Monthly Archives: December 2016

A Great and Mighty Wonder

Biblical Text: John 1:1-14
Key Hymn: A Great and Mighty Wonder, LSB 383
Full Sermon Text

Maybe it is just getting older, but two things I experience daily that a younger man wouldn’t think could happen together. It could just be becoming set in my ways, but that isn’t how I experience it. Daily I am more convinced both of basic Christian doctrine and also with specific Lutheran doctrine. I’m a contrarian by nature. It is the last thing I would have expected. At the same time as becoming more sure of that doctrine, I’m becoming less militant. What I mean by that is while I can’t imagine something that forces a rethink on Augsburg Confession doctrine, I’m also much more willing to say with Paul “and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained. (Phil 3:15-16)” We are all straining toward a goal we have not attained. I save my militancy for those situations where I see people deliberatively leaving the narrow way, and those tempting them off it.

A Great and Mighty Wonder is my favorite Christmas hymn. It helps that it is set to Es IST Ein Ros (Lo, How a Rose is Blooming), but that isn’t everything. When you understand a little of the life of the writer it becomes all the more powerful. This sermon hopefully proclaims the savior’s birth, reflected through St. Germanus, while living in the eschatological hope. Germanus’ life is a life that is incomprehensible outside of doctrine. It is also one that understands how that doctrine itself can deny the hope that is only Christ. His hymn is a moving meditation moving to the great hope when all idols – seen and unseen – shall perish and satan’s lying cease. And Christ shall raise his scepter, decreeing endless peace.

Christmas Eve 2016 – Shepherd’s Christmas

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Christmas Eve Sermon Draft

The recording for this night just didn’t turn out. The sermon conceit is a challenge: write the great Christmas hymn from the shepherds’ story. Unlike with the Angels or Mary and the Wise Men or even the night or the town, that song about the Shepherds that everyone has first doesn’t exist. What would it have to include to capture the shepherds tale of the incarnation. Take a read to see.

Instead of the recording, I did take some pictures of the place before everyone arrived. Nobody every believes me when I talk about the quality of the light in St. Mark’s sanctuary at night. These snaps capture the warm yellow glow of it.

To Us a Son is Given

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The recording is our Children’s Christmas Pageant. There is a short homily by me at the start and then the kids you see in the photos take over and renew the story of the Son given to us. Their bother, Immanuel.

Thoughts at a 5th Grade Concert

Last night was the middle child’s 5th Grade Winter Concert. Of course it was wonderful. One does not think about these things on an aesthetic scale. But if one were to think about a bunch of elementary students singing and playing instruments aesthetically, surprisingly it isn’t the technical aspects of wrong notes that would jump to the foreground of the critique. Instead it would be the material.

Let me preface this with ‘I get it’. I know what leads to this type of material, but that is getting ahead of things. Let me share what I think is the representative piece: A Festive Holiday by J. Estes. The accompaniment and melody were catchy and upbeat, an interesting blend of African tribal percussion (Kwanzaa?) and vaguely Jewish Hanukah. The lyrics are the black hole. Here they are.

Come and Sing a song of joy and celebration and have a festive holiday. Goodwill, bringing Goodwill to all. Repeat in a round.

A practicing Christian or Muslim might see the form of a Call to Prayer or Call to worship. The problem is that there is no there there. Again ‘I get it’, but let me expand on this. Verbs are important. In this case we are receiving a command. It is called the imperative mood. Come and Sing! This is a command I am likely to follow. Your heart is stone if you don’t like to sing together. So, what is this command gathering us to sing? A song of joy and celebration. Okay, that is great. But why? Why am I singing with joy and celebration? Have a festive holiday! That isn’t an answer. It is just a repeat of the command. It just compounds the question. What holiday? Why is it festive instead of meditative or even sorrowful like memorial day? Goodwill, bring goodwill to all. Yes, a worthy call, but again, a command. Just do it. Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy. Why? What are you some kind of Grinch? I didn’t think so, but when given a command I usually like to know some of the reasons. Reasons, shmeasons, Come and Sing a song of joy! Okay, but if we are celebrating Festivus, the festive holiday for the rest of us, don’t we start with the airing of grievances? Joy, Celebration, Festive, got it. Yes, I think I do.

Let me compare that to a relatively standard Call to Worship from this time of year, a versification of the Magnificat by Timothy Dudley-Smith. Tell out my soul! There is the command. Tell it. Shout, sing. Tell out my soul, the greatness of the Lord. Why am I doing this? The greatness of the Lord. Okay, what does that consist of? Glad you asked. Unnumbered blessings, give my spirit voice; tender to me the promise of His Word. In God my savior shall my heart rejoice. What is the greatness of the Lord that is causing me to cry out? Blessings given, His Word, my Savior. Of course the Magnificat, Mary’s Song, continues from there, but it does not shy away from answering the natural questions. It is up to you to respond, but you are given the claims.

