Sunday, November 29, 2015

Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord!

Borrowed from the Rev. William Cwirla who authored it for Higher Things.  What a great introduction to Advent!

The church year in the West begins with with a preparatory season called “Advent.”  The word “advent” comes from the Latin word adventus, meaning “appearing” or “coming,” referring to the appearing of a great king or even a god.  In Christian usage, it refers to the appearing of Jesus Christ in two ways - His first appearing as the Child born of the Virgin Mary and His second appearing in glory on the Last Day to judge the living and the dead.  You see, Advent isn’t only about getting ready for Christmas; it’s also about getting ready for Jesus’ final appearing in glory only the Last Day.
We live in the last days, between Christ’s first and second appearances.  He is always present with us, and always has been since the beginning.  His presence is made audible and visible to us by the Spirit through the preached Word and the Sacraments.  Only briefly did the Son of God show His face some 2000 years ago.  Only at the end will we see His face again when He appears in glory.  Until then, we watch and wait for His second advent even as we celebrate His first.

St. Bernard wrote this concerning the coming of Christ:  “In the first coming, Christ comes in the flesh and in weakness; in the second, He comes in Spirit and power; in the third, He comes in glory and majesty; and the second coming is the means whereby we pass from the first to the third.”

The season of Advent has its origins in France and Spain in the 4th and 5th centuries.  As early as 380, the Council of Saragossa urged faithful Christians to attend church every day from December 17 through Epiphany (January 6).  Early calendars in both the East and the West indicated a 40 day period of fasting, beginning on November 14.  The liturgical principle is “fast before feast,” following the pattern of Lent and Easter.  Before a major feast there is a period of fasting - solemn, repentant preparation.  This stands in sharp contrast to our consumerist culture that feasts first and then diets afterward, resolving to “do better” in the new year.  Joyful feasting and disciplined fasting go hand in hand.  

Advent has four distinct Sundays themed by the readings from the holy Gospel:  

The 1st Sunday in Advent focuses on Christ’s appearing in glory with the image of His triumphal ride into Jerusalem as the messianic King. 

The 2nd Sunday brings John the Baptizer’s prophetic voice calling Israel out to the wilderness to “prepare the way of the Lord.” 

The 3rd Sunday again focuses on John the Baptizer, this time on the content of his preaching of repentance and his greatness as the forerunner of the Messiah. 

The 4th Sunday emphasizes Jesus’ immaculate conception by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary.  During the final week of Advent, it is customary to pray the “O Antiphons” from December 17 to December 23, a series of ancient prayers addressed to Christ in terms of Old Testament prophesy.

Advent is a season of quiet anticipation and expectation.  The One who once came in humility by way of Bethlehem’s manger, David’s donkey, and Calvary’s cross, who now comes to us hiddenly in His holy Word and the blessed Sacrament of His body and blood, will soon come visibly in blazing glory to raise the dead and give eternal life to all who call on His Name. The tone of Advent is joyful anticipation, a mixture of holy fear and expectant joy, like that of a mother-to-be awaiting the arrival of her first baby.

Advent is a time of sober patience.  Sadly, our instant gratification culture seems to have had more influence on the Church than the Church has had on the surrounding culture.  Advent has been gobbled up by the frenzy of the “winter holidays,” which now begin after Halloween!  By the time Christmas arrives, most are too weary to worship and too burned out from decking the halls to celebrate the birth of the world’s Savior with any degree of joy much less energy.  Remember, Christmas is a twelve day feast, beginning on December 25th.  In celebrating Advent in all its somber, sober watchfulness, we Christians can give a priceless gift to each other and to the world by showing the patient hope we have in Jesus’ coming.

The season has its own peculiar customs and traditions.  One cherished tradition is the Advent wreath.  This evergreen wreath with four candles is a tradition from northern Europe.  Each candle stands for one of the four Sundays in Advent.  The closed circle is a symbol of God’s eternality.  Like the circle, our Lord is without beginning and without end.  The evergreen branches represent the eternal life that is ours through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a life that transcends death itself.  Just as the evergreen remains alive and fresh even in the dead of winter, so Jesus fills us with new life even in death.  “I am the Resurrection and the Life.  He who believes in me will live even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die”  (John 11:25-26).  

