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A Proper Response

A recent discussion has come up regarding praise songs in worship. Though the Missouri Synod continues to stew on this topic, I felt it worth digging into in a little more detail. The question was whether praise songs are acceptable within the divine service.

In the Missouri Synod, there are many proponents of what we broadly call “traditional” worship. These folks are often vehemently opposed to “contemporary” worship. I’ve discussed the inadequacies of these categories before. For the purpose of this discussion, the problem is that contemporary music is often seen as almost entirely praise songs that focus heavily on emotional content. Anything that smacks of contemporary worship thus brings with it a knee jerk reaction from traditional worship proponents. It’s true that these songs are usually devoid of meaningful content and make the individual the center of attention, rather than God. However, not everything we might term “contemporary” falls into the category of praise songs and not all praise songs are contemporary.

If we set the traditional vs. contemporary worship debate aside and consider the basic question, the answer must be a resounding, “Yes!” We are meant to be in conversation with God. We were created with this very purpose in mind. What are we to share with God? Well, just about anything you can think of. Our prayers are simply everything we have to say to God, requests for aid as well as thanks for what God has done for us. Prayers can be formal, but they don’t need to be. Anything you say to God can broadly be called a prayer. God speaks to us and we respond.

In that sense, a song or a hymn is just a prayer set to music. Anything you can pray in worship you can sing too. That isn’t to say there can’t be standards for what we do in worship. There absolutely should be. God demands our best. The divine service isn’t the place for things that are casual or flippant. They certainly aren’t the place for things that are focused on us. Hymns of praise can be high quality and reverent. The divine service already has some built in. The Gloria in Excelsis and the Nunc Dimittis are both hymns of praise, sung in response to God’s gifts. The fact that we’ve had them in the divine service for centuries doesn’t mean they are functionally different from other hymns of praise.

Our response of praise isn’t a “good work.” It doesn’t merit anything from God. It doesn’t determine whether we are forgiven or not. Rather, we respond with praise because we are forgiven. Our thanks and praise are what complete the conversation. We sing praises to God to acknowledge that what we have been given truly was undeserved and unmerited. It acknowledges that we are flawed humans who are completely incapable of attaining our own salvation. The only solution is a loving and almighty God who brings salvation to us. Singing God’s praises is what helps keep everything in its proper place and, for that reason, hymns of praise are indispensable. Discussions over quality, form, and all of that are right and good to have regarding the music used in the divine service. But don’t label all praise songs the same. Don’t throw them out because many of them are bad. There are also many good ones. They, like all good songs of worship, are there to help you.

Hearing His Words

The book I’m reading currently reflected a bit on the oddity of Jesus as a boy being in the temple and studying Scripture with the priests and scribes. The strange connection between Jesus’ divinity and humanity makes us scratch our heads a bit here. Why does Jesus, the Son of God, the Incarnate Word, need to study Scripture? Surely He knows all of this already. Surely He knows it better than any person has ever known it. What could possibly be gained by studying something He already knows perfectly?

That connection between Jesus’ divinity and humanity has baffled many who attempted to unravel it and explain it. Martin Chemnitz’s book, The Two Natures in Christ, goes into painstaking detail about what we can say regarding Jesus’ divine and human natures, but he doesn’t explain how He can be both at the same time. This very problem has probably led to more heresies and spun off more false religions than any other.

Still, we accept Jesus’ own testimony about Himself. He is truly human, God in the flesh. As a human, studying the Word of God is all bound up with being a disciple. Jesus is living out His own later command given to the disciples at His ascension. “Go and make disciples.” How are disciples made? Through the combination of teaching and baptism. Here is the boy Jesus in His humanity eagerly seeking out what all humans need. Later, when Jesus begins His ministry at His baptism, he’ll go into the desert and be tempted. Jesus counters Satan’s first offer. Bread does not give life. Only God’s Word gives life. So Jesus does what all humans should do. He studies God’s Word.

The author then noted the interesting relationship Jesus has to the Word here. As God, Jesus spoke these words and caused them to be written. Jesus, in His humanity, is thus hearing His own voice, the words He spoke into the world centuries ago through the mouths of the prophets.

Again, we might question the usefulness of this. From a human perspective, I can say there are times when I’ll be looking over an old sermon (because I also forget sermons, even my own) and remember some point I had made years back and it will cause me to reflect a bit. However, God would never forget His own words. In that sense, God has no need of this. Yet, this is essentially what God does all the time. As the Trinity, God is always talking to Himself. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are always in conversation. We see this especially in the life of Christ as He offers up prayers to His Father. God speaking to God. This is simply what God does.

