Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Psalm 39:4-5,12-13 - "Music for Recovering Failures”

Lenten Midweek
Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Tonight we’re going to be looking at a number of songs and readings from Scripture to talk about Christian music.

We start with the rock band U2 who has often encouraged me in my faith through songs with biblical references, pointing to eternal hope while singing about difficult, troubled situations. However, I’m tired of Christians acting like U2 is a Christian praise band. U2’s music encourages my faith, not because the songs are simple praise choruses; U2 speaks about faith from the context of life’s darkness and struggles.

For instance, “Tomorrow” has always first and foremost to me talked about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Take a listen to the first verse and chorus.

U2 – “Tomorrow” from the album, October
Won't you come back tomorrow
Won't you come back tomorrow
Won't you come back tomorrow
Can I sleep tonight
Don’t go to the door
I'm going out
I'm going outside, mother
I'm going out there

Outside, somebody's outside
Somebody's knocking at the door
There's a black car parked at the side of the road
Don't go to the door

There’s an ominous knock on the door, a threat of violence, perhaps the IRA coming to recruit the son, perhaps the police coming to arrest him, and the son struggles to know whether to face this violence, to join the struggle, or to stay inside and hide.

With that verse in mind, I hear the rest of the song struggling over this, even with its Christian references. I always took the chorus, “Will you be back tomorrow,” as being partly the son speaking about wanting an end to the troubles and perhaps asking for Jesus to return. However, I also hear the mother speaking those words, wondering when the son will return from jail or from being a part of the IRA.

Of course, you can’t ignore the last verse where Bono, the lead singer, says, “Open up to the love of God/To the love of He who made the blind to see/He's coming back/I believe Him/Jesus is coming/I'm gonna be there.” The song does look forward to Jesus returning.

Yet, to say that “Tomorrow” is just about the Second Coming is to ignore the rest of the song and the context in which U2 wrote much of their early music. U2 is very much inspired by the Psalms. Just as David cried out about his enemies attacking him even while clinging to faith in God, U2’s songs also cling to faith while facing the world around them. These are cries of faith within songs about the Troubles and the world that we live in.

With that in mind, it is no surprise that U2 took the words of Psalm 40 and made them into a beautiful song, often closing their early concerts with this song, leaving the stage with the crowd still singing.

Psalm 40:1-3
1 I waited patiently for the LORD;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
2 He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.
3 He put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear
and put their trust in the LORD.

That’s the kind of music, poems, and stories that we need to encourage our faith. As one author said, “[God] may be needling us through contemporary music; He may be challenging us to be alert to crucial issues and questions of our time that can be heard in rock music.”

However, some bands have been attacked in the Christian press for not being Christian enough, because they write songs about the world around them, songs that don’t necessarily make the Christian faith simple and neat. One such band is Switchfoot, and the lead singer, Jon Foreman, had this to about those criticisms,

“The people who throw the first stones don't sound like any hero of mine. I do have a hero. My hero is the most forgiving person I've ever met. My hero is the one the religious circles wanted to take out with the trash.

“My hero didn't play clubhouse games. He didn't start a clique where we invite the people who fit the bill. He invited the sick, the prostitutes, the weak and the screw-ups like myself. That's why everyone is invited to listen to our songs.

“No, I don't write music for the people who are in the cool club or the self-righteous club. This music is for the recovering failures who know they need a savior. Why does the church shoot the wounded? Why think the worst of people?”

Music for recovering failures. That’s the kind of music that we need for our faith; that’s the kind of approach to life that will help us to understand the world around us. The people in our community are broken and wandering away from God’s ways, but so are we. We are recovering failures. Listen to the song, “The Beautiful Letdown.”

Switchfoot – “the beautiful letdown” from the album, the beautiful letdown
It was a beautiful letdown
when I crashed and burned
when I found myself alone, unknown and hurt.

It was a beautiful letdown
the day I knew
that all the riches this world had to offer me
would never do
where I don’t belong.

In a world full of bitter pain
and bitter doubt
I was trying so hard to fit in,
until I found out

I don’t belong here
I don’t belong here
I will carry a cross and a song

The first two verses are much like what Psalm 39 says in verses 4-5:
Psalm 39:4-5
4 “Show me, O LORD, my life’s end
and the number of my days;
let me know how fleeting is my life.
5 You have made my days a mere handbreadth;
the span of my years is as nothing before you.
Each man’s life is but a breath.
Part of the Christian life is realizing just how small we are, how small the things of this world are compared to knowing God. Knowing that our entire hope lies in God, suddenly we realize like Switchfoot that we don’t fit in with this world, we don’t belong here. We sing a different song.

