Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Don't Just DO Something! STAND There!

NOTE: This article was prepared for the April 2010 Parish Newsletter of Concordia Lutheran Church of Sikeston, MO. One of the problems which has surfaced in modern Christendom (perhaps it has always been there and I have been blissfully unaware of it until recent years) is that we always feel that we in the church must be “doing something.” We are “builders” and are proud of it. For decades we have heard pastors remind us, from James 1:23, that we must be “doers” of the word of God. I know, of course, what James the brother of our Lord meant; but I also believe that we have not always presented James in the context of the rest of Holy Scripture, and a Lutheran pastor in particular MUST always present a proper mix of Law and Gospel to his hearers. On top of this, we are, by virtue of our sinful nature, people who believe that we must somehow “help God along” in His work of salvation. On top of this, we look at lagging numbers in terms of church attendance, church membership, youth at worship and active in the life of the church, young adults who seem in some large measure to be abandoning the modern church (I'm not quite sure this statement “paints” those young adults fairly), and we resolve that “by gum, we had better DO something!” So we begin all manner of frenzied activity. We resolve to “remake” the church. Some write books and put on seminars. Others purchase said books and attend said seminars. To and fro. Back and forth. Rising early and staying up late. Burning gasoline and electricity. Wringing our hands. Pointing the finger at those who caused it. I fear that we are only making things worse and worse. But, dear reader, do you not know that God (Psalm 46:10) says: “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” Amongst all of the church leaders who constantly tell us to “do something,” are there any who tell us to “be steadfast, immovable?” Does the Lord Christ want us to “be busy” by serving our neighbors? Of course! But, sometimes, ‘busyness’ keeps us from standing firm in the faith! Read on, please . . .

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ our Lord :

No, it does not seem like a familiar title at all. What we are accustomed to is the phrase: “Don’t just sit/stand there; do something!” Frankly, this more familiar title is much more to my personal liking. I like to think of myself as a man of action, a person of energy, one who is willing to do the hard work.

But I have deliberately rephrased the familiar so as to cause you, I hope and pray, to rethink how we too often think in (post-)modern Christendom.

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Remember “Busy Work?”

Ahh, what great disdain we in high school had for those terrible teachers who assigned us what we termed “busy work.” “Busy work,” by our high school definition was: work which we had to complete and which took up our time but which was so shallow as to not require any thinking whatsoever; it was work in which we merely went through the motions of learning without learning or reinforcing anything. “Busy work,” we thought, made the teacher look good because s/he was giving assignments and sometimes (but not always) grading those assignments. From our perspective as students, they took up our time and energy but produced no lasting results.

Please permit me here, as a teacher of adults and children (for so very much of what a pastor does includes teaching!) to defend proper homework assignments. Writing out memory work, for example, is an excellent exercise which reinforces things which we think that we have committed to memory. Most students do not want to do memory work because memory work, whether for children or adults, requires some effort (sometimes quite a bit of effort!) on our parts — and most of us are lazy and do not want to be forced to do anything! This is different from “busy work” which only amounts to doing things which give the appearance of work while not accomplishing anything (why does the filling out of government forms spring to my mind when I think of “busy work?” :) ).

I fear that there are too many things which we do in Christendom in our day which accomplish little except giving the appearance (usually to ourselves but sometimes to others) that we are doing lots when, in fact, we are doing little or nothing. This we do while ignoring things which we ought to be doing but which we imagine to be too much work or rather boring or just not “cool” enough. Sometimes we change things which we ought not to change. I’ll try to explain but I do not have a lot of space here . . . read on, please . . .

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Idle Hands Are the Devil’s Workshop”

That adage is most certainly true! It is the reason why parents sometimes impose curfews on their children (“What can I do after midnight that I couldn’t do before midnight?” Answer: “Nothing, but you are more likely to do the sinful, life-changing things, because there are less of the wholesome things to do before midnight.”).

Every parent knows that, when children are left in one another’s company without any supervision or direction, they will often end up fighting or bothering one another simply because they get bored. For that very reason, good parents and teachers will help their children structure their time with wholesome activities like playing running games outside, or drawing things inside, or putting together puzzles, etc.

“Idle hands” is also one of the reasons why we teach ourselves that a proper posture for prayer (it is NOT required by Scripture but it is an ancient practice) is to fold our hands and close our eyes: doing this, we keep ourselves from being distracted from our prayers whether when we awaken, at mealtime (before AND after), during our daily devotion, at bedtime, or at any other time.

