Friday, December 24, 2010

Belief in the Virgin Birth of Jesus Is Not Optional

This morning, I received an email from an Episcopal pastor named Steve.  He didn't provide his last name or the location of the congregation he serves - just Pastor Steve, St. John's Episcopal Church.  He was writing to inform me that he had run across an article I had written in The Morning Sun (our local newspaper) a few years back and wanted to commend me for "boldly confessing the truth in the public square."  He went on to say that he had read my article in a recent Bible Study at the congregation where he serves, in which he was teaching on the necessity of the Virgin Birth of our Lord.  He concluded his short note by saying that he agrees wholeheartedly that one cannot be a true Christian if one does not believe in the Virgin Birth, and that he laments the fact that many in his fellowship believe and teach otherwise.

This brought to mind an incident I was involved in around four years ago.  A few ladies in the congregation I serve were members of a local book club.  They had just finished reading "The Da Vinci Code," by Dan Brown, and asked me if I would be willing to join them for the discussion they would be having.  Of course, I agreed.  When I got there that evening, there was another "pastor" there as well - a Presbyterian woman.  I thought to myself, "Oh, this is going to be loads of fun."  As we began discussing the book, I was asked what I thought about Brown's claims that the Emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicaea to vote on which Gospels would be included in the Bible, and that it was during that Council that it was decided that the Church would confess Jesus as Divine, etc.  I explained that Brown was simply butchering history and presented the truth about what actually happened at that Council, emphasizing that the first draft of the Nicene Creed emerged from that Council, not because they wanted to make Jesus Divine all of a sudden, but in order to refute the Christological heresies that were infiltrating the Church in that day.  I went on to mention that all Christians confess the Nicene Creed as truth.  The Presbyterian woman stated that she disagreed with me.  She said, "I'm a Christian, but I don't believe in everything that is confessed in that Creed."  "Really?" I asked.  "Which parts of the Nicene Creed do you not believe?"  She said, "Well, for instance, I do not believe that Jesus was born of an actual virgin . . ."  Before she could continue, I said, "Well, then, you are not a Christian."  I think the woman's eyes about popped out of her head, and there was a collective gasp heard in the room.  "I most certainly am a Christian," the woman responded.  "Just because I don't believe that Jesus was born of a virgin doesn't change that."  "Yes, it does," I said.  I went on to explain to her, and the group, that if Jesus is not born of a virgin, He cannot be our Savior, and that if we deny the Virgin Birth, we believe in a different Jesus than the One revealed to us in Holy Scripture.  After my lengthy diatribe, the woman said, "Well, I disagree with you, but I'm not going to argue with you.  I believe what I believe."  She mainly kept quiet for the rest of the evening, as we continued to discuss other aspects of Brown's book.  When the discussion concluded and everyone was getting ready to leave, I had several of the ladies approach me and thank me for bearing witness to the truth.  But, I also received a few dirty looks from a few ladies as they were departing.  It was a most interesting evening, and one that I shall not soon forget.

Anyway, here is the article I alluded to above:

Belief in the Virgin Birth of Jesus Is Not Optional
(Published in The Morning Sun on Saturday, December 29, 2007)  

Greetings in the Name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ!

There is a scene in the recent hit movie, “Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby,” which is very illustrative of the have-Christianity-your way mentality that rules in our day and age.  Ricky Bobby (played by Will Ferrell) is saying grace with his family and directing his prayer to the “8 pound, 6 ounce, newborn Baby Jesus.”  Don’t ask me how he knows that Jesus weighed 8 pounds, six ounces at His birth.  I have been studying theology for many years and have never stumbled across that little nugget of information.  But, that’s not the point.  As he continues his prayer, making several references to the Baby Jesus, his wife becomes irritated and interrupts him, saying, “You know, Jesus did grow up!”  Ricky Bobby replies, “I like the Baby Jesus the best.  When you say grace, you can say it to grown up Jesus or bearded Jesus or whatever Jesus you like.”  Then the other characters sitting around the table get in on the act, stating which version of Jesus they like best – “ninja Jesus, rock-and-roll Jesus, etc.”  After this deep theological conversation runs its course, Ricky Bobby resumes and concludes his prayer to the version of Jesus which is his personal favorite – Baby Jesus. 

While this scene occurs in a comedy and is meant to be funny, it is actually a pretty accurate parody of how Christian theology is done today.  The Bible is no longer confessed to be the inspired and inerrant Word of God by many who claim to be Christian today.  It may have some truth in it which comes from God, but it is also filled with legend and myths made up by men, and it is up to us to decide which parts are fact and which are fictional.  In other words, like the characters in “Talladega Nights,” we get to pick and choose which parts of the Bible we like best, which, of course, means that we get to construct Jesus in our own personal image. 

This is great, isn’t it?  We get to pick and choose!  We get to decide for ourselves which version of Jesus we like best.  And, the really cool thing about this new way of doing Christian theology is that everybody gets to be right.  You get to pick your favorite version of Jesus and I get to pick mine and it doesn’t matter if my version is completely contradictory to yours, we both get to be right, because in this new way of doing Christian theology there are no absolute truths.  Truth is relative.  Truth is subjective, not objective.  Truth is in the eye of the beholder.  Whatever you believe about Jesus is just as true as what I believe.

This is how Christian leaders, like Rev. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, can make the claim that believing in such things as the virgin birth of Jesus is not necessary for one to be Christian.  He made this statement last week during an interview, claiming that, while he personally believes in the virgin birth, he does not feel that it is a “hurdle” all those who wish to be Christian must leap over.  And, according to the “theology of Ricky Bobby,” he is absolutely right.

But, according to true Christian theology, which is rooted in the belief that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God, he and Ricky Bobby, and all who believe like them, are absolutely wrong.  I know it is unpopular and politically incorrect to tell people they are wrong today, but true Christianity never claimed to be popular or politically correct.  True Christianity does not allow its adherents to pick and choose what they want to believe.  There is no room within true Christianity for personal opinions and desires.  You either believe what God says in His Word or you don’t.  Period.  There are no ifs, ands, or buts. 

