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.

Humble Authority

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Biblical Text: Matthew 21:1-11, Isaiah 2:1-5
Full Sermon Draft

The text for the first Sunday in Advent is usually Palm Sunday. The theme is the Advent of the King. There are multiple ways that Advent invites us to ponder the Kingship of Jesus. We can reflect on the first advent in a holy longing for the second advent. The first time in grace and humility, the second in judgement and power. We could reflect on the King as stand-in for His people. In this case the King on the way to the cross and our penitential need. That is Advent as a penitential season. The Isaiah text which is just as much the sermon text of the day invites a third meditation, Advent as the dawning and growing of the light. What this sermon attempts to do is think about what it means to have a King. It posits a couple of forms of human kingship – modern and ancient. It then contrasts those with the Biblical picture of the Kingship of Jesus. It concludes with the encouragement as the natural light grows shorter, to let they spiritual light brighten. Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.

Worship notes: The other voice you hear is our Seminarian Tim Bayer. He was in town for Thanksgiving and it is always great to be able to include him in the service. Since the break is a short one, he and his wonderful voice handled the liturgy for us. I’ve left in two hymns. At the start LSB 343, Prepare the Royal Highway. At the end LSB 331, The Advent of Our King. Both carry the Kingship theme and explore it is ways similar to the sermon. I love the hymns of Advent. I’ll often try to work some of them in during the year itself because the season itself is made to short. The other reason is that the themes of advent are so deep and worthy of reflection.

The Arrival of Love

arrival-posterI joked with Ellen that I wished Hollywood could learn to space out movies as I’ve gone a year with going to the theatre, but there are five that are tempting now. I enjoy movies, but films promising enough to get me to go to the theatre are few. There are a couple a year that I would see, but they don’t make the multiplex. I’d have to go to The Little (the local art film place) on the specific day they are shown. Easier to pre-order the DVD, and most of these don’t depend upon a huge screen anyway. There are the big budget spectaculars like Doctor Strange. The huge screen would be a plus, but going to those would have to be a family thing and dropping $50 plus snacks (if I actually want to watch it instead of listening to the whining about no snacks) on Doctor Strange just isn’t appealing. Again, wait for the DVD. Those are some of the economic reasons that “films for Mark” don’t get made. That, and the fact that “films for Mark”, once you screen out the completely mindless CGI extravaganzas which are just cool, tend to cause thinking. Thinking is an activity most people don’t enjoy, especially mixed in their entertainment. All of that is what makes Arrival such a unique film. It slips though all of those problems and still works on many levels.

The basic premise is all there in the title – Arrival. Aliens arrive on planet earth, and simplistically the plot is about how we collectively react. Close Encounters and Contact are closest to that simple plot, but Arrival, regardless of its containing aliens, isn’t really about the aliens. Although it does work at that level. I suppose because they would be afraid of giving something away, the love story isn’t part of the advertising. Calling it a love story might be a stretch, but love is at the core of the story. Love is also what makes Arrival a film you can’t stop thinking about.

I personally am not concerned with spoilers because if a movie is ruined by knowing about it, it wasn’t much of a movie to begin with, but this is your warning. Stop reading and go see it. What follows will be spoilers.

Arrival is about two questions. The military-state structures want to know “What is your purpose?” The question that over-rides that for the main character is “if you knew, would you live it anyway?” In the movie these are expressed as a contemplation of time. As a Christian what Arrival captures better than anything I’ve ever seen or read is the doctrine of election.

The main character, Louise, played by Amy Adams is a linguist. She is called in by the government to help in establishing communications. The trouble in this is that the Alien language is not phonetic like all human language, but it is ideograms. All of their ideograms are circular. This is never explained, but in the course of the film it should make sense. The aliens do not have a linear sense of the time. The past is not the past, and the future is not the future. Past and future are points on the circle. The circle could be shrunk down to a single point – everything at once, the eternal now, but it can also be expanded to be experienced intimately. No point on that circle is disconnected from any other, but it has its unique being. What that opens up to someone thinking in linear time is future causality. Events in the linear future can seem to cause events in the linear past. In the eternal now or on that circle there is no past or future, just a seamless thread. And if one understands time as such, and has the necessary technology, one can jump to any portion of that thread when needed.

