prayer is about comfort

If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

The devil only has like 3 or 4 tricks. That says more about us than it does about him, though. We keep falling for them. One of his favorites is to take God’s gifts and trick us into thinking they’re burdens.

Listen to how Christians talk about prayer. Not unbelievers. Not pagans. Christians. You can hear his whispers. “Prayer is how you get stuff from God.” “I trust in the power of prayer.” “I need your prayers right now”. It’s wonderful that people turn to the things God gives. It’s heartbreaking to see God’s gifts treated like curses.

Listen. You can hear the difference. Do we talk about prayer like a child calling to a father he trusts in the middle of the night? Or like a way to annoy God by banging on His door until He gives us what we want? Are we knocking because we want to be closer to our God who takes care of us? Or because we think we figured out a magic spell to get what we want? This is where the devil turns gifts to burdens. Never-mind it makes God look like the bad guy who has to be won over.

This is the quiet fear the devil plants. If you don’t hold up your end of the deal by praying enough or really meaning it, your God who claims to love you will leave you in the lurch. We don’t like to talk about it, but ignoring that fear only lets it settle in. It dares to think your neighbor actually cares more about you than the God who died on the cross for you because you can get strangers on facebook to pray for you, but the God who could fix it in less than a second doesn’t seem like He’s paying attention. It dares to think we need that many people to pray or God won’t help. Almost as if He sits in heaven and only helps the popular kids who get enough likes and shares on a prayer chain. Never-mind the scriptures say there’s more rejoicing in heaven over one singular voice who repents than 99 who need no repentance.

These fears based on lies hit puberty and get all awkward in the idea that we are prayer warriors or some other nonsense thing that isn’t in the bible. But if we’re warriors, that means we have to fight someone. And since Christ conquered the devil at calvary, who’s left to fight but God? The idea that prayer is our burden means not only do we have to know better than God, but we also have to care more. If we don’t pray, He won’t help.

In all of it the devil would paint a picture of a stupid and selfish God who stands as the bad guy our heroic prayers must conquer. It would lead us to see God the same way satan does. See how evil these paths always look in the end? See the devil paint a picture of our God the opposite of who He is.

Then be honest, really honest, about what drives us to treat prayer this way. We’re afraid. We’re sinners. It’s why prayer can be so stressful. Not just that we know we don’t do it enough, but that the really important ones leave us naming everything that’s wrong, everything easier to ignore, and waiting for God to speak back even though we know He isn’t going to. It’s why that kind of prayer doesn’t make us feel better until we see the results.

We’ve made prayer about stuff, not God. So until we get what we’ve been pounding on the door for, it feels like sending a text and getting left on read while everything that keeps us awake at night breaths down our neck. Tell me this isn’t the evil one at work. Tell me you really think that’s what God wants for His children.

The devil only has like 3 or 4 tricks. It says more about God than it does about satan that Jesus would shape our prayer to silence the devil’s whispers. He speaks against the lies of the devil. “Pray like this. Father.”

There’s a reason the prayer starts the way it does. Our Father who art in heaven. With these words God tenderly invites us to believe that He is our true Father and that we are His true children, so that with all boldness and confidence we may ask Him as dear children ask their dear father.

Prayer is a gift. You should pray. When you’re afraid and when you’re grateful. Because it’s not about how you feel. It’s about who your God is. He’s your Father in heaven who loves you like a dear child. Prayer is not about stuff. Prayer is about comfort.

You have a Father in heaven who loves you. He hasn’t forgotten you. He hasn’t forsaken you. He isn’t waiting for you to do something right or say enough magic spells before He’ll help you. I can prove it. Look at the cross.

This is love. This is God remembering you, not according to your sin, your idolatry, your fear, or whether or not you said enough prayers. This is Him remembering you in mercy. This is Him forgiving your sins and conquering the devil and winning for you the kingdom. The Father sent the Son who taught us to pray, then died for you before you could ever whisper a single prayer. He answered before you asked.

This cross is Him rescuing you from all evil. He died there to it all so that you would live. He is risen to prove that even if all the things we think we need when we pray are ripped from us, He’ll just give them back. Christ is risen, and you will rise too. Free from pain, sickness, want, and death. Free from the lies of the evil one. Free to live. And you have that same freedom today. You have a Father in heaven. I’m not a better father for giving my kids everything they ask for as long as they’re annoying enough. So why would God be a better God for treating prayer that way? He saves sinners in love. He does what is good for us, whether or not we understand it or like it. So we don’t measure what we understand or like. We measure His love. Look at the cross. He loves you that much. He has already rescued us, but loves us so much He gives us the gift of prayer to comfort us along the way.

Prayer is about comfort because it’s about God, not stuff. That’s why it starts with Father. Him, not stuff. Him, not us. Father. From there, we are reminded who our God is in the face of what’s wrong. Each petition that follows it paints a picture of the God who has this stuff under control. Do you think you could make God’s name less holy if you tried? Do you think God’s will needs your permission or prayer to be done? These things will be even without your prayers, but the gift is that He shows us how He will bring them about in us also. Pray. And not just for yourself. Pray for your neighbors in need.

Pray for the sick the same way you stub your toe on the table, just maybe without the dirty words. You might have forgotten your little toe until you stub it, but right then, it’s your whole world. You might feel unimportant or overlooked here, but we are the body of Christ. If you hurt, we hurt. And if you have need, we’re worried enough to want to see you better. The gift is we can all look to the same source for help. The God who saves sinners. Your Father who art in heaven. Who’s holy name and righteous will are given to you and done for you that you would be given daily bread, forgiveness of your debts, and deliverance from evil. That you would be given the cross of Christ to measure whether these things work rather than stuff to make idols out of. Look to that cross and see Your Father’s answer to your prayers. His son speaks to everything you need and everything He’d win for you. It is finished. Before you knocked, the doors were already opened.

prayer is about comfort

the whispers don’t change, but neither does the gospel

Everywhere I go, I still hear the same little whispers in the church. Different voices. Same concern. “Pastor, when I was growing up the Sunday School had so many more children.” “Pastor, I remember when the church was full on Christmas.” “Pastor, there’s way more gray hair than not in here. What’s going to happen in 20 years when we’re all gone?”

