Book Review: People to be Loved by Preston Sprinkle

The subtitle of Preston Sprinkle’s People to be Loved is “Why Homosexuality is Not Just an Issue.” It’s a good subtitle for a few reasons. First of all, it’s not exactly easy to understand, so it encourages people to pick it up and at least read the foreword if they want to see what the whole thing is about. Second, as you read the book, you start to understand what he means: homosexuality is not just an issue, or a talking point, or a debate; it’s about people. Any discussion of the “issue” or “phenomenon” is sorely lacking if it’s divorced from the fact that there are real, actual people whose real, actual lives are defined by their sexual orientation and lifestyle. Sprinkle’s mission with his book becomes crystal clear: since we Christians are called to love sinful people, as our Christ came to this earth to love sinful people like us, we need to primarily see people in the LGBT+ community as people to be loved.

I think Sprinkle accomplishes this mission beautifully. He does talk in great detail about the “issue,” but he attaches the entire discussion to names, faces, and stories of people to be loved.

The thing I appreciate most about Sprinkle’s book is his ability to keep a level head and walk a middle ground. He has a “high view of Scripture,” which has become the shorthand for “viewing God’s Word as inspired and authoritative.” If any author wants to write on a doctrinal topic but they don’t see the Bible as the authority on the subject, then those of us with a high view of Scripture will not find much value in what they have to say. Sprinkle’s posture is one of submission to the Bible and what God has to say, so he has the correct starting point, and establishes himself as someone worth hearing out.

From that starting point, Sprinkle dives deep into the relevant Bible passages concerning homosexuality, including the so-called “clobber passages” that have been used to do a lot of damage to LGBT+ people by the church throughout the years. He confronts the passages humbly and honestly, challenging traditional interpretations by digging into the original languages. There are some traditional preconceptions that Sprinkle does dismantle, such as the use of the Sodom and Gomorrah story in the homosexuality discussion. In the end, he does end up with the traditional, so-called “non-affirming” perspective of homosexuality, and he doesn’t shy away from it or apologize for it. But while he does not affirm homosexuality, he goes to great lengths to make sure that the people are always still to be loved. A mantra he comes back to repeatedly is that even if we do not affirm someone’s homosexuality, we should always be affirming of their humanity. They are still people to be loved.

In this book, Sprinkle resists the urge to boil an extremely complex issue down to a Tweet. It’s almost hard for me to summarize the book in review format when his points demand to be fleshed out in the full breadth of the work. If you have read this review and find yourself tilting your head, questioning my conclusions or the author’s, or nodding along, I wholeheartedly recommend picking it up and reading it for yourself. ROA Members, just ask me and I can either loan you my copy or pick one up for you.

What Does the Future Hold for the Church?

This is a transcript of Pastor Natsis’ sermon from Sunday, May 16th, 2021. To watch the video recording of the sermon, follow this link and jump to 32:45 in the video.

What does the future hold for the Christian church? We can’t really know, but it sure seems like a lot of people think they do. People are very worried about the future of the Church right now, and that worry might have found its way to you. Maybe you look around at society and see moral things that used to be universally understood as wrong now being touted as acceptable and right. Maybe you see the way people on the internet talk about Christians and even Christ and feel hurt. Maybe you look at statistics and read numbers that come out of polls or even from studies in our own little Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod and you don’t come away from the data particularly encouraged. You may be aware of the high pastoral and teacher vacancy rate we’re experiencing across our own churches nationwide and wonder why the numbers of pastors and teachers seem to be so dire. When we look at what the future may hold for the Christian church, or the future of WELS, or maybe even the future of our own Rock of Ages, we may feel frightened or worried. There seems to be so much uncertainty. There certainly are a lot of Christians shouting from the rooftops about how this is the end, and a godless society is going to cause the Church to fall.

               I’m not going to stand here and pretend that the statistics and the numbers and the studies and the cautions aren’t warranted. We definitely ought to be aware of the trends in the world right now when it comes to the Christian Church and our society. We definitely ought to do our own due diligence of studies and statistics for our own ministry here in Madison. What I want to make sure of, though, is that we put those trends and numbers and statistics and studies in their proper context. Let’s look at the context of God’s promises. Let’s look at the context of our God-given mission. Let’s look at the context of the greater history of the Christian Church. When we do that, when we properly contextualize the numbers and data across time and across the world, we see certain things that are constant and consistent: the grace of God, and the work of the Church.

