There is the saying that goes something like, “Until it matters, no man can be sure of his courage.” I appreciate those words. Indeed, one can hardly be considered courageous from ease’s protective tower. Knowing this, I suppose that’s why each year on Good Friday, the words by the Gospel-writer Mark to describe Joseph of Arimathea are piercing. Each year they find their way deeper into my contemplation of the Lord’s sacrificial death on the cross.
It’s not long after the Lord’s final breath that we read:
“And when evening had come, since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus” (15:42-43).
Why are these words so resonant? Because they describe a man who, for the most part, has kept his faith in Jesus an unchallenged secret. And why would he do this? Because as a member of the Sanhedrin—the primary human force in opposition to Jesus—Joseph knew what would happen to him if it was ever discovered. He and his family would be utterly undone economically, socially, and religiously. But then suddenly, none of these things appear to matter anymore. Mark writes that Joseph “took courage,” having been moved to act beyond the boundaries of his fears and request custody of the Lord’s body from Pilate.
What caused this? He witnessed the death of His Savior, Jesus.
The actual deed—the very intersecting act of God’s redeeming plan in this world—that’s what sits at the heart of faith. Joseph saw it. Whether or not he fully understood what had happened, it would certainly appear that his faith knew the significance of the gory details. In that moment, his faith became a daring powerhouse more than ready to flex the divine muscles the Holy Spirit had granted it. It moved him to go before Pilate and do something that would very soon thereafter become public knowledge.
What does this mean for us?
If anything, it means none of us ought to take Good Friday for granted. It means there’s something to be said for a day that’s spends itself thinking on the epicentral event of our Lord’s work to win us back from Sin, Death, and the power of the devil. It means if ever there was a day for doing something that might unmask our oft-hidden commitment to Christ—such as missing an extra-curricular activity or asking for time off from work to attend worship—Good Friday is that day. In one sense, that’s what the Greek word for “took courage” (τολμήσας [tolmēsas]) insinuates. At its root, it means to take a chance, to dare, to be bold in a way that lowers one’s defenses, maybe even in a way that provokes evil to attack.
Joseph took courage. He did this knowing that to do so could result in trouble. But he did it, anyway. Maybe you can, too. You certainly have less to lose than Joseph, even if only to give up some time to attend one of the two services occurring here at Our Savior in Hartland, Michigan. The Tre Ore service occurs at 1:00pm, and the Tenebrae service is at 7:00pm. I’m preaching at both, and I can’t wait to do so.
Today is Palm Sunday, also called “Passion Sunday.” Palm Sunday is the doorway into the arena of Holy Week. For those who know, today is a pivotal day in the Church Year. By “those who know,” I mean those who know what’s coming. They celebrate by waving palm branches. Later today, some will fold those branches into the shape of a cross while studying the worship schedule and making plans to return for services during the week. They do this because they’ve learned the value of pondering each of our Lord’s words and actions as He makes His way to the cross and empty tomb—even the ones that may seem inconsequential. From His washing of the disciples’ feet to a mid-trial glance at Peter, everything becomes important, and believers don’t want to miss any of it.
The first few days—Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday—are days of intense preparation underpinned by a passionate awareness of what’s looming. Then comes the holy Triduum—the three days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.
In the evening on Maundy Thursday, our Lord knows He’s in the final hours, and so He establishes His Holy Supper, a divine meal that both gives and assures us of His presence and forgiveness. Establishing this, it truly is as the Apostle John describes:
“Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1).
Indeed, He loved them to the end. If we somehow get distracted from this on Maundy Thursday, it’s likely we won’t on Good Friday. Good Friday demands the attention of all. It is the battle royale—the conflict of all conflicts on a cosmic scale. Jesus goes into the powers of darkness, not for Himself, but for us. It’s there that our salvation is exacted. Moving into the evening of Holy Saturday, or the Vigil of Easter, believers endure the darkness of what appears to be the Savior’s terrible defeat. And yet, they do this by holding to the ancient promises given throughout the scriptures, finally coming face to face with an angel who declares, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you” (Mark 16:6-7).
Easter Sunday is the first step from Holy Week into an entirely new season—one of victory, one that celebrates the conquering of Sin and Satan, as well as the death of Death itself; all of it accomplished by the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was dead but is now alive, and who now reigns for all time.
Today, Palm Sunday, we celebrate. Again, we wave palm branches. We sing with festive voices. Next Sunday we celebrate, too. We’ll sing just as brightly. Our Easter suits and dresses will match the day’s tenor. In between these two Sundays, things aren’t so easy. Holy Week isn’t easy. Rest assured Our Savior in Hartland, Michigan, is a church that’s mindful of this. Knowing this, you’re invited to be present for each of the worship opportunities provided. You’re invited to hear the Word of God read and preached. You’ll want to hear this Word. It saves. You’ll want to take in the rites and be immersed in the ceremonies, all of which are born from the devotion of countless generations of Christians before you who knew something in particular about Holy Week.
And what was it they knew so well?
Well, as Pierre Corneille once observed, “We triumph without glory when we conquer without danger.” This saying is useful to Christians if only to remind us of how easy it is to be robbed of something’s truest value when we don’t know its truest cost. Holy Week spends itself revealing the cost. Without taking time to consider the immensity of it all, without taking at least a few strides alongside our suffering Savior, it’s possible to arrive at Easter without a sense of its worth.
Don’t do that. Pay attention to Holy Week. In my many years as a pastor, I’ve never met anyone who has regretted it.
Lent begins tomorrow. We enter into it by way of Ash Wednesday’s gritty gate. The branches from last year’s Palm Sunday procession are reduced to cinders, cooled, and set aside to be daubed upon the foreheads of Christians. The smear is a cruciform one. It’s in the shape of a cross. It is this way as it marks an honest self-inventory that hopes in the Savior, Jesus. It signals a genuine repentance toward something deep, something that cannot be uprooted by human hands, but by God in Christ alone.
Mind you, Ash Wednesday leaves no room for the kind of repentance described by the poets inclined to mock it, men like Ybarra who so flippantly look at it as something we do on Sunday out of sorrow for something we did on Saturday, and yet, intend to do again on Monday.
