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Slaves living in freedom

Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover up for evil; live as God’s slaves. 1 Peter 2:16

Peter M. Prange

Who wouldn’t want to be free? Free from insult? Free from pain? Free from trouble? Free from debt? Free from guilt? Free from death? God created us to live in freedom and to celebrate it. Freedom is good and desirable. When we feel the bondage of burden down to our bones, it makes life miserable. We want freedom.

Living as sin’s slaves

But instead we naturally live in bondage. We’re born that way. Jesus plainly taught that “everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). Psalm 51 reminds us that our bondage originates in the womb. “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (v. 5). St. Paul outlined the ultimate consequence of our addiction to sin, explaining that “sin entered the world through one man [Adam], and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). Simply put, we are shackled to sin and death. We cannot break the chains of our bondage.

That’s why Jesus came. He came to do for us what we could not do for ourselves in a million lifetimes. Yes, our Savior, God’s Son, came to set us free, and “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). Jesus canceled sin’s debt. We are not chained to sin and its guilt or the wages of sin—death—because of Jesus. He overcame death by his own death and resurrection. He urges us to take heart and to live in the eternal peace that only he can give. In other words, as St. Peter put it, “live as free people,” because through faith in Jesus that is what we are, now and forever.

Living as God’s slaves

But the apostle also advises us against misunderstanding this freedom. Yes, we are to live as free people, but our freedom dare never be used “as a cover up for evil.” In other words, Jesus has not restored our freedom so that we are “free” to return to the bondage of sin. We should not call sin “freedom” so we can do whatever we want. Our Christian freedom is never to be used in a self-serving way but in a way, that willingly and generously serves others. Strange as it sounds, we are set free from sin and death so that we might “live as God’s slaves” in service to one another.

Jesus serves as the ultimate model of this divine principle, pointing out that “even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). The One who created heaven and earth—the only One who can freely do “whatever pleases him” (Psalm 115:3) with no need for excuse or explanation—uses his perfect freedom in service to sinners like us. He gave his very life to set us free.

At first it might not seem natural for us to celebrate our freedom from sin and death when we discover that we are still slaves, called to serve one another in humility and love. But slavery to the will of God is true freedom. It brings joy and meaning and fulfillment to our lives. So, let’s live as free people by living as God’s slaves.


Contributing editor Peter Prange is pastor at Bethany, Kenosha, Wisconsin.


 

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Author: Peter M. Prange
Volume 104, Number 7
Issue: July 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

The mystery and master of faith

“All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” John 14:25,26

Peter M. Prange

To broken hearts like ours, faith is a real mystery. We don’t naturally understand faith’s inner workings. We foolishly assume that faith is invigorated by easy roads and pleasant paths. How easy it is to have faith when everything goes our way! Surely that’s what God wants for his faithful people in this world, right?

But Jesus is the master of faith. He gets how it works. He creates faith, just as he has created everything else, in a powerful yet unsuspecting way. In a way only he can.

Trusting the master of faith

Just consider John chapter 14 and the words Jesus spoke on the evening before he died. He told his disciples that he would be leaving them. They didn’t expect that. Until the moment of Jesus’ arrest, his disciples were convinced he had come to establish a grand earthly kingdom. They were destined—or so they thought—to reign in this world alongside the Messiah. This was their faith, and it was simple to have. Jesus had spoken, and they believed. But Jesus would be leaving them, a point he made repeatedly so they wouldn’t miss it.

Still, they did. His words seemed strange to them. All was well, but soon he would be withdrawing. He would go unseen. Then faith would depend on his words without his physical presence. “All this I have spoken while still with you,” Jesus said, but soon his disciples won’t see him anymore. Things would change. Jesus would not be present with them as he had been for the past three years.

Martin Luther noted that while God’s people hear and accept God’s Word gladly, “it does not always touch the heart right away and is not always believed right away. . . . One can go for a long time without feeling at all improved or comforted and strengthened by it, especially if there is not any anxiety or danger” (Luther’s Works [LW], Vol. 77, p. 355).

Unveiling the mystery of faith

So what does Jesus do to deepen faith? He leaves us, even to the point that we may feel altogether abandoned. He launches storms in our direction. He inserts thorns in the flesh and permits messengers of Satan to torment us (2 Corinthians 12:7). In those challenges, Jesus drives us to his words.

When trials come, so does his Spirit, who teaches us all things and brings to mind the promises Jesus has made to us. It is as if he says, “I must be taken away from you, so that this comfort may work in you and the Holy Spirit may teach it to you. When you have lost me and are left alone in danger, need, and anxiety, only then will you realize that you need comfort, and then you will sigh for it. Then the Holy Spirit will find you to be truly teachable students and will help and remind you to grasp and note what I have said” (LW, Vol. 77, p. 354).

Though the lessons of faith our Master teaches are not always pleasant, how necessary they are and what fruit they bear (Hebrews 12:11). So don’t scamper too quickly from weaknesses and insults, hardships and difficulties. Delight in them. For through them the Master unveils the mystery of faith.


Contributing editor Peter Prange is pastor at Bethany, Kenosha, Wisconsin.


 

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Author: Peter M. Prange
Volume 104, Number 6
Issue: June 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Called to proclaim

Later Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen. He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.” Mark 16:14,15

Peter M. Prange

What a fascinating portrait the evangelists paint for us in their accounts of Jesus’ resurrection and its aftermath. One would expect these narratives to be filled with reports of unfettered joy and celebration. “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!” Instead Jesus’ resurrection was met with fear and doubts.

Doubting Easter joy

Thomas was the most infamous skeptic (John 20:24-29), but his reaction to the splendor of Easter was really not unique. Luke tells us that when the women came to Jesus’ disciples and announced what they had seen and heard, those men dismissed it as “nonsense.” Mark makes it clear that their refusal to believe the women’s Easter proclamation wasn’t a simple misunderstanding. It was a refusal to believe.

Are we really any different? Do we live our daily lives as God’s people in unfettered Easter joy and confidence, or are our lives instead regularly punctuated, interrupted, and thrown off balance by our fear and doubts? Do we regularly take St. Paul’s Easter-inspired hymn on our lips and proclaim to ourselves and to others that “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38,39)? Or do we instead allow the worries and cares of our day-to-day lives load us down with burdens too heavy for us to bear by ourselves? Am I really confident that Christ is risen and that he who rules all things for the good of his people is indeed working all things for my eternal good?

We are naturally just as skeptical and cold-hearted as Thomas and his colleagues were. And our Savior responds to our doubts in exactly the same way he responded to theirs: He rebukes us for our lack of faith and our stubborn refusal to believe.

Proclaiming Jesus’ victory

But what does he do next? Amazingly, he does not kick us to the curb. Instead he calls us to proclaim with joy his eternal promises, to “go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.” Jesus can’t find any better missionaries than those who struggle with the same fear and doubts that every sinful person experiences. Who better to proclaim the profound comfort found in the gospel of Christ’s resurrection than those who have so desperately needed it for themselves?

Remember, it was only after King David had fallen into horrific sin and cold-hearted unbelief that he was prompted to pray, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, so that sinners will turn back to you” (Psalm 51:12,13). And it was only after Jesus rescued a man long-possessed by a legion of demons that he directed him to go and “tell how much God has done for you” (Luke 8:39).

So we too are called from our cold-heartedness to proclaim the victory found for broken sinners in Jesus alone. Christ is risen indeed! Believe it and then proclaim it to others!


Contributing editor Peter Prange is pastor at Bethany, Kenosha, Wisconsin.


 

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Author: Peter M. Prange
Volume 104, Number 5
Issue: May 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

What happens in Vegas, stays with Jesus

We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. Isaiah 53:6

Daniel J. Habben

“What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas!”

Did a smirk cross your lips? Maybe you’ve had one of those weekends in “Sin City”—you know, where you let down your hair and drank too much or went to a show that you’d never want Mom to find out about. You excused your behavior with a wink because “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas!”

The impact of sinful choices

If only that were true. Your credit card company won’t forget what you did in Vegas. It’ll itemize your expenditures and remind you of them a month later. And while Mom may not find out what you really did in Vegas, your conscience knows. You can’t leave that behind in Vegas, can you?

