Signs of Peace

This morning during Sunday School I asked the high school class to go around and take pictures of things that remind them of or symbolize peace. The lesson this morning was the presentation of Jesus in the temple, when Simeon, after seeing his Savior, asks the Lord to allow him to depart in peace. We spent the hour talking about the peace that Jesus came to bring, and that, just like Simeon, we see our peace and salvation in Christ—even in his lowliness. For it is in his lowliness that he comes to save. We connected that thought to the places where we see God’s salvation—his Word and Sacraments. As lowly as those things are, there we see God’s salvation, because that is where he has promised to come to us.

These pictures are the best of the pictures they came back with. Some of them were a bit far-fetched, but these were actually very good. Some of them depict very different kinds of peace, but some get right to the heart of true peace, and where we find it.

If the slideshow does not appear below, click this link.

The Word Became Flesh

The Gospel for Christmas Day is John 1:1–14. It ends, "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth."

It’s one of those texts that is so simple (grammatically), but could hardly be more profound and deep. One of my professors from college once remarked that sometimes a
preacher might be tempted to just read the text and, because he
couldn’t possibly add anything to the text, simply tell the
congregation, "Just sit there for 20 minutes and think about that." What it’s describing is a miracle and a mystery that we will never fully grasp this side of heaven. This mystery is the message of Christmas Day. God became a true human being in the flesh in order to save us.

What really got me this year was the privilege we had to confess our faith in this truth and receive the benefits of it when we celebrated the Lord’s Supper on Christmas morning. At Christmas, God stoops down into real, earthly life with real flesh and blood. When the shepherds came to see the Savior, there they saw a real baby that they could touch and see. Jesus really suffered in his body and really shed his blood. And Jesus really gives that same body and blood in the Supper.

So I’m not sure which truth assures us of which. Maybe the incarnation assures us of Jesus’ real presence in the Sacrament (for if he did not take on flesh, how could his body be there?). Or maybe his promise to be really present in the Sacrament assures us that Jesus really did take on our flesh and blood. Maybe both. But either way, you can see that these two naturally belong together.

Many churches do not celebrate the Sacrament on high festivals like Christmas and Easter. I suspect that the two most common reasons are because of the large number of visitors who come on those days and because of the length it adds to the service. But I think another (unstated) reason is simply that sometimes we miss the deep connection between the truths of these  festivals and the truth of the Sacrament. In a way, the supper is like God’s ultimate visual aid and illustration and application of the truths preached in the sermon. It’s like God’s way of saying, "Now, see, the things you just heard in the sermon are really true. It’s so real you can taste and see the proof of it. And I’ve given it for you. It’s true for everyone, but I want to make sure that you know that I did it for you."

I counted it as the highest privilege to receive and administer this greatest of gifts on this highest of days.

Gifts

I just had a couple of observations about Christmas gifts this year. The first is regarding the kids’ presents.

One memory I have of Christmas as a child is how the Christmas tree always seemed to get swallowed up by the presents surrounding it.  It always seemed like such an abundance of presents. Of course, it had to be a lot when you have a family of seven. But here this year we opened some gifts on Sunday evening when Nana and Grandpa were here. We opened stocking gifts on Christmas Eve. And even at that, there seemed to be so many of them. And most of them were for the kids, who would usually be perfectly content to go and play with the first present they open. In fact, one of the first gifts we opened was a toy for Isaiah. All of the kids were immediately drawn to it and we had to pull it away so we could get on with the unwrapping. What I’m getting at is how the kids receive more than they can possibly comprehend (and certainly more than they need).

I think I understand what that’s like though. I’m now thinking about the gifts that we have received from the members of our congregation. It’s just hard to comprehend such generosity. It’s more than we need. It’s so much more than what we deserve.

In that sense then, our gift-receiving at Christmas is not that much different than Christmas itself. Think about it, who could really grasp the full weight and value of the gift given? "A Savior has been born to you." Can we even begin to comprehend what that’s worth? It’s so much more than we deserved. Can we understand what would lead God to be so generous as to give his only Son? It’s just so overwhelming.

Rejoice in God My Savior

As I mentioned in a previous post, this year’s children’s Christmas service was based on the hymn, "O Jesus Christ, Your Manger Is". The service took place last Sunday, the day before Christmas Eve. One of the highlights from that service was the singing of that hymn, with the first stanza sung by the kids (K–8). Another highlight would be the preschoolers singing "While by the Sheep". I had been going into the preschool room for the last couple weeks to help the 3- and 4-year-olds learn that one. It was so much fun to do that and to get to know those kids a little better.

But I would have to say the highlight of that service for me was another of the songs. It was a setting of the Magnificat (by James Chepponis). The kids and the congregation sang the refrains, and the verses were sung by a group young women from our congregation, mostly high school-aged. The six of them sang the verses in two parts. They prepared it with minimal rehearsal time in the past couple weeks. All of these girls are ones I have had in our junior choir (which we don’t have this year because there aren’t enough voices). But I have always been so impressed not only by their lovely voices, but by their willingness to sing and try different things. I only hope that these girls will continue to use and develop their talent. That can be really tricky for a high school student if their school doesn’t offer, or they aren’t directly involved in another music program at school.

The Magnificat itself is something that continues to grow on me. One thing that impresses me is how much this New Testament song reflects the language of the Old Testament psalms. It shows, I think, the familiarity that pious Jews had with the psalms and how connect the whole Bible really is.

