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Concordia Lutheran Church in Houston, Texas maintains a monthly blog covering a variety of Bible versus & topics.

August's Pastor's Corner - The Sign of Jonah

Dawn O'Hearn

by Pastor Red

     If you think back to all the stories from the Bible that you remember from childhood, the more miraculous ones crop up first. Creation, David versus Goliath, the Feeding of the Five Thousand all convey the wonder of God doing fantastic things on this earth to show His power, protection, & even grace. But it is the tale of Jonah that receives more than its share of disdain & derision from critics who want to tear down the Bible's authority.
     To those who only want to poke fun at Scripture, the account of Jonah being swallowed by the great fish is an easy one to get their hooks into. Not only the idea of a fish large enough to swallow a full-grown man is ludicrous to faithless ears, but Jonah's survival in the animal for three days just adds more fuel to their fire of picking away at the message this episode was written to tell.
     It would be only just one more jab against the faith & God by unbelievers, another easily dismissed jibe from those who work every day against God, if even some Christians, pastors & professors no less, didn't follow in the disbelieving trail. Yes, there are pastors & professors who proclaim their faith while openly denying & declaring that Jonah's account of the fist was just a fairy story. These so-called myths were written to teach a lesson, like Aesop did with working ants & lazy grasshoppers, but were never meant to be seen as real. Not only does the Bible contain myth & legend, but only the most weak-minded or childish would actually hold these miraculous stories as being true, real, & actual occurrences. And they go on to say that we can discount these stories without hurting the truth of the Gospel, because these stories are only illustrations of Gospel truths.
     Well, if this is true, then they should be introduced to that infinitely childish Jesus of Nazareth. He knew that the life of Jonah was real, all of it. Jesus himself said, "An evil & adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days & three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days & three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation & condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, & behold, something greater than Jonah is here" (Matthew 12:39-41).
     Jonah is more important than people see because he was a sign pointing to Christ. He showed the power of God that leads to forgiveness & salvation. In fact, Jonah's salvation & new life came through certain death, came through the darkness & isolation of someplace as close to the grave as possible, without involving tombstones & coffins.
     Yes, Jonah's ordeal in the fist is extraordinary & miraculous & impossible & hard to grasp, but he was only dealing with a giant fish & three days lodged in its gizzard. If Jonah is a fake, then what about Jesus himself? What about His very real death? What about His three day stay lodged in the tomb of death? What about His return to life on Easter morning? We cannot fool ourselves into thinking we can dismiss Jonah without dismissing our Savior because Jesus ties Himself to the prophet by His own words.
     If God can do the impossible by creating the universe in six days, if He had the forbearance to wait thousands of years to save the world through His Son, if He could do the impossible by uniting Himself to human flesh to be the God/man, if He could die on the cross to destroy death & rise again to prove that sin & its curse is destroyed forever, if He could offer this hard-fought prize to all who call upon His name, then why could He not have a giant fish swallow a rebellious & hard-hearted prophet to teach him, & so many other believers, a lesson in forgiveness & pure grace?
     Yes, the Bible contains stories of great wonder & fantastic events. Yes, the Bible has stories were God is working in strange & marvelous ways on this earth. Yes, all of these can ultimately only be held in faith, but it is God who gives us that faith to hold fast & tight to all of His Word. All of His Word points toward Christ & His crucifixion, Christ & His salvation. Just like we cannot remove one stone in a wall without weakening the whole structure, we surely cannot remove a single episode or sentence from Scripture without denigrating the whole of God's work of forgiveness for us. He Himself has said, "I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, & if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life & in the holy city, which are described in this book" (Revelation 22:18-19).

