Tuesday, December 29, 2009

"In the inner life and worship of the congregation stand Word and Sacrament like rocks in the sea.  Like the sea breaking on the rocks, so do the holy forms of the liturgy crash in upon the center of Word and Sacrament.  Like the sea is broken on the rocks, like its rough waters and spray are determined by the rocks, so is liturgical life no arbitrary matter.  The waves of the liturgy concentrically orbit the inner circle of the spiritual life which revolves around the poles of Word and Sacrament.  Word and Sacrament determine the order of salvation, and these determine the order of worship" (Wilhelm Lohe).

Rum Cake

This is a big hit at Lutheran coffee hour.  Don't be surprised when quilting ladies ask for recipe.  Be ready or you'll be sorry.


1 cup finely chopped pecans or walnuts
1 18½ oz. pkg. yellow cake mix
1 3¾ oz. pkg. Jell-O Vanilla instant pudding
4 eggs
½ cup cold water
½ cup Wesson oil
½ cup dark or clear rum - I prefer to go slightly over 1/2 cup - my cup runneth over  (80 proof)

¼ pound butter (1 stick)
¼ cup water (use slightly less)
1 cup granulated sugar
½ cup dark or clear rum (80 proof)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease and flour 10 inch tube or 12 cup Bundt pan. Sprinkle nuts over bottom of pan. Mix all cake ingredients together thoroughly. Pour batter over nuts. Bake 1 hour. Check with toothpick. Cool. Invert on serving plate. Prick top. Drizzle and smooth glaze evenly over top and sides. Allow cake to absorb glaze. Repeat till glaze is used up.

Glaze: Melt butter in saucepan. Stir in water and sugar. Boil 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Stir in rum.

Optional: Decorate with cherries, border of sugar frosting or whipped cream. Serve with seedless green grapes dusted with powdered sugar.

(Dark rum does not look dark. The bottle usually is marked “Dark-Dry”. Or use bottle of clear rum)

I keep cake in the refrigerator. Can be made one or two days ahead of time.

Looking for God

“Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” - Jesus

Even the parents of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, had a hard time finding Him (see Luke 2:40-52).  It seems surprising that they lost track of Jesus, considering that He was their very own, whom they raised, and bathed, and fed, and prayed with.  And now, they had thought that Jesus was walking alongside them.  They search in a frantic fever of worry for three days, searching for him among relatives and friends.  Mary and Joseph are probably going door to door anxiously asking, “Have you seen any sign of Jesus, we have lost him – please help us?” 

When we think about our own lives, or the lives of family or friends or neighbors, does this scene sound familiar to us?  Searching – restlessly.  Being consumed with worry – looking for that familiar voice – that recognizable face.    

The whole world in one way or another is looking for God – and usually doing so frantically under great pressure.  We go from one place to the next, door to door, searching for that next bit of hope.  That check at the end of the month maybe might really make things right.  That promotion would surely fix my life and make it more secure.  We need to find that next big thing, that we think help us. Some look for God in their own imaginations. Some choose to seek God in the great outdoors – in nature. Some look to find God through their intellect – through philosophical wanderings and speculations. 

Yet, we look in the wrong places.  We knock on the wrongs doors.  We put our hope in hopeless things.  We look for spirituality in spiritless endeavors.  Like, Mary and Joseph we run from door to door looking for the Lord – seeking him.  Where is God?  That is the question.  Where is God when I am lost and confused?  Where is God at the death of my brother or sister?  Where is a just and righteous God when there is so much injustice and unrighteousness.  I thought I was ‘found’ but certainly feel ‘lost.’   
We all know some of those last words of Jesus “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me…And lo! I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”  But sometimes we forget the very first words that we hear proceeding from the mouth of Jesus as a boy.  Hear this Gospel, these very first words of our Lord, “Why were you looking for me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”  This is not the baby Jesus in the manger anymore.  This is Jesus as a child, speaking for himself.  
After all that looking - that frantic searching by Mary and Joseph going door to door, they find him among the rabbis in the temple.  Among the public preaching and teaching.  He is sitting in the bloody aftermath of that Passover feast where thousands of spotless lambs were sacrificed, roasted on a spit, and eaten with bitter herbs and chalices of wine.  Jesus, near that altar, among the rabbis in the temple, says, “Dear Mother, did you not know that I would be among the things of my Father?”  “Did you not know that I would be with this cup and this bread?  Even as a boy, Jesus knows that his destiny lies in the Passover Feast to take place in Jerusalem. 

This Christmas celebration means that we may rest from our searching for God.  We are done looking.  We do not have to forge a way to reach him.  We do not need to construct ladders to get into his heavenly presence.  The great German preacher of the 20th century, Helmut Thielicke was fond of saying that the crib and the cross are of the same wood.  That is, Jesus comes to that manger - into flesh to absorb our sin and to march up that dusty path to Calvary’s cross.  That child who stayed behind in Jerusalem knew that it was his destiny to go there – to stay behind - to suffer and to die – and to be found by his church on that third day, resurrected fresh from the grave, “Peace be with you, look no more, here I am,” as He shows us His wounds.  When we seek God and His gifts, this is where we look – to that wood of the manger and wooden cross.    
After three days Jesus is found in the temple, where He has promised to be.  This Christmas means that God has completely descended into His church to be our friend and brother.  He came to suffer and die the death of a sinner in our place, sharing in our flesh, taking on our shame and guilt.  After three days He is risen and found where He has promised to be in the breaking of the bread and overflowing wine – that gushes forth as that new river of life.  We find Him where He has promised to be in the house of His Father, doing the things that His Father has given him to do. 

