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.
I wanted to take a quick moment to say thank you. It’s certainly appropriate to do so, not only because we’re still in the Thanksgiving mood, but because, like the man who wrote the chief hymn we’ll be singing today (“Savior of the Nations Come”), Saint Ambrose once said, “No duty is more urgent than that of returning thanks.”
I’ve shared that quotation with you before. Sitting here at the church early on Thanksgiving Day morning, I took a quick stroll through previous Thanksgiving Day messages to the people of God at Our Savior in Hartland. In the note I sent last year, I shared the familiar quotation from Ambrose. Curious about its origin, I tracked it down. But before I get to that, let me continue the thread of sentiment I already started.
To the faithful here at Our Savior in Hartland—and in all the churches—you’re owed a debt of gratitude. Speaking as the pastor here, I should say that this congregation—how she operates, what she accomplishes, where she’s going—happens because of the faithful.
Now, don’t for one second think that I’m straying from our wonderful Lutheran legacy which knows to call out “Soli Deo Gloria” (to God alone be the glory)! I’m not. I’m simply doing what Saint Paul does with regularity throughout his epistles (Romans 1:8, Ephesians 1:16, 1 Corinthians 1:4, Philippians 1:3, Colossians 1:3, Philemon 1:4, 1 Thessalonians 1:2, 2 Thessalonians 2:13, and countless others). My thanksgiving to you is an acknowledgment that God has used (and continues to use) you for some pretty incredible things, all of which join to form a singular, bright beaming light of constancy streaming from this place. It pierces a shadowy world in desperate need of the Gospel. As your pastor, I thank you for your diligence in this. I owe this gratitude to you.
There’s another reason this is your due, and again, we consider Saint Ambrose. That same great Bishop of Milan wrote the words I quoted not long after the unexpected passing of his brother, Satyrus. Interestingly, if you read my Thanksgiving Day note sent out last Tuesday, you’ll see my words emerged from thoughts of my brother’s death, too. Reading most of Ambrose’s eulogy this morning, I can see he experienced the same nagging sense as me. Standing at the grave of his brother, he encounters a particular awareness. Ambrose understands that none among us knows the hour of our final moments together (Ecclesiastes 9:12). No one knows what his or her last words given or received in this mortal life will be. Will they be loving? Will they be cruel? Will they be inconsequential? Will they be thankful? Whatever they are, Ambrose acknowledges the finality of Death, and as a result, he writes something familiar to those of us who’ve lost someone close:
“To die is gain to me, who, in the very treatise in which I comfort others, am incited as it were by an intense impulse to the longing for my lost brother, since it suffers me not to forget him. Now I love him more, and long for him more intensely. I long for him when I speak, I long for him when I read again what I have written, and I think that I am more impelled to write this, that I may not ever be without the recollection of him.”
Now that Satyrus is gone, Ambrose feels the deepest sting of Death’s separating power. It makes sense, then, that he would urge the rest of us toward genuine thanksgiving in the here and now—that we would be glad to God for each other and that we would share this same tiding with the people in our lives. He calls it our duty. And we can agree, especially as we’re prompted by another sense hovering among Ambrose’s words. He knew something about his brother, something that stirred him to cry out, “You have caused me, my brother, not to fear death, and only would that my life might die with yours!”
Ambrose thanked his brother for being an example of faithfulness, even in Death. For a second time, this brings me back around to where I started. I’m grateful for your enduring devotion, just as Ambrose wrote that his brother “saw [Christ’s] triumph, he saw His death, but saw also in Him the everlasting resurrection of men, and therefore feared not to die as he was to rise again.”
Thank you for being a congregation filled with Christians who emit this Gospel truth in so many ways. Some of you do it through financial support of the mission’s efforts. Others do it through hands-on service. So many do it through regular prayer. Countless do it in simple conversation. All of you do it by the power of the Holy Spirit in faith. Truly, you know the value of what we have in this place—historic liturgy, binding creeds, rites and ceremonies that reach far beyond the here and now, a sturdy backbone for enduring an ever-encroaching world—things that so many churches are dismissing as unfriendly, socially stiff, or culturally irrelevant. But you know better. You’ve learned from those who’ve gone before you. Even Plato knew that “learning is a process of remembering.” And so, like Satyrus for Ambrose, you remember. You’ve learned from the examples of others to live by faith in Jesus Christ, trusting just as Ambrose did that “Death is not, then, an object of dread, nor bitter to those in need, nor too bitter to the rich, nor unkind to the old, nor a mark of cowardice to the brave, nor everlasting to the faithful nor unexpected to the wise.”
If the world had the capacity for genuine gratitude, it would owe its gratefulness to God and His Christians throughout history. Established in shiftless ways as this world’s salt and light—God’s gifts to the world in human form—the sour darkness of this life is made flavorful and bright (Matthew 5:13-15). Acknowledging this does not negate a heritage of “Soli Deo Gloria!” Why not? Well, let Jesus answer. He’s the One who said that through the faithfulness of Christians—the ones reflecting His light—the needful world around us will “see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (v. 16).
To God alone be the glory for all you are and do and say in service to His Gospel.
Again, thank you for your faithfulness. Know you are loved and admired by your pastor. But not only me. By others, too. Come to think of it, may I suggest something? When you arrive for worship, take a chance at putting your arms around a fellow Christian or two you’ve not visited with in a while. Tell them just how thankful you are that they’re in your life. Remind them how their example of faithfulness is not only a delightful blessing of comfort amid so many life-terrorizing things, but it is also a simple and ongoing demonstration of Saint Paul’s words to “encourage one another and build one another up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
Being together in the Lord to receive His gifts, and taking the opportunity while we still can to commend one another for that togetherness, is a blessing once again remembered not only at Thanksgiving, but every time we gather together in the Lord’s house to receive His wonderful gifts of forgiveness. I’m glad for that. And I’m glad to celebrate it with all of you.
I had an interesting conversation with the 7th and 8th graders in religion class this past Monday. With Advent on the very near horizon, the season that will inevitably carry us to Christmas, we wrestled with whether or not Herod’s slaughtering of the infants in Bethlehem was a part of God’s plan. It’s a good question to ask, especially following Michigan’s recent election, one that enshrined infanticide in Michigan’s Constitution. In utter disbelief, people are asking, “Why would God do this?”
This, too, is a worthwhile question, primarily because Saint Matthew shows God’s engagement throughout the Christmas events by quoting from the Old Testament four times. Doing this, the Gospel writer stirs a sense of divine orchestration, especially as he remembers certain things revealed to God’s prophets. The slaughter of the innocents is one of them. Matthew tells of Herod’s troops storming Bethlehem, and as he does, he points to Jeremiah’s description of the scene six hundred years prior. It’s a dreadful one describing torrential tears, the piercing sounds of unrestrained wailing, and in between each gasping cry, a mother—Rachel—pushing back against any human words of consolation (Matthew 2:17-18).
In other words, Jeremiah knew a moment would come when the sound of inconsolable mothers would haunt a city and its surrounding hillsides. Matthew stakes the claim that this disturbing vision was relative to Christ’s birth and fulfilled in the slaughter at Bethlehem. But because God revealed this to Jeremiah so long ago, does that mean God planned and enacted it?
The answer is no. I’ll get to the reason in a moment.
The current effort in my religion class is the study of hermeneutics—the “how” of interpretation. As you can imagine, hermeneutics is taking us anywhere and everywhere in the Scriptures. It’s also taking us into what we read and hear in our culture. I do this with the students because language matters. Narratives matter. The intentions inherent to these things matter. They must be interpreted. When the broader horizon of genre, speaker/writer, context, history, and so on can be thoroughly examined, a person is better equipped for discernment leading to genuine wisdom. Simply applying hermeneutical principles to Proposal 3, its dreadfulness was easily detected. Teaching the students to do this is essential. The children who can do this as adults will be the ones worth trusting with critical things.
As far as the answer to the question, again, it’s no. God neither designed nor intended for all those children to die. It happened because that’s how things work in our appallingly corrupted world. Sin has a blast radius, and no one—innocent or guilty, good or bad, believer or unbeliever—is beyond its temporal effects. Therein is the interpretive key to the question’s answer, as well as the key to its relevance for us today.
