Archive for the month “January, 2015”

God’s First Words: “Let There Be…Gospel”

A baby’s first words—they’re adorable, they’re cute, they make moms and dads and grandmas and grandpas beam with pleasure. Maybe it’s “momma,” maybe it’s “dada.” Whatever it is, it’s what the baby has been hearing. And it’s an amazing confession. He doesn’t even know it, but in forming that word, the infant is making a profound statement about his place in the world. He is a son, or she is a daughter. There’s an identity affirmed, a relationship confessed. I am your child; you are my parent. First words may be simple, but they affirm a deep, abiding truth.

lettherebelightOur God’s first words—they too are short and simple. In uttering them, He too is making a profound statement about His place in this world. And while He is affirming His identity, more importantly, He is confessing our identity. We learn who God is, and who we are, in the very first words He speaks. Even more, as these words echo down the hallways of the great house of Scripture, we hear in that distant echo the clear sound of grace. God’s first words may be “Let there be light,” but He had just as well said, “Let there be Gospel.” Here’s what I mean.

  1. God Speaks into Darkness. Before God spoke those first words, “the earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep,” (Gen 1:2). Years ago, I took my children to Carlsbad Caverns. Deep within that cave, our guide sat us down and told us he was going to turn off the lights for one minute. When he did, the darkness that flooded us was complete. We could squint, stare, blink all we wanted, but we could see nothing. Total, crippling, crushing darkness. So was our world before God spoke. And so were we before God spoke the light of His grace into our hearts. Paul says, “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God,” (2 Cor 4:4). But what did our good and gracious Creator do? “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” (2 Cor 4:6). Read that verse again, savoring each word this time. Did you taste the sweetness in God’s first words? Here is the grace-bestowing, gift-giving, life-bestowing Lord. Our Father who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” is the one who continues to let light shine out of darkness. That darkness is our blindness, our sinful, lost condition in this world. That light is the Gospel; it is the light of knowing that the glory of God shines from the face of Jesus.
  1. God Does All the Doing. If God had not said, “Let there be light,” our world would still be bathed in night. It would be formless and void. The dawn would not somehow evolve into being from the stuff of midnight. The world would not wake up and decide it would create the sun, moon, and stars. If God had not acted, if God had not spoken, there would be no light. He had to do all the doing. And because He did all the doing, it is not only good but perfect. It is no different when God speaks, “Let there be light,” into the midnight realm of our hearts. “Our foolish hearts were darkened,” Paul says (Rom 1:21). We were dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1). Dead people don’t resurrect themselves. Darkened souls don’t create light within them. But God does. Our Father has shone into our hearts. The light of His Spirit has beamed the rays of grace within us, dispelling the night. Off the face of Jesus shines the light that creates faith within us, the knowledge that we are God’s children in His Son. He does all the doing. And because He does all the doing, it’s perfect. We don’t decide to believe, we don’t wander about in the darkness of unbelief until one day we find a match and light the candle of faith within us. While we’re dead, darkened, lost, God says, “Let there be light.” And there is. By His word, by His Son, we are enlightened to life.
  1. God Creates Light for You. There is a reason that our Father does everything He does in Genesis 1. He creates light, separates the waters, forms the animals, puts the sun and moon and stars in their place—all for you. The culmination of creation is on the sixth day, when the Lord says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,” (1:26). Everything that our Lord had done up to that point was in preparation for this day. He was like a rich groom getting everything ready for His bride. He builds the mansion of the universe for her, decorates it with the beautiful things of creation, hangs the sun and moon from the ceiling to give it splendor, then finally He brings His bride to the home He has constructed for her. We are that bride. All creation exists not for God but for you. He didn’t need it. God created you to have someone upon whom to bestow His blessings, a bride upon whom to lavish gifts. And there is a reason that our Father speaks light and life into our dead and darkened hearts: because He loves us. He lavishes upon us the gifts of hope and absolution and rest because we mean more to Him than anything else. Christ remakes us into His image, into His likeness. And He presents to us all His saving work. He gives us the cross, He gives us the resurrection, He gives us Himself. He makes us bone of His bone and flesh of His flesh. And He does so because He is love, and that loves spills over from Him into our world, onto us.

“Let There Be Gospel”

The deep, abiding truth in God’s first words are that He is a God who gives. He gives through His word. He gives in His Son. And He gives it all to us. “Let there light” means “Let there be saving light in my Son for a world darkened by sin.” It means, “Let the light of Christ shine in their hearts so they might see my glory in the face of my Son.”

In the third verse of the Bible, as those words echo down the hallways of Scripture, “Let there be light” resounds as “Let there be Gospel.”

What we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people, is the love of Jesus Christ, who welcomes home sinners with a grace that knows no bounds. My book Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!

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Police Dispatched at Midnight to Loud Party at Local Church

fireworkschurchWhen residents near Holy Trinity Church were rattled from their sleep Saturday night by the sounds of drums and laughter and fireworks, they didn’t know what was happening. “It was like a full blown Mardi Gras had erupted next door,” one neighbor complained. The church, usually a gentle giant of a structure, dark against the midnight sky, was ablaze with a rainbow of lights and echoed with sounds of whooping and singing.

Two police officers were dispatched to the scene.

Witnesses later recounted what they’d seen. Earlier in the evening, the parking lot began to fill with cars and pickups, which soon spilled over onto side streets. Men and women and children piled out of the vehicles, each one carrying plastic bags bulging with hamburger buns and streamers and bottles of every variety. A large van backed up to the fellowship hall and began unloading drums and guitars and sound equipment. The fire pit was soon roaring with flames and the three or four portable grills were fired up for a BBQ. And this was just the beginning.