Although, I should say, if this is your practice, then the shoe fits and you must wear it. I’d also suggest that perhaps you are more needful of the direction Ash Wednesday and Lent provide than you realize.
Still, such shallow religiosity does not beat in the heart of genuine Christian repentance just as it could never be the cadence for Ash Wednesday and Lent. In humility and faith, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are found sorrowful for our Sin against God and neighbor. We know we are as guilty as guilty can be. And yet, by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, we are forgiven, made new, and sent forth into the world as His own. As we go, we take the message of the cross with us.
When it comes to participation in the Imposition of Ashes, regardless of what those who poke fun at the practice might think, its partakers will carry the Gospel out into the world in a uniquely visible way. The cross will be seen on their faces, and by it, there will be opportunities for onlookers to know that Jesus still matters to some. Perhaps a passerby will, in kindness, let you know you have dirt on your face, and when you tell them it isn’t dirt, but an ashen cross, they’ll ask what it means. It’ll then be for its bearer to say with confidence to the inquisitive stranger, “I’m a sinner. I need a Savior. But, I know Jesus shed His precious blood on the cross for me, and by His sacrifice, I’ve been set free from Death and its end in the dust.”
Maybe you’ll be blessed with such an opportunity. Either way, I hope to see you tomorrow at one of the Ash Wednesday services here at Our Savior in Hartland, Michigan, whether it be at the brief service in the morning at 8:10am, or tomorrow night at the 7:00pm Divine Service.
About two years ago, after sharing appreciation for my friend Jeff Wiggins’ reading choices, Jennifer found and purchased for me a first edition of H. Jack Lane’s volume The Wit and Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln. Essentially, it’s a varied collection of Lincoln’s personal letters to friends and colleagues, speeches, war dispatches, and the like. It is by no means Lincoln’s entire repertoire. But at 124 documents in all, it offers wonderful insight into who Lincoln was when hidden.
Being an admirer of Lincoln, as I’m sure so many are, I visit with this volume from time to time. It’s his way with words I appreciate most. He’s skillful. And the skill is inspiring. I haven’t read the book straight through, but instead, I jump around from scribbling to scribbling. Having done so this past Monday, I happened upon a letter Lincoln wrote to Thurlow Weed, a prominent newspaper publisher in New York. On Tuesday morning, I carried the book through the hallways of the school to my theology class where I shared this particular letter with the 7th and 8th grade students. We spent the whole hour considering it.
Essentially, Lincoln wrote the short epistle to thank Weed for complimenting his second inaugural address, which, if you ever have a chance to read the speech, you’ll see is more than influenced by the Word of God. The speech is in Lane’s book, and on its title page, he notes that Dr. Louis Warren, the Chancellor of the University of Oxford during Lincoln’s time, observed that “267 of the 702 words were direct quotations from the Bible and words of application made to them.”
Interesting, but not surprising. Lincoln was a devout Christian man, despite how progressive historians have tried to recast him otherwise—as they continually try to do with so many of our nation’s forefathers. He was a friend of and attentive listener to the preaching of his pastor, Reverend Phineas Gurley, the man who would be by his side into and through nearly every challenge he’d face as president, even the moment Lincoln breathed his last breath.
I share this so you know that no matter how Lincoln’s legacy is currently being retooled, he was no part-time believer, and he was committed to governing as he could answer to God. I’m glad for this, and you should be, too.
What caught my attention in the letter to Weed (and what I took time to examine with the students) was Lincoln’s opening sentence followed by his own explanation of the address. He began the letter very plainly with, “Everyone likes a compliment,” and then a little further in, he wrote contrastingly:
“I believe [the inaugural address] is not immediately popular. Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them.”
In one sense, very little analysis was necessary here. Lincoln stated a simple truth that’s easily observable in the world. While everyone likes to be told they’ve done something right, few appreciate being told their wrong, namely, that they’re on the wrong side of righteousness. This is innate to the Sin-nature. Lincoln knew that. And yet, even beneath the safe assumption that his listening audience was composed primarily of God-fearing Christian citizens, he felt the need to communicate it. Why? Because when it comes to believers, we, too, have a difficult time being told we’re wrong, even though we ought to be the ones most concerned for and able to hear that we’ve stepped out of alignment with the One in whom we’ve staked our faith.
Lincoln took a chance and brought this very accusation.
In the actual speech, he inquired of the people of a divided nation who “read the same Bible, and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other,” should any on either side expect this same God to be in conflict with Himself? Lincoln answered his own question, first by saying with resoluteness, “The prayers of both could not be answered.” And then he capped his position rhetorically by asking, “Shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?”
No. God is immutable (Numbers 23:19; Malachi 3:6; Numbers 23:19; 1 Samuel 15:29; Isaiah 46:9-11; Ezekiel 24:14; James 1:17; Hebrews 13:8). He does not change, nor does He operate in ways that contradict His nature. As a result, He cannot be for and against something at the same time.
Lincoln was making the theological point that anyone seeking something contrary to God’s will should not expect His blessing, but instead, His resistance and correction. Being the mindful theologian he was, I get the sense Lincoln was familiar with Romans 1:18-32, which includes the frightful warning from Saint Paul that God does not tolerate people opposed to His will indefinitely, but rather, eventually He abandons them to their own will leading to destruction and eternal condemnation. Lincoln didn’t lift anything from this portion of Paul, but he did quote Jesus’ words from Matthew 18:7. Doing so, he took a chance at suggesting that the dreadful Civil War was a just due given to those through whom the offense of slavery came and was sustained in America. And he didn’t just mean the South. He meant the North, too. He aimed his comment at the whole nation—a nation of people not only comprised of slavery’s supporters, but of those who were complicit because they did nothing for far too long. In the end, all were responsible. Even Lincoln himself.
Another gem to be mined from Lincoln’s thoughts is an elementary “something” many of us do all we can to avoid admitting: God does choose sides.