June's Pastor's Corner: Flood, Never Again

Dawn O'Hearn

by Pastor Etzel

     Frequently, everyday events bring into my mind Biblical happenings & cause me to ponder on how God has given us His Word to show us how He deals ever so graciously with His people. It helps to remind us that He is the same yesterday, today & tomorrow. Births make me think of the miraculous ones God granted: Issac, Samson, Samuel, John, & especially Jesus. Healings force me to remember the numerous people God gave the wonder of sudden healings: Naaman, the Samaritan leper, Simon Peter's mother-in-law. And of course, the recent weather forces me to remember Noah & the Flood.
     Just to remind you, & to relate the true wonder of God's deliverance of Noah & his family (along with all the land animals), I'd like to relate just some of the details of the story.
     We know that the people of the time had completely abandoned any faith in God, Noah holding firm, but did you realize that Noah was 600 years old when he finished the ark & the rains started? In fact, in the list of miraculous births I should have listed Noah's sons (Shem, Ham & Japheth) because Genesis 5 states that Noah was 500 years old when his sons began to be born. (I wonder what he would have said to Abraham just having to wait 100 years.)
     The boat Noah build, the ark, was 450 long, 75 feet wide, & 45 feet high. To put that into comparison: it was a football field & a half long, about 4 pick-up trucks wide, & as tall as a 4-story building. All total it was a good size warehouse.
     We say that God commanded Noah to bring in two of every kind of animal, but according to Genesis 7, Noah was to collect seven pairs of all the clean animals (the ones suitable for eating), but only one pair of each unclean animal. So there were 14 sheep, 14 goats, & 14 head of cattle, but only 2 lonely pigs & solitary pair of bats. (It pays to be kosher, but it just shows how much of a miracle bacon truly is.)
     The Bible doesn't say how much hay, straw, grass, or other fodder Noah & his family packed into the ark, or even why the predators didn't go after their normal prey. Quite possibly, the ark was a small precursor to Paradise when the lion will lie down with the lamb, another example of God's protection & care, not only for His people, but His whole creation.
     All in all, delving into the smaller details of God's work in the life of Noah brings to fuller focus just how much God does love Noah, his wife, his sons, & his daughter-in-law, how much He loves His people, & how much He loves us. This story not only gives us a great insight into the depth of love that finds its pinnacle in the life & sacrifice of Christ, but how God will do more than move mountains to care for all of His family.
     And now for the real world application: What does this story of global inundation tell us about the recent torrential rains that swamped parts of Houston, & the rising rivers that have threatened? All of this is seen in Genesis 9. After the flood, God makes a covenant with Noah. You will remember it from Sunday School because it ends with the sign of the rainbow. And it's that rainbow that we can hold onto no matter how high the waters rise. "And God said, 'This is the sign of the covenant that I make between Me & you & every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set My bow in the cloud, & it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me & the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth & the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember My covenant that is between Me & you & every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it & remember the everlasting covenant between God & every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.' God said to Noah, 'This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between Me & all flesh that is on the earth' " (Genesis 9:12-17).
     When rains fall & rivers rise, wait for the rainbow. Even though the world deserves nothing but destruction for all of its sin & rebellion, God (in all of His mercy) promises to not wipe it all out, out of love for us.

God's Generosity & Our Dandelions

Dawn O'Hearn

     Why does giving seem so difficult? In reality, it isn't. But we make it difficult. We make it difficult because we're afraid. We're afraid that it isn't worth the investment. We're afraid that what we give to the church might be wasted, or that we could use it for something better, something more enjoyable, something more real, more tangible, more immediate, even more important, something more important that God & His gifts.

     The point is this: we struggle with giving because we don't believe as we should. We should fear, love & trust in God above all things. And so we fail to give because we don't love God with our whole heart, soul & mind. We fail to give because we don't fear Him more than we fear other things, We fail to give because we don't trust Him more than we trust the things we can more immediately see, taste, & touch. We don't trust that He will give us everything (EVERYTHING!) we need to support this body & life. For if we did fear, love & trust in God above all things, we would see & know that all the other things that vie for our time, our talents, & our treasures pale in comparison to the joy of the real, tangible, immediate love God has showered upon us in the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins on account of His Son's death, resurrection, & ascension.

     The only proper response to this is repentance: to confess our sin, our stinginess, our lack of fear, love & faith in God's promises, & to trust in Him to help us bring our desire to do better to fruition. For God is not holding out on us. he never has. He never will. For if He has given you His only Son, how will He not also give you all things? He will. It is His promise. And these promises are sure & certain.

     The reality is that God doesn't need our giving. He doesn't need our time, our talents, our treasures. He is God. We are not. He can do all things without our help. And even what we do give, even the good & righteous things we do accomplish, these are but filthy rags, as the prophet Isaiah tells us (Isaiah 64:6). Our gifts to God & to the Church are like a child's gift of dandelions to his mother. They are weeds, which most of us spend an entire summer trying to rid our yards of. And yet, despite the fact that they are weeds, mothers receive them with a smile & with joy. They will even put them in vases & display them on tables & counter-tops. Our Lord, too, receives with joy & a smile the gifts we give in thanksgiving & praise of what He has done. Even though these gifts are but weeds, & despite the fact that He doesn't need them to accomplish what He wills, He receives them & puts it to use for our & our neighbors' good. That is the real joy of giving. He doesn't need us, yet He makes use of us; He employs us in His service despite it. He makes all that we do - our giving, our work, our service to our family & friends & neighbors - holy. And He blesses it for their & our good & to the glory of His name.

     So is giving so hard? Nah, it's like giving dandelions to our mothers. And when dinner is ready, when the food is on the table, she'll gladly have a vase full of them right int he middle. The Lord has prepared a table for you. Dinner is ready. The table is set. His Body & Blood is given to strengthen & nourish you. And right there, where Christ is with us, are the dandelions we gave. He has put them to use for our good, for our forgiveness, for our life in Him.

March Pastor's Corner - The Tortured/Blessed Life

Dawn O'Hearn

by Pastor Red

Genesis 45:4-8, 28:     "So Joseph said to his brothers, 'Come near to me, please.' And they came near. And he said, 'I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, & there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, & to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, & lord of all his house & ruler over all the land of Egypt.' ... And Israel said, 'It is enough; Joseph my son is still alive. I will go & see him before I die.' "