By the time midnight rolled around, they’d gone whole hog. The center of the fellowship hall had been pushed clear of tables and chairs. As the band played, the dance floor swirled with everyone from white-haired retirees to mini-skirted teens. Children, some in pajamas, one toddler bare-butt naked, squealed and ran about the room with chocolate cake smeared on their faces. A couple of guys had gotten their hands on some fireworks and soon rockets were hissing heavenward to paint the night sky with exploding colors. The corks flew off champagne bottles and brimming glasses were passed around the room.

When the blue and red lights on the patrol cars flashed around the parking lot a little after midnight, no one seemed to notice. Or care. The pastor met the officers at the door and welcomed them in with a smile. After considerable effort, he got the band to stop playing, the dancers to stop dancing, and the general din of laughter and shouting subsided to a whisper. Finally, it was quiet enough for them to hear each other.

“What exactly is going on here, Pastor?” one of the officers asked.

“Follow me,” he said, “and I’ll show you.”

He led the two men through the mass of people to the back corner of the hall. There was a makeshift stage on which sat an oversized chair. Confetti was strewn all about and streamers dangled from the ceiling. Sitting as if enthroned was a man in his late 30’s. He had three days worth of stubble on his face and his clothes were badly in need of a wash. But he sported a tinfoil crown, used a few months earlier in the Christmas pageant for one of the three magi; had a turkey leg in one hand and a Guinness in the other; and on his face was a smile that hadn’t faded all night.

“Officers, this man is the reason we’re here. His name’s Landon. He grew up in this congregation. To make a long story short, he went off to college, got in with the wrong crowd, made some bad choices. His life began to unravel. He’ll tell you all the details if you’re really interested. We’d lost track of him for years. Rumors were he was in prison or living on the street. Nobody really knew. But for as long as I can remember, when I’ve stood at the altar on Sunday morning to pray for folks in need, his name has always been among them. Then, lo and behold, he shows up on my doorstep early this morning. Says he’s come home. Says he’s been through hell and back. Says he don’t know if the church would welcome him back or not, but hopes they will. So I started calling folks up. Word spread. And we decided to show Landon what ‘welcome home’ means to us Christians. You see, officers, this son of our congregation was dead, and has come back to life again; he was lost, and has been found. We had no other choice than to throw a party. That’s just what we do. That’s how the church welcomes home a sinner who’s lost his way.”

The officers listened. The older of the two simply asked that the church turn down the volume a bit for the sake of their neighbors, and please lay off the fireworks for the rest of the night. They all agreed. The officers left. And the party for Landon went on and on and on.

I suppose everyone has his dreams. I have mine. And one of them is to read a story like this in the newspaper someday. A story about a church that knows how to welcome home a lost son.

What we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people, is the love of Jesus Christ, who welcomes home sinners with a grace that knows no bounds. My award-winning book, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!

Church in Bed: Why Leave Home on Sunday Mornings?

churchinbedI can experience almost every aspect of church from the comfort of my own bed. I can prop up my pillow, open my laptop, and enter my very own cyber sanctuary. The music of beautiful hymns can reverberate through my computer. I can read the Bible myself or listen to an audio recording of a trained professional narrate the Scriptures for me. Preachers from across the spectrum of Christianity can squeeze their pulpits within my computer screen. I can sing, pray, read the Bible, hear sermons, all without the hassle of getting dressed, driving across town, and sitting in a pew for an hour. So why leave home for church on Sunday morning when I can receive the word of God just fine under my own roof?

Suppose that’s what I did. Honestly, what would I be missing? Only a few things.

I’d only be missing the participation of my whole body in worship. My feet worshiping as they stand on holy ground in the presence of Christ. My nose worshiping as it smells the varnish on the pews, the pages of the hymnal, perhaps even the incense as its smoke traces the upward trail of prayers ascending to the Father’s ears. My tongue worshiping as it’s painted Passover red by the blood of the Lamb who saves me from destruction. My hands worshiping as I clasp another’s to say, “Peace to you.” My muscles worshipping as I sit and rise, folds my hands, kneel and bow my head. My eyes worshiping as I view the pulpit, the altar, the lectern, the font, through which Christ forgives, heals, and enlivens His people with hope. All of who we are—body and soul, eyes, ears and everything that makes us human—has been redeemed by Christ, blessed by Christ, and worships this Christ who become all of who we are in His incarnation.

If I stayed home, I’d only be missing the community of fellow forgiven sinners whom I need and who need me. The recently widowed woman who sits in front of me and listens as I sing a resurrection hymn that her tear-drenched eyes and the lump in her throat won’t let her sing herself. The teenager who’s never said a word to me but secretly looks to me as an example. The grumpy old man whom God has placed in my path so as to give me an occasion for practicing charity and patience. My son and daughter who’ll be watching and emulating what I teach them about their place in the body of Christ. I’d be missing these fellow believers who are Christ’s gifts to me, and I to them.

In my cyber sanctuary, staring at my laptop, I’d only be missing face-to-face, ear-to-mouth contact with the man whom the Lord Himself chose to shepherd me as a lamb in God’s flock. As useful as electronic communication is, there’s a reason we call it virtual reality. I don’t have a virtual need for a pastor; I have a real one. I need real encounters with him, where he looks me in the eye to call me to repentance, places his hand upon my head and speaks Christ’s forgiveness into my ears, extends his hand to my open mouth to feed me the body broken and blood outpoured on the altar of the cross.

I’d only be missing these things, and more. I know that sometimes illness, old age, travel, and other situations in life prevent us from joining other believers around the font and altar and pulpit. But I also know that sometimes we simply forget about what we are missing when we can go to church, but choose not to attend.

Jesus never said, “Thou shalt go to church on Sunday morning.” But He did send Paul throughout the Roman world to establish communities of faith and to appoint pastors and teachers in those churches. He did admonish us not to forsake our own assembling together (Hebrews 10:25). He did call us not to despise preaching and the word of God, but to hear it and learn it gladly. Most importantly, Christ said, “Come unto me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” He will do that 24/7, anytime and anywhere, but He lavishly pours out His rest in the waters of Baptism, in the spoken words of absolution from the pastor’s lips, in the preaching of the cross and resurrection, in the consumption of heavenly cuisine from the table at which He is host and meal.