I’ve heard those whispers for years. I still hate them. I heard them in the fields of rural Nebraska. Downtown San Antonio couldn’t look more different, but some things sound the same wherever you go. Especially fear.

It’s fear that whispers these questions. It’s fear that makes the same mistakes over and over when it comes to our kids. Control them and treat church like a bad thing they are forced to endure because we say so even though we can’t come up with compelling reasons why. Or try to trick them into thinking church is fun because secretly we think it isn’t. Let them bat around a beach ball during something we’d never call “worship” except for the fact that we want them to like it enough to stick around in a few years. Look at the empty pews that have you so afraid. Neither of those things worked on us. Neither work on them. But the fear makes us forget.

We know this stuff is important. Somewhere we just lost the words to explain why. So we go through the motions because we used to go through the motions. We carry around worry even though we know better than to talk about it. That would let on to the kids that we’re afraid. Which means we’re not in control, and we’re not having all the fun we’re desperate to convey. Worry that whispers about our future shows just how little we can control our kids and make them stick around, and how foolish we really think trying to trick them is. You know what’s great though? They agree. We’re doing it wrong.

I’ve had the privilege of helping out with Higher Things for a few years now. I’ll tell you a comforting secret. We have the same worries. I sat, probably blocking the fire exit, in an over-capacity classroom listening to the executive director of Higher Things teach a breakaway explaining Gen Z. She’s a smart cookie. So I went to steal stuff from her to teach you. It was aimed at parents. The kids outnumbered us 4 to 1. She laid out the statistics. It was sobering. The kids nodded along to the rising trends of depression, anxiety, and loneliness. They laughed when the adults tried to get their heads around slang that doesn’t translate well to speaking outloud. Then the Executive Director, a public school Spanish teacher, broke the rules. She told the kids she was worried. She confessed there were times she wished she could have shared more, but was afraid to lose her job. That she wished there was more she could do for and say to transgender students. And I only heard the same whispers again.

She said she needed a pastor for the next part. I shouldn’t have sat in the fire lane. Goodman. Stand up. Preach a one minute sermon on the text on the board. I asked the kids to reread the text because I wasn’t listening to it. I hate those whispers so much I was half out of my seat already. First things first. Her conscience. “In the stead and by the command of my Lord and savior Jesus Christ, I forgive you this and all your sins.” Of course we all should do more. Of course we’re sinners. That’s why God gives us the church in the first place. We’re afraid together, and it’s wonderful, because God drags us along together. Forgives us together. Sustains us together. We have a place for that fear now. We have God given words to answer it.

She likes to say she’s not a theologian, but she’s brilliant. The kids read the text she picked, and I knew what she was driving at all along.

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)

She had all the same fears everyone else does. The same ones I harbor too. She knew exactly where to look for hope. The light set on the hill. Not in your heart. Jesus, the light of the world, hanging on the cross set on a hill called Calvary. He died there for us.

This is what Higher things does. Jesus for sinners. Hope for the hopeless. We answer the whispers. We speak to the fear and remember the words that explain why this stuff is important? It’s the gospel. We just give it to kids.

She tells me “Stand up. Preach a one minute sermon.” Fine. The church doesn’t stand on your shoulders. It stands on God’s. The light set on the hill cannot be hidden. It can’t. There, God was crucified for you and for me and for all the world. It’s His church where He gives His gifts. The church is built on Him, not us. Remember the ancient church that hid in catacombs afraid to speak what we believe too. If this was our church we would have died out thousands of years ago. But this is God’s church. He fills it with sinners struggling with depression and anxiety and sin and loneliness. He dies for them. Rises for them. Forgives them. That’s us. Gen Z and every other generation. We were sinners in the ancient church and we’re sinners today, but the light still shone on the hill for us all. Until someone sins in such a profound way that Christ is put back in the tomb, relax. Your sins are forgiven you, and the light will continue to shine, and it will even shine through you. Who do you think you are that you can take from Jesus someone He loves by being afraid? Your fear is not as powerful as you think, and your God already conquered darkness and death. Look to the hill and see the light. That’s what we gather around. Hope. And there’s plenty to go around. Hope rooted in Christ and not our works. That against everything wrong in the world, Christ has died and for everyone struggling in fear and darkness He is risen. Do not be afraid.

Then we went to church for the third time that day, and the kids were louder than the adults again. They have the same fears we do, but they hear the gospel and they sing it back. These kids don’t hold the church up anymore than we do. The church holds them. They heard the promise and believe it. So they sang. My heart still almost stops when I hear them. We live stream it. You can listen on the internet, but it’s not as loud through your phone. This is what the church sounds like. This is what the church is. I watched 900 Christians who happened to be teenagers hear the word of God, receive His body and blood, cling to His promises, and sing them back. This isn’t a bunch of kids who are at a church service against their will so they can go play lazer tag later. Those kids sit quietly and roll their eyes. I didn’t see any of those kids. I only heard the church. Our kids sang.

I hate the whispers. They assume a lie that comes right from the devil. It’s not our job to keep the Church going one more generation. It’s God’s job. I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. He’s doing a pretty good job.

the whispers don’t change, but neither does the gospel

holy people are covered in blood.

Exodus 24:3-11 “And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.”

Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD and all the rules. And they answered with one voice. Concordia.. all the people. Together. In unity. Harmony. They heard the word. They said, “We will be obedient.” Riiiiiight. Keep reading sometime. The people keep the unity. They complain together. They sin together. They rebel together. Concordia. All the people. Together. In unity. It goes poorly each time. Sin breaks stuff.

Concord isn’t just all of us getting along. watch a riot. See everyone answer with one voice. Watch it all burn. We can all get along down some pretty dark roads. Until we can’t anymore.

But still the cry of the church is too often this. Unity means Getting along. looking the same. Dress like us. Behave like us. Be like us. I mean, not what we do secretly. Not what we say about each other when we’re not in the room. But pretend like we pretend. Because disunity is being different than us. Looking different. Having done…different. So conform. Behave. Fit in. And we’ll leave the last part behind varying degrees of implication. Fit in, or get out.

But being the same doesn’t save. Even when all of Israel sins together, they only end up driving themselves farther apart. Sin breaks stuff. It’s why blood has to cover it. The sin that breaks us open spills blood. The Lord would just rather it be His own than ours. He teaches us about it. Gives Moses His word and command about it. Sacrifice this way to teach about me. Point to me. Find shelter in me. Give grace from me. Moses followed the sacrifice. Blood on the alter. Blood on the people. And it’s offensive. Don’t overcomplicate it.

Now the blood goes in your mouth. We behold God. The peace of the Lord be with you always. Not in a generic let’s all get along way. In a “hey look, this thing I’m holding, it’s the body of Jesus this is where the peace comes from” kind of way. Jesus said, Eat the bread of life which is my flesh and live forever. And the Jews quarreled among themselves at His words. Because that’s offensive too. Don’t philosophize it.

Look up at this thing. This dead Jesus on the cross. It’s offensive. God died for the things you’re too ashamed to admit to in mixed company. Too afraid to own without excuses and blame to spread around. This is where sin broke open God that His blood would be spilled for you. Look at it. It’s everything we dress up and hide. It’s everything awful we see in the ones we hate but ignore in the ones we like. It’s brought to the surface and it’s hung on a cross. Sin. That’s what we really look like. Death. Moses covered the people in blood. In death from a sacrifice. And all the pretending stopped. This is who they really are. Death. But now not their death. Jesus’ death. Not their blood. The blood of the lamb, which takes away the sin of the world. Not our cross. Jesus’ cross for you. And it’s offensive. And we love it. Because it’s what we look like. Dead with Jesus. Alive with Jesus. Holy with Jesus, washed in His blood.

Concordia. All together, covered in blood. Because the unity comes from here. Not our works but His blood for you. For us. His cross for you. For us. Jesus bore it not for those who agreed, not for those who obeyed. But for the sinners who can see the blood that covers us and finally realize that we are the same. We are the sinners Jesus died for. We are forgiven. We’re the church. We disappear under the blood of the lamb. We’re us, with all our baggage and differences, but we are the same. Sinners covered in blood. Forgiven. Holy. Worthy of love.

There is unity here. Concordia here. Jesus here. This is what unites us. His blood. Not _your faith_ in Jesus. _Jesus_ for you. For us. Jesus who does the things He promises, who sends the Holy Spirit to call, gather, enlighten, sanctify, and keep the whole Christian church on earth in the one true faith.

The church cannot and will not stand on an insistence we conform, because it’s never been about looking like each other. It’s about looking like Him. The church can be full of different kinds of sinners, all covered in blood. All made holy. All worthy of love right here. Concordia. Together. In Jesus. In eating and drinking His body and blood given for you for the forgiveness of sins. Given for you, that you would be bound together with other sinners and all called holy together because God dwells here for you to make you that way. Given for you, that you would find unity with each other by being made together with God. Given for you, that you would have life that nothing we build in this world can give. It’s the most mysterious powerful thing I know. And it’s offensive. But don’t overcomplicate it. Eat it and drink it. This is Jesus for you. For us. Concordia. All the people. Together. In unity. Forgiven. Holy. Worthy of love by Him who made us to be that way. Concordia.

holy people are covered in blood.

“The kingdom of God has come near to you.”

Luke 10:1-20

“The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me”

We see the harvest. We see the need for laborers. So pray. God will send. Hey. I’m the new guy. The sent guy. Except, when I look at this, for the life of me, all I can think about is what the 72 didn’t have. No money. No clothes. No shoes.

Maybe it’s because I have a lot of junk. Really, it’s because it’s hard to imagine life that close to the brink. Church that close to the brink. I want extra. Because I see the wolves. The pitfalls. The problems. I see all the challenges and I know myself and my sin well enough to be worried. So anything that helps stand against them? I should have a couple of those.

The thing is, it’s that worry that injects something toxic in this little word we use called missions. Somewhere it stopped being about getting other people help and started being about making sure we survive. Making sure the institution survives. Making sure the building survives and the voters meetings are staffed. Because we’re very worried about our institutions. We fear, love, and trust our institutions. We have the same problem with them as I have with my junk. As much as I have, all I can see is what I don’t.

And missions becomes the measurement of health in a church. So count people. Volunteers. Money. Programs. Technology. Kids. And usually we’re convinced we need more. It leads to a kind of desperation that’s hard to be anything but selfish. It’s hard to think about my neighbor’s daily bread when I’m starving. It’s hard to think about the wellbeing of the so-called lost when you think the so-called found are about to go under. We paint a picture of a church on the brink of extinction, complain about it, then act shocked nobody else wants to join us.

I see the wolves too. Inside and out. I see sinners who devour what gets in their way. Who snap at each other and build grudges like castles to live in. I see sinners so worried that they don’t have enough they lose sight of what they’ve become: they became the wolves who only care about having more. More to devour.

