We offer plenty of cheerful statements at various times and for multiple reasons. “Happy birthday” is one. We say that year after year as we recognize the passage of another twelve months in a person’s life. “Congratulations” is another. We’ll use that word for many reasons, never just one thing. We’ll offer it if a person lands a new job, gets engaged, wins at bingo, or any other significant or insignificant occasion.
But then there’s, “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” No other declarative assertion in history compares, and only one event can claim it.
Jesus of Nazareth, the One mocked and physically abused into gross malfiguration, and then spiked to a cross until His body could take no more, He met with the last enemy, Death (1 Corinthians 15:26). And yet, He is beautifully, brilliantly, wonderfully alive! “He has risen,” the angel told the women visiting His tomb, “he is not here. See the place where they laid him” (Mark 16:6).
It’s likely they looked. But they didn’t need to. They already knew the scene well—the terribly dreary place palled by Death’s sights, sounds, and smells. They were sitting across from the tomb’s entrance watching Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea take the Lord’s limp body—battered, hemorrhaging, and likely beginning to stiffen—and wrap it in a linen shroud and place it inside (Luke 23:55). The women saw the Lord’s end—His brutally gruesome end. How could anyone survive such a thing?
They don’t survive it. No one does. Even in Jesus’ case, Death came, bit down hard, and then carried Him away.
At least, Death thought it had a hold on Him.
To call out, “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” is to know that at one particular moment on the timeline, somewhere out of sight, and sometime between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, a cosmic encounter ensued. Death’s trophy opened His eyes and took back His own life (John 10:18). Having never lost His divine authority over all things but only hidden it, He enacted His ambush. He pushed apart Death’s jaws, and in between its now fully realized predicament noted by terrified whimpers, took to His feet. And in the next few moments, as His body was restored, keeping only the scars from the nails and spear (for our sake), He leaned into Death and made it His trophy.
Jesus accomplished and forever sealed the death of eternal Death.
Calling out “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” is so much more than “Happy birthday” or “Congratulations” ever will be. It’s a phrase that genuinely meets with every single moment of life—from one’s birth to one’s final breath. Easter, a singular event, celebrates the defanging and ridding of humanity’s last enemy, the one residing at the center of all human fear: Death. Death has forever lost its power. There is no longer any reason for hopeless concern in this life, no matter how challenging life may be or what the devil or the world might bring our way. Jesus defeated such concern’s master. All who believe this—those who cling by faith to Jesus and His sacrifice on the cross—receive the merits of the same conquering Christ.
And what are these merits?
The forgiveness of sins. And, of course, where there is the forgiveness of sins, there is also life—eternal life—and salvation (John 3:16-17 and 6:40, Hebrews 10:10, 1 Peter 2:24, Matthew 26:28, 1 John 1:7, and so many others).
Indeed, alleluia, Christ is risen! May God continue to bless you by the power of the Holy Spirit for faith in Jesus. May He keep you enveloped by Easter Day throughout every moment of every day.
For one, it’s proof that my congregation’s littlest children are listening—really listening—to what’s being preached and taught. This should be an assurance for anyone among us who’d question our Christian school or the rites and ceremonies of our liturgies. Our children, more than supported by faithful parents, are taking God’s Word into themselves in the richest ways—ways that equip them not only for steadfastness but for communicating the Gospel with substance. In other words, we’re raising our children to be far more than “Jesus loves you” Christians. They’re ones who can speak of God’s love and then go further into the person and work of Christ, the substance of that love.
Proof of this can be seen in a series of pictures I received after worship last Sunday. The images, five in all, depict the events of Holy Week and the Triduum—from Palm Sunday to Easter. Giselle Graney made them for me. And oh, how wonderful they are!
For the record, Giselle is eight years old. But don’t let that distract you. It’s clear she knew what she was doing. By the way, I went down to the school to ask her about a few of the images’ details just to be sure. I learned she was at home feeling a little under the weather, so I called her mom, Kerry. I asked her to check with Giselle. Sure enough, Giselle was intentional, even with the seemingly inconsequential details. And by the way, what she put into the portraits proves a theological prowess that extends far beyond many adults—the kind of artistic demonstration of Christological depth that one usually only sees among the greats like Caravaggio and Rembrandt.
Give me a minute or two, and I’ll walk you through a few of Giselle’s images. I know you’ll be as blessed. But before I share, there’s one more thing to keep in mind: the rule of interpretation.
A line in The Picture of Dorian Gray comes to mind. This is likely because I recently spent some time in the book looking for another line that fit a paper I was writing. In the volume’s preface, Oscar Wilde writes, “All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.” In other words, when looking at art, you see the details that are actually there. That’s the surface. But there’s always more to it. There’s meaning. Art attempts to make meaning visible. That involves interpretation. That requires the viewer to dig deeper into what he sees. It also involves prerequisite knowledge. Together, there in the substratum, knowledge and meaning challenge the viewer, just as the artist would have it. Giselle has done this masterfully. What’s more, she’s been paying attention to everything she’s heard so far throughout Lent. These images prove her heart is already cemented for the events circling Golgotha’s terrifying hill. And yet, she’s making her way there (and now, she’s taking all of us along) with a firm grasp on everything Golgotha itself makes sure. Even at eight years old, Giselle is demonstrating the heart-shaping power of the Gospel.
She gave me five pictures. I’m only going to talk about four. And I’ll share each before I describe it.
The first one depicts Palm Sunday. What do I like about it? First of all, this is the only picture she drew with Jesus in it—which I’ll get to in a minute. Until then, know she gets Jesus right. It seems most Palm Sunday images are inclined to portray Jesus as jubilant and smiling. And yet, Luke’s Gospel tells us He was crying, saddened that people had no idea what was actually happening, that He was riding forth to die, and that their rejection of Him as the Savior could and would only end dreadfully (Luke 19:28-44). Giselle’s Palm Sunday roadway is festively bright with colorful cloaks and palm branches. But her Jesus is tearfully sad. (See the cropped image above.) Giselle has been paying attention to the intricate details being preached to her. She didn’t just roll along in the usual pace of a springtime smiling Jesus—which I imagine is preferable to many. She showed us the Lord’s concerned heart, even when the world around Him expected an entirely different kind of king. This matters more to the Palm Sunday story than most folks might know.
