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Beyond Sunday Morning

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

The Wonder of Snowflakes

Posted by on Tuesday, January 10, 2017 @ 9:50 AM

According to the standard dictionary, a snowflake is “a flake of snow, especially a feathery ice crystal, typically displaying delicate six-fold symmetry.” According to children and the unjaded adults among us a snowflake is a little miracle.

 snow crystals

A snowflake forms when a dust particle attracts super-cooled water droplets from a cloud. As those droplets accumulate, they grow in a crystal form. Complex shapes emergeas the flake moves through differing temperature and humidity zones in the atmosphere so that each snowflake differs in detail from all others. Thus the common saying, “No two snowflakes are alike.”

 snowflake

People are very much like snowflakes. We become, from the moment our lives begin in our mothers’ wombs, unique individuals exhibiting a wide variety of sizes and shapes, talents and abilities, likes and dislikes. Physically, mentally, and emotionally no two people are precisely the same. Even so-called “identical twins” are not completely identical!

                                                                              (By Charles Schmitt - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

                                                                   https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44338386)

 

Every snowflake is unique. But the infinite variety of snowflakes may be categorized in eight broad classifications and at least 80 individual variants. Scientists who study snowflakes note the main constituent shapes for ice crystals are needle, column, plate and rime. These main shapes combine in countless ways, which accounts for the endless differences in snowflakes.

An Early Classification of Snowflakessnowflake classification chart

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(By The original work: Warren, Israel Perkins, 1814-1892; This image: ComputerHotline - Snowflakes: a chapter from the book of nature ([c1863)], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23047018)

 

Different, yet sharing some basic things. People are like that, too. For all the wonderful variety God has designed into His creation, we have some things in common. First, we are creatures; the Lord has made us, every one. We, therefore, belong to God and are accountable to Him. Second, we are sinners; every one, as St. Paul writes in Romans 3:10-12 (citing Psalm 14 and Psalm 53, among other Old Testament passages):

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.”

This being the case, you and I “don’t stand a snowball’s chance,” as the saying goes. Our sinfulness and our many sins condemn us all. The Word of God declares it so.

But thanks be to God, this is not all that the Word of God declares! The Lord has also promised:

“Though your sins are like scarlet,

they shall be as white as snow;

though they are red like crimson,

they shall become like wool”(Isaiah 1:18 ESV).

So we pray with David:

“Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;

wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow”(Psalm 51:7 ESV)

Not merely “might,” or “could,” but shall “be white as snow” and even “whiter than snow.” Because Christ Jesus shed His crimson blood on the cross as the eternal sacrifice for sinners, the coal-black soul is cleansed by God’s grace when we believe His promise, and we are covered with the brilliant righteousness of Christ. By means of the Gospel in Holy Baptism, we are sanctified by

“the washing of water with the word,27 so that [Christ] might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish”

(Ephesians 5:26-27 ESV).

This is the certain Word of the Lord to which faith clings, trusting the Lord’s own assurance:

“As the rain and the snow come down from heaven
    and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
    giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from My mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
    and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it”

(Isaiah 55:10-11 ESV).

falling snow Yes, each snowflake is a little miracle, as is each child. God continues to create and to preserve His creation and to re-create what sin has ruined. As those blessed by God with the gift of faith, we know our Creator and delight in His creation. The Holy Spirit “enlightens us with His gifts,” as Luther teaches in the Small Catechism (3rd Article of the Creed), so we can now explore creation and truly appreciate the many wonders found all around us.

Parents who want to encourage the scientific bent of their child’s mind might want to explore the creation with them to learn more about the wonders of such things as the water cycle God has set in place (see Job, chapters 38—39) and the beautiful physics of snowflakes. For example, check out the video “The Science of Snowflakes” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fUot7XSX8uA. It offers a pretty concise explanation. But do discuss with your child the claims made in the video that do not fit with a Christian worldview, based on the Bible’s clear teaching about the existence of a God who created all things from nothing in six, 24-hour days; and of a planet Earth which is much younger than evolutionary theories would have us believe.

