they sang together was a mode of Biblical instruction:

“When you come together, each one has a hymn [Greek: psalmos], a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up” (1 Corinthians 14:26 ESV).

This is not to say that only psalms are to be sung, although some have thought so (John Calvin, for example). Already in the time of the Apostles faithful followers of Jesus were adding to the Church’s song, as the following passages demonstrate:

“…be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs [psalmos and hymnos and ōdē pneumatikos], singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ”(Ephesians 5:18-21 ESV).

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs [psalmos, hymnos, and pneumatikos ōdē], with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16 ESV).

The precise distinction between these three terms is not clear, but the New Testament record does indicate that believers were singing more than just what was found in the Scriptures. On the other hand, since the principles mentioned above are drawn from those Scriptures (what we now called the Old Testament), it seems God’s people followed His advice and example in the composing of the Church’s song.

Most importantly, God’s people today “sing the new song” whose opening chord was joyously sounded when Christ Jesus rose victorious from the grave!

“Worthy are you to take the scroll
    and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
    from every tribe and language and people and nation,
10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
    and they shall reign on the earth.”

11 Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, 12 saying with a loud voice,

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”

13 And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying,

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”

14 And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped (Revelation 5:9-14 ESV).

The great Christian hymns continue in this pattern of the Scriptures and the early Church. They quote or paraphrase the Word of God, recounting God’s mighty deeds for His people’s benefit, helping us to learn and remember what God has done for us and promised to us. In all of this, God’s people praise Him by proclaim[ing] the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light”      (1 Peter 2:9 ESV).

That’s a key principle in judging what hymns or songs are appropriate, especially for use in public worship: Do they praise God by proclaiming His work? Or do they focus more on us and our actions? Another way of saying this is, “Who does the action of the verbs?” When it is God whose work is recounted and proclaimed, then it is true praise.

Declaring our actions (“I just want to praise You, Lord…”; “Lord, we lift Your name on high…”; “Here’s my heart, Lord…”) falls short of the Biblical example of emphasizing what God does. Yes, faith does respond to God’s words and actions with heartfelt praise, but it is always a response born of what the Lord has done/is doing and has promised for the sake of Christ.

I imagine some of you are wondering how this lesson about the Church’s song helps combat depression or relieve anxiety. Here’s the answer: A hymn that proclaims to your troubled spirit the gracious promises of God in Christ Jesus does much more than “lighten your mood.” A person who is suffering is not like to find relief by simply “whistling a happy tune” or singing “Don’t worry, be happy!” But a person who sings hymns like the ones quoted below—because these convey the Word of God—is ministered to by the Holy Spirit, who always works through God’s Word.

Since Christ has full atonement made

     And brought to us salvation,

Each Christian therefore may be glad

     And build on this foundation.

Your grace alone, dear Lord, I plead,

Your death is now my life indeed,

     For You have paid my ransom.

            —Martin Luther, “Salvation unto Us Has Come,” stanza 6

 

If Your beloved Son, O God,

     Had not to earth descended

And in our mortal flesh and blood

     Had not sin’s power ended,

Then this poor, wretched soul of mine

In hell eternally would pine

     Because of my transgression.

But now I find sweet peace and rest;

     Despair no more reigns o’er me.

No more am I by sin oppressed,

     For Christ has borne sin for me.

Upon the cross for me He died

That, reconciled, I might abide

     With You, my God, forever.

            —Johann Heermann, “If Your Beloved Son, O God,” stanzas 1 & 2

 

Increase my faith, dear Savior,

     For Satan seeks by night and day

To rob me of this treasure

     And taken my hope of bliss away.

But, Lord, with You beside me,

     I shall be undismayed;

And led by Your good Spirit,

     I shall be unafraid.

Abide with me, O Savior,

     A firmer faith bestow;

Then I shall bid defiance

     To ev’ry evil foe.

            —Erdmann Neumeister, “I Know My Faith Is Founded,” stanza 2

 

Rejoice, my heart, be glad and sing,

     A cheerful trust maintain;

For God, the source of ev’rything,

     Your portion shall remain.

He is your treasure, He your joy,

     Your life and light and Lord,

Your counselor when doubts annoy,

     Your shield and great reward.

Why spend the day in blank despair,

     In restless thought the night?

On your Creator cast your acre;

He makes your burdens light.

Did not His love and truth and pow’r

     Guard ev’ry childhood day?

And did He not in threat’ning hour

     Turn dreaded ills away?

