Saturday, November 29, 2008

Advent Devotions from Trinity Alum

Members of the Alumni Council of Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus are presenting solid, short devotional pieces for the Advent Season. They actually "jumped the gun," with the first piece having been written for Thanksgiving day.

The first four pieces, excellent all, are based on the Psalm lesson for tomorrow, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19.

The devotions appear on the Trinity Lutheran Seminary web site. They can be found here.

I received my Master of Divinity degree from Trinity in 1984, nine years after graduating from Ohio State with a Bachelor's in Social Studies Education. I'm glad to see the Alumni Council share these Advent devotions with the world!

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Waiting Game: Additional Thoughts on This Sunday's Bible Lessons (November 30, 2008)

I've already shared a few items meant to help the people of the congregation I serve as pastor, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, and any other folks who use the Revised Common Lectionary plan of Bible lessons, to get ready for worship this coming Sunday. You can see those posts here, here, and here. But below are a few more helps and reflections.

The Bible Lessons:
Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

Prayer of the Day:
Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. By your merciful protection awaken us to the threatening dangers of our sins, and keep us blameless until the coming of your new day, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Some Thoughts...
Isaiah 64:1-9
Most contemporary Old Testament scholars believe that Isaiah was written by two (or three) different prophets writing in different times. Chapters 1-39, were authored by Isaiah, the son of Amoz. He prophesied between 742 and 687 BC. The Northern Kingdom*, what was called Israel and would later be referred to as Samaria, had been conquered by the Assyrian Empire. Isaiah warned the Southern Kingdom, what was called Judah or Judea, its faithlessness could result in the only reliable power they possessed, the power of God, to disappear from the national life, leading to the same fate Israel had suffered. About the balance of the book, the editors of The New Oxford Annotated Bible (Revised Standard Version) have this to say:
Chapters 40-66, commonly called Second Isaiah (or Second and Third Isaiah), originated immediately before the fall of Babylon (October 29, 539 B.C.) to the armies of Cyrus, king of Persia, and during the generation following.**The anonymous author of the first bipartite section (chs. 40-55...) exults in joyful anticipation of exiled Judah's restoration to Palestine, for which Cyrus is God's participating agent (44:28). Second Isaiah emphasizes the significance of historical events in God's plan, a plan which extends from creation to redemption--and beyond. Blindness to God's way is a cardinal sin in Second Isaiah. The author's interest in was unique to his time; it is used to emphasize the concept of God as exclusive creator and lord of all, whose ultimate glorious manifestation will be accompanied by a new creation.
v.1: The tearing up of the heavens called for is a desire for God to manifest Himself and help His captive people.

The heavens were torn open at Jesus' Baptism, according to the Gospel accounts, God the Father affirming Jesus as beloved Son to Whom all should pay attention. The heavens were torn open again when, accompanied by Peter, James, and John, Jesus' appearance was "transfigured" and God the Father affirmed Jesus again. Another tearing took place immediately after Jesus died on the cross. At that moment, the curtain in the temple, which had formerly concealed the Holy of Holies, the place where the presence of God rested on earth, was torn, indicating that through Christ all that the power of all that had once separated us from God--our sin--had been destroyed and we gain access to God, forgiveness, and life.

v.2: The blazing presence of God causes people to tremble. That happened on the first Pentecost (Acts 2).

v.3: Here begins a reminiscence about God's saving acts during ancient Israel's exodus journey from Egypt to the promised land.

v.4: Here, we have an important theme of Advent mentioned: waiting on God. To wait on God isn't to be passive. But it does mean that we're unwilling to act on our own power or in our own wisdom. I'm just beginning to learn what this means.

v. 5: Isaiah confesses that the sin of his people was responsible for the wall between God and them.

v.6: We're all unclean and insubstantial, nothing without God.

v.7: People don't call on God, Isaiah says, and God lets them go their own way.

v.8: "Still," Isaiah says to God, "we do belong to You. You made us. We bear the stamp of Your authorship and You've gone to a lot of trouble to make us Your own people."

v.9: "Don't hold our sins against us," Isaiah goes on to plead, "Think about the fact that we are Your people."

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
This psalm was traditionally attributed to Asaph, one of his descendants, or members of a group of poets and singers who saw him as their master or teacher. It was most likely written after the Northern Kingdom had fallen to Assyria, its people deported to there as slaves.*** The impatient waiting of a captive people can be seen in this psalm.

v.1: God is portrayed as both Shepherd, a common way of referring to ancient kings, and as King, enthroned on the cherubim.

v.2: "Stir up": God is asked to stir Himself to action on behalf of His people. One of my seminary professors, Ron Hals, used to refer to the Prayers of the Day appointed for the Advent season as the "stirrup prayers"; they all begin with the phrase, "Stir up." Human impatience, as well as weariness with suffering and adversity, is reflected in this phrase, no doubt. We don't wait well.

But the phrase also recognizes that only God's power can make a difference in what would otherwise be pointless living.

"save us": This is the bottom line in our prayers, no matter what our immediate desires. We need God to save us from sin, death, and futility.

v.3: "Restore us": This petition appears like a refrain at three different places in the psalm. Israel is displaced; Asaph is asking for restoration. For us, the prayer means a restoration of our fellowship with God, a restoration accomplished through Christ.

"let us see your face shine...saved": When God shows up, we are saved.

v.4: "How long...?": This plea often shows up in our prayers. But I can personally testify that God is faithful. One petition I prayed repeatedly for thirteen years suddenly, unexpectedly, and miraculously, was answered...and more incredibly and wonderfully than I'd ever imagined it would be.

v.5: The tearful bread and drink, born of sin and separation from God, is set in contrast to the bread and water God provided the ancient Hebrews in the wilderness. There, God gave them manna and water from a rock. Both were happy events. But now, captive Israel is experiencing "the bread of tears" and "tears to drink." The psalmist is asking God to miraculously provide for His people again.

v.6: God, it's said, has made Israel a laughingstock among neighboring nations. Without the strength of God, Israel is seen for what it is: weak. Jesus, God in the flesh, tells us today that without Him, we can do nothing.

v.7: "Restore us": The refrain appears again.

v.17: "right hand": the power of God.