Of course, Las Vegas isn’t the only “Sin City.” Pick any place where humans are gathered, and you’ll find enough sin to fill a city. The prophet Isaiah put it this way: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray” (emphasis added).

The idea of sheep wandering aimlessly on a hillside probably doesn’t raise the hair on the back of your neck. So let’s alter the illustration a bit. Picture a car that “wanders” over the centerline. A moment of inattention is all it takes. What if you were the driver of the wandering car? Imagine helplessly watching while paramedics try to revive the people you just struck. If your carelessness caused their deaths, would you have the courage to attend their funerals? It won’t stay in Vegas, will it?

This Good Friday we’ll get to attend such a funeral. The victim, Jesus, died on a cross—and Isaiah says it was our sins that put him there. We went astray and crossed the centerline of God’s commands . . . and it was Jesus who stood in the path of our sinful collision course. This was no fender-bender. Jesus took our sins head-on and paid with his life. So this Good Friday memorial service, we’ll come before the Father with hearts that recognize and regret the impact our sinful choices had on his innocent Son.

Our victory through Jesus

Though we are guilty, we also can attend this Good Friday funeral with deep relief, confident of our forgiveness. In our reading, Isaiah says that God laid our sins on Jesus so that we would have peace. So what happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas—it stays with Jesus. We’re clean. We’re forgiven. No one can accuse any of us of being someone God could never love. He does love us. Good Friday is proof. What happened in Vegas—or last Friday or this morning, for that matter—was pinned to the cross with Jesus.

So what is our response? The events of Good Friday don’t give us an excuse to swerve toward “Sin City” and let loose because we know God will forgive us. His forgiveness snaps us to attention, the way a near-miss on the highway makes a driver sit up and refocus. Refocusing on God’s will is what we’ll want to do, because he’s given us something much better than Vegas. He’s given us victory through Jesus.


Contributing editor Daniel Habben is pastor at St. Peter, Saint Albert, Alberta, Canada.


 

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Author: Daniel J. Habben
Volume 104, Number 4
Issue: April 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Inspecting our spiritual DNA

We should love one another. Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. 1 John 3:11,12,16

Daniel J. Habben

According to a 2003 study, 16 million men from mainland Asia and southern Siberia (8% of the male population) are descended from the once-feared Mongol ruler, Genghis Khan. Wouldn’t it be interesting to find out how many of Genghis Khan’s traits were passed down through the generations?

You’re probably not descended from Genghis Kahn, but Lent is an opportunity to inspect your spiritual DNA. What you find might surprise you. You may be more like Cain than you would like to admit! But you’re also more like Christ than you may realize.

Like Cain

Let’s start with our similarity to Cain. He bludgeoned his brother to death. Oh, there may be no murder weapon buried in our closets, but consider how the Bible says, “Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer” (1 John 3:15). Hatred, like murder, wishes the other person didn’t exist. That makes our workplace especially homicidal, doesn’t it? Lazy coworkers. Inept managers. Ungrateful customers. They’re all easy targets for our anger—an emotion that can easily boil over into hatred when not cooled down with daily repentance. Even when we repent of our hatred, we often allow ourselves to silently seethe. Yes, we’re more like Cain than we’d like to admit!

Like Cain, we should rightly expect God to drive us from his presence. Instead, God delivers us into the arms of his Son. John wrote: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” Jesus’ cry from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34), was like the shout of a hiker who distracts a charging grizzly away from others by making himself the bear’s target. God answered Jesus’ cry by turning his righteous anger away from us and instead bringing down the full weight of his wrath on his Son. With Jesus’ innocent death, God’s wrath was spent. We sinners are spared.

Like Christ

Now with our new lease on eternal life, we who can still so easily hate like Cain are exhorted by the apostle John to love like Christ.

Love like Christ? Don’t think it’s possible? Well, let’s inspect our spiritual DNA again. Jesus once said: “I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you” (John 14:20). We may be more like Cain than we’d like to admit, but believers are also more like Christ than they may realize. Think of how an electric power bar goes from “dead” to “live” when it’s plugged into an outlet. Through Baptism we have gone from dead to alive . . . in Christ. His love isn’t just racing to us; it’s also racing through us, the way electricity pulses through a power bar to give life to all the appliances plugged into it. With Jesus, we can show love to everyone—even the difficult people.

Yes, you share spiritual DNA with Cain. But through Baptism you’ve inherited the spiritual DNA of Christ. You have his forgiveness. And you also have his power to show love to others.


Contributing editor Daniel Habben is pastor at St. Peter, Saint Albert, Alberta, Canada.


 

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Author: Daniel J. Habben
Volume 104, Number 3
Issue: March 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Forever loved

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. Romans 8:35,37

Daniel J. Habben 

Duct-taping a torn hiking boot is not a lasting solution. I know. I’ve tried. Resoling the boot with needle and thread would have been a better option, but, even then, the sole of the boot would have eventually detached again. There’s no such thing as a permanent bond . . . is there?

God’s forever love

Actually there is: Christ’s love for sinners. So says the apostle Paul in Romans chapter 8.

Picture Jesus’ outstretched arms on the cross. In his death, Jesus flung out his arms to embrace a world of sinners with God’s forgiveness. Paul wants you to know that nothing can come between you and Jesus’ embrace. A cancer diagnosis can’t pull you from his arms. Not even death can break his tender hold.

God’s love for us in Jesus surrounds and protects us in death the way a submarine surrounds and protects the sailors inside. When a submarine disappears under the waves, onlookers don’t panic. They know the sub will surface again and everyone inside it will be okay. That’s also true of a Christian in his coffin. In time, he will surface again—alive and well!

God’s protecting love

No, nothing can separate us from God’s love, but there are plenty of things that can distract us from it. When I spend more time poring over online product reviews than I do studying my Bible, for example, I may begin to think that my life would be better if only I had nicer patio furniture. When I fail to turn off my phone at devotion time, I’m tempted to check the latest text—as if my friend’s inane comments are somehow more important than what the eternal God has to say to me.

Have I made you feel guilty for succumbing to these temptations? Then picture again those outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross. There is another way to regard that posture: like a police officer holding back a surging mob. And that’s exactly what Jesus was doing on the cross—holding back God’s surging anger over the many ways we despise his love. Sinless Jesus was struck down by God’s anger, but his fallen body became a shield behind which the world can hide. His resurrected body is proof his protection holds. Behind Jesus, God’s anger will not touch us. Behind Jesus, sin need not control us; guilt need not consume us.

But if nothing can separate us from God’s forever love, why is life sometimes so cruel? Sometimes you feel like a sheep being dragged to the slaughterhouse (Romans 8:36). Maybe you feel like a guinea pig in the care of your doctor as you undergo various treatments with no success. Maybe you can even relate to Wile E. Coyote from the old Looney Tunes cartoons, whose best laid plans always ended in disaster. Perhaps you are looking forward to life’s end so you can be with Jesus and escape life’s misery.

But you don’t have to go to heaven to be with Jesus. Jesus is already with you. You are, even at this moment, surrounded by his love. And nothing and no one can take you away from that embrace.


Contributing editor Daniel Habben is pastor at St. Peter, St. Albert, Alberta, Canada.


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Author: Daniel J. Habben
Volume 104, Number 2
Issue: February 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Always new

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.  1 Timothy 1:15

Joel C. Seifert

There’s a bright, shining moment that starts off every week. In 2017, it starts off our entire year. The words of the absolution ring out: “God, our heavenly Father, has forgiven all your sins. By the perfect life and innocent death of our Lord Jesus Christ, he has removed your guilt forever.” Those words sum up one of the greatest truths of Scripture. When God forgives our sins, he does what no resolution or turn of a calendar page could ever do: He makes us new.

Our forgiveness in Christ makes us new

The apostle Paul wrote, “Follow my example” (1 Corinthians 11:1). What kind of example for renewal do you see in Paul?

You see someone who was earnest and worked hard. Someone who read his Bible and went to church. Someone who tried to be a better follower of God every day. But you also see a hate-filled, violence-spewing murderer, lost in his own self-righteousness.