Psalm 39, verses 12-13, make a similar realization, although there the writer also realizes we don’t belong with God, we’re strangers to Him in our sinfulness.
Psalm 39:12-13
12 “Hear my prayer, O LORD,
listen to my cry for help;
be not deaf to my weeping.
For I dwell with you as an alien,
a stranger, as all my fathers were.
Look away from me, that I may rejoice again
before I depart and am no more.”
We don’t belong in this world, because we believe in God. We don’t belong with God, because we sin, but He has promised to take us in despite our sinfulness.

And so we continue to sing with Switchfoot who reminds us that we are recovering failures, we are a gathering of failures. Switchfoot may not present pretty little songs about how great life is with Jesus, but Switchfoot writes real songs about the real lives of recovering failures, of recovering sinners, seeing the Holy Spirit work in our lives despite our sinfulness.

Switchfoot – “the beautiful letdown” continued
We are a beautiful letdown
painfully uncool
The church of the drop outs, the losers,
the sinners, the failures, and the fools.
What a beautiful letdown
are we salt in the wound?
Let us sing one true tune.

If we approach Christian music expecting that it doesn’t have anything to do with worldly things, I’m afraid we’ll approach the world like that too. We’ll talk to people who don’t know Jesus and tell them that Jesus answers all of the questions—when really many questions remain unanswered. We’ll tell them that you never have to be afraid if you believe in Jesus—when really life is still scary. We’ll tell them that Jesus changes lives—when really we’re ready to walk away from them because their lives still don’t look like what we expect from church-going people. We’ll tell them that they just need to believe in Jesus—when really we’re not willing to walk with them as they discover Jesus and the mystery of faith.

David Wilcox is a singer-songwriter who also is a Christian. He doesn’t promote himself as a Christian singer, but he’s willing to talk about his faith. He doesn’t preach at his concerts, but through music and stories, he’s clearly inviting people to discover God’s love.

Here’s what Wilcox said in an interview when asked about how his faith shapes his songwriting.

“At first I'd thought, ‘Since this is true, it's going to be easy to write songs about it. I'll just say it's true.’ Yet I realized that whenever I'd heard a lot of the kind of music that does that, it never did me any good. It never respected the fact that I hadn't felt that yet.

“If you're trying to explain something logically, you have to start with things people can trust. I've always loved the songs that talk about the search process, the God-shaped hole within us. And I wanted to write that kind of song. But it took me a long time to understand how to put those kinds of thoughts down on paper.”

In my mind, Wilcox has over and over again written songs that do just that. They invite people into the search process for God. They start from the questions and doubts and struggles in our hearts; they start where people are. And then these songs point to hope and faith.

Listen to “Silent Prayer” where Wilcox talks about the desperate prayer in his heart when he was searching.

David Wilcox - “Silent Prayer” from the album, Turning Point
I used to pray for rescue by burning up my pain.
That's the only kind of prayer I knew back then.
It was a fire of desperation for any wings in flight
Like a beacon from my lifeboat late at night.
As long as I was waiting
Under the empty sky out there,
I would feel that sorrow burning like a rescue flare.
I'd fear there's nothing to believe in, nothing that would care.
And the fire of desperation,
That's my silent prayer.

I want to smash the windows. The congregation's asleep.
I want to feel the wind blow and let the spirit free.
I can't, I can't stand to sit there where their God is pocket-size.
I want to feel what's real and will not compromise.
This rage I blaze inside me
Into the empty sky out there,
When I feel that sorrow burning like a rescue flare,
I fear there's nothing to believe in. Nothing that would care.
And the fire of desperation,
That's my silent prayer.

Wilcox seems to be afraid that some churches may squash those desperate cries, those desperate questions and searches for truth and hope and God. May we not stop people from asking those questions. May we invite people to search with us, to journey with us, to discover God’s love in Jesus Christ through asking as many questions as they want.

Are you uncomfortable with a song that doesn’t answer all of the questions? Are you uncomfortable with Christians writing songs that question so much? Are you uncomfortable letting people be so questioning about God and their faith? If you’re uneasy about these questions, look again at the Psalms, like Psalm 42:
Psalm 42:9-11
9 I say to God my Rock,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I go about mourning,
oppressed by the enemy?”
10 My bones suffer mortal agony
as my foes taunt me,
saying to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”
11 Why are you downcast, O my soul?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God.

God can handle the questions—after all, many of the questions and doubts that we face are the questions and doubts in the Psalms, the Bible’s hymn book. Let the songwriters keep asking the questions. Let us keep listening to their songs. For those questions keep us searching for Jesus, keep us moving forward to discover each day how much Jesus loves and forgives us. And let us invite the people around us to walk with us, to journey with us, to search with us, to ask questions with us, to see the terrible struggle in our hearts and to see how God’s love supports us in every day of those struggles.