The Christ child preaches here in this place.  By ascending to the right hand of the Father he does the Father’s work here.  “Peace be with you…I baptize you in the name of the Father…Take eat…take drink…I forgive you all your sins.”  He loves being among the things of His Father.  He loves being on that altar.  He loves being found presiding at the font.  He loves praying with us and interceding before His Father’s throne for every request we have here – whether great or small.  And he loves taking those among us at last to that heavenly home where we may find that final rest - that joyful place of singing and praising, and wonderful feasting.      

We do not have to look anymore or have any uncertainty about where God is and what He is doing.  Rest from your searching and let the living Christ find you and claim you here.  He says, “Did you not know that I must be here doing everything for you – find me here! - baptizing you – blessing you – teaching you, and sanctifying you in that glory which I myself give you?”    

We do not look for God with our legs by running from door to door.  Nor do we find him with our eyes or feelings.  We find him with the sight of faith which however, wobbly and weak it may seem, clings steadily to that strong Christ.  And so we are drawn here to feast on the promise that will never be lost but always found. May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.     

Monday, December 28, 2009

J.S. Bach's Christmas Oratorio

Schlafe, mein Liebster, genie├če der Ruh,
Sleep, my dearest, enjoy your rest.
Wache nach diesem vor aller Gedeihen!
wake after this so that all may thrive!
Labe die Brust,
Comfort the breast,
Empfinde die Lust,
feel the pleasure
Wo wir unser Herz erfreuen!
with which we make glad our hearts!

text by Christian Friedrich Henrici (1700-1764)

Luther on The Holy Innocents

Thanks to Pr. Weedon for posting this little gem from Luther's Homily on the feast day of The Holy Innocents, Martyrs (celebrated and remembered today, December 28th).

"If Caesar Augustus of Rome, himself, had wanted to present them with his whole empire, he would not have served them so well as Herod did by his butchery. He tore the little children from their mothers' bosoms, and sent them to heaven, making nothing less than martyrs of them, whose blood is precious in the sight of God! For the parents it was a terrible thing, but it happened for the eventual good of the children. They felt no anguish in their souls. So the Lord took them away at the time of His own advent into the world, as a sweet smelling sacrifice to Himself. Thus much good would yet come from Herod's murdering." (House Postilla 3:260)

My brother and friend, Vicar Sean Daenzer wrote a fine homily for Holy Innocents HERE.
Pastor Cota of Suring, WI has also written an excellent Homily on Holy Innocents HERE.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Young Jesus Returns to His Temple

The first image we have of our Lord as a young man, is that He is sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions (Luke 2:40-52).  He is not that infant in the manger anymore but one who is growing strong, increasing in wisdom and stature.  As a boy this is the first place we find Jesus, in Jerusalem, the place of his future trial and crucifixion.  He is sitting on the floor at temple listening to his rabbis, likely asking “teacher, what does this mean…please explain this to me.”  I love this because it suggests, at least to me, that our Lord was studying his small catechism, at least the catechism of that time.  He was probably asking teacher, what does this mean?  What does it mean to not have idols?  What does it mean to love God and honor the Sabbath Day.  What does it mean to honor father and mother?  What does this mean? 

As He is asking these questions and hearing their answers, the aftermath of the Passover festival is going on.  The blood of those spotless and sacrificed lambs is still draining into the Jerusalem soil surrounding the temple.  The temple altar guild is cleaning and scrubbing the temple floor, emptying the basins and trash.  The Jewish families are departing to their homes after filling their bellies with lamb, bitter herbs, and wine.  Mary and Joseph, thinking that Jesus was walking with them, journey with the other Galilean families back to their small comfortable dwellings.  But Jesus stays behind in that still bloody temple in Jerusalem.

After three days of searching Mary and Joseph find their boy in that same place, speaking with the teachers, listening to them and asking questions.  He is showing understanding and providing answers.  The young catechism student is becoming the chief catechist.  Yet Mary, being the loving mother she is says, “Jesus why have you done this to us…we have been looking for you…worried sick!”  Part of me wants to believe she pulled his ear or gave him a little spank on the bottom.  As blessed and holy as the mother of our Lord is, I don’t think she was above giving our dear Lord a little verbal “butt whoopin.”  “Jesus, ahh, we have been looking for you Jesus, you worried your father and I.  Of course Jesus lovingly replies, "Why were you looking for me?  Did you not know that I must be among the things of my Father?"  Jesus is among that blessed blood and that blessed bread and meal.  He is among preaching and teaching.  Jesus says that this is where He is found.  “Dearest mother and father, you will always find me here in this holy place…by this altar…”  Nevertheless our dear Lord obeys his parents.  He picks himself off the floor and, says goodbye to the teachers, and follows his parents back home to Nazareth.  Jesus, as a young boy, knew that he would be coming back – back to Jerusalem.      
What I find especially significant, and what I wish to spend time on is how Jesus responds to His loving Mary and Joseph.  The original text here, says that Jesus submitted himself to them – not just once – but here in the temple and continually.  That is, he was habitually and unfailingly submissive to his parents, without ceasing, his whole life long.  I would like to think that before mother Mary gave her young boy that little chastising among the rabbis, Jesus was asking about this commandment in the temple with His teachers.  “Teacher, how do I honor my mother and father?  What does this mean?”  One of His teachers in one way or another probably responded, “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise or anger our parents and other authorities, but honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.” 