As Jesus shows, this is an essential part of our humanity as well. Disciples learn from God. At the same time, through our baptism, we are restored to the priestly vocation of our humanity as well. We are the mediators for creation. We offer up prayers to God. But, what do we pray? What is supposed to be the content of those prayers? Throughout Scripture we find that one of the most important ways we speak to God is using His own words. Those acting as mediators most often find themselves simply calling on God to fulfill what He had promised. We offer to God what He first gave us. He is staking His name on what He promised and so we remind Him of those promises and the need for His attention and care.

This is also with the liturgy is replete with God’s Word. The divine service is a conversation between God and His people. As such, the greatest words we can speak are those He has already spoken. We pray prayers such as the Kyrie, because those are the prayers of God’s people, recorded in His Holy Word. We sing His praises in the Gloria, because those are the praises He caused to be remembered in His Word. We follow the example of God Himself. We enter into a conversation with Him. Certainly God desires to hear anything we might have to say. But, those words we can stand on with the greatest confidence are those God Himself has given, for those are the ones He stands behind and guarantees.

Going back to Jesus as a boy, He gives us here a foundation to build on. For how do we know what to pray to God if we haven’t spent the time ourselves to learn what He said first? We listen and learn, so we can then have the words to speak. In order to call God to account for His promises, we must know what those promises are.

The Sacred Mysteries in Holy Week

During the Reformation, one of the things Luther fought against the Catholic Church’s desire to know everything. I don’t quite mean that literally, but there’s a lot the Catholic Church wanted to figure out that wasn’t really defined in Scripture.

As an example, the Catholic Church decided for itself the precise point at which the bread and wine of Communion become the Body and Blood of Christ. The priest rings a bell to let everyone know this change has taken place. Likewise, many churches have embarked on evangelism campaigns that were designed to be foolproof methods for bringing people to faith. It might have come through studying the lives of early church Christians or by following the latest studies in sociology. Whatever the case may be, the desire behind it is to know what is hidden, to understand the mysteries.

While God has given us “my reason and all my senses,” as Luther would say, He nowhere promises perfect understanding of all things. Luther saw this exemplified in Communion especially. Where the other reformers sought to make sense of Jesus’ words and argued that Jesus simply couldn’t be bodily present in the sacrament, that this didn’t make logical sense, Luther was willing to leave it as a mystery. Luther knew Christ wouldn’t lie to him. So, if Christ said it, then that’s all he needed to hear. How is that Christ can be present in the meal? Luther didn’t know and didn’t try to explain it. Christ said He would be there. Christ would make it happen.

Holy Week is somewhat less about the known and more about the mystery. God dies. The Word became flesh in order to take on the sins of the world and die on behalf of sinners. The mystery of all of these things rests on the solid foundation of God’s Word. How is it God can die? Because He said He would. How is it He can rise again? Because He said He would. All of the Old Testament events that tell us about salvation and the sacraments work the same way. How do I know an ark will save me, my family, and a bunch of animals from a world wide flood? Because He said it would. How do I know some lamb’s blood on a doorpost will save me from the Destroyer? Because He said it would. How do I know bread will be waiting for me on the ground every morning? Because He said it would. How do I know the bread I gathered on Friday will sustain me on the Sabbath? Because He said it would. How do I know the baptismal waters will restore me and wash my sins away? Because He said they would. How I know Christ will truly be present with me in the sacramental meal? Because He said He would.

How are any of these things possible? I don’t really know, but I don’t need to know. God said this is where He is and where He is working. The rest just doesn’t matter. God’s Word is an extension of who He is. If God lies, then He is a liar and undeserving of my worship. But God does not lie and never has. That Christ always speaks the truth is one of the most basic principles Luther operated with. I may not always understand what Christ means, but I can certain He has not lied. The visions He gave to St. John in Revelation may confuse me, but that’s ok. Christ has been very clear elsewhere that He has paid for my sins and that He has died and risen again to share His eternal life with me.

Holy Week brings us face to face with the mysteries. God made flesh who dies of His own volition. The dead God who rises again of His own volition. The God who dies, rises, and ascends, and yet continues to be present with His people, reigning both on high and among us as King every time we gather around His table.

