Until He Comes

I just love the last Sundays of the church year. I am especially fond of the texts from Matthew 25 that bring the year to a close and point us to the end. The Sheep and the Goats. The Wise and Foolish Virgins. And on top of it, we’ve been given hymns that illustrate and illumine these texts. I’m thinking especially of Philipp Nicolai’s Wake, Awake, “The King of Chorales”. This Sunday I’ll be spending the Bible class hour leading people through the scriptural references and historical background of this hymn. I initially thought it wouldn’t nearly take up the whole hour, but now I’m wondering how we’ll get it all in.

But there’s another hymn that has become just as meaningful to me. “O’er the Distant Mountains Breaking” (CW 220) also refers to this week’s Gospel in the final stanza:

With my lamp well-trimmed and burning,
Swift to hear and slow to stray,
Watching for your glad returning,
Waiting for the blessed day.
Come, my Savior, Come, my Savior,
O my Savior, quickly come!

I just love that phrase, “swift to hear and slow to stray.” So often we have it the other way around. And we always want to emphasize the “watching” for Jesus. But does it look like he’s coming? When the night of watching day waiting grows long and it seems like he may never come, then we can do nothing but cling to his word, his promise that he will indeed return. Hurry up and listen.

In Bible class at church we just finished up a course on Christian vocation. Last week as we were wrapping it up I mentioned the third stanza of this hymn which has also been very dear to me over the past few years:

Nearer is my soul’s salvation;
Spent the night, the day at hand.
Keep me in my humble station,
Watching for you till I stand,
O my Savior, O my Savior,
In your bright, your promised land.

I just discovered today that the author of this hymn, John S. B. Monsell, died from injuries he received while watching or inspecting workers who were repairing the roof of his church. Either he fell off the roof, or he was hit by a falling object. Maybe he would have been better off staying in his study (in his “humble station”) and not crawling around on the roof. That may be a reminder I need from time to time. I’ve been known to do dumb things like that which I have no business doing. It’s a reminder that the station(s) in life into which I have been placed is the best place for me to be while I wait for Christ’s return. Even though it might not always be the place I want to be, or it might not always be the most comfortable place to be, it is the place where I will find “one of the least of these brothers of mine” (Mt 25:40) behind whom Jesus promises to hide himself. I would always like to take the shortcut to get my life more like it will be when Jesus returns, but no, not yet.

Another favorite phrase from this hymn is in stanza two:

Come, O Long-Expected; weary
Waits my spirit anxiously.
Life is dark and earth is dreary
Where your light I cannot see.

O my Savior, O my Savior,
When will you return to me?

It reminds me of Psalm 73: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you” (vs 25). And then that last phrase shows a trust that the Lord Jesus is not just coming back to raise everyone and judge everyone, but I’m looking for when he is coming for me. As though he would go through all the trouble of coming back even if it were only for me.

And  then there’s the delightful image in the first stanza of the return of Jesus like the dawn of a new day:

O’er the distant mountains breaking
Comes the redd’ning dawn of day.
Rise, my soul, from sleep awaking;
Rise and sing and watch and pray.
’Tis your Savior, ’Tis your Savior,
On his bright returning way.

So I think of that every time I see the sun pushing up over the mountains to the east. Each new day is a day to rise and ready ourselves for Jesus’ return. I snapped this picture one Sunday morning out the car window (I stopped first) as I was on my way to church.

All of these thoughts and images fill my mind during these last days of the church year. They all lead me to one unending cry, which the Church has been crying for nearly 2,000 years. “Come, Lord Jesus. Come quickly.”

Ascension Afterglow

A large, framed picture of this stained glass window hangs in my study at church. The window is located in the balcony of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Wauwatosa WI, where I spent my vicar year. I received the print as a seminary graduation gift. While I was in California, the picture hung in my office, in just the right position so that I could see it from the front of church. Every time I raised my hands in blessing at the end of the service, I could see Jesus’ outstretched arms. Indeed, the benediction is his blessing. Today, I can’t see the picture from our chancel, but it still often reminds me of Jesus’ ascension. I have found that Jesus’ ascension has provided me with tremendous comfort for my life and ministry as long as I have been in it.

For the past seven years, I have been privileged to participate in worship services on Ascension Day, 40 days after Easter. I know that many churches no longer observe Ascension on this day (many transfer it to the Sunday after), but at this point, I just couldn’t imagine not marking this day. In fact, I have been told that my current congregation had never had an Ascension service before last year. But I have said that since I would be observing it anyway (on my own or with my family), I might as well invite others to join me.