               To really get the full historical picture, we should go all the way back to the start of the Church as we know it. This is the final week of our series walking through the book of Acts, and we’re actually going to end at the beginning. Our gospel for today was the end of Luke’s gospel, when Jesus ascends into heaven and leaves the work of the Church to the members of the body. The book of Acts is also written by Luke, and it’s essentially a sequel to his gospel—in fact, the beginning of Acts is the same as the end of Luke. Acts 1:1-11 is the story of Christ’s ascension.

               We may worry about what the future holds for the Christian Church now. For a moment, though, consider what kinds of worries the disciples might have had at the beginning of the book of Acts. The numbers, data, and statistics were probably looking pretty dire. Number of pastors? Twelve. Public scandals? Well, two of Jesus’ closest friends betrayed him in the span of just a few hours—one of them committed suicide, and the other is now one of the Church’s twelve pastors. Yikes. Trend of Church membership? Well, not too long ago, a majority of people in the city loudly shouted that the Church’s leader should be crucified, and the twelve pastors were meeting in locked rooms for fear of the Church’s enemies so…the trends maybe not encouraging. What about the iconic, charismatic leader and founder of the Church—who also happened to be the Son of God and Savior of the world? Well, he just ascended into heaven. He may have promised to be with the Church, but he’s not visible anymore. If you want to talk about people who were probably worried about the future and what was in store for the Christian Church…the disciples of Acts chapter 1 are a great case study.

               But ultimately, that has always been a question. What does the future hold for the Church? In the entire history of the Church this has been something that could cause all sorts of worry. It’s not just in Acts chapter 1, but throughout the whole book of Acts, which represents a period of about 30 years, the Church had a number of struggles and seemed on several occasions like it might fold as quickly as it began. The Church was rocked by heresies and false teachings in the second, third, and fourth centuries that put it on what seemed to be a brink of extinction. Division rocked the church in an event known as the Great Schism, which is so important and so impactful on the Church that my high school history teacher made sure that it was one of the dates we had to know in order to pass the class, and as such I’ve never forgotten the year 1054. By the middle of the Millennium, the Western Church was so corrupt and so broken that the leaders of the Church were peddling forgiveness for money. We recently celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, but there were many times when the Reformation was almost snuffed out like a candle before it could set anything ablaze—in fact, there were several attempted reforms before Luther’s that never got off the ground, and you don’t hear about them nearly as much because they weren’t successful. Even jumping into the 20th Century, and narrowing the scope to our own little corner of the Lutheran Church, 60 years ago people thought that the little Wisconsin Synod would die out and would never survive after a split with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

               I hope this history lesson has been helpful to see that the question “What does the future hold for the Church?” is not a new thing we are asking. It’s an ever-present question. The trends and numbers and statistics and studies don’t look particularly encouraging right now, but…when have they ever?

               You could look at the situation in the world today and you could become crippled with fear and worry. That is one response to what is out there. You could look into your own lives and question whether or not your witness has been worth it. You try inviting people to church and they just don’t come. The pastor is up here always telling you to bring people, and you’ve tried, but it just never seems to work, so now not only are you feeling discouraged by people not coming, but you’re feeling guilt-tripped by the pastor. All of these things could make you wonder “What does the future hold?” For Rock of Ages? For the WELS? For Lutheranism? For the Christian Church? That worry can beat us down.

               When you feel that worry and anxiety about the Church at large and the church in your back yard, I want you to take a deep breath and do what Christians do: turn to God and see what he has to say. Listen to him speak to you through his Word. There, you’ll see stories like the one before us today, in which the Church is backed into a corner…and turns to God. When we turn to Acts chapter 1 and see the dovetailed re-telling of Ascension account, Jesus gives his disciples the mission, which becomes the theme of the entire book: You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Christ may have visibly ascended into heaven, but when he left, he gave the Church workers. And he gave the Church work. He gave every single member of his body, the Church, each individually different work to be done according to their gifts. He calls workers for his Church. He calls the church to work. It’s not work to earn salvation or earn anything at all—it’s work to give other people the saving message of the truth, the truth of Jesus Christ that changed our lives and set us free. You and I have been bought by the blood of Jesus, the Son of God, and we have life in his name. Now that same Jesus, who made us his own, has made us his workers with a purpose and with a mission. Our purpose is to worship him in everything we do. Our mission is to spread the gospel individually and collectively. And all of it is because of what Jesus has done for us—and it’s possible because Jesus remains with us always, to the very end of the age.