Around Jesus the church gathers as sheep around their shepherd, as the dying and wounded around this great physician of soul and body, as earth-bound believers who join the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven in the song that never ends.

I don’t know about you, but since Christ promises blessings like that, there’s no place I’d rather be on Sunday mornings than out of bed and in a pew, basking in the forgiveness and peace and love of the God who merges heaven and earth within the four walls of His sanctuary to fill us with gifts of grace galore.

In all my writings, the grace of Jesus Christ for you is front and center. That is what we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people. My award-winning book, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!

Christ Hold Fast: A New Website, an Ancient Message, a Life-Changing Gospel

christholdfastJust as in everyday life, so on the internet, there’s plenty of people telling you what to do. Do this to lose weight and look ten years younger. Do this to secure happiness and financial security for yourself and your family. Do this to overcome all obstacles in your walk with God and lead a victorious Christian life. The problem with every Do-List and Don’t-List is always the same: eventually, we mess it all up. Something defeats us, or we simply defeat ourselves. And we are left broken.

If you’re a regular reader of the Flying Scroll, you know that this reality of a broken world full of broken people is a constant theme in my writings. And again and again, I point to the One, the only One, in whom we broken and defeated people find healing and hope: Jesus Christ.

Bringing this grace-centered, Christ-focused message to hurting people is also what the new website, Christ Hold Fast, is all about. I’m thankful to be a part of the work that’s going on there. Here are a few of the resources that you’ll find:

1. Weekly Blog Posts. Every Monday we’ll publish a blog post written either by myself or one of the other contributors to Christ Hold Fast: Daniel Emery Price, Brandon Hanson, and Michael Salinas. My post, “Losing That Holy Feeling,” was published last week, which you can read in full here.

2. Podcasts. We have two podcasts: “Christ Hold Fast Cast” and “40 Minutes in the Old Testament.” The first one is hosted by Daniel Emery Price and Brandon Hanson. I co-host the second one, along with Daniel and Brandon. You can find the “Christ Hold Fast Cast” here on iTunes and “40 Minutes in the Old Testament” here. If you’re interested in hearing a distinctly Christian, Gospel-focused approach to the OT, then you’ll definitely enjoy “40 Minutes.”

3. Sermons and Other Resources. New sermons from Pastors Chris Rosebrough, Matt Richard, Donavon Riley and Daniel Emery Price will be uploaded to the “sermons” page every week. These guys know their stuff. They know how to diagnose our problem with the law, but more importantly, how to heap on the Gospel. For a sample, check out Pastor Riley’s sermon on “This Is Christianity.

Just to be clear, I will keep on writing at the Flying Scroll. Nothing is going to change here. I did want, however, to point you in the direction of these additional resources. Check out the blog, listen to the podcasts and sermons. You won’t find there anyone telling you what to do, but you’ll certainly hear plenty about the Christ who has done everything for you–and the Christ who continues to hold you fast.

When Your Children Stray from the Church

emptypewsJames and Holly may not have been perfect parents, but they did the best they could when rearing their daughter and two sons. The kids never had to worry about where the next meal was coming from. They attended good schools, had good friends, made some good childhood memories. More importantly, James and Holly made sure church was part of their children’s weekly life. All three were baptized and confirmed. They were at Sunday School, VBS, and weekly church services. These parents trained up their children in the way they should go, as Proverbs 22 says. And now that they are old, they have not departed from it.

Actually, only one of them hasn’t. Their oldest son is still active in his local parish. But their youngest son and their daughter—they may go to church when Easter rolls around, but even then, they usually stay home. For James and Holly, it’s more than disappointing; it’s a deep ache that won’t go away. They stress over if and how they failed as parents. They’re worried sick not only about their children, but about their grandchildren who are growing up unbaptized, untaught, with little or no knowledge of God and what He’s done for us in Christ.

These parents are far from alone. Scattered throughout all denominations are moms and dads whose greatest disappointment in life is that their children have seemingly abandoned the faith. And they’re all wondering the same things: Why? Where did we go wrong as parents? And what can we do to bring our children back to church?

This is a hard struggle with no easy fix, but perhaps the following reflections will prove helpful. This is not a to-do list. It is written for your consolation and encouragement as you bear this cross. You are welcome to add your own thoughts in the comment section below.