Now, I don’t mean God has a favorite football team (Romans 2:11). Although, I suppose an argument could be made that He certainly appears to prefer any team but the Detroit Lions. I’m also not implying the horrible doctrine of Double Predestination, which claims God chooses some for salvation and others for condemnation. When it comes to rescuing mankind from Sin, Death, and Satan, God is on all our sides (John 3:16-17; 1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9; Ezekiel 18:23; Matthew 23:37). What I am saying is pretty uncomplicated.
God is against evil.
This is not a complicated premise. God is not on the side of Christians who support abortion. He is not on the side of politicians who restrict the Gospel. Could ever be found rejoicing when a serial killer murders a family on their way to worship? Of course not. We more than learn this from the Scriptures. It’s all over the place in the Old Testament. With each depiction, in turn, His people are expected to join Him in opposition to evil (Psalm 1:6; Joshua 24:14-15; Deuteronomy 30:15-20). We see Jesus doing the same thing in the New Testament. For example, He takes sides in the situation of divorce in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9. He takes the side of the woman about to be stoned by the Pharisees in John 8:1-11. In Matthew 12:30, He says straightforwardly that whoever is not with Him is against Him. In Luke 11:28, Jesus proclaims as blessed those who side with the Word of God, that is, those who hear and hold to it as their most precious possession for salvation. Saint Paul is no stranger to the discussion, either. He’s the one who wrote by divine inspiration to God’s people, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). Later on in 1 Corinthians 11:18, he makes a rather startling remark about God choosing sides in a congregation divided over the practice of the Lord’s Supper, writing that while some among them have God’s approval, others do not. He wrote:
“For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.”
The word used in the text for “genuine” is δόκιμοι. This word can also be rendered “approved” or “judged as worthy.” So, who’s the one approving or judging as worthy? God. By this, He’s choosing a side. He’s saying who’s right and who’s wrong. One side is holding to His mandate. The other is not. Subsequently, one side is blessed by the benefits of what’s promised in the Lord’s Supper. The other receives the judgment mentioned in verse 29. This may be an elementary way of thinking this through. Nevertheless, it is what it is.
Coming back around to where I started, I think part of what makes Lincoln’s point sting so much is that it revealed an evil comfortably hidden beneath the guise of righteousness. I think another sting is felt when we realize there will always be folks who aren’t genuinely interested in something being good or bad, just so long as whatever happens in relation to it doesn’t disrupt their interests.
“Sure, abortion is terrible, and I’d never choose it for myself. But I don’t think it’s right to restrict someone else’s right to choose one.”
If this is your position, understand that God is not on your side.
Lincoln was willing to speak these uncomfortable truths to a nation, even though, as he admitted to Weed, he knew his words would not be popular.
Lincoln ended his letter with the following:
“To deny [the difference in purpose between God and evil], however, in this case, is to deny that there is a God governing the world. It is a truth which I thought needed to be told, and, as whatever humiliation there is in it falls directly on myself, I thought others might afford for me to tell it.”
Again, he’s right. When you hold fast to wrongness and resist acknowledging you’ve stepped beyond the boundaries of faithfulness, you not only deny the just governance of God (because what you’re suggesting is that you’re right and He’s wrong), but you also teeter at the edge of denying His existence completely. Both are an affront to the First Commandment, and they’re nothing short of putting oneself in the place of God.
No one likes to be told they’re out of step with God’s will. And yet, for as piercing as such news might be, the penitent believer in Christ has been changed by the Gospel for receiving such a warning as an extension of God’s loving kindness. It’s a good thing that God tells us when we’re dangerously close to unfaithfulness, or that we’ve strayed from faithfulness altogether. Thankfully, Lincoln had clarity in this regard. Imagine if we had more people in the public square with the same clarity as Lincoln—people willing to call Sin what it is, and to speak courageously of Christ as the only side that rescues. Imagine if we still enjoyed the comforts of a populace with ears to hear such a message.
The church and school staff here at Our Savior in Hartland meet every Wednesday for study of the Lutheran Confessions. Currently, I’m leading them through Article IV of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession. Article IV deals with the doctrine of justification—the doctrine by which the Church stands or falls. During this past Wednesday’s study, we wandered into the area of consequences. As we did, a quotation from T.H. Huxley came to mind, which I shared. He said something about how logical consequences are a fool’s scarecrow, but for a wise man, they are a beacon.
Interestingly, each of the presentations during yesterday’s “Mental Health and Children” seminar here at Our Savior proved an awareness of consequences. Each presenter handled the term a little differently, but in the end, all affirmed consequence’s necessity.
In a psychological sense, I’m guessing that like all three of yesterday’s presenters, perhaps one of Huxley’s points is that foolish people meander about life less interested with consequence, and not necessarily because they’re completely oblivious, but because they’re mentally and spiritually unhealthy. These people are often disassociated from the effects of their words and actions. We see them treating people as it suits them. We see them expect respect without having done anything to earn it. I think they do these types of things because of an early-learned assumption that as long as they believe their intentions are noble, no matter how they treat someone, everything will be okay in the end. Things always work out. For them, that’s the only consequence.
This is scarecrow foolishness.
According to Huxley, wise people weigh consequences. Yesterday’s seminar presenters spoke in a similar stride, associating such awareness with normal mental health. Following Huxley’s lead, wise people observe consequences like pyres burning brightly on the horizon. They tend to maintain better control of the “self.” They keep their emotions in balance. They craft their words with care. I’m guessing they’re also likely to be people who are self-aware of their own unspoken tells—things like body language, tone, and catch-phrases. They care about even these things in conversation.
I made the point in the staff study on Wednesday that I believe a person who is mindful of consequence will naturally know his or her threshold for action. In other words, knowing the consequences of an action will uncover what a person is willing or unwilling to do in any given situation. I said this in relation to what we were reading at the time, and I didn’t want the staff to miss what the text was inferring, which was, through faith in Christ, no matter what happens in this life, the consequence of all consequences has been met by Jesus on the cross. By faith in this sacrifice, whether we live or die, we are His. This doesn’t mean we are now free from all consequences, but rather we have been made into people capable of walking into and withstanding challenges that others might normally avoid. Faith now serves as the point of origin for Christian discernment, translating all logical consequences in ways that help us break through to faithfulness when fear seems to be preventing us from doing what needs to be done.