The plea here is that the line of Davidic kings will be restored. "Shore up the power of the king, the anointed one." the psalmist asks."

v.18: This reads like deal-making (i.e., "If you'll empower us and give us life, we'll 'call on Your Name.") Maybe it's just a pledge, "We promise to call on You and not to forget You again, God." Whatever, it was a pledge that Israel could make apart from the power of God. The same is true for us today.

v.19: "Restore us": There's that refrain again.

Line B is also a repetition of sentiments expressed earlier in the psalm.

1 Corinthians 1:3-9
This letter was written by the apostle Paul to the first-century church at Corinth. The Corinthian church had truly taken the fun out of dysfunctional. The spiritual issues were many: there were people having sexual relations with their step-mothers; wealthy Christians weren't sharing their food with poorer Christians as they celebrated Holy Communion together; many in the church identified more with Christian preachers and leaders rather than with Jesus Himself; some felt that they had no reason to concern themselves with obeying God's will as embodied in the Ten Commandments; some asserted that Jesus hadn't really risen from the dead; and some who had or claimed to have the spiritual gift of tongues looked down their noses on those not possessing this gift.

On this last matter, Paul wrote a good deal in this letter, at one point telling the Corinthians:
I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you; nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue. (1 Corinthians 14:18-19)

In chapter 12, Paul spends a long time discussing the fact that spiritual gifts are given by God for the purpose of building up the whole church and its ministry and to show how they're to be used.

The most famous chapter of this letter, chapter 13, referred to as "the love chapter," wasn't written for weddings, although its use then is fine. It was written to remind the Corinthians to be humble about the gifts, spiritual and otherwise, that have come from God. You may be able to make a lot of noise with your gift of tongues, Paul is saying, but if the love of Christ isn't inform you, you're just noise.

All of this lay in the background of our lesson from 1 Corinthians. It reads like a commendation of the Corinthian church, like that he gives at the beginnings of other New Testament readers. See what he says here, here, here, here, and here. But there is no such commendation for the Corinthians. Instead, Paul here seems to thank God for the grace that saves even the dysfunctional bunch at Corinth and then foreshadows some of the hard things he's going to broach with them in the letter.

v.3: Like a good pastor, Paul invokes the peace of God on the Corinthians.

v.4: Paul thanks God for how the Corinthians have been blessed by "the grace of God...given you in Christ Jesus."

vv.5-6: In Christ, the Corinthian church has been "enriched." This may be an ironic reference to the treatment given by the wealthy church members to the poorer ones.

Paul says that the Corinthian Christians have been enriched in "speech," possibly more irony in light of the chastising he's about to administer for the spiritual pride of those who think that God's gift of tongues signifies their spiritual superiority.

This interpretation of the passage is supported by Paul's reference also to the gift of knowledge. In the letter, Paul will later say that people with the gift of tongues should never exercise it publicly unless another person, with a gift of discernment or knowledge, can interpret the tongue. This is meant to ensure accountability and humility.

v.7: The complementarity of spiritual gifts exists so that the life of the Corinthian church--or of any church--can fully reflect God and God's grace. No congregation, no matter how small, need lack the spiritual and other gifts needed to fulfill the mission to which God has called it.

v.8: This passage links the lesson thematically with the other Bible lessons assigned for this Sunday.

Christ will help us to be faithful, as we live in daily repentance and renewal, until that indeterminate time of Christ's return or, as Paul puts it, "revelation." Until then, we're to wait patiently, again not passively, but, as we're shown in the Gospel lesson, in faithful attentiveness to Christ's call to love and serve each day.

v.9: God is faithful, even if the Corinthian Christians aren't. As Paul puts it elsewhere, "If we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself" (2 Timothy 2:13).

Lest we become spiritually proud, tending to think that the righteousness that God confers on us through Christ has to do with our goodness rather than God's, Paul reminds us that it's God Who makes it possible for us to have fellowship with Jesus Christ. This too, is a point that he'll make again later in the letter: "I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit" (1 Corinthians 12:3).

Mark 13:24-37
Go here to see some general comments on Mark and this passage.

v.24: "those days": When the stones of the temple are thrown down (Mark 13:2-3). As the allusions to Old Testament passages that referred to judgment by God, it also references the end of the world.

"sun will be darkened...moon will not give its light": The description is akin to an eclipse, it seems. Jesus' words appear to allude to several prophetic passages from the Old Testament:
a. Isaiah 13:10: This is part of a section of Isaiah that foretells God's judgment against nations outside of Israel.****
b. Ezekiel 32:7-8: Judgments on Israel's enemies. Ezekiel was originally addressed to Judeans in captivity in Babylon, c.571 B.C.
c. Joel 2:31, 3:15: This discusses "the day of the Lord." The language here was cited by Peter in his Pentecost sermon, found in Acts 2. More cosmogony here.
v.25: "powers in heaven": What Jesus talks about here fits the description of Jesus' crucifixion as summarized by another of my seminary professors, Bruce Schein, "the cosmos in convulsion."

v.26: "Son of man": Jesus' most characteristic way of referring to Himself, the phrase comes from the Old Testament apocalyptic book, Daniel.

