Theological Etiquette

I don’t know about you, but my early morning startup process is a mixture of ingredients. Coffee in hand, it typically involves a brief interaction with the Bible as prompted by a devotional resource. After that, as long as nothing is pressing, I spend a few minutes reading, whether that be an article or a casual scroll through social media. Last Sunday’s routine enjoyed a visit with John 1:14 followed by commentary from Luther, a portion of which encouraged believers to “further and increase [God’s] kingdom, which is in so many suppressed and hindered by the devil and the world.” Luther continued by saying this happens when we “open to Christ our treasures and present them to Him, as the wise men did. And how? Behold, His Word is written (Matthew 25:4): ‘Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’”

Not long after visiting with these things, I read a relatively intuitive quotation from Edmund Burke, a member of the British Parliament during the American Revolution and a critic of Britain’s treatment of the colonists. He said, “All men that are ruined, are ruined on the side of their natural propensities.” In other words, pay close attention to your natural inclinations in any particular situation. Doing so can spare you some of life’s biggest headaches, the kinds that will inevitably do you in.

This is incredibly insightful, so much so that it came to mind later that morning during the Adult Bible study. We’re currently studying Saint Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Last week, we continued our walk through chapter 5, which began with revisiting:

“Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore, do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord” (vv. 1-10).

Relative to this, Burke’s words seemed strangely appropriate. They understand that restraining the types of behavior Saint Paul forbids requires self-awareness, the kind born from genuine honesty.

I didn’t know it, but philosophically, Burke appears to have been a man after my own heart. He wrote a book entitled A Vindication of Natural Society. I managed to read about ten pages of it on Google Books before ordering a hard copy for myself. In the book, Burke chisels away satirically at deism’s popularity while also showing how proper manners help steer and uphold morality while fortifying the boundaries of natural law. He doesn’t necessarily use the following example, but it came to mind as I read those ten pages—and I shared the thought with the Bible study attendees.

Consider a man opening a door for a woman. When a man does this, he isn’t just being properly polite. He’s also acknowledging essential distinctions between men and women. There are things men can and should do that women cannot and should not. The same is true in the opposite direction. There are things women can and should do that men cannot and should not. And yet, while these things might be otherwise offensive to some, the distinction is acknowledged and upheld by an act of humility. Burke argues that the practice of manners—which are, for all intents and purposes, societal rites and ceremonies—restrain darker inclinations.

Now, think back to Burke’s original quotation insisting that one’s natural propensities, if unguarded, can be ruinous.

Everyone has improper tendencies. Let’s say a particular man has a propensity for lording over women, treating them as shameful lessers. By making a conscious effort to begin opening doors for women, this man takes a step toward restraining this unfortunate inclination. He’s submitting himself respectfully to the role of caretaker without unnaturally emasculating himself. The process acknowledges a man’s biblical role of headship, yet it does so in love. The practice of manners—the societal ceremony—helped maintain this framework. I’ll give you another, more personal, example.

I had a good circle of friends in my earliest high school years in Danville, Illinois. Believe it or not, even as testosterone-enriched athletes, we were never inclined to swear. The rest of our teammates were. Outnumbered in this regard, as a result, there came a time when swearing began infecting our circle. To stop it, the four of us pledged to punch one another anytime an inappropriate word crossed our lips. A few days and lots of bruises later, we brought what was becoming a natural propensity under control.

It’s too bad I cannot continue employing such tactics as a clergyman. But I digress.

In short, my friends and I knew ourselves. We were honest about what was becoming a dreadful propensity. We were Christians, and we sensed foul language’s incompatibility with our faith (and, as Burke might suggest, its erosive effect on a moral society). With that, we warred against the tendency with a ceremony capable of maintaining the boundaries (Ephesians 4:29-30, 5:1-13). We did this before the propensity ruined us. Interestingly, the ceremony was unpleasant when used. It hurt. But it was worth it. I should say, it’s likely even Saint Paul would have approved. In 1 Corinthians 9:27, the verb for “discipline” (ὑπωπιάζω) means to strike something physically. Paul appears willing to use extreme techniques to keep his own body under control. Getting punched, perhaps by Timothy, wasn’t off the table.

During last week’s Bible study, I wondered out loud if any of this was relevant to worship style. Of course, my wondering was rhetorical. How could it not be? That’s one of the benefits of traditional worship’s maintaining of historic rites and ceremonies. In a way, they’re theological manners.

Tradition understands man’s propensities. It knows we want things to be our way (anthropocentrism). To restrain this more-often-soiled-than-not tendency, rites and ceremonies—spiritual etiquette—carry the worshipper along in ways designed to exchange anthropocentrism with Christocentrism. In other words, their purpose is to force man out from the center of his own universe and put Christ firmly in the middle.

Understandably, rites and ceremonies are multifaceted, and like getting punched by three friends all at once, they can sometimes be uncomfortable. I get that. They’re strict means of exercise. But the most rigorous kinds of training often produce the best results. In this case, the singular goal of each word and motion is a heart fixed securely on Christ by faith and a new propensity—a Spirit-driven inclination—to imitate Him in the world around us (Ephesians 5:1).