Thus, belief in the virgin birth of Christ is not optional.  You certainly do not have to believe in the virgin birth.  You just don’t get to be a Christian if you don’t.  The same is true of all the chief articles of the Christian faith as confessed in the three ecumenical Creeds of Christendom (Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, and Athanasian Creed).  If you do not confess what is contained in those Creeds to be true, you are not a Christian.  Well, at least not a true Christian. 

What is truly amazing is that such absolute and exclusive statements in our day and age is considered by most to be radical, while holding the belief that two contradictory views about something can be equally true is embraced as normal.  Think about that for a minute.  Let it sink in. 

Now imagine that you and another person are both staring at a blue wall.  There’s no debating that the wall is blue.  Blue paint was used.  It’s blue!  You’re thinking to yourself, “That’s a really nice shade of blue there,” when the other person chimes in and says, “I like that red wall.”  You say, “Excuse me, are you talking about that wall there, the blue wall?”  “Blue?” the person replies, “that wall is red.”

You tell me, which of the persons in that example is speaking crazy talk?  Everyone in the world would agree it is the person who is staring at a blue wall and claiming that it is red.  But, in the world of Christian theology today, it is the person who maintains that the blue wall is blue, for such a person is obviously intolerant and unloving, not allowing for the other person’s belief to coexist as equal truth.  So be it.  I know that a blue wall is blue, not red.  And, I know that Jesus Christ is “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God . . . and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man.”  How do I know?  It’s not because I like the virgin-born version of Jesus the best, it’s because that’s the only version of Jesus which exists.  At least that’s what my Bible says.  Does yours say something different?  I highly doubt it! 

In Christ,   
Rev. Thomas C. Messer, Pastor
Peace Lutheran Church ~ Alma, MI

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

What Child is This? A Meditation for Christmas

Pr. Paul McCain posted this excellent meditation on a Lutheran forum to which I belong earlier today.  Simply outstanding!
What Child is This?

What child is this? A figment of the pious imagination of the “primitive” first Christians? Some so-called “Christian” scholars suggest that this Child was just a human child who grew up to be a great teacher of love and peace and from that came his reputation as being divine. Talk about missing the mark!

What child is this? Sadly, often this Child is remade in our own image, molded, shaped and accommodated to our trends and times. This Child’s cosmic struggle with sin, death and hell is often pushed into the background. We dare not ever forget that this Child was set as a sign for the rising and falling of many. This Child is the stumbling block over Whom many have tripped and fallen in their mad dash toward self-fulfillment or self-chosen forms of religion.

What Child is this? This Child is the One who stands as the ultimate evidence of God’s wrath against sin, for this Child’s arms would one day be extended on the cross, there suffering and receiving the wrath of God against the sins of the world! The rough wood of the manger foreshadowed the rougher wood of the cross! How can we ever appreciate how great is the Father’s love if we do not realize how great was this Child’s sacrifice for the sins of the world?

What Child is this? This Child is none other than the Word of God in the flesh, the One who reveals the Father, the eternal Son of God, the Second Person of the Blessed and Most Holy Trinity. This Child is the fulfillment of all the hopes and dreams of all the years, before and ever since. In Him, you have redemption, the forgiveness of all your sins, for this Child was the atoning sacrifice, whose body and blood, given and shed, cleanses you from all your sins.

What Child is this? This Child is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the promised “Immanuel” – truly God in the flesh. He dwells forever among us in grace and truth, working His way among us and giving His gifts of forgiveness, life and salvation wherever and whenever His Gospel and Sacraments are given out, truly the greatest gifts of Christmas!

What Child is this? You know. By grace, you know! He is the One who for your sake became poor, so you might become rich with God’s lavish mercy, love and peace. Such a treasure! Such a blessing! Such a Child is this!

May God bless you and yours during this sacred season of Christmas and may you be richly blessed as you worship and adore the Lord Jesus Christ.

O Dearest Jesus, Holy Child
Prepare a bed, soft, undefiled.
A holy shrine, within my heart,
That you and I need never part.

Children's Christmas Program

Tonight, we had our Children's Christmas Program and all the kids did a fantastic job sharing the account of our Savior's birth with us.  Special thanks to Annie, Sharyn, Carol, and Mary for preparing them so well.  Kinda cool how all the little glitches and hiccups that occurred in the rehearsals disappeared when it came time for the real deal. ;) 

None of the photographers said a word about Myka hiding her face?  And . . . nice hiding job, Carol! :)

I'm thinking about wearing this get-up at Midnight Mass . . . maybe not. :)

The Christmas Story By Kids

A few inaccuracies, but too cute not to share. :)

A Social Network Christmas

The Flight of the Nazarene

A Blessed Day

After spending the morning working on a couple of writing assignments, I headed out to visit our shut-ins and bring them their Christmas Gift, i.e. Jesus, who continues to come to us wrapped in the swaddling cloths of His Holy Word and Sacraments.  It is always a joy to spend time with these dear children of God and to lead them through the Divine Service.  What a blessing it is to speak the same language of the faith.  I love hearing them speak back to God what He has spoken to them in the Holy Liturgy.  They know it by heart.  It is a part of them.  It's like being home.  And it unites us in a common confession of the faith.  I cannot fathom what it would be like to bring Christ to shut-ins without the common language of the Holy Liturgy.  I'm sure it can be pulled off, but it simply can't be the same thing as hearing them say, "I, a poor, miserable sinner . . .," "I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth . . .," "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth . . .," "Our Father who art in heaven . . .," "O Christ, Thou Lamb of God . . .," "Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace . . .," and all their "Amens" at the appropriate places.  Just another huge reason to keep the Holy Liturgy in tact, seems to me.