This is who Christ sends the 72 out to. It wasn’t different then. Same fears. Same selfishness. Same idolatry. Same sin. He’s still sending. And we’re still more focused on what we don’t have than what we do. Jesus sent 72 sinners to give His gifts to other sinners so that we would be more than an institution. Say peace be to this house…and it is. Say to them, the kingdom of God has come near to you. And it does. He who hears you hears me. And you do. We spend so much time with the trappings we miss the point. The kingdom of God has come near. The voice of Jesus is speaking through clergy. Forget the trappings we want to measure. Those matter so little you can even go without them. They’re not bad, but God doesn’t need them as much as you think He does. So stop looking at those. God would have you hear something today.

Your sins are forgiven you. Your God is not far from you. Your institutions don’t have to save you because your God already has. He set aside money and possessions. He set aside glory and honor. He took up want and sin and bore it on the cross for you. He won for you your salvation there. He delivers it here.

Jesus didn’t send the 72 because He was too busy. It wasn’t because He wanted to be farther from the people, but closer to them. Look. Listen. See. Taste. Your God is not far away. In word, in sacrament, He brings that gift to you. He that went to the cross for you sends His servants to bring You to Him. Gives them simple words to speak that do the very things they say. It’s the sign of a healthy church.

God speaks to you here. Through sinners. So hard to stomach the thought we dress them up. But the words are what matter. In the stead and by the command of my Lord and savior Jesus Christ, I forgive you this and all your sins. I have no power to do that, but God does, and sends me to tell you with His own voice. All the authority of my little sister telling me to come in for dinner. That’s not her voice. It’s the voice of mom. Disregard it at your own peril. But its a gift. It’s dinner o’clock. Hear the invitation. There is peace here for you. The kingdom of God has come to this place for you. Jesus is here. For you.

The church was never called to growth. Just faithfulness. God handles the rest. He’s pretty good at it. Doesn’t even need money sacks or clothing or sandals. Doesn’t need programs or money or volunteers or kids. It’s not that they’re bad, in fact they can all be used for good. If you saw my feet you’d agree. If you tried San Antonio without air conditioning you’d know. The thing is, the measurement of the church is simpler. Is God here or not? Because if He isn’t, the institution doesn’t matter. Burn it. If He is, then it doesn’t stand on us, but on Him. So relax. He’ll make sure there’s enough. He’ll work good. It will never look like enough to us, but then again it wasn’t for the 72, but they tread on scorpions and serpents all the same, and we walk across the failed plots of the evil one on our way to the altar where God feeds us with what matters. It’s easy to miss for the fear and the want. So what we do here, we do to make it evident. The music. The vestments. The decor. The giant dead Jesus we hang on the wall. We point to what matters. Because it’s too easy to miss.

Christ sends the 72 as sheep among wolves. To bring the Kingdom of God. To give the peace not measured in stuff, but in the blood of the lamb of God who takes away sin of the world. Christ, who gave Himself in body and blood to be devoured by sinners to actually bring peace.

So stop talking about missions, because they always turn into a conversation about what this church doesn’t have. Look at what it does. There’s Jesus here. His kingdom has come near you. His peace is with you. Really here. Really for you when everything else falls apart. For when everything else is devoured. Christ will feed you too. Missions is more than trying to invite people to a restaurant with no food so they can hear about what a cheeseburger sounds like. We’re here to eat. There’s food for you.

And this is real healing. We’ll abide in a land of not enough. Because Christ speaks peace to us here. And that’s enough.

“The kingdom of God has come near to you.”

the LORD is in the small whispering word

1 Kings 19:9-21

I want to start out with something big. Bold. Inspiring. I feel like there’s momentum here. It’s that time when you know I’m a sinner but don’t know what kind yet. Where we feel like big things are about to happen and the excitement and the hope for something…good is everywhere. But Elijah’s hiding in a cave waiting to die. Something happened that gets passed by too often. Elijah forgot how to be disappointed. Because he forgot how to hope.

It’s the kind of thing we’d rather rush past, especially in the excitement of the moment. Usually, we don’t know what to say. We can talk about bad days and grey clouds that clear up. But hopelessness: it’s not natural.

We were created to hope. It was built into how God shaped us. He made us to worship Him. Fear, love, and trust in Him. Children are born trusting in their parents’ voices. They look at the world in wonder and pretend to be the things we’ve long given up on. Like a superhero, or an astronaut. Or a ninja rock star. And hope only goes away painfully – by having it beaten and crushed and kicked until it’s ground down to nothing. One of the hardest things in the world is to see children who aren’t disappointed by their parents anymore. That isn’t screwing up. It’s doing it so often that hope died. You can’t be disappointed if you don’t expect anything.

We all of us have those corners of our heart left abandoned to where hope has died. Sometimes it’s not so bad. Fine, I won’t be a ninja rock star anymore, and I can deal with that. I make a perfectly mediocre pastor and husband and father, and those are pretty cool now that I’m starting to settle into them. But sometimes it’s worse. When there’s nothing to replace the hope that was lost. When it’s too important. When it’s life and death. That’s different.

It’s easy to rush pass by Elijah in the cave. Especially in the excitement of the moment. Still, I don’t even want to know how many people have that abandoned little corner of their heart where hope in God died. Not that He doesn’t exist. That they can’t depend on Him.

That God won’t protect us, so we better make sure we can do it ourselves. That God won’t speak up for us, so we better make sure important and respectable people in society will. That God won’t be clear about what His will is, and so we better fill in the blanks with what makes sense at the time.

Because…we have gone without for a while too long. Because we have waited for Him to avenge us. To answer muttered prayers. Fix what’s broken. Even just a clear path forward. Plenty of folks looked. And they did not find God.