There is an important connection here when we see that our young Jesus attends to the things of His Father in the temple, and then submits wholeheartedly to Mary and Joseph at home.  These things may seem like two different events but they are one.  Because Jesus is perfectly obedient and loves His heavenly Father he submits to His parents, obeying them – loving and cherishing them.     

We cannot fear, love and trust in God above all things if we do not first obey our parents – loving them and cherishing them.  It is impossible to love and trust God if we are simultaneously despising, disobeying and angering our parents.  For our parents have been set over us as God’s representatives.  They are God’s personal ambassadors and our first heralders of the Gospel.  If we want to be Christians and to please God, we do not have to look any farther than the face of our parents, or grandparents for that matter.  Jesus did not love Mary and Joseph for some attributes they held but rather for that honor that God have lavished upon them – simply by virtue of them being parents.  Martin Luther in his large catechism writes:

“It must therefore be impressed on young people that they revere their parents as God’s representatives, and to remember that, however lowly, poor, feeble, and eccentric they may be, they are still their mother and father, given by God.  They are not to be deprived of their honor because of their ways or failings.  Therefore, we are not to think of their person, whatever they may be, but of the will of God, who has created and ordained it so.” 

Today we may echo what Luther has said and say that the majesty of God is hidden in our very simple parents.  That is to say, God carries out his creative work in, with, and through them.  Parents and teachers are holy vessels of that work, creating, instructing, gospeling, and forgiving.  Or as our Lord Himself says, “all authority on heaven and earth has been given to me.”  This earthy authority of the living God is given a mask in the face of our parents.  And in their face we see the holy marks and signs of God.  Tired eyes, and working hands from laboring and providing for children.  Wrinkles on the face bear witness to sleepless nights of prayer and worry for children. 

We are called to fear and love God so that we do not despise or anger our parents and other authorities, but honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.  But certainly our love has faltered and that honor that was due them we limited in way that we sought rather to honor ourselves.  Our obedience fell short.  Our rebellious acts were more than a couple.  And our precious parents, who are bright brilliant jewels to our heavenly father, we often failed to cherish in that blissful way that we were invited to.  And that love and forgiveness that our parents or teachers lavished upon us was wholly undeserved.  Luther writes in the catechism:

“God knows well this perversity of the world, and therefore, by means of the commandments, he reminds and impels all people to think of what their parents have done for them.  Then they realize that they have received their bodies and lives from their parents and have been nourished and nurture by their parents when otherwise they would have perished a hundred times in their own filth.”

When we were despising our parents Jesus was loving them.  When we were angering our parents He was honoring them.  When we were rebelling against our parents in our young age He was serving them.  When we were being lazy and disrespectful He was cherishing his parents.    

We can never give enough thanks and honor to our teachers and parents.  It is impossible.  From our parents we receive life itself.  And from our spiritual teachers we receive that Word of life that grants us grace upon grace and heavenly peace. 

Our parents take us to holy baptism.  In our arms, they carry us to that font where we are dipped three times into that crucifixion rest of God’s only Son.  And we arise out of those baptismal waters and return to those cradling arms of our parents.  They take us home to our beds and tuck us in, and pray for us - over our sleeping eyes, teaching us that prayer “Our Father, who art in heaven.”  When we awake in the night and cry they run to us and find us.  They comfort us and whisper that love of God into our ears.  As infants they sing to us, singing spiritual hymns or even playful songs.

When we are hungry they feed us.  When we need a bathe they bathe us.  When we are sick they minister to us.  They pray for our healing, and wait at our bedside.  With every fever and sore throat.  With every rash and drop of blood – and with every tear they join their child in that suffering – and bear it too.    

When an infant needs his or her diapers changed a mother or father, bends, down and gets on their knees.  They wipe dirty bottoms, and clean those parts of us which we cannot clean for ourselves.  And such is the love of God that he stoops down that low, to do that dirty and messy work – bottom washing – that is cleaning and sanctifying all those places where we cannot help ourselves.

Particularly in the ways that we have soiled the relationship with our parents (or even between spouses), he has cleaned that whole mess up.  When we failed to walk beside our parents doing all that they commanded, Jesus walked back to Galilee and submitted himself to Mary and Joseph for us.  What does this mean?  He fulfilled all righteousness, fearing, loving and trusting in God above all things – loving, honoring, serving and obeying his parents for us.  In Jesus we may love and honor our parents by turning from our way and turning toward their counsel and love.  In the ways we failed to obey authority, Jesus willingly stood before the authorities, honoring and obeying them unto death.  Because Jesus obeyed His vow to His Bride the church we may repent and honor our vows by doing the same. 

When we are looking to find God and receive His gifts of forgiveness we do not have to search for days on end with no hope.  We do not have to be worried sick about where God is.  We have Christmas every Lord’s Day.  “Did you not know that I am in the house of my Father?”  Do you not know that I am that Passover Feast.  Do you not know that I am that temple doing the Father’s work?  Preaching and teaching – listening and hearing.  The blood which flows from that Jerusalem sacrifice, that spotless Passover Lamb – Jesus Christ – flows out from Jerusalem – as a river sprinkling every corner of the earth.  It washes over every disobedient son and daughter and creates new sons and daughters that share in the likeness of the obedient one. 

What does this mean?  It means that Christmas is just the beginning.  The Christ child is found here and now.  With Him, the Father finds you forgiven; truly loving your father and mother - loving son or daughter.  And he finds grandparents loving all those entrusted to their care.  And he finds us all being fruitful, growing in wisdom and stature, and favor with God and man.   May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.        

I have written much more about how Christians respond to authority HERE.