     If you don't remember the story of Joseph from your Sunday School days, here is the greatly condensed version:
     Joseph was the first son of Jacob's favorite wife, Rachel, & was his favorite son. Jacob, renamed by God as Israel, showed his favoring of Joseph by keeping him close & giving him a gift of a luxurious coat (the one with many colors). God also blessed Joseph by giving him prophetic dreams. Because of their jealousy of Joseph, his brothers sold him to slavers traveling to Egypt. In Egypt, Joseph was sold to Potiphar, a high government official. Joseph, blessed by God, soon rose to be the head slave over all of Potiphar's house. Potiphar's wife tried to seduce Joseph into an affair, but he refused, so she lied & told her husband that Joseph tried to rape her. Potiphar threw Joseph into Pharaoh's jail. Joseph, still blessed by God, soon became the head trustee running the jail under the warden. The Pharaoh threw two of his highest servants into the jail. Through a gift of God, Joseph interpreted the servants' dreams, the head baker would be executed but the head wine steward would be reinstated. After Pharaoh had a series of nightmares, the wine steward remembered Joseph, & he, through the help of God, was able to interpret Pharaoh's dreams. Pharaoh made Joseph his head minister & put him in charge of running the whole country.
     When his brothers stood before Joseph in all his finery as prime minister of Egypt, they were in awe of his power & authority. When he revealed that he was their brother Joseph, they feared for their very lives because of the treachery they had wrought on him as a teenager. (How do you forgive someone who sold you into slavery?) But Joseph worked a miracle; he forgave them for what they did to him. How? What did he know?

     If you were to chart Joseph's life, it would look just like a roller coaster. High: favorite son. Low: thrown in a dry well. Middlin': taken out of the pit. Lower Low: sold as a slave. High: chief steward in Potiphar's house. Low: thrown in prison on trumped up charge. Middlin' High: Head trustee in prison. High: interpreting dreams of Pharaoh. Highest: prime minister of all Egypt.

     I am sure that Joseph did not live life as a Pollyanna. I am sure that each time he was at his lowest points he wept, cried, moaned, & felt true grief & sadness, possibly even out & out depression. He did, however, never let any of those terrible occurrences color his faith in God. He relied solely on the God of his father, grandfather, & great-grandfather (Jacob, Issac, & Abraham). He, like an Old Testament Charlie Brown, kept slugging away, running toward the football, & trying to fly the kite. His trust & reliance on our Father in heaven did not waver even in the face of injustice, lies, & utter tragedy. And in doing so, he not only was God's servant to save his own family, the chosen people, he became a physical prophecy of Christ Himself. he was once reported as dead, but now is not only alive, but alive & blessing his family with life itself.

     It is enough, no matter what we have to go through, He is alive!

The Gifts Hidden in the Ten Commandments - The 7th Commandment

Dawn O'Hearn

by Rev. Jeff Hemmer

     God gives us gifts, & not only at Christmastime - gifts that can only be received in the keeping of His commandments. This article is a continuation from previous blog posts.

The Seventh Commandment - You shall not steal.

      And what gift does God intend to give with the Seventh Commandment?

Your Neighbor's Stuff

     We pray for daily bread in the Lord's Prayer, & we confess that God gives it to all people, even to all evil people. The Seventh Commandment simply gives to us the responsibility of guarding all our neighbor's possessions & income. Even the daily bread He gives to us, He commands us to use for our neighbor's good. To keep the commandment not to steal confesses that we don't provide our own daily bread. It teaches our hearts to trust this simple, biblical truth. God gives stuff - daily bread - & intends to use you to protect these gifts for your neighbor.

From A-Z Stewardship Resources Collection (LCMS) - to be continued next month with more gifts from the commandments.

February Pastor's Corner - The Beginning of Wisdom

Dawn O'Hearn

by Pastor Red

"Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them. ... The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever!" (Psalm 111:2 & 10)

     Lutherans have always been big on education. We get that inclination honestly, considering that the founding of our church started the university  at Wittenberg, Germany. Our church is rooted in the study of the Word over & above all other spiritual or devotional activities. Among the great off-shoots of founding the Evangelical/Lutheran faith was the refining of the German language & German poetry & music. Still, in many Lutheran families, you can be silly, you can be reckless, & you can be outright rebellious, but never ever dream of being ignorant. So I declare today in this second month of 2015, we need to devote ourselves to even more study, more learning, more & more searching in the Word for all we need for this life! (Yes, I mean it. I used an exclamation point!)

     But, to help guide you in your journey in the Word, I want to guide you into some specific paths through God's wonderful work. You can study just basic theology (the study of God), but that can be too big of a bite to start chewing on. Narrowing it down to Christology (the study of Jesus Christ) makes it a little more manageable, while taking you directly into Gospel territory. Any study of Christ will have to include at least a little trip into hamartiology (the study of sin) to understand the reason for Christ's sacrifice for us. And while you are delving into sin, you will have to skirt the roads of diabology (the study of the Devil) or satanology (guess), along with demonology (the study of demons), to get a firm appreciation of our enemies who wish to see us languish in iniquity. Don't get caught up in the study of the evil ones for too long, or you may lose yourself in tartarology (the study of hell).

     A faithful student will stay rooted in Christ & make a thorough investigation into all the joys of soteriology (the study of salvation). This will by necessity lead anyone into the awesome wonders of thaumatology (the study of miracles). And no one could ever hope to learn of Christ without also gaining a good deal of knowledge about his mother in Mariology (I already told you), & how Christ has changed the lives of so many believers. In that vein, a student can see the faithful as a whole in ecclesiology (the study of the church), or individually in hagiology (the study of the saints). For those with a strong constitution, a study of martyrology (the study of martyrs) will show just what some have suffered in defense of the Word of God.