               What did the Church of Acts 1 do? When hope seemed lost and the trends looked dire? Motivated by Jesus’ love for them, they got to work. They set out to replace Judas’ leadership position. They prayed to God. They relied on his mercy and guidance. They followed his instruction—first waiting in Jerusalem for the coming of the Holy Spirit, and then being the witnesses for Jesus in Jerusalem, and then Judea and Samaria, and then even to the ends of the earth. They called workers for the Church. And they, as the Church, got to work. Up to this point, Jesus had done all the calling. Now, Jesus has given the Church the authority to call, and the motivation to work.

               Brothers and sisters, you are the Church. You are Rock of Ages. I’m your called worker, and all of us are called to work. I’ve done a lot of talking about how “the Church works,” and “the Church” does this and “the Church” does that. But I want you to train your brain—when you hear “the Church,” I want you to make sure that you understand that the Church is You. Rock of Ages is not a building—it is you. Rock of Ages is not an organization—it’s you. WELS is not a faceless corporation. It’s you. Christianity is not a nebulous concept. It’s you. Christ gave himself for his body, the Church—and that’s you. The Church has a purpose and a mission. That means you have a mission and a purpose. If you ever catch yourself thinking. “Well, Church usually does this,” or “Why hasn’t Church done that?” Ask yourself…who is “Church”? It’s you!

               What are the requirements that the disciples put in place for the replacement of Judas? They weren’t looking for someone sinless, or someone perfect, or even someone with exact skillset of X and Y. The replacement Apostle had to have two things: to have been with Jesus from the start of his ministry, and he had to have seen the risen Christ. In other words, the two most important criteria for workers in the Church—which is everyone in the Church—is that they know Jesus and know what Jesus has done. When we know Jesus and know what he has done, we want to get to work. We want what has impacted us to impact others.

               What does the future hold for the Church? We can’t answer that question exactly, but we know a few things. First of all, we know that God will continue to send workers into his field. Yesterday was Call Day at Martin Luther College, where a whole cohort of graduates were assigned to serve and teach in churches and schools across the country. This coming week is Call Day at the Seminary, where a cohort of graduates will be sent to pastor congregations who need them. Pray for your these new, young called workers; pray for this called worker; pray for all called workers. The second thing we know about the future of the Church is that Jesus is with us always, to the very end of the age. No matter how dire things are, Jesus is in control. No matter what the trends look like, he is behind us. No matter what the situation is, he still gives us purpose, and he still gives us a mission. What does the future hold for the Church—for us? As always, and right up to heaven, we know that what we have in store is the grace of God from age to age and from generation to generation until he returns to take us to be with him in heaven forever. That much is certain. So let’s get to work.

Taking Something On for Lent: Caring for the Weaker

One year, I tried giving up soda for Lent. I wasn’t a fan of how much of it I was drinking (which is still the case), and I thought that using Lent as an excuse to cut back on it would be a good idea. It started out OK, but everything went downhill when I said that I would make Sundays into “cheat days.” After that, there were more and more “cheat days” until I just altogether gave up on “giving up.”

You’ve probably heard of this common practice, “giving something up for Lent.” It’s essentially a version of fasting, which is the ancient practice of forgoing a usual activity, usually in the form of food or drink, for a set amount of time. As long as fasting has been around, there have been two things true of it at the same time:

  1. Fasting can be beneficial to focus more on worshiping God.
  2. Fasting can also not do that.

A friend of mine in high school explained why she gave up chocolate for Lent: “Every time I choose not to have chocolate, it reminds me of what God did for me this season.” I really loved that explanation, which is what inspired me to try my own fast. But, apparently, she had a lot more resolve than I did; my quickly broken fast really only served to remind me that I’m not always great at follow-through. Fasting isn’t for everyone—and that’s OK.