This is music for recovering failures. We are recovering failures who still know what it means to fail, who still cry out to God about our failures, who still kneel before God asking for His forgiveness for all of our failures.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

Isaiah 43:16-21 - “Forget the Former Things”

5th Sunday in Lent (Year C - LCMS Revised Readings)
Saturday, March 27, and Sunday, March 28, 2004
Words in parentheses were on posters on 2 easels—words in black for the former things, and words in red for the new.

God says through the prophet Isaiah, “Forget the former things.” (FORMER) Forget the things in the past. Not in the sense of actually forgetting them. After all, these are God’s great and glorious actions that have helped His people. But forget them, don’t focus on them, pay no attention to them, because, “See, behold, I am doing a new thing!” ( NEW)

Focus on this new thing, this thing coming in the future, this thing that will be far superior than anything God’s done in the past. See and trust that God will do something far more glorious than anything else we’ve seen. Forget the former things, pay no attention to them. Turn your attention to the new thing.

The former thing, the thing in the past is the Exodus from Egypt (EXODUS). God saved His people and brought them out, an exodus, leaving a land that treated them harshly. But this new thing, this new thing is salvation for our souls (SALVATION). We’re not just talking about a one-time event in history. This is salvation for all people. God will lead all people out, an exodus for all who follow Him.

Before, the problem was slavery to Egypt (EGYPT). The Egyptians were not treating God’s people very well. God heard their cries and promised to deliver them from that slavery. Now, though, this new thing solves the problem of being slaves to sin (SIN). Don’t just focus on what God can do when one world power puts His people into slavery. Focus on this new thing, this new salvation, where God will redeem His people, buy them back from slavery to sin, a spiritual slavery. See, God is doing something new, beyond anything we might imagine.

When God brought the people out of Egypt, they wandered in the desert (WANDER). The desert, the wilderness now means wandering to God’s people. For 40 years they wandered around the difficult terrain of desert and wilderness. But that’s the former thing. Now what the desert means is the place where God will make His path (PATH). “I am making a way in the desert,” God says. Where there was wandering, God will give direction. Where there was still a struggle to follow God’s ways, now God will lead His people once and for all into His ways, His path, His road. This new thing is better than any GPS, On*Star, in-dash computer; this is a path for our souls. He has provided the way to eternal life.

In saving the people from Egypt, God sent plagues (PLAGUES). Frogs and locusts and other animals died and suffered in order to show Pharoah and the Egyptians that the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses, the Great I AM, is the true God. Now, though, in this new thing, God will not kill animals; the animals will worship God (WORSHIP). The whole earth will be full of His praise. The animals will join in the heavenly chorus, praising God’s glorious Name. God is doing something new here.

While the people were in the desert, God gave them water from a rock (ROCK). But even that caused death, because of the way Moses got angry and didn’t follow God’s instructions. Moses got brash, and then God told Moses he wouldn’t go into the Promised Land because of the way He acted at the rock. So the water came from the rock, gave life to the people, but still there was death. Now though, God says He will send streams into the wilderness, water in the desert (STREAMS). This isn’t just a trickle from a rock; this is God transforming the desert. Water and streams where once there was nothing.

God takes this desert, this land of death (DEATH), and transforms it into a land of life (LIFE). And with this new thing, it goes beyond just talking about the literal desert. This new thing brings life to our souls. Where once there was only death for us spiritually, in this new life God is transforming our souls of sin and death into souls of life and salvation. There’s a stream of life-giving water flowing through your soul.

So forget the former things (FORGET). Pay no attention to them. Do not focus on the former things. God tells His people not to focus on the Exodus, not to think that saving them from Egypt is the only thing God will do. Because, see, behold, pay attention, God is doing a new thing. Focus on the new thing (FOCUS).

And this was true for when Isaiah spoke to the Israelites, but this is true for us today too. Forget the former things. Maybe your Grandma (GRANDMA) was miraculously healed. You thought she’d die, but then God brought her back to life. Rejoice in that, rejoice in what God has done, but don’t focus on that. Focus on the new thing. Focus on Jesus (JESUS). God may do many wonderful blessings in our lives, things we can look back on and praise Him for, but God doesn’t want us to focus on those things. God wants us to focus on Jesus, on the salvation that comes through the cross and resurrection. When it comes to our hope and faith, our undivided attention should be on this new thing: salvation and redemption through Jesus Christ.