     Once the student has a strong foundation in the life, wok, sacrifice, & resurrection of Christ, & how His work has completely & totally recreated our hearts, minds, & lives here & for eternity, then the student can understand the wonders & glories that can be derived from learning more of how God deals with other member of His kingdom in angelogy (the study of angels). Also, with that firm grounding in faith, anyone can stand before a bleak examination of thanatology (the study of death) or even of eschatology (the study of the end times) without any fear of being lost. In fact, a fear of God replaces all other fears with comfort & security in the Father who loves us enough to give His only Son.

     As children of God, we have a lot to learn from our Lord & Savior, most importantly about the depths of the riches of His love & grace showered upon us daily. All of His loving-kindness is out on display right in His Word. Study & you will see.

The Gifts Hidden in the 10 Commandments - The 6th Commandment

Dawn O'Hearn

by Rev. Jeff Hemmer

     God gives us gifts, & not only at Christmastime - gifts that can only be received in the keeping of His commandments. This article is a continuation from previous blog posts.

The Sixth Commandment - You shall not commit adultery.

      And what gift does God intend to give with the Sixth Commandment?

Marriage

     Given the sexually permissive nature of our society, this is the commandment everyone loves to hate. Why would God be such a prude? If it feels good, do it, right? It's my body; I can do what I want with it, you suppose.

     Marriage is a good gift. And it works best according to God's design. When He prohibits adultery, when He calls you to live a chaste & decent life, when He commands husband & wives to love & honor each other, it's because He wants to see your marriage be the best it can be. Cheating on your spouse, before or after your wedding date, in action or only in thought, with real people or just pixels on a computer screen, hurts your marriage. It makes the gift of a good marriage harder to receive. It's not because sex is sinful that God prohibits any sex outside of marriage, but because sex is a good gift with beautiful results (babies). ...Break the Sixth commandment & you're subject to a host of corruptions: STDs, divorce, broken hearts, broken families, addictions. Better simply to receive the gift as God intends to give it.

     From A-Z Stewardship Resources Collection (LCMS) - to be continued next month with more gifts from the commandments.

January Pastor's Corner - Beloved, Let Us Love

Dawn O'Hearn

by Pastor Red Etzel

      I was just re-reading some words from a great churchman, O.P. Kretzmann, & I knew I could not write anything better for you, so here are his words:

     "today we are standing in the world's evening time. The shadows of eternity are already upon us. The inscrutable wisdom of God has made these latter days of harshness & of heartlessness. We are living in a singularly loveless time. The fact that our age is mad with the lust for gold has made us supremely selfish & self-centered. Even our family life is rapidly disappearing. Hearts once attuned to vibrate in harmony with each other are now discordant & shrill. They prefer the clink of gold to the soft voices of the heart & to the glad music of friendship & fellowship & love.

     "Into this strange age the Lord God has placed us, holding in our hands the one religion in the world which is dominated & permeated by the thought of love. The very heart of our faith is revealed in the three words: God is Love. Behind these three words lies ages of careful watching of a loving Father in heaven over every faltering step which human children take in their brief journey from the cradle to the grave. Behind them lies the entire magnificent plan of salvation which found its sublime climax when our Lord Jesus lived & walked for thirty-three years among people & finally died on a cross in order that hearts might see finally & forever, that despite all that they might be, the love of God is great enough to tear them body & soul out of he darkness of sin & hate into the glorious light of the forgiveness of sin & love. Christianity, the religion of God's love in Christ, is the road back to God. It is God's road of love.

     "Today, we are in imminent danger of wandering away from that road & walking alone over the highways of life. We easily become the loveless children of a heartless age. It is therefore one of our most pressing tasks to examine our own heart in the light of the eternal love & timeless mercy which streams from the gates of heaven. It must be one of our highest purposes to draw out of our hearts all the little hates & petty jealousies which make our lives such poor & clouded reflections of the love of God. We must know that God has only one way of reaching the human heart. That way lies only through another human heart. Even when we are reading our Bibles, God touches us only through the hearts & lives & hands of hose who many centuries ago heard His voice come to them, & listened. Even so it is today. If we are to walk the road back to God as they did so many years ago, our hearts must hear our Savior's voice pleading down through the long years of war & bloodshed, & across the weary centuries of bitter hate & fearful malice: 'Little children, love one another.'

     "Nothing dare stand between us & our vision of that love. We may say that there are human beings whom we cannot love, human beings who are scarred, warped, & shriveled souls whose entire personality repels us. But God has never spoken so. As long as the world has stood, God has never deserted one single soul on this side of the grave. Shall we withdraw from our fellow beings? Shall we perhaps even disown our own fellow Christians? Ought we not rather resolve never to forsake any human being within our reach? If there is someone whom we do not like, let us consider for a moment if the fault does not perhaps lie in us. Perhaps if we could look deeper into the hear of our enemy, we would find there some hidden beauty & a buried kindness which would recompense us well for all the charity & Christian love we might pour out upon our enemy. There are few things in this world that are more satisfying than the discovery of some hidden beauty in a redeemed human heart. If we will only try to do that we shall be walking the road back to God. It is the road of love. Into our lives will come a new tenderness & the supreme strength of gentleness. We have the eternal promise of our blessed Savior that it is a tenderness which will bring us happiness & peace forever." [O.P. Kretzmann, The Road Back to God]

1 John 4:7-9  Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, & whoever loves has been born of God & knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him.