That says so much about where our renewal is found. Apart from God’s mercy in Christ, we are hopelessly lost. Even when we try to leave behind our sins and work to turn our lives around, if Jesus and his cross aren’t the heart of it, we’ll only end up worse than before.

Paul’s renewal happened with a flash of light. Read his story in Acts chapter 9. Yours likely seemed much more ordinary: a message received in faith, a splash of water in the name of the triune God. But the same thing took place. God took an enemy and made him his child. God took someone in the age-old slavery of sin and made him new. “God, our heavenly Father, has forgiven all your sins. You are his own dear child.”

Our renewal is ongoing

But Paul’s “example” has more to teach us. He didn’t say that Christ came to save sinners, “of whom I was the worst.” He wrote, “of whom I am the worst.” Paul the preacher, Paul the spiritual father to so many, Paul the missionary looked at himself and

said, “I am the worst of sinners.”

Don’t be afraid to say that too. God calls us his holy children in Christ Jesus, but daily we still fall into our same old sins. God made us new when he brought us to faith, but he’s there to give us constant renewal every day. Every day as you read his promises in the Bible, every day as you remember your baptism, every time you go back to his Supper, he takes those sins on your mind and the guilt in your heart and buries them at the foot of Christ’s cross. When you cry out, “I am the worst of sinners,” he’s there to say, “You are my own dear child.”

God saved us in a brilliant once-for-all act of his grace, and he’s also there every day to . . . wrap us in Jesus’ righteousness to make us new again.

Remember the example Paul set, and you’ll always know how a Christian life works. God saved us in a brilliant once-for-all act of his grace, and he’s also there every day to pick us up, dust us off, and wrap us in Jesus’ righteousness to make us new again.

What a wonderful way to start the year. “You are forgiven. You are his own dear child. May God give you strength to live according to his will. Amen.”


Contributing editor Joel Seifert is pastor at Shining Mountains, Bozeman, Montana.


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Author: Joel C. Seifert
Volume 104, Number 1
Issue: January 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Traditions with purpose

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. John 1:14

Joel C. Seifert

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, we light the candles on our Advent wreath as part of our evening devotions. Every year my wife warms ham, cheese, and mustard sandwiches in the oven for us to eat as we open Christmas presents after our Christmas Eve service. On Christmas morning, we put on church clothes one more time as we go to celebrate the birth of our King.

Our tradition for Dec. 26 is a little simpler: We recover. We hunt down the last scraps of wrapping paper and throw them in the recycling bin. We graze on leftovers. We call the loved ones we didn’t connect with on Christmas Day. We nap.

God’s love entered a world of pain

It’s so different from what Christ’s life was like after Christmas. I marvel whenever I read the Spirit’s words through St. John, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” I marvel at God’s love in making his home among his people.

But “among us” doesn’t just mean being adored by his loving mother and stepfather and some wondering shepherds. From the moment of his first breath, Jesus was living in a sinful, pain-filled world. Even as a baby, Christ lived the perfect life that we haven’t lived. As a toddler, he found himself on the run when Herod ordered the murder of the infants of Bethlehem.

We minister in the same world

It’s good for us to remember that, because God calls us to serve in the same world. Christmas doesn’t mean that everything is perfect and happy. It means that God’s love is living and active in a world filled with sin and sorrow. He lived among us. We still live here.

Maybe some old Christmas traditions can help us remember that. Three traditional “minor festivals” fall on the first three days after Christmas. On Dec. 26, the church remembers Stephen, the first martyr of the New Testament church, stoned for his faithful witness to Christ. On Dec. 27, we remember the apostle John. After decades of preaching God’s love in Christ, he lived in exile on a prison island. Dec. 28 marks the commemoration of the “Holy Innocents,” the children of Bethlehem who were killed in Herod’s mad rage.

It seems like such a jarring tradition: Following the joy of Christmas, you see a world’s evil—and God’s people in the middle of it. But it’s good for us to see that.

Celebrate Christmas. Then consider a few “new” post-Christmas traditions. The day after Christmas, set aside some time to pray for those whose ministry puts them in harm’s way. Pray for your brothers and sisters living in nations that lock up faithful Christians. Pray for our world, where madmen still rage and hurt people and where even little children are cut down without cause. Pray that abortion would come to an end, that adoptions would increase, and that we’d truly love children the way God intends.

It may seem jarring in the days after Christmas. After all, aren’t we supposed to be focusing on Jesus? Indeed, we are. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”


Contributing editor Joel Seifert is pastor at Shining Mountains, Bozeman, Montana.


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Author:Joel C. Seifert
Volume 103, Number 12
Issue: December 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Thankful for the harvest

Yes, LORD, walking in the way of your laws, we wait for you; your name and renown are the desire of our hearts. My soul yearns for you in the night; in the morning my spirit longs for you. Isaiah 26:8,9

Joel C. Seifert

Long before our nation started celebrating Thanksgiving feasts, the Christian church celebrated a very different feast. Two versions of it are common among us. Some churches celebrate the Sunday of Saints Triumphant (around the middle of November); others celebrate the more ancient All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1). God makes us his holy, sinless people—his saints—through faith in Jesus. On those festival days we celebrate the saints who have gone home to their heavenly rest.

Or to say it simply: We’re praising God for our loved ones who died.

Maybe that sounds like the last thing we’d look forward to celebrating. But consider the words of an ancient prophet: “Yes, LORD, walking in the way of your laws, we wait for you; your name and renown are the desire of our hearts. My soul yearns for you in the night; in the morning my spirit longs for you.”

Give thanks for the victory of the saints

I was just a boy when I prayed for my Grandpa Seifert not to die. I wanted nothing more than to have a few more years with my father’s father.

I think Grandpa wanted more time with his wife, children and grandchildren too. But there’s something that our Christian hearts desire even more. My grandpa grew up being taught that a saint was a holier, better person than everyone else. Later in life he learned about a God who gave his life to give us all the gift of holiness. A God who gives us such unbelievable love? Grandpa longed to see him face to face. He got to.

When Grandpa died, I wasn’t able to give thanks for his victory—not right away. But I’ve learned to. Over the years, I’ve mixed together my tears of sadness and tears of joy at more gravesites than I can remember. The reason they’re not here with us anymore is because they’ve finally received everything that their hearts of faith were longing for. I give thanks to God for their victory as I remember them.

Thankful for our longing

Of course, it’s not only thankfulness. I’m not there with them in heaven yet. I’m not rejoicing in God’s presence at their sides. I long to see them. I long to see God. And I give thanks for that longing. That longing reminds us that we have something to look forward to just like farmers look forward to the harvest.

There’s a reason why these festivals fall in November. It’s harvest time. Just like we bring in grain from the field and fruit from the orchards and rejoice in the blessings our Creator has given, we pause and rejoice in the greater harvest of souls made ready for heaven by our Redeemer. I think about them every Thanksgiving as we sing: “Even so, Lord, quickly come to your final harvest-home; gather all your people in, free from sorrow, free from sin” (Christian Worship 613:4).

So for now, we long. We still mix together our tears of sadness and our tears of joy. We gather around Thanksgiving feasts, giving thanks to God even though there may be an empty seat at the table. I’ll sing harvest songs at church and think about the grandpa I didn’t know long enough, the grandma who went home to heaven before I was born, and my babies that I won’t meet until I see them at Jesus’ side to join in the feast of the Lamb that will never end. We believe, we long, and we give thanks.

Come, you thankful people, come.


Contributing editor Joel Seifert is pastor at Shining Mountains, Bozeman, Montana.

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Author: Joel C. Seifert
Volume 103, Number 11
Issue: November 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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The Word endures

“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” 1 Peter 1:24,25

Steven J. Pagels

It was time to make a decision, but it wasn’t going to be easy. The Bible that I had been using for most of my schooling and my entire ministry was falling apart. Loose pages occasionally fell out. And my name, which had been imprinted on the front cover, had worn away so that only a few letters remained. I needed to decide: Do I try to repair my Bible, or do I go out and get a new one?

I went to the library, hoping that someone who specialized in taking care of books would be able to help me. The librarian looked at my Bible and let me know that she couldn’t restore it to its original condition, but she did know someone who could. The library sent many of its older volumes to a local book bindery. She assured me that the people who worked there were very good, but they weren’t cheap.