  1. The water of baptism never evaporates. If your children were baptized, either as infants or when they were older, they cannot become unbaptized. God the Father made them His children in that Gospel-saturated water. And because He did it, it remains a perfect, saving work. They can try to walk away from their baptism, but that’s as impossible as walking away from gravity. Yes, sadly, they can deny or reject what God has done for them in these saving waters, but even then, the fact they are baptized as God’s son or daughter remains as true as ever. God loves them. He baptized them. He claimed them as His own. If and when you can, remind them of this beautiful truth. It is the kindness of God, it is the baptismal love of the Father in Christ, that will lead them to repentance and the Father’s house once more.
  1. Even a tiny faith has the full Christ. One of the most comforting verses in all the Scriptures is Isaiah 42:3, “A bruised reed He will not break; and a smoldering wick He will not snuff out.” Our Father is not the kind of God who weeds people out of His kingdom who don’t have faith that is quite up to par. Quite the opposite. Bruised reeds and smoldering wicks are especially beloved of God because of their fragility. He leaves the ninety-nine sheep to scour the hills for a single, lost lamb. Your child is precious to God. And even if a spark of faith remains, that spark holds within it the full fire of the Father’s forgiveness. Bruised reeds belong to God as much as solid oaks. Do not assume that because your children are not attending church that they don’t believe anymore. I was that child once. I was fighting an inward battle with God; I didn’t like His church or, for that matter, many churchgoers. Outwardly, it may have seemed that in me there was nothing but darkness, but on the inside there was at least a smoldering candle of faith. And that faith held the full, forgiving, faithful Christ.
  1. Even if we are faithless, God remains faithful. One of my favorite poems is “The Hound of Heaven” in which the poet describes his inward flight from God. “Down the night and down the days…down the labyrinthine ways,” he fled from his Father. Yet God doggedly pursued him; He showed him through life’s struggles and losses that all the happiness this man pursued was found in Him who gives all things. God is like that. “If we are faithless, He remain faithful—for He cannot deny Himself,” (2 Timothy 2:13). He cannot deny that He is our Father. If you, as an earthly parent, are worried about the spiritual welfare of your children, just think of how much more your heavenly Father is concerned. Your children mean infinitely more to Him than they do to you. Even if they are faithless, He will remain faithful in His loving pursuit of them.
  1. Your Christian Life Makes an Impact. When I stopped going to church, my parents did not. Although I would never have admitted it back then, the sheer fact of their continued fidelity to Christ meant something to me. Never downplay the impact that your example provides to your children, even if they are grown and leading lives of their own now. You are still their mom and dad. And there is within most of us an eye that never completely stops looking to our parents for guidance, for love, for approval, for acceptance. Even in the worst-case scenario, if our children do not believe anymore, let us continue to believe, to pray, to be an example for them. We pray for them, the whole church on earth and in heaven prays for them, and even Christ Himself prays to the Father in the Holy Spirit for them.
  1. Grace and grace alone will sustain and heal both parents and children. God’s grace in Christ is not only for your children; it is for you, too. Those bruises on your soul that no one can see, where you’ve beat yourself up about your children straying from church, Christ’s blood is a healing medicine for them, too. Chances are, even if your actions had nothing to do with your children’s decisions, you still feel like you share part of the blame. The all-encompassing grace of Christ covers all your guilt, real and false. He became our mistakes, our failures, on the cross, so that we become in Him exactly as the Father wants us to be. Your guilt, real or imagined, is no longer yours; it belongs to Jesus. In Him, God declares you a perfect parent, free of sin, free of guilt. Remember, you have a parent, too, a heavenly Father, whose love and concern for you is boundless. You are and will ever remain His child. And your children are and will ever remain His children. Be still and know that He is your Father—the kind of Father who spends all day and all night doing nothing but thinking of, smiling upon, and showering His grace down onto you.

Speaking to Jerusalem, His beloved city, God says, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me,” (Isaiah 49:15-16). The same is true for you and for your children. God will not, and has not, forgotten you. The face of your children is engraved upon the hands of the Father. The nail scars in the hands of Jesus spell out your name, and the names of your sons and daughters. We are all in His hands.

Even if your children stray from church, Jesus Christ will never stray from them. Even now, He seeks them out, calling them by name, for they are His lambs, more precious to Him than anything in heaven or on earth. I pray that love, the love of the Good Shepherd, may be your peace as well as your hope.

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christ alone coverWhat we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people, is the love of Jesus Christ, who InfantPriestfrontcoverwelcomes home sinners with a grace that knows no bounds. My book Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!

Preachers with Soiled Resumes

skeletoninclosetHeadhunters have a straightforward job. There’s a position to fill, usually in the corporate world, so they hunt down a candidate for that position. Of course, they’re searching for an employee with a top-notch resume, one who has the necessary experience and know-how. Headhunters don’t waste their time recruiting underachievers or amateurs. They’re matchmakers; they introduce just the right employee to just the right employer so that they’ll enjoy a healthy, thriving relationship.

And that’s why God would be, quite possibly, the world’s worst headhunter. Yes, often He does find people to work for Him who have extraordinary skills that they use for service in His kingdom. I have many friends and colleagues who are gifted in this way, and for them I thank God. But we cannot deny that the Lord also has a tendency to call people to do jobs for which they have little or no experience, not to mention few of the skills requisite for the task. In fact, some of them don’t want anything to do with the position. And, to make matters worse, when God strong-arms them into service anyway, much of the time they wind up making fools of themselves, making a mess of the work, or even telling God that He can take this job and shove it. It’s as if sometimes the Lord asks Himself, “Now who would most people think would be a miserable candidate for this mission?” Then He goes headhunting precisely for that individual.

Case in point: Jonah. Calling this man to be a prophet makes about as much as sense as hiring an executioner to be the CEO of a hospital. To begin with, he doesn’t want the job, period. He lets his feet do the talking. When God says, “Go preach in Nineveh,” he boards a ship sailing away from Nineveh. Is he afraid of the people in Nineveh? No. Does he doubt his abilities as a preacher? No. Rather, those people he’s supposed to serve—they sicken him. Nothing would make him happier than for God to fry those fiends with fire and brimstone, to play the ole Sodom-and-Gomorrah card. They’re his people’s sworn enemies. They’re infamous as butchers. They make ISIS look tame. The problem is simply this: Jonah knows that if he preaches God’s word to them, they may actually repent and believe. And if they do that, God will do the very thing which angers Jonah most: He’ll forgive them. In His audacious, scandalous love, He’ll let them off scot-free. That Jonah can’t stomach. And if you remember the rest of Jonah’s story, that’s exactly what happened.

So why would the heavenly headhunter choose someone with such personal animosity towards his mission field? We could ask the same type question of any number of the Lord’s other choices, many of whom have rather soiled resumes. Why would He choose Moses, a man with Egyptian blood on his hands, to lead one of the greatest act of redemption ever accomplished? Why would He let David, a renowned murderer and adulterer, remain on the throne of Israel, and even use his words of repentance in one of the most widely sung psalms in Christendom? Why would He fill Samson with His Spirit, a judge who’s always getting caught with his pants down? Why appoint Peter as part of the apostolic foundation of the church, a man who publicly denied three times that he even knew Jesus? Why call Saul, a once blaspheming, murdering, Christian-hating Pharisee, to take the Good News throughout the Roman world? Why would the Lord of wisdom make such foolish choices?

