There is the saying that goes something like, “Until it matters, no man can be sure of his courage.” I appreciate those words. Indeed, one can hardly be considered courageous from ease’s protective tower. Knowing this, I suppose that’s why each year on Good Friday, the words by the Gospel-writer Mark to describe Joseph of Arimathea are piercing. Each year they find their way deeper into my contemplation of the Lord’s sacrificial death on the cross.
It’s not long after the Lord’s final breath that we read:
“And when evening had come, since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus” (15:42-43).
Why are these words so resonant? Because they describe a man who, for the most part, has kept his faith in Jesus an unchallenged secret. And why would he do this? Because as a member of the Sanhedrin—the primary human force in opposition to Jesus—Joseph knew what would happen to him if it was ever discovered. He and his family would be utterly undone economically, socially, and religiously. But then suddenly, none of these things appear to matter anymore. Mark writes that Joseph “took courage,” having been moved to act beyond the boundaries of his fears and request custody of the Lord’s body from Pilate.
What caused this? He witnessed the death of His Savior, Jesus.
The actual deed—the very intersecting act of God’s redeeming plan in this world—that’s what sits at the heart of faith. Joseph saw it. Whether or not he fully understood what had happened, it would certainly appear that his faith knew the significance of the gory details. In that moment, his faith became a daring powerhouse more than ready to flex the divine muscles the Holy Spirit had granted it. It moved him to go before Pilate and do something that would very soon thereafter become public knowledge.
What does this mean for us?
If anything, it means none of us ought to take Good Friday for granted. It means there’s something to be said for a day that’s spends itself thinking on the epicentral event of our Lord’s work to win us back from Sin, Death, and the power of the devil. It means if ever there was a day for doing something that might unmask our oft-hidden commitment to Christ—such as missing an extra-curricular activity or asking for time off from work to attend worship—Good Friday is that day. In one sense, that’s what the Greek word for “took courage” (τολμήσας [tolmēsas]) insinuates. At its root, it means to take a chance, to dare, to be bold in a way that lowers one’s defenses, maybe even in a way that provokes evil to attack.
Joseph took courage. He did this knowing that to do so could result in trouble. But he did it, anyway. Maybe you can, too. You certainly have less to lose than Joseph, even if only to give up some time to attend one of the two services occurring here at Our Savior in Hartland, Michigan. The Tre Ore service occurs at 1:00pm, and the Tenebrae service is at 7:00pm. I’m preaching at both, and I can’t wait to do so.
The church and school staff here at Our Savior in Hartland meet every Wednesday for study of the Lutheran Confessions. Currently, I’m leading them through Article IV of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession. Article IV deals with the doctrine of justification—the doctrine by which the Church stands or falls. During this past Wednesday’s study, we wandered into the area of consequences. As we did, a quotation from T.H. Huxley came to mind, which I shared. He said something about how logical consequences are a fool’s scarecrow, but for a wise man, they are a beacon.
Interestingly, each of the presentations during yesterday’s “Mental Health and Children” seminar here at Our Savior proved an awareness of consequences. Each presenter handled the term a little differently, but in the end, all affirmed consequence’s necessity.
In a psychological sense, I’m guessing that like all three of yesterday’s presenters, perhaps one of Huxley’s points is that foolish people meander about life less interested with consequence, and not necessarily because they’re completely oblivious, but because they’re mentally and spiritually unhealthy. These people are often disassociated from the effects of their words and actions. We see them treating people as it suits them. We see them expect respect without having done anything to earn it. I think they do these types of things because of an early-learned assumption that as long as they believe their intentions are noble, no matter how they treat someone, everything will be okay in the end. Things always work out. For them, that’s the only consequence.
This is scarecrow foolishness.
According to Huxley, wise people weigh consequences. Yesterday’s seminar presenters spoke in a similar stride, associating such awareness with normal mental health. Following Huxley’s lead, wise people observe consequences like pyres burning brightly on the horizon. They tend to maintain better control of the “self.” They keep their emotions in balance. They craft their words with care. I’m guessing they’re also likely to be people who are self-aware of their own unspoken tells—things like body language, tone, and catch-phrases. They care about even these things in conversation.
I made the point in the staff study on Wednesday that I believe a person who is mindful of consequence will naturally know his or her threshold for action. In other words, knowing the consequences of an action will uncover what a person is willing or unwilling to do in any given situation. I said this in relation to what we were reading at the time, and I didn’t want the staff to miss what the text was inferring, which was, through faith in Christ, no matter what happens in this life, the consequence of all consequences has been met by Jesus on the cross. By faith in this sacrifice, whether we live or die, we are His. This doesn’t mean we are now free from all consequences, but rather we have been made into people capable of walking into and withstanding challenges that others might normally avoid. Faith now serves as the point of origin for Christian discernment, translating all logical consequences in ways that help us break through to faithfulness when fear seems to be preventing us from doing what needs to be done.
A personal example from this past week comes to mind.
Having spent most of last Sunday evening in the Emergency Room, I ended up at our preferred pharmacy near our home on Tuesday afternoon (because Tuesday was the soonest I could get there) to pick up a subsequent prescription. On the way in, I noticed a car in the parking lot with two rather large bumper stickers, both prominently displayed and easily seen from a distance. One was the Antifa emblem, and the other read, “Capitalism is the virus.”
In case you didn’t know, Antifa is a far-left militant group. Their goal: to disrupt and destroy the American system and to replace it with their own. Do you remember those “Autonomous Zones” in Seattle and Washington D.C. back in 2020? Antifa were the thugs behind that stuff. They’re the ones you see on national news dressed in black, wearing ski masks and helmets and body armor, and leveling all sorts of violence and ruin using urban guerilla-warfare tactics. They’re hell bent on seeing socialism replace capitalism, and they believe the only way to do this is through intimidation and violent confrontation similar to their Marxist forefathers of the early 20th century. You can almost always count on them to serve as the muscle at “Black Lives Matter” rallies. Holding anarchy signs, they attack passersby, break windows, and burn buildings and cars. They’re famous for using improvised explosives, chemical irritants, and pretty much anything they can turn into a weapon—like metal pipes, axe handles, baseball bats, hammers, bricks, and the like. Not to mention, whether or not they’ve surrounded, sucker-punched, and kicked you to a bloody pulp, you know they’ve been in your neighborhood because they leave everything covered with trash and graffiti.
But sometimes you don’t know they’re in your neighborhood.
Another of their tactics aimed toward disruption is infiltration. Some experts believe this is how Antifa has known where and when to arrive in mass numbers when some relatively obscure conservative groups have organized an event. This happened to a Christian church’s outdoor service last year in Seattle.
In short, Antifa is responsible for hundreds of thousands of acts of violence, some resulting in death, as well as billions of dollars in damages across 140+ of America’s cities and towns. In May of 2020, President Trump announced he was labeling Antifa a domestic terrorist group. Of course, Joe Biden has since walked that back. Go figure.
Anyway, I went into the pharmacy. I looked around. I didn’t notice any black-clad militant Marxists. In fact, the only two patrons in the store were in line at the pharmacy. Both were elderly gentlemen who, as it turns out, knew each other. By their clothing, both appeared to be veterans. And both spent their time in line talking back and forth about what was happening at their respective churches.
I waited in line, got my prescription, stopped at home for a few minutes, and then went back to the church for a School Board meeting.
Later that night, I found myself back in the pharmacy parking lot. The car was still there. Once again, I went inside and scanned the store with the hope of identifying the person. But the place was empty. I grabbed a bottle of pop from one of the coolers in the furthest corner, and after a brief discussion with the manager at the checkout counter (one in which I shared much of what I just shared with you, while also drawing the manager’s attention through the store’s windows to the car in the parking lot), I discovered the vehicle’s owner works in the pharmacy. My concluding words in the conversation were fairly crisp.
