Thy Will Be Done – Midweek Sermon (March 26, 2014)

prayer 3 will

Thy Will Be Done

John 6:35-40; Genesis 50:15-21

Midweek Lenten Service (Lord, Teach Us to Pray)

March 26, 2014

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI


“Thy will be done.”  On the one hand, it sounds like a simple prayer.  “Lord, please break and hinder every plan and purpose of the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh.  For they do not want us to hallow your name or let your kingdom come.  Let your will be done instead of theirs.”  It sounds so simple at first glance.  God wants one thing for us, Satan wants something different, so we are praying that God’s will would be done instead of Satan’s.  But then the wheels in your head start turning.  The difficulty begins to present itself.  We begin to wonder how, if God is truly God, could his will not be done?  If he is truly the all-powerful creator and sustainer of the universe, then how could anything happen against his will?  If in him all things live and move and have their being, then doesn’t he have control over all things?  Sure, things happen against my will all the time.  But that’s because I’m powerless to stop them.  God’s not powerless to stop anything.  If he was, he wouldn’t be God.  And it does little good to talk about God allowing things he does not will, for that seems like nothing more than a matter of rhetoric.  Whether God is actively responsible for something or not, nothing happens without God’s approval.  If God was powerless to stop something, then there would be something more powerful than God, which is impossible.  So it appears that if God is truly God, his will always done.  But then why would Jesus have us pray for it?

As if trying to sort that out wasn’t bad enough, the world around us muddies the waters even further.  When we look around us we see bad things.  We see sadness.  We see death.  We see pain.  Poverty.  Sickness.  Abuse.  Neglect.  Rape.  Fraud.  Why are these things happening if God’s will is truly all-powerful?  If he can stop these things, why doesn’t he?  And if he can’t stop these things, why bother calling him God?  It’s quite the problem.

But if this question perplexes you – take heart.  It is a question that has been discussed and debated for as long as there have been people discussing and debating questions.  Take heart.  One answer to the question is simply that we don’t need to know.  We have the clear and certain words of Jesus teaching us to pray that his will be done, so if this problem troubles you, cling to those clear and certain words of Jesus, and continue to pray “Thy will be done.”

Mere-Christianity-Cover But if you’re interested a bit more understanding, more can be said.  In his monumental book Mere Christianty, C.S. Lewis addresses the conundrum of God’s will through analogy.[1]  He asks us to consider a mother.  It may be a mother’s will that her children clean up their mess and do their homework each night.  It may also be a mother’s will that her children learn to take personal responsibility for making sure those tasks get accomplished.  If you walk into her house one evening and find toys strewn across living room and an uncompleted math assignment on the kitchen table, you might assume that the mother’s will is not being done.  However, that is not necessarily the case.  The presence of things that contradict the mother’s will is not necessarily an indication that her children have conquered her.  Neither is it necessarily the case that the mother must have decided those things were suddenly unimportant and changed her will with regard to her kids cleaning up their own mess.  Rather, perhaps the mother’s will that the children take personal responsibility trumps her will that the house be clean and the homework be done.  Her will has not changed; she still wants her house clean and the homework done.  But it is also her will that her children to do these things, and that they do them gladly and without reminder.  This aspect of her will (namely, the desire that her children clean up on their own) allows for the possibility that her will for a clean house might not happen every night.  So her greater will – that her children learn responsibility – has taken priority over her will that the house be clean.  But you can be sure that when the in-laws are coming, when the dinner party is about to start, when it really matters, the mother will make sure the house is clean, even if she has to clean it herself.  Lewis compares this to the will of God on earth.  It is most certainly not God’s will that wickedness, pain, or suffering run rampant through his creation.  But the presence of these things does not automatically mean that God is powerless to stop them anymore than toys on the floor mean a mother is incapable of cleaning up.  Perhaps a greater will is in play for God; perhaps something more important than earthly circumstances is at stake.

And so our Lord teaches us to pray, “Thy will be done.”   When we pray these words, we are praying that all aspects of his will would be done.  It is a prayer that has implications both for daily life as well as for eternity.

The prayer that God’s will be done finds its ultimate fulfillment on the last day.  On that day the Almighty God will impose his will on a creation powerless to stop him.  Jesus tells us that his Father’s will is that all who look to the Messiah will have eternal life and will be raised up on the last day.[2]  That will happen; that day is coming.  When we pray “Thy will be done” we are praying, in part, that our Lord would bring about that day.  To borrow from C.S. Lewis’s analogy, we may live in confusion today about why the house that is this world is so messy, confused as to why things are out of order, out of place.  We might be tempted to wonder what is going on with God’s will.  How can God allow these terrible things to happen?  If he is all-powerful, why doesn’t he just impose his goodness on this his creation?  The answer is: be patient.  That day will come.  And when it does, the good and gracious will of God will be known and seen and experienced by all.  He will wipe every last drop of evil off the face of the earth.  He will put the house back in order.  He will usher in a new creation – a perfect creation free from the effects of sin.  On that day we, like Joseph at the end of his struggle, will have the benefit of hindsight.  We too will be able to look back over our days of struggle and say that what the world meant for evil God still used for good.[3]  Our Lord teaches us to pray for that day, and to wait patiently for him to answer our prayer, trusting that God is not slow to fulfill his promise according to the world’s definition of slowness.  Rather, he is patient, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.[4]  Take heart, the day of deliverance is coming.