Lent is a time of repentance and contrition for sin. As we journey toward the cross of Christ, we are reminded of why he needed to come—our sin—and reminded of what he did to save us—live a perfect life, die an innocent death, and rise from the dead for us. Nothing we do (or do not do) can add to or subtract from Jesus’ perfect work for us and his righteousness given to us. We can, however, try to aid our focus on Christ and his work through giving something up…or, as I want to present today, taking something on.

So instead of giving something up for Lent this year, I want to propose something else. If giving something up hasn’t worked for you in the past, as it hasn’t for me, let’s try Taking Something On for Lent. Call it a “challenge,” call it a “resolution,” or think of it as a type of “reverse-fast”; I want to use the start of this Lenten season to talk about a concept that has been on my mind for the past few months: caring for the weak in faith.

The Apostle Paul’s primary call was to preach to the Gentiles the good news of Jesus Christ. At the same time, a large part of that Gentile-focused ministry was also the preaching to Jews scattered in Gentile lands. That is a large mission field, when you consider that the combination of Jews and Not Jews creates a subset of humanity that includes every single person on earth. Paul had the gargantuan task of going all over the Western world and preaching the gospel to people of wildly different ethnic backgrounds, religious backgrounds, cultural backgrounds, and personal backgrounds.

This would make Paul’s congregations diverse not only in terms of their human makeup, but also in terms of their strength of faith. Some of Paul’s would be converted by the Holy Spirit very quickly, while others would take a while. Some of those people would cling strongly to the Word of Truth, while others would hold on a bit more loosely, looking over their shoulder at the gods and gospels left behind. Some of those people would forsake family and friends to risk their lives for Jesus, while others would feel peer pressure of their previous lives, even as they were beginning to believe in their Savior. In other words, there were strong Christians and there were weak Christians. And on top of that, some Christians appeared weak but were actually strong, while other Christians appeared strong but were actually weak. And on top of that, what makes someone “strong” or “weak” can change from day to day, from hour to hour. The weak are not always the weak, and the strong are not always the strong.

All of that is true of Christianity today. It’s true of us.

How do we handle the challenge of proclaiming the gospel and receiving the gospel as such a disparate group of people? Well, how did Paul handle it? He writes about it in 1 Corinthians 9:

19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

Especially in America, we like to make a big deal about our personal freedoms and our individual rights. In Western thought, two of the most important concepts are individuality and equality. We have our rights, and we’ll be darned if anyone tries to take them away, right?

What we see here from Paul is something else, though. Paul recognizes his freedoms and his rights, namely the ones that come from the gospel—but he also recognizes that there are times to give up those freedoms and rights to care for the weaker brothers and sisters among him.

Paul could have slammed a McRib in front of his Jewish congregations, but he chose to live kosher until the Jewish Christians were ready to accept that God had made all foods clean. Paul could have eaten a ribeye steak cut from a cow that had been sacrificed to Athena in his Greek congregations, but he chose to avoid meat from the marketplaces until the Greek Christians were ready to see that those idolatrous sacrifices were as useless as the idols themselves. For the weak, Paul became weak. Why? Because by removing barriers of his own behavior, he would be able to more clearly point people to their Savior.

Back to Lent.

This Lenten season, I’m encouraging you to think like Paul. As we repent of our sins and prepare for our somber observance of the Passion, let’s think about how we can care for the weak in faith. Let’s remember that, at many points in our lives, we are the weak in faith. Let’s do a “reverse fast” and take on the task of becoming all things to all people, so that by all possible means we might save some.

The hope here is that if we focus on how we can more clearly point to Jesus for others, we might also renew our own focus on more clearly seeing him ourselves. Lent is a worshipful season, and one of the most effective ways to worship is to share the gospel—not just with words, but with actions (and inactions).

If you’d like to give something up this season, go for it. But this year, perhaps try something new: take on a personal emphasis of caring for your weaker brothers and sisters in the faith. Someday, perhaps now, you may need to be the one taken care of. In both cases, the love of Jesus will shine brightly as his Church lives out its calling, journeying together to his Cross to see salvation won by Jesus.

Featured image artwork purchased from Corissa Nelson Art at https://www.corissanelsonart.com/

“I don’t want to get too political.”