"with great power and glory": This won't be the "Christmas Jesus," or the "Crucifixion Jesus." Of course, it will be the same Jesus. But Jesus will no longer restrain Himself. All people, even those who have never believed in Him or surrendered to Him, will know exactly Who Jesus is. But by then, it will be too late to "call on the Name of the Lord and be saved." The time for surrender will have ended. Now people will be forced to live with the judgments they Himself have rendered on their eternal destinies. See here.

v.27: Christ's dispersed peoples will be brought together, no longer forced into dispersion by persecution. It will be safe to believe.

vv.28-29: Jesus uses the fig tree as a metaphor. Everyone in first century Judea knew the signs of the seasons given by changes in a fig tree's appearance. Similarly, when we see the things to which Jesus refers here, we know that the Son of Man is "at the gates." In the next verse, Jesus tells us that all the signs of His return had already been fulfilled. So, the life of the world should tell us both that His return is impending and that He is present with those who trust in Him right now.

By the way, the ancient rabbis believed that Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of a fig, not an apple, tree. Jesus would have, of course, been familiar with this speculation. That makes His use of the fig tree in this metaphor all the more pointed, signifying judgment and God's decisive action.

v.30: All is already "ripe" for the return of the Son of Man.

v.31: Jesus' words, conveying His will and authority, will outlast a creation brought into being by that word and ticketed for destruction.

v.32: Speculation about when the end will come is not just futile, it's faithless. This doesn't preclude scientific speculation or human efforts to forestall natural or human-made disasters that could hasten mass destruction. As an example, this doesn't mean we shouldn't try to reverse global warming or halt the proliferation of nuclear arms. But it does mean that we shouldn't try to play a guessing game about God's timetable for intervention, the day of Jesus' return.

v.33: Our call is simply to be spiritually ready, believing in Jesus Christ and seeking to follow Him.

v.34: This passage reminds me of two parables from Matthew 25, both of which were Gospel lessons in recent weeks: the parable of the talents and the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids.

We are given our tasks in life and we're to be vigilant in our faith; that's how we watch and wait for Jesus's return.

v.35: The Master Jesus could come back any time.

v.36: "asleep": To be asleep, in this sense, is to spiritually insensible to the temptations and pitfalls around us, the things in everyday life that work incessantly to tear us away from God. The sources of these things were identified by Martin Luther as "the devil, the world, and our sinful selves." The disciples fell asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane, even after Jesus pleaded with them to pray to avoid falling into temptation and sin.

v.37: Jesus emphatically underscores the importance for us, as we await His return, to "keep awake!"

*These two kingdoms were the result of the breakup of ancient Israel after the reign of Solomon. For more on the divided kingdoms, see here.

**Babylon, like Assyria before it, had conquered God's people and taken many of its people captive. Cyrus, a Persian king, even though he wasn't a believer in the God of Israel, was referred to in the Old Testament as "God's anointed." God, the prophet believed, was appointed by God to liberate God's people. The Hebrew word translated as "anointed [one]" is Messiah. In Greek, the term is Messiah. This isn't to say that Cyrus was "the Christ." That role uniquely belongs to God-enfleshed, Jesus. But all the rulers of God's people were actually anointed on the days of their enthronements and were referred to as God's anointed ones.

***According to The Oxford Illustrated Companion to the Bible, Assyria was "located in what ix now northeastern Iraq."

****Isaiah, chapters 1-6, render judgments against Judah, the Southern Kingdom, the nation that Isaiah was from and from which Jesus would later come. Isaiah, chapters 7-12, give judgments against Samaria, the Northern Kingdom. Isaiah, chapters 13 to 23, render judgments against the nations.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Lincoln's 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation

It was drafted by former Lincoln rival, Secretary of State William Seward. See here.

Inspired by the Lincoln proclamation, my friend and colleague, Pastor Glen VanderKloot, who serves at Faith Lutheran Church in Springfield, Illinois, presented this Biblical passage and a prayer in daily emailed inspirations:

Psalm 69:30 (New International Version)
"I will praise God's name in song and glorify him with thanksgiving.

Lord, help us to recognize that everything good in life is a gift from you. For all this we give you our thanks and praise. Forgive us for not always caring about those less fortunate. Forgive our disobedience and stubborn unreasonableness. Help us to live as you would have us live. Amen

[Glen, I've been meaning to mention, was the pastor who offered the invocation prayer Barack Obama's and Joe Biden's appearance at the Old Illinois State Capitol the day after Biden was announced as Obama's running mate.]

How Ike Saved Europe a Second Time at Thanksgiving, 1945

The war against Nazi aggression in Europe was over and the Allied commander, General Dwight (Ike) Eisenhower, was extremely ill, at home on leave. Doctors had ordered him to rest. But, in the face of an enormous humanitarian crisis that threatened millions in Europe with starvation, the leader of Europe's liberation Hitler's tyranny, testified about the need of relief from a war-weary United States. Read the story here.

The account, written by William Lambers, ends this way:

We didn't forget about Europe after World War II, and today we cannot forget the hunger that afflicts over 900 million people throughout the globe. Whether it's in Afghanistan, Sudan, Nepal or Iraq, it is vital that hunger and poverty are defeated if we hope to have peace.
Amen to that! Last night, we had a Thanksgiving Eve Worship at the parish I'm honored to serve as pastor, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio. The offering was designated for the hunger relief efforts of our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

In the midst of the anxieties we're feeling in this country over the recession and our renewed awareness of terrorism, I hope that we'll remember two things, as individuals and as a nation:

First, that in serving and caring for the needs of our neighbors--locally and globally, we're also serving and worshiping God. Jesus says that whenever we care for the hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless, or imprisoned, we really serve Him, God incarnate.

Second, as a nation, through the agency of our government and our personal contributions to organizations like Catholic Relief Services, World Vision, and Lutheran World Relief, it's wise to remember that it's in our national security and economic interests to contribute to the prosperity and security of destitute national populations. US public and private help to Europe after World War 2, as advocated by Eisenhower, helped establish a peaceful, prosperous, and free Europe. A stable, prosperous world ensures peace for our country, not to mention open markets for US goods and services.

One scandal of contemporary America is that we spend so little on foreign aid, less than one percent of our federal budget outlays most years. We spend less on this than the Netherlands.