“So, let me get this straight,” I said. “An Antifa sympathizer—someone driving around advertising a belief, not only in the disassembling of America through violence, but also in the benefit of subversive anonymity—has been hired by this company to fill prescriptions for the people of this town, at least two of whom are, as I discovered earlier this afternoon, elderly veterans, men who epitomize everything your employee hates?”
“Oh, goodness,” the manager said. “I’m probably going to have to talk to her.”
“I think that’s a really good idea,” I added, tucking my purchase into my coat pocket. “You might even want to talk to someone a little higher up before you do, because this is pretty serious. I doubt any company would want to generate unnecessary buzz due to association with a domestic terror group.” I said this insinuating I was willing to make that happen.
Notice I didn’t share with you the name of the store or town. Although, I’m sure some of you already know both. Nevertheless, I’m going to sit on that information for a few days to see what happens.
In the meantime, what does any of this have to do with knowing one’s threshold for action in relation to consequences? Well, quite a bit, actually.
There will be consequences for what I’ve done. Heck, I anticipate there will be consequences from some of you for just sharing this. Some will label me derogatorily as a “Karen.” Some will chalk me up as part of the cancel culture. Others will say my actions suppress free speech. Knowing Antifa’s history, others will say I put myself in harm’s way by seeking the person out. Perhaps worse, by confronting the ideology, and maybe even getting the person fired, others will accuse me of putting the store and its town in the crosshairs of this dreadful organization. All of these are but a few of the consequences. Believe me, the list is much longer than this. Yes, I was paying attention in the School Board meeting earlier that night, but I was also pondering the list’s possibilities.
Face it, folks. This nation is spiraling in so many ways. But this is largely true because too many have been unwilling to act for fear of the above list of consequences. The viscera for saying what needs to be said or doing what needs to be done in some of the hardest moments has, in many instances, been lost on the citizens of a somnolent nation braced by the fear of being cancelled. We’ve become those who meander around thinking that no matter what happens, everything will be okay. America will be fine. It’ll get sorted out.
No, it won’t. And we are experiencing the consequences of this scarecrow foolishness.
In the end, I did what I did because I know Christians are the ones best equipped for speaking. Why? In part, because we know the role consequences play in the equation of faith.
I know this has been a long read so far, but give me one last minute to explain.
Whoopi Goldberg (a celebrity on the daytime TV show “The View” that regularly ridicules Christians and conservatives) was recently put on leave for some truly ignorant comments about the Holocaust. In response, there were plenty of Christians calling for her suspension, but not necessarily calling for it permanently. While they despised what she said, they didn’t want to see her cancelled. They said she needed to be forgiven and then let loose back into the wilds of TV land.
Personally, I’m one of the Christians who wants her gone permanently. I’m also one of those guys who believes that any leader in the Church caught having an affair or other such ungodly behaviors, should be removed from his or her position of leadership permanently and with no exceptions. Why? Well, I have at least three reasons for starters.
The first is not because I’m unwilling to forgive anyone their sinful stupidity. We all fall short in big and small ways. The Bible is clear in this regard (Romans 3:10). But I say this because the person is in a place of influential strength, and their impact has a blast radius that God’s Word warns against (Titus 3:10-11; 1 Timothy 1:19-20). Besides, history itself proves how dangerous such situations involving public figures can be for communities. Their Sin has a way of trickling into and affecting countless others. With regard to Whoopi, the second reason is that she remains defiantly unrepentant in her Sin. The third reason is because, even if she does eventually repent, I believe in consequences in the same way our Lord describes them in Matthew 5:23-26:
“So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.”
Part of the Lord’s point is the urgency of penitent reconciliation. Get on it right away. He wants peace accomplished swiftly and thoroughly. If it isn’t, the logical consequences will eventually ensue. Relationships will come undone, even though forgiveness has been given. What once was good will become obscured, even though things have been set right. That’s just the way it works in a fallen world. Or perhaps from another angle, you may be a serial killer on the way to trial who has a genuine “come to Jesus” moment of repentance born from the Gospel that results in saving faith. Praise God. You are forgiven. No matter the outcome, eternal life is yours. But the consequences remain for the serious boundaries of natural and moral law you crossed. While you may be assured of heaven through faith in Christ and the forgiveness He bestows, here on earth you’re assured of prison, and maybe even execution. And rightfully so. These are the just consequences. But again, even as you face these consequences, by the Gospel you have the certainty that the consequence of all consequences has been defanged and defeated by the same Savior who has shown you eternal mercy. By this, whether you live or die, you know you’ll be okay.
I’m praying for a change of heart in the Antifa pharmacist. I’m praying for the wisdom of the manager at that store. I’m praying for a change of heart in Whoopi Goldberg. But as I lift these petitions before God, I do so also asking that He’d help me to be ready and willing to cross the thresholds of my fear in order to endure the consequences of any action I might be called to take in opposition to these devilries. I pray for these things because I know what they mean for my enemies just as much as what I know they mean for me.
I’m guessing you heard the news about Jussie Smollett. He’s an actor who claimed he was attacked by two white men in Chicago because he’s both black and gay. He said they hit him, used bigoted slurs, put a noose around his neck, poured an unknown substance on him, and shouted, “This is MAGA country!”
Almost as soon as his story made the news, he was the golden child of the Democrats and the progressive Left who, together with their partners in the mainstream media, were doing all they could (and still are) to frame conservative America as deeply intolerant and unforgivably racist. Suddenly, Smollett’s relatively less-than-profound career had found powerful traction. He became a prominent guest at events, went on talk shows, and was even granted a primetime interview with ABC News’ Robin Roberts.
I watched the interview. Smollett cranked up the emotion and Roberts fawned, almost grotesquely. It was hard to watch, and not because I sympathized with him, or because I felt shame for being a conservative, but because something wasn’t right with Smollett’s story. Like so many others who watched it, I didn’t believe what he was saying. The thing is, much of the law enforcement community involved with the situation disbelieved him, too. Still, a few higher ranking officials in Cook County managed to pull enough strings to shield their celebrity friend from any attempts to reveal what was, even in their minds, looking to be a hoax.
Eventually, the tables turned. A fair-minded prosecutor was presented with the evidence, namely, that the men involved in the supposed attack were not even white, but black, and Smollett actually hired them. As it would go, Smollett was charged with six counts of orchestrating a hate crime against himself. Last week, the case and its facts unfolded before twelve jurors, and on Thursday, Smollett was found guilty of five of the six counts. Truth defeated untruth.
But it almost didn’t, which I’ll get to in a moment. First, I’ll let you in on a little secret—and I’ll bet it’s one to which others who do what I do for a living would likely nod in agreement.
It’s likely the reason I choked on the believability of Smollett’s interview with Robin Roberts is because pastors are pretty good at spotting liars.
If the job is being done right, no small portion of a pastor’s time involves interfacing with the underbelly of Sin’s grossest offenses. Lies rule in this realm. In one sense, this is true because the devil, the father of lies (John 8:44), labors tirelessly to maintain this dimly lit kingdom. Pastors know this. They know he uses lies like a model maker uses glue, connecting this and that misshaped part to create a seemingly insurmountable monstrosity that’s eventually found capable of hiding truth in its shadow. Still, I won’t place all of the blame on him. Even without his crafty influence, sinful humanity is more than capable of maintaining a kingdom of deceit. The Sin-nature is a powerful wellspring that feeds every human being’s ability to lie to others, and perhaps most disturbingly, to lie to oneself. What’s most troubling about this tendency is not only that it so often demonstrates itself with a twisted joyfulness—as if to suggest that without the ability to lie, humanity would be overcome by boredom—but that lying seems to be the first thing people will do to acquire what he or she wants, or to defend what he or she already believes.