At my church, we recently wrapped up a five-week study on how Christians interact with politics. The major take-away from the study is that we are always citizens of two kingdoms: the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the State. Navigating our dual citizenship is often tricky business. I personally have an added layer of trickiness as a pastor—one of the things I strive to do is to be apolitical—to carry out my call of proclaiming God’s law and gospel without entering into a world of Red vs. Blue. I have my own personal political opinions and I vote according to certain political convictions, but I don’t broadcast them. I don’t want political divisions to hinder my gospel proclamation. That wouldn’t be fair to my congregation or to the call which they’ve extended to me.

“I don’t want to get too political.”

When George Floyd was murdered while in police custody on May 25, I, like many others, saw the video. I, like many others, was appalled and outraged. I, like many others, reflected on the instances of this type of injustice against black people in the last decade (and since even before the very founding of this country). I wanted to speak out about it; but, you know.

“I don’t want to get too political.”

Politics is divisive—inherently so when the country is broken down into two major political factions. There are winners and losers, there are “both sides,” there are claims of moral superiority and accusations of moral bankruptcy. There are different information sources with different versions of truth or “alternative facts,” and everyone seems to flock to the outlets that will simply reinforce perspectives they’ve already agreed with. So when it comes to the complicated, multi-faceted issue of race relations, there is much to be said; but, well.

“I don’t want to get too political.”

I couldn’t quite figure it out. I struggled with how to approach this as a pastor and as a leader with a voice in the Christian community. I want to use that voice, but I wasn’t sure how, because…OK, you get the idea by now.

But over the past week I’ve seen beautiful posts and videos from brother pastors speaking up publicly—thoroughly, patiently, gracefully. And you know what? They said things that people might consider “political.” They talked about the sinfulness of racism. They talked about confronting our inner biases and exposing racist thoughts in our hearts. They spoke in support of George Floyd and his family, and they spoke against the mistreatment of black people over the years. I applauded them for their boldness and tenacity of proclaiming law and gospel even in a politically charged arena.

Thanks to their boldness and efforts, I’ve been able to articulate something that had been bothering me not just for the past week but for the past few years: Race is politicized, but it’s not necessarily political. There is a difference between being political and being perceived as being political. The former isn’t a good idea for someone in my position. The latter? Well, that’s why I’m writing this post. I want you, reader, to see that confronting racism is not a political move; it is a necessary one. And if you want to argue that race is a political issue, let me ask you…how can someone’s very existence be political?

This blog post has been far too much about me and my feelings. I want to close it by doing the thing I’ve been writing about but not actually doing: speaking against racism and the mistreatment of the underprivileged members of our society.

Make no mistake: racism is a sin. The Apostle Paul saw his fellow Apostle Peter’s racism against Gentiles and publicly called him on the carpet for it. One of the reasons God punished Miriam in Numbers 12 was because she criticized Moses’ interracial marriage (see verse 1 of that chapter). And, for a positive example, Jesus showed love and compassion to people of all races, giving them far more than just the crumbs that fell off of the Jews’ tables (Matthew 15:27). We need to confront the sins of racism lurking in our own hearts so that we can confront the sins of racism in society. This self-confrontation may mean looking inside ourselves to relearn and re-frame things.

White people, especially, I’m talking about us and to us—we need to examine our presuppositions and implicit biases when it comes to issues of race. Here’s just one example: if your response to the phrase “Black Lives Matter” is to say “All Lives Matter,” what have you just done but marginalized a race that is trying to fight against being pushed into the margins? I can respect the fact that if you have said “all lives matter,” you were doing so with good intentions; but well-intentioned actions can still be racist and wrong. I’ve seen many protest signs that say “All lives can’t matter until black lives do.” I think that sums it up well. Consider these ideas before saying things like “I don’t see color” or “black people kill more black people than cops do” or “I’m not privileged because I’ve worked hard in my life.” We need to deflect less and self-inspect more. We can ask ourselves what the real issues are and how we, personally, can promote peace and healing in society. That starts in our own hearts. It starts by listening to those who are speaking.

Jesus told his disciples in John 13, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” They will know we are Christians by our love—not by our deflecting arguments, not by our belittling words, not by our silence on racial prejudice, not by our refusal to introspect, and certainly not by our racism. By our love. Love is the hallmark of Christianity, because love is what motivated Jesus Christ to come to earth and die for all of humankind, every race, to forgive all their sins. He has forgiven our sins of racism. We thank him for his saving love by loving one another.

