No. I am not addressing Thanksgiving - or Christmas. The season I refer to in the title is the season of the Church Year in which all of the lessons talk about one aspect or another of living out the Christian faith. One week the lessons seem to address stewardship, another week they talk about godly living (which is actually stewardship, too, isn't it?). Yet another week and they talk about the last things and the Judgment and so forth. 'Tis the season to talk about, and think about, what it means to be a Christian, and how our place in the world must color that consideration. Anyhow, that is our topic this month.
Quick Note: if you are looking for a light and breezy piece for the monthly "pastor's devotional article" you need to find someone else's newsletter this month - - or practically any month, I guess. - End of Note -
In some ways, we modern Christians face nothing new. The Small Catechism teaches us that the three great enemies we face are, "the devil, the world, and our flesh". The challenges to being a faithful Christian, then, are fundamentally the same as they have always been. We face the challenges of resisting the spirit of the age, of establishing and clinging to values which arise out of our faith (that is to say, out of our doctrine!), and living out in daily life what we say we believe.
In fact, we face a culture that is surprisingly similar to the culture of the pagan world in which the Christian Church first appeared. We live in something like an empire, since the United States is larger than many nations combined, and our influence is world-wide. Ancient Rome was a melting-pot of peoples and combined dozens of religions in the "religious community" of the day, with one over-arching state religion - just like America today. We don't worship the emperor, or course, but we do have a national civic religion today which holds all deities to be either equal or the actually same god under different labels, and we have a very low tolerance as a nation for those whose religion is exclusive and which claims absolute truth or authority. Also, like ancient Rome, we appear to be at the current zenith of opulence, wealth, and comfort - with all the problems attendant upon such conditions, among which is a vast moral decay.
In other ways, we modern Christians face things that no other generation of Christians has faced. The dissolution of the family, of community among people, and of the connection between people who regularly associate with one another appears to be systemic. These conditions have existed among men from time to time and from place to place, but the conditions of modern society have made these social break-downs far more common and widespread. Our technology has assisted in the collapse of the old style sense of community and enabled us to become personal islands in the midst of the sea of humanity. Our cars have divided us up into independent, personal travelers, rather than riding the trains or the busses of previous generations, or walking the common footpaths of so many centuries before that. Our radios and televisions, with all their attendant appliances have made it more likely that we will stay home for information, for entertainment, rather than going to the movies, or to the theater, or to sit in the park for the Sunday band concert.
Our information technology, with computers and Ipods and all such things have made possible so many wonderful things, but they have also taken away the need to go out and deal with another person for news, or for shopping, or even to buy a card for a friend. The result is a world in which many people don't 'interface' with others in any regular fashion. Their needs are taken care of by reaching out to the technology we have accumulated and allowing them to feed and clothe and inform and entertain themselves without the need for personal contact with another human being. Twenty years ago people were complaining that they didn't "neighbor" with one another the way they once had. Today we can take our phones into our own little world, talk or text to one another (thereby even missing out on the touch of a voice), surf the internet, download our music and our movies, and almost never have to deal with our neighbors.
We also face a world where nothing is necessarily what it seems. We can alter photographs, change audio recordings, and create movies and events out of whole-cloth - with no reality behind them at all. We cannot tell what the truth about almost anything in the news is. Perhaps we never could, but when any one of us can alter pictures and sound files and create movies at home with the ease modern computers give us, imagine what they experts can do with even better computers and programs. I remember my surprise years ago when I watched a dazzling ad for a car, in which the car raced around, doing harrowing turns and flying by various scenery - and then they showed us how the commercial was made. The process did not even require that the car be started or move. Everything in the commercial was either computer-generated or composited around a parked car, and it was simply made to look like it was racing along, turning sharp corners, and sliding about. So much for trusting what you see.
What we face as modern Christians is the same old challenges, ratcheted up several notches. We face a combination of wealth, isolation without necessarily knowing that we are isolated, the bias of the world (culture and society) against faith, truth, and Christ in specific, comfort and freedom from onerous labor unparalleled in the world's history. We can couple that with the dangers of being manipulated both grossly and subtly, and the false ideology of individualism which has taken on near-creedal character in modern America. Aside from these dangers, we face temptations more abundant, more powerful and more freely available to a wider spectrum of people than in most any time in history. We face false doctrine more technologically equipped and culturally aligned than was possible before. And we face a world in which truth and faith and church have been relativized radically.