This Holy Week, take a step back from all of the reason and logic. Take a moment and reflect on the words of Christ. See what He says and does. Consider how these things should not be, and yet they are. Meditate on how God upends all of the physical rules of creation in order to deal with the one unbreakable Law: the wages of sin is death. Contemplate then, how He crafts all of these mysteries so that you, a sinner, may have life in His name.

Founded on the Word

Just about every aspect of Christian life, whether you’re talking about worship, the sacraments, evangelism, or anything else, is ultimately a discussion about God’s Word. What does God promise? How has He told us things will work? If He hasn’t made a clear promise or given a clear command, then anything you might do is based to one degree or another on assumptions.

God’s Word is what makes even something as wonderful as the sacraments important at all. Without God’s promise of grace through the water or through the bread and wine, they become what most other churches believe them to be. They are just memorials or declarations of faith and nothing more. The same holds true as we share the Gospel. If the Spirit didn’t promise to work through the proclamation of His Word, we’d have little reason to go out and spread the message. We would be simply hoping God would be active through the proclamation of the Gospel and never knowing if what we do has any real effect at all.

God’s Word pervades and drives everything we do. Hearing that our sins are forgiven and that our eternal life is secure is what gives us peace in this world and hope for the next. Yet, our reliance on God’s Word can also lead to a subtle problem. When you go to the doctor to have some problem diagnosed, your trust isn’t based on what he says, but on who he is. He’s the expert who is trained to figure what is wrong with you and how best to deal with it. Whether the answer is good or bad, the doctor knows and will deal with it accordingly.

The same holds true when we consider the Bible. One of the points Luther made at the time of the Reformation and continues to truly set him apart from other theologians is to put the emphasis where it belongs. How do we know what’s true? Many Protestant Christians will think about the Bible and how it describes all sorts of things, from creation, to salvation, to our role and purpose in the world, and so on. Catholic Christians will think about the Catholic Church and how it validates different teachings and determines which are godly and which are not. Luther flatly rejected the Catholic idea, but he didn’t really go to the Bible either, not really.

Instead, Luther goes to the source, to Jesus Himself. Luther doesn’t see Scripture as having power in and of itself. Scripture is authoritative because of the One who speaks it and stands behind it. This is a difference from how fundamentalists and those like them view Scripture. They take Scripture very seriously, which is a good thing in and of itself, but they tend to put the emphasis on Scripture, rather than the God who gave it. The Bible does not save you. Jesus does.

What difference does that make? Well, we know that the life of a disciple is made up of teaching and baptism, as Christ tells us in Matthew 28. Learning more about God is a large part of what we are called to do as disciples of Christ. But we aren’t learning just to learn. We are learning so that we may grow closer to God. Just as the Spirit is always directing our attention to Christ, the Holy Book directs our gaze upward to the Author and Perfecter of our faith.

God works through His Word. He works through the sacraments that give His Word form and substance. He works through the church that holds those sacraments and administers them as they gather in worship. He works in the world through His church, the people of God. In each case, our attention is called upward. The world looks to the church and its worship. The church’s worship centers on the sacraments. The sacraments are built upon the promise of God’s Word. The Word comes to us through the Spirit who points us to Christ, who in turn brings us into the presence of the Father.

Getting things out of order runs the risk of stopping that “upward call” as St. Paul would say. There’s the sense that if I have the Bible, or if you’re Catholic that you have the Catholic Church, then you have everything you need. But, salvation is found in Christ alone. How do I know this? Because I know He doesn’t lie. So when He tells me He died to take my sins away, I know I can trust Him.

The Timing of Lent

The season of Lent is somewhat different than the other seasons of the church year. Both Advent and Lent are intended to be penitential seasons, but in practice Advent rarely takes on that quality. Advent is a reflective time, an anticipatory time, but it doesn’t often drive us to consider the nature and consequences of sin.

On the other hand, this is the essence of what Lent is. Anyone who knows even a little about the church year knows that Lent leads up to Holy Week, culminating with Christ’s death on the cross. It’s hard not to be thinking about sin and death when you know this is what lies ahead.

At the same time, you might wonder, “Why have a season like this at all?” Sure, it’s helpful to have that sense of Christ’s life, to walk through all of those Bible passages as He journeys to Jerusalem to be arrested and crucified. It’s good to understand why He did what He did. Still, why do we need to focus on that? Why can’t we just jump to the Easter celebration? The Lenten season is a bit of a downer and it feels unnecessary, especially when so many other things in life already try and bring us down.