There are also, of course, a variety of options for art projects related to snowflakes, from pencil drawing to paper cut-outs. Some fantastic photographs of individual snowflakes are available on various internet sites, such as www.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snowflake.

Another interesting educational project would be to explore the use of snow and snowflakes in literature. A novel I read not long ago taught me more about snow and ice than I would ever have imagined could be learned! For children, the 1963 Caldecott Medal-winning The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats comes to mind. Young children will also no doubt enjoy The Mitten by Jan Brett. A personal favorite from my childhood is Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton. Older readers would do well with The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder or Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire” or novel’s like The Call of the Wild and White Fang.

PV

Resolutions are a Freeing Thing

Posted by on Tuesday, January 3, 2017 @ 10:39 AM

Resolution. There’s a word we hear a lot this time of year. Most people exert at least some effort to make resolutions for the New Year. In fact, judging by all the news reports and talk shows and advice columns, it would seem that making “New Year’s Resolutions” is a requirement for membership in good standing in the human race!

I’m certainly not against efforts to improve oneself, but I do want to suggest a different take on this word for you to prayerfully consider as you begin a new year of God’s grace. To start, here’s a dictionary definition of the word:

resolutionsRes·o·lu·tion  /ˌrezəˈlo͞oSH(ə)n/

noun

1. a firm decision to do or not to do something.

“she kept her resolution not to see Anne anymore”

2. the action of solving a problem, dispute, or contentious matter.

“the peaceful resolution of all disputes”

It is the first definition that everyone (it seems) is focused on right now. But I’d like to encourage us to turn our attention to the second definition. In some important ways, this will prove morebeneficial than that any decisions we make, however “firm,” about our behavior in the future.

I wonder if many people who are so intent on making resolutions for the future are, by only looking ahead, are really trying to ignore the past. For some things, this makes sense because one cannot change the past. Words spoken in anger cannot be recalled. Actions once taken have actual effects—sometimes long-lasting ones. But does this mean that we should just “leave the past in the past,” as one adage of advises?

All of us, if we’re honest, have to admit that there is a wake of hurt, resentment, and evil in our past (1 John 1:8 & 10). Even at the start of a new year, we are the same old sinners we’ve been since we were conceived (Psalm 51:5). But does this mean that we are incapable of change, doomed to repeat past behavior?

I suggest there is a third option—which is a great course of action at the beginning of a new year: Resolution!

Rather than ignoring the incidents in the past in which anger, hurt, resentment, and other negative things have harmed our relationships and hampered our personal well-being, or resigning ourselves to repeat past behavior, resulting in future problems, let’s resolve to resolve. What I mean is, make a firm decision to solve past problems and reconcile the disputes—and relationships.

St. Paul offers great advice about such matters. Writing to the Christian congregation in the city of Corinth, the apostle deals with disputes and divisions among the believers there. He does not ignore or minimize the problems: he addresses them directly and in a positive, Gospel-centered way.

Consider the opening lines of Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians:

Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes,

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ(1Cor 1:1-3 ESV).

Paul begins by establishing the authority by which he writes to them: He is “called by the will of God” (1Cor 1:1) as “one sent to speak on the sender’s behalf,” which is what the term apostle means. Paul has been authorized by Christ Jesus to speak to the Church the very Word of God and to apply the teaching (doctrine) to those sanctified in Christ Jesus”(1Cor 1:2), that is, believers whom Christ has “set apart for His purposes.”

Paul goes in these introductory words to emphasize a truth we tend to forget when we are involved in a disagreement; namely, the unity we have through faith in Jesus Christ. You and I and every other Christian—including those with whom we are engaged in some dispute—are all “called to be saints together with all those who in every placecall upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours”(1Cor 1:2).

I wonder what would happen if each of us recalled these verses whenever we find ourselves in a dispute with fellow Christians?