Walking Together in the Gospel

Dawn O'Hearn

by Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison, President, The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod.

     We Lutherans love Jesus, mercy work, bearing witness to Christ, holding potlucks & engaging in hearty singing & weighty Bible studies. We also love acronyms: CUS, CPH, CPS< CHI, LCEP, LLL, LWML. (Can you name the organizations these acronyms stand for? If not, visit www.lcms.org/themes/december to lean more.) They're unassuming - these little alphabet soup clusters of letter - but the work Christ does through them is anything but!

     One of the distinct joys we share as the body of Christ is our ability to work together. We don't go off on our own. We don't operate apart from those with whom we confess the faith. We don't endeavor to do it all by ourselves. We work together. We listen to each other. We forgive each other. We have fun together! And we serve one another, walking together in great joy.

     Paul understood this in full, encouraging Christians to join together in "partnership in the gospel" (Phil. 1:5). And we are still heeding his words today! That's why it doesn't take much igging to realize that Christ is working mightily in the LCMS, & that we can, by His grace, do more together than we can accomplish in dark corners working by ourselves.

     Just take a look at all of our partners. They serve in their own alphabet soup variety of vocations, from global missions to health benefits, from investments & loans to liberal arts education, from partner church bodies to the Synod's archives. And they do it all for the well-being & care of individual members of the LCMS, each of her congregations, all of the 35 districts, even the Synod at-large. The impact they make is one we al share, & each one provides a new way for Lutherans life you & I to get involved in our communities & around the world.

     We Lutherans love Jesus, & we love our acronyms too, because they are proof that the Lord blesses, that He rejoices to work through us for the good of our neighbor, that He can use an alphabet soup of Lutherans working together to accomplish truly wonderful things.

     Join us this December in giving special thanks for our partners in the Gospel, & ask God to bless our work together according to His will.

The Gifts Hidden in the 10 Commandments - 5th Commandment

Dawn O'Hearn

by Rev. Jeff Hemmer

     God gives us gifts, & not only at Christmastime - gifts that can only be received in the keeping of His commandments. This article is a continuation from previous blog posts.

The Fifth Commandment - You shall not murder.

      Now & for the remaining 5 commandments, the recipient of the gift God intends to give shifts from you to your neighbor. And what gift does God intend to give with the Fifth Commandment?

Life. In particular, your neighbor's life.

     Life is obviously a gift. (You didn't choose to be alive, did you?) God intends to give it fully & richly. And He intends for you to be the ne who watches out for your neighbor's life. You are given the responsibility to help & support your neighbor in any physical need. Breaking the commandment might not hurt you, but it obviously hurts your neighbor. Life is a good gift, given only by the Author of life, which He calls you to guard & protect.

From A-Z Stweardship Resources Collection (LCMS) & used with permission - to be continued next month with more gifts from the commandments.

December Pastor's Corner - Who's Coming? Who's Here?

Dawn O'Hearn

     by Pastor Red Etzel

     You better watch out. You better not cry. You better not pout. I'm telling you why. Santa Claus is coming to town. (At least, finally, it is not too early to hear, or read these familiar lines, unlike all the carols, decorations, & what-not that has already been displayed way before Thanksgiving this year.)

     He's making a list & checking it twice. He's going to find out who's naughty & nice. Santa Claus is coming to town.

     The vast majority of people  these United States rearrange their whole schedules, transform their entire lives, to conform to the words of this little song. It's amazing that a little ditty first sung on the radio show of entertainer Eddie Cantor in 1934 could so change the world, or, at the very lease, accurately encapsulate how Christmas has gone wrong.

     Maybe it's the weight of so many years of celebrating the holiday. Maybe it's the nostalgia & hope to recapture some child-like joy destroyed by maturity. Maybe it's just the anticipation that a little "good cheer" & holiday spirit will entice friends & family to forget how miserable you've been to them all year & still give you a present (or several) come December 25th. But everyone seems to at least try to be nicer, friendlier, & more hospitable between December 1st & the big day. Maybe it's the hope that Santa Claus will come to town, & to your own home.

     Why? Why do we hope for an annual visit, if in spirit only, from a Turkish priest wrapped in a German name? Why do we want a singular visit from someone so wonderful? Why not instead sing about Santa moving in & making himself at home with you? For that matter, why do we look for anyone to stay with us & give us good things, happy things, grand & glorious blessings of life, health, &joy, besides our Lord Jesus Christ

     He is the one who can give us all things, the tree, the lights, the feast, the toys, all of it including eternal life. And He will never just drop things off of some enchanted sled & then hightail it back to the ice-bound northern wilderness. In fact He has made it a promise to never leave us. Remember these?

