A Scornful Wonder

We sang one of my favorite hymns this past Sunday: “The Church’s One Foundation.” I believe this hymn describes so well the Church on earth. Verse 3 (Lutheran Service Book) of this hymn reflects on how the outside world views the Church.

Though with a scornful wonder

The world sees her oppressed,

By schisms rent asunder,

By heresies distressed,

What perfect words! A scornful wonder! The world simply does not get the Church. The Church(as assumed by many in the world) is supposed be the lasting legacy of Jesus, a great teacher and prophet who taught everyone how to love, right? And at times, the Church can seem like the least loving place on earth. Those in the Church can be judgmental and arrogant and rude. We are hardly able to get along with each other (by schisms rent asunder) let alone with those outside the Church. We can be greedy and uncaring. We often do a very poor job of reflecting the love that Jesus demonstrated and taught. The Church is often very deserving of the scorn that the world heaps upon it.

But the scorn that the world dishes out also has a bit of wonder mixed in with it. The world wonders how the Church could have survived for this long. Ever since it began, the world has tried to put an end to the Church. The world has oppressed the Church by threatening and sometimes actually murdering those who claim to belong to it. The world has tried to intimidate the Church into silence. The world at times has just sat back and hoped that the Church would just itself from the inside out.

Yet 2,000 years later, the Church remains. How? The Church is full of hypocritical and narcissistic people. It has been threatened, mocked, censured and attacked. Still it remains. Still it has an impact on society and on the lives of individual people. Still it marches on, sometimes limping and staggering, but on it goes.

How can this phenomenon be explained?

foundation stone

The Church’s one foundation
Is Jesus Christ her Lord,
She is His new creation
By water and the Word.
From heaven He came and sought her
To be His holy bride;
With His own blood He bought her
And for her life He died.

Young people are not the future of the Church. Technology and innovation are not the future of the Church. Asia and Africa (the two places where Christianity is growing exponentially) are not the future of the Church. And most certainly, death is not the future of the Church.

Jesus Christ is the future of the Church. He is the past, present, and the future- the beginning and the end. Even though the Church is full of the worst kind of people, they are forgiven people through the blood of Jesus.Despite the failings of those in the Church, despite the divisions and heresies, the survival and success of the Church is not ultimately up to us. It is up to the Lord of the Church, and He has promised that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.

You see, if Jesus were simply a great teacher who taught people how to love, the Church would not have survived this long. If Jesus were simply a great teacher who taught people how to love, the world would have shrugged. The world has plenty of those. Good people are not scorned by the world.

But a God who comes down from heaven to save His creation by dying on a cross and rising from the dead? A bloodied and dead Savior? A miraculous resurrection? A claim to be the only Way, Truth and Life? That message is an offense, a stumbling block, foolishness to the world, and a cause for scornful wonder.

The world mocks the Church because it mocked Jesus first. It threatens the Church because it is threatened by Jesus’ claim to be the Lord of all. The world kills those in the Church just as it tried to kill the Head of the Church. And it succeeded. For a couple of days anyway.

But just as the Lord of the Church rose from the dead to live forever, so too will those in the Church rise triumphantly one day. Until that day, may we in the Church keep our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, and proclaim the message of the cross so that we may continue to be looked at with a scornful wonder.

’Through toil and tribulation,
And tumult of her war,
She waits the consummation
Of peace forevermore;
Till, with the vision glorious,
Her longing eyes are blest,
And the great Church victorious
Shall be the Church at rest.

church triumphant



What Are You Giving Up for Lent?

A sermon for the Transfiguration of our Lord from Luke 9:28-36

I saw this yesterday and had to add it!

I saw this yesterday and had to add it!

Well, in case you missed the announcement this morning or have failed to check your calendar, this is your friendly reminder that Ash Wednesday is this week- February 13th.  Ash Wednesday, of course, marks the beginning of the season of Lent in the church year. So my question for you today is: What are you giving up this year for Lent?

Some of you might be wondering what in the world I am talking about. Why would I give something up for Lent? And that’s ok. Perhaps you do not come from a background where giving something up for Lent was ever mentioned or practiced. This could be a foreign concept to you. And again, that’s ok. Don’t worry, you’ll learn all about it today.

In my family growing up, my parents encouraged us children to give something up for the season of Lent. Of course, right away they would shoot down our brilliantly conceived ideas of giving up school, or homework, or piano lessons. No, no, we were supposed to give up something that we liked or enjoyed for the 40 days of Lent. So our self-denial usually came down to giving up some sort of food- ice cream, chocolate, desserts in general, potato chips, soda. Something like that. Giving up vegetables never worked either.