But this prayer is not only a prayer for the last day.  It is not only a prayer that God would give us his gift of salvation and eternal life.  It is also a prayer that his will would be done on earth now, among us in our lives today.  To borrow from the analogy once more, it is a prayer not only that the house would be clean, but also that we his children would be willing and eager to clean it, or at least to clean our own room, gladly living the life he has created for us.

The Law of God shows us the life he created us to live; it is a marvelous reflection of his will.  Because we are unable to keep it to perfection, the Law of God is always accusing us, magnifying our shortcomings against the backdrop of its perfection, crushing our attempts at self-justification under the weight of its unattainable standards.  But the Law is not the problem, sin is the problem.  God’s Law is not some random set of rules that he invented so that he would have a reason to punish us.  God’s Law is a description of who he is.  God’s Law is a description of what he intended this creation to be.  It is a description of what the next creation will be.  It is a description of what he wants for us in our relationships with him and with one another.  It is a summary of his will for us.  When we pray “Thy will be done,” we are not only praying that he would take us to the new creation, but that he would shape our lives according to his design here and now so that they begin to look a little more like the relationships of the new creation already today.

Viewed in this way, God’s will is no mystery.  Do you want to know God’s will for you?  Look to the 10 Commandments.  God wills that you love him with all your heart, soul, and strength; and that you love your neighbor as yourself.  God wills that you fear, love and trust in him above all things, for he alone is able to provide for your needs of body and soul.  Because God alone can help, He wills that you gladly and willingly call upon him in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks in his name.  God wills that you be fed and nourished by his Word and Sacraments, for they are the means of restoration that He has provided.  God wills that your relationships would be peaceful and marked with self-sacrifice, that you would gladly honor those in authority over you and treat others well when you have authority over them.  He wills that you would neither hurt others nor be hurt yourself in your body.  He wills that you would live in the joy of sexuality as he created it rather than treating it as a means of self-gratification at the expense of objectifying and manipulating another human being.  He wills that you would neither steal nor have your property stolen.  He wills that you would speak the truth in love, putting the best construction on every situation, and that others would do the same for you.  And he wills that you would be grateful and joyful for what you have instead of living in discontentment as you obsess over other people’s lives.  This is the good and gracious will of God for you.  This is what your life will look like in the new creation.  You are praying that this will of God would shape your life here and now, not only in eternity.

jesus-garden But this is a prayer that is never fully answered for us – at least not this side of heaven.  Like the mother in C.S. Lewis’s analogy, certain aspects of God’s will are at odds with each other in this fallen creation, for we are toddles who stubbornly refuse to clean up after ourselves.  We are teenagers who rebel against the wishes of our parents for no reason other than they are the wishes of our parents, and we don’t like being told what to do.  And because we so foolishly and childishly, God sent his own Son to fulfill his will in our place.  Jesus always did his Father’s will.  Even when faced with the imminence of his own death, Jesus’ prayer was, “Take this cup of suffering from me, O Lord.  Yet not my will, but yours be done.”  And God’s will was done.  The Son was sacrificed, atonement was made.  The Son of God was dead and buried, then burst forth to new life in order that he might bring us to new life.  Our Lord desires that all men would be saved and would come to the knowledge of the truth,[5] that we would live in faith toward him and love toward one another.  But he will not compel us by force; he works through his word.  He speaks to us through the voice of Jesus, inviting us to live in communion with him, for that is who we were created to be.  He invites us to share the forgiveness we have received, living in self-sacrificing communion with one another, for that is who we were created to be.  That is the will of God.

Remember that while God may not yet impose his will on us by force, but he did impose his will on Satan.  From the moment he corrupted this creation, Satan was destined to have his head crushed by the Lord’s Anointed.  And there was nothing Satan could do to stop it.  Satan may be more powerful than we are, but he is not more powerful than the one who showed his love for us in that while we were sinners, he died for us.  God remains the Almighty Creator and Sustainer of the universe, and Satan is powerless against his will.  Sure, Satan has his moments, but he is ultimately powerless to truly stop the will of God when it really matters.  Where Satan’s deception ushered sin and brokenness into this creation, our Lord Jesus brings peace and restoration – and Satan couldn’t stop him.  When Jesus walked this earth, he put back together what Satan had broken.  He gave sight to the blind, speech to the mute, hearing to the deaf, life to the dead, and Satan was powerless to stop him.  Where Jesus is, creation is given a taste of its former and future glory.  The prayer “Thy will be done” is a prayer that the same Jesus would be living and active among us, that what is broken in us and in our relationships would be put back together as Jesus lives in us, that the Holy Spirit would work in our lives through Word and Sacrament, that the blindness and deafness and paralysis of our sin would be replaced with a new and contrite heart that lives a God-pleasing life in thought, word, and deed.

“Thy will be done” is not simply a prayer that this world would be more like what our Lord created it to be, but more personally, that we would be more like who our Lord created us to be.  Like a mother who not only desires a clean house, but also desires that her kids learn to keep it clean with a happy heart, our Lord desires that we would not only live according to his design, but that we would do so with a happy heart.  But that requires a new heart, a new creation given through the water of Baptism.  Until every person on earth is free from the effects of sin, the will of God will continue in conflict with itself.  There will be times when we wonder whether God is truly in control.  So we pray in this petition that as we wait for our Lord to bring about his will for all the world to see on the last day, he would continue to bring about his will among us even now so that Jesus would be living and active in our lives through his Word and Sacrament, giving us relationships in the present that are seasoned with a taste of their future glory.  This is God’s good and gracious will.  May it be done among us.