A precious gift

You might be wondering why I would spend the money to fix my old Bible when I could buy a brand-new Bible for half the cost. For one, my Bible had sentimental value. It was a gift from my parents, a gift that I treasured, a gift I had used more than any other gift they ever gave me.

Besides that, it was my personal Bible, and for more than half my life it had been my constant companion. I had highlighted many of my favorite passages. I had scribbled all kinds of notes in the margins. I wasn’t sure I was ready to move on.

A priceless gift

As I agonized over my decision, the Lord led me to a realization. It didn’t really matter which Bible I held in my hands, whether it was new or old. What mattered was that God had given me the priceless gift of his Word. Unlike everyone and everything else in the world, the Word of God endures.

Peter made a similar observation two thousand years ago. Grass sprouts up, and then it withers. Flowers blossom for a season, and then they die. People live, and then they pass away. But God’s Word remains. God’s promises live on. They never wear out. They never grow old. And those promises still will be comforting and encouraging God’s people long after I am gone.

Do you understand what that means for your life? It means that you have no reason to doubt. It means that you have nothing to fear. When God says that he loves you, he means it. When your Savior declares that your sins are forgiven, he guarantees it. When the Lord promises that he will be with you always, you can be certain that he will never leave your side.

Can you guess what I did with my old Bible? I spent the money to have it rebound, and, Lord willing, I will be using it for many years to come. But even when I decide that the book has outlived its usefulness and I replace it with a new one, every promise on its pages will remain because we have God’s guarantee that his Word endures forever.

Contributing editor Steven Pagels is pastor at St. Matthew’s, Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.

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Author: Steven J. Pagels
Volume 103, Number 10
Issue: October 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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A work in progress

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Colossians 3:23,24.

Steven J. Pagels

I have never met the man, but even though I don’t know his name I feel like we have a connection. I pass his house every day on my short commute to and from church, and when I drive by he usually is working outside. Trimming trees. Pulling weeds. Moving dirt. Mowing grass. His yard is the kind of yard you would expect to see in a landscaping magazine.

As much as I enjoy looking at his perfectly pruned trees and manicured lawn, I have to confess that sometimes I experience a very different emotion when I see my friend at work: guilt. I feel guilty because all the work he does reminds me of the many chores I have left undone. On more than one occasion he has given me the nudge I needed to get out into my own yard.

The reasons people work

This real-life example poses a larger question. Why do people work? Why are some willing to work long hours and late nights and maybe even weekends? What motivates them to do what they do? Some people genuinely love their jobs, and the time just seems to fly by. For many others, however, the clock ticks more slowly. Other factors compel them to stay on the job: I need to provide for my family, I want to advance my career, I have to have enough money to support my lifestyle, or I would like to retire early.

How about you? Why do you go to work? Why do you do chores around the house? Why do you volunteer at church?

You could come up with your own list of reasons, but as Christians we have one reason. Followers of Christ are always serving Christ, no matter what they do.

The master Christians serve

Paul wanted the Christian slaves in Colosse to remember that. He warned them not to work only when other people were watching or only to get in their masters’ good graces. We are not slaves, yet we need the reminder that we serve Christ always.

If our primary goal in life is to make ourselves successful or to make our lives comfortable or to make other people see us as respectable, then all of our labor will be in vain. Even worse, if we think that if we work hard enough God will reward us, then we will lose out on our eternal reward. That reward is an inheritance, not a wage for service rendered. We can’t earn it. We don’t deserve it. Eternal life is a gift, earned for us by the sweat, tears, suffering, and death of our Savior. Jesus’ work on earth destroyed the devil’s work. His work, not ours, brings us forgiveness, life, and salvation. His effort alone brings salvation.

And even though our motives may not always be pure, even though on this side of heaven we will remain works in progress, God’s grace inspires us to pour our hearts and souls into everything we do. We will serve with joy, with gratitude, and with purpose because at all times and in every task we are serving the Lord.

Contributing editor Steven Pagels is pastor at St. Matthew’s, Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.

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Author: Steven J. Pagels
Volume 103, Number 9
Issue: September 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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A supply list for success

Show me your ways, LORD, teach me your paths. Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long. Psalm 25:4, 5

Steven J. Pagels

This is the time of year when millions of American families participate in the annual ritual known as back-to-school shopping. I don’t have to tell you how expensive that can be. Last year the average cost of school supplies for an elementary school student surpassed $100. Add on sports fees, instrument rentals, and field trips, and the cost jumps to more than $500.

Most parents bite the bullet and buy everything on the teacher’s list because they want to give their children the tools they will need to succeed. There is no guarantee, however, that having a desk full of supplies will lead to academic success. If you want to excel in the classroom, you don’t have to spend all kinds of money. According to David, what every student really needs is a good attitude and a good teacher.

An eager student

When I picture David, I see a shepherd boy with a staff in his hand or a king wearing a golden crown. I have never imagined David as a student sitting behind a desk, and yet that is how the psalmist describes himself in Psalm 25. He is eager to learn. He is asking for guidance. More than anything else, he wants the Lord to lead him down the right path.

It wasn’t always that way for David, though. There were times when he charted his own course, when he chose to go his own way, when he put his trust in his own instincts and intelligence. David pleaded with God not to remember the sins of his youth and his rebellious ways (Psalm 25:7) as he struggled to move on from his less-than-perfect past.

Can you relate? Do you wince when you recall some of your past sins? Do you ever wish that you could go back in time and undo what you did? Do you get frustrated because nothing you do is able to remove those permanent marks from your record? There is a way to get rid of your guilt, but you don’t need to be better or try harder to do it. Instead, David invites you to take a seat next to him at the feet of the master teacher.

More than a teacher

Jesus’ disciples called him “Teacher” because he was a teacher. Jesus was the world’s greatest teacher. He spoke with perfect clarity because he was perfect. He always spoke the truth because he is the Truth. But the lessons Jesus taught went far beyond the classroom, and the words of David remind us of that.

Some teachers do nothing more than stand in the front of the class and tell their students what they need to do to pass. Better teachers roll up their sleeves and do everything they can to help their students succeed. But only one teacher in the history of the world took it upon himself to do something his pupils could never do. Jesus took our place to rescue us from eternal death. He passed every test. He has erased every mistake. He has defeated every enemy.

As a result we have hope. Like David, you and I have hope “all day long” because our Teacher is also our Savior.

Contributing editor Steven Pagels is pastor at St. Matthew’s, Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.

 

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Author: Steven J. Pagels
Volume 103, Number 8
Issue: August 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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Serious sins, stronger Savior

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. . . . Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. James 4:7,9,10

Daniel J. Habben

Looking for something light-hearted to read before bed? The New Testament book of James is probably not the first thing you’d grab. That’s because James had to write stern words to Jewish Christians who acted as if Christianity was nothing more than a Sunday-brunch ritual. They may have been on their best behavior at church, but in private they shrugged off their niceties as easily as kicking off a pair of dress shoes. These Christians were showing favoritism to the rich, cursing, coveting, quarreling, and spending their money on pleasure!

Sin isn’t a laughing matter

Do you go to church with members like that? Of course you do. Wherever Christians gather, sinners meet—including you. Tell me, have you ever caught yourself coveting a pair of shoes that passed your row on the way to Holy Communion? Ever wonder why you can’t afford such a nice pair, as if God never gives you good things? How can it be that we Christians entertain such sinful thoughts at such a sacred time in worship?

It’s true, Christians past and present are far from perfect. But James’ main issue with his readers was their attitude. James’ readers thought that their sins were harmless—funny even, like the tantrum someone else’s three-year-old throws in the middle of the mall. But there’s a time when laughter is not the best medicine. God seeks our eternal happiness but wants us to mourn, wail, and hate our sins.

James came down hard on his readers, but he also encouraged them. He urged them, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” God’s desire is to welcome home his prodigal sons and daughters with a joyous party. That’s not because our sins are inconsequential. God doesn’t brush off our crimes the way we carelessly scrape the crumbs from our supper plates. No, God has severely punished our sins by punishing his own Son. He forgives us because next to us stands Jesus, whose innocent blood shed on the cross is a holy bath that leaves us clean in God’s sight. Jesus does not wish to blame and condemn us. He took the blame for our sins so that we are forgiven. In him, there is no condemnation (cf. Romans 8:1)

God helps us resist sin

So now what? Look again at the opening verse above. “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” Submitting to God is like falling in line behind a police escort as you flee the dangerous enemies that pursue you. What a sense of relief that brings! You no longer need to throw glances over your shoulder, fearing an ambush.

