From the Word 

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. Psalm 103:2-5
  My January 2020 Epistle article made no mention of pandemic, virtual worship services, not seeing some of our loved ones for months at a time, no access to shut ins, or our members being in the hospital or dying without in person spiritual care.  It also did not speak of God’s life-preserving grace, the effectiveness of the Word without being present together, renewed appreciation for the Sacrament after going a long time without it, or the way God would use feeble, inadequate contributions to touch God’s people. 
  In a time of world-wide anxiety and frustration, we find countless reasons to bless the Lord.  These reasons are the countless ways He has blessed us.  What the world sees as closed doors, we see as windows of opportunity to share our faith.  While others live in fear of disease because it brings death, we live in the confidence of eternal life in heaven.  None of us looks forward to the process of dying, but we do not fear the result.  We have the privilege to reach out to those who fear the unknown of sin and death with the Good News of Jesus.
  Jesus knows the world of disease.  He lived here and got sick.  Jesus knows about sin and its consequences.  He took both to the cross in our place.  Jesus knows the looming doom of death.  He swallowed up death forever, that we might have life abundant here, by grace, and in heaven.  This is the message we bring our world in pandemic and panic.  Jesus came, lived, suffered, died, and rose to conquer all we fear.  He has overcome the world and the forces in it that threaten and harm.  In our witness of example and our witness of words, Bless the Lord!

 

From the Word

“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Luke 2:11 

  We have arrived at the last month of the strangest year in most of our lives.  Little, if anything, has been normal this year.  It is already certain that Christmas won’t be normal either.  And yet, God intervenes in the normal, and the unusual, to make them wondrous.
  Shepherds were grazing their sheep at night.  That was normal at some times of the year, unusual at others.  Whichever it was in this case, God made it wondrous when the angel appeared and told them, “unto you is born a Savior.”
  Our children will not prepare for many of the things they normally do in December.  We will try to make this as special a Christmas as we can.  But there will be no school parties, no caroling to nursing homes or assisted living facilities.  Family celebrations may or may not take place, depending on how much contact they had leading up to this time.  But the most important gift, the most special event will be the same; “unto you is born a Savior.”
  Non-Christians will be robbed of the office parties and obsessive shopping that characterize Christmas.  They won’t feel the so-called “spirit of Christmas” that gives them a better feeling as they face the rest of the winter.  The hopelessness that so many feel each December will no doubt be worse this year.  Not just for this year, but for their earthly and eternal welfare they need us to be their angels/messengers; “unto you is born a Savior.”
  He will be in our decorations.  He will be in our hymns.  He will be in our traditions.  We may not get all of these, but He will still be in them.  Christmas Eve, we will be more spread out.  We will have our temperature taken as we enter.  But the message will be there for us to celebrate.  That celebration will continue Christmas morning, and I pray one difference this year will be a nice crowd for the feast of the nativity.  With all the changes and possible disappointments, God will not disappoint.  Amid all the changes, our assurance, confidence, joy and peace will not change.  They are found in God’s message, “unto you is born a Savior.”

 

 

From the Word

“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life.  He does not come into judgement, but has passed from death to life.”  John 5:24 

  With the coming of a pandemic comes the questions, “What if I die?” or “What if my loved ones die?” Death means change, and this side of heaven that change is lifelong.  We are Christians, thus the unchanging message is that we have the gift of eternal life in heaven through Jesus’ death and resurrection.  God has transformed death into the gate to eternal life.  Isaiah 25 promises that the coming Messiah “will swallow up death forever.”  Jesus assures us in John 11 that He is ‘the resurrection and the life.”  As we face the pandemic, or any other circumstance that reminds us of our mortality, we do so in the assurance of what Jesus has already done.  Death is defeated, and we enjoy the victory. 
  This wondrous news does not mean our death will be a wonderful process.  Often our death is the result of us being very sick.  While we have great promise about the end result, we don’t look forward to the process.  But Jesus has promised to be with us all the days, which include the days of our dying.  Whatever we endure in our dying, it will not be what He endured for us.  If the process is prolonged, we go to His Word for the assurance of grace here, and glory in heaven that awaits us. 
  For us here, the great change is the empty chair and the empty moments that would have been filled with the contribution our loved one made to our lives.  The assurance of reunion helps us, but we still miss them.  As we contemplate the contributions God made through our departed loved ones, our focus could very easily be inward; what we no longer have.  In thanks for that contribution, we have the privilege of contributing to the lives of those God has given us.  Over the last several years, I have attended the funerals of many of my mentor pastors.  The number still living is one.  But God, in His mercy, has allowed me to see the privilege I have to be that to other pastors.  That is change that rejoices in grace received, and prays that God will use us as the instruments of His grace to others.
  Death comes, but has no power over us.  In the midst of the changes that death brings to this life is the assurance of God’s unchanging grace here, and the glory of heaven He has prepared for us by Jesus’ death and resurrection.