[1] Mere Christianity. Book Two: What Christians Believe “The Shocking Alternative”

[2] John 6:39-40

[3] Genesis 50

[4] 2 Peter 3:9

[5] 1 Timothy 2:4


Wrestling With God – Sermon for Reminiscere Sunday (March 16/17, 2014)

Wrestling With God

Genesis 32:22-32; Matthew 15:21-28

2nd Sunday in Lent (Reminiscere)

March 16th/17th, 2014

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

Many of you have no doubt heard of the actor Michael J. Fox.  Apart from his time on Family Ties, Fox is probably best known as Marty McFly from the Back to the Future Trilogy.  But what you might not know about Michael J. Fox is that his middle name doesn’t even start with a J.  It’s Andrew.  Apparently, when young Michael Andrew Fox tried to register his name with the Screen Actors’ Guild, he was told that the name Michael Fox was already taken, and had been for 30 years.  He would have to find a new name, so he inserted a J as his middle initial.  Why he chose J instead of A, I don’t know, but what I do know is that he is not the only celebrity who modified his or her name to avoid being confused with someone else.  Katy Perry was born Kate Hudson.  Michael Keaton’s real name is Michael Douglas.  David Bowie is actually Davie Jones.[1]  Each of these celebrities changed his or her name so that people would not confuse them with someone else.

There are name changes scattered throughout the pages of the Scriptures, too.  Although when God changes someone’s name, it is not simply to avoid confusion or mistaken identity.  It is an indication of something far more fundamental to the identity of the person being named.  Simon had his name changed to Peter, which means “rock.”  As an Apostle, Peter was part of the foundation of the Christian Church, one of the Prophets and Apostles upon whom the church is built, with Christ himself as the chief cornerstone.[2]  Abram, whose name meant “Exalted Father,” had his name changed to Abraham, which means “Father of multitudes,” after God promised him descendants as numerous as the sand on the sea shore.  So it is with the account Jacob’s name change.  Jacob, whose birth name is connected to his ambitious grasping of Esau’s heel and his scheming after his brother’s birthright, has his name changed to Israel, which means “the one who struggles with God,” or as we heard a few moments ago, the one who wrestles with God.  There is tremendous significance in that name, even for us, for we are the New Israel.  We today are the ones who struggle with God.  We today are the ones who wrestle with God.

The historical narrative of God wrestling with Jacob is fascinating on many levels.  Luther compared the event to a Father teasing his son.  He wrote, “God plays with [Jacob] to discipline and strengthen his faith just as a godly parent takes from his son an apple with which the boy was delighted, not that [the boy] should flee from his father or turn away from him but that he should rather be incited to embrace his father all the more and beg him, saying: “My father, give back what you have taken away!” Then the father is delighted with this test, and the son, when he recovers the apple, loves his father more ardently on seeing that such love and child’s play gives pleasure to the father.”[3]  According to Luther, then, the example of Jacob demonstrates to us that “God at times is accustomed to play with His saints, and, as far as He Himself is concerned, with quite childish playing. But to us whom He tempts in this way it appears far different.”[4]

Saying that it appears “far different to us” it quite the understatement.  No toddler likes it when you hold the sippy cup or stuffed animal just out of reach.  It makes them feel helpless, and so it frustrates them.  They scream and cry and whine to get it back, because there’s really nothing else they can do.  They are helpless, and whether your 2 or 52, total helplessness is one of the worst feelings in the world.  And just like a small child doesn’t like feeling helpless at the hands of older and taller brothers and sisters, we Christians don’t like feeling helpless before God.  We want something, anything, to give us a bit of control.  We try to take credit for the strength of our own faith, we try to take credit for the genuineness of our repentance, we try to take credit for the intensity of our praise.  We’ll try anything not to feel helpless.

But we are helpless, so Luther draws a jarring parallel, comparing God assaulting Jacob in the middle of the night to God assaulting us his children with various trials and afflictions in our lives.  We are not used to hearing language like this in the Church today.  Language like this makes us uncomfortable.  We so often jump right to the assumption that just because something in our life is difficult, it must automatically be from the devil.  We scarcely give it a moment’s thought.  Our instinct is to blame God for our discomfort as if he is being negligent, as if the only way a God should act is by making us healthy, wealthy, and generally comfortable, prospering us in whatever life we choose for ourselves.  When things don’t go the way we think they should, we are tempted to turn our back on him, to issue an ultimatum that if he doesn’t immediately answer our prayers the way we want him to, that we will be done with him.  We don’t like to feel helpless because it’s frightening and humiliating.  We don’t like to feel helpless, so we try to incite a response from God through threats and manipulation.

But God’s wrestling with Jacob gives us another perspective.  Rather than growing weary or angry with God in the face of hardship or delayed response, conquer him.  Rather than giving up on him when times are rough, beat him at his own game, for nothing gives him more delight than to be conquered by his children.  Yes, there are times when we will feel helpless before God.  But that’s not a failure on God’s part, as if he is just arbitrarily toying with us like a capricious bully.  We feel helpless before God because we are helpless before God, dead in our trespasses and sins – and sometimes he needs to make that abundantly clear to us.  He doesn’t want us to give up and throw in the towel when we feel helpless.  He wants us to fight.  He wants us to wrestle with him, for we are his Israel.