“I don’t want to get too political.”

But honestly, I don’t think this was political at all. Black lives matter. I’m not taking a political stance with that statement—I’m encouraging you to see Christ’s love for the marginalized, to speak up for what is right, to “love justice, do mercy, and walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8). Dear Christian: how can you be a light of Christ right now?

JWN

On Canceling Church

Cancel church? We could never cancel church. We’ll do whatever it takes, but we won’t cancel church.

That was my mindset going into Sunday Morning. By the time I left the building around 1 p.m., though, I was already feeling less sure of myself.

We had just gone over the Third Commandment with the confirmation students. Luther’s explanation ran in my head: “We should fear and love God that we do not despise preaching and his Word, but regard it as holy and gladly hear and learn it.” Worship is part of the fiber of a Christian’s being. Worship is our purpose. How could we cancel worship?

Firmly placed in my vault of memory treasures is Hebrews 10:25 – “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Cancel church? We could never.

But tonight, I’m entirely convinced: in light of the coronavirus pandemic, the correct move is, in fact, to cancel church.

Here are the reasons why.

We’re canceling church NOT because we despise preaching and his Word. (3rd Commandment)

I feel like this could use further clarification. The truths I stated above are all still true—we ought not give up meeting together; we regard God’s Word as holy and gladly hear and learn it; worship is part of the fiber of our being; worship is our purpose. None of that changes. Corporate worship is still a blessed opportunity that we don’t take for granted. That’s still the case.

While we are going to cancel a few weeks of regular weekly worship, our entire lives are offered to God as living sacrifices to God in a spiritual act of worship (Romans 12:1). Our local congregation offers us opportunities to gather with brothers and sisters to encourage each other in the Word. We thank God for those opportunities! But for now, other biblical principles are coming into play.

Any church in our fellowship that is canceling services is doing so reluctantly. That includes us.

So, in order to honor this principle, we will still be doing what we can to honor preaching and his Word. Join us at our Facebook page for “simulated” worship on Sunday morning at 11 a.m. I will go through an abbreviated worship service including the assigned readings, a devotion, and prayer. We’ll have time included for people to take advantage of online giving to continue supporting the work of Rock of Ages even in these uncertain times. And I will do my best to provide extra resources for the Family Altar, so we can use this time of social distancing as an opportunity to actually grow closer to the Word.

We’re canceling church out of respect for our government. (4th Commandment)

While we respect a separation of Church and State, we remain citizens of both of those kingdoms. We honor and respect the government as one of God’s representatives he has given to us for our good. And our government, specifically the United States’ Center for Disease Control, has (strongly) recommended that no social gathering exceed ten people.

But doesn’t the Bible say, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29)? Yes, it does—but keep in mind the context. When the apostles uttered those words, those in authority over them were trying to silence their proclamation of the gospel. That’s not what’s happening here. The CDC warning is not Christian persecution or a silencing of the church’s message. It’s a warning made in our best interest and physical well-being, a mandate made with the goal of “flattening the curve” of the virus.

I anticipate that the Tennessee government may strengthen their stance on social distancing before the week is through, but I think we already have enough guidance from our leaders to make this call.

We’re canceling church out of love for our neighbors. (5th Commandment)

The goal of “flattening the curve” is to keep each other safe.

This virus spreads fast, and it spreads undetected. People can carry the virus without experiencing any symptoms themselves. Additionally, those who contract it may not exhibit symptoms for days. Even if we’re not careful for ourselves, we owe it to each other to be careful—particularly for those who are most vulnerable to the virus’s effects.

For a novel virus like COVID-19, for which testing is limited and a vaccine is not yet developed or widely available, the best solution is to limit the spread. We can do our part at Rock of Ages to do just that. And thankfully, we live in an age where we can make use of technology to make that physical distancing a lot less emotionally or relationally—or spiritually!—distant. They say that necessity is the mother of invention. Let’s test that hypothesis and get creative!


Given the circumstances, I truly think this is the best decision for us. If our church is going to take these measures, I urge you to take such measures for yourselves. Stay in his Word, both with our alternative opportunities and in your personal devotions. Take some time to distance yourselves from others (text me if you would like to learn any good card games to play with your families!). And, of course, pray to the God who has this all under control!