Little by Little

I hope all is well with you so far this year. That might seem a strange thing to say, especially since we’re only a week into 2023. Still, we both know a lot can happen in a week. In truth, a lot can happen in mere seconds. Anything can change in an instant. An honest person—someone who knows by faith the inner workings of this fallen world—will not only admit to this but will embrace it as inevitable.

I’m guessing that for those looking in on faith from the outside, a Christian who rolls with change’s inevitability might appear to be living a disinterested life. Amid good or bad change, a Christian can speak alongside Job, saying, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). Such a person might appear to be drifting through life as though it were a mighty river sweeping him away feebly in its current.

On the other hand, perhaps the Christian can roll with life’s punches because he understands the intricacies of life and its changes in a way that onlookers cannot.

Admittedly, I’m somewhat of a mixed bag regarding change. Some people thrive on change. I don’t. I prefer most things to remain the same. There’s certainty in the steady things. Although, like most people, now and then, I get the urge to move things around in my personal spaces. I’ll be sitting at my desk, and then suddenly, I’ll rise and move an entire section of books from one shelf to another. I’ll be sitting at the bar in my basement, and then somewhat abruptly, I’ll rearrange the movie memorabilia sitting on cabinets and hanging on the walls. Those landscape alterations might not seem like a big deal to most. However, the urge that stirs them is genuine, and it acknowledges something deeply relevant to life. The seemingly innate need to change things is a reminder that something is seriously wrong with this world, and whatever it is, it needs to be made right.

But there’s something else proven by the exercise. The urge to rearrange things returns. It might be a week later. It might be two years later. Either way, it returns. This proves that no matter what I do to get things in the right places, the deeper disorder remains.

By faith, Christians can get along in such a world, no matter the changes. Good or bad, we’re the kind of people who endure.

I’m sure I’ve shared before that I appreciate Washington Irving. I read his infamous The Legend of Sleepy Hollow at least once a year. I do this not only because he spends his best energy delving into classical tales from early America but because, unlike modern writers, Irving handles the frightful things with a poetic style. Or perhaps a better way to say it is that he seems to take hold of scary things and presents them nonchalantly, almost as though they ought to be expected even while they are surprising. For a Christian, that kind of storytelling makes sense. As someone fitted by the Holy Spirit to endure, Irving makes sense to us when he writes, “There is a certain relief in change, even though it be from bad to worse…it is often a comfort to shift one’s position and be bruised in a new place.”

Perhaps that’s part of what the Lord meant when He instructed His followers to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39). He doesn’t intend for His Christians to be punching bags. He means for us to know we should never expect to be hit only once. More will come. And so, don’t be foolish. Situate yourself for endurance.

Thinking about these things, I should mention that Christians are by no means complacent about change. Christian endurance is far different than giving up and floating helplessly downstream. The knowledge of the deeper disorder keeps us vigilant. Because of this, we’re far more attuned to change than the rest of the world around us. It seems for most people in the world, change is of little consequence so long as it doesn’t bring personal inconvenience. In one sense, that’s how things got so bad in Nazi Germany. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum attempted to memorialize that reality with a wall plaque of Rev. Martin Niemöller’s words, which were:

“First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Little by little, changes were made that targeted particular groups of people. Eventually, those changes crossed over into Niemöller’s sphere. But when they did, it was too late. Collectively, the little modifications had become unstoppable juggernauts. Truth be told, for as many people who lived relatively untouched lives during the 1930s and 40s, Christians were the first to see the dangers and sound the alarm, ultimately doing all they could to trip the Nazi jackboots. Many died trying. Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one. But he wasn’t the only one. There were plenty of others.

I suppose with the New Year comes both the awareness of and inclination for change. Mostly, I’m guessing a person’s New Year resolutions exist within the Niemöller-type frame. They’re personal, and it’s likely they’ll only allow inconvenience if a personal benefit is involved. People try to eat better, to exercise more, to be healthier. The intent in these things is good. And I’m certainly one to root for their success. I suppose what’s coming to mind this morning is not only the need to encourage continued endurance amid discomforting changes in our world but to encourage awareness of change beyond the safety of self. In other words, just because it doesn’t affect you doesn’t mean it isn’t worth your attention. It might be hurting someone else. That should matter to you. If it doesn’t, the time may come when you’ll have no choice but to be concerned.

For example, back in 2021, Scott Smith could have cared less about the demands of LGBTQ, Inc. in schools. But then his 15-year-old daughter was raped by a transgender student in the women’s bathroom at her high school. He responded angrily against the Loudoun County School Board (as any loving father should have), was arrested, and branded a domestic terrorist by the National School Boards Association, Merrick Garland, and President Biden. Interestingly, it took such a startling tragedy to stoke nationwide parental concerns for these and other issues. Now countless seats on School Boards across America have been seized by parents intent on jettisoning these radical—but already very entrenched—ideologies from our schools. They’re discovering and unbinding the dangerous grip of Critical Race Theory. They’re uncovering and dismantling the attempts by progressive ideologue teachers to read pornographic literature to 1st graders. They’re finding all these things and more, and they’re waging war against the disorder.