(painting at top by Albrecht Durer "A Young Jesus Among the Doctors" 1506)                

Monday, December 21, 2009

Spiritual Self-Sedating

It is a big mistake to think that being involved in ministry equips you with a more fortified position before God in heaven. The thinking may go that you’ve been lavished with some extraordinary pneumatos that puts you in some elevated spiritual caste. It ought to be known that the warnings and threats against false teachers and the ungodly are directed first and foremost at pastors. As our Lord says, “So you, son of man: I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; therefore you shall hear a word from My mouth and warn them for Me. When I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked man, you shall surely die!’ and you do not speak to warn the wicked from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand” (Ezekiel 33:7-8). Our Lord’s admonitions and warnings are toward ‘watchman’ and ‘overseers,’ that is pastors; those responsible for the souls of those entrusted to him. If anything, it puts you in a more perilous spiritual position. Bonhoeffer writes:

“The greatest difficulty for the pastor stems from his theology. He knows all there is to be known about sin and forgiveness. He knows what the faith is and he talks about it so much that he winds up no longer living in faith but in thinking about faith. He even knows that his nonfaith is the right form of faith: ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief’ (Mk. 9:24). Knowledge reveals his daimonism. It drives him further and further into factual unbelief. We can then have no experience of faith. Our only experience is reflection on the faith.”

The greatest mistake is to think that because you are pastor, church worker, or vicar that you have been showered with some unique spiritual grace. The activism of his ‘knowing,’ ‘doing,’ and ‘thinking’ may become the cause of his damnation rooted in that first sin; pride. What is most important is that the watchman, himself receive pastoral care. Confession and absolution for those called into Christ’s office is not optional. Pastors hear confessions, preach, care for and bear in their ears and bodies the burden and weight of sin and its trapping influence and its breeding expounding effects across the congregation. The great error occurs when the overseer considers himself sovereign and self-equipped to meet that spiritual calling in his work, because he knows something about faith and fashions himself a theologian.

The attitude and posture for those called ought to mirror that of our Paul, “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (1 Timothy 1:15). That ‘chief sinner,’ the pastor, must submit to pastoral care knowing and believing in his heart that he needs it more than anyone else. That God has desired to declare forgiveness on his wayfaring creation, sound the trumpet, and raise the dead through the voice of a ‘chief sinner’ should no doubt be both soberly terrifying and comforting, and should above all else drive him toward his own pastor and father confessor in order that he may hear that same Word which grants life to the congregation.

It ought to be clear that a pastor (or any Christian for that matter) cannot provide any glint of spiritual care if he is not receiving it – and receiving it in a very consistent and abundant way. That living out of baptism is rooted in that rhythm of confession and absolution, and more specifically private confession (I have written briefly about Private Confession HERE), where specific sins are brought into the light and a Father confessor absolves those specific sins and preaches Christ’s crucified and Him covering and removing those very specific sins. It is Wilhelm Loehe’s observation that private confession is that precious treasure and most direct expression and embodiment of baptism (today, I believe, we erroneously give that primacy to the Lord’s Supper at the neglect of confession). This way we can keep our sins to ourselves, all self-medicate, and vainly take that gift if we just believe enough that ‘Jesus love me…’ Of course this is never to say that grace is dependent upon the sincerity and act of confession. It rests only in that blood of Christ ‘shed for you’ that’s acts and does what it says.

Nevertheless, being brought into that blessed death and resurrection of Christ does not bring us into some static blissful experience of Easter morning. That crucifixion of that Christian involves a certain death, which is neither a theological principle, nor is it a mere sermon illustration. That putting to death of that old stubborn man – that sinner – involves a public crucifixion where he is stripped naked and exposed with all his secret sins and brought into that terrifying judgment. In that blessed gift of confession and absolution those sins are exorcised at that invitation of Christ acting in that pastor, and judged. That the living God Christ, who speaks complete forgiveness through that pastor, is Himself that sin-bearer that has borne your public shame, embarrassment, death, and hell cannot be believed and grasped by your experience, joy, or any else but only by faith. And in that faith that captivates you, Christ calls you only to look at Himself and His wounds for that assurance you may need.

If that spiritual guardian doesn’t receive it he will cease to hear that Word in a personal and direct way from his own pastor, and will no longer believe in it. He will be dried up like that potsherd and pastoral care degenerates into methodist tendencies that no longer hinges on the effective and preached bodily Word, but rather on those idols of human sentiments, emotions, or ease of superficiality and debonair swagger that protestants so highly prize rather than the historic rites, words, sounds, and blessed modus operandi that Christ so lovingly lavished upon His church.

The self-medicating pastor puts his head into the jaws of that serpent, to be crushed, strangled, and bled dry from that confession and those gifts that he has been sent to give. Private confession should not be that safety net that we flee to only when we commit some ‘serious sin’ – a real biggie. Confessing, hearing, and absolving are the normative activities of the church in Christ and not the for special emergencies. And it cannot be done to the tune of “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.” No, we do not believe in a Bible, but in that Christ to whom Moses, the prophets, and the apostles preached and recorded in Holy Scripture. The heavenly Father who speaks does so in more plentiful ways than private reading. He loves to create and speak more directly than what we give Him credit for, if only we had the faith to listen to that Word. He loves speaking through the person of flesh and blood closest to us, and in a particularly brilliant way in that sent pastor who He has made His mouthpiece. In this coming incarnation that joining of God to his creation is so close that Luther remarked that He is “with us in the muck and work of our lives so much that his skin smokes.” God played in that mud and created us and breathed His spirit into man – a bestowal and sharing of self – desiring above all else to rest with us and for us on that final day.

