Preaching Christ Crucified

I expect to be soaking in the blood of Jesus when the preacher says, “Amen.” That bright red river of life from the cross of Calvary makes the robes of God’s people white like snow. The professors at the seminary would say that a sermon should be a good exposition of Law and Gospel in a liturgical context. There should be Law that cuts you down and Gospel that picks you up. BUT the Gospel should always predominate. In other words, when the preacher opens his mouth – Jesus picks you up. The preacher must give you Jesus. He shouldn’t just tell you about Jesus. He shouldn’t just mention the cross. Preachers should never tell you about telling the story. Preachers are called to preach the Christ. They are called out of darkness to proclaim light and life into this dark and dead world. Preachers do that by preaching Jesus to your person. Pastors bring the forgiveness of sins from the cross and wrap you with it, like a warm blanket on a cold, winter’s night. They take his blood and wash you with it. Like a mother after you’ve played in the mud, a pastor scrubs you clean (even behind the ears) with Christ’s blood. They do it because only that blood can take away your sins. They are faithful to this call because God resurrects the sinner from his watery grave and gives him new life. How does God do it? He does it by opening the mouths of preachers, and then soaking you in his Son’s blood. He does it by opening your mouth and pouring that blood down your throat. He does it through weak and sinful men. He does it through your pastor. Expect to be soaking in Christ’s blood when the pastor says, “Amen.” Expect to be alive because Christ has wrapped you with his love and breathed new life into your ears. Not only should you expect it, you should demand it. It is your heritage. It is God’s good gift. AND…it’s yours.

Oculi at Emmaus

Satan would have you silent. Holy Scriptures tell you that all the thoughts of your heart are evil all the time. And yet Satan’s demons close the mouth of this man… they make mute their captive and it is the Lord Christ that opens his lips. A bit backwards to the world’s reason, the weapon of slander and hateful word-play is loosed by the Lord of Heaven and closed by the prince of lies. Your tongue is the most used and well seasoned of all your evil tools in your sinful bag of tricks. It only gets better with time. For all men are liars – and their tongues and lips carry on their speeches of deception.

But Jesus opens the lips of men because he remembers why they were created. He knows that praise must come to His Father in heaven and if they were not to come from the tongues of men, even the rocks upon the road would cry out. So he opens the mouth of the sinner. The man oppressed by the power of a demon finds his mouth unloosed and his lips free to move once again. Free to pray, praise, and give thanks. To speak all things with the best construction, not to hurt or harm his neighbor, but to help him keep what belongs to him.

You are just like that man. Caught between a rock and a hard place, you know not when to use your mouth and when to speak the praises of the heavenly King. Are they lies that come from your lips or do you keep silent as others exercise their tongues in deceitful abuse of neighbor and so called friends and family? Those that don’t know Jesus – do you leave them that way by appeasing the devil in silence or have you spoken out of both sides of the mouth your Savior gave to you? You back-peddle, deny, and lie with the best of them. For the children of men are practiced in the art of deception.

And even as the Psalmist declares that you are a liar, he also declares that it is Christ that opens your lips to declare His praise. Not only does He open your mouth to bring forth the praises of heaven, He opens your ears to hear what the world wishes would go silent… itching ears that wish to hear more of the deceit so familiar to their lips, instead receive the Word of God given to your pastor and to pastors throughout Christ’s church. The One that so graceful opens the mouth of a sinner, opens their ears to hear the Word of God.

The kingdom of heaven is not divided and no civil war has pulled it apart. The finger of God that so beautifully placed the stars in the heavens is at hand to open the mouth of a sinner. The Kingdom of God has come to you, for knowing that all men sin and that to open the mouth of a sinner means that they will lie, deceive and trick – Jesus still opens first your ears to hear and the mouth of your Pastor to tell of the heavenly victory over the prince of deception and your freedom from an eternal death. He opens your mouth to sing the heavenly song… and here you offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving and your tongue calls upon the name of the Lord!

The Kingdom of God has come to you… the Son of God has fulfilled the will of His Father and laid down his life as He took His seat on the throne of Calvary’s cross. Not only by the sword of the human tongue did they murder Him, but with nails and a spear they ended His life… it temporarily silenced the only tongue that never lied and always told the truth so that every law would be complete and even Jesus would remember the Sabbath day and lay in a tomb to rest. That rest removed the sting of the grave and the mouth of Christ was again opened to speak of His victory over death… to speak to your ears, to fill your mouths. You who were once mute, now speak… you who were deaf, now hear…
Your sins are forgiven.