We wrestle with God by means of relentless faith, through trust never gives up.  Such is the faith of the Canaanite woman.  What appears at first glance to be harsh and utter rejection at the hands of Jesus takes on new meaning when we realize that God wants to be conquered by the faith of his people – that’s why he named them Israel, the people who wrestle with God.  Jesus rejects the woman’s cries for mercy, telling her that he came for the lost sheep of Israel.  But she will not give up – she knows Jesus is the only one who can help her.  Jesus again tells her that he will not take the blessings promised to Israel by generations of prophets and haphazardly throw them to the dogs.  But she will not give up – she does what Israel is supposed to.  She wrestles with God.  “Yes, Lord,” she cries, “but even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the master’s table.”  She wrestled with God.  She beat him at his own game, and nothing could make him happier.

We are called to be Israel today, called to struggle with and wrestle with God, called to cling to him and not let him go until he blesses us, just as Jacob held on that night so long ago.  It’s not that he is conquered in such a way that He is subjected to us.  Rather, whatever opposes us is conquered by turning to him in prayer, and by hearing his voice in the Words of Scripture.  What a great comfort that God exercises us in such a way, that he exhorts us to fight and shows that such fighting is a most pleasing sacrifice to Him.  He wants to be conquered by us.[5]

You, O Christians, are the Israel of God.  He has claimed you as his own through the water of baptism.  Doubt it not.  He has marked you with his own name.  It was for you that Jesus came into the world.  “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”[6]  You are saved.  Your eternal salvation was accomplished by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in your place.  That that gift is now yours because you are baptized. Believe it! God himself has made the promise; call upon him to remember it.  Today is Reminiscere Sunday. Reminiscere is Latin for the command, “Remember!”  As you are reminded by the cover of the bulletin, join with the Psalmist as he cries, “Remember, O Lord, your mercy and steadfast love, for they have been of old.”[7]  God has made promises to you in his Word and in your baptism.  Hold him to those promises.  When you feel like he has forgotten them, wrestle with God, not to bend him to your own will, but to hold him accountable to the promises that he made.  He delights to be conquered in this way.  Call upon him to remember; don’t let go until he does.

You belong to our Lord; you are his child.  But just as regular eating and exercise are how an earthly child grows into a healthy adult, so also our Lord feeds and exercises the gift of the new creation in us, that it might grow strong and healthy.  So be fed and nourished by God’s Word, through the promises he makes to us there.  Be fed and nourished at God’s altar, here at his feast.  Here you get not merely the scraps that fall from the master’s table – you have a seat at the table itself.  Here you receive pardon and peace in the body and blood of Jesus.  Here you get the food to sustain you on the days of this pilgrimage.

Then, having been fed, rejoice in his exercise.  Like an athlete who relishes being challenged physically, who knows that pushing the body and its muscles to their limit will ultimately strengthen them, rejoice when God wrestles with you, for there you learn to trust in him.  There are you strengthened.  “Consider it pure joy . . . when you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.”[8]  “Rejoice in hardship, knowing that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”[9]

When life is challenging, when you feel reasons to doubt God’s love for you, when you wonder if God is listening to your prayers, remember your name, O Israel.  Wrestle with God.  Continually to cry out to him in prayer.  If Satan tries to convince you that you are too sinful or unworthy to pray, remember that as a Canaanite, the woman in today’s reading was an outsider.  She had no authority to call upon the God of Israel, yet he heard her and helped her.  You, as the baptized child of God, are not an outsider.  You have been encouraged, even commanded to pray, and have the promise that God will hear and answer.[10]  If God seems to ignore your prayer, as Jesus seemed to ignore the woman, cling to him in faith like Jacob.  Do not let him go until he listens, for he has promised that he will hear and answer the prayers of his children.  When God seems to reject you as Christ rejected the Canaanite woman, capture him with his own words, for he himself is the one who said “Whoever comes to me I will never cast out.”[11]  Take him captive in his own promises.  Cling to his Word in the face of every obstacle, for he delights in being conquered by his children.

You are Israel, therefore wrestle with your God.  Do not lose heart; do not give up.  Through patience and humility, be fervent and unrelenting in prayer.  Our Lord has promised to hear.  When your emotions would drive you to despair, hold fast to the Word of God and the shield of faith.  The promise is already yours; hold him to it.  For our God does not wrestle with you because He wants to overcome you, but so that you may prevail over him and thus receive your reward.[12]

[2] Ephesians 2:20

[3]Luther, M. (1999, c1970). Vol. 6: Luther’s works, vol. 6 : Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 31-37 (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works (Ge 32:25). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

[4]Luther, M. (1999, c1970). Vol. 6: Luther’s works, vol. 6 : Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 31-37 (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works (Ge 32:25). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

[5]Luther, M. (1999, c1970). Vol. 6: Luther’s works, vol. 6 : Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 31-37 (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works (Ge 32:29). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

[6] John 3:17

[7] Psalm 25:6

[8] James 1:2-3

[9] Romans 5:3-5

[10] Psalm 50:15

[11] John 6:37

[12] Walther, God Grant It p. 261-2

What Are You Giving Up For Lent


What Are You Giving Up For Lent?