In the same way, we can eagerly put ourselves under God’s care and direction. The devil may lie in wait, but we can fling God’s Word at him, like a soup can hurled at a sneaking rat. Armed with that Word, we have the power to resist the devil so that he must run from us as fast as his hideous legs can carry him!

Now that’s something to lighten our hearts.

Contributing editor Daniel Habben is pastor at St. Peter, St. Albert, Alberta, Canada.

 

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Author: Daniel J. Habben
Volume 103, Number 7
Issue: July 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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God’s love is amazing

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. . . . God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:6,8

Daniel J. Habben

On Nov. 7, 1907, a boxcar containing dynamite caught fire in the village of Nacozari in Sonora, Mexico. When the flames reached the dynamite, the blast was felt ten miles away! The whole town of Nacozari should have been blown apart like dandelion seeds scattered by a single careless puff.

ASTONISHING LOVE

But it wasn’t—thanks to railroad engineer Jesús García. When Jesús noticed the flames in the boxcar, he quickly drove the train away from the town, where it exploded harmlessly. Well, harmlessly for the people of Nacozari, but not for Jesús. He gave his life to save the lives of many.

There is, of course, another “Jesús” who gave his life in a daring rescue. On Good Friday, Jesus of Nazareth hitched the world’s sins to himself and hauled them to Golgotha. Atop that hill, God’s fury exploded with a deafening silence.

Want to know why Jesus did it? Step close. Press your eye to the keyhole of the cross. Beyond that keyhole you’ll see something more than a sense of duty. You’ll see the vast room of God’s astonishing love . . . a love that is for sinners.

A LOVE FOR SINNERS

Jesús García is hailed as a hero because he saved a town of hard-working folks, of boys and girls, grandpas and grandmas. But what if he had driven the smoldering dynamite away from the mansion of a drug lord? Would newspaper headlines have read, “Jesús García demonstrates love by dying for drug lord”? More likely they would call him a fool for sacrificing his life for scum.

So consider what the apostle Paul writes about the rescue that Jesus of Nazareth pulled off: “Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6). We may not live outside the law like a drug lord, but we routinely step outside of God’s boundaries. God forbids stealing, but we download music we didn’t buy. God tells us to speak the truth, but we’d rather blame our teacher for our failing grade than admit we didn’t apply ourselves. God tells us to be slow to anger, but anger zips to the surface when we’re face to face with obstinate kids, a red light, or a coworker’s criticism. Are these nitpicky sins that God doesn’t really care about?

Tell me, how big a flame does it take to ignite a stick of dynamite? Won’t just a spark do? Every sin, no matter how small, is a spark that threatens to blow up our relationship with God. Humanity was a smoking carload of dynamite, licked by the flames of our own sins, when God sent his Son to our rescue . . . and to his death.

The citizens of Nacozari were so thankful to Jesús García for saving them that they renamed their town after him. Jerusalem was not renamed “Jesus-ville” in honor of the Savior’s sacrifice on Good Friday. But you, dear reader, have been renamed. Once an enemy of God, now you are part of God’s family and have peace. You really have a reason to rejoice. Why? Because God’s astonishing love is for you.

Contributing editor Daniel Habben is pastor at St. Peter, St. Albert, Alberta, Canada.

 

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Author: Daniel J. Habben
Volume 103, Number 6
Issue: June 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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Stop being a baby about Jesus’ ascension!

He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe. Ephesians 4:10

Daniel J. Habben

Have you ever tried to play peekaboo with a newborn? Babies under four months haven’t yet developed a sense of “object permanence.” If you hide your face behind a blanket, a newborn will think you’ve disappeared. He won’t reach for the blanket to uncover you. He won’t stare at the blanket expectantly, waiting for you to pop out. As far as the baby is concerned, you are gone. His gaze will wander to other things.

OUR SAVIOR ISN’T GONE

Christians are often like newborns when it comes to Jesus’ ascension. Because we can’t see Jesus, we act as if he’s gone. Our attention wanders away from our Savior. We drool over the things of the world. When challenges arise, we wail and flail around because we simply can’t see Jesus in our trials. We wonder if he is really present, really in-the-know, really able to help. We think how much easier life would be if we could just see and touch our Savior.

So it might surprise you that when the disciples watched Jesus rise into the sky and disappear behind a cloud, they didn’t slump home with tear-streaked faces, like kids who have just watched their grandparents drive away or like a baby whose parent was suddenly swallowed up by a blanket. Instead, the disciples returned to Jerusalem with “great joy” (Luke 24:52). Why joy? Because even though they couldn’t see Jesus, they knew he was still with them. Jesus’ ascension wasn’t his retirement but his coronation.

We don’t have to be babies about our Savior’s ascension either. Our Savior may be concealed, but he’s not gone! As the glorified God-man, Jesus fills the universe—he is everywhere at once (Ephesians 4:10). He isn’t sitting poolside in heaven while we slog it out on our lonesome down here. Rather, he is guiding and controlling world events so that they will work out for our eternal good.

OUR SAVIOR STILL RULES

“But,” you wonder, “how can I be sure that the ascended Jesus cares about me personally?” Look at the Ephesians passage again. There the apostle Paul reminds you that the one who ascended into heaven, first descended to this sin-filled world—for you. The Son of God loved you so much that he left his glorious throne in heaven and got on human hands and knees to look for you. His love is not just powerful, but it is also personal.

Knowing the sacrifice Jesus made for our souls, we needn’t hesitate to put every concern into his hands. The ascended Jesus even rules over death. In fact, he overrules death! Although the doctor may announce that there is no hope for survival, King Jesus has already given us a second opinion. Through faith in him we will survive terminal cancer or a fatal car accident. We won’t just survive, we’ll thrive. Through death, we will enter heaven. We’ll see Jesus in all of his glory. We will be glorified.

So let’s stop being babies about Jesus’ ascension. He may be concealed, but he’s not gone. He’s still with us—guiding our footsteps home to heaven.

Contributing editor Daniel Habben is pastor at St. John, Wetaskiwin, Alberta, Canada.

 

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Author: Daniel J. Habben
Volume 103, Number 5
Issue: May 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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A pleasure? A privilege. And a promise!

I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. John 13:15

Joel C. Seifert

I spent more than a decade waiting tables. As people thanked me for bringing them food and clearing away their dirty dishes, the answer would roll off my lips automatically: “My pleasure.”

Spending time in a hot, muggy kitchen; juggling orders from a dozen tables; memorizing specials; and taking away scraps—I was grateful for my job, but do you think it really was a pleasure?

SERVING ISN’T ALWAYS A PLEASURE

Imagine being in the room with the disciples on that first Easter evening. They saw their Savior, risen to life and victorious over death. Their friend really did have power over everything; God himself was on their side, and he called them to follow him. You’d think that kind of life would bring the greatest joy!

Perhaps that’s why, the last time they had seen him, Jesus taught them one last lesson: he washed their feet (John 13:4-7). The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve. That meant raising a dead girl to life and being overcome by the hugs of her grateful parents and sitting at Zacchaeus’ table as the host rejoiced to bring out his best dishes. And it meant days of exhaustion as the needy lined up outside his door and cold nights in the wilderness when he was chased out of towns.

It meant beatings and a cross. Serving so often means lowering yourself further than you thought you could go. Service is the Son of God scrubbing the toes of sinners.

It’s good to live in the joy of Easter, but don’t let that joy give you a false impression of what it means to serve. True service isn’t found in picking the tasks that give us fulfillment or bring us respect. It’s reaching further down to help those who need it.

SERVICE IS A PRIVILEGE, BACKED BY gO

Service isn’t always a pleasure, but it is a privilege. When we serve others, we’re following in our Savior’s footsteps. And he gives us a promise as we do: “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (John 13:15-17).