Forget God’s foreknowledge for a second. While you’re at it, stop ascribing to Him authorship of everything that happens. Instead, remember what He said at the very beginning. His words to Eve and the serpent communicate His direct action. To Adam, however, His tone changes. He speaks in a resultant way, saying that because of what Adam has done, the ground is now cursed (Genesis 3:17). In other words, from now on, life will be harder, and bad things will happen. That’s the way it works in a world infected by Sin. Did God want this for His creation? No. Did He plan it? No. Matthew expresses this same theology through each clause before the four Old Testament quotations. Essentially, he uses two kinds—a purpose clause and a temporal clause. Before the reminder from Hosea 11:1 that the Messiah would come out of Egypt, Matthew uses a purpose clause (ἵνα πληρωθῇ), which comes to us as “This was to fulfill…” (Matthew 2:15). This is to say God acted in this instance. He planned it this way. Before Jeremiah’s foretelling of the Bethlehem tragedy, Matthew uses a temporal clause (τότε ἐπληρώθη), resulting in, “Then was fulfilled…” (Matthew 2:17). While the time in Egypt was divinely orchestrated, the events of Bethlehem happened because the world is now corrupt. Because of what we’ve done, this world will now produce Herod-like devils—people like Gretchen Whitmer and Dana Nessel who rejoice at the death of children, telling all to “celebrate December 23rd” because that’s the day abortion will officially be written into the Michigan Constitution. These are the kinds of celebrations Sin produces.
By the way, I find it interesting that the amendment birthed by Proposal 3 will be added to our state’s founding document the day before Christmas Eve. The devil is good at spitting in your eye right before poking it out.
Still, God knows all of this. By His omniscience, He sees these things coming. Did He ordain them? No. Again, Genesis 3:17 nudges us toward recalling that we’re responsible for letting these monsters loose in Bethlehem. The blame for Sin’s insatiable appetite for misery rests squarely with us, not God. Of course, we don’t like to hear that. And why? Because we are ones who, as Shakespeare mused, “make guilty of our own disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars.” In other words, we’re inclined to blame anything and anyone, even God, rather than accept the simple truth that tragedy’s guilt is ours alone to claim.
The only real blame we can genuinely lay at God’s feet is best placed at the foot of the cross. We can blame Him for doing what was necessary to fix the Sin problem. The death of Jesus is God’s beautiful crime—the absolute innocent One being sentenced to death for the dreadfully guilty.
So, what do we do now?
By the Holy Spirit’s power, we believe this Gospel. Recreated by this Gospel, we continue to stand against Herod while at the same time doing everything within our power to rescue the little ones from his bloodthirsty troops. I was recently asked on three separate occasions what this “standing” might look like in a future Michigan. The first thing that came to mind in each was something I’ve experienced before.
A few years ago, I happened to be visiting my friend, Pastor Stephen Long (now with the Lord), in the emergency room. A few stalls away from us was a robustly pregnant girl—a brave teenager who’d long ago chosen to keep her child. We didn’t know the details of her visit to the ER, but everything we heard through the curtains—the shuffling and crying and confusion—all of it communicated something traumatic. The sounds also reminded us just how overwhelming the terror inherent to any harrowing moment could be. It affects our emotions. It can shatter our wits. We can react in ways we might regret later. Listening in, Stephen and I prayed for the girl and her unborn child.
Now, let’s imagine that scene in today’s Michigan. Let’s say the trauma the girl experienced resulted in her healthy child being born prematurely. Let’s say it also resulted in the terrified and confused girl changing her mind. According to Michigan’s Constitution, if, in the middle of the traumatic scene, the young girl sees the child and decides she cannot be a mother—that she doesn’t have the mental or emotional fortitude required to raise the child—regardless of the stage of pregnancy, and also because the child likely needs extraordinary medical attention to survive, the newest constitutional amendment leaves room for the mother and the physician to choose to let the otherwise healthy child die. Let’s say I’m listening through the curtain to the terrible events unfolding. Let’s also say that I hear and understand what’s about to happen to the child, that she will be left for dead. Make no mistake. It would be time to take a stand. In my case, I would unhesitatingly walk into that stall, take the child into my arms, and walk out. If need be, I’d fight off security guards, nurses, or anyone intent on obeying the new amendment. I assure you I’d do this, ultimately letting the chips of my legal future fall where they may. I would not let that child die, no matter the legal boundaries of the situation.
Plenty of folks say these types of scenarios won’t occur. Well, whatever. Many people said the Supreme Court would never cement same-sex marriage. And yet, here we are, five years beyond the cement’s pouring. Here we are expecting the U.S. Congress to pass the “Respect for Marriage Act,” which will pour a permanent layer of concrete onto what “will never happen.”
Heaping condescension, ridicule, and disbelief upon those concerned for these things is almost always proven foolish.
As far as the Emergency Room scene I described, MLive published an article on November 11 entitled “The abortion rights and potential legal fights coming after Michigan’s Prop 3 won.” In it, Robert Sedler, a law professor at Wayne State and an avowed abortion advocate, mocked the pro-life movement’s concerns about such possibilities. He called them “nonsense.” And yet, the article’s equally progressive author, Ben Orner, commented that the “amendment allows lawmakers to regulate after ‘fetal viability,’ according to its text, when the attending physician believes ‘there is a significant likelihood of the fetus’s sustained survival outside the uterus without the application of extraordinary medical measures.” In other words, protection laws only apply if the doctor determines the child can survive without assistance. Orner caps this by quoting Sedler, again, writing, “The idea is that abortion is only prohibited when a doctor determines that the fetus is viable, capable of living outside of the uterus.”
Three things. Firstly, before taking action to preserve a healthy child’s life, the doctor must affirm that the child can survive outside the womb without extraordinary medical help. What does this mean? What are the boundaries? My 13-year-old daughter has Type 1 diabetes. She cannot survive without extraordinary medical care. Secondly, “when the attending physician believes” is a subjective statement. For every physician who believes one thing, five others believe something different. But objectively, even rationally, a physician’s oath is to do no harm—to provide treatment to the ailing, to preserve life rather than end it. Thirdly, I agree with Sedler, who said the amendment’s language isn’t complicated. It’s deliberately open-ended to allow for as much “reproductive freedom” as the state can provide. The law’s subjectivity is intentional. Now, will most humans in our midst choose to abandon the helpless child I described? Hopefully not. But remember, the ground is cursed. It produces Herods—monsters who write laws providing opportunities to those who’d be happy to let the child perish.
“Nonsense. It will never happen.” Those are the most notorious of all last words. It has happened. Now it will happen beneath the protective banner of the law.
I didn’t share this particular MLive article with the 7th and 8th graders during religion. But I do share articles like it. Maybe I’ll share this one. Either way, we apply hermeneutical principles to what we read. Relative to Matthew 2:13-18, these principles helped the students to dig deeply in search of objective truth. They learned where and when God acts, what He ordains, how He operates in and through His Word, the difference between His revealed and hidden wills, and so much more. In one sense, it was a refreshing discussion for me, especially as I continue to wrestle with accepting whatever God is allowing to occur in America. In another sense, and considering the answers given by the students along the way, the conversation was proof that the 7th and 8th graders at Our Savior are becoming capable of navigating America’s shaky future. Again, the recent elections in Michigan resulted in quite a few Herod-like individuals taking office and arming their troops for grim ungodliness. Was God behind this? Mindful of God’s Word, knowing what I know, you’ll never convince me that He was, not even by pointing to God’s employment of ungodly rulers in the Old Testament or by dropping Romans 13 in my lap. God did not and does not purposely establish or license authorities to exist in contradiction with His will for governance. He does not ordain for governments to murder their citizens. Human beings are the ones who scribe and sign such licenses.
The students are learning to discern these things. God willing, they’re also learning they need to step up and be what God has created them to be, if only for the sake of their children. I believe they’re on their way to being this, and in that sense, I leave class comforted, knowing God will use them—deliberately—for His good purposes.
I don’t know if I’ve ever told you this, but I do a lot of writing while walking on the treadmill in my basement. It’s safe to say that many of the sermons I’ve preached over the years were tapped into existence at an average of about four miles per hour on a slight incline. I can do this because I built myself a keyboard tray that attaches to the treadmill. It’s not pretty, but it works.
I suppose the “how” to this strange scene is far less interesting than the “why.”
In short, I’m the last person on the planet who’d ever want to walk but not actually go anywhere. The idea of a treadmill has always seemed ridiculous to me. The fact that I’m getting some much-needed exercise doesn’t placate the mood. Listening to my favorite music doesn’t, either. Neither does watching TV. I’ve always felt that if I’m going to be in motion, I’d better have something to show for it when I’m done.
