What Happens in Worship

Lutheran worship is primarily the proclamation of the gospel in Word and sacrament. As we gather together for worship, God speaks to us in his Word. Through the preaching of his law he crushes us with the stark and painful reminder of our own sin and unworthiness; he causes us to tremble at his holiness and justice; he speaks to us his urgent call to repentance. But in that same time of worship, a gracious God speaks to us words of full and free forgiveness. He points us to Christ and to the cross where his sacrifice paid the price of our sin, removed our guilt, and opened the door to heaven itself. In that same time of worship, we poor miserable sinners kneel side by side and receive the same body and blood that were given and shed for us. We commune with our God and with each other. In that same setting of worship, we witness how the power of the Holy Spirit, working through nothing other than his Word and simple water, creates new life and faith in the hearts of children and adults as they are baptized. And even when we join our voices to praise God in our words and songs, that praise is always focused on what God has done for us in Christ, adding our voices of gospel proclamation to the voice of the shepherd God has called to serve us.

If that is what happens in Lutheran worship, if the proclamation of the gospel and the preaching of Christ crucified is the center of what happens in our churches, then our worship services are not only times when God is nourishing the faith of believers; worship services also become a time and place where true evangelism and outreach take place. It is in that kind of Christ-centered and cross-focused worship setting that people hear not what they want to hear, but what they need to hear. It is then that people receive something effective and lasting—not the passing emotional high that soon fades outside the church doors, not the hollow recipes for happiness, worldly success, or outwardly godly living.

Mark Schroeder

from here

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A Communion Hymn–“What Is This Bread?”

Last Supper

This Maundy Thursday we sang a new Communion hymn titled, “What Is This Bread?” (LSB 629).  They copyright on the song is 1991, which is very new in our LCMS circle.  To put it into perspective a bit for some of you uber-contemporary folks, this hymn is across the page from a hymn by Thomas Aquinas dated in the late 13th century.  Anyway, this is a great hymn, with a beautiful tune and lyrics that teach a wonderfully rich, unashamedly Lutheran theology of the Lord’s Supper:

What Is This Bread?

What is this bread?
Christ’s body risen from the dead:
This bread we break,
This life we take,
Was crushed to pay for our release.
O taste and see–the Lord is peace.

What is this wine?
The blood of Jesus shed for mine;
The cup of grace
Brings His embrace
Of life and love until I sing!
O taste and see–the Lord is King.

So who am I,
That I should live and He should die
Under the rod?
My God, my God,
Why have You not forsaken me?
O taste and see–the Lord is free.

Yet is God here?
Oh, yes! By Word and promise clear,
In mouth and soul
He makes us whole–
Christ, truly present in this meal.
O taste and see–the Lord is real.

Is this for me?
I am forgiven and set free!
I do believe
That I receive
His very body and His blood.
O taste and see–the Lord is good.

There are many wonderfully rich truths taught in this short hymn.  In fact, one could use it as a great catachetical tool to teach the basics of a Lutheran understanding of the sacrament.

As we were taking Holy Communion on Maundy Thursday evening, however, I was struck by a line in the third verse, “My God, my God, why have You not forsaken me?”  It is a subtle twist on Jesus’ words from the cross and Psalm 22…and it echoes the recurring sentiment of my sinful heart.

There is no direct reply in the verses that follow, which is fine, because the sin-burdened heavy heart does not need a theological treatise on God’s presence with us.  What follows is better–the promises of God, through the Word, that he is both ever-present with us and that we are forgiven and freed from our sins.  Amen.  Thanks be to God!

Luther on the Danger of Public Praise

In many liturgical Christian circles, the rites of Morning Prayer or Matins often begin with these words from Psalm 51:

O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.

As innocent as this invocation may sound, Luther suggests that there is quite a bit more to David’s request than may first meet the eye.  He writes:

By asking the Lord to open his lips, David showed how difficult it is to offer thanks to God.  This is something God demands of us (Ps 50.14).  Talking about the Lord and thanking him publicly require an extreme amount of courage and strength, because the devil is constantly trying to stop us from doing this.  If we could see all of Satan’s traps, we would know why David prayed for the Spirit’s strength and asked the Lord himself to open David’s lips.  He wanted to tell the devil, the world, kings, princes, and everyone about the Lord.