On Easter Sunday, we sing our songs of victory. Everything God has promised us is true. Since Christ rose from the dead, our sins are forgiven. Heaven is our home. All things do work for our good.

And serving others in humility brings blessings. Every dirty diaper changed. Every church meeting that runs long into the night. Every floor mopped. Every door we nervously knock on. In every act of service that calls us to stoop down low, God takes our eyes off of our own importance. Then we marvel at the truth that God himself stooped even lower to pay for our sins—and all out of love for us. That’s a privilege.

Victorious Christian, serve others with Easter joy. It might not always be a pleasure, but it will always be a privilege that God blesses. Your risen Savior promises it.

Contributing editor Joel Seifert is pastor at Shining Mountains, Bozeman, Montana.

 

 

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Author: Joel C. Seifert
Volume 103, Number 4
Issue: April 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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Louder than words

When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus. Matthew 1:24,25

Joel C. Seifert

I’ve never been comfortable with public speaking.

As a pastor, that’s not the easiest thing for me to admit. I’m grateful for every chance I get to stand in the pulpit or in front of a class and talk about what God has done for us in love, but there’s always a fair dose of self-consciousness, fear, and nerves that I’m never able to shed. I am not better than other Christians, and so many of them quietly serve God so well.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons I’m grateful that God tells us about Joseph, Jesus’ human stepfather.

The Bible’s accounts only mention Joseph a little bit, but in that little bit God tells us so much. Joseph went through with his marriage to Mary, even though he knew she was pregnant with a child that was not his. Can you imagine the whispers and the glances that would have greeted him everywhere he went? Then he left behind everyone and everything—perhaps including his business as a carpenter—in order to take Mary and the infant Jesus down to Egypt when Herod threatened Christ’s life. That couldn’t have been easy.

TRUE IMPORTANCE IS FOUND IN GOD’S WORD

Read through the accounts of Joseph, and you’ll find wonderful things. But there’s one thing you will never hear—Joseph speak. Joseph played an incredibly important role in God’s plan of salvation. But it wasn’t his words that spoke so loudly. It was his actions.

We tend to notice people who speak powerfully and lead well: a powerful preacher, an influential voice in a meeting, the person who always seems to have the great insight in a Bible class or knows the perfect thing to say to someone who’s struggling. Joseph didn’t speak a word that was recorded for us, but he listened to God’s message. He trusted God’s promises, and he followed God’s will. And God did incredible things through him.

GOD WORKS WONDERS THROUGH SILENT SERVANTS 

The quiet people don’t often get noticed in this world. Maybe they don’t often get noticed in our own churches either. But they’re so important in God’s plan. They are women and men who don’t stand in pulpits or in front of great groups of people. They might not even be the most comfortable in one-on-one conversations. But they listen to God’s Word. They trust his promises, and they seek to follow his will.

And through them God does wonderful things. Children are raised to know their Savior. Offerings are given to support the spread of the gospel. Church buildings are cleaned and schedules organized. The poor are shown love, and countless prayers are offered on behalf of the sick. These Christians might not say a word, but their actions speak volumes about God’s love.

Many Christians celebrate the Festival of St. Joseph on March 19. Consider taking time that day to think about those men and women who do so much to serve God and his people. They don’t say much, but they listen and they let their faith shine by their actions. Let them hear the same thing we’d want to tell Joseph: Thank you for the way you listen to God’s Word. God speaks loudly through your actions.

Contributing editor Joel Seifert is pastor at Shining Mountains, Bozeman, Montana.

 

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Author: Joel C. Seifert
Volume 103, Number 3
Issue: March 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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Love’s pain and promise

Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Luke 2:34,35

Joel C. Seifert

Maybe this doesn’t seem like the right time of year to say it, but it’s a lot easier not to love. As soon as you love someone, you have something to lose.

We like to pretend that isn’t true. Pay attention to the commercials and TV shows this month. More often than not, you’ll see beautiful images of the joy and bliss from our relationships. We love love.

But love brings pain too. Consider the picture of pure love that St. Luke sets before our eyes: A new mother brings her baby to the Temple in order to carry out the Lord’s will. She loves her newborn. Prompted by God’s Spirit, another worshiper approaches them and says, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

LOVING GOD WILL BRING PAIN

Mary heard Simeon say that her deep love for her Son will also hurt her. She’ll learn it in practice many times after that. She’ll feel the prick of sadness as his ministry takes him away from her. She’ll feel little daggers of pain when she hears him mocked as a fool, sees the religious leaders grow more and more opposed to him, and even observes some of his disciples leave him. And one day, as she stands at the foot of his cross, a sword of pain will pierce her heart as she watches her boy die, unable to even hold him in her own arms. She loves her son, her Savior, and that love will bring her pain.

Love brings us pain at times too. When we love God, we hurt when others think he is unimportant. It stings us when we hear people mock him. It cuts us when people we love leave him. How many painful moments do we have when we read and watch stories of the persecution of those who love our God and Savior.

GOD’S LOVE COMES WITH A PROMISE

That’s why God gives us a promise. I don’t know if Simeon understood all the details, but he was there in the temple courts that day because God had promised him that he would see the Savior who would restore God’s people. When God makes a promise, he keeps it.

That’s what sustained Simeon in his years of waiting. That’s what would carry Mary through. No matter how much hurt they faced or how much they seemed to lose, God’s love came with a promise. It would be worth it. A sword might pierce Mary’s soul, but there in her arms was the Savior who would redeem her soul. What could she really lose?

Many Christians set apart Feb. 2 as a day to remember when Mary brought Jesus to the temple courts. What a fitting way to begin a month that’s so focused on love! You are a believer. Your love for God will lead you to honor God in your relationship with your boyfriend or girlfriend, husband or wife—in any and all of your earthly relationships. Speak his words to correct each other and to point each other back to our real hope. Sometimes that may bring pain. That’s always a risk when you love Jesus. But you’ll never really lose. After all, God’s given you his promise.

Contributing editor Joel Seifert is pastor at Shining Mountains, Bozeman, Montana.

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Author: Joel C. Seifert
Volume 103, Number 2
Issue: February 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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New beginning

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. Romans 6:1-4

Michael A. Woldt

Have you seen it? The image of a baby wearing a top hat. The sash across the baby’s chest boldly announcing “2016.” Happy New Year! Out with the old. In with the new.

Baby New Year represents hope for the future. But is that hope well founded? Given the world’s past history, it’s hard to understand why the flip of a calendar page evokes any optimism at all. Does anyone really think that 2016 will bring an end to war, crime, poverty, and disease? After the shouts of “Happy New Year” subside and the confetti is swept from Times Square, it’s likely that the first days of 2016 will be quite similar to the last days of 2015.

Baptism changed our future

Are you longing for real change and lasting hope? Then look no further than the day of your baptism. When we entered this world our soft infant skin masked a terrible reality. We were born hostile to God. We were enslaved by Satan and trapped by the curse and power of sin. Jesus’ words to Nicodemus expose our true condition: “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh” (John 3:5,6). The apostle Paul chimes in, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins” (Ephesians 2:1).

Then we were baptized! Unlike New Year’s celebrations, Baptism is more than a tradition or a ritual. Baptism changed our future in a profound way. The Holy Spirit used the water and Word of Baptism to connect us to Jesus. We were buried with Christ. We died to sin. We were raised to live a new life! A life free from the curse of sin and its eternal consequences. A life liberated from slavery to sin. Baptism frees us to serve Jesus each new day.

Baptism offers hope

The month of January provides a special opportunity to remember the personal blessings we have received through Baptism. The gospel lesson assigned for the first Sunday after Epiphany is the account of Jesus’ baptism. Jesus was baptized as part of his saving work for us. When we witness Jesus’ baptism, we can recall what our baptism means for each new day the Lord gives us in 2016. In words taken from Luther’s Small Catechism: “Baptism means that the old Adam [sinful nature] in us should be drowned by daily contrition and repentance, and that all its evil deeds and desires be put to death. It also means that a new person should daily arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”

Baptism means that we are not condemned to repeat the sins of 2015. Through contrition and repentance we take the sins of the past to Jesus. The blood he shed on the cross washes them away. Fully. Completely. Through Baptism we are clothed with Christ and his perfection (Galatians 3:27).