Jesus has driven out the demons and the kingdom of God has come to you. You belong to the Lord of heaven. That Lord has opened your lips. Thanking the Lord. Singing His praise. Telling everyone what He has done. What has he done? He has made all things well. Taken your sins and sent them as far as the east is from the west, given you heavenly inheritance by making you His brothers. He has removed the guilt of your sin and now oh beautiful bride He shows you to his heavenly Father and brings you to eat of the feast His Father has prepared for you. The Cup of Salvation is ready. Come, the Lord has opened your lips – now eat and drink!

The Son of God Breaks In

So as the season of Epiphany comes to a close, we return to the recurring truth that is the Son of God: He walks through locked doors. We would have all sorts of walls to keep him out, but instead, he walks right through them and settles in on our sin. What does he do that for?? He comes for one reason: to take it from you. In its place he puts his righteousness and salvation. As you celebrate Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras or Carnival… remember that we celebrate because our God has become a Man and he walks through the mess that is your sin and forgives it all. He comes for you and clothes you in his righteousness. You don’t have to go find him, he has sought you and found you.

What’s Love Got To Do With It? Ephesians 5

Every marriage is about a name.  Whether you choose to hyphenate it, or keep your old one, or take up his or hers.  When no suitable helpmate was found for Adam, God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep and when he was asleep took a rib from his side, having closed up the place with flesh – God took the rib and made it into a woman and gave her to the man.  At LAST, bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh… she shall be called woman for she was taken out of man. (That’s what all you guys said at your wedding, right?)

And yet it is the sin of Adam that everyone has inherited…coursing through the whole human race. The problem is we aren’t comfortable with the word LOVE… and therefore can’t begin to be comfortable with obey or submit.  You have to be accountable to someone else and that isn’t the way we want it.  We have to be connected to someone else??!  Our god is our belly and our life is narrated by our passions.  And the problem with that is that our passions, our bellies, always leave us alone and worse yet, dead in our sin.

What’s love to the world?  What’s love to you?  Forget about submitting and obeying and listening…  What is love?  Tina Turner thought it was a second hand emotion.  The world talks about falling into and out of love, but it misses the whole point. Don’t confuse love with the wicked passions of your belly.  Don’t be tempted by the world to think that love is a passing feeling that resides in some warm fuzzy you feel in your heart.  No!  We have other names for those feelings.  Those feelings are real – ALBEIT fleeting, but real and they are not LOVE.  Love has to do with neighbor and with God.  Love has to do with looking away from your navel and looking up at the world around you – and the persons around you.

And yet… and yet… we will not do it.  There is need all around us and even us who work at the church headquarters are belly watchers.  And with all this belly watching going on, how will we learn to LOVE?  How can we love the Lord our God with all our heart when it is lent out as a second hand emotion or even a first hand one?  How can we learn to submit or even take the time to figure out what that is if we can’t stop thinking about our own passions and lusts?

Repent.

God loves a wedding feast!  “Go bright jewel of my crown!  It is time to have compassion, he says.  Bring to all salvation, from sin and sorrow set them free!!  Slay bitter death for them that they may live with you forever!”  OH, this is a mystery, Paul says… This is a profound mystery about Christ and his church.  Want to know what LOVE is?  Look to Jesus Christ alone.  For the Son of God became incarnate and was born of the Virgin Mary to shed his blood for your forgiveness and peace.  Therefore the MAN, Jesus Christ, left his Father in heaven and came for you and me.  Dying upon the CROSS of Calvary he holds fast to the church, his bride, for there they have become one flesh.

What is LOVE?  To die for your beloved.  To lay down your passions and your heart and all the fuzzy feelings to give the other your everything.  What’s love look like?  The Cross alone.  That Cross of Jesus is our life… for it is there that Christ loves us.  “At last, bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh… she shall be called CHURCH and they shall be called Christians for they were taken out Christ.

In Jesus+ Name.  Amen.

Rev. Steven Cholak

LCMS International Center (January 23, AD 2014)

Advent Meditation on Genesis 49:9-10

We never would have planned for it to be Judah’s reign… but then again God always seems to turn our reason on its nose.  So not only do we have a lion of the tribe of Judah (remember Judah), but Mary places her little lion cub in a manager for you and for me.  Isn’t that just strange?  The God that made you and the entire universe, that will conquer Satan and Hell and death, we first meet as innocent and harmless as a kitten.