I understand that Jesus’ ascension doesn’t rank up there with Christmas and Easter (in the minds of most people). I understand that Thursday nights in May are often busy with all kinds of activities. I understand that Hallmark and Walmart don’t have Ascension aisles—no one makes any money by getting you to celebrate Ascension. I get that. But none of that takes away from the mighty significance of Jesus’ Ascension, and the importance of ordering our lives around these monumental events in the life of Christ. The fact that people don’t celebrate it and don’t think much of it does not take away from the fact that 40 days after he rose, Jesus ascended and now sits at the right hand of God as our exalted brother who rules all things for the good of his church. His Church would no longer exist if he didn’t do that. I wouldn’t be a part of it if he hadn’t ascended.

Since it is such a high festival in the church year, a neighboring pastor and I decided that we would work together to plan a service that could rightly be called a festival. We used a special setting of the liturgy (Missa Pacem). A choir made up of members of two congregations led the way through the service. The service was accompanied by organ, piano, trumpet, handbells, and violin. And to top it all off, we knelt side by side and received the body and blood of our ascended Lord, in an uncommon opportunity to enjoy the communion fellowship we share with our sister congregations.

Our hope is that if we treat it like a festival, perhaps other people will, too. Perhaps if we preach it for what it really is, some might also come to appreciate its importance in the life of the Church, and in the life of every Christian. Unfortunately, we still had only 69 people in attendance. About 30 were in the choir loft. Last year we had 47 here, but that was just members of our congregation, and just shy of half our normal Sunday attendance.

But I have no regrets about doing the service, or how we did it.  I don’t think that it was at all a waste of effort or time. We pulled out all the stops. We made use of the best of our resources. We celebrated. We feasted. Perhaps with time it will be different. Perhaps more will come next year.

But if we have to wait until Jesus returns in the same way his disciples saw him go into heaven before we see huge crowds, so be it. Until then, I won’t be surprised to find that the group who looks up into the clouds continues to be rather small.

But when Jesus comes, even if that falls on a Thursday in May, people will come to that. The trumpets will sound. Alleluias will be sung. Jesus will be there. And his people will come. From every nation, tribe, people and language…

Collect for Cantate

One of my favorite collects (Prayer of the Day) in the whole year comes up tomorrow for the 5th Sunday of Easter. I think that part of this prayer might also show up on another Sunday, but this is just precious:

O God, you form the minds of your faithful people into a single will. Make us love what you command and desire what you promise, that among the many changes of this world, our hearts may ever yearn for the lasting joys of heaven.

Wow. Just think about all the things that you want, that you desire. “No, Lord, what I really want is whatever you have promised me.” And won’t that just be so much better than what we would have thought of? Isn’t it always? And won’t that always lead us to—above all else—yearn for Jesus to make good on that final promise?

What I’ve been up to

I’ve been pretty silent here lately, so I thought I’d give you a quick rundown on what has been keeping me busy.

Lent and Easter
Yes, this is perhaps the busiest time of the year. People will make comments to me about how busy I must be, with all the extra services. And this year we even added a service on Good Friday—five unique services from Maundy Thursday to Easter Sunday. But I’m never exactly sure how to respond. Yes, I’m busy. And it is a struggle to get ready for all the services, especially when they come so quickly, and especially when other issues inevitably come up during holy week. But I really don’t want anyone to think that I would rather be doing anything else.

For all of the busy-ness and the craziness, there is simply no time of year I love more than holy week, and especially the feast of the resurrection. It can be such a temptation to get through Good Friday, and sort of coast through Easter. But, no. The festival service on Easter is the most important of all, the highest festival in the entire year. This year I preached on the historic epistle for Easter Sunday, 1 Corinthians 5:6-8. What a joy to keep the festival, and for it all to culminate in the feast that is the Lord’s Supper, a foretaste of the feast already enjoyed by the saints in heaven.

Here the true Paschal Lamb we see,
Whom God so freely gave us;
He died on the accursed tree—
So strong his love—to save us.
See, his blood now marks our door;
Faith points to it; death passes o’er,
And Satan cannot harm us. Hallelujah!

So let us keep the Festival
to which the Lord invites us;
Christ is himself the Lord of all,
The sun that warms and lights us.
Now his grace to us imparts
Eternal sunshine to our hearts.
The night of sin is ended. Hallelujah! (CW 161, st. 3,4)

School Planning & Accreditation
We are busy planning and preparing for the next school, and even beyond. In January we began the process of a school self-study for accreditation. But we’re also gearing up for next year by getting all of our enrollment materials in place. This week we’re distributing fliers throughout the area. We’ve already delivered 2,000 to surrounding homes, and we’ll be getting more out as soon as they’re printed. El Paso is a growing city, with lots of young military families. Accreditation is an important part of serving these families, partly because Ft. Bliss requires school to be accredited in order to be recommended on post, and also because military families move so often that we want to make sure our students records easily transfer to the schools nationwide, even worldwide, where our students end up.