Again, if pastors are doing their jobs, it’s likely they know the telltale signs of deception. They know the signs because they’ve heard and seen the same forms of dishonesty in countless situations. For example, all too often the man who confesses to having fallen out of love with his wife eventually proves he’s had eyes for another woman all along. He didn’t fall out of love. He lied to justify his desires and get what he wanted. Pastors see this all the time. Another example that repeats itself: It’s not uncommon for disgruntled church members to blame their unhappiness (or non-existence) on the pastor or a fellow member of the church community, landing on just about anything they’ve done or said as cold, unloving, or offensive. In my experience, the disconnect usually has to do with the wayward person’s desire to embrace an ideology or behavior contrary to God’s will and Word. It’s only after the pastor and church community have spoken truthfully to the errant Christian about the dangers of his or her living that the trouble begins. It’s then that the ones reaching with the truth are no longer counted as friends, but rather as unloving accusers. And yet, they’re not unloving. That’s a lie. They’re being faithful to both God and neighbor. They’re seeing a fellow Christian in need, and rather than closing their hearts to the opportunity for expressing God’s loving concern, they act. As Saint John points out, they epitomize love “in deed and truth” (1 John 3:17-18). On the contrary, the one who stubbornly refuses the truth is living in a perpetual darkness ruled by lies (1 John 1:6-9).
I could go on and on sharing similar examples, but I promised an explanation to my previous comment about truth nearly losing to untruth in the Jussie Smollett situation. What I meant is that if those who knew the facts had decided not to go the extra mile for truth, had those who were bothered by the lie being guarded by the people in power chosen to remain silent, an already monstrous narrative of untruth would have gained a deeper footing in America. But honest people took a chance at confronting dishonesty. They took a chance at offending the false narrative. They pursued truth, and truth won.
We can learn from these nameless advocates.
By their diligence, a deception was uprooted, and justice was served. What’s more, the blast radius of truth’s detonation revealed the scoundrels intent on weaponizing the lie. Thankfully, those frauds were silenced. Whether or not those same people are dealing honestly with themselves when it comes to public opinion, I don’t know. I will say that until they come clean, they’ll continue to simmer in their own foolishness in a glaring way. In other words, if I were Robin Roberts, or any of the other liberally progressive automatons who condemned anyone who questioned the verity of Smollett’s story—and this includes Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and countless other ever-droning agendizers in government, Hollywood, and mainstream news and entertainment outlets—I’d apologize to America soon, all with the hope that my gushing foolishness would be soon forgotten. I’m sure the social media giants at Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are certainly doing whatever they can to help scrub the crime scenes.
In the end, my real hope is that the shame these people are experiencing will not only shepherd them toward honesty, but will encourage them to measure their responses in the future. Admittedly, my hopes are not high in these regards.
So, why bring any of this up? Well…
A man is a man. A woman is a woman. Stand up to the lies that claim otherwise. Maybe take a chance and write a letter to the NCAA. Push back against their woke policies allowing transgenders to hijack women’s sports, ultimately stealing away so many well-deserving female athletes’ aspirations. The Smollett case has shown us that truth can win.
A person is not inherently evil because of the color of his or her skin. Fight in your communities and school districts against the deceptive race theories that claim otherwise. Go to the school board meetings. Call your local representatives. Do these things knowing truth can win.
An unborn child is a unique person, both dignified and worthy of life. Muster as much muscle as you can against the pro-choice devilry that would call this untrue. Get involved with your local Right to Life chapter. Give of your time and treasure to the cause. Be present at the gates of a Planned Parenthood to pray. Do this. As we’ve seen, truth can win.
Again, I could go on and on with this. The list of topics that would benefit from truth’s pushback is long. And yes, it also includes much of the pseudo-science that’s driving so much of what Americans are being required to endure these days. Against these looming deceptions, know that truth is forced into the shadows when those who are to be its hands, feet, and voice remain quietly indolent. Perhaps worse, truth teeters at the edge of burial when we wait for someone else to act.
I suppose in conclusion, whether any of us chooses to engage on behalf of truth, we can all rest assured that truth won’t settle for our disregard indefinitely. It certainly won’t forever tolerate those in the Christian community who, having been offended by it, take their marbles and go somewhere else. As I’ve said on countless occasions from the pulpit here at Our Savior, eventually the Last Day will come and the divine light switch will get flipped. In the bright-beaming streams of Christ’s return, even as every human being alive and dead will be found on their knees paying homage to the approaching King of Kings, all will see and know what is true and what isn’t. Joy or regret will be the two available emotions as all deceptions are stripped away and the final standards of judgment are laid unquestionably bare. By God’s grace at work through His revealing Word right now, Christians are equipped for that day. Through faith in Christ—the One who is truth in the flesh (John 14:6)—we are not only rescued from the perils of Sin and the regret it brings, but we are given hope for that moment of moments. Just as wonderfully, we are changed to know and desire truth in the here and now (John 8:32; James 1:18), and we are equipped by the Holy Spirit to protect and defend what is true (1 John 4:6).
By that same Gospel of deliverance in Christ alone, be strengthened to stand for truth. I say this knowing that if anyone is truly destined for the job, indeed, it’s Christians.
That was quite the wind and rain we experienced last week, wouldn’t you say? I think it’s safe to say that autumn has arrived.
Being unable to move very quickly because of my injury, the normally simple inconvenience rain causes became a bit more concerning. At one point on Tuesday, my daughter, Evelyn, and I were standing beneath the canopy near the church’s main entrance trying to decide how we would go about making our way to the car in what had suddenly become a torrential downpour. Thankfully, I had already moved the car into the circle drive near the entrance, so it was only about fifty feet away from us. Still, she was concerned that at my pace, I would be drenched by the time I made it, and so she offered to run to the car to fetch my umbrella and then come right back, and then together we’d make our way over.
What a sweetie.
In the end, we decided just to make a run for it. Well, she ran. I hobbled with fierce determination. Although, we only did this after first calculating another option and its possible outcomes. Essentially, we measured a simple dash to the car against Evelyn running to the vehicle, opening the hatch to retrieve the umbrella, and then running back to me, only for the two of us to then return to the car holding the sail-like device amid the blustering rainstorm, stopping at one door to allow one of us to climb inside as the other then circled around to the other to get in, being sure to first close and shake the umbrella. In the end, a beeline to the car seemed the better plan. Taking a hint from Longfellow, sometimes the best thing any of us can do when it’s raining is to let it rain. In other words, sometimes things are what they are and there’s nothing we can do to change them.
I suppose another lesson to be learned by this artless scenario is that our over-contemplated attempts at avoiding the discomforting things in life often result in making things worse rather than better. Digging even deeper into the moment, I’d say we sorted through the distinction between simply talking about doing and actually doing. As Evelyn and I negotiated, the rain only seemed to get worse. Had we made straight for the car when we first came out, we’d have been a lot less wet. But we didn’t. We stood there trying to decide what we were going to do, which involved a second option involving excessive details that, the more we talked about them, the more cumbersome and toll-exacting they seemed to become. I don’t know if it relates completely, but as I type this, I’m remembering the way Saint Paul often spends time in his epistles dealing with the contours of the Christian life.
I’m guessing there are plenty of folks who, when they visit with those portions of Paul’s writings in which he speaks about genuine Godliness, figure he’s being prescriptive, that is, he’s telling his readers how to live their lives in the world. That may be true some of the time, but not always. Occasionally he’s being descriptive, which means he’s simply describing what Christians have become by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel for faith in Christ. When he does this, there’s an accompanying sense that enough time has already been spent talking about what it all means and now it’s time to just go and be it. I suppose in a practical sense, the more time we spend being unnecessarily cerebral about all of it, the more allowance for devastation our inaction seems to prove.
Think about it in a localized sense. There’s a reason why Saint Paul urges Christians not to let the sun go down on their anger (Ephesians 4:26). He knows the tendencies of Man. He knows that the longer we wait to reconcile, the more likely it is that the rainstorm of hatred will intensify. Of course, as the hatred grows fiercer, the worse things become and the less likely it will be that the two people will ever truly dry off in peace. On a larger scale, the more sedentary Christians remain, prattling away on social media about our troubled world without ever lifting a finger to change anything, the worse things are likely to become. One only needs to look around to see the necessity of Christian action. A glance will reveal the spin-rate of this world’s undoneness is continually picking up speed. School Boards across the country are often unopposed when they introduce sexually explicit materials and Critical Race Theory curriculums in their districts, often beginning as early as preschool. Christian business owners are taken to court and oftentimes fined out of existence simply for holding to the tenets of their faith and the basic science of Natural Law. What was once the quieter, but nonetheless satanic, mantra of “safe but rare” has become the full-throated cry of “Shout your abortion!” and the call for legalized slaughter of full term infants.