I’ve seen churches where Lent is little different than any other time in the year. I’ve seen churches where gloomy Lenten hymns are ignored in favor of hymns that are more upbeat and energetic. Congregations don’t want to be depressed. No one wants to be depressed. So why are we intentionally bringing out all of this depressing music and spending so much time talking about sin and death?

Lent teaches us something very important about sin and forgiveness, death and life. Could God have dealt with our sin in some other way? Perhaps. Could He have just waved His hand and made it all go away? Perhaps. But, He set the rules back at the very beginning. Sin means death. It always means death. Every sin, no matter how slight, no matter how inconsequential, means death. That means every sin needs to be dealt with and forgiven.

Luther talks about Law and Gospel as the two aspects of Christian life. God’s laws, among other things, show us exactly what is expected of us and how far short we fall from those expectations. None of us do the job perfectly. None of us even come close. None of us makes it even a single day without getting it wrong and deserving death. But, as Luther also says, we must acknowledge that sin to truly be sin. We must acknowledge that we have failed. We must admit that we are among those who, as St. Paul says, have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. If we think we are not sinners, then we also have no need of God’s grace. If we have not sinned, then our righteousness is still whole and perfect and we can stand before God in confidence. If that is truly who we are, then we have no need for Lent because death will never come for us.

Lent brings the reality check. Lent reminds us that we truly are sinners and that death is coming for us because of that sin. Lent reminds us that repentance is not a suggestion, it is a necessity. Without repentance, the Gospel message of forgiveness through Christ is meaningless. In short, you can’t have Easter without Lent. Without repentance, forgiveness has no purpose. Without death, eternal life is no longer something to be sought so earnestly.

So, just as repentance precedes forgiveness and death precedes the resurrection, Lent must precede Easter. We must constantly be going back to reflect on the effects of our sin and how desperately we need God’s grace. Lent keeps us from thinking we can deal with the problem all on our own. It reminds us that we dust, and to dust we shall return. Once we admit and accept that, then it is there that we see that hand of God reaching down into that lifeless dirt to refashion it and breath new and eternal life into it.

The Nature of Faith

The relationship between faith and baptism is a debate that comes up periodically. Usually, the question is, “which came first?” We know faith and salvation go hand in hand, so the question becomes a vital one if we are also trying to determine if someone is saved.

Looking at some of the big baptismal events in the Old Testament, the connection between faith and baptism is clear. The book of Hebrews describes Noah as a faithful man, not because he survived the Flood, but because He trusted that God would save him from it. Moses is described as faithful, not because he safely escaped the Egyptians, but because he trusted that God would protect him as he crossed the Red Sea.

In both of these cases, God makes a promise. Had either of them tried to make it on their own power, they would never have succeeded. But, God made a promise and stood by that promise. For those around at the time of the Flood and those around at the time of the Exodus, the “baptism” was coming either way. God would send the waters. Those that trusted God to protect them from the devastation found that God made good on His promise. Those who did not trust God also rejected His protection. The waters still came, but they were swept away instead.

Without faith, the ark would never have been built. Without faith, the Israelites would never have started on their trek. It stands to reason that no one would choose to be baptized without trusting what God offers there. When it comes to infants, however, we don’t have the opportunity to let them tell us they want to be baptized. But, we generally baptize babies anyway. Why? Because anywhere God’s Word of promise is present is another place the Spirit is at work, which means it’s another opportunity for the Spirit to bring that person to trust in what God promises.

God doesn’t force His grace on anyone. If He did, it would be a simple matter of just doing whatever He told us to do to guarantee that person came to faith. But it isn’t so simple. Why some believe and other do not is a mystery that isn’t given to us to unravel.

That might make you wonder what value baptism has in this instance. Why even bother? Baptism does a great many things. The Israelites journey began with their trust in God, but their crossing of the Red Sea gave them something concrete to point to as evidence of what God had done for them. It was something they would always be able to look back on as a reminder that God was with them. If He wasn’t, they would never have made it through. The same is true for Noah. He steps out of the ark and sees the new life all around him and knows his trust in God was not misplaced. God had followed through with His promise and the fact that he hadn’t been destroyed by the waters was proof.

This is where God’s work in baptism really shines. Your baptism stands as that point at which you look back and know with certainty that God has been and will continue to be with you. Perhaps you have doubts about your status with God before baptism, but afterward you will never again have reason to doubt. After all, you’ve already come through the water. Nothing else can truly harm you again.