Some might think that in saying these things, I'm becoming political, something I steadfastly refuse to do even when commenting on political events. But I've always said that when Biblical mandates are clear, then the Church and clergy should speak out. It's right to help our neighbor. The Bible is clear that those with wealth, whether nations or individuals, have it as a gift from God and it's not to be used selfishly.

On this, as on so many things, Ike was right and wise.

[Also see here.]

Praying for the Victims of Terror...

in India.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Is There Any Chance That Obama Won't Be TIME's 'Person of the Year'?

There must be some years when being part of the editorial crowd charged with selecting the "person of the year" at TIME magazine live in happy confusion: a lack of clarity created by a swirl of candidates for being named the person (or planet, or group of people, or machine) which "for better or for worse...has done the most to influence the events of the year."

In some years, TIME's editors have used the choice to highlight trends that weren't led or catalyzed by a single individual. That was true in 1950, when undoubtedly unimpressed with the commander-in-chief, TIME's "man" of the year was The American Fighting Man. Also selected through the years have been: Hungarian Freedom Fighter (1956), US Scientists (1960), The Generation Twenty-Five and Under (1966), The Middle Americans, to whom then-President Richard Nixon pitched his "Silent Majority" appeals (1969), American Women (1975), The Computer (1982), The Endangered Earth (1988), The Whistleblowers (2002), The American Soldier (2003), and The Good Samaritans (2005).

Interestingly, only named people received the honor from 1927, its inaugural year, to 1955. The fact that groups of people, a planet, and a machine have been named so frequently in the past fifty-one years is probably, in part, the journalistic reflection of a recent trend in the teaching, writing, and presentation of History: a move away from the once-prevalent "great man" (or great person) theory that held that all history is really told in the biographies of great leaders toward a greater interest in the lives of ordinary people throughout history. Yet, it's undeniable that some people both lead and reflect their times and really do come close to approximating that person who, for better or worse, has most influenced events in a given year.

It's that "or worse" part that has often brought TIME criticism. Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin (twice), Nikita Krushchev, Deng Xiaoping (also twice), Ayatollah Khomeini, and Yuri Andropov, each despots, have received the recognition. But TIME has never claimed that all of their selectees were good people, just significant people.

Winning presidential candidates have often been selected by TIME. That makes sense and never more so than this year. President-elect Barack Obama seemed to capture imaginations with his call for "change" and his status as the country's first African-American president signifies that the sin of racial prejudice is being, at long last and still slowly, exorcised from our country.

So, is there any chance that Barack Obama won't be TIME's Person of the Year?

Only if TIME is anxious to prove that the media isn't "in the tank" with Obama, an allegation which even ardent Obama supporters among my acquaintance believes is true.

Still, who else has as clear a claim to the recognition than Obama?

Had she been part of a winning ticket, Sarah Palin would have been hailed as the savior of neoconservatism. But she and John McCain lost. She wasn't a big influence on events.

Ben Bernanke and Henry Paulson played huge roles in securing the $700-billion bailout package from Congress, but its effects are as yet unknown. Who knows what influence their leadership in the face of the financial crisis will provide?

What about the big mortgage lenders, some of whom went down the tubes in 2008? Well, an argument can be made that they have had the biggest influence (for the worst) on events this past year. (Along with a federal government that, for years, refused to regulate subprime loans or the bundling of same for share-sales on Wall Street.)

You could also make a case for last year's winner, Vladimir Putin. He got his handpicked successor elected as president of Russia and installed himself as prime minister. He's still leading his country in fact, if not in title, pushed a war in Georgia, and has signaled his desire to cause continued mischief in the coming year.

But, unless they're feeling curmudgeonly, TIME's editors will pick Obama as Person of the Year.

Come January 20, Obama may not think too highly of the honor, though. He's apt to feel like the man in one of Lincoln's stories. "You have heard the story, haven't you," Lincoln asked, "about the man who was tarred and feathered and carried out of town on a rail? A man in the crowd asked him how he liked it. His reply was that if it was not for the honor of the thing, he would much rather walk."

(See here and here.)

To Help You Prepare for Worship This Sunday (November 30, 2008)

This Sunday, we begin a new Church Year, the first week in that season called Advent. (For more on Advent, see here.)

This Sunday's Gospel lesson is Mark 13:24-37.

Mark is the shortest of the four New Testament books called gospels. The word gospel descends from an Old English compound word, God's or good (the word good comes from the word God) news or message. This directly translates the word in the original Greek of the New Testament, euangelion, the good news that all with faith in Jesus Christ have eternal life (John 3:16). In the strictest sense, Jesus is our good news. Christian faith is about a person, more specifically a relationship with a person, God in the flesh, Jesus of Nazareth.

As a genre of Biblical literature, the four New Testament books called gospels tell the story of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. But they're not really biographies. Their interest is limited to Jesus as the bringer of the good news. They tell us that He lived and ministered, did signs verifying Himself to be humanity's Savior and God-enfleshed, refrained from sin, voluntarily took death on a cross as the perfect sacrifice for our sin, and rose from the dead. Only two of the gospel books--Matthew and Luke--tell of Jesus' birth. Only one--Luke--mentions His boyhood.

Each of the four Gospels have their own characteristics and emphases.

Matthew is often seen as a Christian version of the ancient scribes. Some even see his book as being divisible into five "books," echoing the first five books of the Old Testament, referred to as the Pentateuch.

Luke uses more sophisticated Greek, sometimes even creating his own compound words in the language. Luke can best be described as an historian, quick to show the specific places in history when Jesus acted. His book includes the greatest number of parables, including the Good Samaritan and the most exquisite portrayal of God's grace, the Prodigal Son. In both his gospel and in the other New Testament book he wrote, Acts, Luke shows the link between prayer and events on earth.