Another of her portraits that caught my eye was the one detailing Gethsemane. Strangely, as I mentioned before, Jesus is not in it. Then I realized why. Jesus has already been arrested and taken away by the guards. At the picture’s top, there’s a star-filled sky. But beneath this sky, the theme is clearly darkness, as it should be. This is the beginning of hell’s onslaught against Him. Jesus said as much when the troupe approached to take Him away. Giselle heard her Lord say this last Wednesday during midweek worship. “This is your hour,” He said, “and the power of darkness” (Luke 22:53).
Still looking for Jesus somewhere else in the Gethsemane picture, the viewer only sees where He’s been. On one side, a blood-pocked portion of grass is found beside a tree. That’s where He knelt and prayed, His sweat becoming blood (Luke 22:44). On the other side, a rooster (Matthew 26:34), a sword and a bloody ear (John 18:10), and thirty pieces of silver (Matthew 26:14-16). Beneath those images, the words: “Jesus shines butier than any star.”
Did you catch that?
Intentionally or unintentionally, Giselle did two things there. First, she combined beautiful and brighter into a single word. When writers do things like that, it’s for emphasis—to draw attention to something. Intentionally or unintentionally, Giselle highlighted a profound point: what Jesus has endured—the betrayal, the suffering, the road to a grisly death—these make for the brightest, most beautiful demonstration of God’s glory (John 12:23-29; Mark 10:35-40). Indeed, Jesus displays a glory that is butier by far than any spinning celestial in the endless sky.
Another image depicts Good Friday. Again, no Jesus. But a moment of reflection determines His location. It is finished (John 19:30). The cross at the center is empty. Jesus is in the sealed tomb to one side. The rest of the portrait reveals a blackened sky (Matthew 27:45), the Father’s hand extended as He gives Jesus over as payment for Sin (Romans 8:32), a torn temple curtain (Matthew 27:51), dice used for casting lots (Matthew 27:35), the centurion’s helmet reverently removed in the presence of God’s Son (Matthew 27:54), a wilting flower (Isaiah 40:8, Romans 8:22) beside other rich images relative to the Lord’s powerful sacrifice. Displayed most prominently are the words, “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34). These are the first of the seven last words Jesus spoke from the cross. I just preached on these particular words two weeks ago. Giselle was there. She heard the reason they’re first. Amid the gory details, the forgiveness of sins rests at the heart of the terrifying but butier event. That’s why Jesus is doing what He’s doing. He’s winning our forgiveness. It’s His goal. The “them” isn’t just the people attacking Him. It’s us, too. And He never loses sight of us throughout the ordeal. This sentence leads His final string of sentences, serving as the heart for each.
Giselle gets this.
The last image I’ll talk about is incredibly rich. It’s Giselle’s portrait of Easter. Again, no Jesus. But by now, I think I get Giselle’s broader theme, intentional or unintentional. First of all, while we can’t see Him, the risen and ascended Christ has promised, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20. But more important to the Easter narrative’s cadence, Jesus is always a step ahead of His beloved. In other words, the Lord is always out in front, accomplishing what none of us could or would if left to ourselves. We can only follow and discover His wonderful work. Here, in particular, the tomb is open. The sun is shining. The flowers are blooming beneath a beautiful blue sky. Scribed across the skyline are the words announcing what He’s already done, “He I Risen Allauilla!”
Now, before you criticize Giselle’s spelling, give the eight-year-old artist her due. She’s already proven her masterful ways. Did she really misspell some words, or did she find a way to avoid using one in particular since we’re still in Lent? As many who celebrate Lent already know, tradition sets the word aside until Easter. We don’t sing, say, or write it. (Notice, I didn’t use it in this paragraph.) Also, notice it’s not “He is risen,” but “He I risen.”
Okay. She probably misspelled both words. Nevertheless, here’s a chance to apply interpretation born from what’s already been a faithful demonstration of the Gospel. The words she gave us, even if by accident, are asking to be mined more deeply.
Start with “He I risen.” That’s easy. Jesus and Giselle. That’s John 14:19. Because He lives, she will live also. As far as the other, when I saw “Allauilla,” I saw Latin. My Latin is more than rusty, but I think a case could be made for “Alla uilla!” to be translated as “Come on, to the village!” Thinking this way, remember, everything Giselle has presented so far was born from childlike faith listening to and receiving God’s Word. Staying the course, “Come on, to the village!” seems awfully familiar to Easter. If not, then you’ve forgotten Matthew 28:5-8. It’s there we read:
The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.”
Do you know what I’d say in a moment like that? “Alla uilla! Come on! Let’s go to wherever Jesus is going and find Him!” And sure enough, Jesus is found on the way to the village of Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) and then again later that same day in the upper room in Jerusalem (Luke 24:36-49).
Giselle has given me so much through these images. I’ll cherish them until I meet face-to-face with the One who inspired them. That being said, I hope you realize how significant the investment for faith made in this little girl has been, not only by her faithful parents but by a congregation intent on preserving the pure preaching and teaching of God’s Word and the right administration of the Sacraments. A church holding to this is invaluable. A Christian school serving as an extension of such a congregation is priceless. I’m absolutely sure that’s Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hartland, Michigan. Behold Giselle’s demonstration and know the labor among us is not in vain.
It’s been a busy week around here. Much has happened.
Henry David Thoreau said, “Success usually comes to those who are too busy to be looking for it.” That sounds nice. And perhaps it’s true. Still, it’s a gamble. Discovering oneself overcome by busyness, both reflection and recalibration are probably needed. Socrates knew as much, which is why he mused, “Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” In other words, just because you’re busy doesn’t mean you’re doing anything genuinely worthwhile or productive.