Along with the promise of spring, March brings with it the arrival of Lent, the season of repentance culminating in Holy Week when we remember what our Lord did for us on the cross, before we finally celebrate the Easter season.  Within the Church Year, Lent has a flavor all its own.  The poetry in Lenten hymnody is some of the most stirring in all hymnody.

For many Christians, along with the addition of midweek services and Fish Fry Fridays, one of the most recognizable characteristics of Lent is the practice of giving something up.  In an attempt to remind themselves of what our Lord gave up for us, many Christians take upon themselves a form of personal sacrifice all their own during the 40 days of Lent.  Some people give up chocolate.  Others give up coffee or pop.  Some people give up meat on Fridays.  Some people give up sweets or alcohol.

But I would encourage you to think of Lent in a different way this year.  Instead of asking yourself, “What can I give up for Lent?” ask yourself, “What can I add for Lent?”  You see, the practice of fasting or giving something up during Lent has lost one crucial elements over the years.  Originally, fasting during Lent, or any other time for that matter, did not simply mean giving up food.  It also meant that the time that would have been spent eating was instead spent in the Word of God and in prayer.  Fasting wasn’t really about what someone was giving up, it was more about what someone was adding – namely extra time reading and meditating on the Scriptures.

The incarnation offers a helpful illustration, for it is just as much about what Jesus added as it is about what he gave up.  When the second member of the Trinity became the man Jesus, he did not stop being God.  He did not give up his divinity, but he added his humanity.  His human nature was taken up into, sort of absorbed into, his divine nature.  And by adding our humanity, he added all the things that go along with being human.

He added the ability to feel hunger.  Therefore, when the devil tempted him to abuse his power and turn stones into bread after 40 days of fasting, the physical temptation to eat was intensely real.  He added the ability to feel fatigue, so that when he spent long days ministering to people and long days teaching and proclaiming the Gospel, he felt the fact that birds have nests and foxes have holes, while the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.  He added the ability to feel the emotional pain of loss, so that he wept at the death of his dear friend Lazarus.  He added the ability to feel pain, so that the beatings and abuse he suffered at the hands of Pilate’s soldiers produced real pain.

But more than any of those things, in the incarnation our Lord added to himself the burden of our sin.  It’s what Lutherans call the Joyous Exchange.  All the things that rightly belong to us are added to Jesus, belong now to Jesus.  And all the things that rightly belong to Jesus as God’s only Son are added to us by virtue of our adoption into his family through the waters of Holy Baptism.

So as Lent begins, I ask not what are you giving up, but what are you adding this Lent?  Are you adding prayer time?  Are you adding time in the Word?  I encourage you to make use of the prayer journal available through the church office by setting aside time as a family to give up a part of your normal routine and add in time for God’s Word and Prayer.  Consider the self-sacrifice of Lent in terms of what is being added this year, not what is being lost, for our peace and comfort are found not in what we have given up, but in what has been added to us: the righteousness of Christ.

Hallowed Be Thy Name (Midweek Lenten Service – March 12, 2014)

Hallowed Be Thy Name

Matthew 5:13-16; 2 Thessalonians 1:11-12

Midweek Lenten Service (Lord, Teach Us to Pray)

March 12, 2014

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

Salt.  Seasoning.  That which makes a steak worth eating.  Or French Fries.  Or just about anything else, for that matter.  Food without seasoning is barely food at all.  No one wants to go to the restaurant that doesn’t season its dishes.  No one wants to go to the restaurant where you can’t tell the difference between the steak and the chicken and the fish.  No one wants to go to the restaurant where every bite is bland.  So we value the seasoning, that which sets food apart, that which gives it its flavor.

You can often tell a lot about a dish by the seasonings that are in it.  Basil and thyme and oregano give sauce an Italian flavor.  Cumin and chili powder and paprika have a Mexican flare.  Soy and ginger are common in Asian food.  Apart from the seasoning, there is little difference between lasagna and enchiladas, between General Tso’s chicken and boneless buffalo wings.  You tell dishes apart by their seasoning.  And if the seasoning goes bad, if the seasoning loses its distinct flavor?  Well, then you might as well throw it away.  It’s no good anymore.

We, O Church of God, are the salt of the earth.  We, O Church of God, are the seasoning.  Is our flavor distinctly recognizable, like Mexican food or Asian food or Italian food?  Or are we bland; do we taste just like everything else?  And if we do have that recognizable flavor, what is it?  Is it the one God intended, or like soy sauce on lasagna, have we misrepresented who we are?

Perhaps we ought to consider what the Christian flavor actually is.  What exactly is it that makes us distinct?  If cumin is a distinctly Mexican flavor, what is the distinctly Christian flavor?  Some wrongly assume that it is morality, or generosity, or chastity.  But while it includes elements of these things, it starts somewhere else.  It starts with the name that we bear – the name of Christ.  Anything that calls itself Christians bears the name of Christ.  You are a Christ-ian, for Christ lives in you.  We are the Christ-ian church, for we are the body of Christ on earth.  The name of God is the signature seasoning that sets us apart, for the name of God is always set apart, always holy, always distinct.  It is holy in itself, for God himself is holy.  We pray that it would be holy among us also.