I'm also ever so thankful for the Communion Kit I'm blessed to use, which was a gift from our Ladies' Guild upon the anniversary of my first year as pastor at Peace, some four and a half years ago now, and which does a wonderful job of facilitating the reverence the Holy Sacrament of our Lord's Body and Blood surely merits:

After an afternoon with some of our shut-ins, I spent the evening Christmas shopping with Sarah, Sam, and Aaron, which is time together that I cherish, especially since they're growing up so dang fast and I know the day is coming all too soon when we'll be saying, "Hey, remember how we always used to go Christmas shopping together for mom a few days before Christmas?"  Time sure does fly, doesn't it?  It seems like only yesterday when I was holding them in my arms and changing their diapers.  It also seems like yesterday when I used to think, "Why do old people always say, 'It seems like yesterday . . .?'"  Anyway, enough of that.  We had a blast together.  Still have a few things I want to pick up, but we put a major dent in my perpetual last-minute shopping spree.  And, we had a great dinner at Red Lobster!  I know, livin' large, ain't we? :) 

On deck for tomorrow:  Write confirmation quiz, visit last two shut-ins, prepare for upcoming Bible Studies, go over sermons and edit as needed, finish shopping, then Children's Christmas Program at 7:00 p.m. 

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Real Treat

I got to attend my first ever MSU men's basketball game at the Breslin Center this evening, which was a Christmas present from my daughter, Sarah.  Her boyfriend, Jordan, and his dad, joined us as well.  Lots of fun!  Wasn't much of a game, but it was great to finally get to watch a game live.  Sparty was playing Prairie View A&M, which is nothing more than a little extra practice time for them.  Sarah and I made predictions about the final score before the game started.  Sarah's was way off, but mine was MSU 96, PV A&M 49.  The final score?  MSU 90, PV A&M 51.  Not too shabby, eh? :)

Thanks, Sarah!  Love ya bunches and bunches, kiddo!


Twas the week before Christmas . . .

. . . The kitties were nestled 'neath the Christmas tree
As visions of catching mice filled them with glee . . .

Lisa and I . . .

worked really hard on this routine and would like to share it with all of you.  Enjoy! :)

Friday, December 17, 2010


Pr. Esget, over at his blog, on Atheism and the Virgin Birth:
Atheists, of course, mock the idea of Mary, a virgin, giving birth to Jesus.
Yet at the same time they believe in a far greater miracle, a cosmos which sprang into being on its own, all manner of life which by chance evolved from the sludge. In short, atheism (and its sister, evolutionism) believes not in a virgin birth of Jesus, but in the virgin birth of the whole universe. A virgin birth without father OR mother.
Now that’s faith.


I am thankful to Deacon Gaba for posting a link on his blog to this remarkable youtube site, which contains several beautiful liturgical chants, such as this:

A Beloved Gift

Tuesday evening after our Council meeting, I found a card and a little gift-wrapped box in my mailbox at the church.  This was in the box:

In the card was a beautiful, hand-written note from a dear parishioner expressing her sympathy to me and reminding me that my good friend and brother, Al, left this world to join Jesus in heaven.  To say that I was touched by this would be an understatement.  More like overwhelmed with deep gratitude for this sister in Christ and her very thoughtful and loving gesture.  I will cherish both the card and the ornament with my dear friend's picture in it for as long as I live!


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Adam Sandler's Original Hanukkah Song

So, in a conversation about secular Christmas music the other day, I mentioned that, while it's not about Christmas, I always get a kick out of hearing Adam Sandler's Hanukkah Song. A few people said, much to my amazement, "What's that?" Well, here it is (Sandler has added to this song over the years, but this is the original):

Okay, so now I have to get back to writing lots of sermon-anukkahs, and preparing for many Service-anukkahs, which is always lots of fun-anukkah! ;)

One of My Favorite Movies Just Got Better . . .

HT: FB friend, Pr. Steve Stolarczyk

Monday, December 13, 2010

An Excerpt from . . .

a Christmas sermon preached by Dr. Luther (Text:  John 1:1-14):

This gospel text allows of no other doctrine beside it; it desires only to testify of Christ and lead men to him, who is the Light. Therefore, O Lord God, these words, "He was not the Light," are truly worthy to be capitalized and to be well remembered against the men who set themselves up as the light and give to men doctrines and laws of their own fabrication. They pretend to enlighten men, but lead them with themselves into the depths of hell; for they do not teach faith, and are not willing to teach it; and no one teaches it except John, who is sent of God, and the holy Gospel. Truly much could be said on this point. 

In short, he who does not preach the Gospel to you, reject and refuse to hear him. He, however, preaches the Gospel who teaches you to believe and trust in Christ, the eternal Light, and not to build on any of your own works. Therefore beware of everything told you that does not agree with the Gospel; do not put your trust in it, nor accept it as something external, as you regard eating and drinking, which are necessary for your body, and which you may use at your pleasure or at the pleasure of another; but by no means as something necessary to your salvation. For this purpose nothing is necessary or of use to you except this Light.

O, these abominable doctrines of men, which are now so prevalent and which have almost banished this Light! They all wish to be this light themselves, but not to be witnesses of it. They advocate themselves and teach their own fancies, but are silent about this Light, or teach it in a way as to preach themselves along with it. This is worse than to be entirely silent; for by such teaching they make Samaritans who partly worship God and partly worship idols, 2 Kings 17,33.

A Waste of Time

Yesterday, Fr. Peters had a great post on his blog, titled "A Royal Waste of Time."  In it, he rightly identifies the notion held by many that the Church must have some practical purpose in order to be worthwhile for people as false and deceptive.  It is this false and deceptive notion that has led many to turn "Christ into a commodity and the Gospel into a marketing plan."  Those who fall prey to this false and deceptive notion are always busying themselves with finding ways to make the Church more appealing to those who would otherwise have nothing to do with her.  Jesus always loses in this approach.  At best, He becomes nothing more than a mere example to follow; at worst, He becomes completely irrelevant.  Those who go out of their way to create "a Church for people who don't like Church" almost always simultaneously offer "a Jesus for people who don't believe they need Jesus."  So very sad, that. 