Elijah is on the mountain looking for God too. Because He can’t find much around him to hope in. He’s afraid there are no other believers. He’s afraid for his life. He’s got nothing left. Everything he fought for fell apart. There’s no getting back what’s gone.

So He goes to look for God, And God said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.

There was God. Not in the wind, not in the earthquake, and not in the fire. But in the low whispering word. Not to rush past him and all his questions we don’t have good answers for. To remind him exactly where the answers were.

The reason so many have given up hope is that we look for God in places He isn’t. It’s a trick the devil uses to grind down hope. Even fallen sinful man loves to put hope in the wrong thing. It’s called an idol. But to kill it altogether, that’s only from one place. So satan points us to where God isn’t And never promised to be…and asks why isn’t He there? And he makes more sense than we want to admit. The small whispering word doesn’t seem too impressive, and it doesn’t make me too happy, and it won’t stop people from sinning against me.

Those are the places we want Him to be. The places that make me feel safe. Powerful. Fulfilled. Happy. God is not in the power of the government’s protection, not in hearing the personal testimonies that your religion isn’t horrible from famous people. God is not in the size of the bank account, or in the cookouts or the days at the lake. He is not in the power of the earthquake or the vengeance of the fire.

If that’s the God you’re looking for, I understand why it’s hard to swallow the foolishness I ask of you. Trust some invisible guy who, if real, and if powerful, let you get into that mess to begin with? Never mind He warned you thou shalt not and you sinned and did it anyway. Confess and hear absolution. Come, lay self bare so I can say “in the stead and by the command of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, I forgive you this and all your sins.” Splash around in some water joined with a name. Eat and drink cheap crackers and cheaper wine that a pastor spoke over. And what? Now it’s just…ok?

And why? It’s what your parents believed? You were raised in this church? Married into it? This is hard enough on a good day, let alone when you’re sick, scared, or alone. When hope is being ground down. I cannot by my own reason or strength believe. That has to come from somewhere else. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the low whispering word of Christ.

And He still speaks. What are you doing here? Why are you hiding? why are you afraid? You’re not as alone as you think. God would not limit Himself to Your good days or your good attitude. He passes by Elijah, whispering words of peace and hope, and He passes by you too. Not to rush past, but to dive into the valley of the shadow of death, that hope would live where there rightly should be none.

If you’ve known Elijah’s woe, if you have the same dead corner of your heart where hope has died, know. God will not abandon you. He can save us without those things we think we need. He went without them too. He entered this world and took on human flesh. Human need and human want. Even human sin. He bore the attacks and the lack and the sufferings and the pain. But more, He did it for you. Because of all the places we look for God and don’t find Him, He does insist on being near to you. He just wants to do it in a way that endures.

There were great earthquakes and sham trials by firelight that pierced the darkness where they accused our Lord of blasphemy and worse as Peter hid in the courtyard. There was the wind that blew as it wished, and the gale of the crowd that cried for His death. But the words worth hearing were whispered from a cross. It is finished. He has died for you. The sun came back to the sky, the earth stopped shaking, but it’s still finished. Hope.

For Christ is risen.

Hope lives with our Lord, even hidden in caves, alone and afraid. Hope rises from death, even as hospice does the best they can. Hope stands even as so much crumbles around us because Christ crumbled with us and then He rose again. This is the peace that can endure where it shouldn’t be able to. Hope. God has conquered sin and death. God has not left us. He carved a path through the dark, through the tomb, and out again.

Yours is a God who works life through death. Of all the places you look for God, we find Him on the cross for you. We find Him in sacrament so wouldn’t be so hard to find at all. He’s right where He promised to be. And more, He’s here for you. He joins that small whispering word to bread and wine for you so you would eat and drink His body and blood for forgiveness, life, salvation.

When you don’t know what you’re doing here, you can know where God is, and more, you can know what He gives you. Take. Eat. This is my body for you. Take. Drink. This is my blood, poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins. Hope. The small whispering word still speaks peace to you.

That is worth the excitement. That is worth the joy. Not a hope that exists when everything’s perfect, but the one that still stands where so much else falls.

So Elijah calls Elisha to come whisper it too. Let go of family and land and possessions. It’s not a dare to go without, but a promise not dependent on them.

To this day the church stands to repeat these words. Not because the world needs another institution, but because of all the times we’ve buried the last bit of hope in something in the world. Because God wants a place for you to collapse when hope runs thin, when questions get hard, when light seems gone. Because we need something to believe that actually saves. That wipes away tears, that drags us through when everything else gives out. That whispers hope to us that even death cannot destroy.

the LORD is in the small whispering word

God isn’t bound by time.

We say God’s more patient than we are. It’s frustrating, but we’ve all wrestled with it. All of us. In Genesis, God promised Adam and Eve a child, born of a woman, who would crush the head of the serpent. When she looks at her firstborn in her arms, Cain, Genesis 4:1 says “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord”, but really it reads “I have gotten a man, the Lord.” She thinks Cain is the messiah. God seemed a few thousand years more patient. He finally shows up. Jesus. He dies. Rises. Ascends promising to come back soon. The apostle’s are convinced they’ll see it. Seems like God’s been a couple thousand years more patient.

We pray. We beg and plead according to God’s promise to hear and answer. We tell each other God’s more patient. I’m guilty of it too. It’s maddening. Because true patience doesn’t come from fixating on what you want and being told to be patient like God. Thinking about food right before dinner doesn’t make you want to eat less. But that’s what we do, all the while wondering what’s taking Him so long.

He’s not waiting. He can’t. There’s this little blurb in Ephesians we tend to rush over because we think it’s the beginning of a longwinded introduction before our favorite grace-by-faith-and-not-by-works verse, but it’s written to a young church wrestling with a God who seems more patient than they are.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will

He chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world. Before there was time, God laid out your salvation. Before He ever spoke and said let there be light, He knew you, and knew you’d be saved by Christ. But before God could make us, He had to make time. Let there be light, days, and nights. Let there be time.