HungryAnd for those of you who have at some point given something up for Lent, I am willing to bet that your sacrifice almost always is some sort of food as well. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with that. Giving up a certain food that you enjoy is like a mini-fast, and fasting is a practice often talked about in the Bible.

So should you fast? Some of you might raise an objection that fasting is a Roman Catholic thing. We don’t do that. We’re Lutherans. We don’t want to be associated with those Catholics. And it is true that the Roman Catholic Church has a long history of fasting, especially during Lent. Roman Catholics are told that they should fast during Lent, specifically that they should give up meat on Fridays- except for fish of course. You can eat all the fish you want. Captain D must have been a smart Roman Catholic. But the Catholics are not the only ones who have a long history of fasting.

Another objection to fasting might be: Well, that’s just an Old Testament thing. Certainly, fasting is a topic well-covered in the Old Testament. God gave his people Israel very detailed instructions on when they were to fast, for how long, what they were allowed to eat at certain times, and what the consequences were if you broke your fast. On the Sabbath Day, you were not supposed to eat from sunup to sundown. It was commanded. But fasting doesn’t go away with the New Testament and the arrival of Jesus. Rather, it seems that Jesus almost assumes that his disciples will fast.  He says in Matthew 6: “And when you pray, don’t do it like the Pharisees…and when you fast, don’t do it like them either.” Jesus doesn’t say, “If you pray…” or “If you fast…” When you pray and when you fast.

So the Catholics don’t hold a monopoly on fasting and Jesus didn’t do away with it either. So let’s ask another important question: What is fasting? Fasting is an ancient Christian discipline that has always been used as part and parcel of a life of prayer and meditation of God’s Word. Fasting is denying your body food for a certain period of time. Why would you want to do this? It is to train and subdue yourself with bodily restraints or bodily exercises.  Fasting is a discipline meant to help you reflect on your own sinfulness and on Christ’s sacrifice for you.

So even in the Lutheran Church, fasting is a commendable practice. However, and this is the key, we must reject and condemn any attempt to make laws, regulations and rules about it. In other words, while fasting is a good practice, it is not required or commanded. Fasting is a good practice, but it does not earn you any special favor with God or make you a better Christian than everybody else. That’s what Jesus was getting at in Matthew 6:

Hey everyone! Come and see how good I look!

Hey everyone! Come and see how good I look!

And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others.” The Pharisees, when they fasted, made a show of it. “Look at me! Come and see how good I am! God surely loves me!” That isn’t the point. Fasting doesn’t earn you extra points with God.

But now you might be thinking to yourself, “Pastor Schmidt, if fasting is not required or commanded and if it doesn’t earn me any special favor with God, what is the point? Why are you then wasting an entire sermon on this subject?” A fair question- but stick with me. I promise that I am going somewhere with this.

Let’s go back to what fasting is good for. It is a practice which helps you to reflect on your own sinfulness and on Christ’s sacrifice for you. That is why fasting is typically connected with the season of Lent and that is why I asked what you are giving up for Lent. Lent is the season of the church year where we especially focus on our own sinfulness and on Jesus’ journey to the cross. Lent is a time of repentance and is well summed up by Joel 2: 14: Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.

Lent is not primarily about fasting or giving something up. Denying ourselves something during Lent is a way to help us concentrate on the  true purpose of Lent: to fix our eyes on Jesus and to ponder the purpose, reasons, and necessity of our Lord’s suffering and death for us.

transfiguration 2That brings us to our Gospel reading for today which is Luke’s account of the Transfiguration of our Lord. Now when Jesus is transfigured and glorified on the mountain, it certainly does not bring up images of Jesus’ suffering and death for us. Rather, it tends to do just the opposite. On the mount of Transfiguration, the 3 disciples with Jesus finally see his true glory and power. Moses and Elijah are talking to him. God the Father actually speaks: “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” It is an amazing and frightening experience for them. There is no hint of suffering or shame or sacrifice. There is no hint of Lent.

Yet, the story of the Transfiguration is always the Gospel reading for the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. Maybe you didn’t know that, but it is true. Every year, we read about the Transfiguration right before Lent starts.  Why is that? On the mountain of Transfiguration, we get a glimpse of Jesus’ glory, a glory that will not be revealed again until Jesus rises from the dead and ascends into heaven. But before we get to the glory of the resurrection, we have to go to the cross.