What a great way to enter the New Year. What a great way to live each new day!

Contributing editor Michael Woldt is pastor at David’s Star, Jackson, Wisconsin.

 

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Author: Michael A. Woldt
Volume 103, Number 1
Issue: January 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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Believe the Christmas miracles

“Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. Matthew 1:20,21,24

Michael A. Woldt

Can you imagine the reaction as people from Nazareth listened to Joseph tell his story? No, he wasn’t going to divorce Mary. Yes, he remained committed to her. She hadn’t been unfaithful after all! Her pregnancy was a miracle! The child in her womb had been conceived by the Holy Spirit! An angel told him!

BELIEVING IN THE VIRGIN BIRTH

Were there looks of pity in the eyes of Joseph’s friends as they walked away? Did they shake their heads in disbelief? Did they think to themselves, “Joseph might be a good carpenter, but how can he be such a fool? Everyone knows how a woman gets pregnant. Mary must have cheated on him.”

Despite what others may have thought, Joseph believed. He believed, not because he was delusional or a romantic fool. Joseph believed, not because the angel’s message made logical sense. Joseph believed because the same Holy Spirit who caused Mary to conceive had created faith in his heart.

People today still shake their heads in disbelief at Christians who confess that a virgin gave birth to a son in Bethlehem on that first Christmas night. The proud human mind sits in judgment over God’s message and declares, “It just doesn’t make sense. You’d have to be a fool to believe that ancient myth.”

Yet, contrary to all logic, we continue to proclaim each Christmas that a virgin gave birth. We believe, not because it makes sense. We believe because God has spoken to us through the pages of Holy Scripture. We believe because the Holy Spirit has worked the miracle of faith in our hearts too.

BELIEVING IN OUR SAVIOR

We also believe the most astonishing part of the angel’s message. The real mystery is not the virgin birth itself. The truly incredible revelation in the angel’s message is found in the child himself, the son who was to be given the name Jesus.

Why should the holy God care about a world of sinful people who rebel against him? Why would Jesus, true God, humble himself and be born into a world that despises and rejects him? Why would Jesus willingly live under the law knowing that his whole life on earth was leading to the agony of the cross? Would God really do all that to save people from sin? It just doesn’t make sense! But it’s true! Jesus did come to save people from sin! Jesus came to save you and me from sin. Our Christmas hope and joy is wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger.

Let the rest of the world scoff at our celebration of Christmas. Let people shake their heads and call us fools. We acknowledge that the Christmas story is incredible, but we also know that it’s true. We have God’s word on it. A virgin did give birth to a son. His name is Jesus. Jesus is our Joy. Jesus is our Peace. Jesus is the One who came from the Father, full of grace and truth!

Contributing editor Michael Woldt is pastor at David’s Star, Jackson, Wisconsin.

 

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Author: Michael A. Woldt
Volume 102, Number 12
Issue: December 2015

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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Last judgment

Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. Revelation 20:11,12.

Michael A. Woldt

“I’m so excited! I can’t wait to celebrate Last Judgment Sunday!”

When was the last time those words came out of your mouth? Never?

That doesn’t come as a surprise. Last Judgment Sunday isn’t high on anyone’s list of favorite worship days. We welcome Christmas with its opportunity to reflect on the amazing grace of a God who so loved the world so much that he gave his only Son. Easter brings shouts of victory: “Christ is risen!” Ascension directs our eyes to the exalted Christ as he sits at God’s right hand and governs all things for the benefit of his church. Pentecost reveals the Spirit’s power to change to stubborn hearts as the gospel is proclaimed.

Christmas joy. Easter triumph. Ascension assurance. Pentecost power. What’s not to love about the church year?

DREAD OF THE LAST JUDGMENT

Then we come to the second Sunday of End Time: Last Judgment. What sort of thoughts flood your conscience as you consider the vision John records in Revelation? Can you picture the great white throne? Do you see yourself standing there, waiting for the books to be opened? Does the word terror come to mind?

That’s exactly what the last judgment would mean for us if it weren’t for the saving work of Jesus. Without Jesus, every word scribbled in the opened books would give the Judge another reason to condemn us to hell. Our failures would all be there for him to see. Our selfishness. Our greed. Our impure thoughts. Our reckless words. Our inattentive worship. The unguarded moments of weakness that lie buried in places no one else can uncover. Not a single sin would be missing. Our sentence would have been inevitable. “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41).

HOPE FROM THE LAST JUDGMENT

Thanks be to God, we won’t have to face the last judgment without Jesus! At our baptism the Holy Spirit connected us to Jesus and clothed us in his righteousness. Jesus lived a flawless life in our place. His perfect obedience has been credited to us. When Jesus died, he sealed our forgiveness with his holy, precious blood. That’s why Paul wrote: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). There is no condemnation for us because when the books are opened, the Judge will not see our sins! The Judge will see Jesus.

Through faith in Jesus, our view of the last judgment changes. Last Judgment Sunday becomes a day to celebrate! Judgment day will be our public and official welcome to heaven! “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance” (Matthew 25: 34).

It’s unlikely that Last Judgment Sunday will ever rival Christmas or Easter on the popularity scale. Yet, we can be thankful for its annual observance. We may be tempted to approach it with a sense of dread, but listen carefully for the hope Last Judgment Sunday proclaims to you, all because of Jesus!

 

Contributing editor Michael Woldt is pastor at David’s Star, Jackson, Wisconsin.

 

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Author: Michael A. Woldt
Volume 102, Number 11
Issue: November 2015

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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Faith to conquer fear

The LORD is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid? Psalm 27:1

Steven J. Pagels

The community where I serve puts on an annual haunted house, and even though I have never been to it I get the impression that it is a pretty big deal. Last year, for four consecutive weekends in October leading up to and including Halloween, visitors could buy tickets to the “Dark Carnival” and walk through a winding maze with creepy clowns lurking around every corner.

I was unwilling to pay the $15 cost of admission to be frightened out of my wits. I probably wouldn’t go to a haunted house even if someone else paid me to do it. As much as some people enjoy the thrill of being scared, that isn’t my idea of entertainment. Besides, there are plenty of other reasons, legitimate reasons, for people to be afraid.

WHAT MAKES US AFRAID

King David understood the meaning of fear. He was a powerful ruler, but he also had powerful enemies. In Psalm chapter 27 he identified them as “wicked” men who were advancing to attack him, as “false witnesses” who were “spouting malicious accusations” against him. Because Israel was surrounded by hostile nations, they were under the constant threat of enemy invasion. And because David was Israel’s leader, he was their number one target.

If Israel’s enemies weren’t enough to keep David awake at night, he also had to deal with the threats that came from the members of his own family. His son Absalom rebelled against him. David was forced to leave Jerusalem. He was forced to flee for his life, and when he looked over his shoulder he would have had good reason to be afraid.

How about you? What keeps you up at night? What are some of the challenges you face that make you afraid? Will I get into the right school? Will I be able to find a good job? Will I ever find a spouse, or will I always be alone? Will the treatment I am receiving work, and what if it doesn’t? Will I have enough money to retire? Will I outlive my money after I retire?

WHAT MAKES US UNAFRAID

Instead of letting yourself be overwhelmed by your fears, listen to David, who expressed his trust in God with two rhetorical questions of his own: “The LORD is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?”

You don’t have to be afraid of the dark because the Lord is your light. His Word is a light for your path. God lives in unapproachable light, and you can look forward to the day when you will bask in the glow of his glory.

You don’t have to be afraid of death because the Lord is your salvation. Jesus has rescued you from your sins. He lived a perfect life in your place. He sacrificed his life on the cross, and because he did you will live forever in heaven.

You don’t have to be afraid of anyone or anything because the Lord is your stronghold. He will protect you from your enemies. He will keep you from all harm. He will watch over your life. And he will provide you with everything you need to live your life, including the faith to trust in him, to follow him, and to conquer your fears.

Contributing editor Steven Pagels is pastor at St. Matthew’s, Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.