Many things can keep our lips shut:  the fear of danger, the hope of gaining something, or even the advice of friends.  The devil uses these ways to stop us fromoffering thanks to God, as I have often experienced in my life.  And yet, at important times, when God’s honor was threatened, God stood by me and opened my mouth in spite of the obstacles…

Whenever Scripture talks about praising God publicly, it’s talking about something extremely dangerous.  This is because announcing his praise is nothing other than opposing the devil, the world, our own sinful nature, and everything evil.  For how can you praise God without first declaring that the world is guilty and condemned?  All who condemn the world are asking to be hated and put themselves in a very dangerous situation.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 12:393)

While many will no doubt agree that praising God publicly is sometimes risky,  I confess that I have never thought about praising God in this manner…never made the link betweeen my praise of God being an explicit condemnation of the world, etc.  And yet, as usual, I think Luther got it right here.  For us to open our lips to speak of Christ is to ally ourselves with him and his word, which is first a condemnation of the world (Law) before it is ever a consolation to the convicted (Gospel).

It goes without saying that such an alliance, at all times and in all places, is a dangerous business indeed!

Merciful and everlasting Father, You did not spare Your own Son but delivered Him up for us all that he might bear our sins on the cross.  Grant that our hearts may be so fixed with steadfast faith in our Savior that we may not fear the power of any adversaries; though Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

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More Diognetus…

I am now re-reading the Epistle to Diognetus for the fifth or sixth time and picking up something I previously missed each time I pick it up again.  Last time, I quoted extensively and wrote some thoughts on Diognetus’ discussion of Christ as the gracious self-revelation of God to humanity.  Similarly, we read later in the letter of Christ as the merciful atoning sacrifice for humanity–sent by the Father to reconcile the world to himself:

So then, having already planned everything in his mind together with his child, he permitted us, during the former time, to be carried away by undisciplined impulses as we desired, led astray by pleasures and lusts, not at all because he took delight in our sins, but because he was patient; not because he approved of that former season of unrighteousness, but because he was creating the present season of righteousness, in order that we who in the former time were convicted by our own deeds as unworthy of life might now by the goodness of God be made worthy, and having clearly demonstrated our inability to enter the kingdom of God on our own, might be enabled to do so by God’s power.

Thoughts…the author is clearly familiar with the writings of the Apostle Paul.  Echoes of Romans 1-2 are unmistakable here.  I also find it interesting that Diognetus presents an understanding of Law and Gospel that is very Lutheran.  Though the Law is not explicitly mentioned here, the reference to humanity’s conviction “by our own deeds as unworthy of life” must refer to the traditional Jewish understanding of the Law (and Paul’s understanding, contra the New Perspective)…but I digress…the indisputable point here is that human attempts at salvation have failed, and salvation is wholly a graceful work of God.  Continuing:

But when our unrighteousness was fulfilled, and it had been made perfectly clear that is wages–punishment and death–were to be expected, then the season arrived during which God had decided to reveal at last his goodness and power (oh, the surpassing kindness and love of God!).

He did not hate us,
or reject us,
or bear a grudge against us;
instead he was patient and forbearing;
in his mercy he took upon himself our sins;

he himself gave up his own Son as a ransom for us,
the holy one for the lawless,
the guiltless for the guilty,
the just for the unjust,
the incorruptible for the corruptible,
the immortal for the mortal.

For what else but his righteousness could have covered our sins?  In whom was it possible for us, the lawless and ungodly, to be justified, except in the Son of God alone?

O the sweet exchange,
O the incomprehensible work of God,
O the unexpected blessings,
that the sinfulness of many should be hidden in one righteous person,
while the righteousness of one should justify many sinners!

More thoughts…again I have reformatted the text into verse, even though the text in my copy is not formatted that way.  I can’t help but read this almost as a hymn of praise to God for his great love and mercy.  To be blunt, this is great stuff, especially the last stanza…I love it!  And now wrapping it up:

Having demonstrated, therefore, in the former time the powerlessness of our nature to obtain life, and having now revealed the Savior’s power to save even the powerless, he willed that for both these reasons we should believe in his goodness and regard him as nurse, father, teacher, counselor, healer, mind, light, honor, glory, strength, and life, and not be anxious about food and clothing.

As I said above, the more I read this letter, the more I like it.  It is at the same time apologetic and suitable for worship.  It is a magnificent work that I wish were in the hands, hearts, and minds of more Christians today as we ponder continually the mercies that the Father showers on us through Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit every instant of every day!  Amen.