The rain is falling, folks. Sure, you can take some time to examine the best way through it, but one way or the other, you’re going to have to get wet. So, stop talking about it and get going. Make a beeline for faithfulness. Of course, the best place to start is by going to church. There’s not much use in trying to weather the storms if you haven’t been equipped accordingly to do so. You need what Christ gives by His Word and Sacrament gifts. Strengthened by these, may I suggest your next few steps for steering into the downpour be ones of faithfulness in your vocation as parent, child, friend, or worker? A lot can be accomplished simply by teaching your little ones while standing true to Christian conviction before family, friends, and co-workers. As you pick up speed in this, think about getting involved with your local Pro-life organization. Or perhaps you might help register Christian voters before the next election. Heck, I say if the Spirit is carrying you along with a brisk enough stride, take a chance at running for office. I already hinted at how holding a seat on your local School Board could make all the difference in the world to the next generation of citizens.
Whatever you’re thinking about doing, don’t think too long. Get out there and be who God has already made you to be. Yes, you’re going to get wet. That comes with the territory. But no matter the outcomes, the calculations for a beeline to your eternal life were already made by Christ through His life, death, and resurrection. By His victory, the courage you need for the first few steps has already been delivered. The words “It is finished!” (John 19:30) are the clarion call.
The world appears to be burning, doesn’t it? I read a statement this morning in which NATO officials called Biden’s abrupt and chaotic withdrawal of the United States presence in Afghanistan the biggest, most tragic debacle by a U.S. president since the organization’s founding in 1949. German Chancellor Merkel’s administration released a statement clarifying that the U.S., and the U.S. alone, owns the horrors of the situation. A nearly unanimous British Parliament made clear that the United States has lost significant credibility in the international community. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.
The situation in Afghanistan is bad.
Despite the news media’s reluctance to share the information, it looks as though the first real reports of Afghani Christians being brutalized and killed by the Taliban after the withdrawal are making their way to us here in America. I read that Glenn Beck’s organization raised more than $22 million in two days to help fund evacuation efforts. I read that David Barton and the WallBuilders organization is raising significant funding, too. Praise God for their efforts.
Curiously, the reports I’ve read, mostly by way of texts and emails from pastors and missionaries to partner churches in the United States, have not necessarily portrayed the concerns of Afghani Christians as fearful cries to foreign agencies to do whatever they can to rescue them from the gory dreadfulness. Rather, their petitions have been of a far different character, and noticeably two-fold in nature.
First, their hope is that their partner churches around the world would join them in praying that all Afghani Christians would remain faithful to Christ as they face imminent torture and death; and second, that God would use the Gospel witness of their martyrdom as a means for softening the hearts of their bloodthirsty persecutors, so that they, too, would turn to and believe in Christ for salvation.
Read that again.
The Christians in Afghanistan are facing the all-consuming storm clouds of a merciless evil. Not only do the forthcoming gales promise unthinkable forms of mortal suffering, but they also pledge by their waves a vicious temptation to renounce Christ in exchange for safety, which in the end, can only result in a believer’s eternal doom. I find it astounding, then, that these Christians are not asking for deliverance from these terrors. They’re asking for us to pray that God would continue to give them the will to steer into and endure them until the end. Even more strangely, while we might expect to hear them ask us to pray for a way of escape for themselves, instead, they’re asking us to pray that by the Gospel witness of their own deaths, their persecutors would discover Christ as the way of escape from unbelief leading to eternal Death.
Go ahead and read that again, too.
Having re-read my own words, I wonder if these are foolish prayer requests being made of the churches in America by the Afghani Christians. I mean, does American Christianity really even have what it takes to comprehend the substance of their pleas? The Afghani Christians are enduring apocalyptic-like onslaughts of misery. And yet, knowing full well that Taliban squads are going door to door sniffing for the slightest hints of Christianity—looking for bibles, devotional apps on phones, Christian symbols, and the like—still, and perhaps most astoundingly, the Afghani Christians refuse to abandon the most visible (and now most dangerous) sign of Christianity: gathering together for worship.
They refuse to forsake Christ’s mandate for gathering in fellowship to receive the preaching of the Gospel for forgiveness and the administration of the Sacraments for the same.
Is it really possible for any of their requests to make sense to American Christians who were so quick to close churches for fear of a virus that had a casualty rate of less than 1% at its peak? Considering only Michigan, the last I heard, around 15% of Michigan churches are still completely closed even as the state currently tracks at 21,344 deaths among 1.03 million cases. Doing the math, that’s around a 2% casualty rate. Will the Afghani Christians’ requests be intelligible for those who, even post-vaccine rollout, still refuse to attend worship for fear of this minuscule threat to personal safety? Will the phrase “faithful to the end” resonate among churches that have forsaken God’s Word and succumbed to cultural pressures just to avoid the woke attack squads? Will anything the Afghani Christians have asked for be translatable to a generation of families who’ve become so accustomed to prioritizing sports and leisure over faithfulness in worship with Christ?
Sadly, I don’t think so.
I suppose some church communities will get it. I’m guessing that for the most part, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod has a grip on it, although I haven’t seen much written in this regard, just yet. I’m confident that most here at Our Savior in Hartland are equipped to translate the Afghani’s requests. I know various individuals beyond our borders who are more than capable of interpreting them rightly. My friend, Jack Philips, will know what they mean. Barronelle Stutzman will get it. My Canadian friend, Pastor Artur Pawlowski, will understand. Reverend Dr. Juhana Pohjola, Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland, will get it, too.
Nevertheless, beyond the ever-increasing ranks of persecuted folks like these, I’m concerned that the mainstream Christian churches in America just don’t have the spiritual wherewithal for understanding anything the Afghani Christians are asking. And while I certainly agree we should be praying for them, I’m hoping in secret that they’re praying for us. I get the feeling we need their prayers far more than they need ours.
With all of this in mind, I suppose I’ll conclude as the Afghani Christians began, which is by offering a two-fold request.
Firstly, I’d urge all Christians to take heed of Christ’s clarion call not to choose the comforts of safety and security in this life over faithfulness to Him. Then I’d urge you to continue past the Lord’s gracious warning to His sweeter encouragement to trust Him—to take heart in His victory over Sin, Death, and the grave, knowing by this Gospel the peace that only He can provide.
“And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels’” (Mark 8:34-38).
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Secondly, there is the saying that goes something like, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.” Pray for the Christians in Afghanistan. Do this remembering that the Church on earth—or the Church Militant as it’s commonly referred to throughout history—was not built to remain safely in harbor, but rather to set sail, no matter the temperament of the seas. She does this knowing Christ as the steady Captain at her helm. She goes into the winds and waves knowing that He’s steering the vessel toward the final shore of eternal life. As He does, it’s all hands on deck. We come up and out of the vessel’s innards to gather. We swab the decks and repair the masts. We hoist sails and mend tackle. We batten hatches and secure riggings. In other words, we come together to pray for one another and our world, to labor faithfully, to endure, to love as Christ first loved us, all the while being strengthened by the bountiful provisions of forgiveness—Word and Sacrament—being doled out in worship from our trustworthy Captain’s very own galley.
Know that I’m praying for the Afghani Christians and their persecutors. I hope you are, too. But know I’m also praying for the Church here on American soil just as fervently. Again, I hope you are, too.
It’s very early, 5:30am to be precise. I’m writing this note from Cantrall, Illinois. Again, to be precise, I’m at Camp CILCA, which is just outside of Springfield.
