New Year’s Eve 2022

I wanted to take a quick moment to invite you to the New Year’s Eve Divine Service occurring here at Our Savior in Hartland at 4:30 pm. Although a strange time of day for a worship service, its selection is purposeful, allowing a brief intermission in your day before venturing out to whatever New Year’s Eve plans you may have. Although, whatever those plans might be, don’t forget about the New Year’s Day Divine Service tomorrow (Sunday) at 9:30 am.

Gathering in the Lord’s house on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day is good. Actually, the Church doesn’t necessarily refer to the gatherings using the titles of New Year’s Eve or Day. January 1 has long been celebrated as the “Feast of the Circumcision of Christ” because, according to the Law, a newborn male was required to be circumcised on the eighth day. For Jesus, according to our current Gregorian calendar, that would be January 1. Naturally, the night before was referred to as the “Eve of the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ.” A little further into history, the titles changed a bit. On many church calendars, the dates are referred to as the “Circumcision and Name of Jesus.” This is due to what’s written about the event in Luke 2:21, which reads: “And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”

No matter what you call the event, again, it’s good to be in the Lord’s house on New Year’s Eve. Tonight, we understand ourselves as pitched against a brand new year. Christians are inclined to go into it having first visited with Christ.

But why?

Because anything could happen. All things considered, we already know we couldn’t have made it through the previous year without Him, and we know far too well that we won’t survive the coming year apart from Him. He must be our point of origin and destination in all things all year long, all at the same time.

The Lord’s circumcision is a hint to this. His name is, too.

Christ, the perfect Son of God, could never be found accused by God’s Holy Law. And yet, as we are beneath it, He shows His willing submission to it—to bear its heavy burden perfectly—when He sheds His first few drops of blood through circumcision. Moreover, the announcement of His name—a name that literally means “the Lord saves”—testifies to who He is and what His trajectory will be relative to the Law. Indeed, He will keep it perfectly. Moreover, He will die as the perfect sacrifice measured against it. He’ll do this for us, not for Himself. He will be our substitute. And when He accomplishes it, He will give the merits of the victory to us.

Evelyn and I listen to music every day to and from school. One of the bands we’ve been singing along with lately has a particular lyric that reminds me a little bit of what New Year’s Eve holds in its back pocket. It’s a short lyric, but it’s memorable: “We walk the plank on a sinking ship.”

This is true.

The world is sinking. If you feel differently, then you’re not paying attention. Moreover, the crew—the Devil, the world, and the sinful flesh—has a sword in the back of humanity, pressing it to the edge of the ship’s plank.

In a sense, when we celebrate the “Circumcision and Name of Jesus,” Christians realize two things. Firstly, we’re reminded that Christ shed His blood so that the plank’s end would not be the final word for any of us. Regardless of how the crew might accuse us, we are innocent. Christ saw to that. We can go into every new year, walking any of life’s planks along the way, with this promise in our pocket.

Secondly, we’re reminded of just what it means to do these things relative to the Lord’s name. For anyone attuned to the biblical promises associated with God’s name, it’s likely baptism will be one of the first things that comes to mind. It certainly did for Saint Peter. In Acts 2:38, Peter announces the essentiality of being baptized into the name of Jesus, which is to be baptized according to the mandate Jesus prescribed in Matthew 28:19—that is “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Among the many glorious benefits, part of the point here is that God puts His name on you in the waters of Holy Baptism, and God has long promised that He will dwell where He puts His name.

Walking the plank on a sinking ship isn’t so bad when I know these things. For one, the plunge at the end of the plank becomes an opportunity to remember no matter the waters I’m entering, I’ve already been through the best waters there are. I’m bearing God’s name now. He loves me. He gave me everything that belongs to Christ. He said as much. He said that all who’ve been baptized into Christ have been baptized into His death and resurrection (Romans 6:3-4). And if this is true, then, what comes at the end of any plank is of no concern. God said this, too. Death holds no mastery over me because it holds no mastery over Christ, the one who has clothed me with His righteousness (Galatians 3:27).