Maybe you look back on your Confirmation (CONFIRMED), the day you stood up and reaffirmed your baptismal vow. You look back on that as the time when God taught you so much about your faith. But God says, don’t focus on that. Focus on the new thing. Focus on Jesus. Because if you focus too much on the day you were confirmed, the day you became a member of the church in adult confirmation, if you focus too much on those things, you might forget why it is that we’re here. Our hope and faith are centered in Jesus and what He has done.

Maybe you feel like you know enough (ENOUGH), that you’ve heard it all before, that you know enough about Jesus to get you by. But see, behold, God is doing a new thing. God is doing something that is beyond our imagination, that is even more glorious and wonderful than the things we’ve already seen. God is doing something in Jesus that is truly incredible. So pay attention, focus on the new thing, because your goal is the full and complete knowledge of Christ. A full and complete knowledge of Christ. There is not a time when we can say that we’ve learned enough, because the knowledge of Jesus is immeasurable. There is so much to learn about our loving and gracious God. Plus, everyday the stuff falls back out of our heads. Just when we learned what it means to be a child of God, we’re back to wondering just what God has to do with our lives. So no, focus on the new thing. Focus on the goal of a complete knowledge of Jesus.

As one scholar said, forget the former things, forget what you’ve achieved in your faith so far, because if you focus on your Confirmation and your church membership and all of the things you’ve already done for God, if you focus on that, you might put it into neutral (NEUTRAL). You might put the car into neutral, coast, and then glide to a stop. You might say to yourself, “I have arrived.” You might fool yourself into thinking that you’ve got it all figured out, you’ve in like flynn, you’re good to go, you’re groovy.

But this isn’t about coasting. Paul shows us that in the reading from Philippians today. Faith is about striving, straining, pressing on toward the goal. Faith is about keeping Jesus as the focus. Faith doesn’t hope in the old things or the things you’ve done yourself. Faith hopes in Jesus. So forget the former things.

Focus on Jesus. Focus on the salvation that comes through Jesus. There may be lots of other blessings in your life. There may be great days that you look back on, but don’t put all of your attention on them. You see, that’s what got God’s people into trouble and that’s why God sent Isaiah the prophet. They looked back at the Exodus and said, “We’re God’s people. He’s saved us once; He can do it again.” They put their spiritual lives in neutral. They assumed that God would always bail them out. They stopped having a relationship with God, and He became something just on the shelf, a little memento, a plaque on the wall.

(take cards and throw them out the window)
So God says through Isaiah, “Forget the former things. Throw them out the window.” So God says to us today, “Forget the former things. Throw them out the window. Don’t put it into neutral. Continue to focus on Jesus and salvation through Him.”

And so indeed, even in these days of Lent when we remember our sins, when we turn to God in meditation and prayer, when we repent, even in Lent, we turn our full attention on the cross and resurrection, the victory we have through Jesus, the forgiveness that He won for us.

Even more than that, we focus on the promise of Jesus to come again, to come and put a final end to sin and death, to put an end to this broken world, to rescue us and take us to eternal life, to a new life. We focus on the new thing that God has started in you and me through faith, but we focus on this new thing that will be completed on the Last Day. We focus on this great, wonderful, far superior promise, bigger than anything we’ve ever know. We focus on how God will take us who are dead in our sins and He will make us alive again!

Forget the former things. Don’t dwell on them. Put your undivided attention this new thing, this salvation that comes through Jesus!!

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Ephesians 5:1-3 - “Living Together and The Third Option”

Lenten Midweek
Wednesday, March 17, 2004

I was talking to an engaged couple, not from this congregation, about performing their wedding. At some point in our telephone conversations, I realized that this couple was living together. When I asked about this, their first reaction was, “It shouldn’t matter. It’s nobody else’s business.”

I paused. I wondered whether or not if it really was my business that they were living together before getting married. I wondered how I could talk to them about this without being judgmental. Did it really matter whether they were living together, I mean, after all they were engaged, they had a wedding date? Is it anybody else’s business what they do?

At that point, I realized I could have three reactions: 1) I could agree with them that it is nobody’s business, and it doesn’t matter whether they’re living together or not; 2) I could judge their actions as sinful and refuse to perform their wedding; or 3) I could point out their sin, urge them to live as Christians, while still walking with them and not condemning them. The third option sounded the most difficult, but it also sounded the most like the message of God’s Word. However, before I could settle on the third option, of urging them to live their lives as Christians while also still showing them love, before I could settle on that action, I had to figure out what was wrong with the first two options.

The first option is to agree that it is nobody’s business. A couple says they are living together without marriage, and whether or not they plan on getting married, the couple says that it is nobody’s business what they do. The church shouldn’t bother them about it. Other people shouldn’t act like it is wrong. It is nobody’s business what they do in their private lives.