We should stay busy. If you are bored at home and need something to do, for example, there are always some things which we need to have done here at the Church: floors can be scrubbed and buffed, shrubs can be trimmed, leaves can be raked, windows can be washed, stuff can be dusted, papers folded, neighborhoods can be visited (a great way to take a walk), etc. If, however, you are bored at home and tend to fill your time with internet sites which tempt your sinful flesh or with junk on TV which only fills your mind with sinful ideas, well, then, the adage is proven true: “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” and you should get busy with something edifying (easy for me to say, I know, and harder to do).

THIS IS IMPORTANT: When you get bored and start looking for stuff to do, be very careful that you do not start messing with the wrong stuff, including at church!

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The Case for “Just Standing There!”

Dear Concordians (and anyone else who reads this), please mark this well: the pastor who is forever cajoling you to “do something” is probably beginning to panic as he fears for the future. I know about that because I have sometimes thus cajoled folks in the past AND because I sometimes still do fear for the future of Christ’s Church (I am not supposed to be afraid but when I forget to look at Christ’s promises, my sinful flesh sometimes becomes very afraid).

When we who are “ministers of the Gospel” start telling the sheep whom we serve that they must do all kinds of things, we are guilty of skewing the Word and counsel of God. Look at these Bible passages which tell us to stand:

+ Remember when the Children of Israel were being brought out of Egypt? And Pharoah was sooo angry and pursued them? And they were at the Red Sea? And they got angry with Moses? And they were ready to go back to Egypt or just surrender? Remember how scared they were? Remember what Moses told them? “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent." (Exodus 14:13-14)

+ In his great “Resurrection Chapter,” St. Paul reminds us of our “standing” because of the work of Christ: “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you — unless you believed in vain.” (1 Cor. 15:1-2)

+ At the end of that same great chapter, as the apostle comes to his grand conclusion, he tells us who live in the grace and power of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (1 Cor. 15:58)

+ In the parting words of his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes: “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong.” (1 Cor. 16:13)

+ Gal. 5:1 - “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

+ Did you know that one of the reasons why God has established the office of the ministry (what I am!) is “so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, . . .” (Eph. 4:14-15)

+ In the apostle’s great metaphor of how we Christians are dressed up in the armor of God, he speaks of what soldiers do: “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, . . .” (Eph. 6:11-14)

+ Philippians 1:27, Philippians 4:1

+ Colossians 4:12

+ 1 Thessalonians 3:8

+ 2 Thessalonians 2:15

+ 1 Peter 5:12

The above list is by no means exhaustive on the subject. Sure, we actively serve in the Lord’s church, but more important (if one can say it that way) is that we stand firm!

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It’s Hard to Just “Stand There!”

No kidding! Just ask any soldier! Or, ask any Congress! When there’s no immediate danger, the “job” of a military is to “stand there.” “Standing there” is a deterrent to our enemies. A strong defense keeps them from attacking or, if they do attack, makes it less likely that they will do any lasting damage. I am not trying to make a big political point here, and I apologize if I am accidentally stepping on your toes politically, but everyone knows that the job of a military is to at least be there in front of our enemies (example: playground bullies do NOT pick on kids who are bigger or stronger than they are — guess why!). When we are not being attacked, it is easy for our military to become complacent even as it is easy for our congress to quit spending money on military readiness.

It should come as no surprise to you to be reminded that the Church on Earth is properly referred to by a couple of very descriptive names: “Kingdom of Grace” and “The Church Militant” (sadly, you do not often hear of the Church described in the latter way in our day and age because it is not popular to Christians these days that suffering might be a part of their life in Christ — but suffering is very much a part of your lives, dear Christians! — oops, I’m ahead of myself here).

The church on earth is often called the “Kingdom of Grace” because the Lord Christ rules over our hearts with His grace (He does NOT rule the Christian with His holy laws).

The Bride of Christ (the church) is also called “The Church Militant” because the Church is always at war on this side of heaven — our enemies are the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh. Amongst the enemies of our souls are false doctrine and false practice.

It truly is difficult to “stand fast” when people around us are ducking for cover or whenever people are taking the easiest ways “out” of problems. It is hard to “stand fast” when it seems to be very boring for a soldier to “man his foxhole,” but give thanks for those who do stand fast!

Similarly, when the enemies are attacking and others are deserting their posts, it is hard for a soldier to “stand fast,” but because he stands fast others are kept safe from the enemy! Try to picture your “standing fast” in that way.