My wife, Jennifer, has been treating Madeline and Evelyn to episodes of “I Love Lucy.” I’ve missed out. Why? Because I’ve been too busy. It’s likely Lucille Ball would understand my reason. She allegedly said, “If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it. The more things you do, the more you can do.” She was describing momentum. Right now, my studies require incredible momentum, the kind that must be established and maintained. I’m capable of multitasking, and yet, I’ve noticed that if I slow down, get distracted, or become busy with something other than the reading and writing at hand, I get frustrated and produce less in almost every task across the board. For the record, I wrote a little more than seventy single-space pages of material this past week. That number doesn’t include two sermons, an editorial, or even this eNews, for that matter.
In your way, it’s likely you know what I’m describing. When you’re on a roll, things come more easily. Yardwork, remodeling, paperwork, you name it. Pace is important. It’s getting into the rhythm that’s hardest. For example, it’s no secret I despise exercising. If slamming my head in a door and walking on a treadmill both produced the same health results, I’d choose the door-slamming. But since I’m pretty sure head trauma burns far fewer calories than walking, the treadmill it must be. Even so, making my way to the treadmill is like walking the Green Mile. And once I get to the dreadful torture device, the sixty seconds it takes to put on my walking shoes, climb aboard, and then press the start button is nothing short of an Olympic-sized chore.
But once I get going—once momentum is built and I meet a reasonable stride—an hour on the treadmill seems like nothing. In fact, I discover I’m energized enough for a quick go at pushups, sit-ups, and planks. In other words, I find the strength for other things, not to mention my body feels better, and because I didn’t choose the head-slamming method, my skull is unbruised and pain-free.
I suppose one reason I’m sharing these rambling thoughts this morning is that we’re at the edge of Lent. Being more or less literarily exhausted by this past week, I’ll keep this shorter than usual, offering two things to consider.
Firstly, thinking Christologically and devotionally, Lent is a penitential time—a time for reflection, fasting, and spiritual recalibration. Its solemn color—the deepest violet—is a clue to this. Solemnity can influence. It can steer. By Lent’s prodding, one can find a way back into a healthy regimen of corporate worship, Bible study, and devotional self-care. If you’ve fallen prey to worldly busyness that leaves little time or energy for the God who loves you, Lent can be good for you. Beginning with Ash Wednesday, the six weeks that follow will involve a spiritual “exercising” of sorts. The human heart and mind will be immersed in what Saint Paul calls “the word of the cross” (1 Corinthians 1:18) in ways relatively unmatched by the rest of the Church Year. And as the routine progresses from one week to the next, momentum builds until finally meeting its stride in Holy Week and the Triduum—the great “Three Days” of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Vigil of Easter. It’s there a Christian realizes (if he or she hasn’t already) the great goodness to be had by a seemingly dreadful regimen—the cross’s dripping mess; a bludgeoned, bloody, and weakened Savior pinned to its gibbet; a terrible black sky palling the whole scene, leaving one to wonder if anything Christ said and did produced anything of value. Indeed, Easter’s stride says, “Absolutely! Everything He said was true! His resurrection is proof. By the power of the Holy Spirit through this Gospel, I have the strength to go on—to flex the muscle of Christ’s divine love until my last breath!”
Secondly, while the word “Lent” might carry some gloomier baggage for many, it’s actually a word of hope. Its root is an Old English word meaning “springtime.” Its Dutch and German crossovers mean “longer days.” In other words, inherent to Lent’s momentum is not necessarily a spiritual drudging through misery. Instead, its heart is set on counting down to the perpetually sunlit springtime of new life. Again, Easter—the festival day that proves the promise of heaven will be the longest, most wonderful summer day for all who believe in Jesus, the One who conquered the eternal night of Death on the cross!
And so, my point is twofold. Firstly, take advantage of Lent. Use its regimented traditions of fasting to your benefit. Let them help you build momentum toward a steady stride of faithfulness for the rest of the year. And secondly, do this knowing that even as building momentum may be challenging, remember your goal and then be blessed by its stride. The longer days, blossoming trees, bright-beaming sun filling pleasant days—all these things are hints to the world to come, and Lent and Easter display the scene magnificently.
Lent is nearly upon us. The next three Sundays—Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima—prepare us for its spiritual throttling.
In a way, worshipping communities that employ historic liturgies already have the upper hand on Lent’s penitential nature. They’ll easily recognize the following words’ shackling character used at the Divine Service’s beginning:
“Most merciful God, we confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean. We have sinned against You in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We justly deserve Your present and eternal punishment.”
Or perhaps you know it another way:
“I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto you all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You and justly deserved Your temporal and eternal punishment.”
Present and eternal punishment. Temporal and eternal punishment. Same thing. The spheres of this world and the next are both included.
Indeed, these words are incarcerating, leaving no room for escape.
Essentially, we first approach God’s altar admitting to something. Even as believers, the nature of faith has a sense of what that something is. Faith reminds the believer to think twice before approaching God according to our human virtues. We should never think He hasn’t the right to send us away in shame. We should never be so comfortable with ourselves that we begin to think His wrath is something we don’t merit. And so, before anything else occurs in the service, believers go to their collective knees in confession. We fold our hands. We keep our heads low. We establish a posture before the One who has every right to eradicate every swirling atom of this fallen creation. We do this agreeing to His description of humankind, not our own, a description rendered so eloquently—so searingly—in His holy Word.
I’m doing more reading these days than ever before, almost to the point of it being unenjoyable. I read somewhere along the way that Frank Lloyd Wright designed his unique structures in ways that communicated his heart’s greatest love for nature. What stirred in his heart caused him to say, “The space within becomes the reality of the building.” I get what he means. He was an architectural artist. And his words sound nice. However, I’ve seen some of Wright’s buildings. In my opinion, they’re as impractical as they are impressive. But what do I know? That being said, if you really want to see a genuine architectural rendering of a human heart, stop by any of the thirty-one prisons in Michigan. There you will see a more authentic representation of humanity’s viscera in an architectural form. You will observe an exterior adorned by multiple rows of massive fences decked in razor wire surrounding windowless cinderblock. What will you discover within? Through the facility’s massive metal doors, you’ll find wall after wall securing one human cage after the next.