This is the biggest spoiler. The movie starts with a montage of moments of Louise with her daughter Hannah. We see them at birth and at a few moments in life, but we are also introduced to Louise crying over the deceased 16 year old Hannah. You are lead to believe that this is backstory, in the linear past. Louise’s work with the Aliens and Physicist Ian played by Jeremy Renner as her contact partner comes after the daughter’s death. They are scrambling after the answer to “What is your purpose?” to prevent China and a few other states from attacking the aliens. But their work together, which does not include any gratuitous sex or even stray romance moments, grows into a work of love. Their strings are tied together. The big twist is that what we think is the past is actually the future. And it is a future that Louise is becoming cognizant of in the past. The question becomes, “knowing this, would you live it?”

That is the question of election. We are all part of God’s great tapestry. All of our circles are known to him and have been woven into his design. This includes Jesus who submitted to the cross. Knowing that creation includes the cross, would you do it? God answered yes. And he answered it for two reasons. Creation, even one including the cross, is an increase in love. It is a revelation of the God who calls himself love. It is also a revelation of his nature as gracious. Divine simplicity is not found in the point, but in the circle. It is found in how His grace sustains all the moments we are given to experience. The only question we are given is yes or no? Knowing that this is God’s design, knowing that is our circular thread, would we live it? The moments of pain and suffering as well as the moments of triumph. Yes is a submission, an acceptance of God’s election. No is the complete removal from the design.

In the film the two aliens that Louise and Ian interact with they call Abbot and Costello. Their names are ideograms without phonetic content, so the assigning of sounds is a moment of levity. But that moment of levity has a turn. Some of the military personnel they are working with decide that attacking the aliens is a necessity and smuggle a bomb onto the ship with the equipment Louise and Ian are using. The aliens are able to partially stop it, but a touching scene is Louise expressing sorrow when Abbot tells her Costello is dying. By this time, you should know enough to realize “it’s about time”. When you know that, you must realize that Costello took this trip knowing he would die in that blast. The purpose of the trip which the aliens had also revealed is that the aliens would need humanity’s help in 3000 years, so they are providing assistance to humanity now. Costello’s sacrifice was for aliens and people 3000 years hence. Knowing this, would you live it?

Which becomes the personal question to Louise. Ian is her future husband and father of Hannah. All the moments, including the child’s death, are in the future. Knowing this, would she live it? Is the increase in love correct? Is the grace enough to sustain it? Arrival is a love story, just not a decadent one, but one full of grace.

Thanksgiving at Zacchaeus’ Place

tg-bulletin-cover Text: Luke 19:1-10, Thanksgiving (3rd Petition Catechism, Psalm 147)

Introduction
Thanksgiving is such a great shared holiday. It’s a secular one, but it treads on sacred ground. A sign to how those spheres in better days can work together. In the past I’ve attempt to dig out Lincoln or Washington or some other American President on the topic of Thanks, if not the day itself. Coolidge, maybe the last true heir of the Pilgrims, is more touching than you might think. Silent Cal loses some of his reticence to speak and having suffered personal loses in the midst of the roaring ‘20s, his reflections are homey-er and occasionally prophetic of what was to come.

But this year I think we’ve had enough of Presidents. The judgement passed I think if we are honest would be the God let us all have what we desired. If we didn’t like any of the results, that is what this Thanksgiving sermon is about.

Text
The text, Zacchaeus, might not be immediate for Thankgiving. Part of picking it was simply it always gets skipped. Reformation Day and All Saints – because we Observe them on Sunday instead of the actual days – consistently bump a couple of assigned readings. Poor Zack is one of them.

But Zacchaeus starts out wanting something simple and specific. He wanted to see who Jesus was. The Galilean prophet of renown is approaching Jerusalem. Palm Sunday is only a parable away. I want to see this prophet. And mixed in there is probably some apprehension about his business. Zach was a tax collector and rich after all. Is this prophet and his mob one that is going to upset my revenue stream? How big and of what type is his following? Are they going to burn it down, and me with it? That is what he wants to know. Can I keep my life?
And the crowds are big enough that he has to climb his tree to see over everyone and get his glimpse. That is when what he desired starts to be changed.