Transcendence and Immanence…

During my morning prayer / Bible reading / quiet time / meditation this morning, I found myself confronted with two radically different depictions of God’s presence that resulted in the same human response. The psalm reading appointed for this morning (per the lectionary in LSB) was Psalm 99, a stirring, and lofty depiction of our transcendent Sovereign Lord, ruling in majesty over all the earth:

The Lord reigns; let the peoples tremble!
He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!
The Lord is great in Zion;
he is exalted over all the peoples.
Let them praise your great and awesome name!
Holy is he!
The King in his might loves justice.
You have established equity;
you have executed justice
and righteousness in Jacob.
Exalt the Lord our God;
worship at his footstool!
Holy is he! (Psalm 99.1-5, ESV)

The gospel reading for this morning was from Luke 5, specifically the account of Jesus healing a leper. Here we see another account of God, still sovereign over creation, but this time immanently close, touching the body of one disfigured by disease and bringing healing:

While he was in one of the cities, there came a man full of leprosy. And when he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and begged him,Jesus heals a leper “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him. And he charged him to tell no one, but “go and show yourself to the priest, and make an offering for your cleansing, as Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” But now even more the report about him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities. But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray. (Luke 5.12-16, ESV)

In both accounts, God demonstrates his sovereign rule over creation–in Psalm 99 over the whole cosmos and in Luke 5 over the disease of a single man. Similarly, in both accounts the human response is identical, worship–in Psalm 99 the whole of humanity worshiping at the footstool of his throne and in Luke 5 a single man on his face before Christ Jesus.

Here God’s transcendence and immanence stand side-by-side, not requiring reconciliation or explanation. Our God of infinite majesty is the same God who ‘got his hands dirty’ as the incarnate Messiah.

While both of these passages were familiar to me before this morning, I doubtless had never read them in tandem like this. The discipline of lectionary to guide my reading has again proven to challenge, stretch, and reward from its use.

Salvation Unto Us Has Come

For starters, I cannot believe how busy the past few weeks have been!  It seems I came off of working STS-122 and never stopped in preparation for STS-123.  I am the lead from our group for this flight, and the compressed schedule has kept me more than gainfully employed…but onto more lofty things…

One of the joys (and challenges) of our foray into Lutheranism has been learning a completely new hymnody.  The lyrics are wonderfully rich, more so even than many of the Reformed hymns that I know and love from childhood.  The music has proven rather difficult to learn as I’m not that terribly acquainted with 16th and 17th century German tunes (Bach aside).  Overall, however, it has been greatly rewarding.  Not being familiar with the hymns has forced us all to slow down and actually read what we’re singing…even Ali has asked questions about some of the vocabulary, etc., which I think it great.

Anyway, yesterday we sang yet another unfamiliar song, “Salvation Unto Us Has Come.”  It is one of the most eloquent short presentations of the whole story of the Bible–Christ-centered, cross-focused…teaching salvation by faith alone, demonstrating the distinction between Law and Gospel, etc.  Beautiful!  Theologically correct!  A magnificent work, indeed!  Where has this hymn been all my life?!  Here are all ten verses for your reading pleasure and edification.  Enjoy!

1. Salvation unto us has come
By God’s free grace and favor;
Good works cannot avert our doom,
They help and save us never.
Faith looks to Jesus Christ alone,
Who did for all the world atone;
He is our one Redeemer.

2. What God did in His Law demand
And none to Him could render
Caused wrath and woe on every hand
For man, the vile offender.
Our flesh has not those pure desires
The spirit of the Law requires,
And lost is our condition.

3. It was a false, misleading dream
That God His Law had given
That sinners should themselves redeem
And by their works gain heaven.
The Law is but a mirror bright
To bring the inbred sin to light
That lurks within our nature.

4. From sin our flesh could not abstain,
Sin held its sway unceasing;
The task was useless and in vain,
Our guilt was e’er increasing.
None can remove sin’s poisoned dart
Or purify our guileful heart,-
So deep is our corruption.

5. Yet as the Law must be fulfilled
Or we must die despairing,
Christ came and hath God’s anger stilled,
Our human nature sharing.
He hath for us the Law obeyed
And thus the Father’s vengeance stayed
Which over us impended.

6. Since Christ hath full atonement made
And brought to us salvation,
Each Christian therefore may be glad
And build on this foundation.
Thy grace alone, dear Lord, I plead,
Thy death is now my life indeed,
For Thou hast paid my ransom.

7. Let me not doubt, but trust in Thee,
Thy Word cannot be broken;
Thy call rings out, “Come unto Me!”
No falsehood hast Thou spoken.
Baptized into Thy precious name,
My faith cannot be put to shame,
And I shall never perish.

8. The Law reveals the guilt of sin
And makes men conscience-stricken;
The Gospel then doth enter in
The sinful soul to quicken.
Come to the cross, trust Christ, and live;
The Law no peace can ever give,
No comfort and no blessing.

9. Faith clings to Jesus’ cross alone
And rests in Him unceasing;
And by its fruits true faith is known,
With love and hope increasing.
Yet faith alone doth justify,
Works serve thy neighbor and supply
The proof that faith is living.

10. All blessing, honor, thanks, and praise
To Father, Son, and Spirit,
The God that saved us by His grace,-
All glory to His merit!
O Triune God in heaven above,
Who hast revealed Thy saving love,
Thy blessed name be hallowed.