"Divine Humility and Love" - December Newsletter Article

Not a palace, but a stable.  Not a cushioned crib, but a feeding trough for animals (a manger).  Not in a rich powerful city, but in lowly Bethlehem.  Not to rich, powerful, royal, and influential parents, but to a simple carpenter and lowly maiden.  Not with great fanfare, pomp, and circumstance, but while the world slept unaware—the only announcement made by the angels to shepherds in the fields.  This is how the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity made His entrance into our flesh in order to bear our sins and be our Savior.  It is nothing short of amazing!  Hearing the remarkable details of our Lord’s birth never gets old, which is why the Church continues to sing, “Marvel now, O heav’n and earth, that the Lord chose such a birth” (“Savior of the Nations, Come” - LSB 332, st. 1).

Marvel, indeed!  God is born a baby!  The Eternal Word of the Father, the very Creator of all things, the One who spoke creation into existence, descends from heaven to be born into His creation.  In Mary’s arms, nursing from her breasts, is God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God.  He humbles Himself to assume our human flesh and become dependent upon the milk of His mother and the care of his earthly father, even while He continues to hold the entire universe in His tiny little hands.  If this does not cause you to marvel, nothing will! 

The Divine Humility of our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ, is truly a marvelous thing to behold.  The holy angels are taken aback by it and long to delve into what they perceive to be the mystery of mysteries.  They have seen the One who lies seemingly helpless in a manger in all His glory.  They know Who this Baby named Jesus really is, and it amazes them to see Him in this manner.  Not only that, but they know the reason God takes on human flesh and is born into this dead and dying world, namely to save sinful humanity, and they cannot help but sing His praises.  As they gaze upon Almighty God, their Lord and Master, wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a dirty, feeding trough, they marvel not only at His Divine Humility, but at His Divine Love for sinful mankind, for it is that Divine Love which moved Him to subject Himself to such humility. 

The Divine Humility and Love we see on display in Bethlehem on that Holy Night long ago continued to be exemplified in our Lord Jesus throughout His salvific pilgrimage to our sinful world.  He did not come seeking honor and fame, but to serve and love God and neighbor completely and perfectly in our place.  He did not come to conquer the world and establish a mighty earthly empire, but to do battle with, and defeat, sin, death, and the devil on our behalf.  He did not come to be served, but to serve.  The One who chose to be born in such low estate lived in poverty throughout His time here, relying upon His Father to provide for His every need.  He had no place to lay His head.  He had no accumulation of material possessions.  There was nothing about His appearance that would draw people to Him.  In short, the Divine Humility we witness at His birth continued throughout His earthly life.

Of course, the ultimate picture of our Lord’s Divine Humility and Love is seen in Jerusalem thirty-some years after His ignoble birth.  We see it when He washes the feet of His disciples.  We see it when He sweats blood while praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, submitting to His Father’s will.  We see it when He submits to being arrested.  We see it when He is spit upon, beaten, mocked, and severely flogged.  We see it in His silence before Caiaphas and Pilate.  We see it when He carries His own cross to Golgotha outside the city gates.  We see it when He allows Simon of Cyrene to assist Him in carrying His cross.  We see it when the nails are driven through His hands and feet.  We see it when He hangs on that cruel instrument of torture, gasping for air.  We hear it in the Words He utters from the cross, and we see it when He takes His last breath and dies. 

And it’s all amazing; it’s all something to most definitely marvel over, for this is God Himself, Incarnate in human flesh, Who is born in such low estate, lives in such poverty, and dies such a heinous death.  It becomes all the more amazing (if it’s possible to ponder anything more amazing than God living and dying as a Man) when we consider that He did it all for us—for you, for me.  He humbled Himself and assumed human flesh to live as your substitute; to hunger and thirst as you hunger and thirst; to be tempted as you are tempted; to experience pain and suffering as you experience pain and suffering; to be mocked and suffer injustice as you are mocked and suffer injustice; to even suffer death as you suffer death.  All of it because He loves you with a Divine Love beyond our human comprehension.  All of it to rescue you from the eternity you deserve because of your sins.  All of it to win for you forgiveness, life, and salvation.  All of it because He desires that you spend eternity with Him in perfect peace, comfort, and joy. 

Dearly beloved, as we enter the holy season of Advent and make our way to Bethlehem to celebrate our Savior’s birth, let us take our cue from the holy angels and ponder the mystery of our Lord’s Incarnation.  Let us follow the example of the Blessed Virgin Mary and treasure this mystery in our hearts, pondering with great wonder and joy the reason our God humbled Himself to be born into this sinful world in our human flesh.  He came to live and die for you, dear friends, each and every one of you.  In Divine Humility and Love, He came to save you by living the life you fail to live and by dying the death you deserve to die for your sins.  This is the true “reason for the season,” the true meaning of Christmas.

But, let us not stop at pondering and treasuring up in our hearts this great mystery, as if this was all just some bygone story to be cherished, remembered, and passed on to others.  This is no legend or fairy tale or epic saga to warm our hearts and lift our spirits as we roast chestnuts around the fire.  This is no “Hallmark Special” to talk about as we sip our eggnog and open presents.  Our Lord lives!  His Divine Humility and Love is still on full display and still as active today as it was two millennia ago, for the same God who assumed human flesh and was born of the Virgin Mary, the same God who lived to serve and love God and neighbor, the same God who allowed Himself to be treated shamefully and put to death, continues to come to us in Divine Humility and Love as we gather in His Name for Divine Service.  It should not surprise us that He makes no flashy appearance in our midst, but instead comes among us humbly and hiddenly, wrapped in the swaddling cloths of His Holy Word and Sacraments.  That’s His way.  And He comes to us in Divine Humility and Love to deliver the forgiveness, life, and salvation He accomplished for us.  This, too, is the meaning of Christmas.