You see, Luke continues his Gospel right after the Transfiguration in this way: On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. The key words in that verse are: when they had come down from the mountain. Jesus didn’t stay on the mountain in all his power and glory. That’s what Peter wanted to do. He thought it was great up there. Let’s set up some tents for you and Moses and Elijah and just stay up here. But Jesus couldn’t stay. He had work to do. Even when he was with Moses and Elijah, they were talking about his future in Jerusalem. They weren’t just catching up on the latest heavenly gossip. God affirmed His Son Jesus and his mission on the mountain, but he had to come down. Later again in chapter 9, Luke says this about Jesus: When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem. What was waiting for him in Jerusalem? The cross. He was to be taken up and crucified. Jesus was getting ready for what he came to do. He was heading to the cross.

And he invites you to go with him. In Luke 9, before the Transfiguration, Jesus tells his disciples: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” That’s what the season of Lent is all about. It is a time for the church to journey with Jesus to the cross. It is a time of self-denial because, let’s face it, in our consumer culture, we are not used to denying ourselves anything. We are selfish and self-centered. We are used to getting whatever we want. And if we don’t get it, we covet it or whine about it. But Jesus has a different idea for our lives. Deny yourself. Take up your cross. Follow him. Now Jesus’ call to deny ourselves certainly isn’t limited to Lent- it’s a 24-7 proposition. But we do tend to concentrate on it especially during Lent.

You see, the 40 days of Lent help prepare us for the Holiest of Holies of the church year: Holy Week.

Stations of the Cross

Stations of the Cross

During Holy Week, we walk the steps of Jesus: from his entrance into Jerusalem, to his clearing out of the temple, to his teaching about the Last Days, to his Last Supper in the upper room, to his anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane, to his betrayal and arrest, his trial, his floggings, his crown of thorns, his walk through Jerusalem carrying his own cross, to his crucifixion and death and burial. We journey that whole way with Jesus every year so that we can truly appreciate the miracle and wonder of Easter where Jesus is glorified once again as he rises from the dead and declares victory over sin, death and Satan.

Giving up something for Lent is a way for you to reflect even more upon your own sinfulness and upon the magnitude of Christ’s sacrifice for you. When you fast or simply cut back on the food you eat, and you feel that twinge, or even sharp stab of hunger, you can be reminded: Oh yes, hunger. Yes, Lent. Yes, Jesus suffered for me. He felt the deep sharp stab of thorn and nail, for me. When you give up something you enjoy like chocolate or potato chips, and you find yourself craving those things, you can be reminded: Jesus gave up his life for me, a poor, miserable, and selfish sinner. When you discipline yourself, you can be reminded of Jesus’ discipline for you. As he was suffering and being accused falsely or being mocked on the cross, he could have used his glory and power to come down from the cross. But he didn’t. He stayed on the cross, enduring its shame, for you.

But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.

Lenten Poster 2013These words from Isaiah 53 describe the sacrifice and self-denial that Jesus made for you. The words of Isaiah 53 are also the theme of our Wednesday Lenten series this year. The series is entitled “Behold, my Servant,” and each week we will focus on another aspect of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant whom we know to be Jesus Christ.  So I have a suggestion for you as a response to the question “What are you giving up for Lent?” Now this is just a suggestion, not a command. You can give up a certain food. You could give up eating until a certain time of the day. But I encourage you to give up an hour. I want you to give up an hour of your time every Wednesday either from 1:00-2:00 in the afternoon or 7:30-8:30 at night to come to our Lenten worship services here at St. John. This really would be self-denial. There are probably a hundred other things you would rather do with that hour on Wednesday.

Remember, giving something up for Lent isn’t something that you do for God to earn his favor. It’s something that you do for yourself so that you can better focus on your own sin and fix your eyes on Jesus and his journey to the cross to earn God’s favor for you. It is a way to read and reflect on God’s Word and be filled up with the Bread of Life. It is a way to return to the Lord in repentance for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. So what better way to observe Lent and deny yourself than to give up your time and come to God’s house and hear once again of his great love for you? Come and hear about how Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem, toward the cross, knowing the suffering he would face, yet going anyway for you for your sin and selfishness.  Come and hear God the Father say to you “This is my son or daughter; my chosen one!” What an opportunity to be blessed by God and by His Word of Good News for your life!

What are you giving up for Lent? That’s up to you. But I do hope and pray that every day you will listen to Jesus calling for you to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow him. For He will lead you to glory everlasting. Amen.