Luther on Dying

“…since everyone must depart, we must turn our eyes to God, to whom the path of death leads and directs us.  Here we find the beginning of the narrow gate and the straight path to life (Mt. 7:14).  All must joyfully venture forth on this path, for though the gate is quite narrow, the path is no long.  Just as an infant is born with peril and pain from the small abode of its mother’s womb into this immense heaven and earth, that is, into this world, so man departs this life through the narrow gate of death.  And although the heavens and the earth in which we dwell at present seem large and wide to us, they are nevertheless much narrower and smaller than the mother’s womb in comparison with the future heaven.  Therefore, the death of the dear saints is called a new birth, and their feast day is known in Latin as natale, that is, the day of their birth.”[1] – Martin Luther

[1] Martin Luther “A Sermon on Preparing to Die” AE 42:99.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Giving Parents their Honor

“Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?  Then He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them"

After three days[1] of looking, Mary and Joseph find Jesus sitting among the teachers at the temple ‘listening to them’ and ‘asking them questions!’  This is the first scene we have outside of the birth narrative with Jesus as a young man.  If there were ever a text to emphasize the centrality of catechesis (I have written about a “Culture of Catechesis” HERE) in the Christian life this ought to have some attention.  The image of our Lord here is one of sitting among his older teachers, ‘listening’ and ‘asking.’  The incarnate God in Christ assumes a posture of hearing and listening to preaching.  The teacher lets himself be taught.  The catechist is first a catechumen.  Jesus desires to be spoken to, taught, and corrected.  His bearing is that of a catechumen, hearing His Word, continually asking, “Teacher, what does this mean?”  As Hamann observes the ‘creator speaks to the creature through the creature.’ 

What I like here is that Mary gives Jesus a good chastising for worrying his parents, “Son why have you done this to us.”  This correction may have been accompanied by a look of annoyance by the theotokos; maybe she even grabbed his arm, or pulled his ear in some disciplinary stroke.  The first Words we have out of the Christ are these, “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?”  No doubt, our Lord is speaking about His salvific work in holy obedience to the Father and going to the Jerusalem to be the Passover Lamb – and make atonement – the business of the Father and of the Son.   

What is particularly striking is how Christ’s love and obedience to His heavenly Father (first commandment) mirrors that of His earthly parents (fourth commandment).  Our Lord, as the age of twelve, already gains the ‘astonishment’ of the rabbis in temple, but this does not exult him over the discipline of his parents.  He is rather exulted because He lets Himself be disciplined under them.  The young rabbi par excellence, the sinless Son of God, receives a verbal butt whoopin from the holy mother.  What's more, Luke tells us that Jesus made himself obedient/subject/subordinated (Gr. word upotassomenos) to his parents as they, as a family, walked back down to Nazareth.

I do not think it is possible to overemphasize the union here between Christ’s honoring of the Father (commands 1-3) and his honor, love, and obedience for his parents. We often talk about our Lord’s passive righteousness (atonement and suffering death before the Father) but often times relegate his active righteousness to a lesser role.  Yet his crucifixion and holy, perfect, obedient life exist together as one reality.  The first thing we know about this young Jesus is that he loves being a catechumen, hearing and asking questions (what does this mean?), and then also that he subordinates himself under the authority of Mary and Joseph.

The way we often think about obeying parents now is that it is a legal sort of binding or social contract, that by law I must obey my parents, at least until I am 18, and then I am ‘out on my own.’  At 18 it is understood that you a ‘free to do as you like,’ or ‘make your own decisions.’  Of course, this presupposes that your life is your own, that you may ‘do what is best for you’ and ‘follow your heart.’ 

The fourth command is that we are called to honor father and mother, which however burdensome it may appear to be, holds no expiration date.  What does this mean?  We should fear and love God so that we do not despise or anger our parents and other authorities, but honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.[2]  Luther also calls the fourth commandment the ‘first and greatest’ because it is the first promise that holds a promise, “that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you” (Ex. 20:12).  What do we owe parents?  The large catechism states:

“God knows very well this perverseness of the world; therefore, He admonishes and urges by commandments that everyone consider what his parents have done for him.  Each child will discover that he has from them a body and life.  He has been fed and reared when otherwise he would have perished a hundred times in his own filth.”[3]   

That is to say we are called into life by God through our parents.  We neither choose or have any say in the matter, but are called and created.  Parents stand as icons of God’s creative work which suggests therefore that an indissoluble relationship between the honor given God and the honor given to parents.  It is impossible to love God and simultaneously hate or rebel against parents, for it is only through parents that life is given to me. 

Luke captures the perfect love of Christ toward his heavenly Father and his parents in a couple brief sentences.  In faith we claim His obedience and righteousness as our own, as we are called to repentance and holy living in the freedom that only Christ’s forgiveness can bring.  

[painting is by Jan Steen 1626-1679 "The 12 year old Jesus in the temple"]                                           

[1] It seems likely to me that Luke likely has the resurrection in mind, “after three days” is a common reference.
[2] Luther’s Small Catechism
[3] LC, part I, 129.