A personal example from this past week comes to mind.
Having spent most of last Sunday evening in the Emergency Room, I ended up at our preferred pharmacy near our home on Tuesday afternoon (because Tuesday was the soonest I could get there) to pick up a subsequent prescription. On the way in, I noticed a car in the parking lot with two rather large bumper stickers, both prominently displayed and easily seen from a distance. One was the Antifa emblem, and the other read, “Capitalism is the virus.”
In case you didn’t know, Antifa is a far-left militant group. Their goal: to disrupt and destroy the American system and to replace it with their own. Do you remember those “Autonomous Zones” in Seattle and Washington D.C. back in 2020? Antifa were the thugs behind that stuff. They’re the ones you see on national news dressed in black, wearing ski masks and helmets and body armor, and leveling all sorts of violence and ruin using urban guerilla-warfare tactics. They’re hell bent on seeing socialism replace capitalism, and they believe the only way to do this is through intimidation and violent confrontation similar to their Marxist forefathers of the early 20th century. You can almost always count on them to serve as the muscle at “Black Lives Matter” rallies. Holding anarchy signs, they attack passersby, break windows, and burn buildings and cars. They’re famous for using improvised explosives, chemical irritants, and pretty much anything they can turn into a weapon—like metal pipes, axe handles, baseball bats, hammers, bricks, and the like. Not to mention, whether or not they’ve surrounded, sucker-punched, and kicked you to a bloody pulp, you know they’ve been in your neighborhood because they leave everything covered with trash and graffiti.
But sometimes you don’t know they’re in your neighborhood.
Another of their tactics aimed toward disruption is infiltration. Some experts believe this is how Antifa has known where and when to arrive in mass numbers when some relatively obscure conservative groups have organized an event. This happened to a Christian church’s outdoor service last year in Seattle.
In short, Antifa is responsible for hundreds of thousands of acts of violence, some resulting in death, as well as billions of dollars in damages across 140+ of America’s cities and towns. In May of 2020, President Trump announced he was labeling Antifa a domestic terrorist group. Of course, Joe Biden has since walked that back. Go figure.
Anyway, I went into the pharmacy. I looked around. I didn’t notice any black-clad militant Marxists. In fact, the only two patrons in the store were in line at the pharmacy. Both were elderly gentlemen who, as it turns out, knew each other. By their clothing, both appeared to be veterans. And both spent their time in line talking back and forth about what was happening at their respective churches.
I waited in line, got my prescription, stopped at home for a few minutes, and then went back to the church for a School Board meeting.
Later that night, I found myself back in the pharmacy parking lot. The car was still there. Once again, I went inside and scanned the store with the hope of identifying the person. But the place was empty. I grabbed a bottle of pop from one of the coolers in the furthest corner, and after a brief discussion with the manager at the checkout counter (one in which I shared much of what I just shared with you, while also drawing the manager’s attention through the store’s windows to the car in the parking lot), I discovered the vehicle’s owner works in the pharmacy. My concluding words in the conversation were fairly crisp.
“So, let me get this straight,” I said. “An Antifa sympathizer—someone driving around advertising a belief, not only in the disassembling of America through violence, but also in the benefit of subversive anonymity—has been hired by this company to fill prescriptions for the people of this town, at least two of whom are, as I discovered earlier this afternoon, elderly veterans, men who epitomize everything your employee hates?”
“Oh, goodness,” the manager said. “I’m probably going to have to talk to her.”
“I think that’s a really good idea,” I added, tucking my purchase into my coat pocket. “You might even want to talk to someone a little higher up before you do, because this is pretty serious. I doubt any company would want to generate unnecessary buzz due to association with a domestic terror group.” I said this insinuating I was willing to make that happen.
Notice I didn’t share with you the name of the store or town. Although, I’m sure some of you already know both. Nevertheless, I’m going to sit on that information for a few days to see what happens.
In the meantime, what does any of this have to do with knowing one’s threshold for action in relation to consequences? Well, quite a bit, actually.
There will be consequences for what I’ve done. Heck, I anticipate there will be consequences from some of you for just sharing this. Some will label me derogatorily as a “Karen.” Some will chalk me up as part of the cancel culture. Others will say my actions suppress free speech. Knowing Antifa’s history, others will say I put myself in harm’s way by seeking the person out. Perhaps worse, by confronting the ideology, and maybe even getting the person fired, others will accuse me of putting the store and its town in the crosshairs of this dreadful organization. All of these are but a few of the consequences. Believe me, the list is much longer than this. Yes, I was paying attention in the School Board meeting earlier that night, but I was also pondering the list’s possibilities.
Face it, folks. This nation is spiraling in so many ways. But this is largely true because too many have been unwilling to act for fear of the above list of consequences. The viscera for saying what needs to be said or doing what needs to be done in some of the hardest moments has, in many instances, been lost on the citizens of a somnolent nation braced by the fear of being cancelled. We’ve become those who meander around thinking that no matter what happens, everything will be okay. America will be fine. It’ll get sorted out.
No, it won’t. And we are experiencing the consequences of this scarecrow foolishness.
In the end, I did what I did because I know Christians are the ones best equipped for speaking. Why? In part, because we know the role consequences play in the equation of faith.
I know this has been a long read so far, but give me one last minute to explain.
Whoopi Goldberg (a celebrity on the daytime TV show “The View” that regularly ridicules Christians and conservatives) was recently put on leave for some truly ignorant comments about the Holocaust. In response, there were plenty of Christians calling for her suspension, but not necessarily calling for it permanently. While they despised what she said, they didn’t want to see her cancelled. They said she needed to be forgiven and then let loose back into the wilds of TV land.
Personally, I’m one of the Christians who wants her gone permanently. I’m also one of those guys who believes that any leader in the Church caught having an affair or other such ungodly behaviors, should be removed from his or her position of leadership permanently and with no exceptions. Why? Well, I have at least three reasons for starters.