Your pastor and other Christians who are learning to “stand fast” despite the trends and fads which come along throughout Christendom are protecting you from silly ideas and false notions which waste your time, money, and other resources (and which could destroy your soul).

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How do I Stand?

There are a couple of things which you “do” in order to stand fast! [1] Attend worship every single Sunday (and other times) for there the Lord comes to you and bolsters you for the hard times; He also uses your presence to give much needed encouragement to others (including your pastor). I know that many Christians no longer think that it is “cool” to go to every Sunday worship, but how can you be a Christian who does not worship? In Worship you are reminded over and over again of the baptism by which your merciful heavenly Father has brought you into His family of faith (what privilege!), you will repeatedly hear the Lord’s own absolution spoken to you to bolster you, and you will receive the Supper in which Christ Himself comes to strengthen and renew you! [2] Attend Bible Classes; sadly, this is quite a problem for our own congregation as for other churches — in Bible Classes we examine some of the trends which are coming along and give answers, from the Word of God, which will help you to be steadfast. We study the Word (obviously) so that, when false ideas come to us, we will be able to spot them as false and will be ready to answer them. [3] Daily devotions (read the daily devotions which I send out in my daily email or read the Portals of Prayer devotional, or both!).

This is needed in Christendom today, “Don’t just do something . . . stand there!” May God give you grace, dear Christian, to stand fast. In Christ, Pastor Wollenburg

Most of this article, along with our entire April newsletter, is available online at: http://lcmssermons.com/images/aut112/2010.april.newsletter.pdf

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Living in the End Times, Etc,.

Well, it has been quite some time since I have blogged -- sorry about that. I'm going to start doing more of that and hope that it can be a blessing, at least in some small way, to some . . . Below is the start of a discussion which I have had online at the Wittenberg Trail site with a man who had questions about end times stuff. Perhaps his questions are yours and perhaps my answers will help you, too. Feel free to comment or ask more questions below. His questions are in red. My answers are in purple (a nice, Lenten color) . . . /s/ ajw

They say that when we look back on the "Good Old Days", they weren't really as good as we might remember them. We may repress bad memories, focusing on our successes while seemingly forgetting our failures.

In Bible Study, most members seem to have the idea that things are getting worse and worse as time progresses. Some have leaned toward premillennialism, and see this pessimism in light of the end times. Another member is more optimistic and sees that some things have gotten better. She does not go along with the view that things are always getting worse.

If we were to look at specific things that have gotten worse, some may be legitimate (increased violence in schools) whereas some may not, as crimes and troubles are better reported today than in the past.

Scripture tells us that before Jesus returns again, things will be just like in the days of Noah. Pastor, it is true we can have great joy about the imminent return of Jesus, but regarding the sin that is rampant in the world, is it right to see each generation as more evil than the one before it, or is this a faulty look at the world, theologically? What is a healthy, Christian view of the overview of human existence on the earth over the centuries?

Dear __:

Neither pessimism nor optimism, as such, is in order for the Christian. We live by faith. To be sure, we know that in all things God works together for good with those who love Him (Romans 8:28); in other words, God will most certainly take care of us Christians. This is, in part, the Gospel teaching of election (do NOT fall prey to the false doctrine of double predestination). Herman Sasse, has a great quote about pessimism and optimism: "Only this faith in the living Lord poises us properly for our tasks. He guards us from the two great sins of Christianity of our times. The terrible sin of pessimism doubts the possibility that the church can accomplish anything, because it no longer takes seriously the confession of the present Christ. Such pessimism does not take it seriously that to Christ also today all power is given in heaven and on earth, and He is just as near to us as to Christianity of the beginning. He guards us too from the terrible sin of optimism, which overlooks the fearful reality of sin in the world, and knows nothing of the fact that the power of evil works most wretchedly where it destroys the community [Gemeinde] of Jesus. Pessimism and optimism are human emotions. Where they rule, faith is falsified. For faith has nothing to do with emotions. It is the unshakable trust in the unbreakable promises of God."

Will things get worse? Sure. The "signs of the end" are always intensifying. They have been in place all along but they continue to intensify as the world groans under the weight of sin (Rom. 8:18ff.). But we Christians have the reassurance of the Lord Christ Himself that He will preserve us safe. For the Lord's own discussion of the signs of the end AND His promise to preserve us, look closely at Matthew 25 -- in particular, note the changes in verb tenses in v. 22-25.