Saint Augustine Quote

Our ‘life itself came down to us,’ assumed our death, and ‘made death die’ by the fullness of his life, in thunder calling us back with him to the mystery of his coming.  For he came from a virgin’s womb, where mankind was wed to him, mortal flesh, to end mortality.  Thence ‘he emerged as a bridegroom from his chamber, towering in strength to run his race.’  He ‘did not hold back,’ but called as he ran, in his words, in his deeds, in death, in life, ‘in descending, in ascending,’ calling us to go back with him.  He withdrew from our sight, to make us ‘re-enter our heart’ and find him there.  He took himself off, et here he is.  He would no longer stay with us, yet would not leave us.  He returned to what he never left.  For ‘the world was made by him,’ he was in the world and ‘came to the world to rescue sinners.’  To him my soul testifies, and ‘he heals it whom it offended.’  ‘How long, my fellows, will your hearts by heavy?’  Fallen in life, can you refused to rise up and live?  But where shall you rise if ‘on the heights you have delivered your own heavenly judgments’?  Lower yourself that you may rise and reach God.  For you fell in rising against God.  Tell others to ‘weep in the valley of weeping,’ for that is what you say to them, by the Spirit’s prompting, if your speech is ablaze with love.[1]

[1] Hippo.), Saint, & Wills, Garry. (2006). Confessions. Penguin Classics, p. 73

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Choir of Christ Lutheran Academy, Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, sings the Advent hymn, O Savior, Rend the Heavens Wide. The arrangement is by Kathryn Peperkorn, the conductor.

Sin's dreadful doom upon us lies:

Grim death looms fierce before our eyes.

O, come, lead us with mighty hand

From exile to our promised land 

(stanza 3)

Rhetoric and War

If we have no interest in winning wars we should not enter them. I listened intently as Obama announced the sending out of 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. I have no doubt that our President may be one of the most gifted orators to ever take office. However, during war time and a recession, oratory can ring hollow when it is not backed by true resolve and decisive action and leadership. Great speeches however, are remembered for the events which surrounded them. Reagan is not remembered because of his oratory or because of his charismatic personality and charming way with words. He is remembered for his oratory and policy making because he believed in it and what he was saying. He was not making good speeches to tactfully navigate politics or to pacify his base. His oration reflected his action which in turn proceeded from his very being and source.

“We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

The strength of personality and true believing-confident leadership can precipitate significant change in the world, not oratory. I am concerned that we lack such leadership today. When I heard Obama’s speech to West Point, I do not hear a man speaking from his base – from an authentic self. I see a highly skilled organizer and speaker – just speaking. I don’t get an impression of an authentic person who speaks from his core – who speaks because he believes. Rather he speaks because he calculates, or more generously because he thinks. I see a politician and negotiator – but above all a speaker. I don’t get the sense of an authentic self, rather a chameleon, adapting to his surrounding.  I hope I am wrong in my analysis here.

Throughout the whole speech to West Point I heard words such as “accelerated deployment” nearly used synonymously with “exit strategy” and “withdrawal.” Not one word of “winning” or “victory” or “destroying the enemy.” If we want to succeed with routing the Taliban and Al-Qaeda from Afghanistan our rhetoric ought to at least match their own rhetoric. They speak quite plainly about disrupting the work in Afghanistan and killing the infidel. Our rhetoric and speech ought to scare them and convince them that we our set our victory more than they are. There is no hope of winning of the enemy by “winning hearts and minds.” They are quite set on their goals, if only we could be set on ours. If the goal is to preserve the reforms and progress in Afghanistan and to defeat the Taliban than we ought to do that.

Truly winning in Afghanistan would mean tearing into the Taliban and Al-Qaeda camps with brutal force and violence. In matters of war, it is most humane to cut out the enemy like a cancer, lest is spread and multiply. It is not humane to continue in a war if our leaders are not set on winning, with definitive objectives. Furthermore, politicians and the American public are not equipped to stomach the wretchedness of war. If politicians and the public were as heavily involved in World War II as they are today in the politicizing of war, we would have had to leave the Pacific Islands and France soon after our entrance. Only military men and woman have taken the vow to destroy all enemies foreign and domestic, not the American public. We all ought to feel lucky and blessed that others take that oath, so that we do not have to.

I am very much baffled by those calling for an immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan. The retributive killings from the reemergence of the Taliban would be completely horrifying. If we made the promise to stand by Afghans and to route out the Taliban and Al-Qaeda we ought to do so. Our country has already forgotten the cost of pulling out of Vietnam and breaking a promise – the Khmer Rouge enacted a genocidal policy that lead to the killings of more than 1.5 million innocents throughout Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. It would profoundly irresponsible to set up innocent Afghans for the same horrifying nightmare, because we all like to fashion ourselves as orators and politicians.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Zoupa Toscana

I had some requests for this so decided to post the recipe.

2 quarts water
8 teaspoons powered chicken bouillon
1 tablespoon olive oil
¾ teaspoon black pepper
3 tablespoons butter
¼ cup flour
1 cup half and half
½ cup (4 ounces) evaporated milk
1 ¾ pounds unpeeled scrubbed potatoes, cut into ½ inch cubes
1 -10 ounce package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and water squeezed out (if you do not properly squeeze moisture out of spinach it will turn your soup green).  I often will substitute fresh kale instead of spinach.
1 teaspoon red crushed red pepper (I like more)
¾ - 1 pound lean hot/spicy Italian sausage, browned and drained/blotted with paper toweling to remove grease

In large stockpot, heat water, adding bouillon powder, olive oil and black pepper.  Bring to boil and then simmer.  Meanwhile. . . .

In small pan, melt butter.  Add flour and whisk together to make roux.  Do not brown though.  Gradually add 1 cup of heated water, whisking into roux.  Then transfer all to larger boiling water mixture, whisking constantly until blended. Reduce heat to simmer, add half and half and evaporated milk.  Simmer for 5 – 10 minutes.