The first is not because I’m unwilling to forgive anyone their sinful stupidity. We all fall short in big and small ways. The Bible is clear in this regard (Romans 3:10). But I say this because the person is in a place of influential strength, and their impact has a blast radius that God’s Word warns against (Titus 3:10-11; 1 Timothy 1:19-20). Besides, history itself proves how dangerous such situations involving public figures can be for communities. Their Sin has a way of trickling into and affecting countless others. With regard to Whoopi, the second reason is that she remains defiantly unrepentant in her Sin. The third reason is because, even if she does eventually repent, I believe in consequences in the same way our Lord describes them in Matthew 5:23-26:
“So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.”
Part of the Lord’s point is the urgency of penitent reconciliation. Get on it right away. He wants peace accomplished swiftly and thoroughly. If it isn’t, the logical consequences will eventually ensue. Relationships will come undone, even though forgiveness has been given. What once was good will become obscured, even though things have been set right. That’s just the way it works in a fallen world. Or perhaps from another angle, you may be a serial killer on the way to trial who has a genuine “come to Jesus” moment of repentance born from the Gospel that results in saving faith. Praise God. You are forgiven. No matter the outcome, eternal life is yours. But the consequences remain for the serious boundaries of natural and moral law you crossed. While you may be assured of heaven through faith in Christ and the forgiveness He bestows, here on earth you’re assured of prison, and maybe even execution. And rightfully so. These are the just consequences. But again, even as you face these consequences, by the Gospel you have the certainty that the consequence of all consequences has been defanged and defeated by the same Savior who has shown you eternal mercy. By this, whether you live or die, you know you’ll be okay.
I’m praying for a change of heart in the Antifa pharmacist. I’m praying for the wisdom of the manager at that store. I’m praying for a change of heart in Whoopi Goldberg. But as I lift these petitions before God, I do so also asking that He’d help me to be ready and willing to cross the thresholds of my fear in order to endure the consequences of any action I might be called to take in opposition to these devilries. I pray for these things because I know what they mean for my enemies just as much as what I know they mean for me.
Today the people of God at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Hartland, Michigan, will celebrate the 67th anniversary of the congregation’s founding. We’ll enjoy receiving Rev. Dr. Peter Scaer as the preacher of the Gospel in holy worship, and then we’ll be blessed by his faithfulness with God’s Word in the adult Bible study hour. If you know anything about Dr. Scaer, then you’ll know he’s a modest man, someone who gives himself over in humble service to the Gospel. But he’s also someone willing to go on point with God’s Word against an ever-encroaching world. I’m glad he was willing to join us. We will be blessed by his efforts.
Looking back at what I just typed, I used the word “modesty.” I did so probably because of the text I just read this morning from Romans 12:2.
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
“…discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
These words assume a turning away from “self.” They assume submission to a process designed to align a person to God’s preferences. The scriptures are clear that this submission is only possible by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in a believer (John 1:9-13; Romans 1:16; John 15:16; Ephesians 2:19-22; 1 Corinthians 12:13). In other words, we don’t choose to submit to God’s will. By the Gospel, He transforms us. This transformation creates within us a humble acceptance of His will and way as better. Genuine modesty is an outcropping of this humility.
Even apart from faith, I’m guessing that modesty is a recognizable virtue and that most normal people aren’t opposed to demonstrating it. This is true in the sense of modesty’s social definition, which is most often visible when someone is praised. In such a moment, the person deflects by underestimating what he or she has done. Of course, plenty of people are modest in the way Lord Chesterfield humorously described to his son: “Modesty is the only sure bait when you angle for praise.” I experienced this type of soft braggadocio with someone already this past week.
From another perspective, I’d say that most normal people also practice modesty in the sense that they do everything they can to avoid the appearance of indecency. But again, dwelling among those normal people are also the ones who use humility to hide their truest character, epitomizing the saying, “You have no idea what a poor opinion I have of myself—and how I, by no means, deserve it.”
I guess what I’m saying is that in both instances, modesty can be genuine, and it can be counterfeit.
Jennifer has been reading a lot about gaslighting, which is an abusive tactic that’s on the rise in our world. I’m guessing it’s always been around (because Sin, while it is very creative, tends to rely on the same essential formulas for getting humans to hurt one another), but it didn’t really get its colloquial tag until 1995 when it was coined by a columnist—and the columnist took it from the 1944 film entitled “Gaslight.” I’m betting that gaslighting is gathering a footing for normalcy today because of society’s ever-increasing run toward full blown narcissism.
Again, Jennifer has been investigating the behavior because she wants our kids to be equipped for identifying and countering it in relationships. Gaslighters are incredibly toxic people. Uneasy contention follows them everywhere they go. This is often true because they are incredibly controlling people who bear a self-perception of never being wrong. This, then, results in the meticulous reframing of reality to the point of making their victims question their own versions of reality.
“Maybe I’m not remembering the sequence of events correctly,” a person will eventually say after regular interactions with a gaslighter.
“Maybe what this person did to hurt me really isn’t that big of a deal,” another will wonder. “Maybe I’m being overly sensitive.”
“Maybe I didn’t do things the right way,” still another will self-inquire. “Maybe I actually screwed everything up royally.”
In all these instances, gaslighting weaponizes the modesty of the one wielding it, keeping itself hidden behind an artificial humility that does what it can to reshape narratives to achieve its goal with little resistance. A gaslighter is skillful at making conflict appear to be the fault of the victim, while at the same time convincing the victim that the efforts of the gaslighter are noble and in the victim’s best interest. Meanwhile, the victim discovers his or her own humility being turned backward in indictment, often resulting in some pretty ridiculous behaviors—like accepting the abuser’s false narratives as real, and then apologizing to the abuser for the hurt the victim believes he or she has caused.
I’m glad Jennifer is taking the time to gear up with this stuff and is passing it along to our kids. It’s becoming more likely they’ll experience this behavior, and if so, they’ll need to know how to deal with it—whether that means direct confrontation, or by keeping certain relationships at arm’s length.