            —Paul Gerhadt, “Rejoice, My Heart, Be Glad and Sing,” stanzas 1-4

 

Through Jesus’ blood and merit

     I am at peace with God.

What, then, can daunt my spirit,

     However dark my road?

My courage shall not fail me,

     For God is on my side;

Though hell itself assail me,

     Its rage I may deride.

            —Simon Dach, “Through Jesus’ Blood and Merit,” stanza 1

 

Be still, my soul; the Lord is on your side;

Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;

Leave to your God to order and provide;

     In ev’ry change He faithful will remain.

Be still, my soul; your best, your heav’nly Friend

Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Be still, my soul; your God will undertake

     To guide your future as He has the past.

Your hope, your confidence let nothing shake;

     All now mysterious shall be bright at last.

Be still, my soul; the waves and winds still know

His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below.

            —Catharina Amalia Dorthea von Schlegel,

                        “Be Still, My Soul,” stanzas 1 & 2

 

Blessed, oh, blessed are they forever

     Whose help is from the Lord Most High,

Whom from salvation can nothing sever,

     And who in hope to Christ draw nigh.

To all who trust in Him, our Lord

Will aid and counsel now afford.

     Alleluia, alleluia!

Penitent sinners, for mercy crying,

     Pardon and peace from Him obtain;

Ever the wants of the poor supplying,

     Their faithful God He will remain.

He helps His children in distress,

The widows and the fatherless.

     Alleluia, alleluia!

            —Johann Daniel Herrnschmidt, “Praise the Almighty,” stanzas 3 & 4

Let me end with a couple of lines from a contemporary hymn writer, the Rt. Rev. Timothy Dudley-Smith, OBE, a retired bishop of the Church of England, which give voice to a fitting prayer for those who sing the Church’s song:

So in Scripture, song, and story,

     Savior, may Your voice be heard.

Till our eyes behold Your glory

     Give us ears to hear Your Word.

            —from “Faith and Truth and Life Bestowing,” stanza 2.

PV

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Sadness for a Season

Posted by on Tuesday, January 24, 2017 @ 10:09 AM

It’s that time of year when I cherish every sunny day. I know I’m not alone in this. I’ve seen some estimates that indicate a majority of people living in northern climes struggle with what those who study and treat mood disorders call “seasonal affective disorder,” known by the apt acronym “SAD.”

According to the Mayo Clinic website, SAD is “a subtype of major depression or bipolar disorder.” Citing the standard reference work for psychological matters, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5), the Mayo website says:

“The DSM-5 criteria for diagnosing depression with a seasonal pattern includes having these experiences for at sadness in the rainleast the last two years:

  • Depression that begins during a specific season every year.
  • Depression that ends during a specific season every year.
  • No episodes of depression during the season in which you experience a normal mood.
  • Many more seasons of depression than seasons without depression over the lifetime of your illness.”

(http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/basics/tests-diagnosis/con-20021047)

Let me quickly remind you that I am a pastor, not a counselor or psychologist or medical professional. So I am not in the business of diagnosing and treating psychological illnesses or physical ailments. We both go wrong if we forget that my calling is to deal with spiritual matters. In classical Lutheran theology, a pastor is what in German is called a seelsorger, a “curer of souls.”

But we must also remember that the Word of God describes people as consisting of both body and soul; the two are inseparably connected, so what effects one necessarily effects the other. For example, David writes in Psalm 31:

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
    my eye is wasted from grief;
    my soul and my body also.
10 For my life is spent with sorrow,
    and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my iniquity,
    and my bones waste away.

(Ps 31:9-10 ESV)

There certainly is a spiritual dimension to physical and mental illness. The Bible calls this sin, and this is the “disorder” that pastors are called by God to treat.

When the Word of God speaks about sin it refers both to the nature of human beings ever since the Fall (the “flesh” or “sinful nature”) and of those individChoosing a therapistual acts done that are contrary to God’s revealed will (“actual sins”). These actual sins encompass both the wrong that we do (“sins of commission”) and the right that we fail or refuse to do (“sins of omission”).

Our sinfulness and our sins are the root and the result of what ails us. This is not to say that every problem or illness we experience is the direct result of some particular sin or another of which we are guilty; sometimes the sins of others cause us to suffer. Still, the Bible testifies that all sickness (physical and mental/emotional) and ultimately death are the consequences of sin.