Come, Lord Jesus

This Advent our midweek services followed the theme, "Come, Lord Jesus." The point was that in Advent there are three ways in which we observe Jesus’ coming to us. He came the first time in the flesh, as a descendant of the woman (Eve) as the fulfillment of God’s promise. Now he comes to us regularly in his Word and Sacrament. But he has also promised to come again at the end of time.

I preached last Wednesday (was that really just a week ago?) for the final midweek service. I used Revelation 22, the last chapter in the Bible, for that service. I just love the way that chapter wraps up the Bible and sets the stage for life until Jesus comes. Our whole lives (not just during Advent) hinge on Jesus’ words "Behold, I am coming soon." And so in a sense, our whole lives are one long Advent season, and our constant prayer during this time is "Amen. Come, Lord Jesus." Our "Amen" is our confession of faith that we believe he is coming for us, just as he said.

Over the past several years I have come to enjoy Advent more and more each season. Like I’ve said before, it really heightens the celebration of Christmas when you’ve been waiting in Advent. It gets sort of challenging when you live in a world and society that can’t wait for anything. But Christians are by definition "waiters". We have to, because Jesus said he is coming. And really, what greater joy can we have but to wait upon the sure promise of Jesus? Christmas proves he keeps his promises. His Word and Sacrament show him keeping his promises.

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Christmas Top Five

I’ve been trying to figure out how in the world I could summarize or describe the activities of the past week. I think I’ll have to take things one at a time. There are five highlights that I would like to share. I’ll take each one in a separate post.

#5 – Come, Lord Jesus
#4 – Rejoice in God, my Savior
#3 – Gifts
#2 – The Word became Flesh
#1 – O Jesus Christ, Your Manger Is

Rest in God Alone

It is customary for youth confirmands to receive their own “confirmation verse.” Sometimes the student choses their own passage; other times it is chosen for them. In any case, I think the passage is supposed to be a passage for the individual to make special application to their lives of faith as they make their confirmation vows and as they walk through life. When I was confirmed, we didn’t get to pick ours. We were told that they were chosen with each individual in mind. But I could never figure out why I got the one I did. It wasn’t a passage that I was very familiar with. It wasn’t one that seemed to obviously apply to me. (By 8th grade I already knew pretty well that I wanted to become a pastor. Maybe I was looking one more specific.)

I was assigned Psalm 62:1,2: “My soul finds rest in God alone; my salvation comes from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will never be shaken.”

It’s a wonderful passage, but it just didn’t jump out at me. It’s no Revelation 2:10 or Romans 8:28. And so I really didn’t latch on to it. If you asked me in high school, I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell you what my confirmation verse was (without looking it up in my Bible where it was highlighted).

This evening I was reading the section on Psalm 62 in the Psalms Devotional Commentary that I’m working through. And I thought to myself that this passage has become so much more dear to me now than it used to be. As I have grown more attached to the psalms and as I have grown a little older with just a few more experiences, I have found these words to be priceless: “My soul finds rest in God alone.”

There have been many times that some situation in life and ministry is really weighing on my mind and heart. Maybe it’s something a member is going through or said to me. Maybe it’s some issue at church or school that needs to be resolved somehow. Or maybe it’s some big project or task that’s coming up—either it’s behind schedule or it’s becoming harder than it seemed at first. All of these kind of things take their place in my heart and soul. I can’t simply leave them behind “at work” as though my work were just a job. When these kinds of things weigh heavy, it’s hard to shake them. It’s hard be relaxed, comfortable. These things can even hang on long into the night.

“My soul finds rest in God alone.” If I can come before God at the end of each day, and through Jesus Christ, find a welcome in his arms—does anything else really matter? Yes, those things all need to be dealt with and thought about and worked on, but in God—I need nothing. I don’t need to work to be with him. I don’t need to convince him to let me come. I don’t need to think about the right way to approach him. Only rest. And only in God. Only in Jesus.

So I now appreciate my confirmation verse. Now I add it to my ever-growing list of favorite psalms. And, interestingly enough, very often it’s the psalms to which I turn when I want to “find rest in God alone.”

Children’s Books

We have a lot of books at home. Lots of kids books. And naturally, we also have our share of Christian children’s books—mainly Bible story books. The USA Today had an article on these kind of books a couple days ago. I thought that it made some very interesting observations, which we might forget sometimes. Consider this: "every Bible storybook reflects a certain theology" (Ted Olsen, managing editor of Christianity Today). Unfortunately, much of the Christian children’s literature widely available today reflects a theology that is not in line with the message of the Bible. I’ve noticed these very things in so many of the books that are in the stores or that have come into our home one way or another.

Some of them simply miss the real point of the Bible stories (For example, the feeding of the five thousand: "A boy shares his lunch" Is that really the point?). Or they focus so much on what we are supposed to do and give very little emphasis to what Jesus did for us.

So here’s my suggestion: If you are buying Bible books for children, please read them first. If you aren’t sure what to look for, ask your pastor to show you. A very good series of books for children is the one mentioned in the article, the Arch Books series from CPH. They’re inexpensive and generally, very well written.

Also, here is a link to a radio segment dedicated to children’s bible story books.
"Christian Children’s Books" on KFUO