A prison is the human heart’s best interpretation because, of itself, humanity is not free.
As I said, I’ve been reading quite a bit lately from lots of sources. Cyril Connolly is a writer I discovered by way of Rudyard Kipling. Connelly said something about how everyone is serving a life sentence in the dungeon of self. For as depressing as that might sound, he wasn’t that far from what Saint Paul meant by a number of phrases employed throughout his Epistle to the Romans. He writes things like “the law of sin and death,” “enslaved to sin,” and “the wages of sin is death.” Paul is trying to tell us something.
For one, he wants us to know we can’t keep God’s Law rightly. As humanity is enslaved to Sin, so is humanity dragged along by the innate desire to break God’s Law. Paul says as much, writing, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:7-8). Naturally, when laws are broken, a judicial wage is earned: punishment. With this, we find ourselves closer to what Paul needs us to know by these phrases. Even apart from their proper context, we know something more about humanity. We not only begin to sense the handcuffs—the very real restraints that bind us to our treachery—but also the eternal punishment we’ve earned in destruction’s terrible cell.
And yet, God’s inclination has never been to punish, imprison, or destroy. He wants to show mercy (Luke 23:34, 6:36; 1 Peter 1:3; Lamentations 3:22-23). He wants to forgive. He wants to redeem—to buy back the criminals from their fate. He wants to set humanity free. Already knowing that the Gospel “is the power of God unto salvation” (Romans 1:16), the rest of the text surrounding Saint Paul’s select phrases brings this Gospel and instills the freedom God desires:
“We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Romans 6:6).
“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
“For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2).
The Good News is that Christ has won your freedom. He has paid the price. Faith in Christ binds the believer to Christ, thereby binding that same believer to the certainty that he cannot be condemned to Sin’s chains or held captive by Death’s cell.
The forthcoming Gesima Sundays are delivering us into this news in unique ways. Listen carefully. Lent will display its combat. Pay close attention. Good Friday will demonstrate the great exchange. Don’t miss it. All these things will culminate in a horrendously wonderful trial resulting in a hideously sweet verdict: Christ must take humanity’s place in judgment on the cross. The guilty ones are free to go.
And then Easter. Oh, Easter!—the joyful proof of the debt’s payment followed by the prison’s absolute demolition from the inside; a glorious work accomplished by the only Prisoner who could do it!
Perhaps you’re still trying to keep up with the latest safety recommendations for COVID? I’m not. I stopped trying to “be in the know” about these things long ago. To be clear, when it became apparent that entire fields of science were being manipulated to satisfy political agendas—many of which conveniently hindered the efforts of the Church, parental authority in schools, and so many other things that are fundamental to a moral society—my belief in the current government’s legitimate ordination became less than sturdy, and with it, my desire to cooperate in its externals. As a result, I’ve found myself accepting the possibility that God’s smiling countenance upon America, if ever ours to claim, is very near its end.
But that’s a topic for another day.
In the meantime, it seems if you can steer clear of most mainstream media sources, choosing instead to visit with some of the unprocessed and unfiltered numbers, a majority of what I think you’ll find appears to vindicate the ones who spoke out against forced vaccinations, mask-wearing, and school closings. Many studies show an astronomical surge in suicides, which is something never before seen in history. Others are proving cognitive deficiencies in children at unprecedented levels. Plenty of others imply drastic worldwide increases in cancers, strokes, cardiopulmonary diseases, respiratory illnesses, and even untimely deaths among youth within populations with the highest percentages of adherence to masking, social distancing, and vaccination acceptance.
These disastrous upturns appear to begin in the late spring of 2020. Why? What took place in 2020? I wonder.
Interestingly, the people who imposed these things upon us continue to claim that what they did was beneficial, and they’re even insisting we vote to keep them in their stations. Gretchen Whitmer, the Governor of Michigan, wants four more years. The one who, by executive order, required my local Ace Hardware to rope off its gardening and paint sections; the one who mandated that all Michigan hospitals forego countless life-saving treatments and surgical procedures; the one who sent state employees to tape off public play structures; the one who ticketed un-masked dog-walkers; the one who sent Michigan State Police to fine barbers and give citations to clergy holding worship services; the one who fortified a context in which newborns, who are now two years old, have only recently been allowed to see the unmasked faces of their caregivers, extended family, and closest childhood friends; the one who orchestrated unvaccinated employee terminations—this diabolical Governor wants to keep her job. She militantly choreographed these things and more while keeping the abortion clinics wide open and ensuring Michiganders had unhindered access to lottery tickets and liquor. This fiendish woman is insisting we give her another shot in Lansing.
Is there any doubt that I will do everything I can to see that she is not re-elected? Tudor Dixon, what can I do to help?
Of course, that’s a topic for another day, as well.
Still, no matter the ever-increasing pile of irrefutable data proving the destruction that has occurred (and continues to occur) over the last two years, some continue to show a strange tenacity for rejecting what the data shows. Why? Well, one reason might be because it’s tough to break free from the habit-forming rites and ceremonies of what has become the COVID religion. For the most part, I’ve been able to tune it out. Still, every time I stop for gas and, like you, find myself signing away years of my life for a few gallons, most of the commercials on the pump’s tiny screen involve COVID clergy repeating this new religion’s liturgies. The presiding minister says, “Mask up! Get vaccinated! This promise is for you and your children; vaccination now saves you!” The congregation resounds its amens and alleluias with, “It’s safe and effective! Love your neighbor!”