What we pastors as seelsorgers do is not in place of medical treatment or psychological therapy. Though speaking to you the sure and certain promises of God in Christ, prayer, and the ministry of the sacraments are crucial, these do not replace God’s gifts of medicine or therapy which are not contrary to the Word of God. Pastoral care in its fullest sense is complimentary to what doctors and therapists do; each of us is using the knowledge, skill, and experience God has given us.Greek word for soul

 

I would never suggest that psychological disorders or mental illness are not “real” or have no basis in the physical part of a person. While there are not currently “blood tests” that are conclusive for all varieties of mental illness, science has shown that levels of chemicals in the brain do play a role.

Your own experience tells you that, just as a person’s physical health can change his/her emotional state, and a person’s emotional distress can result in physical conditions, so can a state of “spiritual disease” manifest itself in both mental/emotional and physical problems. Again, consider the Holy Spirit-inspired words of David:

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven,
    whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity,
    and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
    my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.

I acknowledged my sin to you,
    and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
    and you forgave the iniquity of my sin(Ps 32:1-5 ESV).

Unconfessed sin can and often does result in psychological distress and physical disease. Since we are body-and-soul beings, it should not surprise us to find that health involves both. So it is not wrong—indeed it is a mark of a healthy approach to our problems—to ask ourselves if and in what way our own sin might be the cause of our problems. If we can identify a particular sin of which we are guilty then as Christians, that is, as sinners who live in a state of repentant faith in Jesus Christ, we confess that sin and received forgiveness from God as we trust His gracious promise to forgive us for the sake of Christ Jesus (see 1 John 1:8-9).

When our sufferings, our problems, our physical and psychological diseases are the results of other people’s sins or the general existence of sin in this fallen world, we still approach the matter in repentant faith. We confess that as sinners we are not worthy or deserving of anything good from God. We accept our problems and our pain, trusting God’s promises for our ultimate good. We won’t like suffering, but we will endure it and even rejoice in spite of it, knowing that God is at work even when we can’t perceive or experience His working. Trusting God when even He seems to be against us is faith.

As Christians, we must take the long view—the eternal view. While we trust and pray for God to ease our pain and resolve our problems in this life, it may not happen. Still, we know that these are in fact resolved and even removed in Christ. This new reality—which we don’t yet perceive, we believe (see 2 Corinthians 5:1-21; 1 John 3:1-3; Romans 8:1-39).

Whether it’s sin or SAD or another variety of anxiety or depressive illness; whether it’s excessive negative stress or the natural emotional and mental responses to physical illness or injury, the “prescription” for the spiritual aspects is the same: Take hold of the promises of God by faith in Jesus Christ, and call Him in the morning. And in the evening. And whenever such things beset you, confident that God desires to hear your cry:

“Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
    and perform your vows to the Most High,
15 and call upon me in the day of trouble;
    I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”

(Ps 50:14-15 ESV)

Remind yourself of what the Scripture says:field of daisies

Sing praises to the Lord, O you his saints,
    and give thanks to his holy name.
For his anger is but for a moment,
    and his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may tarry for the night,
    but joy comes with the morning.

(Ps 30:4-5 ESV).

There’s another very practical self-help step you can take to dealing with sadness, depression, grief, or the routine frustrations of life: Sing! I’m convinced that everyone’s life would be better if we all sang more. Martin Luther famous said that next to the Gospel God’s greatest gift is music. I think the Reformer was on to something.

Of course, it does make a difference what you sing. More on that in next week’s post, but for now let me leave you with one well-known hymn that I am confident will lift your spirits on those cold, dreary days—whether outdoors or in your mood.

1 Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation!

O my soul, praise Him, for He is your health and salvation!

Let all who hear

Now to His temple draw near,

Joining in glad adoration!

 

2 Praise to the Lord, who o’er all things is wondrously reigning

And, as on wings of an eagle, uplifting, sustaining.

Have you not seen

All that is needful has been

Sent by His gracious ordaining?

 

3 Praise to the Lord, who has fearfully, wondrously made you,

Health has bestowed and, when heedlessly falling, has stayed you.

What need or grief

Ever has failed of relief?

Wings of His mercy did shade you.

 

4 Praise to the Lord, who will prosper your work and defend you;

Surely His goodness and mercy shall daily attend you.

Ponder anew

What the Almighty can do

As with His love He befriends you.

 

5 Praise to the Lord! O let all that is in me adore Him!

All that has life and breath, come now with praises before Him!

Let the Amen

Sound from His people again;

Gladly forever adore Him!