Home
I’m trying my hand at desert gardening this summer. The kids and I have planted tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and melons. We’ll see how things grow here. We definitely have plenty of sun. It should be a fun little experiment. and if we get some food out of it, great.

Last month Sara’s sister Liz arrived in El Paso. She is an Army nurse and will be stationed at William Beaumont Army Medical Center for the next two years. She will be staying with us until she finds a place of her own. We’re not really in any hurry for that to happen, however; it’s nice to have her here. And it will be a real blessing to have family within a few miles instead of a few hundred miles (or thousand).

It’s baseball season again, and I’ve again been enjoying the MLB AtBat app on my phone. As much as I wish I could be in Minnesota to actually see outdoor Major League Baseball in Minnesota this summer, being able to listen to the games on my phone is better than nothing.

Reading
I’m still trying to make my way through my “to read” stack of books. However, I just can’t resist adding more books to the pile. If you want to, you can watch what I’m reading on the web site GoodReads.

I’m looking forward to reading through the Lutheran Confessions in the Book of Concord again this summer. I try to do that every other year. I’ll write more on that in the next couple weeks.

Coming Up
Right now I’m especially gearing up for our Ascension service. I’ve always had a service on Ascension wherever I’ve been, even though they’re not always well attended. This year we’ve invited our area congregations to join us and with our combined efforts hope to have a service fitting for this high festival. It seems that every year I appreciate the significance of Jesus’ ascension even more.

Next week I’ll be heading to Flagstaff Arizona for pastor’s conference. In a few week, we’ll have confirmation here. And just after that school will be out for another year. Wow, it’s gone by fast.

Now Rise

Over the past several years I have really appreciated the hymn “To Jordan’s River Came our Lord” (CW 89) as the Hymn of the Day for the Baptism of our Lord. In particular, there’s just something about climbing into the pulpit while singing these words:

Now rise, faint hearts: be resolute!
This man is Christ, our substitute!
He was baptized in Jordan’s stream,
Proclaimed Redeemer, Lord supreme.

Christmas to Epiphany

Well, I somehow made it through another Advent/Christmas season, with all its extra services (13 since the first Sunday in Advent). I just have one more: an Epiphany Vespers service on Wednesday night.

But with the Christmas season winding down and Epiphany about to start, I’m not sure whether I’m glad it’s all over or wishing it hadn’t gone so fast. I am relieved to have the crazy schedule behind me. But at the same time, school starts back up again tomorrow, and so I’ll be back to that crazy schedule again, too. So while I won’t have multiple services each week for a while, I’ll be back to 3 catechism classes, 2 BIC classes during the week, and school chapel on Friday.

But I don’t mind the thought of getting back to that schedule. It’s Christmas I’m going to miss. It seems as though these 12 days are just not enough to get to the heart of what happened here. Incarnation. God made flesh. For us and for our salvation… It seems that you could spend a lifetime just dealing with these deep matters.

But it’s time to move on. To Epiphany. This morning I played through several of the Epiphany hymns and realized just how much I have to look forward to in the next few weeks. How Lovely Shines the Morning Star. To Jordan’s River Came our Lord. Hail to the Lord’s Anointed. And so on…

I would have been tempted to just stick with the Christmas hymns. Just the Luther and Gerhardt hymns alone would be enough for a lifetime, I think. But I guess it’s a good thing the church year keeps moving us along. So we don’t get stuck on just one thing. We’ll find that God has much more to reveal to us in his Son that “just” his incarnation. More than we ever could have imagined.

Blessings to you as we move on to another Epiphany.

Advent Wreath

About two weeks ago I emailed one of my members and asked if he would be interested in making a stand for an Advent wreath for church. I realized that it was a little late, but I thought I would ask anyway. This morning before 8:00, Kenny dropped off this gorgeous stand. I picked up the wreath at Hobby Lobby yesterday. The candles were ordered from Almy. I think that this piece is a fine addition to our chancel appointments, and that it will serve us well for many years.

Here is an excerpt from a post by Pastor Johnold Strey on the history of the Advent wreath:

I’ve heard from more than one Lutheran source that Martin Luther is assumed to be the “father” or “inventor” of the Advent wreath.  I suppose that makes for a nice story, especially if you’re a Lutheran, but unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be true.  The best theory about the Advent wreath’s origins that I’ve heard came from one of my liturgy classes at Santa Clara University.  The professor suggested that Advent wreaths originated in the colder climates of Northern Europe.   Men would remove the wheels of horse-drawn carriages just before winter set in, when snow and muddy conditions would make such travel difficult.  The wheels were brought inside, and possibly placed up in the rafters of houses.  Eventually the muddy wheels were decorated with evergreen boughs, then candles, and voila — the origins of the Advent wreath at the time of the year just before Christmas.