A summer camp I attended in my youth, I know this place well. Even better, I eventually became CILCA’s head counselor in the early nineties, having held the position for four consecutive summers. I should add that during those same years I was also the head lifeguard, music leader, sports director, and weekend maintenance assistant to a wonderful man I’ll forever consider a friend, Derald Sasse, may his soul rest in peace.
I stayed here at CILCA this weekend, having spoken last night at the camp’s annual banquet at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Springfield. I received a kindly invitation last fall from the current Camp Director, Reverend Joshua Theilen, to be the banquet keynote speaker. I was certainly glad to accept. And of course, the topic being something along the lines of Christian engagement in the public square, I was certainly ready to drive down and prattle on about such things. I pray my words last night were of benefit to the people in attendance.
Interestingly, I’m staying in the Christian Growth Center here at the camp, which back in my day, was the only building on the camp property with air conditioning. The funny thing is, in all my years here at CILCA, I never once spent a night in this building. I maintained it. I helped clean the rooms for various groups that came through. I fixed broken windows and repaired faulty electrical outlets, but I never actually enjoyed the fruits of my labor. And yet, here I am twenty-five years later. Life is weird that way, I guess.
As soon as I finish typing this note, I’ll be hopping into the Jeep and heading back to Michigan. To get here to Illinois, I took the backroads. I’ll probably do the same thing going home. I like driving the backroads. While they’re pleasantly uneventful, there’s plenty to see. Driving along through the sleepy farmlands provides more than enough opportunities for thoughtful observation. Thinking back to these travels a few days ago, I can think of at least two things I remember pondering.
The first thing I spent some travel time thinking about was the Old Testament reading from Genesis 22 appointed for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, which tells the story of God commanding Abraham to take his son, Isaac, to a yet undisclosed place and sacrifice him. I’d call this event dreadful if I didn’t already know its substance and ultimate conclusion. As a father, could I follow through as Abraham did? And yet, if the listener is paying attention as Abraham speaks, the comfort of trust in the promises of God is woven into the narrative. Once Abraham and Isaac arrived at the place God commanded, Abraham told the servants who journeyed with them that he and his son were going to go and worship God and then return to them.
That moment is a clue as to what Abraham knew would happen. He would unreservedly follow God’s commands already knowing something of God.
God promised Abraham that Isaac would be the one through whom the Messiah would come. God assured Abraham of this. Abraham knew that God doesn’t break His promises, and so no matter what approached from the horizon, Isaac would be fine. Abraham trusted this. If you doubt this analysis, then take a look at Hebrews 11:17-19. The writer to the Hebrews acknowledges this as he digs a little deeper into Abraham’s faith, describing him as knowing full well that if he was indeed forced to follow through with the frightful deed, God would give Isaac back to him alive. He’d have to. God would reverse Death, and preserve Isaac’s life.
This is a very rich moment, both emotionally and theologically, especially as we prepare to wrap up Lent and rejoice in the Easter celebration of Christ’s resurrection. I suppose that thinking about these things probably influenced the second thing I remember pondering along the way.
While tooling along through the farmlands of Indiana and Illinois, I noticed something familiar to each of the little towns along the way. They all have conspicuous cemeteries.
Now, you might be thinking that just about every city or town in America has a cemetery. Believe it or not, they don’t. But these backroad towns do, and each is noticeably prominent, often pitched on a hill at the edge of the city, perhaps adorned with an elderly oak tree or two. And if the cemetery isn’t standing guard at the edge of town, it’s situated somewhere along the town’s main street, making it impossible for anyone to miss while passing through. In either, the collection of headstones is a community of both old and new, and from a reasonable distance, against a setting sun, their mutual silhouette looks almost city-like.
I remember when I was a kid in the seventies and eighties, my friends and I would hold our breaths when passing a cemetery. The lore was that by breathing, there was a chance we might make a wandering spirit jealous. Another version of the myth claimed that you might accidentally inhale a spirit and become possessed. Silly, I know. Good thing I know better, because now that I’m far from those youthful fooleries, I passed a particularly lengthy cemetery on Saturday evening near Lincoln, Illinois as I was making my way to Cantrall from Morton, Illinois, where my parents and sister live. Had I held my breath as I passed, I might have ended up unconscious and in a ditch. Or worse, in a cemetery.
And yet, having said this, the fact that every town has its cemetery is a reminder that at some point, my body will end up in one. There’s no avoiding it. Read the poets. Christian or not, they get the inevitability of Death. Percy Shelley called Death the veil that is finally lifted during the deepest sleep. John Donne described Death as mighty and dreadful, and yet without pride, portraying it as simply doing what it does almost boringly even as it is unstoppable. Robert Browning describes the knowledge of unavoidable Death as motivation for living life fully. Emily Dickinson, of course, is famous for portraying Death as unstoppable, being the carriage that will one day arrive for all. And when it knocks at your door, you will be unable to keep from opening it.
Since I’ve suddenly shifted to considering the poets this morning, I’ll admit to appreciating Lord Tennyson’s description of Death:
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea.
Tennyson doesn’t describe Death fearfully. Instead, he sets it before his reader as something of a story’s ending. It’s the sunset to an eventful day. It is an open sky with a view to the evening star. It is a clear call of his name, and a drawing to a vessel setting sail into the open sea, a place that he loved.
I don’t know what influenced Tennyson’s perspectives on things, but I’ll say his consideration of Death is comforting. It evokes the Lord’s even more so reassuring words throughout the Gospels.
Now, don’t misunderstand the Lord’s position on Death. Jesus knows full well it’s a big deal. He knows it isn’t pretty. He knows Death is an ugly ordeal, that it’s a terrorizing power. Following His lead, Saint Paul describes it as the worst of all enemies of Man. But pretty much all of the biblical writers go out of their way to make sure we know that through faith in Christ, we don’t need to be afraid of Death. We don’t need to be fearful because Christ has defeated it. Like Abraham, we can face off with its dreadfulness with the promises of God well in hand. And so the Lord can say to Lazarus’ sisters that whoever lives and believes in Him, will live even though he dies. Saint Paul can mock Death, courageously poking at it with the Word of God’s promises, asking, “Where is your sting?” Job can speak so joyfully that even in the midst of Death, at the last, he will stand and behold God with his own eyes of flesh.
I like Tennyson’s description because he has this similar verve. It’s almost as if he’s equipped with the knowledge of faith, which we as Christians know by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel enables us to see Death for what it has now become for the believer: a turning from one page to the next.
And the next page holds an unending chapter that is far better than any that came before it.
I like that. And again, the season of Lent is certainly teaching this very point, making sure we’re ready to fully embrace the significance of the Lord’s resurrection—His conquering of Death—all for us!
To use Tennyson’s imagery, Easter is the clear call. Easter doesn’t allow for moaning of the bar. Easter sets sail for the unending horizons of eternal life through faith in the One who was crushed and killed for our iniquities, and yet was found alive on the third day, having wrestled Death and won.
Here in a few moments I’ll be packing up my car and making my way back to Michigan. I’ll be passing many of those same cemeteries I encountered on the way here. I won’t be holding my breath when I pass, just as I won’t be looking on them as fearful markers signifying hopelessness. I’ll observe them as Abraham looked upon Isaac. God is faithful to His promises. He is our hope in the midst of Death. Through that lens—the lens of faith—each of the tombstones whizzing past me will herald particular truths. The first is that unless the Lord returns first, I will die someday. There’s no way of getting around that fact. The second is that even as Death would come calling, it is not my master. Christ has won my eternal life. I am not consigned to the grave forever, but rather with my last breath, I will set sail into the joys of eternal life with my Lord at the helm.
Right now, my office is a mess. Before I left it yesterday afternoon, as I turned to close the door, I scanned the room and could see the disaster to which I’d be returning. My desk is buried beneath papers. And that’s not the half of it. I have books all over the floor, countless sticky notes hanging from this or that shelf, and a number of other things strewn throughout the entirety of the space. It’s enough to give any visitor the impression I’m about as disheveled as they get.