To stockpot, add potatoes, red crushed pepper and cooked sausage.  Simmer gently until potatoes are tender, but still firm.  Add spinach.  Heat for a few additional minutes.

Makes 8 – 10 servings

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Katherina Luther

Next Sunday we commemorate Katharina von Bora Luther, the faithful wife of our Martin.  Martin wrote the following about his dear bride:

“In my wife at home I have a lovelier adornment, one that God has given me and has adorned with his word beyond the others, even though she may not have a beautiful body or may have other failings.  Though I may look over all the women in the world, I cannot find any about whom I can boast with a joyful conscience as I can about mine: ‘This is the one whom God has granted to me and put into my arms.’  I know that he and all the angels are heartily pleased if I cling to her lovingly and faithfully.  Then why should I despise this precious gift of God and take up with someone else, where I can find no such treasure or adornment.”[1]

[1] LW 21,87.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Visitation

"Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" ~ Elizabeth

Many artists have faithfully tried to paint the Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth as they carry Jesus and John in their wombs. Some paintings have cherubim and seraphim hovering above the women, with dazzling wings, trumpets and musical instruments. Other representations have Mary and Elizabeth in colorful, flowing magnificent dresses with golden halos - surrounded by angels praying over them. The meeting of Mary and Elizabeth in the Judean hill country is expressed as a dreamlike fantasy – that overwhelms the senses.

The 17th century Dutch painter Rembrandt however, paints for us a very different picture of this biblical scene. Mary the mother of our Lord and Elizabeth are not dressed like royalty. Instead of wearing colorful robes and royal dress they have on simple cloaks. They meet outside of a dwelling in the hill country, in the town of Judah. They are not surrounded by cherubs and seraphim – no angels. Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband, in his old age, leans upon the shoulders of a boy, to support his steps. This visitation looks like a rather ordinary scene.

In this painting, a common dog is walking by Mary and Elizabeth, paying them no mind. Rembrandt paints a golden beam upon the two women to shine light upon their interaction. Elizabeth, in a flash of recognition, joyfully grabs the shoulders of Mary to hug her, exclaiming “blessed are you Mary, Why is this given to me that you, the Mother of my Lord, should come to me!” With Elizabeth - her facial expression, body language, and intense gaze into Mary’s eyes suggest an awareness that they stand at the beginning of a new world – as Jesus lies in the womb of young Mary. Mary in an upright posture lets a servant remove her common cloak. A man behind her holds a bridled mule, indicating the distance of her travel.

So alarmed is Elizabeth that she cries out in great surprise, “why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” This simple plea of Elizabeth is an act of worship, a divine hymn, “Who am I Lord! Who are we that the Lord should come near to us?”

Now who is this Elizabeth? Well she is a pious and devout older woman, married to Zechariah an old priest. In most respects, they are ordinary folks. Before the announcement of John’s birth, we know that Elizabeth had been a barren woman, unable to become pregnant with a child. At this time, barrenness was often accompanied by shame and embarrassment. Yet, we know that Elizabeth was righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statues of the Lord.

The Lord grants Elizabeth a child, to be John the Baptist – to prepare the way for the coming Christ. This child fills Elizabeth with such joy that it bubbles over as she sings.  The joy of Elizabeth grows even greater at the surprise visit of her cousin Mary. What is most clear about Elizabeth is that Elizabeth gets it. She knows what is going on here. “Blessed are you Mary and the fruit of your womb!” As Mary comes near bearing the Lord, John the Baptist leaps in the womb of Elizabeth. Here we see that Elizabeth and the infant John may as well be considered the very first Christian worshipers. They are singing and leaping – quaking with joy at the coming of the Son of God. In this everyday scene between two ordinary faithful women, the extraordinary has made Himself known.

And here God is not making Himself known in a burning bush, or a fantastic pillar of fire. No, God has put all of his power and glory into a mother’s womb. The extraordinary has become ordinary – God has entered His creation as a man.

There is of course nothing ordinary about this child. This child that Mary bears in her womb is sent to destroy the power of sin, death, and the devil. This infant child in the watery womb of Mary is God himself – who comes to do battle against hell for us – by suffering for us and rising victorious. The fruit of the womb is the Lion of Judah. The king of heaven and suffering servant to be crushed in the winepress of the wooden cross – that he may sprinkle on our tongues his very blood. Behold the Lamb of God – He is among us – for us – doing our fighting for us – repairing that which is broken – and interceding before the Father for us. He is healing us and making all things new in the watery womb of baptism.

This is why the faith of John causes him to leap in the womb of mother Elizabeth. We share this same faith, as we continually ask the same question, who are we that our Lord should come near to us? Like John, God’s presence for us, is the source for our leaping – those leaping in the wombs of this congregation – the leaping of our teenagers and youth. God coming near us comforts the aged and faithful women like Elizabeth and the older men like Zechariah. He comforts us all.

Who are we that the Lord should come near to us? We are so ordinary and simple like Mary and Elizabeth. God approaches us taking human form because he is so moved by love that He desires nothing more than to come near. Our insignificance and our need for him is what brings God in – mobilizing him to act. He brings himself closer and closer. Who you are, as his very own, delights God. He finds immeasurable joy in you, as you continually turn away from sin and turn toward him in your ordinary, yet truly great faith.

Like Rembrandt’s painting of the Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth, it is the ordinariness of our lives that God finds to be so extraordinary – our tedious work and boring every-day tasks. Who are we that the Lord should come to us? We are His own, whom he created, redeemed, and sanctified. He comes not because any worthiness or personal spirituality in and of ourselves. Rather, He has found us as we are – and has desired to make a manger and home for Himself where we lay.