Let us pray: On my heart imprint your image, Blessed Jesus, king of grace, That life’s riches, cares, and pleasures Never may your work erase; Let the clear inscription be: Jesus, crucified for me, Is my life, my hope’s foundation, And my glory and salvation!

HT to Paul McCain of CPH for much of the information on fasting and on a good summary of the Lenten season.

Don’t Look At Me!

Alright, this is my last post reflecting on Tullian Tchividjian’s book Jesus+Nothing=Everything. I thoroughly enjoyed this book as evidenced by the four posts dedicated to it. It was neat to read how a popular Evangelical pastor rediscovered the true Gospel message and how it has changed his life and his ministry. Many of the people who influenced him in his journey were Lutheran theologians, and as I read his book, I could see the Lutheran influence in his discoveries. (The only thing he is missing is Lutheran sacramental theology, but I can’t ask for everything.)

Tchividjian’s main purpose in this book is to recover the true message of God’s Word from a person-focused center to a Jesus-focused center. He recognized that much of popular evangelical theology focuses on what Christians must do and how they can improve instead of focusing on God and what He has already done through Jesus. Tchividjian refers to this teaching as “performancism” which is just another word for “legalism.” Legalism has been present in the church ever since Bible times. One of the temptations in legalism is to read yourself into all the Bible stories and make them about you.

For example, in the story of David and Goliath, a “me-focused” interpretation would be to place myself in David’s shoes and talk about how I can defeat my giant enemies with God’s help. To take it even further, the five stones all represent some sort of spiritual attribute that I can use to knock down giants. A proper, Jesus-focused interpretation of this story recognizes that David defeating Goliath points forward to Jesus’ battle with sin, death and Satan. Like David, Jesus stands in the place of His people and takes on the enemy that we could never defeat by ourselves. David caught off the head of Goliath. Jesus crushed the head of Satan. Just as David was chosen and anointed by God to be the leader and king of his people, Jesus was chosen and anointed by God to be our Savior and King.

A proper understanding of Scripture means that we will come to realize that the Bible is not primarily about me and what I must do, but rather it is about God and what He has done and continues to do for me. That doesn’t mean that we cannot learn anything about ourselves and the Christian life through stories like David and Goliath. But these stories are first and foremost about God, specifically God the Son, Jesus Christ. Tchividjian gets at this in his book:

The gospel doesn’t take you deeper into yourself; the gospel takes you away from yourself. That’s why Paul reminds the Colossians (and us), ‘You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (3:3). The gospel frees us to realize that, while we matter, we’re not the point…The gospel causes us to look up and out, away from ourselves. It turns our gaze upward to God and outward to others, both to those inside the church and to those outside it. The gospel causes us to love God and to love others, which of course is how Jesus summed up the entirety of the law.

And some more from Tchividjian:

Reminded of the gospel, we’re reminded that sin enslaves by making us big; the gospel frees by making us small. Our self-esteem culture would have us believe that the bigger we become, the freer we’ll be. But the gospel turns that on its head- the smaller we become, the freer we will be. We begin to decrease; Christ begins to increase. The world says the more independent you become, the freer and stronger you’ll be; the gospel says the more dependent on God you become, the freer and stronger you’ll be.

This is true freedom. A proper understanding of the Gospel means that we do not have to be plagued by guilt as we look inside ourselves and see, not moral improvement, but sin. The gospel points us away from ourselves and toward Jesus. Legalism and “performancism” leaves us open to accusations of hypocrisy because we point to ourselves and pat ourselves on the back at the improvement we have made. When we grasp the true Gospel message, we can take comfort in the fact that it isn’t up to my performance. We can tell Satan who wants to accuse us in our sin through other people “Don’t look at me! I am not the standard. Look at Jesus! I am perfect because of Him only.” And when God looks at you, He sees you through the lens of Jesus Christ. He doesn’t see your works or your lack thereof; He sees Christ’s works, his life, death, and resurrection, for you.

What a great promise! I encourage all of you to read Tchividjian’s book and rediscover the Gospel message for yourself. I will leave you with one last quote.

Now you can spend your life giving up your place for others instead of guarding it from others, because your identity is in Christ, not in your place. Now you can spend your energy going to the back instead of getting to the front, because your identity is in Christ, not in your position. You can also spend your life giving, not taking, because your identity is in Christ, not in your possessions. All this is our new identity- all because of Christ’s finished work to us in the gospel.