The candles remind us of Jesus Christ, who is the Light of the world, the Light no darkness can overcome.  They also represent all baptized believers in Jesus who reflect His light into the darkness of this world and proclaim Him who called them out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9-10).  Each successive week in Advent, another candle is lit.  Sometimes smaller candles or little red berries are added to count off the days between Sundays.  At Christmas Eve, the Advent wreath is replaced with a single white Christ candle, signifying the appearing of Christ in the world.  

As the candles on the Advent wreath burn ever more brightly with the approach of Christmas, we are reminded of how near is the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ.  Good news indeed!  He comes to judge the world in His righteousness, and the verdict will be “innocent” in His atoning death.  Your faith in Him will not be in vain.  He comes to save!

Other Advent customs include the Advent calendar with its little doors or pockets each concealing a gift or Scripture verse and counting the days to Christmas, and the “Jesse Tree,” depicting the family tree of Jesus as the promised Branch from the stem of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1).  Advent calendars and Jesse Trees make fun family projects during the season of Advent.

The intent of Advent is not to “take the fun” out of Christmas but to restore the joy and celebration to Christmas by having a period of prayerful preparation and to put the holy back into the December "holidays."  As we celebrate Christ’s first coming by way of the Virgin and the manger, and as we delight in His sacramental coming to us in the Word and Supper, we await His coming in glory at a day and an hour no one knows.

 E’en so, Lord Jesus, quickly come
 And night shall be no more
 They need no light, no lamp, nor sun
 For Christ will be their All!

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Prayers for the end of a Church Year. . . and the beginning of another

When I began as a pastor, there was only THE Lutheran Hymnal (1941).  I learned to know and use that resource very well before eventually introducing Lutheran Worship.  One of the things I miss are the collect and prayer for the end of the Church Year.  TLH directed you to acknowledge the changing of the church's calendar in a special way that I miss.  Maybe you will also appreciate the prayerful address of the end of one church year and the beginning of another.

We thank Thee, Lord God, heavenly Father, that in the past church year Thou hast preserved Thy Word among us in purity and by it effectively quickened our soul; and we beseech Thee, Thou wouldst graciously forgive us all our neglect, unbelief, and disobedience with respect to Thy Word, and continue unto us this precious treasure with Thy blessing forevermore; through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end.  Amen.


O Thou Father of Mercies, we bring unto Thee this day our sacrifice of praise for the innumerable spiritual blessings with which Thou hast favored us in Christ Jesus during the church year now drawing to its close.  Thou hast cause Thy divine Word to be preached to us, which is able to make us wise unto salvation; Thou hast permitted us to enjoy the holy Sacraments for our comfort and sanctification, and hast accompanied the means of grace with the effectual working of Thy Holy Spirit in our hearts.  We bless Thee for Thy goodness and praise Thy holy name; and we beseech Thee, Thou wouldst in mercy forgive us all the sins of the past year for Jesus' sake and gracious preserve the blessed light of Thy Gospel unto us and all Christendom.  Govern us by Thy Holy Spirit, that, receiving Thy Word with gladness and continuing therein all our days, we may be sanctified through Thy truth and finally obtain eternal salvation; through Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.

Then as the clock ticks its ways from one Church Year to another, let us also pray:

Almighty Lord God, who hast by Thy grace this day permitted us to enter a new church year, we beseech Thee, grant unto Thy Church Thy Holy Spirit and the wisdom which cometh down from above, that Thy Word, as becometh it, may not be bound but have free course and be preached to the joy and edifying of Christ's holy people, that in steadfast faith we may serve Thee, and in the confession of Thy name abide unto the end; through Jesus Christ, Thy dear Son, our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end.  Amen.


O Eternal, Immortal, Invisible, and Only Wise God, Thou hast brought us to the beginning of another church year and we acknowledge with thankfulness all the mercies which Thou hast bestowed upon us from the beginning of our lives to this moment.  We praise Thee for preserving us from day to day, from year to year.  We thank Thee for food and raiment, for health and strength, for kind friends and benefactors, for peace and protection by day and for rest and safety by night. for our many advantages in this favored land, and for all other blessings.  But, above all, we heartily thank Thee for the gift of Thine only-begotten Son to be for men on earth the Savior from sin; for Thy mercy in having called us to salvation through Jesus Christ; for the Church in which Thou hast placed us; for faithful ministers; and for Thy holy Word and the blessed Sacraments.

Do good, we beseech Thee, to the Church, which Thy right hand hath planted, and water it abundantly with the dew of Thy blessing.