Seeing the Promised Future

In Exodus 24, we find the Israelites at Mt. Sinai as Moses receives the Law. Though the Israelites recognize that the mountain is holy is no place for them, God still invites a number of them up the mountain. Of course, this is only after the people are covered by the sacrificial blood of the covenant. What do the people do up on the mountain? They share a meal in the presence of God.

The parallels to Communion are extensive. Not only does Jesus Himself refer back to this as He shares the Last Supper, saying, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mk 14:24), but the Last Supper itself recreates what is taking place. The disciples are sharing a meal in the presence of God. For Jesus to be so careful to connect the Last Supper back to Exodus 24 tells us that the context of Exodus 24 may also say something about what Jesus is doing that night with His disciples.

In that regard, Exodus 23 is where we find God laying out the terms of the covenant. The gist of the covenant is that if the Israelites will worship God exclusively, then God will bring them into the land and drive out their enemies. He will bless every aspect of their daily lives as well. God is reminding them of where they are heading. Mt. Sinai is a major event in the lives of the Israelites, but this is just a brief stopping point. God has a destination in mind and He intends to get there. Of course, this isn’t the first time we’ve heard God’s promise to bring the Israelites to their own land. We actually heard about this before back in the Passover, another major event in our understanding of Communion.

Immediately following this meal God has with His people on the mountaintop, He goes into all of the details for the construction of the tabernacle, the items used in it, and the need to observe the Sabbath. In short, the place and time the people will be able to meet God. The tabernacle, and later the temple, will be the enduring location of God’s presence. It will be where He promises to be and it His presence that is the center and focus of all Israelite life. In truth, the promise we associate with the Promised Land isn’t so much about the location as it is God’s ongoing presence there. Anywhere God dwells with His people in a personal way is a promised land, because God will bless the residents of that land.

All of this has quite a lot to tell us about Communion. What the Israelites experienced in a brief way would someday become their daily reality. God would dwell in their midst. In Revelation 21, God declares that now He dwells with His people and that this is the defining feature of His new creation. What the Israelites had in a limited way with God at the temple is now shared by all of God’s people forever. The Promised Land of Israel in the Old Testament looks ahead to the Promised land of the new creation in the New Testament. What Exodus 24 meant for the Israelites continues to be true for us in Communion. We are covered by the blood of the covenant. We share a meal with God. We spend a moment of peace and joy with our Redeemer and know that our time together here is brief, but one day what we share here in this meal will be part of our daily lives.

God and His people together. Communion gives us a sample of what awaits us. In addition to the grace and forgiveness we receive as part of the meal, God is reminding us that we still have something to look forward to. We are still confidently following Him to that future and the new creation He has promised.

The Season of Epiphany

The season of Epiphany is soon upon us. We, as the Church, have been celebrating the birth of the promised Savior for the past several days through the Christmas season. Now the season changes. There’s still a bit of the earlier celebration, but the feel and tenor are distinct from Christmas. We take the day of Epiphany to reflect on the visit of the magi and all that is significant with that event, but then we continue on for a time.

Depending on whether you use the new Three Year Lectionary or the older One Year Lectionary, the season of Epiphany may be a bit longer or shorter for you, but it is still a season all its own. Epiphany sometimes gets lumped together with Christmas in our imagery and the two stories occur very close together in Matthew’s recitation of Jesus’ life, but the celebration of Epiphany marks a change. It is not a part of the same story.

The season of Christmas helps us celebrate and reflect on how, at long last, God has fulfilled the promise made so long ago to Adam and Eve of sending the one who will crush the Serpent’s head. The wait is over. The Savior is here. All creation rejoices to know the time has come and those who waited faithful have found their faith rewarded. It’s important not to skate too quickly through this season, as the world around us would like us to do. This event is worthy of taking the time to consider the meaning of the Incarnate Word. Celebrate Christmas. Celebrate through the whole season of Christmas. Christ was born for you and has come to save you.

Epiphany changes things a bit. Once we get to Lent, Jesus will be on His final trek to Jerusalem and to the cross. The cross always looms in the distance for Jesus, even from birth. In Lent, it isn’t something on the horizon anymore. It’s directly ahead. Satan has marshalled his forces and Jesus goes to meet them. In the season of Epiphany we’re still living in that time before Lent. Jesus is calling His disciples. He’s teaching and healing people. He’s preaching the good news and restoring people physically and spiritually. Jesus is walking, talking, and living with His people. The sky isn’t being darkened by the looming shadow of the cross, not yet.