 

From the Word

“Love on another as I have loved you.”  John 15:12 

    Amidst our ever-changing world, there are things that are constant.  Among those are love and hatred.  These can be misrepresented, as they are today.  Many among us refer to we Christians’ proclaiming Law and Gospel as hate, which it clearly is not.  Misuse, or misunderstanding, does not negate the reality of love and hate as they exist and are expressed.
    Is there any positive aspect of hate?  We are called to hate the sin but love the sinner.  But for the most part, we correctly associate hatred as being something directed by people toward other people.  Such hatred has no place among us.
    The word “love” has so many different definitions that it is often hard to determine what others are referring to.  But we must always be clear what we are referring to.  Love has been defined for us by Jesus’ life, suffering, death and resurrection.  Love is defined in us, not by our feelings, but by what we have seen in Jesus.  Love is not primarily an emotion, but is action taken toward those we love.
    Many Christians, and non-Christians, assume that our calling is found in Leviticus 19:18, “love your neighbor as yourself.”  Many are surprised to discover that those words express the bare minimum God’s Law expects of us in relation to others.  Our calling is found in Jesus’ words in John 15, “love one another as I have loved you, greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
    Where hatred is selfish, love is selfless.  Where hatred expects things that others seemingly have failed to deliver, love gives and contributes.  Where hatred is self-gratifying, love is sacrificial, as we have seen in love defined on the cross.  Love does what is difficult, because that brings the greatest benefit to those it is given to.  Hatred tears down and destroys, love builds and blesses.  Hatred becomes a burden on our necks and our hearts.  Love frees and is freely given.  Of the many blessings God gives us, love is the most lasting.  Faith and grace will fade away in heaven because they will not longer be needed.  Love will endure forever.

 

From the Word

 O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth!
Sing to the Lord, bless His name; tell of His salvation from day to day. 

    What’s new about the new song?  Does this necessarily mean a new message?  Not necessarily, in fact, in the case of the new song to Yahweh, the message is rarely new.  What is new in every generation is the musical setting, and the cultural nuances that need to be responded to in song.
    Every generation thinks their problems are unique, causing many in those generations to assume Jesus’ return must take place in their generation.  Their problems are generally different from the immediate succeeding generations, making them seem unique.  In most cases one can show from history that similar problems existed in generations past.
    Regardless, each generation has issues to address that pose challenges and opportunities, and this shows up in the content of our worship, and the singing that accompanies it.  The substance of hymns and liturgy still include praise for salvation, the wonder of God’s works, and thanks for His daily blessing.  But each generation will address the challenges they face, not just in sermons and printed articles, but in hymns and spiritual songs.
    We worship our unchanging God.  His relationship to us is the result of the salvation He has accomplished in Jesus.  This is the timeless truth of who He is, and what he has done.  This timeless message is the content of our worship and hymns.  But in the hymns we see different emphases on these timeless teachings, having to do with the particular challenges faced by the generations who wrote them.  Paul Gerhardt writes during a time of terrible loss due to disease, and a time when some were trying to force him to deny certain aspects of his faith.  So he wrote “If God Himself be for me, I may a host defy; for when I pray, before me, my foes, confounded, fly.  If Christ, my head and master, befriend me from above, what foe or what disaster can drive me from His love?’  John Newton, responding to his life as a slave trader and generally immoral seaman, and who was converted by the preaching of Law and Gospel, wrote the words, “Amazing grace – how sweet the sound – that saved a wretch like me!  I once was lost but now am found, was blind, but now I see!”
    The tunes and poetry style have changed, but the content of worship and hymnody must remain on the wondrous God who made us, and remade us in the new creation brought about by Jesus’ death and resurrection.  It may be an old tune or lyrics.  It may be something we have never heard, or an expression of our faith embedded in our souls.  But, if the content is God’s grace and love, it is always a new song.