Our brains don’t really work without it. We think back in time to Genesis. Worry about tomorrow. Look forward to the last day. But God’s not bound by time. He picks up the whole of creation like a rubik’s cube and works for all at once. Each move affects the whole thing, not just one part. From the “let there be light” to the last trumpet sounding, He works all at once, and for all. He doesn’t have to wait a few thousand years to answer Eve, or return. He is. Not just everywhere. Always.

So when God wills something, It happens, even if we haven’t gotten to the part where we get to see it yet. Before there was time, He chose you. Nothing gets in the way. Nothing can change His mind, and nothing can overpower Him. Revelation tells us before the foundation of the world, the lamb was slain for you. Nothing could stop God’s eternal plan. Even us worrying while we’re stuck in the middle of it.

It isn’t sci fi. It’s realizing that the God who has promised to help isn’t more patient than we are. He’s already worked, and is continuing to do so. He picked up all of creation, all of time and all of space, and reached in, took flesh, and bound Himself to a cross for you. Nothing can change the salvation He worked for you, even if you can’t see how the story ends from where you stand today. We might not see it from down here trapped in time, but the angels already sing at the wedding feast of the lamb.

So God doesn’t just tell you to be more patient. He reaches in and gives you the chance to play outside of time too. He joins us to a feast outside of time, outside of the worries we carry around, and yet for them too. He gives us the Sacrament of the altar. The body and blood of Jesus, the same that died on the cross, shed from the same lamb slain before God ever said let there be light. Communion is a participation in the all atoning sacrifice that brought time to a stop when the sun was blotted from the sky and the Son cried “it is finished”. If that wrinkles your brain, breathe, and recognize that every time you come to communion, you’re already brought through everything you worry about along with everyone who trusted in the same Lord to save.

We worry because we’re trapped in time, but God reaches into it over and over to tie you to a life that even time can’t wear out. A victory that the unknown can’t take away. A hope that endures because God chooses to be with us to carry us through. Lecture each other about being more patient if you want, but recognize God wasn’t patient. He worked your salvation before He even made you. He ties you to the victory even before the last day. If you can’t be patient, realize God can relate, and take communion to be with Him now.

God isn’t bound by time.

Corporate worship carries secret burdens.

I keep two sets of books. My private prayer list is about twice as big as the public one on Sunday. That’s ok. Sometimes folks don’t want to field questions about their struggles quite yet. Especially with holidays looming. Sometimes they don’t even have the answers to give.

How am I gonna get through this? What do I say? How do I write the Christmas letter? Loneliness. Shame. Loss. Guilt. Old wounds that don’t heal right. But we only love cheerful sounding Christmas hymns. Nobody wants to be the grinch. It’s the most wonderful time of the year. So we bury it. We spin it. We smile. Pretend. And gather together. It’s what we do. So I have two prayer lists. One for secret burdens. One for public life.

Maybe there’s two prayer lists, but they work just the same. It’s, after all, one merciful God who answers both, not for the sake of the many praying, but for the sake of the one sacrifice of the Son on the cross. God answers prayer because He actually loves us, not because of how many give voice to the need. That same One Lord brings us together. The Holy Spirit doesn’t just call me to Jesus. He gathers me together with you. One Lord, one faith. He makes my problems our problems. Even if you don’t know what they are. He gives us the words even when we can’t find them ourselves.

We speak and sing words that tell the truth even when we’d rather pretend we’re fine. I a poor miserable sinner. The “Lord, have mercy” Kyrie, that prayer that’s only 3 words long, pours out from the heart every secret burden is sung with every Christian on heaven and earth, all of us carried by Christ who Advents. Lord, now lettest thou Thy servant depart in peace. The Holy Spirit gives joins our words together with scripture, with saints who have sung of secret and not so secret burdens for thousands of years. All of it points to the God who is merciful to sinners. Who actually shows up to help, comfort, and save.

Liturgy is a gift. Not just because it’s from the bible. Because it forces us to speak and sing about what really needs to be said. Law and gospel. When you leave me to my own devices, I’ll pretend things are fine when they’re not. I’ll pretend I’m not a sinner when I am. The liturgy teaches us to sing about who we are as sinners, redeemed by Christ. All of us. One Lord, one faith, one baptism.

The Lord unites us under a promise. We aren’t just in this together. He’s in this for us. This isn’t just a safe place. It’s a holy place for you. God Advents. He comes to help sinners. He shows up in word and sacrament to forgive, to heal, to wash away all that we’d rather just bury under fake smiles and jingle bells.

Then He works through your vocations to do the simplest acts of love and charity that mean more to people than you’ll know. One God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. Whether or not you can give answer to secret pains, come to church and let the liturgy speak them for you. Find comfort with all the rest of us sinners in the God who shows up to answer us. Your sins are forgiven. Your shame is covered. Your loneliness is met with the communion of saints on earth and in heaven. Because God is merciful enough to gather us together to give us these gifts.

 

Corporate worship carries secret burdens.

Let’s talk about sloth, predestination, and other heavy things

Lutherans aren’t big on the seven deadly sins. Maybe it’s the potlucks and gluttony.  Still, this might be the age of sloth.  Someone told me we have the wrong idea about it. Sloth isn’t just too much Netflix and not enough exercise.  It isn’t laziness.  Sloth is giving up. It is the absence of hope. Joy. Life.

The “laziness” is becoming discouraged by difficulty because we don’t think we can overcome it.  Underneath all of it is hopelessness.  Depression. It doesn’t matter what I do. I can’t fix it. I can’t change it. I can’t reverse it. My choices don’t matter. So why bother?