Someone might say that the messenger doesn’t matter but the message does. I disagree. In fact, the messengers do matter—they matter greatly. In fact, they are part of the word that God is speaking. And that word is that God is the God of the cross, the cross that is “foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God,” (1 Cor 1:18). God has chosen the foolish things and foolish people of the world to shame the wise. God has chosen the lowly things and lowly people of the world to shame the high and mighty. God has chosen the weak things and the weak, broken, soiled, despised people of the world to shame the powerful and self-righteous. He chose tax collectors and prostitutes and renegades and doubters to show the religious establishment that they didn’t know their theological ass from a hole in the ground. He even chose a mule-headed prophet named Jonah to demonstrate that He can be as stubborn in love as people can be in judgement.

God’s kingdom is a wild and wacky place. It’s pregnant with seeming contradictions. A God who’s a man. A king who’s a servant. A priest who’s a sacrifice. Shepherds who get fed to wolves. Men and women with scars proclaiming His healing. Pastors with skeletons in their closets revealing a bodiless tomb. Preachers with soiled resumes uttering words that wash us white in the blood of the Lamb.

All this seemingly contradictory work God does, however, not to be vague and sneaky but to show us that it’s okay to be weak. It’s okay to be broken. You don’t have to fix yourself so you’re good enough for God. Christ loves you in your brokenness. His light shines through the cracks in your soul. His cross is for you, where He was broken to heal you, to cleanse you, to make you better than okay. In Christ not just your resume, but your whole body and soul are as pure as snow.

Blessed are the soiled, for in Christ they are clean.
Blessed are the weak, for in Christ they are strong.
Blessed are the despised, for they leave the temple justified.
Blessed are the Moseses, Davids, Samsons, Sauls, and Jonahs, for in Christ they are God’s chosen leaders, poets, warriors, apostles, and prophets.

If you’d like to read more of my writings, please check out my two books: Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons and The Infant Priest: Hymns and Poems. Click here if you’d like to purchase Christ Alone or here for The Infant Priest. They are both also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you!

You’ll Never Hear the Opening Words of the Bible the Same Again

I suppose everything needs a birthday, including the world. From the womb of nothingness, the baby heavens and the infant earth were born. Like Aslan sang creation into existence in The Magician’s Nephew, so God’s song has verses like “let there be light” and “let the waters swarm.” Whatever rolls off His tongue, rolls from not-being to being. It all starts, quite fittingly, “in the beginning.”

In those three words, however, I detect more than “this is how all this stuff began.” I do hear that, to be sure, but also something bigger and better. When I put my ear really close to the page, I hear the whisper of something else, and someone else, in the Bible’s opening words. And after reading this, I hope you do the same.

What we hear in English as three words is compressed into only one word in Hebrew. “In the beginning” is bereshit (pronounced as buh-ray-SHEET). The be- means “in” and –reshit means “the beginning.” Maybe you’re thinking, “Okay, but this all sounds pretty straightforward to me. A beginning is a beginning. It’s a start. When God kicked off creation, He did so ‘in the beginning.’ How else would he do it?”

keydoorI like an illustration given by a teacher in the church centuries ago named Origen. He compared the Bible to a large house full of locked rooms, in which the keys to all the rooms are scattered throughout the house. The task—the joyful task!—of the interpreter is to go around the house, trying various keys in various doors, until they are all opened. This is one way to picture our reading of the Bible. Like a man trying keys in all the locks, we try this verse to that verse, this OT story to that NT parable, in an attempt to open up the full meaning of the Scriptures. Ultimately, however, there is one key that opens all the rooms. It is the key of Christ Himself. As He opened the minds of His disciples to see that Moses and all the prophets wrote about the Messiah (Luke 24:27,45), so He opens our minds to see the same.

So if we insert various verse-keys into the opening word of the Bible, especially the key shaped like Jesus, what will we find when we crack open the door?

Let’s first try a key from Proverbs (probably not the first place you’d think to look!). What does Proverbs have to do with Genesis? Proverbs 8 focuses on the place of wisdom in creation—only this wisdom is spelled Wisdom, for it is not a thing but a person. Wisdom says, “Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth, before [God] had made the earth with its fields, or the first of the dust of the world. When He established the heavens, I was there,” (8:25-27a). And a few verses later, Wisdom continues, “I was beside Him, like a master workman, and I was daily His delight, rejoicing before Him always, rejoicing in His inhabited world and delighting in the children of man,” (8:30-31). Who is this Wisdom? None other than the one “whom God has made our wisdom” (1 Cor 1:30), the one through whom “all things were made” and without whom there “was not any thing made that was made,” (John 1:3). The Wisdom who speaks in Proverbs 8 is the Son of God.

But what does Christ as divine Wisdom have to do with Genesis 1:1’s “in the beginning”? Earlier in Proverbs 8, Christ as Wisdom says this, “The LORD possessed me—the beginning of His way—before His works of old.” This is my own literal translation from the Hebrew. Wisdom is saying, “Before anything was made, I belonged to the Father. I am the beginning of His way, the beginning of how the Father works. The Hebrew for “beginning” is reshit, the same word that we find in Genesis 1:1. Thus, the Wisdom of God, the Son of the Father, is the reshit of the Creator. Jesus is the Beginning.

Interestingly, even early Jewish translators and interpreters looked at Genesis 1:1 not merely as the temporal beginning. One early paraphrase or translation, known as a targum, rendered Genesis 1:1 this way, “In Wisdom, God created the heavens and the earth.” And the early Jewish commentary on Genesis, known as Bereshit Rabbah, says that the “beginning” in Gen 1:1 refers to the Torah, for it understands the Torah as the “beginning of God’s way” in Proverbs 8.