As the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Little by little, changes were made. And now we’re cleaning up some pretty big messes. As Christians, we know the sources of these messes: Sin, Death, and Satan.

These are the powers at work in the deeper disorder.

Again, be encouraged to pay closer attention in the New Year. Perhaps a personal resolution for change might be to become more aware of what’s changing around you—whether the change is good or bad, who it affects, and what you can do to help. Doing this, I’m certain you’ll find ways to flex the already empowered muscle of faith in a world that desperately needs what you have to offer, not only for the sake of living peaceful and godly lives (1 Timothy 2:2) but for leading others to the only One who capable of bringing an all-surpassing order to the deeper disorder. Jesus accomplished this on the cross. He proved it by His resurrection. Now we live in this Gospel, owning the spoils of His victory, and employing them in the world around us.

We are not drifting through life. We are engaging in it with an altogether different kind—a divinely impenetrable kind—of endurance and discernment amid change.

The Epiphany of Our Lord, 2023

I’m writing this note to remind and invite you to the Epiphany Divine Service tonight at Our Savior in Hartland at 7:00 pm. Epiphany sees Christmas depart, and a new season begins. In a way, and considering the meaning of the word epiphany, it’s almost paradoxical.

Epiphany comes from the Greek word meaning “to make known.” When someone experiences an epiphany, something is revealed, and the person becomes aware of something previously unknown. In a sense, Christmas is itself a preeminent epiphany event. God gives His son to the world. By His birth, so much is made known. The angels break through fantastically from heaven to declare it. Shepherds so wonderfully announce it to everyone they meet. There’s Jesus, the Son of God, in the flesh. Emmanuel, God with us. But then January 6 arrives, and with it, the season of Epiphany begins. It begins with the account of the Magi being led by a star to the humble residence of the Christ-child. Traditionally, and suddenly, January 6 sees that all of the seasonal pomp of Christmas is put away—hidden out of sight, put back into the boxes under the stairs, in the closet, in the basement. If epiphany means to make known, then this seems counterintuitive to the season’s message.

But it isn’t. Throughout the season of Epiphany, Christ is being revealed in incredible ways that Christmas could not fully deliver. For one, the hiding of Christmas’ divine pomp hints at Christ’s veiled divinity. As the Christmas Gospel declared, He is God in the flesh dwelling among us. And yet, unlike all other human beings walking around, their souls similarly veiled, Jesus is both the creator and deliverer of souls. Epiphany sets the stage in unmistakable terms that Jesus is who He says He is. His identity is revealed throughout as He does things no one else can do. This man is no ordinary man.

I can’t remember who said it, but someone noted that the Lord’s miracles toll an epiphany bell. They point to Calvary. They ring for the human senses a divine awareness of what’s actually occurring when this man suffers and dies on the cross. Human senses cannot fathom such an event as being anything so wonderfully divine, yet it is. The One who accomplishes the work of mankind’s salvation has proven by His miracles the merit of His words and deeds. He can say to a dead girl, “Arise,” and she does (Mark 5:21-43). He can speak to a vicious sky, “Be quiet,” and it submits (Mark 4:35-41). Beholding these things, He can say to you, “I will go to Jerusalem. I will suffer for your sins. I will die in your place. I will rise from death and give to you the merits of my effort” (Matthew 20:18-19). When He says this, you can believe Him. Epiphany is the clarion call of His trustworthiness.

As a side, Epiphany has the potential for tolling other bells.

For one, Epiphany encourages Christians to pay attention to the revelations of faith itself. For example, and perhaps on a personal level, I suppose the strangest epiphany born from faith is the realization (and the otherworldly sensation) of love for a Savior so secure that I’d be willing to die for Him rather than forsake Him. He saved me from eternal Death. The world may do its worst. Like the Magi, I’m willing to risk life and limb to be with Him. What do I have to fear?

When that realization lands on you—when that genuine aspect of faith becomes known—life takes on an altogether different hue.

Consider joining us for worship tonight at 7:00 pm. Be strengthened in this alongside your brothers and sisters in Jesus. I’m preaching tonight, and I hope to look out and discover you in the pews.

New Year’s Day 2023

I don’t intend to take much time with this morning’s scribbling. I’m functioning on very little sleep, and I think I’d rather sit, drink coffee, and rework the sermon I’ve already prepared. I mean, why not. With the New Year comes new thoughts, new intentions, new perspectives—all aimed at doing what one can to get things right, to shore up the previous year’s holes.

