No Do Over

God’s Word is rich. I just love it.

One of the main thrusts of today’s celebration—the Transfiguration of Our Lord (which, because we follow the Historic Lectionary, comes to us at Our Savior in Hartland a little earlier than the churches that use the Three-Year Lectionary)—is the importance of listening to the Word above all other things (Matthew 17:5). In fact, the Heavenly Father turns the disciples’ combined attention away from the Lord’s glorious display to the simplicity of listening to Jesus. And why? Not only because Jesus is the Word made flesh, but because it’s by the Gospel that He chooses to engage with and save His world (Romans 1:16). Spectacular light shows and wowing performances might inspire awe, but they’re impact is easily dulled by sinful human forgetfulness—as all three of these disciples will continue to prove time and time again not long after the Transfiguration. James and John will run away in fear when the Lord is captured. Peter will deny three times that even knows Him.

“Listen to Him,” is the Father’s Word. That will always be more important.

One of the things I love most about God’s Word is that the more you study it, the more it reaches into you and equips you for seeing things in ways that you didn’t before. An easy example of this comes from what I read this morning in 1 Corinthians 1:18-31. Essentially, Saint Paul sets the stage for us to keep our senses attuned to how God operates, writing plainly that He often does so in opposites. He chooses the weak things instead of the strong. He chooses to work His powerful victory among us through what appears to be the brutal defeat of His Son on a cross.

Of course, I knew these things already. Still, taking Paul’s lead, I began contemplating the familiar opposites I experience in life, specifically success and failure.

Like you, I experience victories and I suffer defeats. The old saying “You win some and you lose some” is not lost on any of us, and neither are the feelings of joy and sadness that come with winning and losing. But digging a little deeper into these opposites, what’s really at their centers? What’s really driving victory’s joy? What is it about defeat that induces genuine sorrow? Because God is big on opposites, I wonder if He has in mind for us to understand that the midpoint for winning or losing is in some way relative to what’s at stake for its opposite. In other words, it’s not necessarily the victory that delivers the joy, but also the knowledge of what was almost lost. The same goes for losing. It’s not so much the defeat that stings as it is the knowledge of what remains out of reach, of the inaccessible value of what was almost won.

I preach and teach fairly regularly how these deeper perspectives matter to the Christian Church. If you don’t know the value of what God says is good, how can you truly care to steer clear of the bad? If you don’t know the deeper significance of what’s at stake for eternal life, how can being connected to the One who can rescue you ever really rise to a place of genuine prominence in this life?

While many of us might not want to admit it, part of the problem is that we’ve retooled our spirituality to match the world’s spirituality, believing that there will always be another opportunity for everything, that there will always be a next season. We do this with our favorite sports teams. We do this with our jobs. We do this with so many things in life. Unfortunately, we also do this with marriage, making it disposable, and figuring we can always try again with someone else. We do the exact same thing with churches, friendships, and even our children. Far too many in our world are now doing this with Natural Law and human sexuality, thinking they can change the unchangeables and live as somebody new. And while we may get away with abusing these things in this life, we ought not let ourselves be fooled into thinking that there will be a next season for winning eternal life. When you breathe your last, or if the Lord returns again in glory, all seasons will have passed. All opportunities for running a different play, taking another shot, or trying a new pitch will have ceased. The buzzer will have sounded, and the divine Referee will have declared the winners and the losers for an unending future.

This is it, folks. Everything is on the line. Everything for the world to come matters right now in the world of today.

Come to think of it, I suppose another reason any of this might come to mind is because I learned this morning of a friend’s recent passing. It appears he was killed suddenly in an auto accident. Having met him at a side job in my college years, and getting reacquainted online through comments he’d sometimes make on my posts, he was the kind of guy who was betting on making it to old age, to a stage of life when he’d be able to see his own death on approach. And assuming he’d know when he was in that inevitable season, it was then he’d start to “get right with God.”

But time ran out. He was killed instantly.

Admittedly, our gracious Lord does sometimes move within the framework of a person’s final moments. He gives a little insight into this possibility in Matthew 20:1-16, which, by the way, is the Gospel reading appointed for next Sunday, Septuagesima. But if you take a moment with the parable Jesus tells (which is another example of opposites), you’ll notice that our Lord insists on doing things His way, not ours. In that respect, I’m reminded of a short video clip of Rev. Dr. David Scaer (https://wp.me/aaCKV0-1Be) in which he talks about how we like to hold up various examples of deathbed conversions, usually only doing so to justify believing that our delinquent loved ones made it into heaven. But Scaer admits we all know: it rarely happens this way in reality. Not everyone goes to heaven. People do actually end up in hell.

There’s value in admitting this.