“Marvel now, O heav’n and earth, that the Lord chose such a birth.”  Yes, marvel away at that!  But, marvel, too, that our Lord chooses to continue to meet us in His Church in Divine Humility and Love to deliver to us His Divine Gifts.  Marvel and come, at His gracious invitation, to receive His Gifts and to be filled with His Divine Humility and Love! 

A Holy, Blessed, and Merry Christmas to you all! 

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Great Stuff . . .

from Pr. Reed over at his blog, "To me, TO LIVE IS CHRIST."  It's about time he started blogging a little more - I hope the trend continues!  Every post he's made in December is a pure gem - what a gifted writer he is.  And, being blessed to know him in person as I do, I can assure you that he is every bit as pastoral as his keyboard reveals him to be.  Get thee over there and give these gems a read; you'll be blessed for doing so. 

"Murder in the Knife Room" - A belated post

In between my travels back and forth to Illinois, last Saturday I had the pleasure of attending the play, "Murder in the Knife Room," performed by the Alma High School Drama Class.  I was greatly impressed.  The kids did a fantastic job.  The play itself, written by renowned playwright, Jonathan Rand, is wonderfully entertaining, but the kids who acted it out made it all the more so.  Even our own Samantha, who has the rep of being shy and quiet-mannered (except among those of us who know her well!), showed some acting skills and looked at home on the stage.  There was a lot of talent up there.  It wouldn't surprise me to see some of these kids actually pursue a career in acting, they were that good.  Kudos to teacher and director, Mrs. Elizabeth Campbell, for preparing the class to perform so wonderfully.  This was the best High School production these eyes have ever beheld, for sure!  Funny, suspenseful, and wildly entertaining, especially the end, when it was revealed that Samantha (Mysterious Host) was a robot, and she did that weird thing with her arm that caused the audience to erupt in a combination of laughter, applause, and gasps of "Oooohs!"  A few pics from the evening:

Way to Go, Panthers!

What a great basketball game last night!  I was so pleased to see the girls come out and take control in the fourth quarter.  They played lousy in the third quarter and found themselves down by nine heading into the fourth.  It didn't look good at all.  But, they came out and took it to them in the fourth, outscoring Chippewa Hills 17-2 to come away with the victory.  Samantha is not mentioned in the article linked below, but she had a few key steals and beautiful assists to help her team turn things around in the late going.  It was a very exciting game, indeed!

Panther girls top Warriors 52-46 -

On Liturgical Extremism

Fr. Beane has an excellent post over at Gottesdienst Online concerning the popular idea held by many in our synod that the goal in liturgical matters should be to find the happy medium (or, "mushy middle") between what they see as extremism on both ends of the liturgical spectrum.  He hits the proverbial nail on the head here, for it is most certainly true that many, if not most, among us conclude a priori that these extremes exist and are to be avoided.  The pastor who takes seriously how he conducts the Divine Service, paying special attention to rubrics and focusing on the ceremonial is mocked as a "liturgical pietist" (or, "liturgical nazi").  Such a pastor is just as guilty in their eyes as the pastor who puts together an informal "worship experience," paying no mind to rubrics or the ceremonial, with the result that the "worship" they lead bears little to no resemblance to a Lutheran Divine Service.  I have heard pastors who consider themselves to be conservative, liturgically-minded, fellas boast of their refusal to chant, make the sign of the cross, elevate and genuflect, and so forth, in a "thank God I'm not like those liturgical purists" kind of way.  They bask in being liturgical, but not too liturgical, and in being reverent, but not too reverent, as Fr. Beane points out. 

I challenge the assertion that these extremes actually exist.  I'm not saying that there don't exist those pastors, who would fall into the "too liturgical" extreme posited by many, who are guilty of thinking that their way is the only way, and that anyone who doesn't do everything in the same manner as they do are less than Lutheran.  Maybe such pastors do exist, and if they do, they are indeed guilty.  But, to be honest, I have yet to meet a single one of them.  Oh, I have met many who are falsely labeled as being this way, but who, upon further investigation (you know, actually talking with them and hearing from them what they actually believe, and so forth), they are anything but.  They don't actually believe that a pastor must chant the liturgy or make the sign of the cross at all the appropriate places or wear a chasuble or elevate and genuflect, etc. in order to be faithful, as if these things are necessary for the Holy Spirit to do what He does through the Holy Word and Sacraments.  They may contend for these things, believing them to be efficacious aids to our worship and confession, but they don't mandate them, as they are often falsely accused of doing.  They recognize that there is great freedom and enormous latitude in liturgical matters, but what they're not willing to embrace is the idea that this freedom and latitude is limitless, as if anything and everything done in the name of Lutheranism is hunky-dory and, well, Lutheran.  I think that is the real reason why they get labeled extreme:  They draw a line that many don't want to draw.  Drawing such lines is simply not kosher in our live-and-let-live day and age.  But, make no mistake, the line they draw is nowhere near where those who accuse them of being liturgical extremists claim that they place it.

I really don't think there are two extremes on the opposite side of the liturgical spectrum among us.  I think, rather, that there are those who adhere to, and practice, a Lutheran theology of worship, and those who don't.  Of course, I'm sure I would be accused by many of being in the "extreme, litugical pietist" camp.  After all, I'll be donning a rose chasuble tomorrow to conduct the Divine Service on Gaudete Sunday, and I'll chant the liturgy, make the sign of the cross at the appropriate places, elevate the Body and Blood of our Lord and genuflect before Him, reverently consume the remaining elements, cleanse the sacred vessels and return them in a reverent manner to the credence table, and so forth.  It's all so very "extreme," I know.  But, am I really just as guilty in my "extremism" as the pastor who will conduct the "worship experience" he invented in his jeans and t-shirt - a "worship experience" which bears far more resemblance to what one would find in a "methobapticostal" or "Americanized Evangelical" congregation than to a Lutheran Divine Service?  Really?  And, does it matter that I do not see myself as superior to those who do not conduct the Divine Service in the same manner as I do; that I do not look down upon those who may not chant, make the sign of the cross, etc.; that I would be content to attend a Lutheran Divine Service with or without what many term "smells and bells" or "pomp and circumstance," so long as our Lutheran theology of worship was evident, the Holy Gospel was preached in its purity, and the Holy Sacraments were administered according to Christ's institution? 