  • Matthew 18:20 - Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.
  • Matthew 28:20 - Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

And even back as far as the Old Testament, we have the promise:

  • Psalm 139:7-12 - Where shall I go from Your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, You are there! If I take the wings of the morning & dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, & Your right hand shall hold me. If I say, 'Surely the darkness shall cover me, & the light about me be night,' even the darkness is not dark to You; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with You.

     Our savior, our Christ, is the true one who sees you when you're sleeping, & knows when you're awake. He knows when you've been bad or good, & forgives you for all of it.

     So this Advent, Christmas, & Epiphany seasons (& include the rest of the year as well), better watch out for the one who doesn't just come to town once a year, but has promised to come & stay with you now & forever. merry Christ-mass!

The Gifts Hidden in the Ten Commandments - 4th Commandment

Dawn O'Hearn

by Rev. Jeff Hemmer

Gift giving is such an intrinsic part of the Creator's nature that even in His Law He intends to give gifts, gifts that can only be received in the keeping of His commandments. This article is a continuation from previous newsletters.

The Fourth Commandment - Honor your father & your mother.

What gift does God intend to give through the Fourth Commandment?          Parents

     You have parents even if you dishonor, disrespect, or hate them. They gave you life & that life is not immediately revoked if you disobey your parents. But Moses & Paul promise this commandment has a particular blessing: "That it may go well with you & that you may live long" (Deut. 5:33; Eph. 6:3).

     All earthly authority derives from the office of parent. When a police officer advises you to obey the law or be put in "time out," he does so deriving his authority from your parents. When teachers instruct their pupils, they do so not by authority of the office of teacher, but by the authority of the office of father. Parents relinquish a little bit of their authority to policemen & princes, teachers, & catechists to do what God has given them to do. So, to all these people, God commands obedience & honor, so that He may deliver them the gifts of good order & instruction. That's why life is "longer" wen you obey your parents. All of your parents.

From A-Z Stewardship Resources Collection (LCMS) -- to be continued next month with more gifts from the commandments.

November Pastor's Corner - Celebrate

Dawn O'Hearn

by Pastor Red

Luke 15:11-32:     And He (Jesus) said, "There is a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.' And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had & took a journey into a far country, & there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, & he began to be in need. So he went & hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, & no one gave him anything.
     "But when he came to himself, he said, 'How many of my father's hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise & go to my father, & I will say to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven & before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.' And he arose & came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him & felt compassion, & ran & embraced him & kissed him. And the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven & before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his servants, 'Bring quickly the best robe, & put it on him, & put a ring on his hand, & shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf & kill it, & let us eat & celebrate. For this my son was dead & is alive again; he was lost, & is found.' And they began to celebrate.
     "Now his older son was in the field & as he came & drew near to the house he heard music & dancing. And he called one of their servants & asked what these things meant. And he said to him, 'Your brother has come, & your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe & sound.' But he was angry & refused to go in. His father came out & entreated him, but he answered his father, 'Look, these many years I have served you, & I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!' And he said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, & all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate & be glad, for this your brother was dead, & is alive; he was lost, & is found.'"

     In this great parable of Christ, you will have noticed that I have accentuated the word "celebrate" each & every time it appears. While this parable is chock full of different things that teach us so many things, as all of God's Word does, I want to concentrate on the celebration, why it is so important to the father, & so disgusting to the "obedient" son.

     Often in this world, the Christian church is criticized for celebrating in the midst of troubles. We can even pick at each other for the extravagance of our celebrations. A small church can envy & complain about the amount of money a larger parish spends on decorations, lights & "unnecessary" tinsel & glitter. But even in the face of the world's complaint of any time we celebrate the smallest of blessings from God, we need to see things from the father's point in this parable. He saw this grand party, with the best of best being consumed, as necessary. He could do nothing else. When his rebellious son went away, he was literally dead to the father. He had severed all ties to his family, friends, & whole village by selling off his share of the wealth. He may have been living & breathing, partying & carousing, but to those who really cared & knew him, he was dead. His return, no matter his shape, condition, or reason, was a true return from that death. It was as miraculous to the father as if he had sprung up from his death or clawed his way out of the grave. In the sight of this wondrous miracle, this earth-shattering gift, a celebration, no matter how grand, was the least any loving father could do.

     As far as the world is concerned, they see no reason for celebration because they are still dead. They have never known the connection to a loving father, much less the pain of that separation from all that gives us true life & breath. Without that knowledge, the world only sees its own reasons to party, the selfish, the transitory, & the flashy but useless. In this respect, the world is like the "obedient" son.

     I have used those quote marks because I don't think that son is as obedient as he seems. He has never done any deeds to the contrary. He has outwardly done everything his father has asked, but where is his heart? If he was a true son of his father, he would have been just as happy, just a joyous, just as ready to celebrate his brother's return. But this second son is more like the world than his father. He only sees what is in this world for himself. He has no true love & care, just a calculator that tallies up the easiest & best way to get what he deserves. He begrudges all his father is doing because it is supposedly coming from his pocket. He sees no need to celebrate because he sees no miracle, no return to life, no resurrection.

     As we get closer & closer to all the celebrations we have at the end of our year, please take time to see through the father's eyes. Let the return to life, through Christ, change your sight & see what this celebration is truly about. Celebrate His real gifts, His life that returns us to the Father, & the resurrection from the dead that He gives to us.