Remembering and celebrating these things is an excellent way to begin a new year. I encourage you to begin yours this way. Join other Christians who gather to receive this Gospel. The oncoming year promises a regular need for it. Christ promises to be there to give it.

I suppose I should conclude that if this message finds its way to a Christian whose church does not offer New Year’s Eve or Day services, then may I humbly urge you to go and find one that does? If anything, my guess is you’ll sense a level of spiritual awareness communicated by those services, a sense that proves their relevance for this troubled world. That alone makes it well worth your while.

Christmas Eve, 2022

The night of all nights is upon us. Christmas Eve has come.

Like other nights in December, its chill is biting and unfriendly, and its darkness is strict and deep. From your home to your evening destinations (one of which, God willing, will be worship) and then back again, the time spent between each will provide plentiful reminders of Sin’s perpetual cruelty.

The barren trees will cast Death’s shadow. The frosted windowpanes will dully reflect humanity’s spiritual blindness. The shelterless, snow-swept fields will howl our most profound loneliness and echo our utter impotence.

Another creature—humanity’s need for rescue—will wander between December 24th’s wintry shades, just as it does on all other nights.

Still, no matter how indistinguishable its climes may be compared to all other evenings in midwinter, Christmas Eve stands apart for the believer. Tonight remembers that God reached into this world. Tonight acknowledges Death’s curse but introduces the One who has come to face off with and destroy it. Tonight concedes humanity’s lostness while gazing upon the One who arrived to seek and find it. Tonight admits to humanity’s powerlessness while singing of and to the only One with the strength to rescue all.

On Christmas Eve, immersed in the bright beaming light of its Gospel—a Good News proclaiming the birth of God’s son, Jesus Christ—no matter how lonely we are, we realize we’re never alone. No matter how far we’ve gone, we learn we’re never out of reach. No matter how uncertain about life in this world we may feel, we discover access to the sphere-breaking confidence of heaven itself (Hebrews 10:22).

How is this possible?

Remember the words of the well-beloved Christmas hymn: “Nails, spear shall pierce Him through, the cross be born for me, for you….”

Christ has come. The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us (John 1:14). This Word went out, not returning to His throne empty-handed. Instead, He has accomplished the task for which He was sent (Isaiah 55:11). He died. It is finished (John 19:30). He rose. You are justified (Romans 4:25). All is well (Luke 17:19).

No matter your status, again, the hymn sings, “Come peasant, king, to own Him.” Put your faith in Him. Only He is worthy (Philippians 2:9-10).

This is the message of Christmas Eve. As Christians—as people born from its glistening goodness—tonight will forever be a night like no other. And so, here at Our Savior in Hartland, we’ll plunge ourselves into it, both at 4:30 pm and 10:30 pm.

Like us, God grant that you might rest easily in it, too. Indeed, it is Good News.

Mid-term Elections, 2022

I would imagine some of you are expecting me to weigh in on the recent election. I suppose one thing I learned this past Tuesday was best described in a parallel way by Thomas Henry Huxley. He labeled science’s greatest tragedy as “the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.” I went to bed on Tuesday evening bearing a hypothesis—a hopeful estimation—that Michigan wasn’t capable of enshrining murder in its Constitution, that the majority of people in this state would know better than to hallow death in this way. I also expected that one plus one would continue to equal two; that people would be more inclined to embrace candidates intent on upholding natural law while refusing candidates proffering wokist foolishness, backward science, and “for-me-but-not-for-thee” principles of governance.

Ugly facts slew those hypotheses. The passing of Proposal 3 is proof. The re-election of Gretchen Whitmer and her demonic associates is, too. For the first time in forty years, the worst of the worst—the ones who openly despise all things Godly—own the governor’s chair and both chambers.

So, what now? Well, something else comes to mind.

