Preached October 23, 2016
Thus says the LORD, “A voice is heard in Ramah, Lamentation and bitter weeping Rachel is weeping for her children; She refuses to be comforted for her children, Because they are no more.” ~ Jeremiah 31:15
The stories of the Bible we’re most familiar with are often those that end with “and he went his way rejoicing.” Healings, pronouncements of forgiveness, joyous reunions (think prodigal son), and the like dominate our Sunday readings and much of the biblical material that is dealt with in popular Christian books. Beyond these happy stories, we might know some hard sayings of Jesus where Jesus really takes the Pharisees to the woodshed on this or that issue. Yet the Bible is much richer, and reaches much deeper into life than this.
As the passage above demonstrates, the Bible goes down to the very bottom of human experience, to most indescribable pains that anyone can experience. The loss of children who aren’t raised from the dead, incurable illnesses that don’t end in miraculous healings, the loss of all hope that is never restored—all of this can be found in the scriptures, and I’m convinced that one of the reasons that people who are experiencing the worst of life so often leave the church, is because we so rarely venture to the Bible’s dark places.
During the month of November, I’ll be offering a class and Bible study following Sunday worship in which we’ll visit some of these dark places: Through the Fire: The Bible for Mourners, Worriers, Addicts, the Depressed, and Other Troubled Souls: Sundays, November 6, 13, 20, & 27, 10:45 – 11:45 a.m. Everyone is invited.
As we open the Bible to these harder stories, it’s my hope that we’ll see that the Bible actually has something to say to us when we find ourselves in similarly difficult circumstances. Because if the Bible can tell an ugly story without flinching—if it can speak of the slaughter of children, if it can tell of a people who repent and yet still receive judgment, if it can record the life of a good man reduced to ashes for no reason, if it can tell of Jesus Christ crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” on the cross—if it can do all this and still declare the goodness of God, then the promise of this God in Jesus Christ must have some real power, even for the God-forsaken among us.
I hope you’ll join us in class.
I’ll record some new sermons in the coming weeks. For now, here are a couple of sermons I recorded about a year and half ago.
Sermon on Mark 8:34-38
Sermon on Mark 9:2-13 (preached at a local assisted living)
One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for people, and not people for the sabbath.
~ Mark 2:23-27
I’ve always had trouble taking rest when I should. I promise this isn’t the kind of humble-brag you bring into a job interview (“Well, my biggest weakness is that I just work too darn hard.”). It’s not that I work too hard—I don’t think I do. It’s that as I’m going about my work, I don’t pay enough attention to the signs telling me that it’s time to step back and recharge.
Toward the end of this past school year I had been ignoring those signs for a while, and I didn’t realize how much my work had been suffering because of it. Then our preschool director, Erika, came into my office and said, “Are you Ok? You seem kind of checked out?” I had to thank her for that a week later because her statement forced me to look at myself and my work and say, “Oh, this isn’t good enough.” I had been moving along on fumes for a while and it was showing. It was time for a rest.
I don’t think I’m peculiar in this. Most of us simply go along, doing tasks as they present themselves, clocking in, clocking out, clocking in again. And when our bodies and minds run out of gas, we just sputter along, or we crash. We’re not very good at observing the Sabbath.
There are observant Jews who won’t flip a light switch on the Sabbath Day. They go to great lengths to ensure that the Sabbath is undisturbed. In some cases, this can lead to the Sabbath actually being more work than other days, still, there is something to be learned from their example.
From the very beginning, God built a day of rest into the very fabric of creation: “On the seventh day, God rested from all the work that the LORD God had done.” He set in motion a pattern that repeats week after week, calling us to rest. As Jesus reminds us, this rest doesn’t have to take a particular shape—it was made for our good, not as a means of proving our faithfulness to God. Yes, the Sabbath happens any time we sit and listen to God’s word. But sometimes the Sabbath happens on a Thursday when your manager calls and tells you they don’t need you to come into today. Sometimes the Sabbath takes the shape of a week of camping in South Dakota (though, sometimes our vacations can be more work than our jobs, and we should take care to actually get some rest!). But however and whenever the Sabbath comes, rest in it. Set down your phone or at least turn off the work email notifications. Don’t let your vacation days go unused or just build up year after year – take them, even if you just stay home.
Your Lord has given you the gift of rest for your benefit. So rest in it. Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Amen.