The book of Revelation indicates that there will be a "little season" of great trouble right before the End - Rev. 20:3. Of course, the church of every age has asked the question, "are we in the 'little season' now?" since it always seems as though it can get no worse -- at least to each succeeding generation. So we keep on crying out "How long?" AND we keep being fed with Word and Sacraments so that our faith may be kept alive during the trying times of our lives -- incidentally, I am right now working my way through a little book titled "Handbook of Consolations" written by Johann Gerhard -- in his book, he suggests that we all do quite well to closely contemplate death since death will come upon all of us, sooner or later (most American Christians, in my experience, hate to consider this b/c we seem to think that admitting to our mortality is somehow sinful (?)). Gerhard's book is an excellent devotional tool, in my opinion.

Is your friend wrong who thinks that things are getting better? Well, overall, yes. To be sure, we get to see some wonderful technological advances (the internet, for one -- well, mostly, although we have heard what pornographers and others have done with it, too). However, the world is wearing out: just as our bodies which are not perfect and are more and more subject to age and disease and will eventually succumb to them, so this wretched world which we think we know and love so well, will also betray us and will wear out.

Our hope is Christ, the same yesterday and today and forever. (Hebr. 13:8)

Helpful? Want to unpack some of the stuff referenced above? :)

Then the gentleman asked this followup question:

Yes, this helps some. I shouldn't have really used the words "pessimism" and "optimism"--I knew as Christians we have a real, solid hope in Christ, who is able to do all things, who conquered the grave. "God desires all men to be saved..." This clearly doesn't leave room for pessimism. African-Americans are treated better today than they were over a hundred years ago. We have been given people with smart minds who have made all kinds of inventions, vastly improved transportation, and all kinds of convenience (yet while these conveniences have helped save time, much of the time they saved is now wasted, IMO). For decades, the Cold War dragged on, and in God's good time communism fell, the Berlin Wall came down, Poland and other satellite nations found new freedom. Yet today our country seems less of a democracy than in the past, and Roe v. Wade has not yet been overturned, socialized medicine is making inroads, replacing freedoms with governmental demands. Many needed jobs are still overseas, and uncontrolled immigration is still not solved, as U.S. citizens can no longer count on unity of language. Public schools are required to proselytize our children with a God-less form of universalism which demands tolerance yet is quite intolerant of Christianity. The government was only called to make sure all children had access to a good education, yet the government monopolizes education, and when budget cuts are inevitable, we sacrifice our children's exposure to art and music, even though some may be going into these fields. But even if I could only see the positives, optimism is not the way of the Christian, as we know the realities of Satan (who lurks as a lion, seeking whom he may devour) and his demons, their craftiness, and the world's blindness to their existence. St. Paul is quite clear about the evil in "the ways of the world", and how Christians are not to conform to this. Clearly, we are told that no matter how bad things get (or appear to get), God is still in control, Satan was defeated, death is dead, and God loves His people. The gospel has transformed us, taking us from the prison of spiritual death to new life and freedom, and we have been trusted to carry this Great News forward to others who dwell in darkness. But, overall, will the wickedness of future years, decades and centuries get more and more evil (unprecedented), and will persecution of God's people become as it was in the first century (a.D.) or worse? How could you explain this to us in relation to Amillennialism, to a generation who has largely been exposed to Premillennialism? Some talk of a required implanted chip with health records as if it were the "mark of the beast." Some seek to stockpile food to prepare for a period of unprecedented persecution. Amillennialists recognize that Christ could come back ANY day, and that nothing more needs to be fulfilled before the parousia. Could you please further explain this, contrasting Biblical eschatology to the dominant eschatology of the day, rampant in much of 21st century Protestantism, helped along by Hal Lindsey, the Left Behind books & movies, etc.? I appreciate your help here. You wrote, "Will things get worse? Sure. The "signs of the end" are always intensifying." I remember being told the world was going into another ice age, yet some herald "global warming" as a threat to our coastlands, and arctic habitats! I understand that there is to be an increase in natural disasters, but how will things get worse in other ways? When I was growing up, the thought of a one-world government was pure science-fiction, yet there are many who push for just that. Christians should not expect material prosperity beyond God providing for our daily bread. But how bad could persecutions really get here? And please return us to the comfort of God in Christ.