“I appeal to you, brothers,” St. Paul continues, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1Cor 1:10 ESV). Certainly Paul is being idealistic here, that is, he is holding up before our eyes the ideal to which followers of Christ are to strive. Because we remain sinners we will never achieve the perfect expression of this unity, but it is a unity that actually exists, as Paul makes clear elsewhere when he reminds us that unity is God’s gift which we are to work at maintaining (see Ephesians 4:1-3).

In all of this, Paul recognizes that disagreements and divisions will occur, because of our common sinful nature. But he also continually points us to the means by which these can be resolved: the Gospel.

Christ crucifiedSt. Paul tells the Corinthians (and us): “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1Cor 2:2 ESV). The New International Version (NIV) and a couple of other English translations render the Greek as “I resolved to know nothing.” When we likewise focus on Christ crucified for us (the Gospel) we can resolve to resolve the disputes and divisions, to heal the hurts and repair the relationships that sin causes among us. When we repent of our own sin—that is, admit our guilt and believe God’s promise of forgiveness for the sake of Christ—we can forgive others and resolve matters by means of the Gospel.

Forgiven, we forgive. That’s the way of the Gospel, which St. Paul calls “the ministry/message of reconciliation” (2Cor 5:18, 19). The ministry (service) we provide to one another as fellow sinners is to proclaim the message (the absolution, the forgiveness) to one another. In this way, the Holy Spirit does what is really His work: resolving the most basic problem we all have: sin.

God does not ignore or sins or doom us to damnation because we are sinners. Instead, God has graciously and very directly dealt with our sins and our sinfulness. When Christ Jesus died on the cross He was paying the debt for all sinners, all people of all times and places. There is no more direct and effective way of dealing with sin. When the Holy Spirit creates saving faith in the heart of a sinner as he or she hears the good news that for the sake of Christ God forgives him or her, or when that faith is created by means of Holy Baptism, God is graciously and personally applying the Divine solution to the problem of our sinfulness.

How about we do this same in this new year?

reconciliation

Rather than ignoring our sin, or resigning ourselves to continue in sin, let’s resolve to resolve—beginning with our own repentance. Let’s each of us make a firm decision to solve problems and reconcile disputes—and relationships—by means of the Gospel,

as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, [putting on] compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience,13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you…(Colossians 3:12-13 ESV).

PV

After Christmas, What Then

Posted by on Wednesday, December 28, 2016 @ 7:13 PM

Two days past Christmas. The gifts have been opened. The out-of-town guests are gone. For some of us the garbage man has already taken away the crumpled wrapping paper, empty boxes, and other used-up trappings of the holiday. The kids are already asking for new batteries.

How’s your Christmas spirit?   Is everything still jolly and bright?

Was it ever?   Or was this year like so many past Christmases: a long, chaotic and wearying build-up of commercial excess followed by family conflict, stress headaches, inane ear worms about grandma and some reindeer… and now, left-overs for lunch again.

♪¯ “…and a happy New Year.”

Many people struggle during the holy days of the Christmas season. Allow me to comment on some of the common reasons for this.

“Holiday Burn-out”

The world surrounded us with mostly secular holiday sights and sounds for so long that by the time the Christmas season actually began most people were more than ready for it to be over.

Part of the problem here is the idea that Christmas is a one-day thing. The worldly build-up to Christmas turns the season inside out, making the events of Christmas Eve/Christmas Day rather anticlimactic. “All these months of anxious activity just for this?

The Church, on the other hand, celebrates the Christmas season, which starts at Vespers on Christmas Eve and lasts through the Feast of Epiphany on Jan. 6th. These are the “Twelve Days of Christmas,” and they include the commemoration of some important events:

Dec. 26th is the Feast of St. Stephen, the First Martyr, that is, a person killed specifically for confessing faith in Jesus Christ as Lord. (See Acts 6:1—7:60 to learn about Stephen and his martyrdom.)