Cause the Gospel of Thy dear Son to be preached with wisdom and power, and give us grace meekly to hear and gladly to receive the Word of Christ, our King, that, accepting Him as the Way, the Truth, and the Life, our only Redeemer, we may be united unto Thee by faith and walk in the way of Thy Commandments all our days.

Dwell in the hearts of our baptized children, that they may sing hosannas unto Thee; and add to Thy Church daily as believe and are saved.

Prosper all endeavors to spread abroad Thy Gospel in the world.  Show Thy truth unto them that are in error; teach Thy ways unto the wicked, and let sinners be converted unto Thee.

Strengthen the weak, comfor the afflicted, and sanctify the faithful through Thy truth.

Bestow Thy favor upon our land; and grant that the course of this world may be so peaceably ordered by Thy governance that Thy people may joyfully serve Thee in all godly quietness.

O Thou God of peace, sanctify us wholly, and may our whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Faithful art Thou, who has called us, who also wilt do it, to the praise of Thy holy name, for the sake of Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.

Friday, November 27, 2015

But in the real world. . .

We talk the good talk from the pulpit and in the classrooms of the churches but often the way we operate gives a distinctly different witness.  We speak of Christ as our true and only foundation but then we stew and fret over statistics and the financial bottom line as if Christ had little to do with how things work in real life.  We preach Christ alone but then we act as if gimmicks will get them to church on Sunday morning and giving them what they want or like will keep them there.  We say that God is efficacious in working through the means of grace but then we put the onus on the personality of the pastor, the welcoming activity of the congregation, and the upbeat character of Sunday morning as those things which differentiate a healthy parish from one in decline.  We beat our chest about our Reformation heritage but we don't want to hear the sermons of Luther from the pulpit or worship like they did in Bach's church or go to confession like Lutherans once did.  We lament the major doctrinal divisions that define Christianity today but we allow such things as personal preference, musical taste, and cultural trend to further and even more deeply divide us -- even within the same congregation!

Pastors are just as guilty as the folks in the pew for speaking one way and living another.  It is after all the real world in which we live.  Things are not quite as simple as they seem in the real world and we must often sacrifice our principles to go along and get along.  We insist that we are fully committed to Lutheran identity, confessional integrity, and doctrinal purity but we purchase our devotional resources from those who insist baptismal water does nothing, Holy Communion is but a symbolic communion at best, and the Bible is really a book of rules to live by or secret ways to get what we really want from God, spouse, children, workplace, or neighborhood.

We read the stories of the Bible and discount them as if the saints of old did not live in a world like ours, did not have to face the difficult choices we must face, or had some special advantage or secret wisdom we do not possess.  The truth is far simpler and yet much more difficult.  They heard the Word and believed and believing followed without any guarantees or special graces to prevent them from the risks that faith always requires.  It is nice to talk about how things are in the real world and how difficult it is to live Christian faith in that real world but it has always been that way.  The saints are the saints not because they possessed special wisdom or extraordinary character but because they trusted when everything in them and around them insisted it could not be done.  And when they fell, they came crawling back to God in repentance and found the surprise of grace to receive, absolve, and restore them.

Yes, we live in a world unfriendly to God and His Word and His Kingdom.  Yes, we live in a world where the things of God, the Word of God, and the ways of God are largely misunderstood and rejected.  Yes, it is a challenge to remain steadfast in doctrine and practice and endure the scorn of people we know and people we don't as well as ending up about as out of place as Amish in the big city.  But it has never been any different.  We are often fooled by the mythology of culture friendly to faith and its values but Jesus it not legend.  Jesus is Lord of real life people living in a real life world.

Jesus was blunt in warning us about this.  But we have chosen to forget His warning and to pine away for what will not be until a new heavens and a new earth replace this one.  Jesus does not promise a dull and bland Christian life but one with ups and downs, tests and trials, sorrows and struggles.  Oh, and yes, one thing more.  An outcome.  Where tears do not flow, where sorrows do not tear at our hears, where disappointment does not embitter, where sins are excised from the memory and sinful desire from the heart, where enemies lies defeated, dead, and forgotten, and where darkness has given way to Christ our eternal light.  We are not asked to find ways to make Christian life or the Church's work easier but to remain faithful especially when it is not easy but hard as hell.  The promise is now for a little while suffering but then glory.  The promise is not abandonment but the Spirit to lead us and guide us into eternal truth.  The promise is not fend for yourselves but the richest food of Word and Table.  This is our real world.  God help us to recognize it and live in it.  Amen.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Honest Thanksgiving. . .