Speaking as a tradition-and-liturgy-loving Lutheran, when it comes to retaining true religion (which is what Saint James calls Christianity in the first chapter of his epistle [1:26-27], referring specifically to Christianity’s visible distinction from the world’s persona), that’s a big part of what liturgy, rites, and ceremonies are for. They deliver a clear, structured, and authoritative word from the word’s source. They repetitively do this. Repetition weaves subject matter into a person’s heart and mind, not only stirring trustworthiness but making it so that wherever the person might be, the content of his or her faith is accessible in an involuntary way. Immersing in such things creates credal boundaries designed to help a believer remain within the true faith while avoiding heterodox teachings. Again, all of these are reasons why I’m a full subscriber to liturgical Christianity. An added benefit (and again, speaking only for myself): the confines of credal Christianity have assisted many believers in identifying and defending against the inching impositions of the new credal COVID religion. Churches that are essentially “anything goes” in nature and practice don’t have the protective borders that historic liturgical churches have. In an “anything goes” world, an “anything goes” church is already a perfect match for the world’s ways. It’s just how humanity works.
But that, too, is a topic for another day.
Another thought: I think the willful cancellation of in-person worship says a lot about modern Christianity. Across the span of 2,000 years, closing the Church’s doors at Easter for fear of sickness and death seemed to communicate something viscerally wrong with 21st-century Christianity. The pastors who led the charge—or the people of God who pressured or threatened their pastors toward blind compliance—this side of the situation, I think the decision will haunt all. “At the time, we didn’t know what we didn’t know.” True. But the resurrection of Jesus is the cemented victory over death and all its creeping tendrils, the most creeping of all being fear. It should be the last celebration ever to be canceled. In Christ, for a believer, to die is not death but life. Do we tempt death with foolish practices? No. In uncertain situations, we take reasonable precautions, never imposing on God’s Word in the process. Still, do we do these things because we’re afraid of death? By no means. Why would we be? There’s a reason the Lutheran funeral liturgy includes (or at least should include) the Lord’s words to Martha at Lazarus’ tomb. Jesus spoke plainly of death to the saddened and fearful sister, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in Me will never die” (John 11:25-26). If one keeps reading the text, you’ll see the Lord didn’t end His sentence there. He asked Martha directly, “Do you believe this?” Martha’s answer will be heard and then seen.
21st-century Christians were asked, “Do you believe this?” Our communal words and deeds were incredibly disappointing.
As I said, the decision to close churches will forever haunt many Christians and clergy. But apparently, not everyone. Believe it or not, some churches are happy to remain closed to this day, and the members of those churches appear unbothered by it, too. Beyond those fellowships, many congregations have been seduced into online worship as a viable option, not just for shut-ins, be for able-bodied church-goers. Pastors and church leaders have steered God’s people into a church-certified justification for never stepping foot in the Lord’s house again. Pajamas, coffee, and church when it’s convenient—a complete disconnection from the worshipping community—have become pious. Worse than that, virtual communion is now a thing.
I have one thing to say about these things, especially as I think back to where I began: If you think the skyrocketing rates of suicide, illnesses, and premature deaths are alarming, these are nothing compared to the spiritual havoc that all this has created. It’s a mess of spiritual illnesses and deaths that reach into the world after this world. You name the tragedy—disease, lightning strike, shark attack, an automobile accident. All these things and more kill in this life. But Christians are not inheritors of this life. We are heirs of the life to come. A disconnected and starved faith kills the life to come—the unending life.
I should probably wrap up this morning’s rambling with some sort of point. I guess I’m saying that if you’ve been away from your church since 2020, having somehow become convinced that staying at home will keep you safe from all things leading to death, I beg you to reconsider your position. In truth, all the so-called reasonable excuses have dried up. Now you’re willfully committing spiritual suicide. Unfortunately, the COVID religion continues to bolster the virtue in doing so, convincing so many that they’re somehow showing genuine Christian love to their neighbors by abiding in its provably destructive dogmas.
Again, terrible—the devil’s scheme, for sure. Beware.
Remember, you can’t even begin to love your neighbor if you don’t love God more. You don’t get to the second table of the Ten Commandments (commandments four through ten) before passing through the first table (commandments one through three). God’s Word is not cloudy in this regard. Right there in the first table, trust in God above all things is chief, His name is above all others, and time with Him in worship is above all other opportunities. If these things are negligible or arbitrary to you, you’ve already wandered beyond the boundaries of the one true faith before your first hello to a neighbor. That said, there’s a good chance you’re apart from all the other salvation-crucial details inherent to the Gospel you claim to confess. Go to church. Be in study. Hear the preaching. Receive Word and Sacrament ministry for the benefit of a sturdy faith and a right trust in the Conqueror of death and its reverberating fears. Get back inside the safe keeping of this Conqueror’s sheep pen. Hear His voice and follow Him.
Unlike the inept and ever-varying science-shifters the prophets of COVID have proven to be, Jesus Christ is steady and can be trusted. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). He has promised never to leave or forsake you (Deuteronomy 31:6; Hebrews 13:5). In my book, that settles it. What’s more, He gives these promises to Christians and then, with devout concern, asks rhetorically, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:26). The answer: passing appeasement and pleasure in this temporary life but everything dreadful in the unending next.
There is a special sort of energy to this saying, isn’t there? When a believer says it, there is a sense of the world spinning in the opposite direction, as if what was once undone is now being turned back, as if our view of Eden has become a little less blurry.
Amen. The resurrection of Jesus changes everything.
“He is risen” is the cheering of the Church of all ages. She sings out to the world in praise of her Savior who died, and yet, did not fall short of His goal, no matter the apparent dreadfulness of the Good Friday wreckage. Jesus gave Himself over into Death. He did it willingly and without our asking. He turned His face toward the events with an unmatchable steadfastness, and like a juggernaut, He could not be stopped. He pressed through and into Death’s deepest hideousness, ultimately defeating it for all time from the inside.
Saint Paul makes clear for those who may still be wondering what the resurrection has to do with God’s plan of redemption, saying, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26). He says this so his readers will know there’s nothing left to be accomplished between sinners and God. Christ has done it all.
How do we know? Indeed, Paul warns of the concern if Christ hasn’t been raised, having already announced, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (15:17).