And that is the mystery of our God.  He takes created things to deliver to you his promises and the goods of that very promise.  He doesn’t beckon you to his high and holy throne; NO… instead he comes to you as part of the very creation he made.  He comes as the man… to redeem man… by clothing himself not only in the flesh and blood of you and me, but in the temptations and the sorrows and tears of living in the valley of the shadow of death.  Indeed, he who knew no sin becomes sin and devours it like a lion – a full grown, roaring lion.

Judah’s line is a royal line and this King of the Jungle reigns by being crucified on a Roman cross.  The full strength of our God is realized in the death of a man… The full strength of the Lion of the Tribe of Judah cannot be stolen from him, but instead he rises again to life and the scepter shall not depart from him.  He stooped down, to grab you and by the water of your baptism – now you have lion’s blood in your veins.

Come Lord Jesus. Amen.

Rev. Steven CholakLion

The Good Shepherd Institute: A look at the Elephant in the Room

Elephant

This past November 1-3, my wife and I traveled up to the great white north to visit Concordia Theological Seminary for the annual Good Shepherd Institute (GSI).  This year’s conference was on the open topic of music in the church… a look at the elephant in the room.

First of all, I should say that I recommend the Good Shepherd Institute for all church workers – EVERY YEAR.  It is a great conference on what the church (as church) does.  There are discussions of liturgy (ordo), music, hymnody, and how these things have meaning and import in the lives of various church workers and lay people.  (A friend of mine likes to refer to catechesis and Bible study as “practice” and the divine service as “game day.”) I love these kinds of continuing education events.  Not only do you get to soak in the information coming from the plenary sessions, but then you get to engage various people in individual conversations containing specific application to your situation and the needs at your place.  This happens in the hallway, the bookstore, the cafeteria, and at chapel.  Not only that, but seeing various people and a plethora (one of my favorite words) of contacts face to face, can’t be beat.

I work in the youth ministry office of our church body’s headquarters.  Last year’s GSI was specifically targeted toward youth ministry, and at first glance you would think that this year’s conference had nothing to do with it, and you would be incorrect.  Last year’s conference set the stage for a conversation about the ordo (the liturgy of the church) and the hymnody and songs that we sing.  This year’s conference took up the difficult conversation of actually talking about those components in their context and identifying problems with a varied practice.  Of course, they wanted the conversation to be inclusive of the whole church… and it was.  However, it was very appropriate conversation to continue the stream of thought from last year’s conversations.  Also, the impact of having the whole church together in an intergenerational ministry situation is best for the youth, the children, and the adults (and the seniors).  So you didn’t have to a “youth ministry” shingle outside the door for this conference to take up these very important youth topics.

Rev. Dr. Thomas Winger of our sister seminary in Ontario, Canada (President of Concordia Theological Lutheran Seminary in Saint Catherine’s) opened the conference up with his plenary address titled, “What’s right for the rite?”  This was a great conversation about the liturgy itself and where music fits into it.  Dr. Winger did a fabulous job of illustrating the liturgical melting pot of what is divinely mandated and what turns out to be human decision (and everything in-between).  The gifts of God are wrapped and presented just like every other gift.  Dr. Winger identified the gifts as: Word and Sacrament, Absolution, Scripture Readings, Preaching, The Body and Blood of Christ, and the Benediction (I’m sure he did not mean this to be an exhaustive list).  What is the box for the gift?  That’s the setting or the order of service, a Law and Gospel Order to things, the biblical canticles, the lectionary, the church year, our hymn texts, and music (not a specific kind of music, but that we have music in our services).  We wrap the box with our own (human decision) paper and bow: specific music, vestments, posture, gestures, movement, locations, vessels, incense, and the like.  “The beauty of this is the person of Jesus.”  (Other parts of the discussion: Does “liturgy” mean the same thing to you as me?  How do the Lutheran Confessions address worship and music?  Does the history of the ancient church have anything to say about liturgy today?  There is a difference between what man creates and what the church is creating – in other words, the collective work of the church is quite different from the singular work of any one pastor alone.)