“These words are trustworthy and true.” ~ Revelation 22:6
(This was originally published in the January 2015 edition of Faith Lutheran’s newsletter)
On Sunday, 27 December Bob Dahlen, my old pastor up north, preached his last sermon in the Goodridge Lutheran Parish. The three-point parish held a joint service that day at Ekelund Lutheran Church (my home congregation) and I’ve been told that around 300 people attended. It was a nice send off for a man who’s spent nearly 30 years serving the same parish. He baptized 3 of my 5 siblings, buried two of my grandparents, my great grandma, and four of my great aunts and uncles, officiated at the weddings of two of my siblings and few of my cousins, and taught me how to preach the gospel. After all of this and so many years, it’s hard to imagine my home parish being served by another preacher.
The church is a place where new relationships are formed, old friendships are strengthened, and families are bonded more tightly. It’s also a place where odd sorts of relationships develop between congregations and pastors. Churches are stabilizing places in our livers. At the same time, there’s something inherently unstable in our relationships—that is, all of them change. This is especially true with pastors. Pastors come in as outsiders to a community and it often takes a while to develop familiarity and trust, congregations are complex and are home to assorted personalities, and usually, by the time a pastor and congregation have gotten to know one another, like or dislike one another, trust each other or not, the pastor moves on and someone new steps in. Bob’s been around longer than most, and has been well-loved in Goodridge, but he’s had his share of conflicts there, too, and there are some who are more excited than others to see a new face on Sunday mornings. This is fairly typical, and you can probably think back on former pastors who you’ve liked, disliked, trusted or not (you might even have a few opinions about this pastor!). Again, these relationships are a little odd, and no matter what, they change.
It’ll be strange to visit my parent’s place on vacation, go to church and hear another voice from the pulpit. What if the new preacher isn’t any good? What if they don’t get along with my parents? What if they’re great, but they stick around for 3 years and then head for greener pastures? You’ve probably asked some of these same questions as pastors have come and gone in this place. Still, even as things change up in Goodridge, I’m reminded that the God who is always and ever the same, is also the Lord of change—the one who makes all things new. No matter whose lips are flapping in the pulpit, it will be God’s Word, Jesus Christ himself, that is preached, for his Word is trustworthy and true.
As we move into a new year here in southern Isanti County, please remember this: things will change for good or ill—jobs will be found and lost, marriages will be formed and broken, new faces will enter and leave our families—but fear not when such changes come to pass, for Jesus Christ is Lord and will carry and save through all the upheavals of 2016. Happy New Year and God be with you all!
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” ~ Mark 10:13-14
(This article was originally written for Faith Lutheran Isanti’s newsletter, March 2015)
We’ve all had that conversation, whether we’re a Baptist asking the question or a Lutheran struggling to answer it: “Why does your church baptize infants? You know that’s not in the Bible, right?”
These conversations tend to be largely frustrating and unsatisfying. This is mostly due to the fact that we Lutherans (I can’t speak for the Methodists or Catholics) don’t do a very good job of teaching our people why – biblically speaking – we baptize infants. This article is step toward that end. If you’re a good Baptist and you’ve never heard a satisfactory answer to this question, read on. If you’re a Lutheran or other baptizer-of-babies looking to understand your own tradition more deeply, read on.
Why do we baptize babies? Because it’s biblical – we just have to let the Bible tell its story, and then listen to what it says.
Those who practice adult-only baptism tend to draw a line (commonly referred to as the “age of accountability”) and claim that under a certain age you can’t really receive Jesus because you don’t have the mental tools to understand what it means to need to Jesus. Until the day comes when you reach that age (usually not defined, though some have put it at 7 and others at 13) you don’t really need Jesus (or Jesus covers you temporarily until you reach said age) – you’re innocent by virtue of ignorance and therefore the promise of God in Jesus Christ isn’t for you yet. When you become aware of your own sin, any coverage you might have had from Jesus or your own innocent ignorance lapses and you need to go and make your personal decision for Jesus and only then can you be baptized. It’s an orderly system, but this division-by-age concept is foreign to the Bible.
In the Bible, from the first time God spoke to Abraham (and prior to this, though it’s not as clear), God’s work and promise weren’t age-dependent. Abraham was circumcised as an old man, but Israelite boys after him, including his son Isaac, were marked with the sign of God’s promise at eight days old. Jacob and Esau were struggling with one another for the promise from before their birth. John the Baptist was already preaching Christ in his mother’s womb (see Luke 1:44). And when God became flesh, he came as a newborn baby. This is why the command of Jesus to “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…” is so broad – “all nations” is about as inclusive a group as there is, and last I checked, most nations include babies (don’t quit reading yet, we’re getting to the good stuff).
