Do Your Duty!

In the Gospel reading for this Sunday, we find no guarantee of an easy life. Instead, we are given a command to live a life of service and forgiveness. Jesus clearly illustrates for us what it means to be a servant of God. Here’s the Gospel text from Luke 17:

And he said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! 2 It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. 3Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, 4and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

7“Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? 8Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? 9Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? 10So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.'”

It seems that Jesus is really putting us in our place. We are like God’s butler, or maybe His intern; expected to obey perfectly and immediately with no reward in return. What a harsh reading! Yet, we should remember that God is God and that we are not. We have no right to order Him around. We also need to remember that this reading is not the whole story. Our hymn for this week takes the command to obey, connects it to the essence of our Christian life, and lets us walk away with eternal hope and joy.

Let Us Ever Walk with Jesus was written by 17th century poet  (and pastor’s son) Sigismund von Birken. Von Birken was such an outstanding poet that he was made a noble by Emperor Ferdinand III in 1654. This great piece of Christian poetry has much to say to us today.

Let’s start with stanza 1

Let us ever walk with Jesus,

Follow His example pure,

Through a world that would deceive us

And to sin our spirits lure.

Onward in His footsteps treading,

Pilgrims here, our home above,

Full of faith and hope and love,

Let us do the Father’s bidding.

Faithful Lord, with me abide; I shall follow where You guide.

Jesus is the one sure example for our lives. We dare not trust the world, the devil, and our sinful nature, which want to “deceive” us and “lure” us away from Him. Jesus cries out in the Gospel, “woe to the one through whom they [temptations] come”. This cry of woe is against the evil one, but it is also against all of us who have led others astray by our sin. It would be better for us if we were thrown into the sea and drowned than that we face God’s judgment for leading His little ones astray.  My conscience does not get past these verses unaffected, but we must move on. Let us follow Jesus through this hymn and see what He will do with our sins and with our lives. The stanza ends with a powerful prayer, “Faithful Lord, with be abide; I shall follow where You guide.”

Stanza 2

Let us suffer here with Jesus

And with patience bear our cross.

Joy will follow all our sadness;

Where He is there is no loss.

Though today we sow no laughter,

We shall reap celestial joy;

All discomforts that annoy

Shall give way to mirth hereafter.

Jesus here I share Your woe;

Help me there Your joy to know.

Here in stanza 2 we deal with the difficult concept of sharing in the suffering of Christ. In 1st Peter 4 we read:

12Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. 15But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. 16Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.

When we suffer for obeying God as faithful servants, we participate in the suffering of Christ. Here we have the promise that those who suffer with Christ will rejoice and be glad when the glory of Christ is revealed. It’s like the third line of stanza says, “Joy will follow all our sadness; where He is there is no loss.”  The pattern of the Christian life is not one of living and then dying, but of dying and then living. We will see more of this in the next two stanzas.

Stanza 3

Let us gladly die with Jesus.

Since by death He conquered death,

He will free us from destruction,

Give to us immortal breath.

Let us mortify all passion

That would lead us into sin;

And the grave that shuts us in

Shall but prove the gate to heaven.

Jesus here with You I die,

There to live with You on high.

We have now followed Jesus all the way to the cross. Do you remember the statement of woe that Jesus spoke in the Gospel lesson? Do you remember the guilt from stanza 1? Here at the cross Jesus takes all of our sins, along with death and satan, and conquers them! Now we have the promise that He will “free us from destruction” and “give to us immortal breath”. What is our response to this amazing grace and love? We follow our Savior like humble servants, of course! We mortify all passion, knowing that the grave is now the “gate to heaven”. We die and then we live.

Stanza 4

Let us also live with Jesus.

He has risen from the dead

That to life we may awaken.

Jesus, You are now our head.

We are Your own living members;

Where You live, there we shall be

In Your presence constantly,.

Living there with You forever.

Jesus, let me faithful be,

Life eternal grant to me.

This stanza captures so clearly the resurrection teaching of Romans 6

3Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

5For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

We have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus. We were buried with Him. That means that we died – and now we live. We live our lives in the joy of the resurrection, knowing that our Savior lives and that we will be in His ‘presence constantly.” We have been redeemed, washed, buried, justified, sanctified, and made alive by our Lord. We belong completely and totally to Him and we live as humble servants. We share in His sufferings here on this earth and we know that eternal joy awaits us. If our Lord should commend us on His return, all we will have to say is “We have only done our duty. You are the one who has saved us!”