John is the artist and the philosopher, an evangelist--a good newser--who most clearly originally addressed a mixed Hebrew and Gentile audience. He was steeped not only in Hebrew Biblical faith, but also Greek philosophy. John most clearly emphasizes the God-ness of Jesus. He is an exquisite writer and in any given section of John's Gospel, there are between three and ten themes running at the same time.

If Matthew is the scribe, Luke is the historian, and John is the artist, I would say that Mark is the reporter. He tells the story of Jesus with the same sort of breathlessness you can hear from CNN's Wolf Blitzer. (I often wonder when Blitzer is going to come up for air.) Emblematic of Mark's rapid-fire style is his frequent use of the word immediately (eggus or engus in Greek). The point of this word is twofold: It demonstrates the action of God in Jesus Christ and the immediacy of God's presence through the Savior.

Scholars often describe the four Gospels as "extended passion narratives," passion being the word for Jesus' sacrifice of Himself on the cross. (The word passion, also from the Greek, originally referred to a person loving another so desperately that they're willing to die for them.) "Extended passion narrative" is especially descriptive of the Gospel of Mark, which tells the story of Jesus so quickly.

For a good discussion of this Sunday's Gospel lesson, check out this overview by Pastor Ed Markquart.

What is the Church Year? (A Re-Run...also with modifications)

[Three years ago, as we were beginning a new season of Advent, I presented this explanation of the Church Year. It remains one of the most popular posts I've written for this blog. As we prepare, this Sunday, November 30, to begin another Advent season, I thought people might find it helpful.]

The Church Year is a human invention. Observing it won't make us better than anybody else. Nor does keeping it "save" a person from sin and death.

But the Church Year is one of those customs or traditions designed to help people know the God we meet in Jesus and also help believers to grow in their faith.

The Church Year is built around three great festivals: Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost.

Christmas, of course, is the celebration of Jesus' birth.

Easter is the day remembering Jesus' resurrection from the dead.

Pentecost remembers the occasion fifty days after Jesus' resurrection and ten days after His ascension into heaven when the Holy Spirit came to Jesus' praying disciples and gave birth to the Church.

Historically, Easter was the first holy day that Christians began to celebrate. This only makes sense, as it's Jesus' resurrection that gives Christians hope for this life and the one to come. While early Christians did seem to remember Easter on a Sunday falling at the beginning of the Jewish Passover, the practice of the first Christians, all of whom were Jews like Jesus, was to worship on the traditional Jewish Sabbath--from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday--and to celebrate every Sunday as a little Easter. (Some echo of this can be found in the Gospel of John's occasional references to an "eighth day," a new beginning in a new week.)

Over time, a Church Year developed which allowed for the retelling of Jesus' life, death, resurrection, and ascension, followed by Pentecost. The Church Year, in order, moves through these seasons:
  • Advent
  • Christmas
  • Epiphany
  • Lent
  • Easter
  • Pentecost
Advent, with which the color blue is most often associated today, is celebrated on the four Sundays preceding Christmas, which always occurs on the fixed date of December 25. The word advent, means coming or presence. The theme of Advent is waiting. This season remembers more than the centuries when the world anticipated or waited for the coming of the Savior, Jesus, on the first Christmas. It also calls us to patiently await both God's activity in our own lives and the return of Jesus at the end of earthly time. Advent's blue, the color of the sky, reminds us of the endless hope all believers in Jesus Christ have.

Christmas begins on December 25 and ends on January 6, with Epiphany Day. (That's why people sing, The Twelve Days of Christmas.) We don't know the exact date of Jesus' birth. Our current date was long ago selected to be a Christian alternative to a pagan Roman festival, Saturnalia. Christmas has a short season of two Sundays associated with it, running right up to the season of Epiphany. The color of the Christmas season and of Easter, because they are both festivals of Jesus, the sinless Savior, is white.

The word epiphany comes from a Greek compound word meaning to shine upon. The Epiphany Season begins with January 6, the day we commemorate the arrival of wise men from foreign lands who followed a star to the baby Jesus to a house in Bethlehem. It was there that Mary and Joseph lived with their Child for several years after the Savior's birth. January 6, in fact, is called Epiphany Day. (Because the wise men brought gifts, Epiphany was historically the day on which Christians gave one another presents.) The Epiphany Season is composed of between four and nine Sundays after January 6. The season is bracketed by a first Sunday, that always remembers Jesus' Baptism, and a Sunday at the end that remembers Jesus' Transfiguration. At the Transfiguration, top of a mountain, accompanied by three of His disciples, Jesus' image transfigured in the luminescence of heaven and God spoke, confirming Jesus' identity and mission. On the two bracketing Sundays of the Epiphany Season, the color is white. During the season in between, the color is green.

During the Epiphany season, Christians look at the early signs that pointed to Jesus being more than just a human being, but also God in the flesh, the Light of the world. The emphasis of the Epiphany season is usually on sharing the good news of Christ with others, shining the light of Christ on those around us.

After Epiphany comes Lent, a word which in the Old English, meant spring. Lent is a time for spiritual renewal and precedes the holiest days of the Church Year, including Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. Lent is referred to as a season of forty days, which it is if you know how to count the days. Because Sundays are always "little Easters," the Sundays in Lent (not of Lent), are not counted as part of those forty days.

The color associated with Lent is purple, the color of royalty because in ancient times, purple dyes were so rare and expensive that only royalty could afford cloth of that color. Historically, the season of Lent was a time of preparation for adult converts to the faith to prepare for their initiation into Christianity at Easter.

There are several key days on the Lenten calendar. The season begins with Ash Wednesday. This is a day of repentance, that is, of turning away from sin and turning to Christ for forgiveness. Of course, as Martin Luther phrased it, "daily repentance and renewal" are meant to be an ongoing element of the Christian's life as we routinely strive to orient ourselves to God and His will for us. But Ash Wednesday is a time when all are especially reminded of it.