I’ll keep working hard these next few weeks to prepare for Holy Week. I’ll be praying for you, our church, our country, our world. I’m looking forward to seeing what blessings God yields from this. How will God grow and shape us through this ordeal? That remains to be seen, but we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28). And yes, “All things” means all things.

God bless you all! See you soon.

Faith, Tornadoes, and Romans 4

This post contains Pastor Natsis’s sermon from Sunday, March 8, 2020; the Sunday after Nashville and surrounding areas were hit by a massive tornadic storm.

This past Tuesday I was standing in front of a house around 12:15 in the afternoon. Well, I suppose that’s an inaccurate statement. I was standing in front of something that was a house at one point. 12 hours earlier, in fact, it had been a house. But around 1 in the morning, a powerful force of nature arbitrarily passed through and wiped the house clean off its foundations. That tornado did similar damage to a 50-mile swath of land in our community, then, after taking a break, resumed its damage further east in Middle Tennessee.

This was an incredible sight. It provided me with a lot of perspective, as disastrous situations like the Nashville Tornado tend to do. As I drove around town that afternoon, I called some of my seminary classmates. Every Tuesday we have a video chat to discuss our sermons for the upcoming Sunday. I was a little too busy to video chat, so I called in while stuck in tornado-related traffic. In the verses we were looking at, Romans 4:1-5 and 13-17, Paul goes into a discourse about Abraham and righteousness. He contrasts two kinds of righteousness: righteousness that comes from works, and righteousness that comes by faith.

                We had a good, Lutheran discussion about salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, as found in Scripture alone. In Christ Alone, our hope is found. These are all good thoughts, and they’re thoughts that you and I are going to explore as this sermon goes on. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the tornado and the damage that I witnessed. Even as I was driving and talking (hands-free, of course) on the phone, I was passing by some devastating sights. I started thinking about the tornado’s effects and the essence of faith. Trust. And I asked the question, half in my head and half out loud to my classmates, “I wonder what these people with destroyed homes had their faith in in at 1 a.m. last night.”

And I wasn’t necessarily talking about faith in the religious sense here—as in “I wonder what god these people believe in” or “I wonder what their religious affiliation is.” But when people found themselves taking shelter, what did they have their faith in? Was their faith in chance, just banking on the fact that the tornado would not come near them, or maybe go back into the sky before arriving? Was their faith in the four walls around them, that their physical shelter would stand strong and protect them? If you were in that position, I’m not trying to grill you or accuse you of anything. I don’t think it would have been wrong to have either of those thoughts or feelings. But the fact remains…for the owners of that home and ones like it, those objects of faith would not have come through for them. The tornado didn’t divert its course. Those four walls came down. If that was the extent of their faith, they were let down. Putting faith in the wrong thing might work sometimes, but if your faith is in the wrong thing, faith can fail. And it’s not necessarily because your faith is weak or flawed—it’s because of the object of your faith being, in the end, unreliable.

Romans 4 is all about the contrast of two kinds of righteousness: the righteousness that comes from works and the righteousness that comes from faith. But we can view this contrast in a different way: in what do we place our faith in order to be righteous? Do we place our faith in works, or do we place our faith in God? Paul specifically uses Abraham as the object lesson, a man and a story that would have been familiar to Paul’s primarily Jewish audience. To the Jewish mind, Abraham was one of the greatest men—if not, the greatest man—to ever live. God chose Abraham to be the Father of the entire Israelite nation. He made amazing promises to Abraham: “I will make you into a great nation,    and I will bless you; I will make your name great,    and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you,    and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” So the mindset of the proud descendants of Abraham would be something like: “God wouldn’t make those promises to just anyone, would he?” Clearly, there was something special about Abraham. And if there’s something special and righteous about Abraham, then there’s something special and righteous about those who descended from Abraham.

Before we go on, I don’t want to accuse Paul’s Jewish audience unfairly or hypocritically. Clearly, this mindset is flawed. Placing your faith in your blood or in your heritage sounds problematic to our ears, and that’s because it is. But think for a moment—members of Rock of Ages, practically speaking, what do you think makes you righteous? You may never say this out loud, but look into your heart: do you think you have an extra measure of righteousness because you’re a Lutheran? Do you think you are more righteous on account of belonging to a church that preaches the Word of God in its truth and purity? Do you think there is at least some righteousness that comes from the fact that you know what it means that salvation is by grace alone? On what do you place your faith in order to be righteous?