For starters, it must be realized that God ordains civil government as an extension of His purposeful authority to humanity through humanity. According to His design, the offices established are not ones of self-serving privilege, nor are they to be abused through tyranny. They are established for the well-being of the citizenry—to maintain order and protect the ones they serve. The ordination is not limited to Christians. Unbelievers can occupy the seats, too. However, the leader must remain within God’s framework to keep the ordination. When he or she doesn’t, the relationship between the government and the governed changes. Saint Paul shows his understanding of this in 1 Timothy 2:2, explaining that we pray to God and intercede with all in authority so that we can live peaceful, reverent, and godly lives. God does not want these things to be disjointed. Verses 3 and 4 provide the reason for this desired harmony: “This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” In other words, a government within the boundaries of its ordination provides the best context for the Gospel’s perpetuation in the world. When the Gospel is free to go forth, the salvation of souls is the result.

This is religious liberty.

The word “religious” seems far from Michigan right now—unless, by the term, we mean self-devotion. Religion requires the determination of good and evil, right and wrong. This discernment is necessary for measuring government. I’m willing to concede that most in Michigan appear disinterested in doing this, let alone capable. Instead, they regard government as a power to be harnessed for personal gain. As long as they get what they want, the government is good. When they don’t, the government is bad.

So again, now what?

Well, technically, as ones owning the corner market on good and evil, Christians face a grave theological question here in Michigan. By writing into the Michigan Constitution a person’s right to murder another person, the document has, in a sense, become invalidated. The Magdeburg Confession, a remarkable document published in 1550 and born from clear-thinking Lutherans, offers something worth considering:

And so, by the force of this precept [Matthew 22:22], the things which are God’s are not to be rendered unto Caesar, just as the Apostles hand down this rule and precept, “We must obey God rather than men.” And by refusing obedience to superiors in those things which are contrary to God, they do not violate the majesty of their superiors, nor can they be judged obstinate or rebellious, as Daniel says, “I have committed no crime against you, O king.” For two reasons free them from this charge: First, because those who wield the magistracy do not demand this obedience as magistrates by the ordinance of God, but as men, that is, having no superiority from the Word of God. The Apostles appear to have wanted to judge this case by their own dictum. Then, even if they remained true magistrates, even still, as in human ranks, the law of the superior power trumps the law of the inferior, so divine laws necessarily trump human ones. Secondly, as Christ does not want the things of God to be ascribed to Caesar, so He does not want to see any things ascribed to him [Caesar] that are others’ and not his, whether according to divine laws or even the laws of his own empire. If, contrary to these laws, Caesar should demand my life or some other man’s life, or the chastity of a wife or daughter, or property etc., I ought not to allow them to him. (The Second Argument, 63.)

So, there’s this. I know some will argue this point. They’ll rub their Church-and-State lamp and out will pop the genie named “Obey!” with the text of Romans 13 in hand. That’s fine. When that ill-interpreting apparition emerges, hand him the following rhetorical discussion from the faithful men of God who scribed The Magdeburg Confession:

If God wanted superior magistrates who have become tyrants to be inviolable because of his ordinance [Romans 13] and commandment [The Fourth Commandment], how many impious and absurd things would follow from this? Chiefly it would follow that God, by his own ordinance and command, is strengthening, nay, honoring and abetting evil works, and is hindering, nay, destroying good works; that there are contraries in the nature of God Himself, and in this ordinance by which He has instituted the magistrate; that God is no less against his own ordinance than he is for the human race. All these things are most plain, nor can they be denied by anyone: If God has granted such great impunity to the greatest tyrant by His own ordinance and commandment, who will prevent him from laying waste all of nature, even if he could, and being innocent before God? Who will not provide his substance, his body, and even his life itself to the one who demands them for the occasions, ends, and nourishment of tyranny, because of the commandment of God? Who will do what is right contrary to the will of a tyrant, and be a survivor? Who will be left of all men as the only one doing right? (The Second Argument, 67.)

Again, sometimes a Christian cannot obey. This is not promoting rebellious anarchy. It is being faithful. It is to accept the fact that a document enshrining a person’s right to murder another person has swerved beyond the boundaries of the government’s ordination, leaving the faithful in a terrifying predicament. The Lutheran pastor, Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, understood just how scary it was. Of course, he learned the hard way what it really means to apply oneself wholly to the challenge. A gentle and mindful man, he was hung for his resistance to Hitler. His faith was forced into action, and he discovered a willingness to say, “You’ve gone too far, and I intend to stop you, even if it costs my life.” Are we as courageous as Bonhoeffer? The question begs another hypothesis that will, like the others, be tested and slayed by facts.