Jesus looks up as he passes the tree and calls up to Zacchaeus, “Come down, I’m going to your place today.”
I doubt that is what Zack was thinking initially. In fact it is probably just the opposite. The last thing a rich tax collector wanted at his door was a populist prophet. But Zacchaeus hurries down and receives him joyfully. Not what he originally wanted, but something better. Fear turned to joy.

Now the people following Jesus I think had different expectations as well because they begin to grumble. We brought along the pitchforks, tar and rails for guys like this, and you are going to eat with him?
But somewhere in the midst of that grumbling Zacchaeus starts thinking about “Can I keep my life” in a different way. No longer is it – are my position and goods safe for me, but how am I walking with my God and my neighbor? And he takes actions that were probably the furthest thing from his mind at the start of the day. Half my goods to the poor, and if I’ve cheated anyone – which is more or less the definition of tax collector in the day – I restore it four-fold. Who is this man? Does the grumbling crowd recognize him? Does he recognize himself? “Can he keep his life?”

And Jesus answers that one for him. “Today salvation has come to this house.” Yes he can, but his life doesn’t mean what he thought in the morning. “Because the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.”

Application
We rightly give thanks for all the stuff we have – harvests and food and plenty. We rightly give thanks for those we have been placed with – family and friends, hearth and home. We rightly give thanks for all the first article bounties of creation that the Father daily and richly provides. And we share that thanks with all people because the Father daily and richly provides for the sinner and saint alike. A shout out to the traditional Thanksgiving text – all 10 lepers are cleansed even if only one gives thanks.

But our deeper thanks should not be over all those things that we desire. Our Father knows that we need them and provides. Our deeper thanks should be over what our Father knows we need, but we did or do not desire. He could hand us over to our desires. That is actually the punishment of sin. God doesn’t have to cook up lightning bolts and plagues to punish sins. He just lets us live with them. What our Father knew we needed was salvation. He knew when we didn’t that we were lost. We were bound to the plans of the devil the world and our sinful nature.
And he broke them. There on that cross he broke all those evil desires. That cross shows us where those desires end. In mocking, and cruelty and death. If we desire to keep that, we can.

But He has also called us. Today, I must stay at your house. If we desire His life, we can receive it joyfully. Because he’s done it, and though Christ and in Christ we are all Children of Abraham. He came to seek and save the lost.

That is our deeper thanksgiving. Not that God gives us the things we naturally desire. These are good, but we can often twist even the greatest of his gifts. We give thanks because in this one most important thing – life – he didn’t just give us our desires. God acted and continues to act. He builds up Jerusalem and gathers the outcasts of Israel. He determines the number of the stars, he gives to all of them their names. Sing to the Lord with Thanksgiving. Amen.

Hidden with Christ

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Text: Luke 23:27-43
Full Sermon Draft

It is the last Sunday of the Church Year, often called Christ the King Sunday. The other years of the lectionary that typically means an eschatological parable like the 10 virgins trimming their wicks. When we are in Luke, it means Good Friday. Luke’s Good Friday scene is unique because there is a divergence from the other Gospels. One criminal sees something that the others don’t. The world is united in seeing “This is the King of the Jews” placed above Jesus as a great joke. One naked criminal sees the King. One naked criminal sees His Grace. It is like all acts of God – hidden and revealed. It is done plainly before all the world, yet it is faith alone that perceives the revelation. To those without God’s acts remain hidden. The sermon is a meditation on this and what we see – mistaken peasant or King.

Worship note: The text drives some different hymns than normal. The opening hymn was “The Head the Once was Crowned With Thorns”, but I’ve left in the Hymn of the Day. LSB 534, Lord, Enthroned in Heavenly Splendor. The tune right after the alleluias is tough, but the words uniquely to me capture the day’s theme. The cross as throne, the acts of God hidden in humble frame.