But Christ has been raised. Paul is a witness. And not only Paul but hundreds of others were visited by the bodily-resurrected Jesus (15:3-8). Would Paul lie? Would he trade his life of promise and ease for prison and execution? Would they all lie? Would they all be able to maintain such deception, keeping the story straight among such a large number? Perhaps like Paul, when the lives of these firsthand witnesses, and the lives of their families, were found teetering at the edge of grisly death, with their only safety being found in recantation, would courage built on a lie be able to see them through the moment?
Of course not, because they saw Jesus.
So, rejoice. It’s all true. Christ is risen, and your Easter faith is secure. You have staked a claim in the Lord who faced off with Death and won. His labor removed your Sin, and His resurrection victory justified you before the Father (Romans 4:25), granting to you the first-fruit spoils of eternal life (1 Corinthians 15:20).
God bless and keep you in this peace, not only today but always.
Today is Palm Sunday, also called “Passion Sunday.” Palm Sunday is the doorway into the arena of Holy Week. For those who know, today is a pivotal day in the Church Year. By “those who know,” I mean those who know what’s coming. They celebrate by waving palm branches. Later today, some will fold those branches into the shape of a cross while studying the worship schedule and making plans to return for services during the week. They do this because they’ve learned the value of pondering each of our Lord’s words and actions as He makes His way to the cross and empty tomb—even the ones that may seem inconsequential. From His washing of the disciples’ feet to a mid-trial glance at Peter, everything becomes important, and believers don’t want to miss any of it.
The first few days—Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday—are days of intense preparation underpinned by a passionate awareness of what’s looming. Then comes the holy Triduum—the three days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.
In the evening on Maundy Thursday, our Lord knows He’s in the final hours, and so He establishes His Holy Supper, a divine meal that both gives and assures us of His presence and forgiveness. Establishing this, it truly is as the Apostle John describes:
“Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1).
Indeed, He loved them to the end. If we somehow get distracted from this on Maundy Thursday, it’s likely we won’t on Good Friday. Good Friday demands the attention of all. It is the battle royale—the conflict of all conflicts on a cosmic scale. Jesus goes into the powers of darkness, not for Himself, but for us. It’s there that our salvation is exacted. Moving into the evening of Holy Saturday, or the Vigil of Easter, believers endure the darkness of what appears to be the Savior’s terrible defeat. And yet, they do this by holding to the ancient promises given throughout the scriptures, finally coming face to face with an angel who declares, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you” (Mark 16:6-7).
Easter Sunday is the first step from Holy Week into an entirely new season—one of victory, one that celebrates the conquering of Sin and Satan, as well as the death of Death itself; all of it accomplished by the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was dead but is now alive, and who now reigns for all time.
Today, Palm Sunday, we celebrate. Again, we wave palm branches. We sing with festive voices. Next Sunday we celebrate, too. We’ll sing just as brightly. Our Easter suits and dresses will match the day’s tenor. In between these two Sundays, things aren’t so easy. Holy Week isn’t easy. Rest assured Our Savior in Hartland, Michigan, is a church that’s mindful of this. Knowing this, you’re invited to be present for each of the worship opportunities provided. You’re invited to hear the Word of God read and preached. You’ll want to hear this Word. It saves. You’ll want to take in the rites and be immersed in the ceremonies, all of which are born from the devotion of countless generations of Christians before you who knew something in particular about Holy Week.
And what was it they knew so well?
Well, as Pierre Corneille once observed, “We triumph without glory when we conquer without danger.” This saying is useful to Christians if only to remind us of how easy it is to be robbed of something’s truest value when we don’t know its truest cost. Holy Week spends itself revealing the cost. Without taking time to consider the immensity of it all, without taking at least a few strides alongside our suffering Savior, it’s possible to arrive at Easter without a sense of its worth.
Don’t do that. Pay attention to Holy Week. In my many years as a pastor, I’ve never met anyone who has regretted it.
In case you were wondering, at the time of this writing, there are 184 days until the first official day of summer. You might think I’m saying this because I’m already exhausted by winter. The only problem with your assumption is that winter doesn’t officially begin for two more days. Technically, we’re still in the fall.
Interestingly, to say “still in the fall” is to speak a phrase with more than one connotation, and no matter which you mean, the evidence of its actuality is there in support.
Take a look outside. The trees are bare. The leaves are scattered and damp beneath a recent layer of snow. The air is frigid. The sky is palled with clouds. There’s no arguing that the earth’s current position in relation to the sun is more than a few spins on the planet’s axis away from summer—half a year, to be exact. For me, this is a tiresome knowledge that can only be moderated through artificial means or by deliberate distraction. I keep a sun light in my office. Its light is weirdly simulated, but in the middle of a soul-dampening season that sees the sun disappearing completely sometimes as early as 5:00pm, it helps, even if only a little. In tandem, I stay busily distracted. I find that if I’m not thinking about the sky’s blue potential, I’m not necessarily missing it, and I’m less affected by its current grays.
Of course, there’s another meaning to “still in the fall” that we shouldn’t overlook. It hearkens back to the terminally unfortunate moment recorded in Genesis 3; that swift instant when, through self-inflicted grievousness, Mankind destroyed God’s perfect creation and positioned himself as far from God as physically and spiritually possible. The evidence mirroring this fall is plentiful. It’s all around us, sometimes subtly, and other times obviously. But either way, it is as discoverable as the seasonal image I described before.
It was subtly visible to me a few nights ago while working on a puzzle with Jennifer and the kids. We’d finished a 1,000-piece puzzle, and after a day or so of admiring the fruits of our long-suffering work, within a few minutes, we’d taken it apart and put it back in the box. In other words, what took days to complete was destroyed in seconds. Similarly, it was obvious to all of us by what happened in Mayfield, Kentucky, a town founded in 1824 and home to countless generations of families. In only a few minutes, the town was all but wiped from the map by a tornado.