But let’s be honest. Sloth doesn’t struggle to diagnose the problem. It just can’t find the solution.  So, it’s given up.  The world has plenty of treatments.  Hey, I know you’re depressed, but go do stuff. Exercise. Socialize. Medicate. Find a hobby. I dunno, maybe get a kitten?  Fake it till you make it.  All, except the cat, are good ideas.  Dogs are better.  But fake it till you make it only highlights the problem. We still feel pretty hopeless.

Christians have adopted the same strategies. I’m guilty of it too.  We say something that sounds inspiring at the time, but basically boils down to “Rub some Jesus on it. Walk it off.” Be diligent. Make good choices.  Do stuff.  Hope more.  There is a correlation between activity and hope.  Those who exercise do feel better, but we aren’t as good at working our way from activity to hope as we think.  One little roadblock can wreck it all. Rather, hope works our way to activity.

An object at rest stays at rest.  God didn’t give you free will.  Sorry.  He isn’t waiting for you to make the choice to live.  “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to Him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. (Small Catechism, 3rd article)”.  “You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (Ephesians 2:1–5)”.  If this thing starts, it starts with God, not you.

We don’t like that, because free will seems like the medicine for sloth.  The idea that God has already determined everything feels like a crutch.  If God has determined everything, and we can’t change the hour we die, the path of the universe, or anything else that matters, why bother? Might as well stop taking care of myself. I can’t change it anyway.

We hate the idea we’re not in charge.  We hate the idea we might not have free will, even if we don’t know what to do with it, and sloth takes over.  We say “If we don’t have free will we’re basically robots.  Are you saying God made me put on my red shirt today?”  We get bogged down in the silliest of things.

God didn’t choose what shirt you put on today, even if He all-knowingly knew it. You wore red because it’s game day.  God didn’t choose for you to sin either. Ever.  You can know it, because of the Thou Shalt Nots of the law.  Your sin hurts others. He doesn’t want that.  He wants your neighbors cared for. That’s why He gave them you.  The choices you make here matter to the world around you. The choices you make have consequences.  That’s what’s so terrifying.

Instead of free will, what if we called it free desire? Are you free to desire the things of God? Are you free to hope? The sloth we can’t seem to shake is evidence that we are not. You are not free to hope in God on your own.  I cannot by my own reason or strength.  You are dead in your sins.  Dead folks don’t make choices.  Sin binds the will and the conscience alike.

Rather than starting with ourselves and our situations, let’s start with our God.  Did He rise from the dead?  Did He name you holy and worthy of love in your baptism?  Has He tied you to the victory over everything you fear in the resurrection?  Start there, with the words and promises of God.  The Holy Spirit delivers hope.  Faith.  Life.  He has called, gathered, enlightened, and sanctified the whole church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.  In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers. On the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ. This is most certainly true. (Small Catechism, 3rd article).

You are what He has made you to be. Alive in Christ.  When you don’t feel it, turn to Him who gives it and hear it again. Maybe hear it daily. Maybe cross yourself as a remembrance of the baptism where He delivered it to you.  First thing in the morning. Last thing before bed.  Your identity is not the sum of what you do or don’t do.  You are baptized.

What if I fail? You might. Can your failure put Christ back in the tomb? Make you unworthy of love? If not, build.  Not for you. For your neighbor.

What if I can’t make myself stop feeling sloth? You can’t. Not by your own reason or strength. So hear the promise. Then stop staring at your own belly button and look to Christ who has conquered your entropy and sin. He is risen even from the grave.

Let’s talk about sloth, predestination, and other heavy things

Pray based on who God is

People are brought to prayer out of need.  When we’re knocked to our knees, prayer seems like the thing to do no matter how devout you are.  Even agnostics are willing to roll the dice.  We go to God in need.  In the Large Catechism, Luther says it is this earnestness that makes true prayer.

Still, when we pray focusing chiefly on what we want, prayer takes some dark turns.  The more I need something, the less picky I am about where it comes from. Those really serious prayers? Cure him.  Fix this. Make them love each other again.  I’ll take answers to those from some awful ungodly places.  It’s not just the idolatry of it all, but it’s who I’m willing to see hurt in order to see mine taken care of.  That’s the thing about super villains.  It usually isn’t that they want to see others hurt.  It’s just that they want something else even more.  So they mutter something about making omelets while they destroy the world to get what they want.   Would I steal to feed my starving family? Yep, but that doesn’t make stealing good. My daily bread is supposed to come from God, not at the expense of someone else starving.

But even when we look only to God for help, when the answer to our prayer is all we have in mind, it still leaves God looking like the bad guy.  Prayer becomes oppositional.  God has it. I need it. How do I get it? All the while I’ll wonder about why He hasn’t already given it to me.  Is there a plan? Because He’s not telling me what it is, and I’m scared.  Is He not paying attention, lazy, or just not a good God?  I better pray a lot, and really mean it this time to convince Him to actually help me.  If that doesn’t work, I better get lots of other people to pray for me too.  I’ll ask strangers on Facebook for prayers with the assumption they love me more than God does, because they’re willing to take 2 seconds to throw up a prayer, but the God who could fix this with just a word doesn’t seem willing.  Let’s pester Him or wrestle Him or outnumber Him into actually being a good God.  Really?  You can trust in the power of prayer all you want to, but if you trust prayer more than you trust God to love you in the first place, it says more about you than the God you’re afraid isn’t answering.

We go to God in need, and sometimes that need becomes our idol.  Our everything.  The thing we fear, love, and trust in above all things.  So much so that we forget who our God is in the first place.  So we aren’t taught to pray based on what we need, but based on who God is.  When Jesus teaches us to pray, He doesn’t say start with what you need, but start like this: Our Father who art in heaven.  With these words God tenderly invites us to believe that He is our true Father and that we are His true children, so that with all boldness and confidence we may ask Him as dear children ask their dear father.