But the thing is, I’m just not a messy person.
Of course I’m not perfectly tidy by any means. The scene I just described is proof. Still, I’m convinced I’m really not a messy person. Keeping things clean is unquestionably a part of my personality and general routine. Even at home, with anything that pertains to me personally, you’ll seldom find a trail. Of the few things I can actually call my own, I’ll rarely leave them lying around. It’s the same for my office. I prefer to work in an orderly space. And I do my best to keep it organized. It might sound somewhat neurotic, but I don’t even like my computer desktop adorned with working files or shortcuts. I keep the desktop relatively bare, with most files—working or completed—in a folder somewhere on an external hard drive that’s being automatically backed up to two other hard drives right next to it.
Having said all this, there is a particular bit of disorder in my office—at first glance, a clutter of sorts—that I don’t mind at all. It’s the vast scattering of handwritten notes and greeting cards lining my bookshelves. Each is a message I’ve received in the last twelve months from someone either within or without of Our Savior Lutheran Church and School. Right about this time each year, I begin the process of clearing these personal messages from the shelves, being sure to tuck them into a bin for safe keeping. I do this to make room for what I expect will be a new year’s stream of scribbled kindnesses.
Over the course of my twenty-five years of serving in the Church, this has been my routine, and let me tell you, it sure is something to go back and read from some of the older notes I’ve kept.
Why do I keep the old ones? Because they mean the world to me. They are dispatches from the trenches of life, communiques portraying various aspects of what it means to be God’s people existing together in the divine love established by His gracious hand at different moments on the timeline. That’s one reason. But there’s another reason, too.
Each message is a tangible reminder to me of what it means for Godly sentiment to become action. Here’s what I mean.
I teach my children never to miss the opportunity to offer a compliment. For example, I’ll tell my kids that if they think a woman’s dress is pretty, go ahead and tell her. What good is to be had by the dress being pretty if no one is willing to acknowledge it? I’ll tell my kids that if they think a friend did something well, let the friend know. How does it benefit the friendship by keeping your appreciation silent?
Sentiments that result in action can make things better, stronger. Go ahead and test me on this. A single thought that results in a spoken word or gesture of kindness has more gravity than an entire galaxy filled with unspoken sentiments. One notecard, one kind word, one genuine compliment will always raise the scale’s opposing plate stacked with unspoken sentiments.
I awoke this morning thinking the same goes for the Christian faith as it meets with the world around us.
It’s one thing to know and believe that Christ is the Savior. It’s another thing to live this faith before the world—to engage when others remain idle, to lean in when others lean back, to speak when everyone else is silent.
Action is by far the best eloquence. Shakespeare said something like that. And I agree. Still, Jesus said something even better.
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).
Since I preached on the text from Romans 12:9-21 yesterday, naturally Saint Paul’s words come to mind.
“Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
That’s one particular place where the Apostle takes time to describe what Christian sentiment—the Christian light of faith—actually looks like when it becomes something tangible. It sounds like a list of “do this but not this” kind of stuff, but it really isn’t. Because of the re-creating work of the Gospel for faith that Paul described in the preceding chapters, this is now more of a commending of Christians to actually be who God has already made them to be. It might not have been the best analogy, but in the sermon I compared it to the caretaker of an apple orchard going out into its rows and telling the trees to produce apples.
There are plenty of other texts like this in the Bible. Another great one comes to mind. It’s James 2:14-18.
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”
With even a sliver of honesty, James’ argument is convincing. It’s hard to argue against faith being a skeletal creature if not for the musculature of Christian deeds. With what’s going on in our world, it’s even harder to argue against your role as a light-beaming Christian being incredibly important.
The days before us are very dark. Joe Biden, the President-elect (or whatever) said those particular words. He meant them with regard to COVID-19, but I can assure you from what he has pledged to do in his first 100 days, for the Church, his words mean something else. Unrelenting persecution is about to be let off the leash. Basic Christian teaching is about to be labeled as bigotry at the federal level. I’ve not been one to get too worked up about 501c3 restrictions, but I do realize how helpful they are to some. Just know tax-exempt status will likely disappear under a Biden presidency, and many of the churches already hovering at the cliff of financial disaster will almost certainly be nudged over its edge by their property taxes alone. Churches are going to close. The people they serve will suffer. The curriculums of Christian schools will draw even more spiteful ire. Their hiring and firing practices will come under vicious assault. We can expect countless new lawsuits to be leveled against anyone seeking to do business under the title “Christian.” I’m certain our own Governor Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel will be the first ones to hound these organizations, being eager to press the button of prosecution.
More and more, Christianity will find itself existing in the shadows.
But keeping our Christian sentiment to ourselves—believing quietly—will be about the worst thing we can do. Christian action will be required, both as a formal organization and as individuals. The plain truth is that we’re going to need more people who not only know and understand just what James meant when he wrote that faith without works is dead, but we’ll need those same people to be courageous enough to believe and act on these words, people who take Jesus seriously when He calls for His believers to let their lights shine before men.
I suppose my innermost sentiment this morning is that you will be one of those people. And this message, like the messages currently adorning my bookshelves, is a materialized dispatch from the trenches by a friend who loves and appreciates you in the Lord and wants to encourage you in your faithfulness. Let this message be a virtual notecard resting on the bookshelf of your mind, one commending you as God’s child, and heartening you to continue to be who God made you to be—a person who knows what it means to be a city on a hill that cannot be hidden.
Before venturing into the swiftly approaching New Year, I woke up this morning and wanted to remind you one more time that your pastors pray for you regularly. Speaking personally, my general prayers to God for the whole congregation occur each and every morning. But of course along the way of my day as things arise, I find plenty of casual moments for whispering into the Lord’s ear regarding specific joys or disquiets that concern us as a Christian family. Beyond this daily regimen, just as I know so many of you pray for me, you need to know that I take time at least once a week to pray for each of you by name, too.
Let this be a comfort to you. Find some ease in knowing that among God’s people here at Our Savior, we have one another in mind as we call our to our gracious Lord in prayer.
Funny, isn’t it, how God knows what we will ask before we ask it, and yet He still commands for us to pray? Why? Well, as I tell the kids in my confirmation classes (and as I’m certain I’ve shared with you before), first, because He already knows that if He doesn’t command it, we won’t do it. We need the prompting. And then second, and perhaps more importantly, we have the Gospel imperative to pray—which is to say that it isn’t fear of God’s command that’s moving us to pray, but rather it is the Gospel that invigorates us for beholding the mandate to pray as good and holy. We know by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that we have full and free access to the Creator of all things. Perhaps even better, just as you love to hear your own family and friends tell you they love you, so also does our God find great delight in hearing the voices of His saints as they do the same. It’s quite the wonderful relationship we have with the Creator of the cosmos, don’t you think? It is a communicative rapport like none other, and it is one in which we can take great comfort because we know that through faith in Jesus Christ, our prayers never fall on the deaf ears of the Divine One. He is always listening and acting according to His good and gracious will for us.
Having said all of this, there’s something in particular I want you to pray about in the New Year. I’m humbly asking that you pray for a more fervent grasp on what it means to be a good steward with the gifts God has given you.
For the last decade or so, I’ve done what I can by way of God’s Word to show that the topic of stewardship isn’t to be considered a dirty word in the life of the Church, that is, something to be avoided as bothersome or maybe even a little bit scary. As I’ve talked about it, I’ve done my best to make sure that God’s people know exactly what’s going on here in this congregation financially. By way of this weekly eNewsletter, I’ve been sure to share the grittiest of details.
As far as stewardship being a scary topic, in all honesty, that’s sort of how I felt about it for a very long time. Maybe you didn’t, but I did. For the longest time I was deathly afraid of discussing it, of telling folks just how important their giving was—not only for the sake of the congregation’s temporal health, but as an eternal fruit of faith—as an indicator of what is most important to us in this life. Now, while I’m not in precise alignment with Billy Graham’s theology, there is something the infamous evangelist once said that rings very true. I say this because, quite frankly, it’s an age-old verity revealed in the Scriptures. I don’t remember his wording exactly, but I think he said something like, “Show me a person’s checkbook, and I’ll show you that person’s god.”