Now let’s use some NT keys to see if we can unlock “in the beginning” even more. John begins his Gospel with words that are, in Greek, a direct link to Genesis 1:1. He writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In Greek, the phrase “in the beginning” is en arche (pronounced “in arkay”). This word, arche, occurs a few other places in the NT in reference to Christ. Paul writes that Jesus “is the beginning [arche], the firstborn from the dead, that in everything He might be preeminent,” (Col 1:18). Twice in Revelation, John calls Christ “the beginning [arche] and the end,” (21:6 and 22:13). But best of all, in Rev 3:14, Jesus himself says, “To the angel of the church of Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning [arche] of the creation of God.’” Did you hear that? Jesus identifies Himself as the “beginning of the creation of God.” He is the Beginning, the arche, who is directly linked to God’s creative work.

If we mold all these verses together into a sort of biblical stethoscope, and place it onto opening words of Scripture, what do we hear beating within the heart of this verse? We hear that this “beginning” is not simply the start of time. This beginning is a personal Beginning. “In the beginning” means “in Wisdom, in the Word, in Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, God created the heavens and the earth.” He is indeed the “beginning of the creation of God,” (Rev 3:14). “By Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through Him and for Him,” (Col 1:15-16).

I promised that you’d never hear the opening words of the Bible the same again. And I hope that holds true. In the very first word of the Scriptures, we hear of Christ. And appropriately so. For He is Himself the Word. He is the fullness of the Scriptures. Jesus Himself testified that Moses wrote of Him (John 5:46). Indeed, Moses did. The very first word He penned onto the scroll of the Torah was bereshit, that is, “in Christ.”

If you’d like to read more of my writings, please check out my two books: Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons and The Infant Priest: Hymns and Poems. Click here if you’d like to purchase Christ Alone or here for The Infant Priest. They are both also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you!

Before Life’s Crashes, What Words Would Our Own Black Boxes Record?

planewreckThe “black box.” It’s one of those phrases we never hear alongside good news. Another plane down. Another mystery to unravel. A thousand questions from survivors, the FAA, the media, all demanding answers that may or may not bring some closure. Perhaps, though, there’ll be some clue in the pilot’s pre-crash words, some indication of what precipitated the disaster.

I wonder, if each of us had a little black box that recorded our words before we crashed our lives, and we could play that back, what would we hear ourselves saying? As we stood amidst the twisted metal of divorce or addiction or prison or a thousand other of life’s wrecks, and played back our voice, what did we say? What clue might there be in our pre-crash words that indicate what precipitated our downfall? I can think of a few possibilities.

1. “I’m fully in control of this situation.” The more that we think we are in control of our lives, the more we set ourselves up for failure and disappointment. It is all a very seductive illusion. Beneath the desire for control lurks the desire to play god, to orchestrate our lives so that we avoid what hurts, achieve what feels good, dictate our destiny. We think that no matter what comes along, we can handle it. Until “it” happens—that “it” that sets our life on a downward spiral.

2. “No one will ever find out.” One of the ways we deal with the voice of guilt is by shouting it down. It becomes the quiet voiced speaker in a room full of loud-talkers. And one of those loud-talkers keeps booming over and over, “Come on, no one will ever find out!” No one will ever find out that you’re stealing from work, that you’re lying to your family, that you’re cheating. Until they do. And eventually, they will. When we say, “No one will ever find out,” we refuse to remember that God knows, and that God, to bring us to repentance, has His ways of bringing our lives down to the ground.

3. “Okay, but just this once.” If “no one will ever find out” is what we tell ourselves after we’ve begun a destructive behavior, then “okay, but just this once,” is what we tell ourselves before we jump on board. The seeming singularity of sin is part of its appeal. We all need to spice up our lives a little, right? And what better way to do it than engage, just once, in a little act of rebellion? But sin is like a drug. Try it once and soon you’ll be saying, “Well, maybe one more time.” And, before we know it, “one more time” has become a lifestyle that destroys life itself.

4. “I’ll just try harder then.” We are hardwired to think that we can perform ourselves out of any of life’s messes. If we just try harder, if we dig deep and muster enough determination, we can make ourselves more loveable, more beautiful, more confident, more wealthy. So we set New Years resolutions. We devour self-help books. We can do this! Ultimately, however, the more we lean on ourselves, the weaker we become. The hardest lesson in life to learn is that self-sufficiency is not only impossible, but dangerous. We need others, and, above all, we need God.

My own personal black box has recorded me saying all four of these lies, along with many others. I sat slumped over in the middle of the smoking ruins of my life and listened to myself say, “I’m fully in control of this situation.” As I hung my head in shame, knowing that so many people had found what I did, I heard the recording of my voice, saying, “No one will ever find out.” As I cringed to think of how many times I had acted in rebellion against God, I heard myself say, “Okay, but just this once.” And when I looked at the bleeding wounds all over my soul, I heard, “I’ll just try harder then.”

For a long time after our lives crash, like Job, we sit there in the ashes (2:8). Maybe we curse the day of our birth, as he did (3:1ff). Maybe we scream at the heavens and damn the God who let us fall. Or maybe we are blessed with a rapid repentance, and turn immediately toward the Lord for help. In my own case, I sat in those ashes for years, scraping my sores, licking my wounds, casting blame, caressing the broken pieces of metal as if they were my Precious.

Over time, however, the voices from the black box are revealed for the lies they are. The words that once tasted so sweet, we can’t spit out of our mouths fast enough. And another voice begins to speak. It’s the voice that boomed down to a man who hated the church, saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). It’s the voice that answered Job from out of the whirlwind (38:1). It’s the voice of the only person who has truly plumbed the depths of human suffering, known the agony of sin and its punishment, and stands ready to help and heal you.

Jesus lives amidst the twisted metal and smoking ruins of lives gone bad. It’s where He works. He’s not there to answer all your questions but to be with you in all your sufferings, to hurt with you, and slowly but surely to heal you. Like the Good Samaritan, who bound up the wounds of the injured man, pouring on oil and wine, Christ comes to us in our brokenness to bind up our wounded hearts, to pour His body and blood into our shattered lives. You won’t get better overnight; it might take years. God is not usually a fast healer, but He is a faithful healer.