Can that relate to YOUTH?  How can the topic of liturgy and worship not be one of youth?  For me, this was an immensely important presentation because it broke apart the ordo and its components to show that it can’t just be dismissed in its entirety.  The liturgy has to be addressed in some way in every congregation.  This particular topic had parallels with Stephen Johnson’s presentation later, which I will get to in more detail soon.  But, even in our post-modern, millennial, nexter (mosaic) society there is and must be a Lutheran ethos to our worship and our song.  When we engage the youth of our church, we have to give them the distinctively incarnate God – Jesus Christ in the context of how he promises to be present among us.

As we plan youth events and continue to engage the youth of our church at various levels, it is important to have a thorough and serious conversation about why certain things make Lutheran worship and praise, Lutheran.  That means that regardless of whether we have a drum set or a timpani, electric guitar or an organ, there is a specific Lutheran backbone that is identifiable.

In order to specifically engage the topic of music itself and the theory behind it, Dr. Barbara Resch spoke on “Music for the Church.”  Dr. Resch is the music department chair at Indiana Purdue University Fort Wayne, Indiana.  This was very important because we talked about whether or not music is a universal language.  Ponder this for a minute, “Music from a style with which we are totally unfamiliar is meaningless.”  We rush past this in our everyday world and just assume that because we are familiar with something – then everyone is and it carries the same kind of meaning for others as it does for me.  That just isn’t the case.  We also need to be aware that bringing what is common from the world into that which is sacred may result in many people having a meaningless experience.  Here we might get into a conversation about what happens to the life long Lutheran when new forms of “modern” music are introduced for the sake of the young and the youth.

More from Dr. Resch included what emotion music drags into the scene and how music communicates across borders.  How does music’s appeal and power over emotion make it appealing across borders (or does it?).  Also, can music be used (even unawares) to manipulate emotions of church goers.  These are important topics because we are not the church of emotional heart strings (I’m not saying that we don’t have emotion in church, we do, it’s just they are not the focus – Jesus IS), but we are the church of the incarnate Lord, Jesus Christ.  He comes for the lost even if we don’t feel him there.

Does the music serve the Word? or Does the Word serve the music?  We have to keep these kind of questions in mind as we think about youth ministry and what we are preparing as we look for worship and praise opportunities.  Ultimately, the music serves the Word and must serve it so that Jesus is carried to the youth and even with them into their everyday life.

Now on to Stephen Johnson.  Stephen is a hymn tune writer.  He explained his fascinating journey from evangelicalism to Lutheranism and how his journey as a musician impacted him through it all.  The most important piece I took from his plenary was the discussion about Lutheran ethos in Spiritual Songs.  He introduced what he called, “Lutheran Signature Items.”  At least one of these items every Lutheran song should engage.  This is because of a fundamental characteristic of Christian song: it confesses the Christ.  Now, Lutherans are distinct about this Christ.  Certain characteristic are important for the ongoing conversation and life of the church within itself and without itself (with the world): Original sin, Justification, Christology, The Sacraments, Theology of the Cross, Law and Gospel distinction, the Holy Ministry, and the Church.

This whole thing reignited my love for catechesis and the ongoing work of the church to teach the faith to Christ’s flock.  We are a church of the incarnate Jesus and everything about us shows him.  Ordo and music have a profound stake in the formation of catechumens and for the ongoing life of the Christian.  We too often overlook how profound an impact this has on our church.

I give kudos to the seminary in Fort Wayne for a job well done.  There were many more aspects to the conference that I can’t go into detail here now, but I’m glad that our presenters and the seminary were willing to openly talk about difficult issues for the sake of the church.  I’m going to try to include some more posts on specific topics that have come up because of this conference.  Look for more soon.

Liars or Confessors? A Homily

The Fifth Chief Part of the Christian Faith: What is Confession ++ Isaiah 6:1-7

We’re okay confessing our sins as long as we can do it behind the safety of a locked heart.  That’s the work of the old Adam… as the Holy Spirit is shattering our heart of stone into millions of pieces to make room for a new heart, our sinful nature is gluing the pieces back together – humpty dumpty style.  Making sure to fill in all the nooks and crannies… so that no light gets in, because darkness is the best friend of the sinner – the blanket under which Satan does his work – and the way of the world.  Under cover of that dark vault we fool ourselves into some kind comfort, thinking that we are at peace with a Jesus that knows we are repentant.  The problem isn’t in what Jesus knows or doesn’t know.  The problem is with our constant and continual lying.