I whole-heartedly agree. People prioritize, and then they make sure those priorities are well funded by time and treasure.
As time has gone on, the Lord has been at work recasting my perspective on stewardship. I have to imagine that it was a challenge for Him. Ask anyone who truly knows me—my wife, our parish administrator, fellow pastors, my kids—I just don’t like money. I don’t even like its smell. I think it’s this way because money has never been all that plentiful in my life, and with that, I’ve almost always seen it more as an eluding enemy than an available friend. I’m sure you can imagine how this has affected my ability to talk about it here at the church.
Nevertheless, as I said, God has changed my perspective on the subject, and so together as a congregation we have been enabled to more intimately explore the conversation. As the ever-progressing exchange has unfolded, we’ve been able to go deeper, and as I have learned, I have also shared with God’s people at Our Savior (Philippians 4:9; 2 Timothy 3:14; Galatians 6:6). Walking together in this, I’m here to say that I’ve seen the Holy Spirit at work in all of you in ways that many past and present naysayers would never have expected.
Yes, there are people out there who just can’t believe that Our Savior in Hartland is still in existence, let alone that we’re healthy and heartily accomplishing things with the kind of might that can only come from God. I guess what I’m saying is that here at Our Savior, I get the sense that by God’s grace we’re more than proving to the onlooking world—and often to ourselves—that we’re aware of the importance of Christian stewardship, and in stride with this awareness, we’ve become quite clear sighted to the fact that money isn’t what’s most important to us. Money is not our god nor our first priority. Faithfulness to Christ and His Word holds that seat.
By His holy Word, God promises to bless such faithfulness (Luke 11:28; Hebrews 11:6; Proverbs 28:20; 1 Corinthians 1:9; 4:2; 2 Thessalonians 3:3). This doesn’t mean that we’d ever expect to be rolling in cash. We certainly aren’t. What it means instead is that according to God’s good and gracious will, we live within our means, knowing He will provide exactly what is needed (both successes and failures), all of which will work in favor of the extension of His kingdom and the preservation of His Gospel among us. It means we can count on Him to have a care for us as useful tools in His hands for accomplishing things that communicate His truth to a world in need.
These are wonderful promises. And by them, there is always before us a wonderful horizon of Gospel possibilities.
If there was ever a congregation out there to know that God will not leave His faithful people high and dry, it’s us. As one of God’s pastors, I’m cognizant of the fact that I’d be failing you if I didn’t bring this to mind every now and then. I’d be letting you down if I didn’t take a moment to test your understanding in all of this. Sure, stewardship can be a scary topic for me. But I’m called to preach the whole counsel of God—which includes the topic of stewardship—and I figured this morning that if there’s ever a time to draw attention to it, it’s at the beginning of a New Year. Now’s the perfect time to start reconsidering one’s level of giving. Now’s the time to step fearlessly into the New Year armed with Christian courage, trusting that God has your wellbeing securely in hand, and that by this, you can give back to Him in faith.
By the way, I should probably clarify something. Exercising courage doesn’t necessarily mean being without fear. We are human beings, and because of this, there are plenty of things that will make us nervous. Giving is one of them. Still, courage doesn’t mean mindless action. It simply means subduing fear. Christian courage is to see our fears subdued by the Gospel reality that if God is for us, who can be against us—even when everyone and everything around us—maybe even our own selves—are telling us that the odds are impossibly stacked against us and we are certain to fail.
Subdue your fear. By the Lord’s sacrifice on the cross, He has already bound and cast fear into the abyss of nothingness. Fear has no hold on you. Fear has no standing against the love of Christ for you (1 John 4:18).
Look to the cross and subdue your fear. And then act according to the faith that’s been given to you.
As the New Year approaches, reconsider your giving. Are you right where you should be? With a little bit of honest reflection, would you discover that you can do more? Whatever the case may be, pray, subdue the fear, and then act accordingly. God will bless your faithfulness. I guarantee it.
Technically, the sun rose this morning at 6:04 AM. I watched it from my kitchen window. It was stunning.
Before the moment had fully developed, the world beyond my window pane was a cool and shapeless dark with very little definition. I could barely make the mist twirling up from the Shiawassee River. Although, peering straight into the darkness, after a while, my eyes were more than capable of deceit, maybe even taking hold of imagination’s hand as she beckoned toward some impossible things.
I mean, I’m pretty sure I saw a pack of velociraptors crossing from one shore of the river to the other, pausing at the water’s edge before rushing into the thicket. Or maybe it was a herd of deer.
Eventually the tree line defining the horizon (which in the first few minutes of the sun’s visibility was edged with an extraordinary copper luminescence) couldn’t seem to stop the sunlight from revealing every single detail of the world behind my home. Minutes before I could only see what I thought I could see. In the light, I could see everything for what it was.
Oh, the in-between murmurs of the sun and its rising in summer! It comes and goes, rising and setting and rising again, ever reminding its onlookers of deeper, more glorious things—always bearing a much grander intuition than we’re often willing to confess.
An intriguing characteristic of light is that when its beams break through, the terrors—both real and imagined—scatter. The very real roaches run for the baseboard crevices. The same goes for the imagined velociraptors. They, too, scramble back to the shadows. I’m sure you know what I mean. You need only to think back to your younger days and recall the fear that came with fetching something from the darkened basement—or whichever unlit space was most fearful in your home. Everything and anything with hooked claws, piercing fangs, and a leathery hide was waiting to snatch you before you could get to the light switch. Perhaps the heaviest dread in those moments came somewhere between the bottom and top steps after the item’s retrieval. In the seconds after turning off the light, with the darkness at your back, whatever unseen beasties were previously restrained by its beams were now almost certainly scurrying from their hiding places to catch you before you could leap through the door at the top.
We all know the dread that comes with darkness. We all know the comfort of the light.
There’s a broader interpretation to be had from such scenes of light and darkness, certainty and uncertainty, courage and fear. Opening the door of my home this morning and stepping out into the current state of darkly affairs in our world, I’m reminded of this, and as such, I continually retell myself two things in particular.
The first is that things won’t be as they are forever. This world had a beginning. Because of Sin, it will have an end, too. No matter the invented truths of today, the Lord promises that at the Last Day, the divine light of truth will eventually break through with its fullest brightness at the appearing of Christ in glory (Titus 2:13, Revelation 1:7-8, Malachi 4:2). In that ensuing moment, nothing will be obscure. Everyone will see things as they truly are. Every system of belief, every controversy, every philosophy will be revealed by and measured against the only standard of judgment that ever mattered in this life: the truth of God’s Word.
This thought reminds me that the imagined velociraptor-like sense that truth appears so often to be losing ground to untruth will be proven infinitesimally short-lived soon enough. Regardless of the truths being cast aside in our world—that a man is not a woman and a woman is not a man; that killing an unborn child is murder; that all lives, no matter the skin color, have value; that murderous rioting beneath a banner of virtue is the devil’s business—while these truths may be hidden from so many right now, eventually the lights will come on. The sun will rise and we’ll see the landscape clearly. It’ll be a moment experienced by the whole world, and all will acknowledge it on their knees, either in humble gladness, or in terror (Romans 14:11, Philippians 2:10-11).
It’ll be a moment in which all accounts are settled.
In relation to this, the second thing I do my best to keep in mind is that temporal worry is just plain foolishness. In Matthew 6:25-34, Christ explains the futility of worry and the better exchange found in faith. Christ is always the better bet, and so He teaches trust in Him as powerful against worry. Trust severs worry’s fuel line, which is fear. When fear is starved, it does what every malnourished thing eventually does—it dies. Personally, going forth from fear’s funeral, I can live in confidence through each and every day leading toward the final judgment knowing by faith that Christ has settled my account for me. By the power of the Holy Spirit at work through this Gospel, He is establishing in me the desire to seek and abide in His truth in all situations. In other words, my opinions take a back seat to His opinions.