I think it's high time that we stop hiding behind the "liturgical extremes" which have been conveniently invented to avoid having to have a real theological discussion on liturgical matters.  And, I think it is very sad that Lutherans have become accustomed to setting the goal of finding some "happy middle" where they believe they can live in peace, having managed to avoid the "extremes" that don't really exist.   

What A Poker Face!

After the Committal and luncheon yesterday, I drove down to my parents' house, which is only a half hour or so from Milford, and spent the night with them.  My nephew Maximus came over for dinner (Brandy and Mike came, too :).  After dinner, Maximus was treated to his first-ever Family Texas Hold 'Em tournament:

The kid is a natural, let me tell you!  Just look at his poker face - you ain't getting no tells from that boy!:

He's a handsome fella, ain't he?!

Friday, December 10, 2010

A Very WErry Christmas Special

Not Like Those Without Hope

That makes all the difference in the world, that we Christians do not grieve the loss of our loved ones who depart in the faith like those without hope.  Oh, we grieve and mourn and shed as many tears as they do, but we are not led to despair, for even as those tears stain our cheeks, we have the sure and certain promises of God to comfort, console, and support us in our time of sorrow.  We don't have to wonder and imagine where our faithfully departed loved ones are.  We don't have to rely on wishful thinking and hope that they're in "a better place."  We know exactly where they are.  The pain is still real.  The tears are just as wet.  And there's no shame in that.  Jesus wept at the death of His friend, Lazarus, and it's okay for us to weep, too.  But, our tears are soaked up by the rock solid promises of God which assure us that this is not the end, that we who believe in the same Lord Jesus Christ as our faithfully departed loved ones will see them again.  For our hope is not a "Gee, I really hope all this Jesus and heaven stuff is true" kind of hope, but a rock solid, take-it-to-the-bank kind of hope, as sure and certain as the blood Jesus shed for us on the cross. 

This past week has been very hard.  Last Friday, I watched my best friend die.  Monday, I viewed his dead body lying in a coffin.  Tuesday, I served as Liturgist at his Funeral Service.  Yesterday, I presided over his Committal and watched his remains get lowered into the earth.  I shed many tears, gave and received many hugs to those who mourn his death as I do, have had trouble sleeping, and even more trouble trying to concentrate on the pile of work I need to catch up on.  But, through it all, I have had God's promises.  I have had His Word reminding me time and time again that my friend and brother, Al, is fine; that he is, in fact, better than ever.  That Word was delivered in the liturgy and hymnody of the Funeral Service, and most beautifully in the sermon preached by Pr. Dan Chambers, who reminded us how very blessed are those who die in the Lord, a concept that seems absurd to the dead and dying world in which we live, but a truth proclaimed time and time again in Holy Scripture, and that Word was reinforced again yesterday in the Rite of Committal. 

As I said at the beginning of this post, that Word makes all the difference.  Contrary to popular belief, time does not heal all wounds.  But, the Word Made Flesh does.  He heals all wounds by being wounded and killed in our place.  And for those who cling to Him in faith, as my brother Al did, death is but a passageway to a life where there is no more, and never will be any more, wounds to heal. 

Al knew this to be true.  He preached it.  He lived it.  And, even from the grave, he's still preaching it.  His sons, Dustin and Chris, were looking through his study and found a legal pad on his desk with page after page of notes scribbled by their dad.  On one of those pages, Al had jotted some thoughts down about the concept of "Time."  As I read what he had written, tears welled up in my eyes as I smiled at the same time.  It's typical Al, whose mind was always engaged in deep thought, especially when it entered the realm of theology and philosophy.  He starts off by comparing time to a predatory animal that sneaks up on us, stalks us, smelling our trail, and moving closer to making the kill day by day.  He mentions how we can try to outrun it with doctors and new technology, but that, in the end, this predatory animal called "time" is going to hunt us down and make the kill.  "The singular concept in this whole world is death," he writes.  He then goes on to entertain the idea that maybe the saying "vale of tears" refers to "time"; that it may be time itself that brings about the tears associated with our pain and suffering in this world.  I can just picture his mind working as he was writing this.  Always wondering.  Always searching.  But, always anchored in the Truth of God's Word, as is evident by his concluding sentence, which reads:

"Thanks be to God!  For according to His Promise - His Word - there shall be no pain, suffering, or tears for those who believe in the Christ, the Anointed One of God, who came to save us from our sins and death, and has also promised us the gift of eternal life.  I pray that you and I look forward to that time without time!  Amen."

I will miss my friend and brother tons, but I am comforted and ever so thankful that he knew that His Redeemer lives, and that he is now enjoying that "time without time" to which he looked forward.  I pray that all who will miss Al as I do look forward to that "time without time" as well, and to the joyful reunion which awaits us in heaven.  I was pleased to see so many people, including several brother pastors, turn out for his visitation and funeral.  Al touched a lot of lives and was a blessing to many.  I was also blown away by how many people approached me and said, "You must be Tom/Pastor Messer.  Al/Pastor Majewski always talked about you."  It was testimony to how close we were.  And, I'm sure if things were reversed, people I know would have said the same to him.

The next few weeks will be hard for all of us who mourn Al's departure.  Christmas day will be especially difficult for his family, and for me as well.  Since 1998, not a Christmas day has gone by without our ritualistic phone call.  That phone call always began with the one who made the call giving the other one a hard time for not calling first:  "Well, I figured I'd give you a call to wish you a Merry Christmas, since you obviously don't care enough about me to call and wish me one!"  I hated it when he beat me to the punch, because he would lay it on thick.  Those who knew Al know exactly what I mean.  He could carry on like nobody's business, and the only thing to do was to sit back and listen until he was done.  But, it was always great fun and we always got around to sharing with one another our love and well wishes for each other and our families.