To be “still in the fall” means that we exist in a world that continues to prove, not only that it is horribly infected by the destructive powers of Sin and Death, but that both it and its inhabitants are completely impotent against being consumed by them. It’s a place where this often plays out in subtle, but sinister, reversals. It’s a place in which one can claim Christianity, but be perfectly fine with cohabitation. Or perhaps cohabitation is admittedly offensive, but so is telling a Christian he or she is a walking contradiction for claiming Christ but only attending worship at Christmas and Easter. This same world is a place in which the bad we hear about someone is easily believed and the good is suspicious. It’s a place where lies easily outpace what’s objectively true. It’s a place where devout self-interest outguns concern for the neighbor. It’s a place in which one little disagreement can cause long term relationships and everything that goes with them to fall like leaves from an autumnal tree, having become completely disposable. It’s a place in which so many things unfold before us as reminders that this world exists in darkness, and no matter how hard we try, there’s no man-made light that can pierce its blanketing madness. There’s no artificial distraction vivid enough to keep its dreary sorrows apart and contained.
Only the real summer sun will do.
The official season of fall will end in a few days. When it does, we’ll cross over into the deathly hibernation of winter. It’s appropriate for Christmas to arrive at this precipice. Right in the middle of a downward dismalness anticipating and becoming Death, a Son is born. And not just any son, but rather the One God promised to send who would free Mankind from Sin, Death, and the devil’s ghastly grip (Genesis 3:16). Only this Son will do. He is God in the flesh. He is the incarnational invasion of God’s summertime love for a dying world filled with inert sinners. His presence is the incontestable assurance of a springtime restoration leading to eternal life—which He intends to be fully realized in the summer-like joy of paradise.
Jesus of Nazareth is this Gospel Son.
I suppose I should end by pointing out that our lives are not absent these wonderful Gospel images during the fall and winter. Sometimes obvious, and sometimes subtle, they’re there. An evergreen is a perfect example. Something that has become an emblem of Christmas, evergreen trees and bushes are subtle reminders accessible to us no matter the season. They remain thickly verdant with life all year long—just like a Christian’s hope born from the promise fulfilled in the Christ-child of Bethlehem. But then there are the obvious snapshots of the Gospel, too: the Word taught and proclaimed, the Absolution of Sins, Holy Baptism, the Lord’s Supper. Although, “snapshot” is probably not the best word to explain these things. These wonderful gifts of God are far more than images. They are tangible invasions of the most holy God—moments He has instituted, moments doused in the divine forgiveness that not only serves us while we are “still in the fall,” but also in place to prepare and then tie us to the promise of an eternal future in God’s heavenly summer.
I pray you will remember these things as you make your way into the Christmas celebration—and the rest of the Church Year, for that matter. Know that God loves you. Know that the Savior born of Mary is the proof. Know by this wonderful celebration that the winter of Sin and Death is not permanent. Summer is coming.
As always, I pray all is well with you and your family, and that as we make our way toward summer, you are beginning to receive some relief from winter’s grip.
When I say grip, I mean it. Michigan winters are long. I grew up in central Illinois. Until I moved here in 1994, I was ignorant to the fact that it’s all but guaranteed that eight of Michigan’s twelve months will deliver a measure of frigidity. It’s a truth that tips its bowler cap reminiscently to the British notion that there’s only one way to ensure summer in England and that’s to have it framed and hanging in the living room.
And yet Michiganders press on, we endure, knowing that when summer does finally arrive in our state, there will be few other places in America that can capture our hearts for home in comparison.
Although, “endure” is an interesting word to use in relation to something we love, isn’t it?
As a pastor, even as I’ve needed to endure troubling people, places, and things, I’ve also been on the scene to watch other people endure, too. About thirty-six hours ago I was sitting at gate B16 in the McNamara Terminal at Detroit Metropolitan Airport on my way to St. Louis, and across the way at gate B15 was a family enduring their restless two-year-old. Come to think of it, we were all enduring the toddler. I’m sure they love their son, but I have to imagine that in that particular moment they were doing what they could to get through the oncoming hours of travel, ultimately hoping for the peace that comes with arriving at their final destination—which appeared to be Knoxville, Tennessee.
Observing those folks (not gawking, of course), I’d say they were doing a stellar job of receiving the disdain-filled stares of the folks around them, while at the same time managing their own inclinations to put a red tag on the kid and check him as extra baggage at the door of the plane before boarding because they knew they wouldn’t get away with stuffing him into the overhead bin.
I’ve learned over the years that the way people endure struggle often reveals more about them than the actual thing being endured. I was reminded of this rather vividly earlier this week when I was called to the scene of an unexpected death. There were family members of the deceased who claimed faith in Christ, and yet were completely inconsolable—more so than I’ve ever seen before—wailing and calling out that life was now over, that all hope was lost, that God was their enemy, that they hated Him, that He was punishing them even as they’d been so faithful to Him in church attendance and prayer and giving. (For the record, I found out later after talking to their pastor they weren’t actually as faithful as they’d claimed.)
Over the course of the hour after I arrived, other Christian family and friends arrived, too. I didn’t learn of their faith in Christ by asking, but instead beheld them embracing the inconsolable ones and offering them the reassurance that hope was not lost, that God was not doling out injustice, that He was not scheming to harm or destroy them.
To be clear, I’m not belittling anyone’s moment of grief. I’ve been in and around it enough to know that it’s different for everyone. And besides, it truly was an unfortunate scene. Still, when it comes to relationship status, I’d say that for the most part, everyone in the room held equal shares of the burden of the moment. But for some reason, one group in particular seemed capable of finding their way in the darkness, of believing that even amid the coldness of Death, the summer of eternal life through faith in Christ was approaching on the horizon. They were proving a deep trust that the sadness would eventually pass, that the Day of Days was coming. It was only a matter of time. Armed with this knowledge, they were going to press forward displaying a different kind of grief, one that emitted hope and was capable of shepherding others in the same.
Paul said something about this in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14:
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”
Those who fall asleep in Jesus are brought along with Him. In the moment of their passing, no matter how dark it might seem to be, they are immediately carried to where He is. This is true by virtue of His unarguable power over Death.
Saint Paul’s words are Easter words. Easter owns them. I’m here to tell you that it’s no coincidence that God established Easter in the springtime. Spring steps forth from the grave of winter with its heart set toward summer, the sunlit upland of new life in full bloom.
