Serial vs Self-Encapsulated Story

I enjoy binge watching shows through Amazon or Netflix. I bounce between liking shows that have a long story arc that the screenwriters spread across  several episodes and shows that self-encaspsulate a story into each episode. Recently I started watching a show that started as a spy show with each episode being self-contained. Slowly this show introduced a story line that ended up taking them four seasons of episodes to complete. I did not want to pay attention that long to figure out what sinister conspiracy was behind everything. I gave up watching the show. I read the episode recaps on wikipedia to find my desire for resolution satisfied.

I want television shows to find a way to wrap up their storylines after a couple of episodes or one season. Stretching across several seasons to solve the purpose for the show wears me down. I think the television show “Lost” is a great example of a show that started off with a good balance between long story arcs and individual storylines that could be finished up each episode. Unfortunately the show “Lost” became lost in its own story after a while and ended up being a self-indulgent mess.

So I have been thinking about my disappointment in shows that can’t figure out how to tell a story with conclusions and then reflecting on what this means for my preaching. I know as a person in the pew listening to another preacher that I am not very patient with the preacher that has several false endings. I watched a person preach online, and behind the preacher I saw the band shuffling towards their instruments. The band thought the sermon was wrapping up. They knew the cadence of the preacher, or at least they thought they did. The preacher went on for several more minutes. I wonder if that preacher went on with his sermon as punishment to the band that assumed they knew where the sermon was headed.

Humbly, I notice that when I preach I have had this problem. I look at the people shuffling and moving in the pew. I want to tell them, “Oh no, you think my sermon is almost over but I have two more pages of notes. Buckle up and get ready.”

In my own life, I wish each day had a neat conclusion. Days blend into months. Years slide into decades. I still have not found too many neat conclusions in my life. Some stories just seem to disappear because sadly friendships slide away. I wish I was better at nurturing friendships. Other stories in my life keep showing up, even though I want to move on. Satan is amazingly adept at repeatedly turning up in my life.

Some days do develop as self-encapsulated plots. I am glad my marriage has been a long arc in my life that has no end in view. I think my marriage will not become like a show that has gotten lost in its own story because we have made a commitment to each other to remain faithful to the covenant of love. Each story in our marriage has its roots in our promises of love. The stages in our love to each other remain fresh and exciting because we are also connected to the great story that is developing between us.

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I trust that the long story arc of my relationship with God will remain fresh and exciting. I know the end. God is my eternal salvation. I know some days I don’t see the plot, and I get worried that my life is going nowhere special. But during these aimless wandering moments, I have found tremendous strength in rooting myself to God’s promises. The Spirit of God strengthens my soul in dark moments by keeping in my view the light of God’s love. I live in the light of the resurrection, but some days the shadows of betrayal on Holy Thursday seem to hang heavy.

My story with God is different than the television shows I binge. I don’t know how the shows will end, and when I do anticipate the ending the show loses my interest. I know how my story with God will end, but amazingly my interest in God does not get exhausted. I love God revealing the adventure of every day. I think God has figured out how to balance revealing the long story arc and the self-encapsulated story.

Do you see the story that God writes in your days? I hope you see that God fills the story of your days with His love.

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New Growth in the New Year

I am interested with how God will grow our membership as a congregation in 2017. Connection to a local community of believers is important. St. Paul wrote to the people in Ephesus, “There is one body and one Spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6). It is in the local church that we have the opportunity to experience unity with those the Spirit has called to faith. Jesus love His church, and so should we.

There is nationally a decline in church membership, and I am interested in slowing this decline at St. Paul Lutheran Church. To turn the tide against decline, I believe that God is providing our congregation with the gifts and resources necessary to reach the unreached and raise faithful children. God provides to us His Word which leads us to trust in Christ. Everyone who believes in Jesus Christ is His witness. We all can share the good news of Jesus with our friends and neighbors and invite them to church.

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The growth of the membership in our congregation will happen in more than one way. Congregations gain the overwhelming majority of their membership from natural growth, which is what happens when families in our congregation have more children. Our easiest growth is from children of adult members raised in the faith. As couples have children and the children are then baptized at St. Paul Lutheran Church, our congregation will experience growth. We had some joyous baptisms in 2016, and I look forward to more in the new year. Infant baptism is a wonderful opportunity to witness that faith is a gift from the Holy Spirit and not a work of our own reason or strength.

