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Monday, July 25, 2016

Being the Remnant Church: Embrace God’s Purpose for the Remnant

We live in the world. It’s not our home, but it is where God has placed us and He has a purpose for our being here. Because we are in the world, our expectations and experiences here influence and shape how we view ourselves as the Remnant Church. When we allow worldly thinking to fashion our understanding of ourselves, we’re likely to see being a remnant of what was once large, influential, and celebrated in our culture as evidence of God’s disfavor with us. The world can’t help but to see a declining church in this way and we get caught up in this perspective.

Martin Luther spoke of this way of seeing the shrinking church when he wrote,

·                     You see that the church is forever about to fall, and therefore there must always be consolations. Although there would scarcely be a remnant, God is the protector of this poor little church. Paul especially used this argument against the Jews, calling himself (Phil. 3:5) “of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin.” Paul made use of such and similar boasts to strengthen his church, even though it was always the most wretched in appearance … So it was with the primitive church. It was a handful of people, a fistful of dough, hardly one little biscuit in a whole bakery. This smallness of the church is the supreme offense in the world. (Luther’s Works, volume 17, page 84).

When we lose the proper perspective of the church as “always the most wretched in appearance” according to the standards of our world, we’re also likely to lose sight of our purpose. Instead of pursuing what makes the church in all of her smallness “the supreme offense in the world,” we suppose that the church should be admired and respected by the world. When we do, we are likely to be missing — or possibly even ignoring — God’s purpose for the Remnant Church.

What is God’s purpose for the Remnant Church? It is the same as it is for the church in every age and in all circumstances. No matter how large or small, admired or disdained, wealthy or poor, etc. the church may be, the purpose for us while we are in the world is to bear witness of Christ so that others may come to faith as we have come to faith. Luther’s commentary on 1 Peter 2:9 states it well and plainly, “We live on earth only so that we should be a help to other people …For this reason, however, He lets us live that we may bring other people also to faith as He has done for us” (emphasis added).

We might think that we would be more effective in carrying out this one reason for our being in the world as a church that is large in numbers, rich in resources, and influential in our society. In our way of thinking, a strong and powerful church is far better suited for engaging our world with the Gospel, especially when people are hostile toward the church. Why does this work fall to us while our numbers are decreasing, our resources are dwindling, and our culture increasingly despises us? What is God’s purpose in shaping us as the Remnant Church?

Perhaps the best way to explore God’s purpose for us being the Remnant Church is to revisit Gideon and the Israelites as they went up against the Midianites (Judges 7). As they mustered to confront their powerful enemy, the Lord told Gideon, “The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me.'” By reducing Gideon’s army from 32,000 to 300, God made it clear to His people that He was their deliverer and that He had won the victory for them. Their call was to destroy those opposed to the Lord. Our call is to engage those opposed to Christ in love and compassion. Two very different callings, but we share the same purpose in being made small. Should it come to pass that we would see the Church grow in numbers, resources, and status, we will know better than to say that we have made it happen by our own methods, wisdom, or strength.

The purpose of the Remnant Church is to bear witness of Jesus in our world so that others would come to faith just as we have. God’s purpose in doing this through a remnant is that we would give Him the honor, praise, and glory that is due Him. Whatever we may think of God’s reasons and His ways, our call as the Remnant Church is to embrace God’s purpose for us.

[Next in the series: Take Your Stand in the Land]

Questions to consider:

    How have I tried to engage the people of our culture who are hostile toward the church with Christ’s love and compassion? What new ways might I try to do this?
    In what ways have I let the “smallness of the church” affect my attitude about the work to which God has called us?
    How many more people, how much more money, and how much better status does the church need to have before I can be faithful in being a witness of Jesus in my everyday life? What does this reality call me to do?
    What’s my reaction to Luther’s statement that the only reason God leaves His people on earth is so that other people can come to faith in Jesus? For what other reasons am I living? How do these other reasons impact my commitment to the only reason?

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

CrossTalk: The Power to Restore

As I write this morning, reports are coming out of Dallas about snipers, IEDs, personal bombs, and de-arming robots. It sounds more like a war than America! What is happening to respect for authority? Who has stolen our respect for human life?

Add to these the incessant attacks on Christians in California, Iowa, Oregon, and even in our own state. We are reeling and asking what happened to mutual respect and decency? What is happening to chastity and marriage? Who, or what, is attacking the homes of our land and destroying our families?

What shall we say to all this? Today let me give you two words: encouragement and faithfulness.

First, a word of encouragement. "If God be for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?" (Romans 8:31-32) The sufferings and death of Jesus Christ stands as your certain guarantee of God's care for you.

If you already believe in Christ Jesus, you are receiving His forgiveness through Word and Sacrament. What is left to be afraid of? Be reassured that God the Father, who gave His only-begotten Son for will never stop giving. Fear not. God has your back.

If you despise the God of the Bible and cheer the new and hostile tone against Christianity, He doesn't hate you back. God gave His only-begotten Son for you; and He did not come "into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him" (John 3:17). You, too, are invited to change your mind and receive His forgiveness and goodness.

Second, a call to faithful living. There is a very good reason that Satan is attacking marriage, life, and respect for authority. It is because these are the greatest threat to his power. These are no mere human institutions, they are God's own institutions.

Because they are holy, because they are markers of God's continued grace in this world of sin that Satan attacks them. Today, more than ever, the people of God should understand that the simple act of cherishing a child or remaining chaste, is a meaningful act of spiritual warfare for the whole world.

So be bold, people of God! Confess with your very lives that human life is a sacred and holy thing. Confess with your sexuality that marriage is a gift that God gave as an icon of Christ and the Church. Confess with your home life that the human family is a very participation in the life of heaven. See Marriage, Life and Family as an image of the Triune God who created you.