What this all means is that we are going to get no help from culture or society in being the Church. Instead, we face an even more well-equipped adversary who will seek to bring us into conformity with the world in terms of values and morals and attitudes - and finally in terms of doctrine. The devil has always been effective at turning many. That is why the large, mainline denominations are all liberal. Their leadership doesn't believe the historic Christian faith, and they see the organization called "church" as a tool to advance their political and social agendas. The members of those churches have been steeped in false doctrine and unbelief from within their churches for so long that they cannot see that they have been co-opted and they do not want to be rescued. That is what religion is all about, to them. The devil's progress in the Missouri Synod, in this regard, is evident in how deeply the Yankee Stadium issue divided the Synod, and, sadly, how it was 'resolved' in favor of unionism and syncretism.
We stand in danger of being seduced by the modern age. If politics doesn't do it, perhaps social conscience will, or the civic religion of this big, amorphous God who has no real definition and is just "up there" and smiling down on us no matter what. The loss of the very concept of truth - and absolute truth - may seduce or confuse us, and if that danger doesn't hamper us, maybe the sheer breadth of our technology will. Danger stands on every side, tempting us now, threatening us later. Even our comfortable prosperity can deceive and seduce us.
All of these things have been at work on all of us all along. Desperate, poor, hungry, suffering people, who watch their families die without any understanding of what is happening, know that they need God. We are rich. Food is not a major challenge of any of us - unless it is too much of a good thing. We probably don't have everything we can imagine wanting, but we have everything we need . . . in triplicate, usually. If we have pain, we have Advil. If we get sick, our doctors can cure most everything. We think that we understand how disease works, sort of, so even when someone dies from it, we just throw a contribution to the think-tank working on a cure, and we know that eventually our scientists will figure it out. Our need for God is so much less obvious to us than it was to those poor, ignorant people of past generations.
In this land of plenty, in this time of our abundance, God tends to get pushed to the margins. We tend not to take so much time for prayer. If we have a question about life, we can search it on Ask.com or Wikipedia. Science informs us, and for way-too-many people, religion is about feeling good, not understanding truth or life itself. It is obvious that this is true among those who sing praise songs and hold their hand over their head and tell God how He makes them feel so good, so safe, so happy. While it may be less obvious among us Lutherans - conservative Lutherans - our hurry to get back to 'life' on Sunday, and our difficulty with taking much (if any) time during the week for Bible Study, or meetings, for one another as Church does suggest that we are wrestling with the same corrupting influences. God has give us so much abundance, we don't have time or inclination to spend much of it or ourselves on Him or His people - except, of course, on ourselves. Too much to do. Too many choices that entice us. Such freedom and power and delight is at hand. God goes to edges of our consciousness, and we take center stage.
In this context - our context - we need to ask, what does it mean to trust God? What is faith about? And how do we comport ourselves (I love that phrase) in the face of these dangers and blessings in order to resist them and to assist one another to resist them. God gave us the Church. The Christian faith is not an individual event but a team sport, so to speak. Sound doctrine is not a matter of what you or I think is correct, but of what God's Word teaches. Truth is what God has given us, and teaches us, and His own revealing of Himself. The right thing to think, and the right values and the right perspectives and the right things to do are from God and His Word, not properly from our personal assessment of the situation.
How can we be Church in the face of this? That is the question -- or at least part of it.
We need to behave in ways that support and continue the community aspect of the church. We cannot allow ourselves to be seduced into self-centered, self-focused individualism. Jesus commanded that we love one another, not that we separate ourselves and merely think pious thoughts about other people. And we need to talk with one another about what it means to believe, and what "faith" is, and what it means to trust God in a world that seems to do quite well without acknowledging Him at all. We need that conversation!
Part of what we can do is pray. Prayer is talking to God, and it is far more difficult to dismiss Him from your life and your thinking if you are talking to Him on a frequent and regular basis [you know, "Pray without ceasing"]. We need to give thanks for the abundance we have, but sometimes item by item rather than a cursory, generic thanksgiving ["In everything give thanks."]. We need to pray for one another - and not just when we are sick, or we know of a special need in the moment. We need to be reminding one another of God's goodness and giving, learning in the safety of the congregation to acknowledge the blessings of God, and our dependence on Him ["speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord"].
And we need to come together as His church. We need to learn to set aside our privacy and individuality and learn again to depend on each other and to love one another. Worship and hearing the Word and receiving the Sacrament are vitally important["faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ"], but we need to share what you cannot get on a DVD or download from a web site: each other. It is only in the context of seeing God at work among us, and in the lives (or on the persons) of one another that we can resist the seduction of the age in which we live. We learn patience by enduring (and forgiving) one another in our weaknesses, and we can see the variety of ways God works when we share our lives and our thoughts, or prayers and our faith, our similarities and our differences with each other. This is not all there is to being a Christian today - but it should give you the basis to start thinking and talking about what it means to be a Christian and to have faith in this unique time in which God has placed us. 'Tis the Season!
Yours in the Lord,
These sermons are for the Church. If you find it useful, go ahead and use it -- but give credit where credit is due.
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