On Wednesday morning, I shared these heavy concerns in conversation with Bishop Hardy. Wisely, he asked the probing questions, “Why dissent now? What has changed between the era of Roe V. Wade and the passing of Proposal 3?” As Christians, we need to be prepared to answer. For starters, Roe V. Wade was not law. It was an interpretation of law. Here in Michigan, we have laws on the books relative to abortion’s prohibition. Admittedly, the interpretation tripped up their application, yet it did not nullify them. When Roe V. Wade was overturned, these laws engaged. Laws that defend and protect life are fundamental to the government’s ordination. In that sense, Michigan was already poised to exist in stride with Godliness. On November 8, the Michigan citizenry voted to amend the Michigan Constitution. As a result, the highest legal authority for a representative republic gives license for murder, thereby nullifying the previous laws of prohibition. All statutes established in our state must be in agreement with the Constitution. If they do not, the statutes are abolished. This means that even if one day we were to have a pro-life governor supported by a 100% pro-life legislature, any law they could formulate outlawing abortion would be illegal by default and, ultimately, unenforceable. As of November 8, 2022, the Michigan Constitution establishes unrestricted access to abortion at every stage of pregnancy. Period.

Again, now what?

Well, there’s plenty of discussion to be had. That will come in time. Meanwhile, we do what we’ve always done. We pray. And when we’re done, we get up, dust ourselves off, and get back to work. Hopelessness is not on the menu. Neither is quitting. Faithful endurance is the order of the day. A cause is only ruined when its fighters determine they can’t go on. We can go on. And why? Not because of anything relevant to us. We’re humans. Humans are limited. We can go on because the One we trust—Jesus Christ—goes on. This same Savior has promised His believers an enduring strength that surpasses the might and muscle of the temporal spheres (2 Corinthians 4:7-18). Existing in these realms, with eyes fixed on Christ’s ghastly but all-encompassing victory on the cross, with hearts attuned to the eternal glory Christ promises to those who love Him, the passing terrors of this world and its monsters seem less problematic, less fierce.

And we can go on.

Trusting Christ, I intend to keep at it. It’s going to be more complicated now, but that’s okay. I’m a pastor. I’m more than familiar with complicated. There’s a saying that the success of most things depends upon knowing how long it will take to succeed. Proposal 3 is a significant setback. It’s going to take a while to change what’s happened. Still, I’m playing the long game. I’ve set aside the rest of my life, however long that may be, to do what it takes to move the ball down the field. Will I see us score before the divine Coach decides to put me on the bench? I don’t know. But until He does, I’ll continue to show up for practice, study the fundamentals, learn the plays, research the opposition, and eventually, when it’s game time, come ready to play the game and to play it hard.

Consider this your invitation to the tryouts.

Don’t Change the Channel

2022 has arrived.

I watched a “2021 Year in Review” segment yesterday on Fox News. It was only a few minutes long. Unfortunately, each of the notable events mentioned were tragic in nature. The list included things like the collapsed apartment building in Florida that killed 98 residents, Derek Chauvin’s trial, the hurricane in Louisiana, the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, the deadly tornados that ripped through several states, and so many other heartbreaking occurrences from the previous year. Altogether—the events mentioned, the images shown, the concerned tone—sure made it seem like the ones both in front of and behind the cameras were doing everything in their power to avoid mentioning anything good about 2021. It’s as if they’re rooting for this overly-fearful world to remain firmly in terror’s grip, allowing nothing through the airwaves that might suggest a footing for joy in 2022.

The gent presenting the list, Bill Hemmer, closed out the segment by suggesting the new year is likely to be dominated by more COVID strains.