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As our congregation grows through infant baptisms, we remain concerned that these children remain connected to a local church. I want all children baptized at St. Paul Lutheran Church to be nourished and strengthened by God at work in His Word. The LCMS has lost 1 in 5 baptized members since the peak membership in the 1970s. The backdoor loss of people concerns me. We need to plan effectively for the spiritual care of people who are baptized at St. Paul Lutheran Church so that they remain connected to Jesus. Handing down our faith to our children and our children’s children is important. Our congregation has joined the Family Friendly Partner Network to be better equipped as a church to partner with homes to pass on faith in Christ. Throughout 2017 we will look for opportunities to provide families the resources they need to be His witnesses.

We will also experience growth in 2017 through Lutherans from other congregations moving into this area and transferring their membership. As people move around they have to search out new banks, doctors, grocery stores, and also a new church. Church shopping can be an exhausting experience. I hope people visiting St. Paul will find a community of welcome and grace that helps them feel at home. When looking for a new church, people should place a high priority on joining a congregation where the Word of God is clearly preached and the Sacraments properly administered.

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We will not only experience growth through our own tribe (German-American Lutherans), but we will also discover that God is sending people to St. Paul who have not grown up Lutheran. I find it exciting when new people are present on a Sunday morning at St. Paul. I am encouraged when I see people going across the aisles and introducing themselves to guests. Outreach to people in our community is important. We desire to be a community that welcomes people who come from all sorts of experiences because we trust that Jesus Christ is the Savior of all the nations.

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There is a decline in religious identification in the United States. The recent dramatic increase in the number of people who claim no religious identity or affiliation is alarming. Our task is clear in this age of declining identity with religion. We will witness to people the truth. We are sinners in need of a Savior and Jesus is this Savior. Our message must remain focused on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In the United States the attitudes of young people on average is negative towards religious institutions. There is a growing skepticism concerning any institution that claims authority. This negative attitude of young people may not be new, but it does remind me of the need for us to share Jesus Christ more than share the building or institution of the church. We do not invite people to join a corporation. We invite people to join the Body of Christ gathered at St. Paul Lutheran Church.

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I trust the Holy Spirit has placed in our community people who will believe the Word of God and find welcome at St. Paul Lutheran Church. I am confident the Holy Spirit has gifted each person in our congregation to be His witnesses. Please pray to God to send the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to see the people He places into our lives.

Gottesdienst – Divine Service

The word “worship” in America often brings focus on the activities of a person or congregation. The word’s first definition is about the feeling or expression of reverence and adoration for a deity.

The Lutheran Divine Service does not fit into the first definition of the word worship. The service that gathers Christians together, is not about our feelings or expressions of adoration to our Lord God. The subject of the work in worship is not us. God is the subject. We are the object of his work. God delivers in the Divine Service his love and mercy. We come to the Divine Service as broken and wearied sinners and we receive this good news of the forgiveness of sins through the Word of God that is read, preached, and delivered in the Sacraments. Faith is that worship which receives the benefits that God offers. God does not desire empty of faith outward actions of adoration. God desires our faith that receives from him all that he promises and offers.

A successful service at church on Sunday morning is not evaluated by how the people feel after the service nor is it successful if the actions of the people can be diagrammed for their precision. The rubric for success is if Christ is proclaimed. Without Christ, the service can have no positive impact upon the hearts and lives of the people. If Christ is proclaimed and so therefore the promises of God our offered to the people, then the worship of the people is to have faith in the heart and the fruits of that faith.

Adoration that is a response to the reading of God’s Word, preaching of God’s Word, and distribution of God’s Word in the Lord’s Supper will be adoration rooted in response to God’s gracious good news of rescuing us from sin, death, and the devil. Outward acts of worship apart from faith in Christ are not God-pleasing. Worship of God is not an outward set of rituals. The liturgies of the church are in service to the proclamation of Jesus. The liturgies of the historic church are to be retained because they proclaim Christ, not simply because they are beautiful or traditional.

The call to worship God in our Sunday services is built on the foundation of what God has done for us in the righteousness of Christ. People are called to the services of the church on a Sunday morning to be strengthened by the hearing of God’s work in Christ Jesus.

Baptism

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I love performing Baptisms at St. Paul Lutheran Church. The Baptism of babies, young children, and adults are all priceless moments in the life of our congregation. When I speak the Word of God and I generously pour water over the head of the person, I trust God to be at work delivering the gift of the forgiveness of sins. I fondly recall looking into the eyes of babies as the water hits their foreheads and witnessing their surprise. Some babies have cried, some have smiled, some have tried to wiggle out of my hands, some have looked steadily over to mom and dad, and others have tried to stay asleep. For all of these babies, the Holy Spirit is at work delivering the good news of Jesus Christ through the water and the Word. Our Lord Jesus Christ commands Baptism, and these priceless moments are not just moments of tradition or family reunion in our congregation.