Changing gears only slightly (or, perhaps, getting back around to where I started, which was the topic of listening to the Word), Bishop Hardy and I had a conversation this past week about the challenges of being pastors, namely, dealing with the kinds of people who appear to thrive on accosting us. I remember us needing very little back-and-forth when it came to one particular aspect of the calling, which is that every day brings new opportunities for being someone’s villain. The message we believe and bring, both Law and Gospel, all but guarantees this. In short, the point of the conversation, and an opposite of sorts:  Why do we stay in a job that so often feels like defeat when we certainly could be doing something else that enjoys greater success? We agreed that whether we’re received as heroes or villains, neither of these opposing titles outweigh the value of the message we bring and its inherent power to change us—and to equip us—for the long haul. It makes us into men who are content to do what the Father commanded—which is to listen to the Word. In the end, we continue in the combat because the Word is everything to us. I’m guessing other pastors keep at it, enduring the same things for the exact same reason. The Word has made them into men who, like them or hate them, simply believe what Jesus says, and are quite well with taking any flak His words are guaranteed to stir.

I should add one more observation. It’s also likely pastors stay in the game because they want this endurance for more than just themselves. They want it for you, too. I know I do. Interestingly, and again keeping Paul’s theme of “opposites,” that encouraging thought also bears a word of warning to the wolves among God’s people. Or better yet, a clarification. Against pastors and people devoted to God’s Word, your troublemaking better have stamina for the long game, and not to mention lots of help, because those who embrace, believe, and stand on the Word—again, like them or hate them—are not only emboldened by God through His Word, but they are empowered. That means they aren’t quitters. They won’t roll over so easily in the face of devilry.

The Devil Comes Out

It may be somewhat of an abrupt way to begin, but as a pastor, I’ve seen and experienced plenty to affirm the existence of the devil. And I’m not just talking about the philosophical deduction that comes from observing our world in chaos and concluding that he’s the only possible explanation for all of it. Instead, I’m admitting to being fairly sure I’ve met him face to face a time or two. Even further, I’m confessing to having experienced unexplainable things, that is, I’ve been brought into situations involving particular places or people, and what was going on around me didn’t play by the rules of natural expectation. I won’t give you the details, but rest assured, some would serve well as scripts for horror flicks.

I guess what I’m saying is that if you disbelieve the existence of the devil, I’m here to tell you that you’re fooling yourself. He’s real. And every now and then I find myself working with someone who has the bruises—both physically and spiritually—to prove it.

It used to be a fashionable thing to say that the devil’s greatest trick was convincing the world he doesn’t exist. I’ll be honest and say I never really fell for that line. The devil has always been captain of the blowhards. Anyone at all familiar with the scriptures will know it was his prideful arrogance that brought about his fall (Isaiah 14:12–15 and Ezekiel 28:12–17), and so I find it difficult to believe that he’d ever be willing to give up the spotlight in any room. Although, if indeed his non-existence has been one of the go-to plays in his playbook, I think he’s using it less and less these days. From some of the things I’ve read and seen lately, I get the sense he’s beginning to step from the shadows in order to let more and more people know he’s there. In fact, I think he’s not all that far from coming out of the closet completely, since that seems to be the grandest sign of nobility in our culture these days. In other words, don’t be surprised if one day you hear the pronouncement that the devil has announced his premier interview and that it’ll take place on “Ellen”—or better yet, “The View.”

But to come out would mean he’s willing to tip his BLM, Inc. hat to the existence of God, too, and wouldn’t it make life harder on the devil if people believed God actually exists?

Not as long as the devil emerges as the hero in comparison.

The devil has been hard at work in our radically individualized society framing himself as the first in a long line of “misunderstoods” who have throughout history been met by unjust systems built by self-appointed and self-righteously intolerant people—God, of course, being the chief of the intolerants. To establish this premise, the devil has been exemplary in his usage of universities and the civil government—one being a locale for learning “truth” and the other a system of legislators, judges, and lawyers in place for employing that truth on behalf of victims for the sake of justice.

Truly, it is as the old saying goes, “The devil makes his Christmas pies of lawyers’ tongues and clerks’ fingers.”

In addition to this, it sure seems the devil is more openly making his case from the reasonable premise that there are two sides to every story, and yet God has written all the so-called “official” literature on the subject, so the system is inherently rigged and isn’t to be trusted. It’s time to see things from a better perspective. And so the devil is more forthrightly suggesting that, yes, while the pathways apart from God are different, they aren’t necessarily bad. And they’re certainly not condemnable. But because God says they are, the devil becomes the good guy, and God is the over-lording villain working to support a system that needs to be completely torn down and rebuilt.

Do you see what he’s done here? Indeed, it is as Elizabeth Barrett Browning said: “The devil’s most devilish when he’s respectable.”

For the record, while so many in our world are succumbing to this kind of “critical theory”—even in the Church—I intend to stand as diligently against it as I can. I’m not going to fall for it, but rather I’m going to fight it with everything I’ve got. I hope you will, too.

But how?

I mentioned at the beginning that I’m more than certain I’ve met the devil. I mentioned that I’ve worked with people who’ve been tormented by him personally and I’ve stood against others who were clearly sent by his directives. In each of the circumstances, my practice has been the same—to advise or engage in an exorcism. But I don’t mean the kind you see in the movies. I mean the exercise of Word and Sacrament ministry—the pure preaching and teaching of the Gospel and the right administration of the holy sacraments according to Christ’s command—all of this most certainly being delivered to the world through the Church in the midst of holy worship.