This time in Jesus’ life recalls a time when God walked, talked, and lived with His people before death was a concern: back in Eden before the Fall. Sure, Adam and Eve had needs and concerns, but needs and concerns are not the same as worries. They knew their needs would be met and their concerns would be addressed and they had no reason to think anything more about them. This was life with God. Every day was a day of peace and joy.

The season of Epiphany directs our attention back to that day when God lived with His people. It gives us a brief and imperfect view of what awaits us when God comes back. Life with God. A life with no darkness in sight, no sin crouching on the doorstep, no death lurking around the corner. Nothing but light and life forever. Right now, and during Jesus’ ministry, creation was still afflicted with sin, but as we watch Jesus living through this Epiphany season, we see the Son of God who shows no worries about sin. That isn’t to say He is lackadaisical and carefree. He just knows sin, death, and Satan will all be dealt with decisively at the appointed time. Right now He enjoys the time He gets to spend in the lives of His people.

The seasons of the church year all have their own reasons for us to reflect and they all give us reasons to look forward to God’s continued work. The season of Epiphany is a season that does not look forward to a specific celebration, the way Advent and Lent do. In fact, the season of Epiphany is a bit uneventful overall and it is easy to overlook its value. It is precisely in this uneventfulness that we find its purpose. Our lives with God in the new creation will not be looking forward to the destruction of death, the casting out of Satan, or the permanent washing away of sin. All of that will be firmly in the past. At that point, all there is will be the easy and simple life lived in the new creation with God, an unhurried and unworried life lived with Him and with our brothers and sisters in Christ. This is what we find in Epiphany.


Incarnation is one of those words used in church that we rarely spend time carefully considering. Most Christians can probably tell you it means Jesus is born as a human being, which is true. But the word gives us much more to consider as we approach Christmas.

Coming from Latin, the word more literally means “enfleshment,” for something that, presumably, did not have flesh before to now have flesh, a living, breathing, animate body. Already that’s an important detail. We aren’t talking about a stone statue or a robot or something like that. We’re talking about a body of flesh; muscles, bones, sinew, and all of the various organs necessary for the body to function. That seems pretty obvious to Christians who are familiar with the Christmas story, but it’s still pretty radical for what people in that day believed. Ancient religions would tell you the gods could be worshipped in statues and images. Some would even say the gods were connected to those images in some spiritual sense.

That God would take on a human body was unheard of. It just didn’t happen. Sometimes a god could look and act human, but never would one actually become human. Those steeped in Greek philosophy would also argue that God would never willing stoop down to becoming human. It just didn’t work. It would be this very idea that fuel many of the heresies that embroiled the early church. God just doesn’t become human. He wouldn’t do such a thing.

So God becoming a human is already upending all expectations and assumptions. The very thing no one thought He would do is exactly what He does do. This is kind of the the theme of Jesus’ life. Jesus goes about doing all of the Jesus kind of things we know from the Gospels. Most of the things Jesus does during His ministry are things we’ve seen prophets and priests doing before. He’s preaching God’s Word. He’s praying. He’s healing people of various ailments, including death. All good things, but now they come with some added significance. This isn’t just a prophet or a priest (though Jesus is both of those things as well). As Matthew reminds us, this is Immanuel, “God with us.” This is God in the flesh doing all of this good stuff. If you want to see God in action, all you have to do is find Jesus. That’s pretty great, right?

It is. Except that, by itself this isn’t all that exciting. Sure, Jesus does do good things, but almost all of those are old news. We’ve seen people praying to God. We’ve seen people preaching the Word. We’ve seen people getting healed. We’ve even seen people raised from the dead. So, until we get to the whole resurrection thing, we haven’t really seen anything new, right? I mean, really new, and not just a rehash of some older stuff. What’s more, if you wanted to go talk to God, you could always go to the temple, so why get all excited about this incarnation thing?