This comes to mind because of a quotation I just read from Ernest Hemingway. He warned, “Never mistake motion for action.” Hemingway said these words to his friend, A. E. Hotchner, as they traveled together. It would seem Hemingway’s point was to say that, in general, motion happens no matter what. Things move. Action, on the other hand, is intentional. It involves an element of desire, of willing engagement. It employs the science of motion to accomplish a goal. Perhaps in Hemingway’s case, being the adventurer he was, it’s one thing to go wandering through the woods looking at the trees. It’s something altogether different to go hiking, stop at a tree, and climb it to get a better look at the whole forest.
If I’m going to be in motion, I prefer that something be accomplished. And so, I write while I wander stationarily. I hike through my mental forest. I find a tree and climb it to get a better view. When I do, I often discover something I didn’t know before.
In a way, I’m up one of those trees right now. Up here, I can see there’s also a bit of backward truth to this thought concerning action that leads to accomplishment. The fellowship of sinful humanity moves endlessly forward in search of accomplishment. It’s constantly doing and making and executing, much of it aimed at this or that end goal. Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with desiring to achieve. As human beings, each of us is wired to do this at one level or another. And yet, in a spiritual sense—the realest sense—we’re all in motion toward accomplishing one final thing: death. Except this accomplishment is the result of another power’s deliberate motion. When it acts on us and carries us away in its undertow, we discover just how impotent we are for accomplishing or producing anything that can stop it. We come face to face with the realization that everything we’ve achieved in this life—all of our tangible accomplishments while walking on life’s treadmill—stay here.
Our house? It stays. Our money? It stays. Our favorite things? They stay.
This might sound somewhat depressing, but please don’t take it that way. Instead, climb up this tree with me. You’ll discover a better context—a better view—of something else.
I also read the text of Revelation 14:13 this morning. At first glance, it seems contrary to what I just wrote. In it, the Apostle John scribbles obediently, “And I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Blessed indeed,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!’”
These words arrive after three separate announcements from three different angels. The first angel promises that the Gospel will never be overcome (vv. 6-7). The second announces God’s final judgment against His enemies, all of whom are consolidated into the title “Babylon the Great.” The angel continues by calling Babylon the Great the one “who made all nations drink the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality” (v. 8). The third angel announces the terrible punishment awaiting those who worshipped at her altar, describing them as being given “the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger….” The angel says this torrential rage will pour down on the accursed while Christ and all of heaven watch (vv. 9-11).
But then we arrive at verses 12 and 13. In 12, John announces the endurance of the saints “who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.” What are they enduring? It’s already been described earlier in the book. Great suffering. Terrible persecution. Cruel martyrdom. Verse 13 caps the entire discussion. Where the angels were formerly speaking, now God speaks for Himself. He booms through all creation the eternal rest to be had by those who believed in Christ while walking life’s treadmill. Their walking wasn’t for nothing. Death did not suddenly snuff out their endeavors. Their deeds followed them. Which deeds? The faithful and productive deeds born from the greatest deed of faith—the chief deed worked by the power of the Holy Spirit through the unconquerable Gospel that produces all other deeds deemed blessed by God. These deeds didn’t save the ones performing them. The text says the deeds followed the believers.
I imagine this “following” will be along the lines of high-fives from Christ and His angels, moments in heaven when they’ll say something like, “Hey Chris, remember when that woman in Washington D.C. spit on you just because she knew you were a pastor by your clerical, and then she couldn’t believe it when you turned to share the Gospel with her? Yeah, we saw that. That was great.”
Another thought directly relative to this one is the peaceful assurance God gives us right now on the treadmill. We don’t have to wait until death to enjoy the rest God proclaims. Yes, the Church on earth—the Church Militant—is an endeavor in perpetual motion. And yet, while the nations rage around us, our faithful God whispers to His own with an earth-shattering tenderness, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). By the power of the Holy Spirit for faith, He nudges us to stop what we’re doing to take a few notes. He points to Moses as he shouts by divine inspiration to the frightened Israelites facing certain death at the mouth of the Red Sea, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent (Exodus 14:13-14).” Following an election in which it certainly seems like Babylon the Great won the day, God pumps the brakes, bringing our motion-filled life to a halt to hear His Psalmist say, “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices” (Psalm 37:7).
We stop and ponder this. And then we get moving again. We get back into action, sometimes at four miles per hour, sometimes at what feels like the speed of sound. But always at a slight incline, always uphill. The fight of faith ends when we do.
Until then, we endure. We remain faithful (Matthew 24:13). We do this knowing God has everything well in hand. The One who began and achieved the greatest accomplishment in us—the deed of trust in the Son of God, Jesus Christ—will bring that work to its final completion (Philippians 1:6). It will follow believers into eternal life. As it does, there may even be a few high fives here and there to enjoy—maybe even one from a woman who spat on you but was later changed by the same powerful Gospel that took you from being God’s enemy to being one of His friends.
I would imagine some of you are expecting me to weigh in on the recent election. I suppose one thing I learned this past Tuesday was best described in a parallel way by Thomas Henry Huxley. He labeled science’s greatest tragedy as “the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.” I went to bed on Tuesday evening bearing a hypothesis—a hopeful estimation—that Michigan wasn’t capable of enshrining murder in its Constitution, that the majority of people in this state would know better than to hallow death in this way. I also expected that one plus one would continue to equal two; that people would be more inclined to embrace candidates intent on upholding natural law while refusing candidates proffering wokist foolishness, backward science, and “for-me-but-not-for-thee” principles of governance.
Ugly facts slew those hypotheses. The passing of Proposal 3 is proof. The re-election of Gretchen Whitmer and her demonic associates is, too. For the first time in forty years, the worst of the worst—the ones who openly despise all things Godly—own the governor’s chair and both chambers.
So, what now? Well, something else comes to mind.
For starters, it must be realized that God ordains civil government as an extension of His purposeful authority to humanity through humanity. According to His design, the offices established are not ones of self-serving privilege, nor are they to be abused through tyranny. They are established for the well-being of the citizenry—to maintain order and protect the ones they serve. The ordination is not limited to Christians. Unbelievers can occupy the seats, too. However, the leader must remain within God’s framework to keep the ordination. When he or she doesn’t, the relationship between the government and the governed changes. Saint Paul shows his understanding of this in 1 Timothy 2:2, explaining that we pray to God and intercede with all in authority so that we can live peaceful, reverent, and godly lives. God does not want these things to be disjointed. Verses 3 and 4 provide the reason for this desired harmony: “This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” In other words, a government within the boundaries of its ordination provides the best context for the Gospel’s perpetuation in the world. When the Gospel is free to go forth, the salvation of souls is the result.
This is religious liberty.
The word “religious” seems far from Michigan right now—unless, by the term, we mean self-devotion. Religion requires the determination of good and evil, right and wrong. This discernment is necessary for measuring government. I’m willing to concede that most in Michigan appear disinterested in doing this, let alone capable. Instead, they regard government as a power to be harnessed for personal gain. As long as they get what they want, the government is good. When they don’t, the government is bad.
So again, now what?
Well, technically, as ones owning the corner market on good and evil, Christians face a grave theological question here in Michigan. By writing into the Michigan Constitution a person’s right to murder another person, the document has, in a sense, become invalidated. The Magdeburg Confession, a remarkable document published in 1550 and born from clear-thinking Lutherans, offers something worth considering:
And so, by the force of this precept [Matthew 22:22], the things which are God’s are not to be rendered unto Caesar, just as the Apostles hand down this rule and precept, “We must obey God rather than men.” And by refusing obedience to superiors in those things which are contrary to God, they do not violate the majesty of their superiors, nor can they be judged obstinate or rebellious, as Daniel says, “I have committed no crime against you, O king.” For two reasons free them from this charge: First, because those who wield the magistracy do not demand this obedience as magistrates by the ordinance of God, but as men, that is, having no superiority from the Word of God. The Apostles appear to have wanted to judge this case by their own dictum. Then, even if they remained true magistrates, even still, as in human ranks, the law of the superior power trumps the law of the inferior, so divine laws necessarily trump human ones. Secondly, as Christ does not want the things of God to be ascribed to Caesar, so He does not want to see any things ascribed to him [Caesar] that are others’ and not his, whether according to divine laws or even the laws of his own empire. If, contrary to these laws, Caesar should demand my life or some other man’s life, or the chastity of a wife or daughter, or property etc., I ought not to allow them to him. (The Second Argument, 63.)