But, as much as I will miss that phone call (and the plethora of others we made to each other often), I look forward to that "time without time" when I shall see my brother again.  We do not grieve like those without hope.  Thank God for that!  I pray that the sure and certain promises of God will carry Marjorie, Dustin, Chris, Brittany, Jakob, and all of Al's family and friends, through the difficult days ahead.  For "precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of His saints."  This is most certainly true!  Amen.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Al's Ordination Sermon

Reminiscing today, I pulled out the sermon I was privileged to preach upon Al's Ordination into the Office of the Holy Ministry, and thought I would share:
The Presentation of the Augsburg Confession
Pentecost 3 - June 25, 2006
St. Paul Lutheran Church – Hamburg, Michigan
 Rev. Thomas C. Messer, Pastor
Peace Lutheran Church - Alma, Michigan
“Preach the Faith-Creating, Faith-Sustaining Word”
Romans 10:5-17

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, esteemed colleagues, Majewski family and friends, and Al, my brother whom I love,

            It is a great honor and a tremendous blessing to stand before you this morning and preach the Word of God on this blessed occasion.  I’ve been looking forward to this day for some time now.  Long before Al actually received his call to serve as pastor at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Manito, Illinois, I was looking forward to this day – the day in which my best friend and brother in Christ would be ordained into the Office of the Holy Ministry.  Oh yes, I’ve been looking forward to this day for some time now, praying for it to come.  And, here we are.  The Lord is good!
I’ve been especially looking forward to this day for the past couple of months, ever since Al asked me if I’d be willing to preach at his ordination.  I said “Yes” right away, but I have to admit that I was a little frightened about it.  After all, who am I to preach at an ordination service?  I’m just a “rookie” pastor myself, still learning what it means to be a pastor.  I can’t offer Al or anyone else words of wisdom that come from years of experience – I don’t have years of experience, I have a year of experience.  As I thought about how unqualified I am for this task, I came very close to calling Al and asking him to find someone else.
Two things stopped me from making that call.  First, I came to realize that this is simply an opportunity I couldn’t allow to pass me by.  To be able to speak in Al’s presence for a length of time without being interrupted by him would be a dream come true.  Allow me a moment to explain.
You see, Al and I became acquainted about eight years ago while attending Concordia University in Ann Arbor.  We hit it off right away and have been best of friends ever since.  One of the reasons we hit it off was because we were the two “old guys” on campus.  I won’t say which of us is older, but I can assure you it ain’t me!  Another reason we became such close friends was that we had so much in common.  We were both married and had four kids; we both knew what it meant to work for a living; and we both had experienced many trials and tribulations in this life, leaving both of us amazed that the Lord would call us into His Service. 
The close bond between Al and I which began in Ann Arbor remains to this day.  Distance has done nothing to sever the bond.  Even though we’ve only seen each other a few times over the past five years – I attended Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana while he attended that other seminary (I think it’s in St. Louis) – we remain as close as ever.  I can’t even begin to fathom how many hours we’ve spent on the phone or how many emails we’ve sent to one another over the past five years.  All I can say is thank God for unlimited long distance!  And, this brings me to my point.
A typical phone conversation between Al and I lasts at least a couple of hours.  They usually begin with some small talk and catching up, but almost always turn into deep theological or philosophical debates in which Al dominates the conversation, making it extremely difficult for me to get a word in edgewise.  And, as if that weren’t bad enough, because these phone calls usually take place in the evening and last so long, coupled with the fact that Al is an early morning riser who needs his beauty sleep, I always somehow get blamed for keeping him up, as if I was the one keeping the conversation going.  And so, you see what I mean, that being able to speak for a length of time without being interrupted by Al is, for me, a dream come true. 
That’s the first thing that kept me from calling Al and asking him to find someone more qualified.  The second reason is more serious and, truth be told, the real reason I didn’t make that call.  You see, I realized that even though I lack the words of wisdom to offer Al that comes from years of experience being a pastor, I do have something even greater – the Word of God. 
Al, my dear friend and brother in Christ, listen once more to the beautiful, Holy Spirit-inspired Word of God recorded for us by St. Paul in his epistle to the Romans, which you know so well:
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?  And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”  But not all the Israelites accepted the good news.  For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our message?”  Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ (Romans 10:14-17).
How beautiful are your feet, my dear friend, for you are being sent by God to Manito, Illinois to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to administer the Sacraments according to Christ’s institution.  Nothing more, nothing less. 
Of course, if we were on the phone right now, you would probably interrupt me and say, “Wait a minute, there’s much more to it than that.”  You would probably remind me of the many administrative duties a pastor is asked to perform, the many Bible studies a pastor is called to teach, the hospital and shut-in calls a pastor must make, the many meetings a pastor must attend, and a great many other things a pastor must do.  I’m aware of all that.  Believe me, if there’s anything I have learned in my limited experience as a pastor it’s that there is a lot more to do than I ever dreamed.  The old joke that pastors have it made because they only have to work two hours a week – one to write the sermon, the other to lead the Service on Sunday – isn’t all that funny to me anymore.  Soon, it won’t be all that funny to you either, for you will learn, as I have, that, in addition to being a wonderful blessing and gift from God, being a full-time Lutheran pastor is a demanding and time-consuming vocation.  And, while you’ll be doing a great many things as a pastor, I would submit to you that everything you do as a pastor falls, in one way or another, under your Divine call to preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments.  That, my friend, is what you are being ordained and sent to do.  Nothing more, nothing less.    
It is fitting that we remember and celebrate the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession today, which occurred on June 25, 1530, for, as you well know, the Augsburg Confession is the chief of our Lutheran Confessions.  In a little bit, Pastor Walther will officiate over the Rite of Ordination in which you will be asked to subscribe unconditionally to all of our Lutheran Confessions, acknowledging them “to be a correct interpretation of Holy Scripture.”