Jesus, let me faithful be, Life eternal grant to me. Amen.


In Praise of the Dallas Lutheran Hymn Festival

I was very blessed to be able to attend my second Dallas Lutheran Hymn Festival this past Sunday at the Meyerson Symphony Center in downtown Dallas. What an amazing experience! For me, the hymn festival was spiritually and professionally encouraging, enriching, and uplifting. If you haven’t attended one of these before, I hope that you can attend the next one in three years.

Let me start with the Meyerson Symphony Center. This is truly a world-class facility. Enter the center into google image search and you’ll see what I mean. The acoustics are fantastic; there is not a bad seat in the house. For me the highlight is probably the 63 stop Fisk pipe organ that towers over the stage. The stage is on three tiers. The first tier was filled with the volunteer mass choir and the brass and timpani players. The second tier was filled with singers from the Children’ Chorus of Greater Dallas (more on them later), and the top tier was filled with the pipe organ, which was played by my college professor Jeffrey Blersch.

The music started with a couple of hymn preludes by the late Paul Manz, who had played for several of the previous  The singing began with the hymn “We all believe in one true God”, sung by the children’s chorus. The singing of this hymn was the most beautiful part of the evening’s program. The children sang the hymn with such beauty, purity, and expressiveness that it nearly brought tears to my eyes.

We, the assembly, were given the opportunity to sing with the first two hymns “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” and “O Worship the King”. These are probably not my favorite personal hymns, but they were led in a very appropriate and festive manner.

The first highlight for me after the children was the hymn “O Sing of Christ”.  The text for the hymn is by contemporary hymn writer Stephen Starke. Like many of Starke’s hymns, it praises Christ for coming to undo what was done by the fall into sin. Blersch’s organ playing was expressive and full of lots of lush harmonies. On this hymn, the assembly was also given the opportunity to sing one stanza unaccompanied. It is truly a beautiful thing when 2000 voices join together in that way.

The next hymn, “My Song is Love Unknown” included an interpretive organ stanza that used somewhat esoteric, dissonant harmonic language.  The organist truly preaches as he played on this hymn, proclaiming the Gospel to us through the words of the hymn.  This was followed by Charles Ore’s setting of “O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright”. Hearing Ore’s music brought a smile to my face simply because you can’t hear an Ore arrangement and not know it.

After the hymn “Creator Spirit, Heavenly Dove”, the children’s choir sang a solo piece, “Create in me” by Paul Bouman. I was again blown away by their musicality. They sing with an expressiveness and maturity that is a credit to the young musicians and especially to their director, Cynthia Nott.

After Blersh’s arrangement of the hymn “Water, Blood, and Spirit Crying” (which I still like despite singing the hymn 500 times in college), we sang the evening hymn “O Light Whose Splendor”, one of my favorites. Blersch played an extended, expressive introduction that showed off the full dynamic range of the Fisk organ and really brought out the expressive nature of the melody. We ended on the hymn “Voices Raise to You We Offer”. The arrangement was festive, grand, and appropriate to end such an amazing event.

The event itself was sold out. This fact is very encouraging to me as a lover of the hymnody of the church. For one night I didn’t hear things like “hymns are only for old people” or “in twenty years no one will be singing hymns anymore”. Lutherans from across the state paid money, chartered buses, and traveled distances to participate in singing our hymnody, the thing that Lutherans do best.  The evangelical megachurch down the street may be able to put on a great rock concert and light show, but they won’t be able to put on such an amazing hymn festival. Why? Because they don’t value organists enough to have someone who plays on the level of a Jeffrey Blersch; because the children are jumping up and down to praise choruses instead of being engaged in meaningful choral music, and because they simply don’t teach our sing-able, edifying hymnody. It makes me think that maybe it’s time for us in the Lutheran church to stop chasing after the evangelical worship practices and instead focus on Lutheran worship and hymnody that is truly centered around the Gospel, that celebrates our heritage, and that eagerly accepts new things that truly fit who we are.

Heavenly Treasures for Dusty Sinners

We are so blessed in the Lutheran church with hymnody that clearly explains our beliefs concerning the sacraments. In fact, this is one of the clearest reasons why it is so important for us to use Lutheran worship resources in our worship life.