Near the end of the season comes Passion Sunday (also known as Palm Sunday). On this day, we're called to remember both Jesus' seemingly triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the Sunday before His execution and Christ's passion, as well as its foreshadowing of Easter. Passion, a word that is really misused today, really means to be so committed to the well-being of another that we're willing to die for them. Christ had that kind of commitment to us and so, went to a cross. Passion Sunday begins that portion of Lent called Holy Week.

The next major day on the Holy Week calendar is Maundy Thursday. Maundy is rooted in the Latin word mandatum, from which we get our word mandate, related to the word commandment. That's because on the Thursday night before He was to be executed, during the Passover celebration at which He instituted Holy Communion, Jesus also gave His disciples "a new commandment": that they love one another. Many churches have foot-washing rites during their special gatherings on this day. Jesus washed the feet of His disciples before they ate together on that first Maundy Thursday and also commanded all of His followers to be servants like Him.

Good Friday, which comes on the next night, is a solemn remembrance of Jesus' death on the cross. For me, this is one of the most moving worship services of the year. At our congregation, as is true of many churches, we have a service called Tenebrae. This word comes from the Latin and means darkness. The service remembers the darkness that engulfed the world at Jesus' execution as well as our need of Him as the light in our darkness. The service ends in silence as all contemplate Jesus' sacrifice of Himself for us.

Easter Sunday brings the celebration of Jesus' resurrection in a special way and continues throughout the Easter season. This is usually the high point of the year, even in churches that don't use the Church Year. The Easter Season lasts about seven weeks. The Gospel lessons incorporate accounts of the resurrected Jesus' appearances. Tucked in the midst of the season, on a Thursday, is Ascension Day. This comes forty days after Easter. More on that below.

Pentecost Day, as I mentioned, is the celebration of the Church's birthday, when the Holy Spirit, Who hovered over the waters of primordial chaos to bring life into being back in the Old Testament book of Genesis, once again creates. This time, He creates new life by bringing Christ's Church, His body in the world, into being. The color of this day is red.

There follows after that a season that lasts from twenty-three to twenty-eight weeks. It's referred to simply as the Pentecost Season. The color is green because the emphasis here is on growing in our faith, learning to be Jesus' disciples or followers at ever-deepening levels of maturity.

The very first Sunday after Pentecost is Holy Trinity Sunday. This focuses on the great mystery of the God we meet in the Bible: One God in three Persons made up of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The whole Church Year comes to a close, on the Sunday closest to November 30, with Christ the King Sunday.

Associated with each of the Sundays and many of the festivals of the Church Year are three cycles of appointed Biblical lessons. These cycles, referred to as Years A, B, and C, are called lectionaries. There are several sets of lectionaries, the the most well-known being those associated with the Roman Catholics, another with Lutherans, and another with a consortium of several Protestant denominations. The lectionaries are fairly similar, but do diverge occasionally.

Each Sunday and special festival day of the Church Year has appointed lessons from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the New Testament (either Acts, Revelation, or the letters), and a Gospel lesson. Generally speaking, the Old Testament, Psalm, and Gospel readings are thematically linked. The New Testament lessons are designed to make it possible over a three year period, to have almost all the letters, Revelation, and Acts read in public worship.

The three different cycles are built on the three synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. (Synoptic is a word that means to see together. These three Gospels are quite similar to one another--they see things similarly, while the Gospel of John has the most unique material.) Because Mark, with only sixteen chapters, is so short, the appointed Gospel lessons during its year are often taken from John.

I feel free to spring loose from what one of our former Lutheran bishops, David Preus, called "the tyranny of the lectionary," looking at Biblical texts not appointed in the lectionary, in order to address issues that seem to be important in our community or world. But the lectionary does provide a well-rounded diet of Biblical material which, when looked at in a disciplined and devoted way, can help Christians develop a deeper faith.

[The image above, showing the cycle of the Church Year, comes from Augsburg Fortress, the publishing house of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.]

What is Advent? (A Re-Run...with Modifications)

Back in 2004, my friend and colleague, Pastor Glen VanderKloot presented this overview (which I've edited slightly) to explain what Advent is about. Since this Sunday, November 30, brings us to the First Sunday in Advent, I thought that I'd present his devotional piece once again:
Advent is the four weeks before Christmas when we prepare for Jesus. Some people have an Advent calendar with small doors they open each day until Christmas Eve. Sometimes there are pictures and Bible verses behind the doors, sometimes a treat. The Advent wreath is another way we celebrate the season. Each Sunday during Advent we light another candle on the Advent wreath. But why do we do these things?

Advent always begins on the Sunday nearest November 30, and includes four Sundays.

The word Advent means "the coming.” Since the fourth century, when Advent was a time for adult inquirers to prepare for baptism, to the Middle Ages when Advent became a time to prepare for the second coming of Jesus, Advent has been and still is a time of spiritual reflection and anticipation.

Today, Christians still view Advent as a season to prepare for the second coming of Jesus. Surprisingly, it is only since the 1900's that Advent has come to be a time of anticipating the Nativity on Christmas Day.

The Advent wreath is just one symbol of the season. While no one is exactly sure how it began, it is thought that the form of the Advent wreath began with pre-Christian people who lit candles as a sign of hope in the long dark winters. In the Middle Ages, the Christians adapted this tradition and used Advent wreaths as part of their spiritual preparation for Christmas. St. John tells us that Jesus is the light that has come into the world. By the 1600's, both the Lutherans and Roman Catholics had formal practices surrounding the Advent wreath.

The Advent wreath is a circle that represents the never-ending love of God. It can be decorated in many ways. Often the branches of evergreens are used, which reminds us that with Jesus we will have eternal life. The four candles represent the four weeks of Advent. Some churches use three purple and one pink candle, while others use all blue. There can also be a white candle in the center that is lit on Christmas Eve for Jesus.

No matter how a wreath is decorated or the color of the candles, we light it each Sunday to remind us to prepare the way, because Jesus is coming.