Lots of folks humbug the usual New Year sentiment of self-betterment. They mock resolution makers, chuckling at the exercise equipment boxes leaning against trash cans at the curb. Their chuckling becomes full-throated laughter when they see the equipment that arrived in those boxes at the same curb a few months later. Still, I won’t slight anyone willing to try. I’m glad for people who want to do better, who walk in hopeful stride alongside the starry-eyed poets who wrote, “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” In other words, they know that it’s never too late to start a new course, be healthier, have a brighter spirit, and see each moment as an opportunity for fresh beginnings.

Christians own the corner market on these things. How could we not? Every time we fail, our Lord lifts us by His Gospel, reminding us that He succeeded in all things in our place. He drenches us in this forgiveness. All year long, he continues to wipe our slates clean, continually announcing He remembers our wickedness no longer (Hebrews 8:12). I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve heard a struggling Christian end a moment of sorrowful reflection with the phrase, “And yet, every day is a new day in the Lord.” To say this is nothing short of reciting the divine comforts leveled in Lamentations 3:22-23 and 2 Corinthians 4:16. Indeed, “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” Indeed, “we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.”

Praise God for this! As I preached in last night’s New Year’s Eve sermon, we’ll need this divine love every day of the oncoming year.

Aware of this love, there’s something else to keep in mind.

For starters, I don’t know too many genuine Christians who are comfortable with their sins. Christians want to do better. They want to be faithful. This means they want to exchange faithfulness to “self” with a better alignment to Christ’s will. Of course, they will struggle to accomplish this, having trouble jettisoning certain behaviors that haunt them, finding themselves in a perpetual wrestling match with these ever-stalking ghouls. Still, they’ll be honest about it, craving Word and Sacrament gifts of Gospel love that strengthen them for the bout. They know that only by the gifts God gives can they rise from the previous day’s struggles and say, “Every day is a new day in the Lord.” This is the voice of faith. This is proof of the Holy Spirit alive within them. This is evidence that they know what Saint Paul meant when he said, “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Galatians 5:17). Aware of this dynamic, Christians make conscious commitments to fight.

I say, get fighting. Take advantage of the New Year tradition of resoluteness and go to war against these things. Start the New Year reenergized for doing so. Commit to waking each day, remembering that in Christ, “every day is the best day in the year” (Ralph Waldo Emerson).

God bless and keep you for this. Trust Him. He certainly is “able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us” (Ephesians 3:20).

By the way, if you find yourself struggling with this assurance, find a crucifix and take a long hard stare. In fact, I recommend putting one where you’ll see it first thing every morning. The reality symbolized by that gruesome scene is the “power at work within us.” Christ’s death has freed you from Sin, Death, and Satan’s power. Every day of each oncoming year that can be pitched against the events of Calvary will be a new day bolstered by the Lord’s marvelous love.

Again, God bless and keep you for this. It’s my prayer for you this New Year’s Day.

New Year’s Eve 2022

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

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

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

But why?

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

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

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

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

This is true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas Day, 2022

Merry Christmas!

What cheer that greeting brings, wouldn’t you say?!

Discounting the exceptions—that is, the humbugging Scrooges of this world who’d be rid of Christmas if they could—“Merry Christmas” is one of the few salutations with the muscle to stoke the cooling embers of a tired heart. Indeed, a weary soul is made young again, even if only for a moment, when a smiling passerby says, “Merry Christmas.”

Truly, it’s a greeting like no other.

I heard the greeting countless times last night at the Christmas Eve service. As I did, I was reminded of days long since spent, past seasons from childhood to adulthood. In a way, it could be said that unlike other greetings, this one stands at the door of here-and-now inviting memories to come inside. “Remembrance, like a candle,” Charles Dickens said, “burns brightest at Christmastime.” He might be right. “Merry Christmas” is spoken today, and a favorite toy from decades ago is remembered. It remembers a special moment with family. It remembers bygone friends. It remembers so many things.

Rarely would I add anything to Dickens’ wisdom, except to say it’s not just our pasts being invited to join us. I think our hopeful futures enter, too. Hope comes in to sit beside memory’s flickering flame.

I slept here at the church last night, mainly because I’m getting a little older and more easily tired. I don’t usually get home until well after 1:00 AM on Christmas Eve. Knowing I’d need to turn right around and come back in barely a handful of hours, combined with the treacherous roads, this year I decided to stay. I’ve done such things before. Besides, those who know me best can assume I was accompanied by a warming beverage before bed, one furnished by the Scots. I also happened upon a poetic scribbling from Alexander Smith, another product of Scotland. “Christmas,” he wrote, “is the day that holds all time together.” Like Dickens, I think he might be onto something. The very event of Christmas, if anything, begins the divine intersection of past, present, and future.

The Lord’s birth is the first effort of God’s plan to save us. As it begins, a much fuller Gospel message can be seen on the horizon. The angels sing it. The shepherds share it. The wise men are drawn to it. The Devil, through Herod, is fearful of it. And why? Because in its completeness, it will be a message that meets with the past, present, and future. It will herald what Christ has done, is doing, and will continue to do for humanity relative to Sin. This is the timelessness of “Merry Christmas.” This is the greeting’s forward thrust.