Whatever lies we told ourselves before, they are all silenced by the true words of Jesus, who says, “I forgive you. I love you. I will never leave your side. Neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height or depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate me and our Father from you.”

That man standing beside you in the middle of your wrecked life, the one with scars in His hands, and a gash on His side, He is for you. And, no matter what, He will hold you fast and see you through.

If you’d like to read more of my writings, please check out my two books: Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons and The Infant Priest: Hymns and Poems. Click here if you’d like to purchase Christ Alone or here for The Infant Priest. They are both also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you!

Hollywood, Nashville, and the Lord’s Supper

Jubelnde Konzertbesucher auf Rock-KonzertThis past fall, Willie Nelson’s hair braids were sold at auction for $37,000. A tissue into which Scarlett Johansson blew her nose on the Tonight Show fetched $5,300 on eBay. And X-rays of Marilyn Monroe’s chest—just the X-rays, mind you—once brought in a whopping $45,000. If you’re lucky enough to be the proud owner of any item once worn or used by a celebrity—and the more intimate the better—then you’re sitting on a mountain of cash. People crave this stuff; and they’re certainly willing to open wide their wallets to add it to their collection.

I don’t know about you, but I like to think that I’m above all that celebrity worship nonsense. But I like to deceive myself about a whole host of other things, too. My home is right outside San Antonio, TX, not far from the stomping grounds of George Strait. I guarantee you that if I ran into George and he invited me over for a BBQ at his place, then I’d be a name-dropping, Facebook-boasting, Twitter-bragging fool for the next three months. Everybody I know—and probably total strangers—would get to hear all about how George and I drank a cold Shiner Bock together late one evening on his back porch in the Texas Hill Country.

What is that magnetism that pulls us toward celebrities? Why do people stand in mile-long lines, worm their way into throngs of people, or pay big money simply for the chance to rub shoulders with the famous? No doubt the motivations vary from individual to individual, but I would suggest that at the core of these motivations is the desire for intimacy with one we deem greater than ourselves. Such closeness, such confidentiality, one might even say such communion with a person exalted by fame or fortune makes us feel better about ourselves. It’s like we share a little in what they have. While we’re with them, we’re more “them” than “us.” Our identity, however briefly, migrates into the sphere of their identity. I am no longer just Chad; I am a guest, one might even say, a friend at George Strait’s table.

The Good Picture Behind the Warped Image

Many of the basic human desires that God formed within us have, like bent arrows, gone in directions the Creator never intended them to go. Hunger becomes gluttony, thirst becomes drunkenness, love becomes lust, worship becomes idolatry. Nevertheless, if we look behind the warped image that man has revised we find the good that God has devised. And that good is indicative of the gifts God gives, the people He has made us to be, and the image in us He wants to restore.

In the case of celebrity worship, behind the almost idolatrous fascination that some fans have with a person of fame, we discover a desire that, in and of itself, is not sinful. It is the desire to connect with one who is greater than we are. We feel small but they make us feel big; we feel unimportant, but our connection with them makes us feel like we matter, we have purpose. To be singled out by them, to take a seat at their table, invests our lives with a sense of worth and transcendence.

That hunger to connect with one who is greater than we are will be satisfied only in the one who created that hunger within us in the first place. We may look for it in people of power or fame or fortune, but they will all fail us because, in truth, they are pilgrims traveling the same road we are. The stars of Hollywood and Nashville are searching for the same goal. Like we are, they too are restless until they rest in the one who finally and perfectly completes them.

A Down-Below-Divinity

The reason we so easily miss the God who is greater than we are is because that great God comes in such an unexpectedly tiny, humdrum package. We are staring up at the stars while the star is pointing down to the no-account town of Bethlehem, to a baby that looks like every other baby. We are looking up for a big and awesome God while the little and humble God is looking up as well—only He looking up at us from down below, wanting us to turn our eyes downward. None of us are really near-sighted or far-sighted, we are all up-sighted. Our eyes scan the heavens for the great one while we’re blind to the great one humbly hiding within arms reach.

But I’m not just talking about Christmas and how easy it is to miss God since He comes into our world as a baby. He remains in our world, He remains active in our lives, as a down-below-divinity. You won’t find Him in heaven’s version of Hollywood glitz and glamour. You won’t find Him riding in limos and hounded by paparazzi. If you’re searching for a God with razzle-dazzle, who’ll knock your socks off with His cool awesomeness, then you’re in for a lifetime of deceptive disappointments. In this world, God is hidden in His opposite. He is cloaked in the simple, the down-to-earth, the seemingly boring and unawesome stuff of this world.

The Old Rugged Table

One place we find not only God, but intimacy with this one greater than ourselves, is at a table. The thing is, the table is kind of like that manger in Bethlehem or the old rugged cross. To the eye, there’s nothing attractive or awe-inspiring about it. In fact, on the surface it’s downright disappointing. A little bread, a sip of wine. Why, even when you invite your friends over, you might have bread on the table and wine in glasses, but along with them you serve ribeyes and baked potatoes and steamed vegetables with pecan pie for dessert. Not God. The great and powerful king of all creation puts bread and wine on His table. That’s all you get.

No, that seems like it’s all you get, but it’s not. Like in that rough and simple manger lay God hidden as a common newborn; like on that bloody and gruesome cross hung God hidden as a common criminal; so in this inconspicuous and everyday meal is God hidden in common food. In that bread He has placed His Son, Jesus, so that when you eat that bread you take the body of Jesus into you. When you sip the wine, you take His blood into you. The Lord almighty is swaddled in bread and wine, the old rugged cross becomes a table. And here, while eating and drinking, you receive intimacy with God above and beyond anything imaginable. He and you merge as one. You take Him into you even as He takes you into Himself.