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Author: Steven J. Pagels
Volume 102, Number 10
Issue: October 2015

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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At one with God

The blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. 1 John 1:7

Steven J. Pagels

Do you have any plans for Yom Kippur this year? If you aren’t Jewish, there is a good chance you aren’t even aware that it will begin at sundown on Sept. 22. Also known as the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur is a Hebrew holiday that goes by unnoticed by most Christians. We may or may not see “Yom Kippur” printed in tiny letters on our calendars, but because Christians don’t follow the Jewish calendar we won’t pay much attention to it.

Maybe we should. Even though New Testament believers are no longer required to participate in all the rites and rituals associated with Yom Kippur, we have good reason to remember what those events foreshadowed and what their fulfillment means for you and me.

A DAY OF SYMBOLIC SACRIFICE

For God-fearing Jews, Yom Kippur was the holiest day of their year. It was the one day every year when the high priest was allowed to enter the inner sanctuary of the tabernacle, called the Holy of Holies, to offer sacrifices for his own sins and the sins of the people. That meant this holy day was also a very bloody day. The high priest sacrificed a bull and a ram for himself and his family. He sprinkled blood on the cover of the ark of the covenant. He sprinkled more blood on the horns of the altar.

The high priest offered similar sacrifices on behalf of the people, with one exception. Instead of sacrificing a bull for the sin offering, he selected two male goats. The first goat was slaughtered, and its blood was sprinkled on the atonement cover and the altar. The second goat, however, was not killed. Instead the high priest placed his hands on the goat’s head and confessed all the sins of the people over it. He then sent this goat, called the scapegoat, far away from the camp to die in the wilderness.

These ancient religious rites might seem a bit strange or even brutal to modern-day believers, but we begin to appreciate them when we see the symbolism. The killing of animals and sprinkling of blood couldn’t forgive a single sin. The priests who performed the sacrifices knew it. The letter to the Hebrews confirms it (10:4). These Old Testament sacrifices pictured and pointed God’s people ahead to another sacrifice, a sacrifice that would make atonement for sin, a once-for-all sacrifice that would remove sin forever.

A ONCE-FOR-ALL SACRIFICE

Good Friday is one of the most sacred days on the Christian calendar, and, like the Day of Atonement, it was a very bloody day. Blood trickled down from the crown of sharp thorns that pierced Jesus’ head. Blood flowed from his hands and feet when the soldiers nailed him to the cross.

On Good Friday Jesus was the victim of a series of brutal acts of violence. Or was he? He knew what was going to happen. He had predicted what was going to happen. And yet he willingly went to the cross. He was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for us. The blood of goats and bulls never forgave a single sin, but the blood of Jesus, God’s Son, purifies us from all sin.

Because Jesus took the sins of the world on his shoulders, you are forgiven. Like the scapegoat, he carried your sins away. Because your Savior has made full atonement for your sins, you are at one with God.

Contributing editor Steven Pagels is pastor at St. Matthew’s, Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.

 

 

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Author: Steven J. Pagels
Volume 102, Number 09
Issue: September 2015

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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Celebrate your baptism!

Celebrate your baptism!

He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. Titus 3:5

Steven J. Pagels

My mother was beaming as she looked down at the little bundle of joy in her arms. My dad was standing next to her, just as excited about the new life the Lord had brought into the world.

It’s the kind of scene you would expect to see at a hospital birthing center, but my mom wasn’t the one wearing the gown that day. I was. And the family picture wasn’t taken in a hospital room. We were gathered around the baptismal font.

Because I was born in the hospital on a Sunday and baptized in church the following Sunday, it’s easy for me to remember the date of my baptism: August 20, 1972. How about you? When were you baptized? Do you remember that day? How do you celebrate that day?

REMEMBER WHAT HAPPENED THAT DAY

As a pastor, I have been involved in dozens of baptism celebrations. New parents are filled with joy, and they invite their family and friends to the service to rejoice with them. It is a blessing to see so many new faces in church, but sometimes I wonder how many of those guests grasp the significance of what is taking place at the font.

Baptism is much more than a spiritual rite of passage. When parents bring their child to the font, they are not just fulfilling a time-honored Christian tradition. Paul wanted Titus to know—and he wants us to remember—that every baptism is a rescue mission. Babies may look cute and cuddly, but they are born dead in their sins. Every human being enters the world stained by sin, and we desperately need someone to wash us and make us clean.

Enter God. As unlovable as we are, God still loves us. Even though you and I have done nothing to deserve it, he saved us. He rescued us from the curse of our sin. He snatched us out of the clutches of Satan. Using only a few drops of water and a few powerful words, the Holy Spirit made us children of God and heirs of eternal life. When I stop and think about all the blessings the Lord poured out on me on the day of my baptism, I can’t help but celebrate.

REMEMBER YOUR BAPTISM EVERY DAY

Later this month I will celebrate the 43rd anniversary of my baptism, but you don’t have to wait for your own “rebirth day” to join the festivities. And you don’t have to feel bad if you can’t remember the exact date of your baptism because God wants you to remember your baptism, every day.

You can start by locating your baptismal certificate. Instead of putting it away after you look at it, put it in a frame and hang it in a prominent place in your home. Let it serve as a visible reminder of the miracle the Holy Spirit has worked in your heart. Ask your parents if they have any pictures from that day and add them to the display. Highlight the date of your baptism in your planner. Give thanks for your baptism in your daily prayers.

No matter what you do, remember that the goals are to remember everything the Lord has done for you, to remember the blessings of your baptism, and to celebrate your baptism!

Contributing editor Steven Pagels is pastor at St. Matthew’s, Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.

 

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Author: Steven J. Pagels
Volume 102, Number 8
Issue: August 2015

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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Perilous times call for purposeful prayers

Perilous times call for purposeful prayers

On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them. When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “. . . consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly. Acts 4:23-31

Norman F. Burger Jr.

The world news reports are disturbing and all too frequent. Christian churches ransacked and burned. Christian villages destroyed, and the people massacred, raped, or abducted. Christians at schools or workplaces singled out and summarily executed. How much does that bother you?

Are you also bothered by what you see happening in America? Bible-based beliefs are increasingly mocked and marginalized. The voices of those who speak against Christianity and the Bible are getting louder, and their tone is getting more hostile. Have you experienced that hostility as a Christian? Does it scare you? Are you worried about what kind of persecution your kids and grand kids may end up facing one day right here in the United States?

PERSECUTION AND PRAYER IN THE EARLY CHURCH

We could agonize over what we see or what we see coming, withdrawing into our churches to join fellow believers in shaking our heads in dismay and wringing our hands in fear. But that is not what the early church did when it faced persecution. Early church members prayed.

When the disciples Peter and John reported to the believers in Jerusalem that the religious leaders had threatened them with punishment if they did not stop speaking about Jesus, “they raised their voices together in prayer to God.” But their prayer was not a worry-filled “Oh, Lord, what are we going to do?” It was not a fear-filled “Lord, spare us!” Faith doesn’t pray that way.

They addressed God as the “Sovereign Lord” and Creator of everything, reminding themselves that their enemies were puny in comparison. They remembered how the Lord had said in Psalm 2 that it is futile for mere men to try to stand up against the Lord and “his anointed”—the promised Savior.

They confessed that they had seen how true that is in how the Father used the conspiracy against Jesus to achieve his plan to save the world through the suffering, death, and resurrection of his Son. The Father’s plan for them was to spread the good news of salvation through Jesus to the world. So they prayed with purpose, asking the Father to enable them to speak his Word with boldness, despite the persecution they were facing.

And the Father heard their prayer. “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.”

PERSECUTION AND PRAYER NOW

Perilous times call for purposeful prayers. Remember that when you are tempted to respond to all the hostility against Christianity in the world with anxious worry and paralyzing fear. Remember that no force on earth could keep the Father from carrying out his will to send his Son to be your Savior, and no force has to keep you from sharing his message of salvation with others.

Pray that the Spirit enables you to speak God’s Word boldly. Re-devote yourself to hearing, reading, and studying God’s Word. Faithfully receive the Sacrament, where the Spirit comforts fearful hearts and replaces cowardice with courage, conviction, and compassion for the lost.

Contributing editor Norman Burger is pastor at Shepherd of the Hills, Lansing, Michigan.

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Author: Norman F. Burger Jr.
Volume 102, Number 7
Issue: July 2015

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