God’s name is kept holy among us when the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity, and when we, as the children of God, lead godly lives according to it.  Godly teaching and godly living are the seasoning that makes the Christian life Christian, just as oregano makes dishes Italian.  Is our teaching seasoned with the Word of God so that our confession has a distinctly biblical flavor?  Or does it taste just like the teaching of the world?  Are our lives seasoned with the Word of God so that they have a distinctly godly character?  Or do they look exactly the same as the lives of people in the world around us?  When people look at you, do they see something distinctly Christian?  Or are those seasonings absent so that you taste like nothing in particular?

What do we believe, say, and do with regard to marriage?  Is our understanding of marriage seasoned by the Word of God?  In Genesis, God instituted marriage before the Fall into sin.  It was part of God’s perfect design for creation through which he united Adam and Eve to live together in sacrificial love, not selfishly focusing on personal desires, but living in a relationship that produced an outpouring of love for each other and for their offspring.  Is our understanding of marriage seasoned with God’s Word?  Or does it taste just like the world’s understanding, where marriage is treated as a social contract between people seeking tax breaks, a mutual agreement to live together so long as it is convenient?

What about our view of sexuality in general?  Is our view seasoned with the teaching of God’s word?  Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians, “Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sina person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20 for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”[1]  Do we teach and live as if our bodies are not our own, but rather were bought by Jesus with his own precious blood and his innocent suffering and death?  Do we honor and glorify God with our bodies by living sexually pure and decent lives in what we say and do, leaving sexual contact for marriage between one man and one woman?  Or do we taste just like the world, treating sex as a type of play for grown-ups, as a means to self-gratification, a means to make myself feel good through the objectification of another?  Do we try to see how far we can go before technically breaking the 6th Commandment?  Do we treat sexual sin as if it’s no big deal as long as it’s between a man and a woman, choosing to object only to homosexual sin?  When the world looks at sexuality among us Christians, can they see a distinct seasoning?  Or do our lives look basically the same?

There are a host of other areas that we could consider, but the core question is the same.  Do we season our speech and lives with the truth of God’s Word?  Or do we find it easier to simply sound like everyone else?  Is our teaching and living seasoned with a distinctly Christian flavor?  Or do we taste just like everyone else?  Is the name of God being kept holy among us?  Because anyone who teaches or lives contrary to God’s Word profanes the name of God among us.  To put it another way, “we deprive God’s name of its holiness among our fellow creatures when we distort in any way, by any kind of impression, who He is.”[2]

In any way.  By any impression.  What a monumental task!  What a huge problem for us, for we must admit that in our thoughts, words, and actions, we daily give the world a distorted impression of who God is.  We regularly give in to the temptation to gossip rather than explaining everything in the kindest way.  We regularly give in to the temptation to speak a quick and hurtful word rather than bearing with one another in love.  We regularly give in to the temptation to greed rather than thankfully supporting our Lord’s church with the money he has given us.  We regularly give in to the temptation to anger and hatred rather than forgiving as we were first forgiven.  We regularly dig in our heels and stubbornly demand the fulfillment of our own desires and so called rights rather than sacrificing for the benefit of others.

We certainly give the world a distorted impression of who God is, so we have a huge problem.  What do we do in the face of such a problem?  How will God’s name ever be holy among us?  Forgiveness.  Repentance.  We remember Paul’s words to Timothy that everything is made holy through the Word of God and by prayer.[3]  We immerse ourselves in God’s Word.  We continually come to him in prayer.  We take heart in Paul’s words to the Thessalonians: “To this end we pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling.”  We look again at the words of the petition: “Hallowed be thy name.”  A more literal translation of the Greek in this petition  would read, “Cause your name to be hallowed.”  The only way our teaching and lives will reflect God’s holiness is if God himself is teaching and living through us.

Thus, this petition is a humble confession that we do not keep God’s name holy, but that we daily drag it through the mud.  This petition begs our gracious Lord to cause his name to be holy on earth in spite of us – that our actions and words would not rob his Church of its godly flavor.  It is a prayer that our merciful Lord might “shine forth among us, become known in us, and be spread throughout all the world.”[4]

But this only happens through his Word. The salt, the seasoning, the flavor of God remains distinct only when our teaching and lives are faithful to the Word he has given us.  The seasoning of God’s Name remains distinct only when our lives reflect who we are as the children of God.  We are bought and paid for.  We are the redeemed.  We have been forgiven, so we live lives of forgiveness.  We have been loved, so we live lives of love.  We have been shown mercy, so we live lives of mercy.  As Luther once put it, “God’s children should be called and also be gentle, merciful, chaste, just, truthful, straightforward, friendly, peaceful, and kindly disposed toward all, even toward our enemies. For the name of God, in which we were baptized, works all this in us.”[5]

We can’t leave this to our government, for we live under a secular government in a secular nation.  The morality endorsed by our government has a flavor all its own, so we can’t wait for the laws of the land to regulate morality.  Neither can we blindly accept what those laws allow as if being legal was the same as being right.  We can’t leave this to our media and entertainers, for the morality endorsed by pop culture has a flavor all its own.  We must be aware of the morality that is constantly being taught in television, music, and movies.  We must teach our children, and ourselves, that what is popular is not always right.  We can’t wait for anyone else to flavor the world with the truth of God’s Word, for we are the salt of the earth.  We are the ones who taste different.  Our lives are the light on the lampstand.  Our relationships, our words, our actions, our attitudes shine before others, for we are the children of God.