As we sit before the well stocked table of food we will consume to excess, only to rest up afterwards to shop until we drop, we often drop a few pious platitudes so as not to forsake entirely the spiritual character of this day of thanksgiving.  So instead of leaving you with my own pious platitudes or worse, my own angry frustration, I will leave you with one of my favorite poems on thankfulness -- one written before there was an America and before there was a Thursday in November designated as a national day of Thanksgiving.

GRATEFULNESS  +  by George Herbert (1593- 1633)

Thou that hast given so much to me,
Give one thing more, a grateful heart.
See how thy beggar works on thee       By art.

He makes thy gifts occasion more,
And says, If he in this be crossed,
All thou hast given him heretofore     Is lost.

But thou didst reckon, when at first
Thy word our hearts and hands did crave,
What it would come to at the worst    To save.

Perpetual knockings at thy door,
Tears sullying thy transparent rooms,
Gift upon gift, much would have more,   And comes.

This not withstanding, thou wenst on,
And didst allow us all our noise:
Nay thou hast made a sigh and groan    Thy joys.

Not that thou hast not still above
Much better tunes, than groans can make;
But that these country-airs thy love    Did take.

Wherefore I cry, and cry again;
And in no quiet canst thou be,
Till I a thankful heart obtain     Of thee:

Not thankful, when it pleaseth me;
As if thy blessings had spare days:
But such a heart, whose pulse may be     Thy praise.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Best Practices. . .

Our Synod is trending another new idea -- all over the place.  The theme is best practices and throughout Synod and its Districts best practices conferences are being held, newsletters written, and blogs posted.  All in all it is a good thing.  So much of what we do in the parish is designed to get us by and is not therefore the best we can or should do.  It is a good thing to be encouraged by best practices instead of what will pass for the moment.

Though you might think that best practices is largely a creation of the missional element in Synod, confessionals are also getting on board.  The appeal is to learn what others are doing well so that we do not have to reinvent the wheel and the benefit is that some of the pitfalls and kinks have been worked out before you start.  I always google an idea we have to see if somebody is already doing it and to see if we might learn from them rather then trudge on through our own comedy of errors in order to make it work.

What intrigues me is the very name best practices.  It implies that other practices are not the best, perhaps not even good, and possibly harmful.  That not always something we are quick to acknowledge.  We Lutherans have clung to the idea that adiaphora means anything goes, everything is equal, and nothing is too bad.  That, of course, is just plain wrong.  Even when Scripture does not command or forbid something, that does not mean that every choice we make is equal.  Adiaphora may mean that a command from the Lord cannot be applied but it does not follow that whatever we decide is equally good, right, and salutary.

In fact, some of our worst worship practices in Lutheran parishes are justified with just this idea -- adiaphora means freedom to do what we please, whatever is right in our own eyes, and whatever we decide to do is just fine.  Adiaphora mean mean that no absolute rule can be applied but it surely does not mean that every practice is equal.  There are many things which are adiaphora in the Divine Service but best practices require us to aim for a higher goal -- that which is most faithful to the spirit and word of our confession (here it means the exegetical key to the Lutheran Confessions which claims that we have not departed from catholic doctrine and practice).

BEST practices then means that we keep the ceremonies that do not conflict with the Gospel, our practices are consistent with the Church that went before us, and that we give vote but not veto to those who came before us.  I wish that we Lutherans could agree on this -- heck, I wish all Christians could agree on this!  Innovation, creativity, and spontaneity are not marks of the Spirit's life within the Church but faithfulness is.  I cannot for the life of me figure out why we agitate so against this.

Best practices also trumps likes, dislikes, and personal preference.  We have gotten into the awful habit of rating things -- from hymns to chanting, from vestments to preaching.  Not everything that is best is appealing to us.  In fact, it is usually the opposite -- that which is best is often that which conflicts with our wants, desires, and preferences.  We need to aim higher than what we could do and work for that which is best -- the most faithful expression of our Confession.  When we begin here I think some of our identity confusion, some of the band-aided worst practices, and some hopeful unity will be the happy result.

In any case, we must challenge the foolish idea that because nothing is commanded, everything we might do is equal in weight, value, and faithfulness.  That is the hidden lie behind those who seem intent upon ignoring everything in our Confessions except those references to adiaphora -- the refusal to require this for the unity of the church.  We ought to be concerned for more than just the esse of the Church's doctrine and life but also for the bene esse (essential or minimums vs best practices).