To grasp it, it’s as simple as digging a little deeper into the greeting. The salutation’s innards are not far from “Be joyful! Christ is present bringing salvation!” A Christian stands in the middle of the intersection by these words. To say “Merry Christmas” is to see all of time being held together. It is to give and receive the best answer to the hardest questions plaguing anyone’s past, present, and future.

If a troubled soul were to ask, “How can the Lord love me for what I’ve done?” The answer must be, “Fear not! He does! Merry Christmas!” If the concern continues by asking, “Will my disfigured past ever obstruct the Lord’s view, making Him unable to love a person like me?” The answer must be, “No. He knows what you’ve done. Still, He inserted Himself into the tarry horribleness of your dreadful past to claim you. Merry Christmas!”

Unconvinced, a person might continue, “As hard as I try, I continue to fall short. Will my everyday imperfections disgust Him enough to push me away? Will He ever walk away when I fall? Will He ever distance Himself from my continued shame?” Again, the Christmas answer must be, “No, He will not do these things. Certainly, you are not perfect. But He is. Trust Him. By His great exchange on Calvary’s cross, He takes your sadness into Himself and gives to you His righteousness. Merry Christmas!”

“But what about the future? As with anyone else, won’t He one day grow tired of this exercise? As with so many others, won’t He one day turn me away?” Christmas closes the book on the discussion, offering kindly, “No, He won’t. He sees your penitent faith, even if you don’t. He intends to heap mercy upon you until He returns in glory on the Last Day. Be joyful! He came at His nativity to save you. He’s coming back to take you home! Merry Christmas!”

Dear Christians, please know that all is well by faith in Jesus, the divine Child we celebrate today—Christmas Day! The intersection of your past, present, and future rested in that manger in Bethlehem so long ago. He came. He was who He claimed to be, and He accomplished what He said He would. Your salvation is secure. You are His, and He is yours. This wonderful friendship is His gift to you (John 15:15). Moreover, it’s a divine exchange meant for presenting you as Jesus’ most precious possession before the heavenly Father (Titus 2:14). By His work, you are justified (Titus 3:4-7). Covered in the pristinely white wrappings of Holy Baptism and topped with the bloodstained bow of His salvific work on the cross, what else might the Son say amid this grand and heavenly gift-exchange but “Merry Christmas!” (Romans 8:34, 1 John 2:1, and Hebrews 7:25)? It certainly seems appropriate.

Again, the greeting is like no other.

With that, Merry Christmas to you and yours! I hope to see you later this morning for worship at 9:30 AM. If you can make it, please know that the heat is on, the lights are beaming, and the Lord’s gifts of Word and Sacrament are ready and waiting to be received.

Christmas Eve, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

How is this possible?

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

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

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

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

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

Colliding With Christmas

The Thoma family watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas” not long ago. Jennifer bought the DVD. Although, she had trouble finding it. Considering the religious climate in America, I’m not surprised. The Christmas Gospel from Luke 2:8-14 is the cartoon’s essential point.

Asked by Lucy to direct the school’s Christmas play, Charlie Brown goes from scene to scene, becoming increasingly frustrated with the task. Along the way, he sets out to get a Christmas tree for the set. Anyone familiar with Charlie Brown will know how that goes. He gets a rather pathetic tree, one that bends all the way to the ground when a single bulb is hooked to its branches. As the children walk off stage laughing, he snaps, calling out with a shout, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?!” Linus steps up to answer, his signature blanket in hand. “Sure, Charlie Brown,” he says, “I can tell you what Christmas is all about.”

Linus asks for the stage lights to be set and then begins, “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not. For, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’”

As gently as Linus begins, he turns back to Charlie Brown. With the simplest of childlike innocence, he says so plainly, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

Even though I’ve seen the cartoon countless times, I got a little choked up at that moment. Jen noticed it, but I explained it away. This Christmas special has been aired since 1965. It was a childhood staple for many of us. But now, while you can purchase any imaginable ungodliness, this short video is scarcely available. And why? Because of its message. Its words are, at best, considered quaintly obsolete and uninteresting and, at worst, downright hateful and offensive.

Neither is true. And yet, here we are.

Thinking about these things, the cartoon gave me something else to ponder. It was Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree that came to mind. In short, after Linus’ recitation, the rest of the children gather around Charlie Brown’s miserable tree to decorate it. When they’re done, it’s no longer pitiful but beautiful—the point: the heart of Christmas collided with the children. In turn, the children collided with their surroundings, making them beautiful.

Closer to home, as I do every year, I put up the family Christmas tree. I’ve been assembling the same six-foot tree since Jennifer and I married in 1997. The tree was a wedding gift from Jennifer’s brother. While putting up the tree, its branches looked noticeably thinner this year. With each attempt to fluff and fan them to life, I discovered more and more imitation pine needles sprinkling to the floor. I remember thinking a few years back about how the tree was becoming far too fragile with time. Still, I have not retired it. My reason is simple.