So, there’s this. I know some will argue this point. They’ll rub their Church-and-State lamp and out will pop the genie named “Obey!” with the text of Romans 13 in hand. That’s fine. When that ill-interpreting apparition emerges, hand him the following rhetorical discussion from the faithful men of God who scribed The Magdeburg Confession:
If God wanted superior magistrates who have become tyrants to be inviolable because of his ordinance [Romans 13] and commandment [The Fourth Commandment], how many impious and absurd things would follow from this? Chiefly it would follow that God, by his own ordinance and command, is strengthening, nay, honoring and abetting evil works, and is hindering, nay, destroying good works; that there are contraries in the nature of God Himself, and in this ordinance by which He has instituted the magistrate; that God is no less against his own ordinance than he is for the human race. All these things are most plain, nor can they be denied by anyone: If God has granted such great impunity to the greatest tyrant by His own ordinance and commandment, who will prevent him from laying waste all of nature, even if he could, and being innocent before God? Who will not provide his substance, his body, and even his life itself to the one who demands them for the occasions, ends, and nourishment of tyranny, because of the commandment of God? Who will do what is right contrary to the will of a tyrant, and be a survivor? Who will be left of all men as the only one doing right? (The Second Argument, 67.)
Again, sometimes a Christian cannot obey. This is not promoting rebellious anarchy. It is being faithful. It is to accept the fact that a document enshrining a person’s right to murder another person has swerved beyond the boundaries of the government’s ordination, leaving the faithful in a terrifying predicament. The Lutheran pastor, Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, understood just how scary it was. Of course, he learned the hard way what it really means to apply oneself wholly to the challenge. A gentle and mindful man, he was hung for his resistance to Hitler. His faith was forced into action, and he discovered a willingness to say, “You’ve gone too far, and I intend to stop you, even if it costs my life.” Are we as courageous as Bonhoeffer? The question begs another hypothesis that will, like the others, be tested and slayed by facts.
On Wednesday morning, I shared these heavy concerns in conversation with Bishop Hardy. Wisely, he asked the probing questions, “Why dissent now? What has changed between the era of Roe V. Wade and the passing of Proposal 3?” As Christians, we need to be prepared to answer. For starters, Roe V. Wade was not law. It was an interpretation of law. Here in Michigan, we have laws on the books relative to abortion’s prohibition. Admittedly, the interpretation tripped up their application, yet it did not nullify them. When Roe V. Wade was overturned, these laws engaged. Laws that defend and protect life are fundamental to the government’s ordination. In that sense, Michigan was already poised to exist in stride with Godliness. On November 8, the Michigan citizenry voted to amend the Michigan Constitution. As a result, the highest legal authority for a representative republic gives license for murder, thereby nullifying the previous laws of prohibition. All statutes established in our state must be in agreement with the Constitution. If they do not, the statutes are abolished. This means that even if one day we were to have a pro-life governor supported by a 100% pro-life legislature, any law they could formulate outlawing abortion would be illegal by default and, ultimately, unenforceable. As of November 8, 2022, the Michigan Constitution establishes unrestricted access to abortion at every stage of pregnancy. Period.
Again, now what?
Well, there’s plenty of discussion to be had. That will come in time. Meanwhile, we do what we’ve always done. We pray. And when we’re done, we get up, dust ourselves off, and get back to work. Hopelessness is not on the menu. Neither is quitting. Faithful endurance is the order of the day. A cause is only ruined when its fighters determine they can’t go on. We can go on. And why? Not because of anything relevant to us. We’re humans. Humans are limited. We can go on because the One we trust—Jesus Christ—goes on. This same Savior has promised His believers an enduring strength that surpasses the might and muscle of the temporal spheres (2 Corinthians 4:7-18). Existing in these realms, with eyes fixed on Christ’s ghastly but all-encompassing victory on the cross, with hearts attuned to the eternal glory Christ promises to those who love Him, the passing terrors of this world and its monsters seem less problematic, less fierce.
And we can go on.
Trusting Christ, I intend to keep at it. It’s going to be more complicated now, but that’s okay. I’m a pastor. I’m more than familiar with complicated. There’s a saying that the success of most things depends upon knowing how long it will take to succeed. Proposal 3 is a significant setback. It’s going to take a while to change what’s happened. Still, I’m playing the long game. I’ve set aside the rest of my life, however long that may be, to do what it takes to move the ball down the field. Will I see us score before the divine Coach decides to put me on the bench? I don’t know. But until He does, I’ll continue to show up for practice, study the fundamentals, learn the plays, research the opposition, and eventually, when it’s game time, come ready to play the game and to play it hard.
I have a lot on my mind this morning. Maybe you do, too.
We’re teetering at the edge of disaster here in Michigan. I don’t know any other way to say it. Don’t get me wrong. I think the good guys can and will win in the upcoming election. Still, it won’t be easy. In two days, countless Michiganders will make their way to the appointed polling locations to cast their ballots. I know the media can be deceptive, but a relatively reliable source is predicting a 50% turnout of eligible voters, which equates to a total of about 4 million votes, both absentee and in-person combined. Our less-than-desirable Secretary of State, Jocelyn Benson, predicts a much higher turnout. I’m not necessarily a political pundit, so I can’t speculate either way. If it’s lower, after what happened in 2020, my guess is it’ll be because poll challengers were on high alert protecting us from zombies. In other words, fewer dead people were let through the doors to vote.
But we’ll see. Jocelyn Benson is strangely disinterested in election integrity. Proposal 2 is proof.
Beyond that, and unfortunately, other polls suggest that another proposal—Proposal 3—will pass. In other words, pollsters are confident that those who want to enshrine in our state’s constitution a woman’s right to an abortion up to and after birth will enjoy the majority turnout. The ones who want to criminalize religious objection to assisting are projected as being in the lead. The candidates who want to make sure a second grader is allowed to discern and begin his or her “transition journey” to a different sex without parental consent are being touted as the inevitable victors.
Personally, I think the conservatives are being undersampled in these polls. But again, we’ll see.
David Barton stopped in last month for a visit here at Our Savior. He was touring alongside Chad Connelly, the founder and president of “Faith Wins.” I’ve known David for a long time. There are vast theological differences between us, yet we’re on the same page regarding the topic of Church and State. David is a friend. I trust and appreciate him.
Both in public and private, David shared disheartening (but also familiar) news relative to the Church. He anticipates 25% of conservative, Bible-believing Christians will show up at the polls nationwide. This statistic has remained relatively constant for several years, and my blood begins simmering every time I hear it. I say this because the margin in most elections is usually very thin. If that 25% went up by the tiniest fraction, initiatives like Proposal 3 would lose in a proverbial landslide.
A few days before David visited us, I was handed a letter written by a fellow LCMS pastor. He’d written it to the people of his congregation. In it, he encouraged them to vote “no” on Proposal 3 and explained to them from the Scriptures why they should. I was glad for his words. But, the pastor also imposed a barrier on the Church’s advising on anything beyond Proposal 3. In other words, he said that the only reason he could write and send the letter was because Proposal 3 was a moral issue. However, everything else on the ballot—the other two proposals, the executive, legislative, and judicial candidates, millages, and the like—were to be considered political issues and the Church had no right to insert herself into the discussion.
Secondly, vote no on all three proposals. They’re ungodly efforts intent on giving evil a permanent foothold in Michigan’s Constitution.
Thirdly, I encourage you to vote for candidates who’ve pledged to push back against the wokeness of cancel culture; who’ve vowed to protect the unborn, the divinely established rights of parents, and ultimately, religious liberty. Choose the ones who’ve promised to fight to protect the Church from policies that would criminalize her for faithfulness to God’s Word. Who are these candidates? For starters, Tudor Dixon for Governor, and Shane Hernandez for Lt. Governor. Also, choose Kristina Karamo for Secretary of State and Matt DePerno for Attorney General. If Tom Barrett is a choice for congress on your ballot, choose him. I know him well. He’s a good man. His opponent, Elissa Slotkin, is a dreadful pestilence to natural law and would shut down every church if she could. If you can vote for Paul Junge, do so. His opponent, Dan Kildee, is Elissa Slotkin’s ideological twin. If you can vote for any of the following congressional candidates, do so: John Gibbs, John James, Mark Ambrose, and Bill Huizenga. And because our educational institutions are incredibly critical, be sure to choose Tamara D. Carlone for the Michigan Board of Education. Mike Balow and Travis Menge would help clean up U of M as trustees. Lena Epstein and Sevag Vartanian would do the same at MSU. On the non-partisan portion of the ballot, I implore you to choose Paul Hudson and Brian Zahra for the Michigan Supreme Court. If you want to keep men out of women’s sports in Michigan, we need them on the highest bench. If you want Michigan’s 1976 civil rights legislation—the Elliot-Larsen Act—to maintain the definition of “sex” as meaning biological gender, vote for these men.