And this sounds good. It sounds like the American ideals we hold to be so self-evident: freedom, liberty, privacy. However, listen to these words of Paul from Ephesians chapter 5: “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people” (5:1-3).

There must be no hint of sexual immorality. When an unmarried couple lives together, is there a hint of sexual immorality? How does their living arrangement appear to other people? What kind of impression do other people take from this action? I think it gives more than a hint of sexual immorality; I think it is assumed that the couple is having sex. However, I guess a couple could still come back and say, “That’s nobody’s business.”

But let’s use that same logic in a different situation. Let’s suppose for a moment that I decide that I want to start a local Nazi party. I hold these meetings at my house to discuss Nazism, anti-Semitism, and white supremacy. It’s a peaceful group; we break no laws. However, how many of you would have a problem with me leading a Nazi group? Raise your hands.

But it’s nobody’s business, right? That’s my private life. It shouldn’t matter what I do, right? This is an extreme example, of course, but you can use this same argument about it being nobody’s business, you can use this same argument to cover a multitude of sins.

So what’s the problem? Why can our actions in our private lives become a problem, why can the Church or other Christians point out our sins from our private lives? Because when someone says that they are a Christian, their fellow Christians have an expectation that they’ll find that person living their life as a Christian.

So when I tell you that I am a believer in Jesus, you would be right to be disturbed to find me leading a local Nazi group. My actions do not match what I say I believe. It doesn’t matter that I’m doing this at home, in my private life. As my brothers and sisters in Christ, you should expect to find me living my life as a Christian.

In that same way, when an unmarried couple tells us that they are Christians, but then also live together before marriage, giving the hint of sexual immorality, then indeed their actions do not match what they say they believe. As brothers and sisters in Christ, we expect to find each other living our lives as Christians.

This is called accountability; we are accountable, answerable to others about our actions. When I tell you that I believe in Jesus, then I am accountable to you, I am answerable to you, if you find that I am not living according to God’s ways. That applies to living together before marriage, to greediness, to any kind of sin.

So the first option of saying that it is nobody’s business, that it shouldn’t matter whether a couple is living together or not, that logic doesn’t work out, and it goes against the expectations that we have of each other as Christians, to find one another truly living as Christians. However, does that set us up for the second option, to judge, to condemn, to exclude, ignore, reject a couple that is living together? Certainly this can’t be the option either.

Jesus says in Matthew chapter 7, the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (7:1-2). If we judge, condemn, and reject a couple that is living together, then by that same measure, we can be judged, condemned, and rejected for our sins. We can’t pick and choose among God’s commands about which sins get condemned by us and which sins we’ll allow. If we’re going to judge and condemn living together without marriage, then we better judge and condemn those who lie, gossip, have lustful thoughts, hate others, and say, “Oh, my God.”

In other words, our reaction to sin, whatever sin it is, our reaction is to be seasoned with love and mercy and forgiveness, just as our Father in heaven approaches our sinfulness. God has shown us in His Son, Jesus, that we have forgiveness for all of our sins, from the smallest to the greatest sins, they are all paid for on the cross. We spend these days of Lent contemplating our sins and realizing just how much we need Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

This is the Gospel message, the Good News that is to be our predominant message. Whenever we talk to someone about their sin, we are not to judge and condemn. We are to point out sin while also offering God’s forgiveness for sin.

Which brings us to the third reaction when a couple says they are living together: I could point out their sin, urge them to live as Christians, while still walking with them and not condemning them. This is the Gospel-filled reaction; this is the most difficult reaction; this is God’s reaction; this is the reaction Pastor Miller and I strive for, this is what this congregation strives for.

We begin by pointing out sin. Living together without marriage clearly goes against God’s Word. It hints at sexual immorality, and sexual immorality goes against the sixth commandment, “You shall not commit adultery.” Adultery isn’t just an affair involving a married person. Jesus defines adultery to cover all sexual sin when He says that even lusting in your heart is committing adultery.

So our first reaction is to point out sin. This is true, of course, for any sin. We cannot comprehend our need for Jesus Christ, our need for forgiveness and salvation, without realizing our sinfulness. Some people may think we are being unloving when we point out sin, but if the goal is Gospel, if the goal is mercy and forgiveness, we must also speak God’s Law that shows our sins and our great need for the cross.

After we talk to a couple about the sinfulness of living together without marriage, we urge that couple to live their lives according to God’s Word. Again, if the couple says they are Christians, then we talk about the expectation that they will indeed live their lives as Christians. This isn’t just something we tell couples who are living together. This is the same message spoken to married couples who are not treating each other in Christian love. This is the same message spoken to parents who are not treating their children in Christian love. This is the same message spoken to anyone we talk to about their spiritual lives: live according to God’s Word.