The Gifts Hidden in the Ten Commandments - 3rd Commandment

Dawn O'Hearn

by Rev. Jeff Hemmer

Gift giving is such an intrinsic part of the Creator's nature that even in His Law He intends to give gifts, gifts that can only be received in the keeping of His commandments. This article is a continuation from previous newsletters.

The Third Commandment - Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.

What gift does God intend to give through the Third Commandment?          His Word

     That might seem like a burden, like the guilt trip your pastor lays on you for skipping Bible class. (Seriously, though, you're already coming to church on Sunday morning; why not just stay for Bible Class?) But it's more than that. The Word of God is how you receive faith: "So faith comes through hearing, & hearing through the word of Christ" (Rom. 10:17). It's how you have life: "My soul clings to the dust; give me life according to your word!" (Ps. 119:25).

     God doesn't want you to attend Sunday morning services so that you fulfill some kind of obligation or return after six days off to tell Him how awesome He is. He created Sunday mornings & the Divine Service for the purpose of delivering His gifts: His Word & His Sacraments. If you say "no" to these, you say "no" to life. God intends for you something better than that. Breaking the Third Commandment means missing out on life-bestowing, eternity-altering gifts. That's just dumb. The gifts are free & frequent. All you have to do is be where they're given out.

From A-Z Stewardship Resources Collection (LCMS) -- to be continued next month with more gifts from the commandments.

October Pastor's Corner - Freedom

Dawn O'Hearn

by Pastor Red

Habakkuk 2:4 "Behold, his soul is not puffed up. it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith."

     We have this notion that we live in dangerous times. The daily news, no matter if we read it off paper or a screen, hear it on the radio, or watch it streamed to us on tablets or over television, paint for us a picture of a troubled & scary world. But, is the world really more dangerous now than it has been in the past?

     In the 1500's, when Martin Luther walked the earth, he knew that the world was not a safe place. He was right. Many babies never lived to see their first birthday. Without fridges or freezers, food spoiled quickly & often, & people often just ate the half-spoiled food, cooked a little longer, rather than waste it. Water, even from the deepest wells, was often suspect, & rarely clear, clean, & cool. The common diseases we consider just nuisances were deadly. The flu could, & did, wipe out large numbers of people. And without simple antibiotics, simples cuts & punctures led to infection, lock-jaw, septicemia, gangrene, & death.

     That was just day-to-day life; I haven't even brought into account the looming threat of the Muslim Turks who had stormed into Europe as far as Vienna before being repelled. They could invade again at any time. But if the Turks were too far to be a threat, the Christian princes, earls, & dukes were always having arguments that led to minor wars throughout the countryside. And these small wars did not care how many innocent civilians were killed in the conflict.

     Along with all of those very real dangers, the people were also deathly afraid of the devil & all of his minions. The priests constantly warned the people to be on their guard against witches, demons, warlocks, & any kind of ghost or specter. If is from this time that we get all of our best horror stories of witches & ghouls. Yes, this was the time that gave birth to the Brothers Grimm, Hansel & Gretel, & especially, Vlad Tepes' Dracula.

     It is easy to see then that one lone Augustinian German monk would be so worried for his life, both physical & eternal, that he would spend years searching for protection from God. He would begin by trying to win God's constant concern & affection by driving himself to exhaustion through fasting, prayer, & self-abuse. When those disciplines did not bring any true assurance, Luther poured himself into Scripture to find any source of comfort in his troubling & scary world.

     While studying the entire Old Testament, in preparing to teach it to younger students, Luther found this small verse in the prophet Habakkuk. This is the verse that Luther stated was the key that unlocked heaven for him.

     Its simple words immediately broke through the chains of doubt & fear from his heart & mind. This verse made what he had read before clear, that God gave His children the gift of faith, & by that gift of faith, free from Christ, we have life, now & eternally.

     What he had not heard in all the Psalms, Luther got from this verse. All of the blessings & wonder that come from Christ funneled to him through this verse. Habakkuk, the often forgotten prophet with the funny name, was the chosen voice that brought comfort & clarity to the man who led the great reformation of the church. Grace, mercy, & peace today are ours from the words "the righteous shall live by his faith." And because that faith is a free & certain gift of God through the life, death, & resurrection of Christ, we need not fear the world any longer. No warrior prince, no crazed Muslim Turk, terrorist, or ISIS combatant can take away our life in Christ. No distant war, or local skirmish between the neighborhood drug cartels can take away our eternity with God. No cancer, syndrome, or contagion can separate us from our Lord & Savior. And especially no new great preacher, teacher, or spiritual leader or guru can come between us & the love & adoption that Jesus won for us on the cross.

     We live in scary times. But the Father & His Son, who hold us close to themselves, are a lot scarier than anything that seeks to hurt & destroy us. If you need proof of that, here's another small verse: "Little children, you are from God & have overcome them, for He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world." (1 John 4:4).

The Gifts Hidden in the Ten Commandments - 2nd Commandment

Dawn O'Hearn

by Rev. Jeff Hemmer

Gift giving is such an intrinsic part of the Creator's nature that even in His Law He intends to give gifts, gifts that can only be received in the keeping of His commandments. This article is continued from last month's Newsletter.