But enough about gaslighting, because that’s not necessarily what I had on the brain this morning.
Stepping from Chesterfield’s above comment about modesty, I’m wondering if the best way to test the genuineness of a person’s humility is not necessarily by way of praise, but by accusation. In other words, when a person does something that appears good, modesty—real or fake—reacts by turning the spotlight away to others for equal credit. If the same reaction occurs when the person is accused of sinful behavior, then I wonder if the person’s modesty is as sturdy as he or she would have us believe.
Although, if I’m being honest, which of us can accept the revelation of our sins gracefully? Not too many. And why? Well, for one, I mentioned before that our society is running headlong into narcissism. Narcissists are incapable of seeing themselves as flawed. And if, for some reason, they discover an unsavory quality within themselves, it’s typically cast as someone else’s fault for being there.
“I cuss so much because my parents did.”
“I belittle my wife because she does things to irritate me.”
Well, whatever. Just know that whether a person realizes it or not, ultimately, these excuses are aimed at God. When you blame your own sins on someone else—or worse, you claim your sins and the behavior born from them are justifiable—you are calling God a liar. God’s Word considers this to be one of the grossest affronts perpetuated by the sinful flesh because it gaslights God, telling Him that what He knows to be true isn’t (1 John 1:8-10).
Once again, today, Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hartland is celebrating her 67th anniversary. It’s good for us as a family of believers to remember that the deepest purpose of this congregation over the course of the past 67 years has been to wrestle against straying from truth. It has been almost seven decades of fighting the urge to lie to anyone—ourselves included—about the precariousness of the predicament we face as sinners. It has been to readily accept that while we may try to hide our self-centeredness from others, we cannot conceal it from the One who will measure us according to His divine standards at the hour of our last breath. It has been to understand that the harm we cause to others, whether intentionally or unintentionally, is always a sign of something deep within us that, apart from faith, we really have no power to uproot and remove. But it has also been an expanse of years dedicated to preaching, teaching, and administering the solution to this Sin problem. It has been nothing short of 804 months of Christ crucified and raised for transgressors in order that those same offenders would be transformed and equipped for desiring God’s reality, God’s holy will (Romans 12:2). It has been 24,472 days of being remade into the likeness of the One who gave Himself over into death that we would have life to the fullest (John 10:10).
Life to the fullest.
This doesn’t mean a life of health, wealth, and ease. Sure, these things may come, but so will struggle. Life to the fullest means the ability to hold fast to Christ in joy and sorrow, Godly pleasure and pain, all the while being carried along through our years wrapped up in the truth that we are sinners in need of a Savior, and that Savior, Jesus Christ, has come. A full life is one that believes these things for eternal life. A full life has no end.
Modesty in this life born from and acted out according to the reality of Law and Gospel, Sin and Grace, will always be divinely genuine.
I watched a “2021 Year in Review” segment yesterday on Fox News. It was only a few minutes long. Unfortunately, each of the notable events mentioned were tragic in nature. The list included things like the collapsed apartment building in Florida that killed 98 residents, Derek Chauvin’s trial, the hurricane in Louisiana, the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, the deadly tornados that ripped through several states, and so many other heartbreaking occurrences from the previous year. Altogether—the events mentioned, the images shown, the concerned tone—sure made it seem like the ones both in front of and behind the cameras were doing everything in their power to avoid mentioning anything good about 2021. It’s as if they’re rooting for this overly-fearful world to remain firmly in terror’s grip, allowing nothing through the airwaves that might suggest a footing for joy in 2022.
The gent presenting the list, Bill Hemmer, closed out the segment by suggesting the new year is likely to be dominated by more COVID strains.
Interestingly, the very next segment was an equally grimy chain of news stories built from links of gloom, starting with a recap of Joe Biden’s recent “winter of death” comments, his vaccine mandates and the court cases emerging from them, and then, if the viewer was paying attention, a strange juxtaposition of understaffed hospitals and thousands of healthcare workers being fired for refusing to get the vaccine. Right after a handful of commercials about this and that drug for this and that condition warning of this or that possible side effect, the next segment highlighted outgoing New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s admittance that he never thought lockdowns would actually be helpful, even though all along he swore by them as crucial for preserving the lives of New Yorkers. I wonder how the tidal-sized number of people in New York who went out of business because of the lockdowns feel about his comments.
As you can see, a few minutes of TV news served to be little more than an exhausting parade of misery.
In one sense, I think all of this may have been shocking to my system, mainly because I rarely watch TV. I get most of my information by reading. However, since I’ve been ill at home (which, by the way, happens to me every year after Christmas, so Covid or not, this was nothing new), I’ve spent more time than usual with our television, primarily binge-watching 80s flicks with anyone in the house willing to watch them with me. I must confess that “Gremlins,” “Predator,” and other such gems proved to be far better choices than 24-hour news. I should add to this confession that my relatively short interlude with cable news has also served to remind me how the fictional awfulness in movies can’t hold a candle to reality. Not even Hollywood movie scripts conjuring otherworldly xenomorphs with bloodthirsty appetites can outpace the world’s creativity for genuine dreadfulness.
Perhaps a New Year’s resolution for some among us could be to spend less time watching TV and more time doing something enriching—like visiting with classic literature, or writing a poem for a loved one, or perhaps most enriching of all, upping one’s visits with the Word of God, namely attendance at church and Bible study. If you find you’re a lot sadder and more anxious these days, you should consider the recent studies suggesting that regular churchgoers were the only ones to experience improved mental health during the last twenty months.
Go figure. When you spend time with the One who has overcome Death—and He adorns you with the Gospel spoils of His victory—you certainly shouldn’t expect to leave a less enriched or hopeless person.