When we work with each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, we have a role to play in calling one another to live our lives as Christians. This is called admonishment. It is not judgment; it is not condemnation where you point out sin and reject and damn. Admonishment points out sins, urging a change in behavior, while still walking with that person, while still showing them love and forgiveness and respect.

We point out the sinfulness of living together without marriage, urge the couple to change their lives, and we walk with them in making those changes. Often we will encourage a couple to either move apart or get married right away. Moving apart provides the greatest chance for the couple to build a successful relationship before marriage. Data shows that couples who live together before marriage put themselves at almost twice the risk of a divorce, a risk that is already high enough. By moving apart, the couple gets to work through their relationship issues before living together. Pastor Miller works with couple in pre-marital counseling to offer the couple a chance at a strong relationship in Christ.

The other option, getting married right away with a possible future celebration of that marriage, is an option that puts an end to a sinful situation. However, here again, Pastor Miller works with the couple to help them build their relationship even while already married.

If a couple decides that don’t agree with either option, Pastor Miller, the congregation’s leadership, and I have agreed that then the couple cannot be married in our congregation. If they don’t agree with these options, in many cases, the couple is not agreeing that their situation is a sin. We cannot change our definition of sin; that is based on God’s Word.

It is unfortunate when a couple comes to this conclusion, because the conversation usually ends abruptly. There is not chance to continue to work through this issue, no chance to study God’s Word together. We try not to let the conversation end, but unfortunately, some couples make that choice.

Another concern some people bring up is how this approach to living together without marriage is applied differently in different situations. First of all, pastoral discretion is always an option. There are many pieces to a situation that may be unknown to the rest of us which lead Pastor Miller to work with one couple differently than another. Also, when someone is coming from outside the church, when someone has not been an active Christian prior to wanting to be married, that is a very different situation than a church member approaching us. With a church member, we have the expectation that they are living as a Christian. With someone new to the faith, they are only now beginning to adjust their lives to God’s ways. This may lead to a different handling of living together without marriage.

One last thing about why some couples who live together are able to get married here and others aren’t is that sometimes couples don’t tell us they’re living together. If a couple hides this from us, this is not the fault of Pastor Miller; this is a couple hiding something they know the church considers to be a sin. So sure, a couple that lies to the church about their living situation is rewarded, in a sense, because they are able to get married in this congregation. A couple that tells the truth may not be able to get married here; it looks like a punishment for telling the truth. However, the couple that lies must at some point admit that they lied, admit that to themselves, their family, or their church. And back to the difficulties faced by couples who live together before marriage, the couple that lies misses any opportunity to work through their relationship issues and, in turn, they put themselves at greater risk of divorce. These things are most definitely not a reward for their lying.

Therefore, when a couple says, “It’s none of your business whether we’re living together or not,” we choose the third option, the most difficult option, the option that follows God’s Word: we point out their sin, urge them to live as Christians, while still walking with them and not condemning them. May this be our reaction to any sin, because this reaction aims at Gospel. Yes, you have sinned, but God still loves you. Yes, you will need to accept your sinfulness and accept the consequences, but we will walk together. Yes, you have disappointed God, but He has sent His Son to die for you so that you can have eternal life, He has given you a gift you don’t deserve, I don’t deserve, no one deserves. We tell each other about our sins, but we do this with love and grace and mercy and forgiveness.

If you know of someone who ended the conversation with us about marriage because they knew we said living together without marriage is a sin, please urge them to continue the conversation with us. This takes time to study God’s Word together and walk together as brothers and sisters in Christ. If you know of someone who is mad about how the congregation has handled this in the past, please urge them to talk to us. There is no way to understand our position without studying it and seeing whether it matches God’s Word. If you feel that we have made a mistake, if we have not aimed at Gospel, please tell us. For indeed, even as Pastor Miller and I are called to point out sin, we too sin. We need your admonishment, your correction, your forgiveness.

May we ever strive together to live according to God’s Word—both His commands and His Gospel, His Good News, His forgiveness and love.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Colossians 2:6-12,18-19 - “Angels Don’t Want Us to Worship Them”

Lenten Midweek
Wednesday, March 3, 2004

As the second in our Lenten series of sermons on topics that you have requested, tonight we’re going to take a look at angels. Maybe you want to know how the spiritual and invisible world works. Maybe you’ve liked the TV show “Touched by an Angel.” Maybe you’ve read about people’s encounters with angels. Maybe you have a guardian angel pin on your sweater. To understand angels, we will have to find out what they are, what their role is, and what do they have to do with us.