Water and the Word

Baptism is founded upon the Word of God. Our Lord Jesus Christ says in Matthew 28:19, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Baptism is not an empty human ritual. Baptism cannot be ignored as the invention of the church. These words from Jesus demonstrate that Baptism is divine. To be baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is to be baptized by God. As a pastor I speak the words of Jesus’ command and I pour the water of Baptism, but it is truly the work of God. The water of Baptism is water full of the commands and promises of God’s Word.

A person may wonder how a handful of water and some words spoken by a pastor help a person. Water is just water. Water can clean dirty hands, but how does water clean the stain of sin that weighs down the soul of a person? When the water is joined with the Word of God, at the command of Jesus, it becomes a work of God. We respect the power of Baptism because we respect the power of God to work through His Word (Isaiah 55:10-11).

The Forgiveness of Sins

Christ instituted Baptism to save us from our sins. Jesus said, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). God is at work in Baptism delivering to us His promises. St. Peter writes, “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21). When we talk about being saved in the church we are talking about being delivered from sin, death, and the devil. St. Paul wrote to the Colossians, “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13-14).

Faith Grasps the Work of God

The great benefit and power of Baptism is received through faith in these promises. Without faith, Baptism is of no benefit. We do not gain or merit or receive salvation through our works or activity, faith receives the promises of Baptism. In the book of Hebrews we read, “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). Also St. Paul writes in Romans, “Because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). Some may question if infants can confess with their lips that Jesus is Lord, but in Psalm 8:2 we are reminded, “Out of the mouth of babies and infants, you have established strength because of your foes, to still the enemy and the avenger.” This psalm demonstrates that God has established that young children can praise God with their lips, even if it is in the broken babble of a child that we cannot understand.

Baptists and Lutherans agree that a person that believes in Jesus Christ will be saved. Lutherans and Baptists disagree on how a person comes to believe. We cannot come to Christ or make a decision for Jesus. As sinners we are spiritually dead and we cannot move to Christ on our own. The Holy Spirit delivers us to saving faith through the Word of God. The Holy Spirit gives this saving faith to a person as the person hears the Word of God. Romans 10:17 says, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Whether a person believes in Jesus Christ because of a sermon that he heard or by the power of the Word combined with water at Baptism, it is always God and the power of His Word that creates saving faith. Baptism is a treasured means by which God promises to deliver to us the good news of Jesus.

Infant Baptism

Sadly, there are churches and individuals that deny Baptism to young children and infants. We perform Baptism for infants and children for the same reason adults are baptized. We are all conceived and born sinful and under the power of the devil until Christ claims us as His own. We all are in need of the mercy of God that is promised in Baptism. When Baptism is rejected or ignored for young children and infants, then a person is ignoring the command of God. In Luke 18:15-17, Jesus invites the children to come to him. In Matthew 28:19, Jesus states that Baptism is for “all nations.” On the day of Pentecost, Peter said about Baptism, “The promise is for you and your children” (Acts 2:39). When John the Baptist leaped in his mother’s womb when he heard the word of God (Luke 1:41-44), we find the gift of faith present in a baby.

How can a baby have saving faith in Jesus Christ? In the same way that any person believes in Jesus, the Holy Spirit gives to us a heart that trusts the promises of God. We baptize babies because we baptize people in agreement with Christ’s command to baptize “all nations.” We trust the power and promise of Baptism is the work of Jesus Christ.

I encourage you to remember your own Baptism, and so remember the work of Jesus to deliver you from the domain of darkness into the eternal victory of Jesus’ resurrection. Martin Luther sums up well the joy and promise of Baptism when he writes, “We see what a very splendid thing baptism is. It snatches us from the jaws of the devil, makes us God’s own, restrains and removes sin, and then daily strengthens the new man within us.”

In the public square

Life together with the Risen Lord is possible in the public square. We see in the book of Acts that St. Paul brings the gospel to Athens. He sees all their desire for answers and he does not hide from sharing the promise of Jesus.

How do we today go forward into the public square with the promise of the gospel?

Do we go forward afraid of the power? No, we don’t need to be afraid because Jesus goes with us and he is victorious.

Do we go forward expecting everyone to become our ally once they hear our message? No, we know the truth that seed that is planted is not always going to grow.

What do we expect? We expect Jesus to be the risen Lord that is the power of God to work salvation.