While piecing the little tree together each Christmas, I think, “This will be the last year.” But then the tree collides with the joyful reason for putting it up, and everything about it changes.

When strands of multicolored lights are woven into it, when decades of family ornaments begin filling its branches, when the familiar angel our four children take turns placing at its peak each year is found in its place, almost unexpectedly, the gravity of the tree’s nostalgia becomes cosmic. Suddenly, what was once so pathetically inferior to everything else around it has grown fifty feet tall, making all things within reach lesser by comparison.

Christmas is fantastical that way. Just ask a child. You’ll see.

When it comes to humanity’s collision with Christmas—namely, the Good News at its heart—God desires similar aftereffects (1 Timothy 2:4). He tells us through Saint Paul that the Gospel is “the power of God unto salvation” (Romans 1:16). No wonder the devil has worked feverishly to remove “A Charlie Brown Christmas” from the airwaves and internet shelves. By the incarnation and subsequent work of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, what in Sin was destined for the trash heap might bump into its pricelessness to God. There might be an accidental interlude with the Good News—the message heralding the lengths Christ was willing to go to accomplish humanity’s deliverance. The devil doesn’t want anyone to hear this message. He knows its potential. He knows that a world steeped in hopelessness remains thinly frail against his crushing accusations. But a brush with Christmas might foster a sturdy certainty for eternal life and the muscle to resist him. Satan knows that the Holy Spirit works through the Gospel. As He does, what was woefully small in shame can be raised and made gleefully grand by the all-surpassing mercy of God’s immense love for the loveless.

The devil should be concerned about these things. A collision with Christmas—the happy tidings of the Son of God’s arrival—spells his end while announcing a sinner’s fresh beginning in Jesus. Knowing this, take a chance at steering your family and friends into Christmas’ oncoming joy. Invite them to worship on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Bring them to where the power of God unto salvation can and will redress their weary lives with the kind of hope that only Christ can give.

The Christmas Eve services here at Our Savior in Hartland are at 4:30 pm and 10:30 pm. (There will even be a baptism in the 4:30 pm service, which I’m particularly excited about.) The Christmas Day service is at 9:30 am. Near or far, you should make the trek. Come and collide with Christmas. Of course, Satan doesn’t want you to receive such an invitation. In fact, he is likely, right now, trying to convince you to involve yourself with other, more important things. Let that be a clue to the invitation’s worth.

The Little Things

Speaking only for myself, I’m starting to think it’s the little things in life that take up the most space in my insides. By little things, I mean the warmly familiar things that bring an instant smile to my face—the things that, even when they’re out of sight and mind for decades, when they suddenly return, you remember every detail as though the years of separation were mere minutes.

I write this having recently reorganized our basement storage closet. The process involved opening and inspecting various boxes and bins, a few of which contained things from my childhood. In one particular bin, I discovered a stack of fighter jet posters concealing a much grander pile of 80s-era Fangoria magazines, all in pristine condition. Oh, how I loved Fangoria—the sci-fi/horror movie images immersed in articles detailing the films’ writers, directors, special effects artists, and actors. It was all so mesmerizing. And to top it off, each magazine cover unfolded to reveal a poster-sized movie scene that, as you can guess, went straight to my bedroom walls.

The bin now emptied, a pile of cover posters rested before me, their edges pocked with thumbtack holes and brittled by forty-year-old tape fragments. Beside them were the magazines they once adorned.

Having already unfolded, flattened, and scattered the fighter jet posters across the living room floor, I did the same with the cover posters. After a few minutes of meandering and observing, as though I were in a museum, I made an empty seat in the middle and began thumbing through the pages of each magazine. Revisiting the familiar articles divided by dated advertisements, suddenly, I was ten years old again. In a flash, I was sitting on the floor of my bedroom in Danville, Illinois. It was Friday night in 1982. I’d just finished watching the second of two old black-and-white horror films on “Nightmare Theater,” a favorite show broadcast on a public access channel out of Indianapolis and hosted by the ever-cool Sammy Terry. I had a steel flashlight in hand. As usual, its bulb was dimmed by failing batteries. Still, I scanned the magazine pages, doing my best to read the tiny print. As I did, my creativity surged with desires to write stories, create props, and bring elements of other, more fantastical worlds into mine.

These little things, both the posters and magazines, brought back years of relatively simple moments on memory’s tidal crests, each hitting the shore with drenching details covering massive contextual spaces. To this day, I’d say these spaces are the largest parcels of my identity. In a very human sense, these little things own the most real estate of who I am as a person. By comparison, I stumbled across my high school and college diplomas in one of those basement bins. Academic diplomas are key notches of achievement on anyone’s timeline. But the diplomas stirred nothing. I couldn’t tell you the first thing about the days I graduated from high school or college. However, these little things painted detail-rich portraits of countless moments spanning years of my life.