In so doing, let Christ's word of forgiveness, life and salvation overpower the hate, despair, perversion, and hopelessness of our society. Where you have opportunity to strengthen your marriage, to affirm human life, or to hold together your family, take it. Where you have temptation to give in to the world and undermine these precious gifts, hold out.

And when you have fallen and failed in your own marriage, life, or family, humbly repent and eagerly receive the forgiveness of Christ. Forgiveness and restoration is the entire reason that Jesus has come. That is how He has always restored this fallen world. And that is how He will renew and restore your own world as well.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Making Peace with Vocations We Don't Have’s children tend to be hounded by the notion that they must find their passion, follow their heart, achieve their dreams--do, be, and feel special, sparkly, valuable, and happy. This is tough on kids who don’t have a clear “passion” to chase. It’s rough on those whose hopes elude them.  

In Lutheran circles, we point to the doctrine of vocation as a counter-balance to the pressure to focus on ourselves. Even so, it can be easy to wonder if our vocations are enough. Stay-at-home moms worry that they ought to accomplish more outside the home. Single women fear that without husbands and children, they are cut off from life’s deepest and most meaningful work. 

We need to become more comfortable with the idea that life is about receiving different gifts, different paths, and different opportunities. Despite our lip service to diversity, our culture resists accepting the real differences between individuals, cultures, and even human bodies.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Being the Remnant Church: “Don’t Go to Egypt”

There are several different words that have been used recently to describe the religious landscape of our rapidly changing culture. Some are more helpful than others.
The term “post-Church” is a bit confusing because there are still many churches in America and we are actively starting new churches. It takes some explanation to clarify that the term post-Church is a shortened version of “post-Constantinian Church” — a historical reference that tends to confuse as many people as it helps.
“Post-Christian” is another term that is widely used. It rightly indicates that the  American church has greatly diminished in numbers and influence from the peaks of the middle of the last century. While it is an accurate description of our culture, it is not a meaningful way of describing the Church in our culture.
Among the options, the best descriptive title of the Church in present day America is probably the “Remnant Church.” Not only does the word remnant aptly describe the diminished Church in our nation, it is a biblical description that provides critical guidance to church leaders and members.
The most frequent use of the word remnant in the Bible is in reference to the people of Judah who were spared from the Exile or who were preserved in it to return to Israel.  Not surprisingly, Jeremiah uses the term more extensively than any other book of the Bible. We can learn some valuable lessons about being the Remnant Church in America from the Word of the Lord that Jeremiah proclaimed to the remnant of Judah. One of the most important lessons is “Don’t go to Egypt” (Jeremiah 42:19).
God spoke this command to the remnant remaining in Israel to redirect them after they had made plans to go and live in the land of Egypt. As a remnant, the people had lost their status, strength, and security. They faced serious hardships because they were small in number, vulnerable to their enemies, and living under the rule of a hostile government. They were faced with the harsh realities of being a remnant and they didn’t like what they were experiencing.
Though God had told this remnant that He had a purpose for them in Israel and He had assured them that He would preserve them in their land, they were looking for a better solution to the hardships of being small, insignificant, and vulnerable as a remnant. They looked to Egypt for their new source of status, strength, and security. Concerned for the well-being of His people and wanting them to look to Him alone for what they needed, the Lord responded clearly and forcefully through His prophet: “Don’t go to Egypt.”
As the  Remnant Church in America, we need to take the command “Don’t go to Egypt” to heart and understand how it applies to us in our context.
Like the remnant of Judah, we have lost much of what we once enjoyed in our culture in terms of status, strength, and security. The Church is no longer respected as an institution, clergy are often viewed with suspicion, and believers are treated with disdain when speaking the Word as Christ’s witnesses. The political clout that had promoted and preserved biblical values has given way to defeats in all three branches of our government. That same government has taken an active role in fighting for the perceived rights of the advocates of immorality and against the liberties of the people of faith who will not embrace them.
Some Church leaders are calling on Christians to fight against this rapidly rising tide of hostility toward orthodox Christianity and to remain steadfast in the Faith whatever the costs may be. But many others are calling their people to go to Egypt.
The Egypt that entices the Remnant Church in America is not a foreign country, but our own country that has become foreign to us. The status, strength, and security that the Church has lost is now found in the activist organizations that endorse and promote various sins under the banner of equality and in the politicians who have found new life in supporting their causes.
Going to Egypt for us is leaving the Word of the Lord in one way or another in order to find ways to tolerate, accept, or embrace the popular values of our culture in order to regain the status, strength, and security that we no longer have. “Don’t go to Egypt” is a clear warning to flee from that temptation and a call to embrace our remnant status and purpose.
The road before us is not pleasant and it is certain to be filled with the hardships of being small in number, insignificant in the public square, and vulnerable to our adversaries. In other words, being the Remnant Church is a call to the Cross. We can either take up our crosses and bear them in Christ for the sake of the world or we can abandon that call, set our sights toward Egypt, and attempt to reclaim greatness in the world. Our Savior’s urgent plea for His Remnant Church — for our sake as well as for the sake of those who are perishing around us —  is “Don’t go to Egypt.”
[Next in the series: Embrace God’s Purpose for the Remnant]
Questions to consider: 
  • How has the overall church’s decrease in numbers and influence in America had an effect on my congregation? Our members? Me?
  • What is the “Egypt” that is tempting us to rely on something other than the Lord and His Word for the prosperity (or survival) of our congregation?
  • What do we as a congregation need to do to overcome the temptation to “go to Egypt”? What do I need to do to overcome this temptation?