The Meal That Tells Me Who I Am

This is a closeness, a confidentiality, a communion that does infinitely more than a friendship with George Strait could do for me. It does more than make me feel better about myself. This meal of God, with God, consuming God, establishes my identity. Much as the act of marriage means that a man and woman are now one flesh, so this meal means that I am now one flesh with God. I am bone of His bone, flesh of His flesh. My identity as Chad has been subsumed into His identity so that I can no longer understand myself except in connection with Him. I am a son of our Father. I am the brother of Jesus. I am part of the bride of Christ. And all these are not mere figures of speech but statements of reality. This is who I am, this is who you are, in God through Jesus Christ.

There’s no need to stand in mile-long lines, worm your way into throngs of people, or pay big money to achieve intimacy with one greater than you. Simply take and eat the body of Christ; take and drink the blood of Jesus. Here is the costliest treasure on earth given to you free of charge. It cost Jesus His life, but that life He gives to you gratis. And with that life, comes all that God is and all that you need.

Looking down at Jesus’ humble table, at His humdrum food, I see that as His guest I will be more than an admirer, closer than a friend. Since I will consume Him, it will be no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. And that life in and of Christ gives me infinitely more than worth and transcendence; it gives me peace and wholeness and joy of such enduring quality that it spills over from this life into the life to come.

If you’d like to read more of my writings, please check out my two books: Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons and The Infant Priest: Hymns and Poems. Click here if you’d like to purchase Christ Alone or here for The Infant Priest. They are both also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you!

Gather at the River of Life and Death

arkcrossingjordanThe Jordan River is a place of life and death, of departure and arrival. Its waters are both knives and wombs, cutting away the old and giving birth to the new. Here Moses passes away in a desert land while Joshua passes over to the land flowing with milk and honey. Here Elijah departs in his fiery chariot while Elisha is filled with a double portion of his spirit.  Here John, having baptized the Messiah, decreases while Jesus increases. And here you must decrease, must depart, must die, must become nothing, that out of the nothing you become, the Father might create you anew.

Our forefathers, the Israelites, had staggered around the circle of death in the wilderness for forty years. Then, with a whole generation of corpses buried behind them in the desert sand, they stood face-to-face with the Jordan River, ready to enter the promised land. The Jordan was the river of a new exodus, better than the one their fathers had experienced four decades ago at the Red Sea. Then, their enemies had snapped at their heels like mad dogs; now, their foes cowered in fear behind Jericho’s high walls. Then, they entered the lifeless desert; now, they step into God’s holy land.

The Ark of the Covenant, where the Word became present and dwelt among them—that Ark would open the door that led from the old to the new, from death in the wilderness to life in the land. Borne upon the shoulders of the priests, it was carried to the brink of the Jordan. When the feet of the ark-bearing priests touched the water, the river was rent in twain, like a veil in the temple, opening up the way to the Promised Land beyond. And so, as God stood upon His Ark in the middle of the Jordan, His people passed over on dry ground, into the land called holy. For forty years they had decreased, departed, and died, become nothing, that out of the nothing they had become, the Father might create them anew as His chosen people, holy and blameless before Him.

Therefore when Jesus is ready to be baptized, He epiphanies Himself at no other river than the Jordan. How could it be otherwise? On the bank of that river stands the church, watching as John the Priest baptizes Jesus, who is the New Ark of the Covenant and the New Priest and the New Joshua and Yahweh-become-flesh. Jesus was all this, and more. Here are no golden cherubic wings upon the old ark of the covenant but the wings of the Spirit’s dove landing of Jesus the new Ark. Here the waters do not split; rather, the heavens themselves are rent asunder, the doors are thrown open, the way is prepared.

It is prepared for you. And God knows you need it. For all you have prepared for yourself is destruction. For just like Israel of old, you prefer the comforts of slavery to the struggles of freedom, the pains of pilgrimage. The manna God provides is never tasty enough. God never lives up to your expectations. So silently or audibly you wish for an easier way. You hanker for a way unencumbered by stubborn children, troublesome spouses, meager incomes, failing health. You want an easy way with an easy God. But God has not called us to ease but to battle, to readiness for whatever cross He places upon us.

Get out of Egypt and, more importantly, get Egypt out of you. Leave the wilderness of sin and death. Cross the Jordan.  For the way is prepared; it is prepared for you. The ark of Christ has been painted red with the blood of His atonement, shed for you on the altar of the cross. All the Jerichos of your sin and death have been conquered in His resurrection; the strongholds of Canaan have been vanquished in His empty tomb. There is nothing and no one to fear.

At the Jordan of your baptism you died, nothing you became, that the Father might create you anew. And so He has. If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away and the new you has come. You are the Father’s beloved son, in whom He is well-pleased. The water of the Jordan has cut away the old and given birth to the new. And now you live, you live with the Life that is not your own and will never be taken from you.

You live in the One who is one with the Father and has become one with you. Jesus placed Himself in the Jordan River, so that in Baptism He might place you inside Himself. You are baptized as a member of His body, as intimately connected to Jesus as a finger is to a hand, as skin to muscle, as muscle to bone. His life flows into you as freely as the water flows onto you in Baptism. You are permeated with God, filled with Him who fills all things, and fills you in particular with forgiveness, everlasting life, salvation, peace, all the riches of heaven.

So as did Israel of old, you too cross into Canaan. In Jesus, you walk into the Holy Land. Ascend to the New Jerusalem and kneel at the altar of a new and better temple. Open wide your mouth to drink the milk of Jesus’ blood and to eat the honey of His flesh. It is all yours for God has made you all His.

This meditation is included in my book, Christ Alone, which was announced this week as the winner of the 2014 KFUO Book of the Year. Click here if you’d like to purchase a copy from CreateSpace. It is also available on Amazon. You may also be interested in my book of hymns and poetry, The Infant Priest, which is available here, or my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you!

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