The Second Commandment - You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God.

What gift does God intend to give though the Second Commandment?     His Name

     He gives His name to you first in Holy Baptism. Like a mother writing a child's name in Sharpie on all of the things he will take to school, God marks you as His own, placing His triune name upon you in the waters of Holy Baptism. Suddenly, the otherwise terrifying holy name of God is given to you as a gift, to call upon in every trouble, pray, praise & give thanks.

     If you break the commandment, if you misuse this holy name, you miss out on the benefits that are yours through God's name: access to the Creator of the universe by name. It's direct access to God as only God the Son has access. It would be like the president of the United States giving you his cell hone number. If you call the White House, you can expect to leave a message that will get listened to by a low-level staffer, at best. But when little Malia Obama calls her father on his personal cell phone, you better believe he has time for that phone call. So God gives you access to Himself with His name. Why would you want to misuse that?

From A-Z Stewardship Resources Collection (LCMS) -- to be continued next month with more gifts from the commandments.

September Pastor's Corner: All Things - Give Thanks

Dawn O'Hearn

by Pastor Red

1 Thessalonians 2:16-18 Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

Philippians 4:10-13 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have received you concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, & I know how to abound. In any & every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty & hunger, abundance & need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.

     Just last Sunday, I was privileged to preach on Jeremiah's cry to God to end his pain, from Jeremiah 15:18. The problem with pain has been a nagging concern of mine for a good many years. As a pastor, I have been in far too many hospitals, nursing homes, rehabs, funeral parlors, & sick rooms. I have sat with those before diagnosis & after diagnosis; before surgery & after surgery; before, during & after physical therapy; before, during & after chemotherapy; before, during & after psychological therapy; & before, during & after funerals. Along with all of the happiest of times (births & birthdays, baptisms & confirmations, weddings & anniversaries), I have seen my share of pain & suffering, misery & trouble. And, taking Paul at his word, I give thanks to God for all of it.

     I am not being flip. I am not telling a joke. I am not making light of anyone's pain & anxiety. I truly mean it. I try, in all things, to give thanks to God for even the most terrible things that have happened to me & all those God has given me as parishioners. And the thanks come for a few reasons.

     The first reason is that we all have to remember that pain is in the world because of us. In God's original plan for this planet was not in the mix. We were supposed to have nothing less than paradise in the Garden of Eden. There was no physical, emotional, or spiritual suffering anywhere. There was to be no disappointments, failures or depressions. We would not have even scratched our knees. All of the bad stuff we experience today is because of that first rebellion. The physical act may have been simply eating a piece of fruit, but the rejection of God's Law by doing so brought sure & certain death. That curse of final death has a lot of "little deaths" that flow out, around, before & behind it. Yes, it is the sin that we continue to do, breathe, think, & live in that not only create but foster & nurture all the pains the world suffers.

     But, just like any good parent, God protects us from so many things, & even turns the pains into good things. Pain, as I said on Sunday, can be turned by our Father into a useful thing. Doctors do use pain to diagnose & treat our sicknesses & ailments. It's the diseases & syndromes that don't immediately cause pain that are insidious & deadly, like heart disease & many cancers.

    Pain can also stop us from doing dangerous things to ourselves. Sore muscles & great thirst can & do stop us from getting heat stroke. God does use pain to stop us little children from grabbing at the hot pans on the stove, & the hot open rebellions & sins that look so tempting.

     God also uses our pains to teach us. It may not seem like a good thing to us, but it is necessary. We are the rebellious children after all. So the pain of our failures & faults can show us the how & why being closer to God, & trying to keep His rules, is for our good. It is the pain of separation that shows the value of family & friends. It is the suffering of the hangover that teaches the benefit of sobriety. It is the sweet ability to draw a good deep breath that displays the trouble of being a Marlboro man. And the Lord can use our suffering to teach not only us, but everyone around us. In fact, He can use what we go through as trials & strife to show so many that we touch how a believer does handle this life in faith & hope.

     And that leads me to the last reason; our pains & aches may be terrible, but we have already had most of them taken away by our Savior. He died not only to destroy the final curse of sin, Death itself, but to break the back of each & every little death that swims in its wake. Yes, we are still in this broken, stained, & disease ridden world, & it will continue in its attempts to hurt us as much as possible, but Jesus, in all His infinite love & mercy, has, does, & will protect us from its worst assaults & injuries.  He will give His angels charge to guard & protect us. No matter what the world, the devil, or even we think to inflict upon each other & ourselves, Christ will always be there to save us. If we are helped through miraculous means or through medicines, doctors, nurses, or just a hand to hold & a should to lean on, our Savior gives us His love & care as the Great Physician of body & soul.

     So until the day when we will walk the streets of gold, drink the living waters of the stream that flows from the throne, & eat of the fruit of the Tree of Life (which has a new fruit each month), we can know that every pain, great & small (scrape, cut, heart-ache, depression, separation, cancer, broken bone or ingrown toenail) is seen, cared for, & ultimately cured by the Father who wanted to give us Paradise through His So, our Savior, who died to win that perfect, tear-free Garden back for us.