In time, the use of the Advent wreath became wide spread and moved from the home into the church. The general symbolism of the Advent wreath lies in the growing light of the wreath: each Sunday another candle from the wreath is lighted as we approach the birthday of Jesus, the Light of the world.  Advent wreaths have four candles around the circle, one for each Sunday of the Advent season.  Modern Advent wreaths frequently include a fifth candle, the white “Christ candle” in the center of the wreath, which is first lighted at worship on Christmas Eve.

Advent

Below is an article I originally wrote for my previous congregation’s newsletter. The article makes mention of the color blue for Advent. My current congregation still uses the traditional purple for Advent (which I actually prefer).
———-
November 29 marks the beginning of a new church year. The first season of the church year is called Advent. The word advent means “coming.” So during Advent we focus on the coming of Jesus.
Advent primarily directs us to watch for Jesus to come again at the end of the world in power and glory to bring us to heaven. That is the reason our altar and pulpit are clothed in blue during these weeks. We lift up our heads during Advent to watch for our Savior to return “coming on the clouds.” Jesus will come to us!
Advent also points us to another advent of Jesus. This is the one most people have on their minds these days. In a stable in Bethlehem Jesus came to us. He came, not only to be with us and live with us, but to be one of us and to live for us. Jesus came to us!
The lowliness of Jesus’ first coming reminds us of the way he comes to each of us everyday. Just as Jesus came to earth wrapped in human flesh, wrapped in strips of cloths, Jesus comes to you wrapped in simple words—words of peace, joy, forgiveness. He comes in something as simple as water, which together with the Word washes away sin and joins us to our Savior. He comes to us in bread and wine, joined with Jesus’ own body and blood to give us a wondrous gift: the forgiveness of sins. Jesus comes to us!
Even though Jesus comes to us in a variety of ways, the way we celebrate them is the same. We look forward to Christmas in the same way we look forward to each time Jesus comes to us in his Word or in the Sacrament. In this same way we also look forward to Jesus’ coming at the end of the world. We wait with eager expectation for Jesus to come to us. Thus the great Advent prayer: Come, Lord Jesus.
But Advent is not an easy season to celebrate. The world tries to swallow it up with the commercialism and frenzy of “the holidays.” It’s not easy, but this year try to celebrate Advent. Here is one suggestion: pick an Advent hymn from the hymnal. These hymns expertly direct our thoughts to the coming of Jesus. Use this hymn to guide devotions with your family. Then, as a family, sing the hymn together and learn it.
Celebrate Advent. Celebrate Jesus’ coming. If you take the time to celebrate this season, your celebration of Christmas will be sweeter, because once the world has dispensed with Christmas, you can begin to marvel quietly at the most blessed gift of all—a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Celebrate Christmas. Then don’t be in a rush to leave Christmas behind. Spend a few days pondering and thanking God for the miracle of Christmas itself (the church takes 12 days for this).
And so we begin the cycle again. We heard the story before—the story of salvation, the story of Jesus’ birth, life, suffering, death, and resurrection. We heard how Jesus continues to work in us, his church (in the season of Pentecost). Now we act like little children who have just finished our favorite book. “Read it again,” we say. God’s blessings to you as you celebrate Advent and Christmas. God’s blessings as you hear the story again.

St. Matthew, Apostle

Evangelist Matthew
Yesterday at Trinity we observed the minor festival named for the tax collector-turned apostle Matthew. Since it fell on a Sunday this year and since it is year A in the three year lectionary series (and I've been preaching on the gospels), it seemed good to take this opportunity. It was a little refreshing to switch to red paraments during this long green season. But it was especially interesting to think a little about Matthew's perspective in writing a Gospel account. We don't hear really anything else about Matthew except that he was a tax collector (something Matthew always makes sure to point out). In recent weeks we've seen God's generosity in the parable of the workers in the vineyard, God's complete forgiveness in the parable of the unforgiving servant, God's concern for any one sinner who goes astray in Mt 18. I think studying the call of Matthew helps explain why Matthew would write these things. Jesus had shown this same concern, forgiveness, and extreme generosity to Matthew. 

As a side note, I don't think I've ever been able to use the proper preface for "minor festivals" before. As we give thanks to God for the example of faith of believers from the past, it gives new meaning to the words "therefore with all the saints on earth and hosts of heaven…"

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.