Dear __: How will things get worse? Your guess is surely at least as good as mine. But Holy Scripture makes abundantly clear that the world is not "curing" her problems -- not by a long shot. One of the big problems is that we all tend to think that we know so much about time AND eternity based on our relatively insignificant span of time. Example: So I live to be 100 years old (highly doubtful). What difference does my one life make in the greater scheme of things? I live, I sin, I am forgiven (by God's grace in Christ), and then I die. What changed? The only ways in which i might influence the future is by the faithful witness of faith in Christ which God may use to influence (an)other(s) -- so that the whole concept of Christian vocation becomes a central theme of my existence. Sure, every so often some bright shining star bursts upon the scene for a short lifetime and that person's life leaves a lasting influence (Luther for one) -- but in truth, unless that bright shining star changes things for eternity (as did Luther b/c he spoke, preached, taught and wrote of the things which are eternal), it has only changed things, at the most, for the short time of this world, a world which will come to an end. Some passages to contemplate in this regard: Romans 8:18ff. and 2 Cor. 5:1ff. There are others, but if you try to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest these very plain scriptures, they will remind you (and me) of how very frail our short existence is. I suppose that, speaking for myself, whenever I imagine what a difference my life ought to make in the greater scheme of things, I am being a bit (OK, a lot) vain. The global warming, new ice age, and blah blah blah debate is a classic example. People think that WE are such a big influence on the life of the planet. But those who closely study history note that the planet tends to cycle through things, or at least that seems to be the indication of science (I'm not a scientist so I cannot speak with the authority with which others speak). Who knows what will come? My grandparents (3 of whom I never ever met but at whose graves, in Lutheran cemeteries, I have stood) could not imagine just my mp3 player on which I listen to Issues, Etc. and other great stuff -- shoot, I didn't imagine such a thing 30+ years ago when I was admitted to the Pastoral Ministry (and I remember a secretary who REALLY did not want to give up her typewriter for 'one of those new computers' when i told her that it was the future -- that was a little over just 20 years ago). Imagine what else will change! I am as concerned as the next guy (probably more b/c I tend to worry -- may Christ continue to forgive me for that) about what governmental changes are coming to us and to our children and grandchildren, but even a cursory reading of especially the minor prophets will demonstrate how God picks up one nation and uses it to punish another, and how He changes the whole course of world history in the blink of an eye. I share some of the concerns of the Christians who get all worked up about chips being implanted. BUT, I also like 'plastic money" (debit cards) even though some fundamentalist Christians have warned against it for years (and likely will continue). I remember, in the very early '80's, when attending the MO. State Fair (at Sedalia in case you care), being behind fundies who had a hissy when the guy tried to rubber stamp their hand so they could be readmitted if they returned to the parking lot during the day ("Oh, God, it's the mark of the beast...."). All of that to say that i don't know altogether what to worry about b/c it seems like there's new stuff coming along all of the time -- and deadly serious stuff, but there are issues which remain the same: sins against the 10 Commandments, including adultery, a generally low regard for marriage, abortion (THE great moral failing of our age!), homosexuality, abusing our neighbors, turning our backs on God and His word, false doctrine, etc., etc. The premillenialists and postmillenialists and dispensationalists all misread Holy Scripture which is truly amillenialistic as that term is commonly understood. The 1,000 year reign of the gospel is a perfect number (10 x 10 x 10, aka 10 to the third power) and is the rule of the Gospel era -- not necessarily a literalistic 1000 year reign. Rather, at the end of time (as we know it), Christ will visibly return on the clouds of glory, the time of grace will be over, He will send His angels to gather the elect, and we will be with Him in the new heaven and new earth (whatever that will be like). I've heard some pastors try to describe the new heaven and the new earth as being in (a) new dimension(s) -- that seems plausible to my incredibly puny, finite mind. So I am driven back, again, to the things which do not change: God's mercy in Christ (but be sure to read 2 Cor. 6:1ff. lest you or I think that the day of grace will never end); Jesus is the same yesterday and today and forever (Hebr. 13:8); God stands above time (2 Peter 3:1-13 is EXCELLENT commentary -- and note how succinctly the psalmist affirmed it in Psalm 90:2 and other psalms). In fact, in all of my contemplation, I try not to wander from these truths (alas, but I sometimes do) which do not change, for they are the truth of my salvation in Christ my Lord. I'm pretty sure that you already know this stuff but would just like to hear a pastor reaffirm it for you -- I'm delighted, frankly, to do so for you or anyone else. I think that a lot of Lutherans and other Christians have these kinds of questions but they never get around to asking them -- I wish they would so that they could be comforted and learn to live out their lives in humble faith in Christ, being fed by Him in His Word and Sacraments, and serving Him by serving their neighbors humbly. The Lord bless you and yours for Holy Week and bring you with humble joy to blessed Easter and the culmination of all our hopes! Again, I pray that this is helpful to you . . . .