(Text: Joachim Neander; tr. Catherine Winkworth, alt. Public domain.

#790 in Lutheran Service Book, Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis: 2006)

PV

Time and Eternity

Posted by on Tuesday, January 17, 2017 @ 11:44 AM

I went yesterday to the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA) to see the exhibit “Martin Luther: Art and the Reformation” …for the second time.

It was amazing, and I wish you could plan to go see it. Unfortunately, the exhibit is no longer at the MIA. In fact, I was able to go again only because the museum extended the showing by one day. (Special thanks to my wife for insisting that I check into getting tickets and discovering the added day!)

That’s very much the way life is: sometimes you have only one chance at something; on rare occasions, you might be blessed with another opportunity. The obvious lesson in this is to make the most of the opportunities God provides. This is certainly true when it comes to parenting.

Oh, our kids give us plenty of chances to teach the same lesson repeatedly, as we did our parents. Think how often you’ve explained which shoe goes on which foot, not to respond in kind when a sibling starts name-calling, and cats don’t like to swim in the toilet.

But some things a parent can teach only once and if the lesson is not learned and put into practice, the consequences are dire. My prayer goes out for those who have experienced this kind of suffering.

Teaching the Christian faith to our children is in the category of important-things-to-teach-early-and-often. Recall the proverb:

“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it”(Proverbs 22:6 ESV).

This is God’s own advice on parenting, especially teaching the faith. Over the centuries, down through the generations, faith parents have heeded this advice. Consider Psalm 78, which does a great job of explaining both why we teach the faith to our children:

Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;father with children
incline your ears to the words of my mouth!
I will open my mouth in a parable;
    I will utter dark sayings from of old,
3 things that we have heard and known,
    that our fathers have told us.
We will not hide them from their children,
    but tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might,
    and the wonders that he has done.

He established a testimony in Jacob
    and appointed a law in Israel,
which he commanded our fathers
    to teach to their children,
6 that the next generation might know them,
    the children yet unborn,
and arise and tell them to their children,

7     so that they should set their hope in God
and not forget the works of God,
    but keep his commandments;
8 and that they should not be like their fathers,
    a stubborn and rebellious generation,
a generation whose heart was not steadfast,
    whose spirit was not faithful to God(Psalm 78:1-8 ESV).

Whenever I think of these verses, I am reminded of the faithful ancestors of mine who taught their children to know God’s gracious promises in Christ Jesus so that I, when I was yet-to-be-born, might be brought to saving faith as I learned about Jesus and what He has done for me. (Special thanks to my parents for bringing me to be baptized and to my mother, in particular, for her persistence in prayer.) When I think of my faithful forebears—including those I will meet only in eternity—I offer thanks to God for His work through each of them.

If you’re looking for a way to bring this idea home to your children, how about a “Family of Faith Tree,” which highlights both earthly relatives who are/were Christians and non-relatives who influenced and assisted you in “training up” your child (think Sunday school teachers, neighbors, pastors, Christian friends, Godparents, and so on).

It’s amazing to think about the Christian faith being handed down through all the generations of one family. Now widen your thinking and be astounded that God has been at work through faithful parents throughout human history, at every place on this planet where the saving name of Jesus has been named and confessed! And if that’s not awe-inspiring enough, recall that the promises of God are here so that

6  the next generation might know them,
    the children yet unborn,
and arise and tell them to their children,

7     so that they should set their hope in God(Psalm 78:6-7a ESV).Luther letter to Netherlands

This letter is from Martin Luther to Christians in the Netherlands—where my Dutch ancestors came from.

When I was at the Luther exhibit at the MIA, I found myself especially draw to pieces of paper on display. Oh, the paintings and sculptures and metal work are glorious! But it is the idea that one could look at letters, written with pen and ink in Martin Luther’s own hand, 500 years later that drew me. Astounding. Nothing I will ever write is likely to survive more than a couple of generations—and even here I’m being a little vain—so to think that God could use an ordinary man, blessing him with extraordinary gifts, to effect such sweeping changes not only within the Christian church on earth but in human history generally. Alleluia!

What else could we say?

And yet…

When we follow the Lord’s instructions, for example, as Moses tells us:

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children…(Deuteronomy 6:4-7a ESV).

When we faithfully do this, what our children and even our children’s children learn can last more than 500 years. The promises of God in Christ Jesus are eternal and when, by God’s grace, the Holy Spirit uses us to teach these to our children (and others), the words we speak and write and read to them will bestow eternal blessings.

PV

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