As plain as the time-traveling scene this past week in my living room might have been, a lot occurred in its fast-fleeting minutes. Looking back at it, at least two things come to mind that are worth sharing. The first occurred to me right in the middle of the posters on the floor. It involved my disgust for winter and the snow it brings. This might seem silly at first, so bear with me. Here’s what I remember thinking.

It was Aesop who first said, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” At first thought, I’m not so sure I fully agree with that statement. I think it’s relative, especially when considering my own family. The more I’m with my wife and children, the more I can say that familiarity breeds appreciation. On the other hand, there’s an element of truth to Aesop’s words. A brief renaissance of sorts occurred when I rediscovered those childhood things. This was only possible because, at some point many years ago, while fully absorbed in the familiarity of these little things, I found myself capable of saying goodbye to them, of boxing them up and putting them away for good. I don’t recall the moment, but I’m guessing it must have happened. These well-beloved things wouldn’t be sitting in storage bins for decades if it hadn’t. And yet, the decades-long separation played a strange role in the happiness I experienced when I rediscovered them.

This reminded me of winter.

The little things of summer are familiar loves to me. I love the sunshine. I love verdant yards. I love the landscapes. I love taking the top off my Jeep Wrangler. I love the crisp depth of a star-filled sky on a cloudless summer night. When summer first begins, I feel this way in spades. But eventually, the definitive sensation of the feeling dissipates. I find myself taking less time to admire the stars. I just don’t get around to taking the top off the Wrangler as much. Working in the yard becomes more chore-like.

But then, as if it were nature’s storage bin, snow comes along and hides all these wonderful things in winter’s closet. The snow hides the grassy landscapes. It covers the Wrangler’s hardtop. Its clouds drape the sky and conceal the stars. But in the spring, winter’s closet is opened, and all the familiar things snow was hiding are found. With them comes a resurgence of familiarity and a rebirth of incredible joy, the kind that only those little things can offer. Being away from them makes you love them all the more.

Again, it might seem silly, but it’s what I was thinking while sitting on the floor of my living room and turning the pages of Fangoria. I was thinking that snow prevents contempt for summer’s familiarity. I don’t know what that means for my longing to live in Florida.

This morning, a second thought is kindled. It’s a scene in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. I don’t remember the words exactly. I only recall that Frodo is about to part company with Sam, Merry, Pippen, and the others at the sea’s edge. Observing the moment, Gandalf does not forbid anyone in the group from crying over the coming separation. Instead, he reminds them that not all tears are born from bad things. Some tears come from joy. Sometimes that joy is actually hope anticipating future joy. His point is that separation can only be temporary for those bound by hope. Hope knows a future togetherness. These friends won’t be apart forever. And when they do meet again, all the little things that made their journey so wonderful will be remembered with twice the joy.

Looking back on that moment among my childhood things, I experienced a sliver-sized sense of what Tolkien meant. I experienced joy’s fulfillment following separation. Observing this through the lens of faith helps make better sense of other things, too. By the Gospel, more often than not, I’ve learned it’s the little things that matter the most. Achievements—making lots of money, driving the nicest car, having the biggest home—these things mean very little to me. Marrying my wife, experiencing the birth of my children, teaching them of Christ, the glorious mundaneness of worship week after week, being dedicated to the minutest of details in my vocation as a pastor, writing what I hope will be a memorably picturesque note to you every Sunday since 2015—these are the little things. They take up the most real estate in my life, and they’re worth every square inch. In a far greater sense, I’m certain they’ll bring incredible joy when their fruits are rediscovered and remembered in the togetherness of heaven (Revelation 14:13).

And so, typical to my Sunday morning ramblings, I’ve already gone on long enough. I’ll end by sharing what happened when my two daughters happened down the stairs and discovered the living room floor showcasing my 80s childhood. In short, they each negotiated multiple acquisitions. Evelyn bargained for all the fighter jet posters. Finding success, she immediately went to work attaching them to her bedroom walls. Madeline took several of the cover posters and did the same. I was glad to see these things loved again. As for what remained, I refolded them into their original cover forms and went to Walmart. I returned with fifteen picture frames. Two hours later, a handful of my favorite Fangoria covers were beautifying my basement walls. After decades apart, we were together again, which brought me joy.

Know that the future and forever togetherness inherent to the Gospel of salvation through faith in Christ will be far better.

Give Before Taking

Advent has begun. If you’re paying attention—if you’re attending a Church that’s paying attention—its purpose is easy enough to understand. The depraved world needed a Savior. That Savior was born in Bethlehem. He submitted Himself into the vulgar crassness that rots humanity to its core. In the filth of a manger, He was born the kindliest servant of all—born to redeem the whole world from Sin. That Savior, Jesus, is coming back again in glory. When He does, it won’t be in meekness but rather in great might. He’ll come as the Judge—the Pantocrator. And just as the Creeds declare, His kingdom—all cases determined, and the one world-consuming verdict announced—will have no end. Those who are His own will be with Him in eternal glory. Those who are not won’t.