One of our communion hymns for this upcoming Sunday is Lord Jesus Christ, You Have Prepared, by 17th century court physician Samuel Kinner. There are eight stanzas included in Lutheran Service Book, all of which are meaningful and worthwhile. Let’s jump right in with stanza 1:

Lord Jesus Christ,

You have prepared
This feast for our salvation;

It is Your body and Your blood,

And at Your invitation

As weary souls with sin oppressed,

We come to You for needed rest,

For comfort and for pardon.

The sacrament of the altar is a little preview, or foretaste, of the heavenly banquet that is being prepared for us by Christ. Our prayer before communion states, “Gather us together, we pray, from the ends of the earth to celebrate with all the faithful the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom, which has no end.”  Christ is our host, who invites us weary sinners to this meal to receive pardon for our sins and comfort for our souls. Christ is not only the host at this meal, He is also the meal itself. The bread and the wine are His true body and blood, shed for us for the forgiveness of sins.

Stanzas 2 and 3 form one thought, so I will include them together.

Although You did to heav’n ascend,

Where angel hosts are dwelling,

And in Your presence they behold

Your glory, all excelling,

And though Your people shall not see

Your glory and Your majesty

Till dawns the judgment morning,

Yet, Savior, You are not confined

To any habitation;

But You are present even now

Here with Your congregation.

Firm as a rock this truth shall stand,

Unmoved by any daring hand

Or subtle craft and cunning.

As we confess in our creeds, Jesus has risen from the dead, ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty. He is still there, seated at the right hand of God, and we eagerly await His second coming. However, this does not mean that Jesus has left His church alone on earth. He has promised to be with us always, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28), and He has promised that where two or three are gathered together, there He is among them (Matthew 18).  The sacrament of the altar forms a concrete, specific, physical way in which Christ is present among us today, as the next stanza shows.

Stanzas 4 and 5

We eat this bread and drink this cup,

Your precious Word believing

That Your true body and Your blood

Our lips are here receiving.

This Word remains forever true,

All things are possible for You,

For You are Lord Almighty.

Though reason cannot understand,

Yet faith this truth embraces:

Your body, Lord, is even now

At once in many places.

I leave to You how this can be;

Your Word alone suffices me;

I trust its truth unfailing.

When we receive the bread and wine, we receive the true body and blood of our Lord who is ascended into heaven. How is it possible that Christ can be seated at the right hand of God and also be present in bread and wine all over the world at the same time? We are not given the metaphysics to have an answer to that question, but we do trust that all things are possible for our Lord. “I trust its truth unfailing.”

Stanza 6

Lord, I believe what You have said;

Help me when doubts assail me.

Remember that I am but dust,

And let my faith not fail me.

Your supper in this vale of tears

Refreshes me and stills my fears

And is my priceless treasure.

We are now back where we started, as weary, oppressed sinners who struggle through our lives. This stanza is an earnest prayer to God for help when we are overcome with doubts. When we pray in this stanza that we are but dust, we are admitting to God that we are so weak in our sinful state that we cannot possibly stand up to the attacks of the devil, the world, and our sinful nature. We then turn to our source of strength, the body and blood of our Lord, which refreshes us and is the most priceless treasure that we have.

Stanza 7

Grant that we worthily receive

Your supper, Lord, our Savior,

And, truly grieving for our sins,

May prove by our behavior

That we are thankful for Your grace

And day by day may run our race,

In holiness increasing.

As we leave the communion table, the pastor says “The body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen and preserve you in body and soul to life everlasting. Depart in peace.”

We, who are but dust in our sin, are strengthened by this meal to live a life of service. This life of service is lived purely out of thanksgiving to God for the life and grace that He freely gives to us. We pray that our holiness may always increase.

Stanza 8

For Your consoling supper, Lord,

Be praised throughout all ages!

Preserve it, for in ev’ry place

The world against it rages.

Grant that this sacrament may be

A blessed comfort unto me

When living and when dying.

I won’t even attempt to go into all the different abuses that have come against the sacrament over the ages, but there have been many. Satan wants nothing more than to pull us away from this blessed, life-giving treasure and focus us on our sinful flesh and the world. We pray that God may preserve us and keep us focuses on His sacraments throughout our lifetime, so that we weak sinners may be comforted and forgiven unto life everlasting. Amen.