Dec. 27th commemorates St. John, Apostle and Evangelist. John was one of the first disciples called by Jesus Himself to become a follower. He is also the author of the Gospel which bears his name, three letters contained in the New Testament, and is the one who recorded the Revelation of Jesus Christ which concludes the Scriptures.

Dec. 28th in the Feast of the Holy Innocents, Martyrs. These are all the infant and toddler boys who were executed at the order of Herod in a vain attempt to kill the Christ Child (Matthew 2:1-18).

Dec. 31st is the Eve of the Name of Jesus/Circumcision of Our Lord. While the world marks the page turn of a calendar, the Church marks the first shedding of Christ’s blood as He begins to fulfill the Law for us sinners, living up to the name that was given: “‘Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’” (Matthew 1:21).

I can think of a few reasons that Satan and the unbelieving world would like to distract people from hearing and learning about these people and events of the Christmas season, can’t you? Add these up and they point us clearly to Christ. The celebration of the birth of Jesus also emphasizes the reason He came in the flesh: to suffer and die to redeem sinners. Christmas tree next to trash canThat is the antidote to the “holiday burn-out” people experience: the Gospel of Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins and new life of faith.

That last point, by the way, answers the “Christmas-as-one-day” fallacy. The significance of the birth of Jesus is a daily, life-long thing for those who believe in Him as our Savior.

 

“The Trapping of Materialism” (Pun fully intended!).

When we get caught up in the commercial materialism of the secular holiday, the frenzied festivities can leave us wanting. Ironic that all the focus on “getting what you want” (as in, “would like to have”) gives way to want (that is, “lack”).

If the main thing about Christmas for you is the materialism, you’ll always be disappointed. Madison Avenue has designed it that way. All the ads are aimed at creating or increasing dissatisfaction so that consumers will desire something more or different. Getting caught in this vortex sucks the contentment out of life very quickly.

The remedy for this is thanking God for all that He has graciously given us for the sake of Christ, beginning with forgiveness for our coveting. St. Paul asks, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). When we realize anew that life and everything else are God’s gifts to sinners who do not deserve anything good, given out of love for the sake of Christ Jesus, then we can find true contentment in whatever God has given us—much or little.

Then, recognizing what we have graciously received, we can respond in thankful faith by generously giving to meet the needs of our neighbor, “and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). Maybe we could start a trend in this direction by asking one another “What did you give for Christmas?” instead of “What did you get?”

“Unfulfilled Fantasy”

This is not whether you “believe in Santa Claus” but whether your real life lives up to the portrayals of life in the Christmas specials and holidays movies we see. I know many people who are frustrated and let down and even angry after Christmas because they experienced conflict the family get-togethers and parties with friends.

But our sinful nature doesn’t take a holiday. We don’t quit being sinners when we “don our gay apparel,” so all the problems we have in human relationships during the rest of the year are still there. In fact, these things are usually amplified simply by the circumstances.

Two things can help this. First, lower your expectations to a reasonable level instead of setting them according to “Christmas-special-standards.” Second, repent of your own sinful attitudes, words, and behavior as the first step in genuine Christian reconciliation.

“Off-Center Christmas”

Also, when it comes to notions of “family” and Christmas, we do well to remember that not everyone believes in Jesus, the Savior whose birth we are celebrating. The temptation is to place family—the earthly, sinful group of people among which we live—at the center of the season. But we don’t call this “Familymas time.”

While family is a gift and blessing from God, when we allow these earthly relationships to take precedence over a relationship with Jesus—for instance, by not attending church services so we can “be together as a family.” Anytime we displace Christ from the center of our lives, we should expect trouble.

Again, the answer to this is repentant faith: acknowledge your sin and believe God’s promise of forgiveness for Jesus’ sake. This puts Christ back in the center, where He is to be, and then the other parts of life can “correct their orbits.”John 3:16

 

This being the Feast of St. John, let me end with an encouragement to turn to God’s Word if you’re feeling less than festive during this Christmas season. Read the promises God has made and how He has fulfilled them in Christ Jesus. Recognize the truth of what St. John wrote near the end of his Gospel:

These [things] are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name (John 20:31 ESV).