The incarnation of our Lord attacks our false truths, lies, and omissions head-on.  We have a God that is not content with abstractions and feelings.  He dismisses the way of the world for tangible, touch you, in your face religion.  He won’t have humpty dumpty or your cracked-up, super glued heart deal with your sins, your confessions, or your absolution.  It can’t be trusted.  You can’t be trusted.  And so he comes to deal with your sin in human terms… in flesh and blood.

Just like he dealt with Isaiah.  What did God do to the Man of Woe, a person of unclean lips and unclean people??  Seraphim took a live coal (HOT STUFF, burn you, melt your skin off, HOT COALS) and touched Isaiah on the lips.  The only time a man or a woman tells the truth… it seems, is when he says, “I AM A SINNER!”  In the depths of that truth, there in the safety of the light, Jesus deals with your sin.

HOW?  Well, this is the God that engages all your senses.  This is the God that isn’t content letting you be in your sin and death.  This is the God that won’t leave you here in danger while he tends to the universe.  You aren’t going to get his attention… in fact you don’t want his attention.  Your comfort was in the darkness.  But don’t misunderstand: you are in danger.  And it isn’t the hurricanes and the earthquakes, hunger, and homelessness… or even overpopulation that is your danger, your trouble.  Your trouble is sin and your trouble is death.  You have an accomplice that wants you in hell and he’ll use whatever to trick you into abstractions about your situation.  Jesus won’t have it.

So God becomes part of his creation.  He is born a man and suffers all the temptations you suffer.  And then takes the full force of God the Father’s wrath and judgment.  He takes it all on the cross of Calvary for the salvation of your souls.  But Jesus wouldn’t leave it there.  He takes that freedom… that death of death itself, that life eternal and forgiveness of sins, that love of God himself and he brings it to you and applies it to you.  He uses your body to do it.  We might be content with just hearing about it.  And for sure, that is one of the senses he has chosen to use… but also your eyes, your tongue, your skin, your nose.  He uses the things of this creation and he adds his heavenly royalty and spender to it. Think about it… water to wash you – real water (anecdote)… bread that needs baking… wine that you have to crush grapes to get.  And the touch…applying your crucified Jesus to your situation and removing your death from you.

And so, like unto Isaiah in our text, Jesus sends a messenger with a live coal.  Do not underestimate the heat of that coal.  He sends a coal to touch the lips of the those that confess their sins.  The heat of God’s wrath, the heat of the cross will destroy those sins.  Receiving absolution, from the pastor – God’s messenger, as from God himself.  He does this – God does this – so that you won’t have doubt about the status of your sin.  It goes the way of burned up, fire induced ash, just like a live coal would do.  When you speak it to your pastor, it dies in his ear.  It isn’t some kind of status or confidentiality agreement – NO… your sins go there to die and are not spoken of again.  In that sense, the pastor’s ear is a grave.  Jesus uses that messenger and that ear to destroy your sin and restore you to splendor.  He applies the blood of his Cross to you and makes you new.  And so, people of God, you are loved… Jesus has come and does come even today to touch you in your place to interrupt you in your way and restore you to live and salvation.  What a great gift God has chosen to give to you.  No longer liars, but confessors, we go to the throne of God and he buries us and our sin in the death of Jesus and rises us again to life in that same Jesus.  You are the forgiven… the touched by God… the living for Jesus declares it.  Alleluia!  Today he has done all things well.  Alleluia!

++Rev. Steven Cholak++

Conquering Death

The context of our faith conversations are slightly skewed.  It’s not that we have a God that has the power to conquer death.  That is a given.  Is he a powerful God or is he just a figment of the weak and sinful heart, like idols made with human hands…they have mouths but cannot talk, etc.? (And when we introduce this doubt, and I mean us – Christians, we don’t destroy the sacred.  God continues to be what he is despite our doubting and even in the face of our doubts.)

It’s not that we have a God that talks absolutes and declares eternal truths.  That too is true and a given.  What we so easily miss is that we have a God that HAS conquered death by his very own death.

What are those eternal truths??  What is his power we talk about?  He isn’t a God that is made with human hands or human hearts, he is a God that is eternal – that has become the man that by his own crucifixion saves sinners.  The creator has taken on creation.  God, the creator of all things, has become Man, born of the Virgin Mary.  He came to redeem the created.  He died to save you from sin and death and the devil.  And that God conquered death.  He conquered your death and now you are alive in him.

Now you find yourself in the context of a living God-Man, Jesus.  You are one of his many members and he is your head.  He has mastery over death and he will die no more… which means you too will dwell with him.