Until then, indeed, the need to endure is rarely an easy thing. Just look around. But as you do, I’d caution those of you expecting to discover nothing but hopelessness unfolding throughout the world that you’ll likely see Christians continuing to prove the engine of endurance being fed by the Gospel of hope. History itself testifies to this. In a sense, you are enjoying the benefits of this verity. Fellowship in the Christian congregation you call home exists in part because the Christians who were tossed into dens filled with lions endured. The faith you are laboring to pass along to your children and grandchildren continues because Christians staked by Nero endured. The Bible—the Word of God for faith is even now in your hands because the Apostles who went out with a willingness to be crucified—even upside down—endured. The world has continued year after year to pit itself against Christianity, and yet countless generations continue in the way of salvation. Why? Because that which is the power of God unto salvation—the Gospel (Romans 1:16)—continues to endure, just as the Lord said (Matthew 16:15-20). And so, like those who’ve gone before us, we are not fearful as the world is fearful. We do not grieve as the world grieves. We do not endure unpleasantness and struggle and suffering and pain as the world endures. We have hope. We have that which has reached into us from the divine spheres and kindled our hearts with the warmth of a joy that can withstand the temperatures of mortal struggle that fall below freezing.
We know the summer of eternal life is coming. It’s not that we think it’s coming, but rather by the power of the Holy Spirit alive in us, we know it. That being true, and all of our senses being so attuned by faith to this Gospel reality, we cannot help but invest in its inevitability, ultimately letting it be visible to the people around us.
I know I don’t always do this as I should, which is why I need to continue to prepare.
I don’t know about you, but I dedicate time in the spring to preparing for summer. I clean up the yard. I trim back bushes. I prepare flower beds. I test sprinkler heads. I swap the snow blower in the garage with the lawn mower in the shed. (Michigan being what it is, sometimes I learn that I’ve made the swap a little too early.) I do countless things to make sure all is in order. I’m sure the Christians who are faithful in worship will make the appropriate connection here. They don’t need help understanding that because Christ fully accomplished our redemption, there isn’t anything we do for God that somehow plays a part in winning the unending summer of heaven. And yet, they also understand that the same Savior calls for us to prepare. He urges us to a readiness that doesn’t doze off so easily, but rather remains aware, that actively engages in order to keep itself well-stocked and complete for the Day’s arrival when we will be brought into Christ’s presence (Matthew 24:42-44; 25:1-13 ).
Christians know that holding “unswervingly to the hope we profess” means “drawing near to God” where He locates Himself (Hebrews 10:22-27). They know God’s divine prompting for readiness means being with Him in worship, together with other Christians, to receive as one like-minded, supportive, and believing family His gifts of Word and Sacrament that feed the flame of faith for running the race (Hebrews 12:1-2) and enduring until the end (James 1:12).
For those whose Easter is little more than an annual go-round with chocolate rabbits and painted eggs, the fanfare of the celebration has come and gone. Not so for the Christian Church. For us, it remains. We actually live each day in the wake of the ultimate enemy’s defeat.
Death has been conquered. Jesus has done it. Therefore, Death no longer has standing among us. No room for mastery. No room for terrorizing. No room for demands. No room for negotiation. It really is finished. Easter is the proof. And now through faith in Christ, we are His and He is ours. Living in that redemption, what’s left to frighten us?
The more I experience life in this fallen world, the more and more I become glad for this wonderful reality born from a Gospel of great power. It’s a Gospel that changes me. It changes the way I see the world. It changes the way I understand people. It changes the way I maneuver from task to task each new day. It changes the way I suffer during struggle. It alters the way I endure hatred from others.
By the loving promise of Death’s defeat, I can steer into all of these knowing that while I might not pass through them unscathed, I won’t go into them or come out on the other side without hope. Christ has cemented my hope, and with that, I can be content. I can have joy.
Before this contentment took root in me, it wouldn’t have been uncommon for me to get worked up in caustic situations. Not so much anymore. Take for example a recent circumstance in which my reputation was being maligned by deliberate deceit. In the past I might have run headlong into the fray to defend myself. Not so much anymore. I don’t feel the need to do so. I have a dominance in those situations that’s hard to unseat.
There’s a saying that people only talk behind the backs of those who are dominant. Whatever that proverb might mean to the world, for me it has been reinterpreted by the Gospel. Yes, I am in a seat of dominance. But it’s a dominance that has been granted to me—a dominance of contentment in Christ. It’s a certainty that drives away worry, leaving me to know I’m completely surrounded by the Lord’s loving care. Even as I’m behind His flag, He’s also covering any and all of my exposed flanks. With this assurance in hand, I really can say, “World, do your worst.” I am content to live according to the promise of the Easter Gospel. This means that even when things seem their darkest and I begin to feel the blunt end of injustice, even if things don’t turn around in this life, one thing remains true: I’m not an inheritor of this world. I’m an inheritor of the world to come—an inheritance won by Jesus, one in which He is sure to flip the switch of the divine lights and expose all things done in darkness. In the meantime, I can be at peace in all circumstances, strengthened for continuing forward in faithfulness.
Once again, the resurrection Gospel imputes this. It imputes it today. It’ll be there imputing it again tomorrow. And the next day. That’s the promise. If the last enemy, Death, has been conquered, what else is there to concern or harm us?
Believers know the answer to this question as they go about their lives in the perpetual sunshine of Easter, and the world will squirm with frustration around us as we do.
I want you to know that when I go to the altar of God this week at Our Savior to pray privately for His people, this will be the precision of my petitions. I will pray on your behalf, asking God that in the coming days, by the power of the Holy Spirit, He will grant for you to remember these things. My prayer will be for you to be emboldened by the same Gospel that emboldens me, that you will have taken into yourself the joyful promise of the Lord’s mighty resurrection for your justification before the Heavenly Father, which is also an ultra-confident—nay, dominant—slap in the face of Death itself.
By faith, all of this is certainly yours for the taking.