Lastly, if you have questions about others on your ballot, please reach out. I might be able to help.
Do you see what I’ve done here? I advised you regarding far more than Proposal 3. Pastors can and should do this.
Now, I’d ask my fellow pastors as it relates to the presupposed ban on the Church’s engagement: What’s the point of encouraging Christians to vote no on the moral issue posed by Proposal 3 if at the same time the Church forbids shepherding those same Christians toward candidates who are in alignment with the One in whom they’ve placed their faith? Let’s just say Proposal 3 fails. Amens and alleluias will be the order of the day. However, even as it dies, if we re-elect the candidates who fought to put it on the ballot in the first place, history proves it’ll rise from the dead like the 3% of Michigan voters who voted for Biden in 2020. Get rid of these people or they’ll haunt our ballots with ungodliness every election cycle.
To be frank, the Devil loves the Church’s confused complacency in this regard. He knows that the more he can steal from the Church and recategorize as political, the less Christians will be encouraged by their own spiritual overseers to hold the line on some fundamental issues crucial to the Church’s ability to proclaim Christ. They won’t act because they don’t think the Church holds any ownership in the issue, and they’ll do it thinking they’re being faithful. This foolishness is already happening in so many ways. We’ve certainly handed everything relative to natural law over to the lions. What’s more, the doctrine of justification has been mauled beyond recognition in many of our churches and Christian universities now embracing wokist ideologies like Critical Race Theory. Clearly, there’s confusion among us. And the lions are poised to steal more. Just give them time.
Meanwhile, if the pastors continue to stand idly by—and they teach their people to do the same—it won’t be long before the last atom of our sacred doctrine and traditions is completely outlawed, forcing the Church into the shadows.
This won’t change until the Church and her pastors begin seeing politics through a Christological lens. Almost everything in life, even politics, is in some way Christological. Almost everything put into place for maintaining human order intersects with the rule of faith and Christian conscience. No, we are not Dominionists. Christians are not called to establish a theocracy. But we are called to engage. We have a right to influence the public square just as much as we have a right to breathe air. To assume otherwise is lazy and foolish, no matter how erudite your congregational epistles might be.
I’m reminded of the Prophet Hosea’s words: “For with you is my contention, O priest… My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me” (4:4,6).
I’m with Hosea on this one. If pastors do not engage in the public square, if they will not teach others to do the same, then God’s people will continue to be destroyed. They’ll do self-terminating things. They’ll elect candidates and embrace policies that seal their own dreadful fate and the fate of future generations of Christians. As they do, these same pastors must be willing to accept their fair share of the blame.
On the other hand, if pastors are engaging in these things—and shepherding their people to do the same—then well and good. Thank them. Love them. Support them. Help them. It’s not necessarily an easy thing for them to do. They’ll be hated. They’ll get nasty phone calls and letters. They’ll see relationships dissolve. They may even find themselves in court. This is the war zone, and these are the trenches. Hell’s bullets will always fly against the ones raising the banner of biblical truth. Still, the orders from our Captain must be carried out. Christ’s concern in the campaign must exceed our own. As a pastor, I walk a dangerous line of offense, not only with the outside world but with the radically individualized pew-sitters. I know the attacks will come. Still, I must go. God’s people must go.
I’ve often told my wife, Jennifer, that I live each minute of my life one sentence away from ticking someone off. That translates into something I’ve often told you: I cannot truly love you if I don’t love God more. This is to say, my allegiance to Christ must always outweigh my allegiance to people. When I love Christ, I can rightly love others, being found capable of helping them in the ways they actually need it.
I know I’ve already been somewhat long-winded, but Daylight Savings Time has granted me an extra hour. With that, I have one final thought.
For any pastors who may be reading this, if you have time, take a quick trip through the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Yes, yes, I know the purest exegizing of the story is that we are incapable of saving ourselves by keeping the Law—that ultimately, we need a Savior’s rescue. Still, note the characters in the Lord’s story. They’re clergy. That should mean something to you.
One character, a priest, sees a dying man, someone assumed by the listeners to be a fellow Jew. But the priest passes by without stopping to help a believing brother who’s experiencing a life-threatening issue. Keeping with the 8th Commandment, I’ll assume the priest’s intentions were good, that he didn’t help because medical care isn’t relative to his job. Another clergyman, a Levite, sees the dying man and does the same thing. In both instances, the clergy fail. Why? Because they didn’t understand what rests at the heart of their faith: love that engages and acts. The one who succeeded—the Samaritan—he reached into a moment when action was required, even someone who couldn’t have been further from his sphere of vocational responsibility.
Brothers, stop and help dying humanity. It’s struggling with life-threatening issues unjustly claimed and then imposed by politics. There will be time for writing your sermons and preparing your Bible studies. In the meantime, do something—anything—to help the unborn, the parents trying to protect their children from gender confusion in schools, the nurse who lost her job because she didn’t want to assist in an abortion, and so much more that’s happening in the marshy ditch beside the road. Help others to navigate and push back against the treacherous social and political waters that are, even now, surging up and over the road as a tsunami intent on drowning all who travel there. You are Christ’s undershepherds. You already have what it takes to do this. You can be a beacon of truth in and for the community, even the ones who oppose you. Equipped with God’s Word, you can be the one who draws attention to the Devil surfing atop the murderous tide rising from the ditch, thwacking the skulls of bobbing corpses all along his way.
“My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge….”
Be the source of knowledge. Understand that engaging in the public square is to engage in life’s unavoidables, where Christian love cannot help but stop and labor because anything and everything converges at its intersection. The ones who are constantly redistricting the boundaries for this intersection—the government—who they are and what they stand for should matter to Christians. Love people enough to teach them concern for this. Love them enough to shepherd them toward safety and away from danger. Love them enough to remind them that, just as you would never think of sequestering your faith before visiting the ballot box, the people in your church shouldn’t either. Love them enough to conquer your fear of their disapproval when you do this. Love them with a courage that insists the Christian faith does not license believers to choose candidates who hallow abortion, desire “drag queens in every school,” or are complicit in so many other entangling devilries the civil powers seek to impose in contradiction to God’s will. Love your people enough to prove your resolve, even being willing, if necessary, to speak these same things before the princes of this world.
I suppose in closing, remember that any pious boundaries put in place that prevent pastors or their people from helping the dying man, while good-intentioned, might actually be veiled wickedness. Be careful. Discern and pray. But don’t stop there. Engage. I doubt we’d have ever heard of the Samaritan if good intentions were all he had. We know him because he was the Lord’s example of love blossoming into action for the neighbor beyond the boundaries of his vocational borders. He steered out of his lane and helped.
I just finished writing a paper yesterday afternoon for one of my doctoral cognates on the importance of loyalty. I should share it with you. However, I can’t. Each paper written gets fed through a plagiarism tool that searches the internet. If I share it with you, and then, as is my custom, I post it online, if it hasn’t been checked by the tool before the professor grades it, I risk getting tagged unjustly.
In the meantime, know that I find the topic of loyalty in the Church interesting.
As Christians, while we might understand the essential benefits of loyalty, it may also seem counterintuitive to faith. I say this only as I hear the echoes of Saint Paul’s warning, “For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not being merely human?” (1 Corinthians 3:4). His point: blind devotion to anyone is a carnal craving. Human beings are fallible. To hang on to everything any single person says or does without discerning their adherence to truth is simply foolish. Humans are fallible—sometimes by accident, and other times, willfully. In this sense, loyalty is a tricky business.
During our Thursday chapel, I spoke with the children about the benefits of celebrating All Saints Day. I first explained what a saint is according to the biblical definition (a believer, a person set apart by the power of the Holy Spirit in faith). I then continued to share with them why it’s a good idea to remember and give thanks for those who’ve gone before us into the nearer presence of Christ in heaven. Our practice here at Our Savior is to say the names of the Christian members of our congregation who’ve died since last All Saints Day. We aren’t talking to them. We’re remembering them. And why? Well, because we’re loyal.
By loyal, I mean something Christological. It’s the kind of loyalty the world just can’t seem to figure out.