Interestingly, the very next segment was an equally grimy chain of news stories built from links of gloom, starting with a recap of Joe Biden’s recent “winter of death” comments, his vaccine mandates and the court cases emerging from them, and then, if the viewer was paying attention, a strange juxtaposition of understaffed hospitals and thousands of healthcare workers being fired for refusing to get the vaccine. Right after a handful of commercials about this and that drug for this and that condition warning of this or that possible side effect, the next segment highlighted outgoing New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s admittance that he never thought lockdowns would actually be helpful, even though all along he swore by them as crucial for preserving the lives of New Yorkers. I wonder how the tidal-sized number of people in New York who went out of business because of the lockdowns feel about his comments.

As you can see, a few minutes of TV news served to be little more than an exhausting parade of misery.

In one sense, I think all of this may have been shocking to my system, mainly because I rarely watch TV. I get most of my information by reading. However, since I’ve been ill at home (which, by the way, happens to me every year after Christmas, so Covid or not, this was nothing new), I’ve spent more time than usual with our television, primarily binge-watching 80s flicks with anyone in the house willing to watch them with me. I must confess that “Gremlins,” “Predator,” and other such gems proved to be far better choices than 24-hour news. I should add to this confession that my relatively short interlude with cable news has also served to remind me how the fictional awfulness in movies can’t hold a candle to reality. Not even Hollywood movie scripts conjuring otherworldly xenomorphs with bloodthirsty appetites can outpace the world’s creativity for genuine dreadfulness.

Perhaps a New Year’s resolution for some among us could be to spend less time watching TV and more time doing something enriching—like visiting with classic literature, or writing a poem for a loved one, or perhaps most enriching of all, upping one’s visits with the Word of God, namely attendance at church and Bible study. If you find you’re a lot sadder and more anxious these days, you should consider the recent studies suggesting that regular churchgoers were the only ones to experience improved mental health during the last twenty months.

Go figure. When you spend time with the One who has overcome Death—and He adorns you with the Gospel spoils of His victory—you certainly shouldn’t expect to leave a less enriched or hopeless person.

Still, and as I was intent to preach on Christmas Eve, going to church is not for the faint of heart. It takes guts to attend. Although, this is true not for the reasons terror-mongering TV anchors might suggest. For example, even though the Church is still in the seemingly serene season of Christmas, when pitched against Christmas’ tranquil festivities, a narrative describing troops tramping through the streets of a little town in Judea killing all the boys who are two years old and younger certainly seems to interrupt the mood. But that’s exactly what the historic lectionary’s tradition for the Second Sunday after Christmas will give to countless Christians across the world this morning—an account from Matthew 2:16-18 that won’t let anyone in the pews forget just how awful this world is and what it is willing to do to retain its power.

But don’t let this hard news convince you to change the channel of your attention too soon. Stay tuned this morning, because it won’t end on a low note.

Yes, it will be an honest report. We’ll be shown the world in which we live. But Jesus will be a part of the news story. Bill Hemmer won’t be the one bringing the message. It’ll be the one ordained for preaching: the pastor. He’ll be the one doing what God has called him to do, which is to proclaim Jesus as the Word made flesh—the divine antidote God has mindfully inserted into this world’s terrifying narrative. Jesus will be heralded as the ultimate point of origin for joy and the only pathway forward through and into a hope-filled future.

In a world of terror—a world in which the Gospel writer Matthew reminds us that not even children are safe—Jesus has come. He succeeded in His effort to defeat Sin, Death, and the devil. He’s the only one who could do it. By His death and resurrection, no matter what hopelessness the world might try to force feed into us in every imaginable and unimaginable way, we’ll always have the certainty of God’s final deliverance from all things dreadful promised to those whose faith is found in Jesus Christ (John 16:33).

No matter what the new year has in store, Christians can smile even as they’re muscling through the mess. And sometimes, just sometimes, some of us are blessed enough to do it while enjoying the 80s films that made us smile as kids. But as I suggested before, perhaps an even better idea would be a trip through the pages of Stevenson’s Treasure Island, or Dickens’ The Cricket on the Hearth, or perhaps a casual visit with Robert Frost—all after church, of course.

God bless and keep you in 2022. I would promise it to be a time of joyful hope, but I don’t need to. God already has. Look to the cross and see the incredibly vivid reminder for yourself.