God’s work could not operate otherwise, because sin, death, and devil do not discriminate based on age – Pharaoh ordered Israelite babies murdered; Herod sent out his soldiers to kill infant boys in order to protect his throne; you, I’m sure, can think of a dozen more examples of little ones being victimized or treated as expendable – the powers of evil do not discriminate in dealing death, so our Lord does not put up walls when giving his promise. Infancy is no barrier to God’s work. So it’s no surprise that Jesus is indignant when the disciples try to keep the little ones from him.
Christians who baptize only adults also claim that because no babies were baptized in the book of Acts, the church’s earliest historical record, we have no command from God to do so now. There are three reasons that this claim needs questioning.
First, Acts recounts a very brief period of church history and tells only a handful of baptism stories. To claim that we can’t baptize babies because there’s no specific story about it in the Bible is just an argument from silence. No Swedes or Norwegians or Germans were baptized in the Bible either, and yet, here you all are.
Second, the criteria for baptism are set out clearly at the beginning of the book and kiddos are included: “Get up and be baptized, every one of you…this promise is for you and your children…” (Acts 2:38-39). Peter, who speaks this sentence, seems to be assuming, as the Old Testament does, that children were every bit as much the people of God as were adults. So even if we have no stories of specific babies being baptized in Acts, the book itself includes the children of Christians as eligible to receive the promises given in baptism.
Third, we actually do have some stories of children being baptized in Acts; there are three instances where an entire “house” is baptized. In the world of Acts, a “house” included all members of the family and their children, and all household slaves and their children. The most remarkable thing about these stories is that the only people who demonstrate faith in them are the heads of the households – they have faith and are baptized, but the rest of the members of the household (some of whom are presumably children) are baptized with nothing said about their demonstrated belief or lack thereof. They are simply baptized – washed in a promise that they could not ask for, but which they receive because God only gives his promises to those who need them so badly they could never ask for them (don’t close that window just yet!).
That brings us to the final point: the go-to argument for those who baptize only adults is that a baby or young child is unable to choose Jesus for themselves (and therefore unable to choose to be baptized). So even if God has always included infants in his work, he can’t include them in this. And even if Acts says stuff about whole families being baptized and about baptism being for “children”, it couldn’t possibly mean babies. Why? Because babies can’t choose anything. The primacy of human choice becomes the test that every biblical word has to pass – if a particular Bible story makes it look like human choice isn’t the thing that’s getting a person into the kingdom, then you must have missed something.
For these Christians, baptism is something the believer does to demonstrate their faith, but a baby can’t demonstrate much of anything…except displeasure and adorableness. But, again, this doesn’t follow scripture. The Bible never talks about baptism as something that I DO for God or anyone else. And it never talks about baptism as a mere demonstration of something else that happened already. Every single time the Bible talks about baptism it is said to be GOD’S work—a work that he does to bind a person to Jesus in his death and resurrection. Humans RECEIVE baptism passively, the same way a baby boy receives circumcision – we sit back and take it, not necessarily by our own choice! In fact, Paul even compares baptism to circumcision in Colossians 2:11-12. Elsewhere, he says that baptism is being “buried with Christ” (Rom. 6:1-6), and that it is a “washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5-8). Peter says that “baptism now saves you” (1 Pet. 3:21). Ephesians 5:26 says that Jesus has cleansed us by the “washing of water with the word,” so that the word of God’s promise comes to us in the waters of baptism and speaks – preaches even! These are all rather strong statements about the power of God’s word working in the waters of baptism. They certainly give the impression that the baptism God gives is much more wonderful than a mere “outward sign.”
That’s what it comes down to in the end: Baptism is not something that I DO; at least the Bible says it’s not. Baptism is something that GOD DOES TO ME. So for a Lutheran, baptism is not a sign of my faith; it is God giving me his promise in and through a thing (water), the same as he gives his promise to me in and through the mouth of a preacher, and in and through bread and wine. Baptism isn’t made good by my commitment; it’s made good by God’s promise. So instead of using baptism like a flag that I wave to show which team I’m cheering for, I use baptism like a hat rack, and I hang my faith on it, because God made me a promise there, and when God makes a promise, I can count on it.
Baptizing a baby is about proclaiming God’s promise to someone who can do nothing to earn that promise (in this way all baptisms, whether given to babies or octogenarians, are really infant baptisms). So we don’t baptize a baby because it’s just so darn cute, and we don’t do it as “fire insurance”; we do it because our little ones also need a promise from God to hang onto. They need something to which they can cling all the days of their life – something to which their parents and pastors can point and to which they can return when they’ve gone wayward for a time. They need something that can hold them through whatever life may throw their way. This is what God gives in baptism. It’s not my work. It’s not magic. It’s a promise for you and for your children. Amen.