The ones we’ll mention during worship are believers who remained faithful to the end. They closed their eyes in the sleep of mortal death, having never stepped away from loyalty to Jesus, no matter the consequences. While on earth, such loyalty sometimes bore a hefty price tag. Some lost their friends and reputations. Some lost the love of family members. Some lost their jobs. It could be argued that during the time of Covid, because of what our government imposed, some even lost their lives. We want to remember that loyalty. We want to devote ourselves to giving it the attention it deserves. We want to give thanks for steadfast conviction, not only because it stands as proof of what the Gospel can do in the lives of frail human beings, but because we want the same courage for ourselves. We want to emulate these saints. We want to be as fiercely loyal to Christ until our last breath as they were. We want, as they wanted, to be living testaments of trust in Jesus so that one day we’ll be found before His throne as ever-living acknowledgments of His divine confession that “the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13).
But there’s more we can learn here about loyalty.
I saw a meme that showed a zebra running alone while being chased by a lion. In the background stood the other zebras in the herd observing from afar. The words to the meme went something like, “A Christian who believes he doesn’t need the Church.” The point is well made. The Church is not only God’s chosen means for disseminating the Gospel of forgiveness throughout the world (Ephesians 3:10), but it is His body—His herd, with Him as its Shepherd (John 10:11-18). Apart from His herd, we’re more easily hunted and killed. But within the herd, we are among others who are devoted to our wellbeing (Acts 2:42), fellow saints put in place by Christ to build one another up (1 Thessalonians 5:11), parts of the same body that need the other parts and will protect those parts from harm (1 Corinthians 12:12-14).
In other words, as a herd, as a body, as a like-spirited family, the Church runs together. There’s a loyalty among us that’s born from our loyalty to Christ. While not the primary focus of the Lord’s various mandates for His Church to gather together, I hope you at least sense Christian loyalty in the current of its undertow. He knows that standing together—upholding one another in word and deed—meets with our ability to endure. Indeed, our God says as much through Saint Paul’s insistence that “when each part is working properly, (it) makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:16). God continues to encourage Christian loyalty when, through the writer to the Hebrews, He declares, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-3).
Notice he encouraged the reader to endure the race of faith after first reminding him of the great cloud of witnesses surrounding him. Also, take note of what the runners are doing during the race. As individual team members, we’re looking to Jesus, the One who endured through the perpetual night of Sin, Death, and hell as none of us can. Next, and as a team, it’s assumed we’re cheering one another on, encouraging each other to keep his or her eyes on that same victorious Jesus. There’s loyalty to be seen in this imagery. It’s a loyalty that functions when the race is easy. It’s also working overtime when the race is hard. It is far from what J.R.R. Tolkien described through Gimli to Elrond in The Fellowship of the Ring, “Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.” For Christians, it’s when the road is darkest that our loyalty beams most brightly.
Again, the world doesn’t understand this stuff. We shouldn’t expect it to understand. But we get it. Christian loyalty is genuine loyalty and bears a potency that, not-so-strangely, moves us to celebrate All Saints Day. And why? Because in its essence, All Saints Day is an opportunity for us to dig directly into that loyalty and say to one another while running, “Do you remember Lorraine? How about Tom and Donna? Brothers and sisters in the Lord, keep your eyes on Christ, just as they did. Don’t give up! Keep going! Endure by God’s grace! You’re almost there!”
Birthdays are something, aren’t they? Some have gravity that others do not. Our daughter, Evelyn, turned thirteen at the beginning of October. Going from twelve to thirteen is a big deal for a young person. The teenage years have a prospective orbit that the previous years did not. I turned fifty last Wednesday. That felt a little like making a jump into lightspeed and arriving at a completely different solar system altogether. I still feel like I’m in my twenties. Jennifer tells me I sometimes act like it.
Well, whatever. Sometimes a guy just has to dress like a stormtrooper before going to Walmart. It’s the way of things for someone who, for a good part of his life, has been unwilling to let the world around him do the steering—a guy who has an inkling of how bright-eyed an exhausted mom and her two kids can become after crossing paths with a Star Wars character in the cereal aisle.
I like that. And while they can’t see my face, they know I’m smiling, too.
I suppose any birthday brings an opportunity for introspection. Certainly, the older I get, the more I reflect. I’m guessing you do, too. I had one online friend, someone who cares, reminding me to slow down—to make the most of the days, reminding me not to burn the candle at both ends. He knows me well.
Interestingly, he used the phrase, “burn the candle at both ends.”
Do you know where that saying comes from? It’s from a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay. How do I know this? Because she died on my birthday. At some point, I remember learning she died back in 1950 on October 19. I don’t recall how I became aware of it; probably one of those radio segments talking about events in history. One of Millay’s claims to poetry fame was the lyric entitled “First Fig.” In it, she wrote:
My candle burns at both ends; It will not last the night; But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—It gives a lovely light!
Millay had a Dickinson way about her—crisp and melodic with her words, all arranged in the best order and bearing something profound. Even this little verse speaks volumes.
For one, it reminds the reader of life’s transience. No matter the pace at which one’s candle wax is consumed, each day will end, as will the candle keeping the evening vigil. Interestingly, while her words are typically used to describe being overworked, that’s not necessarily her intention. In a simple sense, she means to say that she has a life and intends to do the most she can with it. She already knows she won’t live forever. Still, she plans for her light to burn as brightly as possible, producing a lovely light before both friend and foe.
I suppose birthdays are fertile moments to ask pragmatically, “Will any among us last the entirety of life’s night?” If the one asking the question is honest, his or her answer will be no. As the day ends, so will the night. And so, the lesson here? Give your utmost diligence to each of the clock’s ticks. Life is progressing. Its wax is being consumed. Live accordingly before your candle’s flame goes out.
This reminds me of something the Lord said to His onlooking disciples in John 9. It’s not exactly the same image, but it is somewhat similar. Before stopping and healing a blind beggar, the Lord said to His disciples, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work.” (v. 4).
Firstly, I think it’s interesting that Jesus used the word “we” instead of “I” when describing who would be involved in accomplishing the works of the Father in this world. It’s not as though God can’t do these things Himself—as if He actually needs any help. The Lord is also not saying that anyone will have any active part in the work required for salvation. Jesus will accomplish all of that. He will live perfectly under the Law. He will suffer and die for the sins of the world. He will rise again as Victor over sin, death, and Satan. On the other side of these things, He uses “we” to show He is including His disciples in the efforts of faithfulness born from His work. His disciples are believers, people recreated by the Lord’s sacrifice. Believers produce the fruits of faith, often taking the form of both witness and service. They are vessels—carriages—sent out to extend the message of what Jesus has done. They do this by both word and deed. In short, they live out the Gospel in the world around them in recognizable ways.
Admittedly, the Christian life is often passively unaware. In other words, faith so often creates fruits in us we don’t even realize are being produced (Matthew 25:37-40). On the other hand, the Christian life is actively aware, too (Matthew 24:45-46; 25:29; Luke 10:25-37; 1 Peter 3:15; James 2:18-19, 26). It stands at attention. It’s ready and willing to engage in service when required. Jesus demonstrates this by stopping and taking time to heal the blind man. He could have passed by. He certainly had other cosmic-scale things to do. Still, He stopped. He helped. Sometimes, Christianity requires that we stop and help.
I suppose, secondly, the fact that Jesus crams this Christological point into the image of a single day implies not only the urgency and determination He has for situating His Christians in the world in this way but also the divine stamina He knows we’ll need for suiting up and doing what needs to be done. Life is busy. It’s often experienced in a flurry. I can confirm this, and it’s likely you can, too. Therefore, the Lord reminds His listeners in the very next verse that so long as He is present—and He has promised He will be—we’ll have access to a light that empowers our labors (John 9:5). Even when darkness falls, He will be the fuel that keeps the flame burning at both ends, giving a lovely light through us to both friend and foe.
Knowing these things changes the trajectory of our earthly orbits in some pretty incredible ways. We know we can’t earn our way to heaven, but we also know we can’t sit idly by when a blind man needs our help, or a wearied mother in the cereal aisle could benefit from some cheer, or an unborn child needs an advocate for life. If we are not burning the candle at both ends—ever vigilant in our awareness and willingness to embrace each moment for faithfulness to Christ—we’re living a dimly lit life.
Lots of folks around the world receive this eNews each Sunday morning. The ones in Michigan know where I must go next.
