No doubt you've heard someone say, "I'm spiritual but not religious" or similarly, "I don't believe in organized religion." Maybe even a friend or family member told you this. But what do these statements even mean? Or what about the so-called "Nones," people who claim no particular religious affiliation? Polling data suggests that over 1/4 of the US population fall into that category. This Pew Research Center survey found that many of these nones don't like the church's stand on social issues or don't like religious organizations in general.
What is at the heart of such convictions? It's pretty simple. The human heart wants what the human heart wants and doesn't want to be told what is right and wrong. "Religions" always have a set of doctrines, of beliefs, a worldview that shapes how that religion thinks about God, and mankind, and the afterlife. To be "spiritual but not religious" means recognizing that there is something outside of or greater than one's self, but not wanting to be subject to it, not wanting to be bound by certain doctrines or ways of thinking. In short, it means believing whatever one wants to believe, letting one's own heart determine truth, and good, and evil. It is a prideful mindset as old as the fall into sin itself.
The prophet Ezekiel experienced this. There were many false prophets spreading their lies during Ezekiel's time. They were all "spiritual but not religious." The Lord says to Ezekiel, "Prophesy against the prophets of Israel, who are prophesying, and say to those who prophesy from their own hearts: ‘Hear the word of the LORD!’ Thus says the Lord GOD, Woe to the foolish prophets who follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing!" (Ezek. 13:2-3). These false prophets spoke from their own hearts and from their own spirits, and not from God's Spirit.
Christianity has God's revealed word in the Scripture to lead our thoughts, words, and actions in this life and to prepare us for the life to come. God is real. He is personal. Sin is real, and it kills, and it separates us from God. God Himself provides the solution to this insurmountable problem, by providing His Son to atone for sin. Faith in the promises of Jesus saves us
So how do we witness to the nones? Start with prayer, and know that it takes time, and as you speak God's word to people it accomplishes the purpose for which He sends it.
Lutheran witness has some great articles on this spiritual but not religious phenomenon, from 2011, 2012, and 2022. Also check out this video.
The phrase "remember your baptism" is intended to call to mind the reality that you belong to Christ by virtue of your baptism. You are God's child, an heir of God's eternal blessings. When you are tempted to sin, remember your baptism. When you despair over your past sin, remember your baptism. When you feel uncomfortable, singled-out, or even persecuted on account of your Christian faith, remember your baptism. You belong to Jesus. The devil and this world have no claim on you.
This past Sunday, we reflected on Jesus' baptism. Of course, Jesus didn't need baptism for Himself; He is without sin. When John tried to prevent Jesus from being baptized, Jesus responded, "Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” It's a somewhat cryptic statement, isn't it? To what or to whose righteousness is Jesus referring? Yours and mine. By submitting to baptism, Jesus is numbering Himself with us as a sinner. 2Cor. 5:21, "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."
This is the "great exchange." Christ has exchanged your sin for His righteousness. He takes your sin and atones for it on the cross. In baptism, He then clothes you with the glorious robes of His righteousness. You are now reckoned before God as perfect and holy just as Jesus is. These are the great gifts and promises of baptism. In all things, remember your baptism.
Do you make New Year’s resolutions? It’s a common practice, but resolutions may also be the butt of jokes, especially when not kept! New gym memberships tend to spike each January then fall off the rest of the year. Someone may tell you of their resolution and you know that person well enough to realize they won’t follow through. However, there’s nothing really wrong with the practice. It’s wise to look over your life and find things you might want to change and make a concerted effort in that area.
Have you ever considered spiritual New Year’s resolutions? You might resolve to read the entire Bible over the course of the year. Perhaps, you could resolve to spend a certain number of minutes praying each day, listen to a specific theological podcast, or read sections of the Book of Concord this year. Of course, it’s always good at the beginning of the year to resolve to be in church each Lord’s day whenever possible to receive his gifts. You need the body of Christ, and the rest of the body of Christ needs you!
I encourage you to read Pastor Bryan Wolfmueller's thoughts on New Year’s resolutions. Also, if more frequent Bible reading is part of your New Year’s resolutions you might check out this old Weekly Word (especially the Something Good from the Internet Section). Each month in our newsletter we publish daily readings to read through the entire Bible in a year, and I will also be adding the daily readings to the Weekly Word this year so you’ll have two ways to find that information.