Likewise let’s look for a second at the Islamic call to prayer. The real call to prayer leads with the greatest reason, but what is the command? Come to prayer, come to success! Okay, why would I come to prayer? I (the one singing) bear witness that none but Allah is worthy of worship. How do you know that and why? Mohammed is his prophet. Allah is most great. Okay, maybe a little circular, but it does answer my question. If I find Mohammed’s witness to Allah credible, the command makes absolute sense.

Which brings me back to my ‘I get it’. We live in a pluralistic society. There are Muslims, Jews, Christians, Atheists, Buddhists, Hindus, Pagans and many others in one school. Would I prefer my child sing aesthetically marginal songs of zero content that invoke a feeling of the season but refuse to say anything else, or would I prefer that my hopefully Christian son sing a Kwanzaa song, or a prayer for the oil of the Temple to last for the Maccabees alongside Lo, How a Rose ‘ere Blooming? It is not an easy answer.

The traditional Lutheran answer would be stop the syncretism. If you must sing, sing the nothing songs. The better solution would be to enroll your Christian son in a Christian school where this would not be a question. That is still a valid answer. But I also wonder how much that is an answer that comes out of Christendom. If the Roman Empire had had universal education, would 3rd century Christians have opted out of it because of the Saturnalia Season?

I guess my real point is do I find a greater danger to my children’s faith in: a) the suppression of all faiths or b) a real pluralism that would extend respect to the other and accept the burden of maintaining a vibrant personal faith? To me what pt. A teaches is more dangerous. I worry that it teaches my son that words are just a power game and not a means to truth. Just sing a song of joy, you don’t need any answers. I worry that it teaches under the guise of “being nice” an anti-religion superior to all these people we are humoring with Festivus. And I worry most of all that he will be as flat and superficial and the New York Times editorial staff impervious to the beauty of what most people in most places thought was the fabric of reality itself.

Would You Call Him Jesus?

Biblical Text: Matthew 1:18-25
Full Sermon Draft

Luke’s nativity accounts are Mary focused. Matthew’s are really involved Joseph more, including the decision about what to do with a pregnant girl when you know the child isn’t yours. The Bible is always more gritty that our romantic construction of it. Our romantic construction is earned by its ending – the dragon is slain and the Kingdom established – but there are lots of adventures along the way. There is an Old English Carol – The Cherry Tree Carol – that captures the same moment that Matthew does. It is a fun Carol, but the theology is horrible. This sermon is a little compare and contrast. The Carol represents our idea of the best way to answer the problem of the pregnant bride. The gospel is God’s invitation to a different way.

Worship note: The opening and closing hymns have been included. LSB 349, Hark the Glad Sound, is on of my personal favorite hymns. It combines the themes of Advent with the ways of talking about justification that resonate most with me, release of the prisoners and enriching the poor and needy. And it does this with a snappy hymn tune. The ending traced the paths of the sermon better than any and summarized the service intended. LSB 333, Once He Came in Blessing, addresses how he is named Jesus. He frees his people from their sins. He does this through word and sacrament flowing from the cross. This sacrificial grace calling for faith looks for its resolution when the day of grace turns into the day of resurrection and triumph. I’ve also included below a version of the Cherry Tree Carol

The Threshing Floor

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Biblical Text: Matthew 3:1-12
Full Sermon Draft

The season, Advent to be specific but you could say the extended Christmas season, begins for me when I hear “On Jordan’s Bank”. That was our opening hymn – LSB 344. The funny thing is that hymn reflects some of the theological turns that obscure the Baptist’s message. It turns from the direct and present cry of John on the Banks of the Jordan toward a spiritualized understanding. “The Lord is Nigh” becomes “and let us all our hearts prepare For Christ to come and enter there.” Charles Coffin, the hymn writer, was a French Jansenist. What that means is a Catholic Calvinist. The Jansenists eventually were repressed and died out within the Catholic church, but in Coffin and Pascal they remain in the Church Universal. His Jansenism dominates verses 2 and 3, but he returns is verse four to the Baptist’s message which is not a retreat to a spiritual realm, but the coming down of the Lord.

The sermon attempts to get us to hear John the Baptist. True religion is not a matter of choice – something those Jansenists would understand. True religion in the reign of Christ. Today that is the reign of grace. Christ has taken our deserved baptism of fire and given us his baptism. This time the people of God don’t cross into the promised land across that Jordan on dry ground with swords for conquest. This time we cross by water and by our absolute repentance which is our acknowledgement that before the Lord we’ve got nothing. Coming right behind, is the final baptism. The Holy Spirit which we have as the down payment will be set free to recreate everything. Those sealed in the living water shall live, those without perish in the refining fire.

The final hymn – LSB 345 – Hark a Thrilling Voice is Sounding is a old Latin hymn that captures well that progression. Hear the Baptist; hear the solemn warning. Today see “the lamb of God with pardon. Let us haste with tears of sorrow, one and all to be forgiven”. Tomorrow, “when next he comes in glory, the world is wrapped in fear, He will shield us with his mercy, and with words of love draw near”. The Lord has treated us with love and solidarity. We have nothing to fear in his drawing near. Come Lord Jesus.