In other words, every time you gather for worship, in a sense, you can be sure you are experiencing an exorcism. You are gathering together with the One true God—the Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit—who loves you, and He is giving to you His merciful gifts of forgiveness and the knowledge of the way of righteousness, and He’s driving from you the powers of Sin, Death, and the lying devil.

This is how you keep from falling for the deception.

This is how you prevent the devil from inhabiting your heart and mind.

This is how you are equipped for the seemingly endless warfare against his tireless assaults.

Apart from this, using your reason and mortal senses alone, your defenses will be weak and you’ll be fooled. But with the continued strength of the Holy Spirit by way of the Gospel of God’s grace, your fortifications will be sturdy as your otherworldly senses are heightened. By these, the devil won’t be sly enough to make it into your camp undetected. Even better, when you see him slinking into the camps of others, you’ll be ready and able to grab your weapons and run to their aid to protect and defend them.

Please Excuse Me

I’ll be swift with my thoughts this morning. In truth, I have little energy today for much more than what I’m being moved to ponder out loud.

As a pastor, there’s something I’ve learned all too well over the years. I assure you it was already true long before the fresh stack of executive orders arrived at our doorsteps legitimizing certain human behaviors.

Few need a good reason for avoiding time with the Savior.

Unfortunately there’ve always been plenty of self-deceiving excuses available to Christians. Each of our narratives is full of them, and in our Sin, each of us is well-equipped for handily decriminalizing the reasons, no matter how foolish the road to doing so may actually be. For example, I once shared in one of my The Angels’ Portion volumes a story from years ago about crossing paths with an inactive member at a department store at 3:00 AM on Black Friday. The particular person was one who’d always insisted that after a busy week of work, it was just too challenging for him physically to get up and get ready for a 9:30 AM worship service on a Sunday morning. Standing there in line, both of us shivering in temperatures unsuited for anyone’s lengthy exposure, he spent several awkward minutes doing what he could to defend his disjointed premise.

He’s long gone from our church’s roster. But I can only imagine what my conversations with him would be like if he was still with us today, how his deeper inclination would have been granted permission to stroll about openly by our Governor’s orders, and on top of that, within a society being collectively slow-boiled into believing it’s honorable to frown upon in-person worship gatherings and the people who desire them.

Forget the whole “you’re not being a good Christian neighbor when you don’t wear a mask” thing. Christians are now telling other Christians they’re not showing Godly love for their neighbor by going to church at all!

Read that sentence again and know that the job of pastor got a lot more complicated in 2020, that’s for sure.

Putting it bluntly, no matter the real reason for staying away from worship that may be lurking beneath a person’s glossy surface, any excuse has suddenly become virtuous and neighbor-loving, and anyone insisting otherwise is labeled a guilt-shoveling villain. A question I’d set before you, however: How villainous can your pastor really be if he’s made clear over and over again that if you can’t get to the church to receive the Lord’s Word and Sacrament gifts—no matter your reason—all that’s needed is a phone call and he’ll bring it to you—masked, gloved, wrapped in bubble-wrap, in a HazMat suit, or whatever? Speaking personally, this has been a standing promise of mine since I was first ordained, and not only have I upped my ante by repeating it publicly since March of this year, but I’ve made good on it. Since March, I’ve been to some of your homes and served the Lord’s Supper through a kitchen or bedroom window. And yet, I’d still say 2020 isn’t exactly a unique situation when it comes to such an offer. If you’d have been afraid of the flu in 2019 but still desired Word and Sacrament, I’d have accommodated you. I only need to know. Phones are great for that. And for the record, the last I checked, the cell towers and communication satellites aren’t susceptible to the flu or COVID-19.

In the end, I guarantee all your pastor wants is for you to be fed with the life-sustaining gifts of God’s grace!

Again, as a man called to stand in the stead and by the command of Christ—a man bringing a Word of invitation from the King of kings—I find myself reminded on occasion of a telegram sent by Lord Charles Beresford, a British admiral who served in the Royal Navy at the turn of the twentieth century. The telegram was sent in reply to a dinner summons from Prince Albert of Wales, the man who would soon ascend the throne as King Edward the VII. The invitation to dine with the future king was delivered to Beresford assuming he would be glad for the honor and make plans to attend.

The admiral’s reply was simple.

“Very sorry can’t come. Lie to follow by post.”

In short, I actually appreciate Beresford’s response. At least he was willing to deal honestly with his king. He just didn’t want to attend, and that was easy enough to understand. I’m sure it bothered the king, but if you know the rest of the story, then you also know the king moved on to include others, eventually abandoning his relationship with Beresford. But again, the truer inclination of the admiral was that he didn’t want it, anyway. And the king—one of England’s most beloved—certainly wasn’t going to build the friendship by force.

So that was that.