In many parts of the world December 26th is celebrated as "boxing day." No, it's not a day to celebrate the heavyweight champion. Traditionally, it was the day when people would give a Christmas "box" to those in need, or to those in service positions. More recently it has become the day to shop the after-Christmas sales, and to "box up" and return unwanted Christmas presents.
This day is also the day when the church recognizes the feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr of the church. The account of Stephen is found in Acts 7. Stephen had recently been selected as a deacon in Acts 6, and quickly found himself at odds with some of the local Jewish authorities. After a passionate sermon from Stephen, these authorities were not pleased with what they heard and proceeded to stone Stephen.
How do these two things, boxing day and St. Stephen's feast day, relate? We all have at one point or another received a gift we didn't want, something we may have boxed up and returned. But the gifts of God are not things we would want to return. In the birth of Jesus, God gives Himself to us, the greatest gift we could receive. Through His death and resurrection God gives us forgiveness, life, and salvation. The world would have us deny those gifts. In the face of persecution and even death, St. Stephen held fast to the gifts and promises of Jesus. May we also deny ourselves and hold as precious the gifts our Lord gives us in Christ Jesus.
Jesus is God
A recent theological survey (2020) from Ligonier ministries asked Americans whether they agreed with the statement, “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God.” 52% of respondents agreed with this statement and even 30% of evangelicals agreed with it.
I pray that we would know better. Our Lord Jesus is true God and true man. When we reflect upon the birth of Jesus that first Christmas we confess that God Himself was wrapped in swaddling clothes, laid in a manger, and worshipped by shepherds. Jesus is our Emmanuel, God with us. When we reflect on the death of Jesus on the cross, we confess that God Himself died for our sins. How can God be born? How can God die? This is a great mystery. It is something that we cannot fully comprehend, but we must simply confess.
Does it matter whether or not Jesus was God? Absolutely! God took on our flesh. Jesus is God and man, "not by the conversion of the divinity into flesh, but by the assumption of the humanity into God" (Athanasian Creed). God became one of us. God experienced in a body those things we experience in the body, yet He was without sin. Only a perfect sacrifice could atone for the sin of the whole world. Only God Himself could offer such a perfect sacrifice, which He did on the cross in the person of Jesus.
The incarnation is a miracle. Thanks be to God for such a miracle.
What is God's “glory”? It's actually a difficult question. The word glory often refers to ideas of beauty, majesty, or splendor. For a human being glory could refer to that person's dignity, wealth, power, or position. The glory of someone consists of those things which make that person unique or important in the eyes of others.
But what about the glory of God? In the Old Testament the Hebrew word usually translated as glory has the idea of weight or heaviness. God is glorious because He deals with matters much weightier than what we humans deal with. His presence is much more significant than ours. In the Old Testament most often God's glory describes the form in which God reveals Himself to people or is the sign and manifestation of His presence.
In Exodus Moses asks to see God's glory (Ex. 33:18). The Lord tells Moses that no person can look at His face and live (Ex. 33:20). Instead, God chooses to reveal Himself, His character and essence in a different way, by showing Moses His goodness (Ex. 33:19). The Lord also promises Moses that He will allow His glory to pass by Moses, but the Lord will cover Moses’ face with His hand. Once the glory of the Lord passes by Moses will see the "backside" of the Lord's glory (Ex. 33:21-23).
We often would like to "see" God's glory, to be given some supernatural sign of God's presence with us or his favor with us. We too would might like to peer into the mind of God to understand His nature to gaze upon His complete beauty. But such things are too weighty for us. Instead, God shows us His goodness by providing for our daily needs and forgiving our sins. He also shows us the backside of His glory, revealing His character, saving power, and mercy to us from the behind, as we look backwards. That is, we realize God's glory as we look backwards in time, at Jesus death and resurrection, at the preservation of His word for thousands of years, at our own baptism and faith. John tells us that the glory of God is seen most clearly in the person and work of Jesus (John 1:14). God is glorious because He has saved us through His Son!
We all need water to live. On average a person cannot live more than three days without drinking water. This is not to mention all the other uses we have for water such as cleaning and bathing.
Is it any wonder then why our Lord instituted baptism using water? The water of baptism is spiritually life-giving, just as plain water sustains our physical life. The water of baptism cleanses us from sin, just as we use water to bathe our bodies. Since water is so basic to human existence it's almost always readily available for baptism.