These are the converging views of Advent. Both are vistas of promise. Both bear features of warning.

Inherent to warning is preparation. Advent prepares us, which is one reason it serves as the first season in the new Church Year. One needs only to consider the Gospel reading for the First Sunday in Advent—Matthew 21:1-9—the account of Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Here the Church Year’s lens is polished, and we see clearly what each event throughout the rest of the year means. Jesus came to die. Why? Because we needed God to act. We needed Him to send help. And so, He did. He sent His Son to take upon Himself human flesh. The Old Testament more than alerted us. Saint Matthew did, too. He saw its fulfillment and then reminded, “Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden” (Matthew 21:5 [Zechariah 9:9]). Saint Matthew says on the First Sunday in Advent, “There He is. There’s your King. God is moving. He’s acting. In a few days—Good Friday—you’ll see the fullest measure of His concern for the world. He’ll go to war. It’ll be bloody. But He’ll win, and the whole world will be bought back from the brink of lostness.”

If you are at all familiar with what I’ve written in the past, then you’ll know it’s a regular thing that I urge Christians to view the world through this lens. Observing the world through the sacrifice of Christ is more than revealing. It’s world-altering. In an Advent sense, it’s preparatory.

For one, when we know the seriousness that caused God’s action on our behalf, we become aware of the dreadful cause’s subtle trajectories in life. I’ll give you an example that came to mind last week.

Right after Thanksgiving, the world celebrated Black Friday—a day that ushered humanity into a long weekend of buying and then buying some more. Several days of non-stop purchasing faded into Cyber Monday, another day devoted to getting and consuming more.

Now, I know the innards of these days-long events are multifaceted. Some people use them to buy for themselves everything they’ve ever wanted. Others take advantage of the discounts in preparation for Christmas gift-giving. Some do a little bit of both. Keeping these things in mind, I’m less concerned with reading the hearts of consumers as I am the order of things. The world betrays its need for a Savior when you consider the sequence of its priorities.

Over several days, we take, take, take before arriving at Giving Tuesday—a singular day set aside for charitable giving. In perspective, it’s estimated that $20.4 billion was spent this year from Black Friday to Cyber Monday. $3.1 billion was exchanged on Giving Tuesday. It also appears that end-of-year tax deductions were a “determining factor” to more than half who gave. In other words, many might not have given at all without the self-interested “taking” of personal tax benefits, making the giving much smaller.

Again, the point isn’t to judge hearts. It’s to observe. Clearly, taking outweighed giving. But now, consider the order of things.

God gives. He does this first. And even when He’s found taking, His giving far outpaces it. The wonderfulness of this generous love establishes a standard: first fruits giving (Numbers 15:20-21, 18:12-18; Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:2, 15; and the like). We give, then we take. In other words, perfect love first aims outwardly before it ever thinks to aim inwardly. Jesus is the epitome of this standard. Saint Paul calls Christ the first fruit (1 Corinthians 15:20). Saint James does the same (James 1:18). By faith, having been remade into the likeness of Jesus, Christians are made aware of this better order. And so, by the power of the Holy Spirit at work within us, we know to give before getting (2 Corinthians 5:17). We know it is better to give than to receive (Acts 20:35).

The world has reversed this, once again betraying its need for rescue. “Self” is loved before others. Sinful man takes before giving. When you think about it, this mirrors the earliest events in Eden. Eve fell into Sin. As a result, the natural order for exchanging things shifted. She first got what she wanted, and then she gave to Adam. She took before she gave. From there, her giving—and all humanity’s giving—would be naturally contaminated.

The point: our need for a Savior runs deep. Not only do we see and experience it in the more apparent horrors of life, but it’s found churning in the guts of the so-called good things we do (Isaiah 64:6). There are traces of it in our charity. Even our charity needs fixing.

If you’re paying attention, Advent’s first image—the Son of God’s Palm Sunday procession toward the cross—preaches this, too. Jesus traveled along through the streets awash in praise. Those praises so easily turned vicious. Still, Advent is preparing our hearts for celebrating this ever-determined Lord’s arrival in Bethlehem to reverse the course of this gross tendency in all of us. It does this while also preparing us for the Lord’s final return in what promises to be an eternity-piercing moment capping the complete reversal of Sin’s destruction once and for all.

It was Saint Ignatius Loyola who prayed so devoutly, “Teach us, good Lord… to give and not to count the cost; to fight and not to heed the wounds; to toil and not to seek rest; to labor and not to ask for any reward, save that of knowing that we do Thy will.”

Those are substantive words. Those are Advent words. They’re a description of the One who came to accomplish them, and they’re hoped-for fruits of faith among God’s people—a desire to give faithfully and generously, to serve before being served, to love before being loved, to give before taking. We do this while we await the Lord’s return in glory.

We can only arrive at this better view of giving through the Gospel. May this view be yours, both now and always.