It is the normal everyday scenes that God loves to be near. The living God loves your ordinary, everyday life. Our sometimes seemingly uninteresting lives to Him are supremely interesting to him. He not only visits us in our normal everyday places but physically joins himself to them – by taking up a residence for himself in our homes and places of work. By being crucified in a common Roman execution, and nailed to an ordinary cross He does God’s extraordinary work – reconciling the world to Himself.

Around our common visitations here – our worship, our midweek services, and coffee hour God will send his angels to be with us. He shall paint our ordinary lives with his presence and dress us up like royalty for his heavenly visitation that has no end. Our ordinariness at our Lord’s coming will be accented and adorned with all the magnificent details necessary to enter His presence.

Who am I that the Lord should come to me? The Lord keeps your households in peace because He has visited you – visited by being your guest and then your host and your server – presiding at the head of your table. God joins himself to ordinary bread and wine and feeds us food and drink of heaven, the fruit of the womb, and the very liquid of life.

He has visited your home and found you worthy not because any worthiness of your own but because of His worthiness that He brings to you. This is why Jesus comes to you again and again- and will never stop. Leap and sing and shout for joy. Soon, the Christ will be born. Unworthy people will be declared worthy. And we ordinary people will be made extraordinary saints when our Lord visits us. And He visits today. Amen.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

"The quest for the superman, the endeavor to outgrow the man within the man, the pursuit of the heroic, the cult of the demigod, all this is not the proper concern of man, for it is untrue.  The real man is not an object either for contempt or for deification, but an object of the love of God...The real man is at liberty to be his Creator's creature.  to be conformed with the Incarnate is to have the right to be the man one really is.  Now there is no more pretense, no more hypocrisy or self-violence, no more compulsion to be something other, better and more ideal than what one is.  God loves the real man.  God became a real man."  (Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simon and Schuster, p. 82).

Monday, December 7, 2009

All you need is love

“For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another” (1st John 3:11)

“All you need is love” (The Beatles)

Earlier this week I was pondering what to preach about. I was pouring over 1st John looking for some profound theological insight to share with you all. I think I got a little frustrated because all this John guy keeps talking about is love. Just love. Can’t we get beyond that and talk about something deeper – something more profound and existential! John, the apostle-pastor and evangelist simply cannot stop talking about love! He keeps returning to it as if that’s all that mattered.

When I told Pastor Johnson I was thinking about preaching about love, he immediately launched into singing the chorus of “All you need is love” by the Beatles. In case you were wondering, this is a pretty accurate look into the divinely inspired and very serious task of sermon writing in the St. Paul’s office.

But don’t we know enough about love? Don’t we hear about it enough from our favorite songs and on television or movies? Don’t we talk about it enough? Don’t we say it enough, “I love you.” And haven’t we heard it before? For all the talk about love we ought to be experts at it by now! Love, however, does not naturally rule our hearts and minds. It is grossly easy to harden our hearts toward those who have slighted us in some petty insignificant way. How easy it is for us to withhold our love from other, carefully rationing it out for others, in a way that is convenient for ourselves – in a way that gives us maximum benefit with the least amount of effort.

After all, we need more than love, don’t we! That cannot be it. We need personal safety and security. We need to plan for the future. We need nice stuff. We need our pursuit of happiness. And somewhere in this race, love is pushed to the side.

Yet, when all our nice things are no longer well…nice. And when we lose that which we built up, what remains? What is the one thing that does not lose its sweetness for us. The one promise that has any meaning. What is the one comfort that does not pass away? It is love, Oh love how deep, how great, and how wide.

The message of Saint John seems to sound a lot like that of the Beatles, “Love is all you need. John writes to his hearers, “For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.” This is the Genesis message. This is the Gospel stripped down to its essence – love itself – Jesus himself.

One significant mistake we often make is thinking that God’s love is like our love. It is true that Jesus is a man, fully man, with a body likes ours. He is given to human needs with truly human affections. Sometimes in our attempt to understand the birth of Jesus, and His entrance in our world we mistakenly make him too much like us. For God made us from the beginning in his image and every since we have been trying to return the favor! That is to make him after our likeness!

God’s love is not in our image of love. No, he loves differently, without expectations or demands. He does not carefully select whom to love based upon their worthiness or certain attractive attributes. He does not love us based upon our usefulness in His kingdom.

Unlike us, he is incapable of ever saying to us, “I do not love you anymore” or “I do not love you like I used to.” His declaration of love for us is not merely an emotion or human feeling. It is not a sentiment or a nostalgic thought. It is a movement – a procession from heaven above to earth he comes. Love is a historical fact and has a face and name – Jesus.

Love is God in action. Leading the wise men, crying from the manger. Love caused the incarnation and Christmas and brought him to us. He comes into our lives and softens our hearts. He moves us outside of our own self-obsessions and into the lives of others. He unites us in his love. And in the words of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “love is all you need.” And it is ours “given for you” says our Lord.

Our Lord has no second thoughts about loving us. And though he loves his creation with the deepest emotions, tears, and joy, his love does not end there. He loves through his action and work in which he covers all our sins in the light of his cross.

We receive this love in faith because it is all we need. It is our priceless treasure, our safety and security. It is our joy and our pursuit of happiness. For love never leaves us because God himself is love. And we are the beloved ones for whom he came.

The Gospel in one word is love, and it is yours, and all you really need. Amen.