Repent of living a life that tastes like the world.  Season your life with our Lord’s forgiveness.  Repent, and live lives of love, because Jesus first loved us.  Repent of fearfully hiding your flavor from the world, and live in the joy of deliverance.  Trust our Lord’s Word when it preaches his law, when it exposes our sin, when it illustrates for us what our Lord intended us to be.  Trust even more in the Gospel, in your redemption.  Live in such a relationship with the people in your life, unwavering in the truth of God’s Law, but even more firmly rooted in the joy of his Gospel.  Forgive as you have been forgiven, love as you have been loved.  That is the salt that the world needs to taste.

We may not have enough salt to season every French Fry on earth, but we have more than enough to season what’s on our own plate.  We may not be able to change Hollywood or the Internet, but our individual lives can still be seasoned by the Word of God.  Our families can be seasoned with the Word of God.  Fraser, Michigan can be seasoned with the Word of God.  Macomb County can be seasoned with the Word of God.  Every child who sits in one of those classrooms or in one of these pews can be seasoned with the Word of God. By the working of the Holy Spirit, we can live Law and Gospel in our families, in our jobs, and in our schools.

We are the salt of the earth.  We are the light of the world.  Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

Herb Sampler

[1] 1 Corinthians 6:18-20

[2] Kolb, Teaching God’s Children His Teaching p. 112-3

[3] 1 Timothy 4:5

[4] Chemnitz, The Lord’s Prayer p. 43

[5] AE 42

The Words We Sing



When confronted with the raunchiness of the lyrics in their music of choice, teenagers often tell their parents or teachers that they don’t listen to the lyrics, they simply like the beat.  Parents and teachers alike tend to roll their eyes at such a feeble defense for listening to music that blatantly glorifies violence, drug use, and debauchery.  But perhaps it would be wise to pause a moment and consider whether adults always know and believe the lyrics we sing consistently, or whether we too simply like the beat or rhythm or melody – especially in church.

I was struck by this today as I happily sang “A Mighty Fortress” during morning services.  Although we sang the isorhythmic setting instead of the rhythmic, which I prefer (If you know the difference, you’ve been Lutheran for a few years now . . .), that melody still stirs me.  It brings back memories of choir tours and Reformation Festivals and simply makes me proud to call myself Lutheran.

But I caught myself a bit today as I was happily singing that even if the devil, the world, and my sinful flesh would take my house, goods, honor, child, or spouse, even if my life itself would be wrenched away, they would not win the day, for the kingdom’s ours forever.  In my moment of pause I wondered, are these words my words, or do I simply like the melody?

For that matter, how often do we think about the words we say in our liturgy on a weekly basis?  Do we believe them?  Do we believe that we deserve nothing but temporal and eternal punishment?  Don’t we prefer to believe that we are entitled to health and comfort?  Don’t we tend to act as if the struggles in life are the injustice and the good times are what we ought to expect?  Yet that’s not what we confess as we kneel before our Lord praying for his boundless mercy.  That’s not what we sing at the end of “A Mighty Fortress.”  Would we still consider ourselves victorious if we, like Job, lost our goods, fame, and children?

But then I remember that this is the point of confessing and singing these things each week.  Left to ourselves and our own understanding, of course we will fashion a god to suit our own desires.  Of course we will fashion an idol out of our own impressions about the way things ought to be.  But our Lord has not left us to ourselves.  In the water of baptism, he has claimed us as his dear children.  And now he has given us his word so that we know what being his child means for us – both now and into eternity.

God’s Word breaks into the darkness and gives the confession of his truth – which is the only truth.  Left to myself, I’m sure I would never declare victory after losing my wife and children; such a loss would be too devastating.  It is only through the working of the Spirit that such a confession can ever be mine.  It is only because our Lord has made the promise of the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, both for me and for my family, that I can with the Apostle Paul declare that I can get through all things through Christ, who is my strength.

I need to be reminded of who I am as God’s child, and I need to be reminded a lot.  That’s why we teach and admonish one another through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.  So as we continue through Lent, then through Easter, then through whatever comes down the road, I rejoice that our Lord has given us such words to sing and speak.  I plan to pay attention to the words, and I encourage you to do the same.  For as we sing the confession our Lord has given, we might just learn something about ourselves we had forgotten, or perhaps that we didn’t know before.


Recognize His Voice – Funeral Sermon for James C. Flynn

Funeral of James Clifford Flynn

John 10:1-10

March 6, 2014

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

He who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.  The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.  He goes before them and they follow him, for they know his voice.  They recognize his voice.  From what I’ve heard, Froggy had a pretty recognizable voice too.  I heard a number of wonderful stories about Jim earlier this week.  I heard about what you might call his ability to delegate responsibility, specifically how he would take Diane to Reindel’s Hardware store on his day off so that she could help him with his “honey-do” list.  Although, the way Diane remembers it, she would take the list up and down the aisles finding what dad needed while he would drink a cup of coffee and chat with the guys in the front of the store.  That’s what I call delegating tasks.  I heard anecdotes about his sense of humor, how one year for Christmas Jessica asked for a John Deere tractor, so he got her one – a miniature one that blew bubbles.  I heard of his mischievous side, how he used to go joy riding in his dad’s car when he was just a boy.  Apparently, his dad could never figure out why the car was always on empty, but from what I hear, Jim and his sisters could have shed some light on that mystery.