Proposal 3, a ballot proposition that will enshrine abortion (and other atrocities) in the Michigan Constitution, is on the verge of passing. Barbara Listing, the president of Right to Life of Michigan, mentioned a few nights ago that other executive leaders for Right to Life in surrounding states are saying Proposal 3 can’t be defeated. They’re urging that Right to Life of Michigan change course, that we give up on fighting the proposal and begin putting all the coffer’s coins toward the campaign needs of pro-life candidates. In other words, the onlookers have already consigned Michigan to the title “Unrestricted Abortion Capital of the World.” But Barbara told her wobbly counterparts she wasn’t going to give up. She’s going to continue leaning into the fight, giving it everything she’s got. She’s going to burn her candle at both ends. I’m with her. I’m going to burn my candle this way, too. I will continue to do everything I can to see Proposal 3 defeated. I have a life, and here at this particular moment on the timeline, an opportunity to live that life to its brightest has appeared. Regardless of the outcome, I will light both wicks and burn my candle. I’m not going to live forever. And so, I will do everything I can with every breath I’m given to act—to stop and help the unborn who cannot help themselves. I’m going to fight for the preservation of parental consent laws, for religious objection laws, and for all the other Godly things Proposal 3 is designed to erase with a single solitary dot on a ballot’s page.
You need to be engaged against this devilry, too. You must vote “no” on Proposal 3, and on the same ballot, you should choose candidates who are committed to doing the same. To do otherwise is to be in contradiction with one’s own Christian identity, thereby living a dimly lit life. Now is not the time to be dimly lit. Let friends and foes alike see your flame of faith. It will be harder for some than others. Still, as a Christian, it’s a must. Let the flame of your faith beam brightly, burning at both ends, and with an unapproachable heat. Let it be a beacon in the darkness to those who would find it, and I dare say, let it be a forewarning of your resolve to those in opposition who’d dare try snuffing it out.
Like many of you, I do a lot of reading. Although, because of time constraints, I suppose more and more people are reading through their ears. I’ve not been one for audiobooks. I tried it a time or two, but it didn’t seem to work for me. I once tried listening to The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, a collection of short stories featuring Doyle’s famous detective. Stephen Fry narrated the collection. Fry was equal to the task, and he was equal to the task. But after a little while, I hoped to hear someone else. When one person reads and interprets the whole text, carrying each character with only his or her voice, a longing emerges for what the imagination might do with those same words. Would Holmes really sound like that? Would Watson’s voice be pitched in that way?
But that’s just me. I invest in imagination, so I prefer to read the text myself. This is probably why I’m rarely impressed by films based on books. They never quite meet with what I experienced in my mind.
I also read a lot of speeches. I memorize them, too. Just ask my kids. I can readily perform Winston Churchill’s material. Reading a speech is different than reading a book. A public address is meant to be heard, so as I read along, I find myself preferring to hear the speaker’s voice. Listening lets in more than just the information the speaker intended to share but also the deeper, more personal things he or she wants you to feel in your guts. These things arrive in the carriages of tenor, tone, and many other rhetorical devices, all meant to bring the listener into the speaker’s world. Sometimes, this world reveals more than the speaker envisioned.
Since I mentioned Winston Churchill, a great example of this can be seen between Churchill and his predecessor, Neville Chamberlain.
A pompous man, Chamberlain will forever be remembered as the English Prime Minister who appeased the Nazis. In his “Peace for Our Time” speech in 1938, he gives the impression that following his meetings with Adolf Hitler, he alone brought peace to Europe. It is a short speech. The language is high, distinguished, and well-delivered, not flowery or cumbersome. However, it carries along with an egocentric and aristocratic fervor, the kind of self-importance that drove him to say so foolishly later:
“My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honor. I believe it is peace for our time. Go home and get a quiet sleep.”
Though subtle in textual form, Chamberlain’s self-absorption is easily heard in the speech’s audio recording. It’s amplified when you learn that later that next year—1938—Hitler completely disregarded Chamberlain and invaded Poland.
In contrast, Winston Churchill’s “Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat” speech before the House of Commons on May 13, 1940, rings differently. Like Chamberlain, Churchill speaks in a way that shows his aptitude for language. But as he speaks, the listener realizes something about him personally. They can hear his skill, but they can tell he is using his skill in service to them, not himself. He’s not on a mission to build a fan base as the new Prime Minister, but instead to crisply explain a dire situation to a nation he loves. His language is colorful—dreadfully so—as he depicts the depths of a dirty and inescapable predicament that he intends to empty himself into completely. As he speaks, he includes the listener. He brings them along, making sure they feel as he feels and believe as he believes—which, in the end, is that if Great Britain is to survive, the whole nation will be required to fight.
Interestingly, even though he speaks again and again in the first person singular, which is something self-absorbed people tend to do, the audible care with his words rescues his message, making it clear by his tones that he does not believe himself to be the savior of the British Empire. He believes, firstly, that God will be their deliverer because the cause is just; and secondly, God will do this through the might and muscle of a committed British people. He believes God will move them to stand together and face “an ordeal of the most grievous kind….” And so again, even as he uses “I” repeatedly throughout the speech, the words “our” and “us” resonate with far greater intensity:
“You ask, what is our policy? I will say it is to wage war by sea, land, and air—with all our might and with all the strength God has given us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: victory—victory at all costs; victory in spite of all terror; victory however long and hard the road may be. For without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realized.”
When the people heard Churchill speak these words, they were not distracted by anything about him, not even his raspy lisp. Instead, as he poured his entire self into communicating the immensity of the need, they took his message into themselves and were inspired to fight. More importantly, Churchill inspired them to endure, not necessarily knowing the outcome, but being aware of the price for victory and being found willing to do what was needed to pay it.
I suppose I find myself thinking about all these things this morning—how we receive words, as well as the noteworthy people who write or speak them—because, over the last seven or eight years, I’ve found myself brushing shoulders with some fairly high profile folks who do this for a living. I’ve discovered among them what appears to be two camps: glory hounds and genuine servants; Chamberlains and Churchills. The Chamberlains know their own importance and, as a result, have little time for a backwater clergyman ushered to the chair beside them—that is, unless he can help further their importance. The Churchills, on the other hand, no matter who is beside them, want to know what makes their new compatriot tick. They want to converse together. They want to learn. They want to know where others stand on things, and without saying as much, they want to assure their counterparts they’re not in the game for the earthly rewards but the wellbeing of real people. They want to win the war, and they know if that’s going to happen, they need the people beside them, no matter who that might be, to be in it with them. And so, they use their God-given platforms to embrace and inspire their listeners, being sure to empty themselves before the crowds in ways that show they’re all in for the triumph.
By the way, I think good preachers do this, too. A good preacher is a genuinely committed one—someone devoted whole-heartedly to the task; someone the pew sitters are convinced has a deep care for the content preached and the listeners receiving it. They believe that he believes the message, too, and that he would die before letting it go silent.
Now, before I wander off in a tangential direction on preaching, there’s another speech I’ve read that comes to mind this morning. General Douglas MacArthur gave it. A brilliant strategist, MacArthur is one of those speakers you should read rather than hear. I say that because he’s a bit of an enigma. He’s a fine orator, but like Chamberlain, self-importance shines through in his voice. However, as an inspiring warrior, he’s a Churchill. He would give everything of himself to convince his troops to follow him into battle and give everything of himself in that battle to win. He spoke in 1952, saying, “It is fatal to enter any war without the will to win it.” He was right, and the sentiment of his words travel alongside folks like George Orwell, who said with great seriousness, “The quickest way of ending a war is to lose it.”
Together, these points remind us that if a person isn’t genuinely invested in the fight—that he or she is only laboring out of concern for self—he or she is already destined to lose. That loss will have begun much sooner than the person may even realize. For these reasons, loss is a Chamberlain’s destiny. Churchills are more likely to win because they know they need the muscle and might of others to help move the mountains. With that, they work harder to convince and inspire.
Right now, we need Churchills.
We’re at war here in Michigan. Plenty are talking about Proposal 3—which, as any pro-life person paying attention to Michigan will know, is a demonic attempt to memorialize in the state’s Constitution an individual’s right to have an abortion up to, and in some cases, after birth. The pro-life ranks are filled with Chamberlains and Churchills. Some are saying and doing just enough to remain relevant, giving the impression they care, but only to get elected or re-elected. Others are pouring themselves into the fight because their very fiber won’t allow them to do anything else. They’re talking to others, not necessarily with eloquence but with knowledge and passion. They’re getting the word out. They’re recruiting others to the cause. They’re doing this because they care about others. This care has helped reveal to them the guts of Proposal 3. They know it more than enshrines murder in a way that will be nearly impossible to reverse and that it reaches into countless other arenas, ultimately negating laws that protect parental consent and religious objection. Perhaps most importantly, the people fighting the hardest know the blast radius of their efforts is large. They know the rest of the nation is watching—friend and foe alike. What happens in Michigan will be repeated.