When the people of Israel left Egypt they had difficulty finding drinking water out in the wilderness on more than one occasion. So, God had to provide water for them. This He did through Moses. God made the bitter waters of Marah sweet (Ex. 15:23-25), and miraculously made water gush out of solid rock (Ex 17:6, Num. 20:8-11.) The people of God needed this water to live.
You and I need the water of baptism to live. St. Peter says "Baptism now saves you" (1 Peter 3:21). St. Paul says baptism is, "the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit" (Titus 3:5). And Jesus says, "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved" (Mark 16:16). Thanks be to God that he gives water to sustain our earthly lives, and the water of baptism to grant us eternal life.
Thank the Lord and sing His praise; tell everyone what He has done. Let all who see the Lord rejoice and proudly bear His name. He recalls His promises and leads His people forth in joy with shouts of thanksgiving. Alleluia, alleluia.
These words are sung after communion in Divine Service setting 1 and 2, but I think they have a lot to say about our thanksgiving. Note first of all that singing accompanies thanks. We show our thankfulness to God by singing His praises. We praise and thank the one who gives us all things. We praise God by proclaiming what He has done. Secondly, we tell others about the great things God has done, those things for which we are thankful.
As we have just "seen" the Lord in, with, and under the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper, we rejoice. We can be proud, in a good way, of the name of the Lord that we bear. We bear the name Christian, the name given us in our baptism. We go forth into the world with this name, telling others what Christ has done, and thanking Him for His saving work.
Why are we able to give thanks? Because the Lord recalls His promises. He keeps His promise to forgive our sins. He promises to lead us through this life, through the valley of the shadow death, into eternal life with Him. For all this we thanks and praise Him.
You may have seen these letters in a church somewhere, INRI. If you look at the crucifix hanging above the literature table in our fellowship hall or the one hanging in the entry way to the sanctuary, you will see this printed above the head of Jesus. INRI is an abbreviation for the Latin phrase, Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum, or in English, "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews." Recall that when Jesus was crucified, Pilate had this inscription placed on Jesus' cross written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin so all could read it. (John 19:19-20).
Why would Pilate write such a thing? The Gospels of Matthew and Mark tell us that this was the charge against Jesus (Matt. 27:37). The Romans would sometimes indicate the criminal charge against the person being crucified by writing it on the cross. This was the best that Pilate could come up with. He asked the Jews if he should crucify their king. They replied, "We have no king but Caesar" (John 19:15). The Jewish authorities didn't like the placard. They told Pilate, "Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but rather, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written" (John 19:21-22).
There are various ways to think about these words. On the one hand, the inscription rings true. Jesus was the king, the Messiah, that the Jews were promised in the Old Testament. Yet, most didn't recognize Him. On the other hand the statement doesn't go far enough. Jesus was also Pilate's true king. He is The King of all humanity, though the world does not recognize His authority. As God's children, we recognize the Jesus as The King and give thanks that we are citizens of His kingdom. As Paul writes, "He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son" (Col. 1:13). Praise God that in Jesus we have a merciful and powerful king!
As a congregation we have "worship" every Sunday at 10am. But what do we mean by that word, "worship"? The word is used in a variety of ways even within the church. In a sense, our entire lives are lives of worship. As God's people, we are His witnesses in our daily lives through our words and deeds. Our daily prayers, reading of Scripture, and serving our neighbor are acts of worship. But more specifically, we come together to worship as God's people gathered physically in one place at the same time on Sunday morning. This worship service, or Divine Service, is primarily a time when God is giving something to us. God is acting. God is serving us. God is feeding us His Word in our ears and the very body and blood of Jesus in our mouths.
In his book, The Fire and the Staff, Pastor Klemet Preus has this to say about the Divine Service, "If the Divine Service is viewed primarily as our praising God, then you can do that just as well at home. In fact, once we have looked at the topic of vocation, you will see that we can serve God better in the world than in the church building. But if the service is understood as God giving us the forgiveness of sins, then you've got to be there. It is very possible that the low attendance at Sunday services seen in so many churches today is a reflection of how we define the service. If I am acting, then I can do it at another time. If God is acting, I better be there."
We do not need to make God happy with us. We cannot manipulate God by what we do. Through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Lord already delights in us calling us His children. God wants us in worship for our benefit not His, so He can serve us. Worship starts with God. He comes to us with His gifts. We respond with our thanks and praise, our tithes and offerings. The opportunity to come together as God's people on a Sunday morning to receive His gifts is a great blessing. Let us not give up meeting together!