Well, that’s some reflection on the incarnation comes in handy. Yes, you could go see God at the temple if you wanted. Except, you really couldn’t. The high priest was the one guy who actually see God, but even then it was only once a year and he had to be very certain to be properly humble and repentant when he did or the face of God would be the last thing he saw in this earthly life. Everyone else had to settle for something a bit less. You could be around God. You could be in His presence, in a manner of speaking. He was definitely there, but you couldn’t contact him directly. Trying to see God would meaning going in front of God as a sinner. You’d end up like the unrepentant high priest and would swiftly get the boot. Isaiah the prophet knows what it means to be face to face with God while steeped in your sin. It’s a bad place to be. God’s perfect glory simply does not permit any sin. Sin is imperfection. Sin is a rejection of God. God and His opposite just don’t mix and God is more powerful than sin, so out you go.

That’s where the incarnation comes in. He’s still God. He’s still got all of the same glory and power and everything else. He still the very same God he was at the temple, but now He’s wrapped up all of that power and glory and hidden it a human body. It’s all still in there and every so often He lets a little bit of it out for certain people to see. Aside from that you’d never know it was Him just by looking at Him. But He’s still God, and once you figure that out everything changes.

Now my sin isn’t a barrier to approaching God. Sin still needs to be dealt with, but now I can go to God directly and sort it out. I don’t need a mediator or a middle man. Talking to God directly like has always meant swift destruction, but not anymore. Obviously, it’s not as though God is in any danger from my sin. No, I’m the only one who has to worry there. So, in taking on an ordinary human body, one that looks and acts like any other human body, God is keeping me safe. God has come here to be with me, but know that I am a sinner. God makes this human body so that I can be with Him without fear.

That really is something new and different. This changes how I get to interact with God. This also changes how we understand God in church. The temple could be a dangerous place for sinners if they weren’t careful, but now God’s house is exactly where sinners should be. God has covered up and hidden His glory so sinners can be there without fear. Even the presence of God in the Lord’s Supper has sinners in mind. He is still present, but you are safe there. That doesn’t mean we treat God or His things frivolously or with a disregard for the rules He has put in place, but aside from that, we have nothing to fear.

This is what changes with Christmas and Christ’s arrival in the flesh. The tiny baby in the manger is the whole glory of God wrapped up in a ordinary little body. All of this done so that I may enter into the presence of God Himself without fear.

Now and Not Yet

As the liturgical year winds down and the new one begins, we start to consider that overlap of the old and the new, the First Advent and the Second Advent. We see how the message isn’t really any different. In both cases we are waiting. The only real distinction is that we who live after the First Advent know that Christ has truly come, that He has truly died and risen again, and that He will return. This life in-between is governed by these two Advents.

The liturgical cycle that begins at Advent goes through the life of Christ. As disciples of Christ through our baptism, that is what we are called to do. We follow Christ from beginning to end, at least as far as that pertains to history of this world. That’s why the Advent season is important. We know Christ did not spring into existence on Christmas morning. Jesus, the Son of God, always has been and always will be. That means part of Christ’s life in this world has been in preparation for His coming birth.

All of those years of waiting for a savior are hard to imagine, not just because the culture and lifestyles are different, but because it means putting ourselves back into a time before that promise was fulfilled. These days there are people who choose not to celebrate Christmas because the holiday has no real meaning for them. Jesus has no special significance to many in the world. The days we relive in Advent are different. Back then, celebrating Christmas wasn’t an option because the event it commemorates hadn’t taken place.

It’s easy to dismiss this time as just one of remembrance. We recall all of the prophecies. We marvel at how God brings it all together at the proper place and time. We think about what this child will later accomplish. We gather around the manger for a week or so before catapulting into His later life and the beginning of His ministry.

It’s unfortunate that we treat Advent this way, because the season of Advent is as definitive for Christian life as the Easter season is. The Easter season reminds that Christ has triumphed over sin and death. Our eternity in God’s kingdom is assured. Yet, for all of the wonderful benefits we receive through Christ’s death and resurrection, we find ourselves doing the very same thing those in the Old Testament did. We wait for the Savior.

We know He will come, just as He did before. We know God will fulfill His promise, just like He did before. Those who waited for Him the first time did so on the evidence of all of the work God had done in the past. In that way, we are no different. We make use of the season of Advent, not because we need time to set up Christmas decorations and sing the nice Advent and Christmas hymns and all of the other church traditions you might find. The season of Advent is important because it reminds that we are still waiting. Like the faithful of old, each day is a day we wake up and remember today could be the day. Each day when we go to bed we remember that, though He didn’t come today, He will. He promised and God always makes good on His promises. Advent keeps us focused and our attention fixed firmly on the future. God has given us many wonderful blessings and we are thankful for them, but He isn’t done yet. There is much more to come.