The light has come into the world,
and people who do evil things are judged guilty
because they love the dark more than the light.
People who do evil hate the light and won't come to the light,
because it clearly shows what they have done.
But everyone who lives by the truth will come to the light,
because they want others to know that God is really
the one doing what they do.
John 3:19-21 Contemporary English Version


Dear God, thank you for sending your Son, Jesus,
and for things like Advent wreaths that help remind us
what Christmas is all about. Amen

Without comment...

Psalm 73:

1Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart.

2But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled; my steps had nearly slipped.

3For I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

4For they have no pain; their bodies are sound and sleek.

5They are not in trouble as others are; they are not plagued like other people.

6Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them like a garment.

7Their eyes swell out with fatness; their hearts overflow with follies.

8They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression.

9They set their mouths against heaven, and their tongues range over the earth.

10Therefore the people turn and praise them, and find no fault in them.

11And they say, “How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?”

12Such are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches.

13All in vain I have kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence.

14For all day long I have been plagued, and am punished every morning.

15If I had said, “I will talk on in this way,” I would have been untrue to the circle of your children.

16But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task,

17until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I perceived their end.

18Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin.

19How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors!

20They are like a dream when one awakes; on awaking you despise their phantoms.

21When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart,

22I was stupid and ignorant; I was like a brute beast toward you.

23Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.

24You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me with honor.

25Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you.

26My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

27Indeed, those who are far from you will perish; you put an end to those who are false to you.

28But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, to tell of all your works.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Scowcroft, Obama, and Foreign Policy Realism

Brent Scowcroft, National Security advisor to George H.W. Bush, has always been an advocate of foreign policy realism as opposed to the younger Bush's impositionalism. Now, we learn, Scowcroft has not only mentored several of President-elect Obama's counselors, but has also been counseling the incoming president directly. See here.

For background, see my essay from three years ago, Foreign Policy Over Burritos and Tacos.

"Big Ten Bowl Predictions"

Dotting the I projects which Big Ten teams will be in what bowl games and how they'll fare here. Sound reasoning, but I'm not sure that Wisconsin can beat Ball State, a very talented MAC team.

"All Monotheisms Are Not Alike"

Stan Guthrie provides a helpful comparison of Christianity and Islam here.

For more on the Apostles' Creed, see here. (This is Martin Luther's explanations of the Creed from The Small Catechism.)

The Citigroup Bailout and the Opportunites to Change America for the Better

[UPDATE: Please note that I neither endorse nor condemn the Citi bailout here, only comment on the opportunities presented by the financial crisis we now face.]

My grandfather, a small business entrepreneur, used to say, "Borrow a thousand dollars from the bank and the bank owns you; borrow a hundred thousand from the bank and you own the bank."

The times were simpler then. But if you add a few zeroes, as represented in the sometimes shaky yet astronomical loans made by major US lending houses over the past decade-and-a-half, you get some sense of why after lengthy, tense negotiations, the US Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve, and the FDIC agreed to bailout troubled banking giant Citigroup late on Sunday. In a phrase that seems to be gaining currency, whether applied to Citigroup or by some, to Detroit's Big Three automakers, this company was too large to be allowed to die.

CNN explains how the bailout is to work:

The plan has two key features:

First, the U.S. Treasury and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) will backstop some losses against more than $300 billion in troubled assets.

Second, the Treasury will make a fresh $20 billion investment in the bank. The government has already injected $25 billion into Citigroup as part of the $700 billion bailout passed by Congress in October.

In return for the latest intervention, the government will receive an additional batch of preferred shares - $20 billion for its direct investment and $7 billion as compensation for the loan guarantees. Citigroup will pay an 8% dividend rate on those shares.

The government will impose other restrictions as well. Citigroup will be prohibited from paying out a dividend of more than a penny per share and will face limits on executive compensation. Plus, it will be expected to adjust mortgages for troubled borrowers, according to procedures outlined by the FDIC.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Saint Matthew, Some Shoeboxes, and a King

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]

Matthew 25:31-46
Last Sunday morning was exciting!

After worship, for the first time in Saint Matthew’s history, we participated in Operation Christmas Child. Along with thousands of other Christians in North America, western Europe, and Australia, we prepared to send our shoeboxes filled with gifts for children in Third World countries. Together, we wrapped our gifts. On Monday, some of our youth took the gifts to our local distribution point, the Antioch Alliance Church facilities. Later that day, I learned that Saint Matthew folks had contributed seventy-two shoeboxes. I was so excited that I wanted to shout!

Of course, my excitement was due in part to the fact that impoverished children you and I will never see or know—whether in Africa, Asia, Latin America, or the Pacific Islands—will receive gifts on Christmas morning, along with the Good News that the God of all creation was born into our world to die and rise and give new and everlasting life to all who repent of sin and believe in Him.

That prospect so excited one of our Saint Matthew shut-ins that she filled two shoeboxes with gifts last week! But my excitement about the shoeboxes has another reason. Let me explain.

If you were to ask the average Lutheran Christian how they were sure that they will spend eternity with God, most would give the right answer. They’d say the same thing that all the recipients of our Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes will be told on Christmas day: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Forgiveness, peace with God and ourselves, and eternity are all gifts from God.

And this fact is exactly why the story Jesus tells in today’s Gospel lesson disturbed me for a long time. As is true of all of Jesus’ parables, this one is rooted in everyday life in first-century Judea. Every night, shepherds would separate sheep from goats. The two will graze together peacefully. But when night comes, the goats have to be boarded. They can’t take the cold the way sheep can. Jesus uses this nightly occurrence to talk about the day when, in effect, night will come upon the world, when life on this planet will come to an end, and Jesus, King of the universe will judge the nations.