Now in trying to study for this sermon, I took a look at the explanation to Luther’s Small Catechism, and there’s just barely two pages of information. I went to the slightly larger A Summary of Christian Doctrine, an introductory book about Lutheranism. Even there, only about 3 pages on angels.

Figuring I needed to find out more, I went on the Internet and found two angel experts. Diana Cooper teaches workshops about angels. Dr. Doreen Virture, (and yes, her real last name is Virtue), is a psychologist and a leader in the world angel movement. Dr. Virtue has been featured on many national TV shows. Both of these women travel the world teaching about angels. I figured I had found the experts to guide us in learning about angels.

So what is the role that angels play in our spiritual life? Diana Cooper gives us the answer.

“It really does not matter whether you pray directly to God for help or talk to your angels. Your angel is the intermediary between you and God, who deals with your requests anyway. However it is really wonderful to have a personal relationship with your angel and it helps to know their name. A name has a vibration and calling your angel by its name helps you to feel closer. An angel’s name can be anything from a down to earth, Fred to an exotic sounding, Francescina.”(1)

According to her Website, Diana Cooper knows a lot about angels, but I quickly realized this was not someone who was teaching what Scripture says. I mean, it doesn’t matter whether you pray to God or angels? That doesn’t sound right. And while it sounds fun to know my guardian angel’s name, I’m not so sure about this stuff about a name having a vibration. Here is this well-known angel expert, someone that is known for teaching about angels, but is she teaching the truth according to God’s Word?

I went back to the Bible. In fact, I’ll admit that I started with looking up some of those verses listed in those few pages in the Small Catechism and A Summary of Christian Doctrine. I first looked at Colossians chapter 2. Here Paul says, “Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions. He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow” (2:18-19).

Here we start to see where Diana Cooper went against Scripture. To say that it doesn’t matter whether we talk to God or angels is to put angels as equals with God, raising angels to the level of God, making angels deserving of worship. Cooper talks a lot about what she has seen and what it leads her to believe about angels, but these notions don’t come from Scripture. There’s nothing in Scripture about us trying to learn the names of angels. If they didn’t reveal their names in Scripture, the Bible doesn’t tell us how to figure out their names. When I started looking more closely at this angel expert’s teachings, it was clear. She wasn’t connected to Christ.

And perhaps that is our first and most important thing for us to remember about angels: if someone is teaching about angels or tells us something about angels, it must match what we know from Scripture, it must be connected with Scripture. And while Scripture acknowledges that angels are spiritual beings, created by God, and that the good angels are God’s messengers and servants sent to protect and help His people, nowhere does Scripture say we should worship angels or even focus on them.

When Paul says don’t get caught up with those who worship angels, he says that those who do have lost their connection to the Head, their connection to Christ. And it is the connection to Christ which gives us salvation. Angels cannot save us from our sins; salvation comes through Christ alone. Remain connected to Christ. If you have put too much focus on angels, if you have found yourself being led astray by teachers like Diana Cooper, then turn back to Christ alone. For in Christ, even our sins of putting angels on level with God, or even above God, the sin of idolatry, even that sin finds forgiveness in Jesus.

But let’s go on. The other angel expert, Dr. Doreen Virtue, has a page of frequently asked questions where she answers the question we’re asking now.

Q: Why would we pray to angels? Aren’t we supposed to pray to God? Are you worshiping angels?

Dr. Virtue’s answer? Sounds good when she starts, but keep listening.
A: The angels don’t want us to worship them or make them into "gods." They want all glory to go to God. So, we don’t pray to angels. We only request their help, and have conversations with them.
Angels are a gift from God, and our Creator intends for us to benefit from His gift to us. So there is nothing wrong with engaging in conversations with angels. (2)

Dr. Virtue says that we shouldn’t worship angels or make them into gods, which is great, that’s what we just heard Scripture say. Dr. Virtue says that angels “want all glory to go to God.” Yes, yes, that’s what God’s Word tells us. The angels are sent to do God’s work in the world, sent to bring glory to God Himself. In fact, this is exactly what we learn in the book of Revelation, chapter 22, where St. John says,

“The angel said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. The Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place.”

“I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I had heard and seen them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who had been showing them to me. But the angel said to me, “Do not do it! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers the prophets and of all who keep the words of this book. Worship God!” (22:6,8-9)

The angels do not want to be worshipped; they want us to worship God alone.

So Dr. Virtue sounds like she agrees with Scripture; don’t worship angels. But then she says, “So we don’t pray to angels. We only request their help, and have conversations with them.” Now I’m confused. I define prayer as a request for help, as a conversation with God. Dr. Virtue says we’re not supposed to pray to angels, but I’m not sure how that is different from requesting help and having conversations.