The two most important articles of faith to which you will subscribe are Articles IV and V of the Augsburg Confession.  Article IV confesses the central article of the Christian faith, that we are declared righteous (that is, justified, or saved) by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.  Then, Article V says, “To obtain such faith God instituted the Office of the Holy Ministry, that is, provided the Gospel and the Sacraments.  Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit, who works faith, when and where He pleases, in those who hear the Gospel.”
You are being sent to Manito, Illinois to do nothing more and nothing less than preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ and administer the Sacraments according to Christ’s institution because it is through these means of grace, and only through these means of grace, that the Holy Spirit works to bring sinners to faith in Jesus Christ and to keep them in that salvific faith.  There is no other way, “for faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the Word of Christ.” 
No one – not one single person - in this House of God here this morning who believes in Jesus Christ came to this knowledge and faith on their own.  There’s not a single believer here, or anywhere else in the world, who believes in Jesus Christ as a result of a personal decision they made, no matter how popular that false theology may be in our day and age.  There never has been, nor will there ever be, a person who came to faith of their own will, apart from God’s Word.  If people truly believe, it is only because the Holy Spirit worked that faith in them, connecting them to the Vine, Jesus Christ, by the power of the Gospel.  For, as our Lutheran Confessions declare based on the clear Word of God, before we’re brought to faith and connected to that Vine, we’re dead in sin, completely incapable of turning to God, unable to do one single thing pleasing in His sight.  But, when the Holy Spirit works through Word and Sacrament to convict us of our sins and point us to our Savior Jesus Christ, giving us the faith to believe that He lived the perfect life we can’t live and shed His holy, innocent blood on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins, we are made alive in Christ, branches of the True Vine, and our new life in Christ bears much fruit pleasing to God.     
And so, the charge given to you is the same charge given to all pastors of all time:  Kh/rucon to\n lo/gon! (Preach the Word!); be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke, and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2).  Preach the Word, my dear brother, and when you do, preach it in its entirety, for the Gospel of Jesus Christ is meaningless to people who don’t realize their need for Christ.  You must preach the Law in its fullness, constantly reminding your hearers that, on their own, they are nothing more than poor, miserable sinners who need a Savior.  And then, preach the full, sweet message of the Gospel - the Good News that their need has been answered in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ; that, through faith in Him, they have forgiveness, life, and salvation.  Preach the faith-creating and faith-sustaining Word and then, say your “Amen” and leave the rest to the Holy Spirit.  That’s what you are being sent to do.  Nothing more, nothing less. 
Of course, preaching the faith-creating and faith-sustaining Word of God is much easier said than done.  In a very real way, you are entering a war-zone, my friend.  You are being sent out as “a sheep among wolves” (Matt. 10:16).  You are being called to “fight the good fight” against a fierce, powerful, multi-faced enemy.  Your biggest adversary will be that “old evil foe,” the “ancient dragon,” Satan.  You’re no match for him on your own, for he knows the Word of God far better than you and he is far more imaginative and crafty than you will ever be.  Then, there is the Old Adam, the sinful nature which lives in every member of the flock to which you are being called to serve, and the sinful nature which also lives in you.  You’re no match for Old Adam on your own either, and neither is your flock, for the flesh is weak and desires to do the will of Old Adam.  And, then there is death, that final enemy, against which, again, you and the flock in Manito are powerless. 
This fierce, powerful, multi-faced enemy will battle you every step of the way, always seeking to devour you.  Its primary weapons are deception, temptation, and pride.  It will try to deceive you into believing that God’s Holy Word and Sacraments are not enough, tempt you into tying something different, something said to be new and better in serving the flock, and it will try to fill you with pride, hoping that you will begin to believe that the church is your church and the people are your people to serve as you see fit.  You completely lack the ability to engage this enemy in battle on your own, let alone defeat it.  Every pastor who has ever tried has lost.  If you try to go it alone, you too will lose.    
But, if you abide in the Word, sin, death, and the devil will be powerless against you.  If you cling to the Word of the Lord who is sending you out, you will be constantly reminded of the truth, that it’s not your message He’s sending you to preach or your church He’s calling you to serve, but His message and His church.  My friend, you are being called, ordained, and sent out as a mere instrument to be used by the Lord to accomplish His purposes.  You are being sent out to be nothing more than a mouthpiece through which the Lord Himself will speak to His people.  You will be nothing more than a messenger through whom the Word of the Lord will be delivered, convicting people of sin and pointing them to the Savior Jesus Christ.  Armed with this Word, you are already victorious over the enemy, for this is the Word who became Incarnate – the Valiant One, Jesus Christ, who has already “fought the good fight” and won the victory on your behalf and, indeed on behalf of the whole world.    
The Lord’s flock in Manito needs this Word, my friend, and the Lord is answering that need by sending you.  Some of them may want something else, but you’re not being sent to give them what they want.  You’re being sent to deliver to them what they need – the eternal, unchanging Word of God, for it is through this Word, and this Word alone, that sinners are brought to, and sustained in, the one true faith and receive the spoils of war won by Christ – complete forgiveness of all sins, everlasting life, and eternal salvation.
So, my good friend and brother in Christ, preach the faith-creating, faith-sustaining Word of God.  For this reason, you’ve spent nine years in training so that you’d be thoroughly equipped for the task.  For this reason, and this reason alone, you are being sent.  And, as you preach this Word, know that you will not be alone, for the Lord’s promise to you is that He will be with you always and that His Word which goes out from you, His mouthpiece, will not return empty (even though it will often seem like it does), but will accomplish the purpose for which He sent it (Isaiah 55:11). 
Abide in His Word.  Be His mouthpiece.  Deliver His message.  Preach the faith-creating, faith-sustaining Word!  Nothing more, nothing less!  I love you and so does the Lord who is sending you out to preach His faith-creating, faith-sustaining Word to His people.  In His Holy and Precious Name.  Amen. 
The Peace of God that passes all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, keeping you steadfast in His Word, unto life everlasting.  Amen.