As Jesus tells it, when He returns, He’ll separate sheep from goats. He’ll tell the people He refers to as sheep to join Him in His kingdom. Why? Because they had seen and served Him whenever they fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, welcomed a stranger, clothed the needy, cared for the sick, or visited the imprisoned. “As you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Then Jesus will turn to the goats and tell them to be separated from His kingdom forever. Why? Because they hadn’t seen Jesus in or cared about the hungry or the thirsty, the stranger or the needy, the sick or the imprisoned. “As you did not do for the least of these my family, you turned your back on me.”

Here’s what bothered me. The goats seemed to be condemned for failing to love or serve their neighbor. The sheep seemed to be saved for loving and serving others. It confused me because Jesus appeared to be saying that the sheep in His parable were saved by their works.

But then, I noticed something: Both sheep and goats are surprised.

The goats ask, “What do you mean, Lord? When did we see you in need of help and not lend a hand?”

And the sheep ask, “What do you mean, Lord? We don’t remember doing all those things.”

You get the feeling that had the people Jesus describes as “goats” known that Jesus put such a premium on loving one’s neighbor, they would have spent a lot of time trying to rack up brownie points or bragging rights for eternity.

You get a completely different feeling about the ones Jesus describes as sheep. They didn’t help those in need for ulterior motives. Service to others had been such a part of their lives that they couldn’t even remember doing any of it. They were the people saved by God’s grace through their belief in Jesus Christ.

And something happens in the lives of those who believe in Christ. Christ becomes our king. We begin to think with the mind of Christ, love with the heart of Christ. Not perfectly. We’re still human. We still sin. We, as Paul puts it, "see through a glass darkly." But as we live in daily repentance and renewal, Jesus takes up residence in our hearts and the love of Christ shows up in the way we live, the decisions we make, the manner in which we treat others.

And this is why I got so excited by seventy-two shoeboxes filled with gifts last Sunday. It demonstrated to me once again that here among the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church, Jesus is Christ, our King! Jesus lives here among us.

My excitement built on Tuesday night, at our most recent Getting to Know You Dinner when I asked, as I always do, what the people gathered there might see God calling us to do and be as a congregation. Only prayer, discernment, and hard work will tell which of the ideas we discussed will come to fruition. But the list of ideas I jotted down included: an outreach to military families, a freshman dance or after-prom, an overseas medical mission, an abused women’s shelter, elder day care. There were so many good ideas. But they all fell under a single emphatic heading which I finally wrote at the end of my list in capital letters, with an exclamation point: OUTREACH!

This is the hallmark of a congregation where Christ is King. Whenever Jesus lives in Christians, they, like the sheep in Jesus’ parable, can’t help but reach out with God’s amazing love. They care for their neighbor not to earn salvation; they care for their neighbor because they’ve already been filled with Christ and the gift of salvation. When you’ve been given eternity, you tell God, “Thank you,” by giving away His love in whatever ways you can. And, I’m here this morning to beg you all to remember one very important thing: Never underestimate what God can do through those who follow Christ the King!

Never underestimate what Christ the King can do through you or what He can do here at Saint Matthew! Once Jesus gets hold of an ordinary man or woman, an ordinary boy or girl, amazing things can happen.

They call him Shoe Bob. I read his story this past week. Bob is a slight, bespectacled man, with a brush cut, whose wife left him not long ago. He owns a shoe repair place in the wealthy suburb of Wayzata, Minnesota. Bob is an ordinary, imperfect human being:
“In 1995 Bob was invited to go winter camping, something a man with a childhood fear of freezing to death had never considered. He kept his fear a secret from even his closest friends, hoping to one day overcome it with God and Minnesota. ‘I purchased a pup tent, pitched it in the backyard, and bundled up in the warmest clothes I had,’ Bob recalls. ‘My plan was to sleep in the tent for one night without retreating to my house.’ Bob tried, but sleep eluded him. And each breath he took felt like sucking polar air. He was cold. So he prayed…remembering words from Philippians that had become his [personal] life verse…'I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death' (Phil. 3:10). Bob prayed that he could last the whole night outside so he could tell his friends he gave it his best. But while he was tossing and turning trying to stay warm [God seemed to respond to his prayer]: 'This is a good idea, sleeping out here,' [God] seemed to tell Bob. 'Why don't you move the tent to the front yard and sleep outside to help the needy in Wayzata?'"

Bob thought that idea was crazy. Wayzata was an affluent place. There were no homeless there. Or so he thought. But research showed that there were even homeless people there. So, “in November 1996, Bob committed to sleeping in his tent on his front lawn…until he could raise $7,000 to buy Thanksgiving dinners for 100 families. In 14 days, Bob was back in his own bed—he had raised $10,000.”

Bob has continued to do this each November. "Over the past nine years, Shoe Bob has raised more than $5,500,000 for the [Christian homeless ministry in his community]…A 58-year-old shoe repairman with wire-rim glasses and an old-fashioned brush cut who listened to God alone in his tent in the snow.”

You and I are ordinary human beings. But this morning, I’m certain that God is calling you and me to reach out to others with God’s love. Together, we can be Christ’s hands and feet in Logan and around the world.

Today is both Christ the King Sunday and Consecration Sunday at Saint Matthew. To be consecrated is to be dedicated. This morning, as we end our time of worship in silence and prayer, I ask you to consider what it might mean for all of us at Saint Matthew to totally consecrate ourselves, to completely devote ourselves, to Jesus Christ our King in the coming year?

I’ve got to tell you folks, that those seventy-two shoe boxes, your contributions to the CHAP emergency food bank, the many other ways you serve others, and your passion for outreach all point to one important truth: With Christ as our King, amazing things are bound to happen at Saint Matthew in 2009.

And that too, excites me!

The Brain Worm and 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding'

Ann Althouse headlined a link to a news story this way: "Surgeons thought Rosemary Alvarez had a brain tumour, but on operating they found the worm."

Somehow, that made me think of this scene from 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding':

Come to think of it, the Althouse headline, taken from the body of a BBC report, also looks like the lead-in for a Monty Python sketch.