In closing, I encourage you to be a Churchill, not a Chamberlain. The enemy is at the gates as never before. Set aside your own safety or self-interest. Step outside what keeps you comfortable, and do what you can to rally the troops. Talk to your family, friends, and neighbors. Send them an email. Call them. Give them literature that enunciates the concern. Let them experience your passion for the unborn, not in an imposing way, but in a way that shows you genuinely believe what you’re saying and doing. Implore them to vote no on Proposal 3 on November 8.
I know some might disagree with me when I say a Christian is duty-bound to do this. Feel free to disagree. Just know you’re wrong, and I’d go to the mat to prove it. What you believe is made complete by what you do (James 2:22). So, get up and do. Proposal 3 deals in Christological things. God owns all its topics. If, as God’s people, we remain quietly inactive, resulting in Proposal 3’s passing, the devil will mock our Chamberlain-like foolishness during his government-sanctioned invasion of Michigan on November 9.
Don’t let that happen. Speak out. Fight. Rally others. Stand at the gates and stop Proposal 3. Do everything you can to fight this “monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime.” As a citizen, you can. As a Christian, you must.
After enjoying a richly fruitful event yesterday—our annual “The Body of Christ and the Public Square” conference—I’m again reminded of life’s strangeness. I acknowledge that Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hartland, Michigan, is by no means a powerhouse of financial magnitude, nor are we large by comparison to many other churches. In truth, we are a relatively unassuming bunch of Christians who gather for Word and Sacrament ministry. By God’s grace, in that gathering, we have discovered ourselves equipped for accomplishing some pretty incredible things—namely, the courageous carrying of Christ’s Gospel into the world in ways one might not expect from a troupe like us.
We do this as Confessional Lutherans—people who are disinterested in using candied entertainment to lure people through our doors. Instead, we hold to the historic Rites and Ceremonies the Church has enjoyed for two millennia. That’s been our identity for our six-and-a-half decades here in Hartland. Within the last ten years, as the world has intensified its efforts to invade and destroy all things Godly, we’ve seen our shiftless identity draw others alongside us in defense. Some of these folks are ones you only see on TV—such as Candace Owens, Charlie Kirk, Ben Shapiro, Dinesh D’Souza, Dennis Prager, and of course, Matt Walsh, who so graciously joined us for yesterday’s conference.
How did this happen? Well, that’s a question I’m asked quite frequently.
The honest answer is, “I don’t really know.” Or perhaps better stated, “Only God knows.” Although, I suppose I could say that I’ve found myself in the right places at the right times talking with the right people. I’ll add relatively frankly that those same people found the depth and relevance of our identity refreshing. That said, even as the one running point on these conversations, I never expected any of the opportunities we enjoy today. I was doing what pastors are supposed to be doing, plain and simple. The congregation I serve was, too.
Admittedly, I’ve grown in my awareness that the times, as they say, “are a-changing.” Things are much harder for the Church these days. In fact, the way I’ll often describe this is as it relates to clergy: the days when people tipped their hats kindly to a passing clergyman on the street, listened to him with gladness giving the invocation at a public school event, or smiled as he engaged in community affairs—these are all ancient and alien experiences compared to today. Nowadays, the chance of a clergyman being attacked or spit upon by a passerby is a ready possibility. I speak from experience. Still, God leads His undershepherds accordingly. The same goes for the people who know the Good Shepherd’s voice. His mission and its subsequent peripherals haven’t changed. With that, and speaking only for myself, I’ve spoken to particular topics in specific contexts as the Spirit required. This produced results. Sometimes good. Sometimes not so good. Either way, friendships emerged. Those friendships expanded to others, eventually moving into certain spheres where an in-the-trench congregation and her pastor would subsequently find themselves engaging with some of this world’s darkest forces. And yet, God saw fit to send help from others. Some of these reinforcements speak from exceptional platforms and bear extraordinary resources.
Indeed, God has blessed us in this. And so, we go forward.
There is a saying that victory has many fathers, but defeat is an orphan. The point is that when things are going well, plenty are willing to say they had a hand in it being so. But when the threat of trouble comes, associations grow thin, and people take cover in the shadows. The thing about God’s people here at Our Savior is that, for the most part, we’ve never been a congregation with the urge to cut and run when things got tough. As it is in most congregations, individuals have departed from our fellowship for one reason or another. Some because they simply didn’t like me and wanted me gone. In fact, they worked really hard to get rid of me. That’s fine. Not to be too bold, but they’re elsewhere, and I’m still here. Apparently, God had other plans.
Others left because of our congregation’s hard stance against abortion, LGBTQ impositions, CRT, and the like. Unfortunately, and in my opinion, those folks couldn’t exchange their love of this world for alignment with God’s Word. Interestingly, some left our fellowship for various reasons, but when they discovered the theological conditions in other places, they regretted the decision and returned. They realized the essentiality of Confessional Lutheranism’s inherent resistance to the ever-altering whims of culture. And why are confessionally liturgical churches so sturdy? At some point, I’ll probably write a book about it. Until I do, let’s just say it’s because their identity isn’t bound to the here and now. They share ownership of a singular identity with countless generations of Christians before them. As a result, they’re less inclined to roll over and give it away when the enemy comes calling for something new. They will fight as their fore-parents fought, knowing they’re not in the fray for the temporal successes bound to this world’s timeline but for the timeless successes that only God can provide—the kind He has supplied to the confessing Church during her most challenging days throughout all of human history.
There’s something else to keep in this regard.
Strangely, success often appears among such people as defeat—as struggle, suffering, hardship, and adversity. If you doubt it can be this way, consider the crucifixion of Jesus—the absolute epitome of the world’s depiction of failure. And yet, by the Lord’s gruesome self-giving, the cure to Sin’s poison was accomplished and delivered, and the old evil foe, the devil, was forever defanged. The incarnation of Jesus—God’s lowering of Himself to our station—and His eventual death on the cross, these two things demonstrate the truest glory of God. Jesus and His Heavenly Father believed and acknowledged this together in John 12:23-32. In the same way, Christians who crave faithfulness to this glory rather than the glory of prestige already have a proper bearing. They can trust even as victory and defeat seem blurry, assured that God is in the fracas with them and He is using even the hardest moments for His faithful people as it serves His righteous purposes.
There’s another saying relative to this that’s worth considering. I’ve heard it said (and I’ve likely shared it before) that the real tragedy in loss is the pain experienced from almost winning. I don’t know who said it, but I certainly appreciate its insight. It’s an honest observation of how it can hurt to arrive at the finish line but not cross it. But again, for Christians, it’s not necessarily about the finish line. It’s about the race. When it comes to humanity in general, the finish line gets crossed in death. Although, in one sense, Christians have already crossed the finish line as they’ve died to themselves and were reborn in Jesus. Baptized into Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit at work for faith in the One who already crossed the threshold by His death and resurrection, ultimately winning the victory, a Christian is accounted with His finish-line triumph. Knowing this, the race becomes a joyful venturing alongside the One who promises never to leave or forsake us as we run.
Of course, just as the world would interpret the Lord’s death as defeat, so also will it see the struggles we face as Christians—and even our mortal death—in the same light. But again, Christians know better.
“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Saint Paul wrote those words. His words consolidate both living and dying into one unending life.
As Paul’s words meet with the here and now, we know that the hills and valleys, the straightaways and the turns, the uneven roads and the smooth terrain all provide opportunities for God’s victorious Gospel to drive us toward the next moment. What that moment will be—how it will feel, what will be at stake, the measure of effort it will exact—we don’t know. But what we do know is that if God is for us, who can be against us (Romans 8:31). He’s on our side. The victory is His. We get to go forth in faithfulness to Him regardless of the current climate of our culture. There’s courage to be had by this knowledge.
I mean, when not even death can scare you, what would any of us have to fear if someone vomited threats on us for saying that an unborn child is a person worthy of life; or that men can’t be women and women can’t be men; or that the answer to racism is not more racism as Critical Race Theory would insist? Of course, these are rhetorical questions easily answered.
Death has been conquered. In Jesus, we have life. This is at the heart of what we do here at Our Savior in Hartland. God is blessing our efforts as they’re born from this trust in the middle of both ease and struggle. I’m glad for both because I know they serve as tools of a God who has given unbreakable promises of His loving care.