Still, and as I was intent to preach on Christmas Eve, going to church is not for the faint of heart. It takes guts to attend. Although, this is true not for the reasons terror-mongering TV anchors might suggest. For example, even though the Church is still in the seemingly serene season of Christmas, when pitched against Christmas’ tranquil festivities, a narrative describing troops tramping through the streets of a little town in Judea killing all the boys who are two years old and younger certainly seems to interrupt the mood. But that’s exactly what the historic lectionary’s tradition for the Second Sunday after Christmas will give to countless Christians across the world this morning—an account from Matthew 2:16-18 that won’t let anyone in the pews forget just how awful this world is and what it is willing to do to retain its power.
But don’t let this hard news convince you to change the channel of your attention too soon. Stay tuned this morning, because it won’t end on a low note.
Yes, it will be an honest report. We’ll be shown the world in which we live. But Jesus will be a part of the news story. Bill Hemmer won’t be the one bringing the message. It’ll be the one ordained for preaching: the pastor. He’ll be the one doing what God has called him to do, which is to proclaim Jesus as the Word made flesh—the divine antidote God has mindfully inserted into this world’s terrifying narrative. Jesus will be heralded as the ultimate point of origin for joy and the only pathway forward through and into a hope-filled future.
In a world of terror—a world in which the Gospel writer Matthew reminds us that not even children are safe—Jesus has come. He succeeded in His effort to defeat Sin, Death, and the devil. He’s the only one who could do it. By His death and resurrection, no matter what hopelessness the world might try to force feed into us in every imaginable and unimaginable way, we’ll always have the certainty of God’s final deliverance from all things dreadful promised to those whose faith is found in Jesus Christ (John 16:33).
No matter what the new year has in store, Christians can smile even as they’re muscling through the mess. And sometimes, just sometimes, some of us are blessed enough to do it while enjoying the 80s films that made us smile as kids. But as I suggested before, perhaps an even better idea would be a trip through the pages of Stevenson’s Treasure Island, or Dickens’ The Cricket on the Hearth, or perhaps a casual visit with Robert Frost—all after church, of course.
God bless and keep you in 2022. I would promise it to be a time of joyful hope, but I don’t need to. God already has. Look to the cross and see the incredibly vivid reminder for yourself.
I wanted to take a quick moment to interrupt your morning festivities by sharing a few potent sentences from a Christmas Day sermon given by Martin Luther in 1531. He wrote, and subsequently preached:
“The world is happy and of good cheer when it has loaves and fishes, means and money, power and glory. But a sad and troubled heart desires nothing but peace and comfort, that it may know whether God is graciously inclined toward it. And this joy, wherein a troubled heart finds peace and rest, is so great that all the world’s happiness is nothing in comparison.” (W.A. 34. 11. 505.)
Luther’s words demonstrate a firm grasp on the meaning of our Lord’s arrival at Christmas. Within a relatively short span, he describes how the world sees Christmas as little more than a passing opportunity for happiness born from selfish indulgence. Not much has changed in the last five hundred years. The world still takes comfort in transient things—food, money, earthly authority and the prestige that accompanies it, and so many other trappings. It does this forgetting that all of it has an expiration date. In contrast, Christians know that when it comes to meeting the challenges faced by an honest heart cognizant of its eternal predicament and its absolute inability to do anything to change it, something more than what the world can give is needed.
Christmas is the first movement of the divine “something” put in place to meet the need.
The birth of the Savior, Jesus Christ, is God taking aim at Mankind’s deepest need in preparation for pulling the Good Friday trigger. And when this ferocious need is finally met on Calvary’s cross—when Sin, Death, and the devil are taken down once and for all by the provision of God’s Son—for whoever believes this, Luther describes the eruption of an otherworldly joy that simply cannot be outclassed by anything the world might think to offer in trade.
A troubled heart will never know more peace than what the Gospel gives. Money can’t surpass it. Power cannot compare. Not even a life of glorious ease will ever come close to the rest God promises that lasts through and into eternity.
As it meets with this wonderful Gospel, my prayer for you this morning is two-fold. Firstly, I hope as you are opening gifts you will remember the temporary nature of such things, and as such, will know to give thanks to the One who has given you the greatest gift this world could ever know. Secondly, I hope you’ll be moved to interrupt the temporal moment of gift-exchanging in order to join with your brothers and sisters in Christ in an eternal moment—holy worship—meant for receiving the merits of the greatest gift given.
Once again, the night of nights is upon us. Tonight the Church of all ages and locations, of all time and space, marks and celebrates the inbreaking of the only One who could ever do what was necessary for our rescue.
Tonight we are reminded in no uncertain terms that God has acted. The fabric between heaven and earth is torn. Angels step through it. By God’s authority, they tell us He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to bring peace between God and man. We hear these details from the Gospel writer, Luke. In his divinely-inspired way, it’s the Gospel writer John who so eloquently records that this Son of God is the very Word that “became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
The angels speak of an accomplished peace. John refers to an unmistakable emittance of glory. Together, these do not mean what many might think they mean.
Perhaps like me, you have favorite hymns. One of mine is “What Child Is This.” This caressing Christmas hymn is one of the few that stirs me emotionally every time I hear it. It’s a hymn that is not only meant to be sung in solemnity and reverence, but at certain moments along its course, it invites a measure of vigor that few other hymns do. I’d say this is true because of the hymn’s innate understanding of the newborn Christ-child’s task for establishing peace through the display of His truest glory.
Right in the middle of the fantastical scene described by stanzas one and three—a scene that portrays the Virgin Mary holding the newborn Jesus close to her bosom, all the while shepherds are kneeling beneath a glistening nether sphere filled with invisible angels swirling on divine melodies—suddenly, there is the abrupt contrast brought by a more sinister sketch. Shattering the landscape’s serenity, stanza two crashes into the hymn like a meteor impacting the surface of the world. It wonders rhetorically why the divine Child has so crassly begun in the mean estate of society’s dregs. It even implies mortal embarrassment at the Son of God having little more than a manger—a feeding trough—to serve as His first cradle.
And then it hits.
“Good Christian fear, for sinners here,” stanza two continues, its momentum beginning to build, “the silent Word is pleading.”