 I heard memory after memory, story after story lovingly relayed by the family whose lives will always bear Jim’s fingerprint.  But the one thing I found myself returning to time and again is Jim’s Fire Department nickname: Froggy.  Jim was usually the one giving the nicknames, just ask “Muddy.”  Apparently, Jim had nicknames for just about everyone.  But he had one of his own, too, Froggy, which he earned due to his distinctly raspy voice.  The unique sound of his voice was due to a medical condition that affected his vocal cords.  He eventually sought and received medical treatment for his vocal cords so that many who met him later in life might have never known what he used to sound like.  I myself never heard his Froggy voice, but from what I understand, those who did hear it will never forget it.  In fact, Donna told me a story about a vacation that she and Jim went on up north.  They happened to find themselves on a pontoon with a few people they had never met before, one of whom was a retired firefighter from East Detroit.  Well, as the story goes, the mutual friend who owned the pontoon asked the East Detroit firefighter if he knew Jim, and the man replied that he had never met a Jim Flynn.  However, as soon as they were all on the boat together the man recognized Jim’s voice the moment he started talking.  “You’re Froggy from Fraser!” the man exclaimed.  Even though he had never met Jim face to face, he knew his voice from the firehouse radio, for Froggy had a voice that you didn’t forget, one that you could pick out of a crowd, one that left its mark on those who heard it.

Hear again a few words from the Gospel of John:  [Jesus said:] “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber.  But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.  To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.  When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.  A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” [John 10:1-5].  Recognize the voice.  The sheep of Jesus recognize his voice when they hear it, and they follow him.  That was true for Jim, which is why we say with confidence that he is now resting with our Lord awaiting the day of resurrection.

Just over a week ago I visited Jim in his bedroom and gave him communion.  I knew then and there that he recognized the voice of his shepherd.  With what strength he had left at that point, he joined me in the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed speaking those words that our Lord gave him to speak.  He knew the voice of his shepherd, Jesus, the voice that first claimed Jim as his own dear child through the waters of baptism on June 1, 1944.  Jim knew the voice of his shepherd, which is why no matter where he and Donna moved they sought out a church to proclaim God’s words of Law and Gospel to them.  Jesus said that his sheep recognize his voice and they follow him as he goes before them.  Jim knew the voice of his shepherd, so he followed where his shepherd lead.

That’s why we’re gathered here today, because Jim has followed his shepherd to another place – the grave.  Never forget, Jesus has been to the grave already.  He led Jim there, and Jim followed as his dear little lamb.  But don’t forget that Jesus has not only been in the grave, he has also overcome it.  Death could not hold him; it cannot hold his sheep either.  Death cannot hold Jim.  All of us will one day taste death.  But for God’s children, we do not wander aimlessly into the abyss.  We follow our shepherd, the one who goes before us.  Even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will not fear, for He is with us – and he’s been there before.  Not only has he been there, but he made it safely out the other side, the first fruits of them that sleep [1 Cor 15].  Jesus is the first fruits, his church is the full harvest.  Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death.  And if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his [Romans 6].

As we were reminded from this pulpit last Sunday, Christ is the head of his body, the church.  Any mother can tell you that the hardest part of giving birth is the baby’s head.  Once the head is through, the body is easy by comparison.  Christ is the head, we are the body – and the head is through.  He has already passed through death, already born into life everlasting.  We are following behind him, certain in our new birth because we are united to the head.  Jim had the gift of this certainty, which is probably why one of his favorite verses comes from Paul’s letter to the Philippians where the Apostle wrote, “For me to live is Christ, to die is gain.”  To live is Christ, to die is gain.  Living or dying, Jim knew the voice of his shepherd who called him out of darkness into his marvelous light.  Living or dying, Jim knew that he belonged to Jesus.  Jim knew that Christ, his head, had overcome death.  And Jim knew that when his time came, which it did last Sunday, he too would overcome death, for he is united to the resurrection of Jesus.

Such is the joy of knowing the shepherd’s voice, a voice that spoke to Jim throughout his life, leading him in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.  Such is the joy of knowing the shepherd’s voice, a voice that speaks to you now and tells you, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” [Isaiah 43:1b-2].

Jim spent a large part of his life walking through fire to save other people.  He spent a lot of time trying not to be consumed by the flames that were dancing all around him while he worked to rescue those in need.  The shepherd is calling to you today to promise you that he will deliver you from the flames of grief and despair.  Jim knew the voice of his shepherd; Jim is with his Lord.  Know the voice of your shepherd.  Know that because you are baptized, one day you will be too, reunited with Jim in the marriage feast of the Lamb, which knows know end.  The floods of sadness will continue as you grieve the loss of your husband, your father, your brother, your grandfather.  But take comfort, hear the voice of your shepherd, for he has promised that you will pass through those waters, they will not overwhelm you.  Jesus has redeemed you.  He has called you by name, you belong to him.  Hear his voice as you journey into the coming days, weeks, months, and years.  Let your prayer be that which we sang a few moments ago:

Our hands and feet, Lord, strengthen;

With joy our spirits bless

Until we see the ending

Of all our life’s distress.

And so throughout our lifetime

Keep us within Your care

And at our end then bring us

To heav’n to praise You there

(Entrust Your Days and Burdens: LSB 754 st. 1)