 Pray based on the character of God.  Pray based on the apostle’s creed. Pray based on the God who would not just create us, but come into our world broken by our sin and suffer our wants and our ills and our death upon a cross, only to conquer sin, death, and the power of the devil and rise again.  Pray based on the God who is present in the Holy Christian church, who doesn’t just sit in heaven and drop prizes down to the kids who get enough shares on some facebook prayer chain, but bears with us in this world and carries us to the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.  Pray based on the God who is present in His word and sacraments to help and save, to tie us to something bigger than ourselves and our current want.  Because prayer isn’t about changing God’s mind.  It isn’t about getting stuff from God.  Prayer is about comfort.  Comfort that God is not far away.  He does care. And He has already answered.

You pray to the God who would not abandon you, but would die for you and conquer what we thought was undefeatable.  Death is destroyed.  In the resurrection, cancer has claimed 0 victims.  Wade through broken relationships all you want, the cross speaks forgiveness louder.  You have a Father in heaven who actually loves you.

Prayer is a reminder of who Your God is.  It is a recounting of all the ways He has helped, is now helping, and will continue to do so.  Prayer tunes us into the idea that God actually loves us, so we have something to hang on to in the face of losing so much else. The Small Catechism shows the Lord’s Prayer to be a retelling of God’s own promises, and a remembrance of where the answers are given.  It shows prayer isn’t a burden, but a gift.  We pray to the God who actually loves us.

Sometimes He says yes.  Sometimes He doesn’t.  But He is our Father, and we are His children, and God takes care of His kids.  Maybe when I tell my own children “no” it isn’t out of malice, laziness, or incompetence, but something else. Maybe when I say it, it breaks my heart too, but I love them too much to subject them to what they’re asking for, or what having it all the time would turn them into.  Maybe if I can manage that, the God who’s much smarter and much less evil can do way better.  And maybe God doesn’t need all the things we think He does to get us through this life.

I won’t pretend to know why He hasn’t healed the people closest to you.  But I do know that He’s already conquered death and given us that life in the very baptism that made us His children in the first place.  God’s will is life, and if He has to work it in the face of death, He will.  God’s will is to care for you, and He’ll get you through with or without the stuff we think we need.  God’s will is done even without our prayer, the comfort is that God’s will is actually good, and God’s will is even now done among us also.   Not just that it will be done someday in heaven after we don’t need help anymore, but that He works even here and now among us also.  We pray based on the character of God so that we would have this comfort in the face of need.  Because as great as my need is, my God is greater. We have a Father in heaven who loves us.

Pray based on who God is

We’re embarrassed by Pentecost

The church today largely sees itself as post-Jesus, and we’re deeply embarrassed about it. There is no bearded guy in a bathrobe healing sick people or turning water into wine. The older generation insists on singing songs about Him walking with us and talking with us, but we’ve never seen it. We just wish we had and we’re trying to convince ourselves He’s there and we can totally feel it. Most of us can’t, though a lot claim to. If you really equate a tingly feeling to the God who took flesh to heal lepers, your standards are too low. You should expect more from God. His word demands it.

The Bible talks about miracles and a Jesus who says ”I will not leave you as orphans (John 14:18)”but then ascends into heaven and we haven’t seen Him since. We’re getting so desperate a funny shaped potato chip is close enough…as long as we squint. We just want to know God’s there, but we can’t shake the feeling we’re on our own in a post-Jesus church.

We’ve tried to rebrand ourselves. “The church of Jesus lite: it’s not like you really have a better option.” It comes with catchy tweets. Jesus didn’t charge a copay to heal lepers. Of course…we can’t heal anyone at all, but it fits an agenda. Roll with it.

Charity is good. You should love your neighbor, but if you think you’re only doing it because God isn’t, it’s hard to maintain the concept of a loving God. The post-Jesus church still talks a lot about Jesus, but it’s about as satisfying as talking about a cheeseburger when you’re hungry. If anything, it makes the problem worse.

Even as Christ gets ready to begin the passion that would end in His ascension, even as He promises not to leave us as orphans, He says something else. Something important. I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. (John 14:16–17)

1460141451232.jpgPentecost. The sending of the Holy Spirit. The great miracle where God spoke to all nations at once through His apostles as tongues of fire danced on their heads. I’m not sure it was all that impressive, though. Most people just thought they were day-drunk at 9am.

Still, God worked. In the waters of baptism, He carved 3000 souls out of the city that kills its prophets and stones those sent to it. God hasn’t abandoned His church. If anything, He’s closer to it. Pentecost celebrates the Holy Spirit, at work wherever God’s word and sacraments are given to sinners.

The problem with the post-Jesus church is that it assumes God has given up on the physical world. He hasn’t. Pentecost means we’re not the post-Jesus church. The Holy Spirit works here. He brings Jesus to you. He doesn’t walk with you or talk with you. He sits on your altar under bread and wine because feelings come and feelings go, but to commune is to live with Him forever. Don’t lower your standards to a Jesus shaped potato chip or a tingly feeling that only exists until the next bad thing happens. Celebrate the Lord’s Supper, where God lives up to His promise to strengthen, forgive, nourish, and save no matter how bad things look.  He conquered death. He’s here for you to carry you through whatever’s killing you.

God cares about this place enough to fix it. He loves you so much that He was willing to die and rise to forgive your sins, and that love means He refuses to be far away from you now. The church isn’t the place where we talk about Jesus. The church is where Jesus insists on being truly present for you. Don’t be embarrassed by Pentecost. Rejoice, because Pentecost means you can know God is here for you.

We’re embarrassed by Pentecost