And by all means, join us at church on Sunday as we start the New Year in the Lord’s name and receive the gifts of Christ in Word and Sacrament!

PV

Chrismons on the Tree

Posted by on Tuesday, December 20, 2016 @ 9:53 AM

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago the idea of putting Chrismons on your family Christmas tree. These are monograms of the title Christ or the name Jesus, which you may have seen in church and wondered about the meaning. There are also other Christian symbols that are often included as Chrismons, using that term in a more general way.

So, here are some Chrismons and other symbols and their meanings: Chi Rho

The Chi-Rho is a combination of the first two Greek letters in the word Christ, the Greek version of the Hebrew word Messiah, both of which means “the anointed one.” This is not Jesus’ “last name,” but rather His title. Here it includes the Alpha and Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet:

The first three Greek letters in Jesus are Iota, Eta, Sigma. Sometimes this resembles the letters I, H (or h),IHS and S (or C) from the alphabet we use for English. Sometimes there is a line over the top of the letters, indicating that it is an abbreviation of Jesus and sometimes a cross is incorporated into is, usually as the top part of the Eta:

 

One very seasonal symbol often seen both during Advent and Christmas is the Bethlehem Star:Bethlehem Star

Of course, the is really most appropriate during the season of Epiphany (January 6th and following), since St. Matthew’s account of the visit of the magi shows that this did not happen on the night of Jesus’ birth (despite the traditions and songs):

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men [Greek: magi] from the east came to Jerusalem…

After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him…(Matthew 2:1, 9-11 ESV).

Considering the time spent getting to Jerusalem, the audience with Herod, the investigation of the Scriptures, and the trip to Bethlehem, it could have been a month or more between verse 1 and verse 11. And note that the Holy Family was no longer in the stable of some inn, but in a house.

Symbols of the Holy Trinity are also commonly seen as Chrismons. These may be triangles, three Trinity Symbolinterlocking circles, or a triquetra, as seen here (which is the center portion of three interlocking circles):

The three sides/points of the triangle represent the three co-equal Persons of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The circle or arc indicates the eternity of the three Persons. The interlocking or overlapping represents the common essence of the three Person, as the word Trinity expresses: “Three in One.”

Ship Symbol

A rendering of a ship represents the Church, especially recalling the ark by means of which the Lord God preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly” (2 Peter 2:5 ESV).

dove

Doves, descending, carrying olive branches, sometimes with a halo (a.k.a. a nimbus) picture the Holy Spirit and recall Jesus’ Baptism (Matthew 3:13-17), and the ending of the flood at the time of Noah (Genesis 8:6-13), and (in modern times) peace.

pelican

Occasionally you might see a pelican, often piercing her own breast with her beak and feeding her young of her own blood. This is a symbol of the Church, based on the legend that pelicans do what is pictured, symbolizing how believers are nourished in the life of faith within the Church, purchased by the blood of Christ.

Vine and Branches

A depiction of a grape vine recalls Jesus’ word in John, chapter 15:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, it is he that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:1-5 ESV).

There’s also a symbol most associated with Lent-Easter that shows up as a Chrismon: the Agnus Dei, whichAngus Dei is Latin for “Lamb of God.” This symbol represents Jesus Christ, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), the  “Lamb who was slain” who is praised by the Church Triumphant as saints and angels sing:

“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.”

There are, of course, a number of other Christian symbols that may adorn our Christmas trees and focus our attention on the real meaning of these Holy Days of the Christmas Season (Dec. 25, the Feast of Christmas, through Jan. 6, the Feast of the Epiphany). What a great opportunity to use the Chrismons on the tree as the basis for family devotions during this special time of year!

PV

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