The hymnographer refers to the Word made flesh sleeping in Mary’s arms as an imploring that’s aimed at the whole world, but even more so the Church. It calls for us to pay attention. We are urged to remember that the very presence of God in the flesh is a visible admission to what’s coming, to what absolutely must be accomplished. For as lovely as this night might seem, this Child was born to die: “Nails, spear shall pierce Him through, the cross be borne for me, for you.”
The Christmas tree sparkles. The candles flicker with gentle splendor. The tranquil setting gilded in seasonal magnificence is indeed an incredible sight. And yet, among all these things, the truest glory of Christmas, the genuine peace accomplished between God and mankind, will always be located in the death of Jesus for sinners.
If you don’t get to sing this hymn at some point during the Christmas season, then you’re missing out on something extraordinary. And if you do get to sing it, but the musician doesn’t lay into stanza two with some intensity, then you’re missing some of the hymn’s genuine import, too. “What Child Is This” answers its own question—the question of all questions—right in its middle. This Child is the One who has come to bring eternal peace. He will do this in a dreadfully gruesome, and yet, a most glorious way. His powerful death will be the piercing of heaven’s joy through and into this world’s helplessness in Sin.
I pray this joy for you this Christmas, namely, that you would cling to this glorious Savior—his person and work—and by faith in Him, you would be found confident for each of your remaining days in this life.
In case you were wondering, at the time of this writing, there are 184 days until the first official day of summer. You might think I’m saying this because I’m already exhausted by winter. The only problem with your assumption is that winter doesn’t officially begin for two more days. Technically, we’re still in the fall.
Interestingly, to say “still in the fall” is to speak a phrase with more than one connotation, and no matter which you mean, the evidence of its actuality is there in support.
Take a look outside. The trees are bare. The leaves are scattered and damp beneath a recent layer of snow. The air is frigid. The sky is palled with clouds. There’s no arguing that the earth’s current position in relation to the sun is more than a few spins on the planet’s axis away from summer—half a year, to be exact. For me, this is a tiresome knowledge that can only be moderated through artificial means or by deliberate distraction. I keep a sun light in my office. Its light is weirdly simulated, but in the middle of a soul-dampening season that sees the sun disappearing completely sometimes as early as 5:00pm, it helps, even if only a little. In tandem, I stay busily distracted. I find that if I’m not thinking about the sky’s blue potential, I’m not necessarily missing it, and I’m less affected by its current grays.
Of course, there’s another meaning to “still in the fall” that we shouldn’t overlook. It hearkens back to the terminally unfortunate moment recorded in Genesis 3; that swift instant when, through self-inflicted grievousness, Mankind destroyed God’s perfect creation and positioned himself as far from God as physically and spiritually possible. The evidence mirroring this fall is plentiful. It’s all around us, sometimes subtly, and other times obviously. But either way, it is as discoverable as the seasonal image I described before.
It was subtly visible to me a few nights ago while working on a puzzle with Jennifer and the kids. We’d finished a 1,000-piece puzzle, and after a day or so of admiring the fruits of our long-suffering work, within a few minutes, we’d taken it apart and put it back in the box. In other words, what took days to complete was destroyed in seconds. Similarly, it was obvious to all of us by what happened in Mayfield, Kentucky, a town founded in 1824 and home to countless generations of families. In only a few minutes, the town was all but wiped from the map by a tornado.
To be “still in the fall” means that we exist in a world that continues to prove, not only that it is horribly infected by the destructive powers of Sin and Death, but that both it and its inhabitants are completely impotent against being consumed by them. It’s a place where this often plays out in subtle, but sinister, reversals. It’s a place in which one can claim Christianity, but be perfectly fine with cohabitation. Or perhaps cohabitation is admittedly offensive, but so is telling a Christian he or she is a walking contradiction for claiming Christ but only attending worship at Christmas and Easter. This same world is a place in which the bad we hear about someone is easily believed and the good is suspicious. It’s a place where lies easily outpace what’s objectively true. It’s a place where devout self-interest outguns concern for the neighbor. It’s a place in which one little disagreement can cause long term relationships and everything that goes with them to fall like leaves from an autumnal tree, having become completely disposable. It’s a place in which so many things unfold before us as reminders that this world exists in darkness, and no matter how hard we try, there’s no man-made light that can pierce its blanketing madness. There’s no artificial distraction vivid enough to keep its dreary sorrows apart and contained.
Only the real summer sun will do.
The official season of fall will end in a few days. When it does, we’ll cross over into the deathly hibernation of winter. It’s appropriate for Christmas to arrive at this precipice. Right in the middle of a downward dismalness anticipating and becoming Death, a Son is born. And not just any son, but rather the One God promised to send who would free Mankind from Sin, Death, and the devil’s ghastly grip (Genesis 3:16). Only this Son will do. He is God in the flesh. He is the incarnational invasion of God’s summertime love for a dying world filled with inert sinners. His presence is the incontestable assurance of a springtime restoration leading to eternal life—which He intends to be fully realized in the summer-like joy of paradise.
Jesus of Nazareth is this Gospel Son.
I suppose I should end by pointing out that our lives are not absent these wonderful Gospel images during the fall and winter. Sometimes obvious, and sometimes subtle, they’re there. An evergreen is a perfect example. Something that has become an emblem of Christmas, evergreen trees and bushes are subtle reminders accessible to us no matter the season. They remain thickly verdant with life all year long—just like a Christian’s hope born from the promise fulfilled in the Christ-child of Bethlehem. But then there are the obvious snapshots of the Gospel, too: the Word taught and proclaimed, the Absolution of Sins, Holy Baptism, the Lord’s Supper. Although, “snapshot” is probably not the best word to explain these things. These wonderful gifts of God are far more than images. They are tangible invasions of the most holy God—moments He has instituted, moments doused in the divine forgiveness that not only serves us while we are “still in the fall,” but also in place to prepare and then tie us to the promise of an eternal future in God’s heavenly summer.
I pray you will remember these things as you make your way into the Christmas celebration—and the rest of the Church Year, for that matter. Know that God loves you. Know that the Savior born of Mary is the proof. Know by this wonderful celebration that the winter of Sin and Death is not permanent. Summer is coming.