In fact, it sounds like we’re back to the problem we had with Diana Cooper: encouraging a connection with angels that is more important than a connection with God. Jesus says that we only need to pray in His Name, and the Father will hear our requests. Jesus doesn’t ever teach us to pray to angels or that we need angels to act as an intermediary. We don’t need to ask the angels to go talk to God for us. We can talk directly to God through Jesus.

So again, while we might be interested in learning more about angels, in rejoicing that God sends them as His servants, we can never let our interest in angels lead us to lose our connection to Christ. Christ is our salvation.

Perhaps you have gotten interested in angels, because you’ve felt like you’ve needed more, more to get you through each day, more to give you hope and strength to face the difficulties in your life. Those are real needs. It is hard to be confident in an unpredictable world. It is hard to keep going when you’re grieving or scared or troubled or sad.

But God points us to Christ, not the angels, when we need strength and hope. Tonight I point you to Christ for comfort and peace. Dr. Virtue or Diana Cooper would say that there is an untapped resource in angels, a resource we just need to discover in order to have the help we need. But why do we need to focus on angels? Why do we need to discover angels in order to get more help? We have Christ, and as Paul says in Colossians chapter 2, “In Christ, all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.” Christ is fully divine, fully God. “And you have been given the fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority.”

Whatever help we need is at the command of Christ. He is over all things. He commands the angels to watch over you. When you are connected to Christ, you are connected fully to God. Don’t let angel teachers trick you; you aren’t lacking anything if you don’t know the name of your guardian angel. You know the Name of the Savior of the world, the Savior that devotes Himself to you. You know Christ, and there is nothing else that you need for strength, help, comfort, peace, or forgiveness.

If you have been trusting an angel pin or statue, if you have said things like, “I know I’m safe; I’ve got my guardian angel pin on today,” then throw out the angel stuff. Throw out the books or jewelry or pictures or figurines. Angels aren’t meant to be worshipped. We’re not meant to call on angels in prayer. Do not let a curiosity about angels take you away from knowing that you have the fullness of Christ, the fullness of God’s love and grace and mercy all through Christ alone.

But what about people who have seen angels? What if you feel like you’ve encountered an angel? Well, Dr. Virtue had an experience of an angel saving her from an attack by two carjackers. I can’t deny that experience. But her experience turned her attention fully on communicating with angels and designing a combination of psychology and spirituality called Angel Therapy. I can’t deny Dr. Virtue’s experience of an angel protecting her, but I have to question where she has placed her attention, her hope, her trust.

In that same way, I can’t deny your experience if you feel that you’ve seen an angel. I can’t deny that experience, but what does God’s Word tell us about our reaction to an angel’s protection or presence?

Listen to the reaction of King Darius, King of Persia, who threw Daniel the prophet into the lion’s den. From the 6th chapter of Daniel, we read:

“At the first light of dawn, the king got up and hurried to the lions’ den. When he came near the den, he called to Daniel in an anguished voice, ‘Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, whom you serve continually, been able to rescue you from the lions?’

“Daniel answered, ‘O king, live forever! My God sent his angel, and he shut the mouths of the lions. They have not hurt me, because I was found innocent in his sight. Nor have I ever done any wrong before you, O king.’

“The king was overjoyed and gave orders to lift Daniel out of the den. And when Daniel was lifted from the den, no wound was found on him, because he had trusted in his God.”

Now Darius wasn’t a believer in God, so when he hears that an angel protected Daniel in the lion’s den, Darius could’ve easily worshipped the angel. But Darius issues a decree that says people should respect and worship God, the One who sent the angel.

“King Darius said: ‘I issue a decree that in every part of my kingdom people must fear and reverence the God of Daniel. ‘For he is the living God and he endures forever; his kingdom will not be destroyed, his dominion will never end. He rescues and he saves; he performs signs and wonders in the heavens and on the earth. He has rescued Daniel from the power of the lions” (Daniel 6:19-23,25-27)”

This is how we are to react if we believe an angel has been in our presence. The experience turns our worship to God. While we may rejoice in the work of the angel, as certainly Daniel did when the angel closed the mouths of the lions, our worship and respect and love and hope always remains with the One who sends the angels, with God Himself.

So don’t bother looking for Diana Cooper and Dr. Doreen Virtue if you want to learn about angels. They do not teach the truth according to Jesus Christ. They would lead you to believe that you are incomplete without a knowledge of angels.

But you are complete in Christ. You have the fullness of God in Jesus, the fullness of His salvation, which brings hope and peace and comfort.

1 From an online article, “Your Guardian Angel,” by Diana Cooper.
2 Dr. Doreen Virtue,