Looking to the days ahead, if we establish our footing on anything other than the truth of God’s Word, we are doomed. And certainly, if there’s anything to be learned from the last few months it’s that no human word or deed can assure us of what’s next, let alone what’s true. Not an executive order, a doctor’s opinion, a social media post, or news report.
There’s lots of uncertainty at the bottom of the basement steps. But through faith in Christ, we can know to reach for the light switch of God’s Word. It’s there we learn that no matter how dark the days may become, “nothing in all creation is hidden from His sight” (Hebrews 4:13). He is well aware, and by no means has He lost control.
As the cities continue to burn, as de-educated punks continue to topple monuments, while self-righteous thugs deliberately trample others because of skin color, continue to let your legs carry you to the place where your finger can flip the switch. Be found in the bright beaming light of the truth which affirms, “‘Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him?’ declares the Lord. ‘Do I not fill heaven and earth?’” (Jeremiah 23:24).
Rest assured He sees it all. He sees and knows you, too. He also knows what’s happening around you. Trust Him. Follow Him. Labor in these dark days by the strength He provides, being assured by the light of His Gospel truth that as you make your way through this seemingly unhinged world of ungodly wokeness, “your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
Like me, I’m sure many of you are consuming your fair share of articles offering a wide array of perspectives on all of this. My friend shared an interesting one with me this past week. In it, Harvard Professor of Psychology, Steven Pinker, was noted as suggesting that the ones leveling the most pressure on the governors to loosen the grip of the lock downs are the Christians, namely, those Pinker refers to as being afflicted by the “malignant delusion” of belief in the afterlife. In his opinion, it’s the Christians who are proving themselves to be the enemies of life and are putting their neighbors at risk. In contrast, he believes atheists—people unwilling to trust in the possibility of an afterlife—are the ones showing the truest concern for society’s health and safety. Unsurprisingly, they’re a significant portion of the voices pressing most fervently for masks, social distancing, stricter government mandates, and longer quarantines.
I read another article (well, more like a blog post) last night that connected a few more of these dots. Written by a supporter of the lock downs, the post inferred rather disingenuously that everyone is obligated to support the rioting protests no matter how violent they become. I use the word “disingenuously” because the protesters are by no means quarantining, obeying government mandates, practicing social distancing, or wearing proper masks while they burn buildings and empty the local Target store of its wine and fat fryers. The irony is thick. But it’s overlooked and given room to breathe. Why? Well, because in the blog writer’s mind, the violence is justified, being the proper reward for thousands of years of oppression fostered by Judeo-Christianity. In other words, he blamed the riots on Christians.
Both of these are interesting perspectives. Ignorant, but interesting. And certainly you, the reader, will take from them whatever you want. I’ve learned that much along the way of sharing things like these.
For those of us who follow the historic lectionary in worship, we’ve heard a lot lately about how the world is in vigorous opposition to Christ and His Church. Sunday after Sunday for several weeks of the Easter season, the Lord has reminded us from John 14 and 15—sometimes subtly, and other times directly—that the world (the collective of sinful humanity in opposition to God) is waging open war against God’s people.
Simply put, Jesus kept reminding us that the world hates us. But He said this is only true because it hates him most of all (John 15:18-25).
At one point along the way, the Lord unpacks this hatred by reminding Christians they are distinct from the world and the world knows it. It’s not because of anything inherent to any of us, but rather because by the work of the Holy Spirit for faith (whom the Lord speaks about over and over again throughout John’s Gospel), God has claimed us as His own.
“If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you” (John 15:19).
For as frightening as this particular verse might be, it certainly does help make sense of the seemingly imbalanced nonsense Christians face day in and day out. We can understand why Professor Pinker would believe as he believes, while at the same time being one to justify keeping the local Walmart open during the lock down—a place where thousands upon thousands of people visit in a single day, touching this and that item before putting it back on the shelf undecided, and not one single employee in sight to sanitize any of it. Scientifically speaking, Walmart is a bio-hazardous mess. But Pinker, and others in the blogosphere, can turn blind eyes to such things and be found supporting both violence as well as a Governor’s threatening of churches with fines if they hold in-person worship services, even as the church-goers practice social distancing within an immaculate worship space that has had every square inch scrubbed and sanitized multiple times every day of the week, and doubly so over the course of the few hours when the congregants actually meet.
One might be tempted to think that the only real way forward for Christians is to step into a silent stride beside the world, to blend in, to do what it tells you, to keep one’s head down, and maybe even try to keep one’s faith a secret in order to abide. But I see two problems with this.
The first is that the world can smell a Christian a mile away. Clandestine or on the sleeve, a Christian’s devotion to Christ will eventually be discovered. The fruits of faith are hard to hide, and the more the world demands submission to its gods and compliance with its rites and ceremonies, the harder it will be for the Christian to continue in the lemming-like stride of ambivalence. Eventually the Christian will be found at the edge of a cliff, and in that moment, the Christian will be aware of the Lord’s words to Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15). But the world will be whispering there, too. It will hiss an undercurrent of doubt, asking, “You don’t really believe all that stuff, do you?”
It’s there the distinction is revealed and the Christian is forced to show his or herself as being in or out of step with the world.
If you haven’t experienced moments like this yet, trust me, you will.
I suppose the second problem I have with this is that as Jesus was speaking the words I referenced from John 15:19, in His divine omniscience, He was already mindful of what He preached in Matthew 5:13-16 where He called His believers salt and light. Salt is hard to ignore. Sprinkle a little onto a bite and give it a taste. You’ll know it’s there. Light is equally noticeable in comparison to darkness. Have a group of people close their eyes, then turn off the lights and light a candle. When they open their eyes, I guarantee they’ll be drawn to the candle’s flickering flame long before noticing anything else in the room.
Christians stand out. There’s really no way around it. And from the Lord’s perspective, this is a good thing. It means He has established us as both servants and leaders in a world filled with death and destruction. We are those who add humble, but steadfast, flavor while at the same time being those who lead with the bright beaming light of truth—namely, the Gospel. Perhaps even better, we are fortified for both of these roles by God’s Word, which means we have the source for knowing both how and why we are salt and light.
The whole of our identity is located in Christ who has redeemed us, reclaimed us, recalibrated us, and re-established us as His people in the world.
But once again, the Lord is careful to instruct us that the first test of this identity is to endure the hatred of a world that would much rather be rid of us. It’s almost Biblical the way Shakespeare wrote: “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” (Henry IV, Part II). This is true. The crown of righteousness borne by the Christian, while it is a joy for eternal life, it can seem heavy in this mortal life. Still, Christians are given minds to understand the weight of the crown, seeing it for what it is—a baptismal mark that not only designates the bearer as one purchased and won by the Redeemer and an inheritor of the world to come, but as one who has been led into the duty of being a dealer in hope—real hope.
Yes, situations requiring the hope we bring can be sketchy. Carrying the message of Christ crucified into any setting can be risky. But again, Christians have been given the task of doing it, and it is accomplished, for the most part, by just being who we are in Jesus Christ—servants and leaders, salt and light—no matter the flatland, valley, hill, or cliff.
Personally, I think all of this begs deep reflection right now.
And by the way, Jesus has been very clear along the way to say that any ability for reflecting on any of this (discerning the knowing, being, and doing) will be discovered only as we are connected to His Word (John 14:23-31, John 15:1-8). Disregard the Word—both verbal and visible—and your trip over the cliff is all but certain.
In conclusion, I suppose that’s my simplest prayer for you this morning is that you would remain fixed in the Word of God in all things, and there, knowing and understanding the world’s hatred for you, still you’d be found courageous. I pray for your readiness in season and out of season to be salt and light, fully prepared at the edge of each cliff to step out of stride with this world, if necessary, and “in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).