Perhaps that example is too crass. Think of it this way. Do you ever get the feeling that God should reward you if you’ve done something good? Or that you can influence God’s favor toward you by having a good day of Christian living? Or that if things aren’t going your way, that you could bend God’s will by trying extra hard? On what do you place your faith in order to be righteous?

When God, through his inspired writer Paul, talks about righteousness that comes from works, he’s really talking about no righteousness at all—because it’s not possible. He’s talking about misplaced faith. Faith in works is not actually faith. Even someone who is devoutly righteous in many things fails if they place their faith in their works, or in their heritage, or in their church. It’s even wrong to place your faith in faith. It’s the same problem as placing your faith in the four walls of your home in the shadow of a tornado. The object of your faith is what matters. The object of your faith is what makes or breaks the value of faith. So what’s the answer? Let’s look to Paul’s example of Abraham. Abraham did not have faith in himself, or in his works, or in his faith.

                So what does Paul say Abraham’s faith was in?

Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.

                And what does John say about our Savior in his Gospel?

God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

There was nothing special or righteous in Abraham that caused God to choose him. God’s promises to Abraham were not a wage. God’s promises to Abraham were a gift. That is the difference between the two kinds of righteousness—the two objects of faith. Righteousness does not come from works. It comes from faith. But more than coming from faith, righteousness comes from faith in the true God—faith that rests upon the only object that can truly give righteousness: Jesus Christ, our Savior, who won righteousness and gives it as a gift to you and to me.

Art purchased from https://www.corissanelsonart.com/

Brothers and sisters, put your faith in Jesus. Put your faith in the God who calls into being things that were not. Put your faith in the God who brings life to the dead. I stand up here this morning confident in the fact that this is where your faith rests. Otherwise I wouldn’t call you brothers and sisters in Christ! Even knowing and being confident of that fact, though, my encouragement is exactly the same. Put your faith in God above all else. And the amazing thing about what I just said—“put your faith in God”—is that it doesn’t even come from you. Faith has always been, and will continue to be, a gift from God. In that encouragement, I am doing nothing more than praying that God would continue to be with you and strengthen your faith in him.

There will be days when it seems like believing in God is harder than normal. There will be times when trusting in ourselves and our own work will seem like the better option. There will be plenty of opportunities where we are tempted to put our faith in things that cannot save. When we fall into these traps that are laid for us by the devil, the world, and our sinful nature, know that our God, the truly saving object of faith, forgives us and lovingly calls us back to himself. But not only that—he gives us spiritual strength and renewal of faith in him.

Righteousness is not earned—it is a gift. It is a status that God gives us by faith in Christ alone. Our faith does not rest on the four walls around us, or on our church and its doctrine, or on our own work. Our faith does not even rest on faith. My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness—I dare to make no other claim but wholly lean on Jesus’ name. Faith looks to God.

A lesson from Romans chapter 4:

What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter?  If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

 Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.

 It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith.  For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, because the law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.

 Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all.  As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.

Memoirs of a Shepherd

This was Pastor Natsis’ message for church on Wednesday Evening, December 18, 2019. Follow along with an audio recording of the message if you are able:

I could hardly believe my eyes. At first I thought I was dreaming. I’d never seen anything like it before. I had spent so many nights in the fields, ever since I was a young boy. My family lived in Bethlehem, but when you’re a shepherd, your home is less a home and more a place you happen to sleep at occasionally. Most nights were out with the sheep. Most nights were dark. Most nights were cold. Most nights were boring.

The boring nights were the good nights, though, typically. Exciting nights were not a good thing, because for a shepherd excitement means fighting off predators or thieves. I don’t know if anyone’s told you this before, but sheep are not smart. They have almost no sense of self-preservation. When your source of income, your entire livelihood, is wrapped up in the well-being of a group of creatures that will occasionally jump off of cliffs, things can be a little tricky. We always tried to be thankful for the boring nights.

And this was a boring night. For a while. I can’t remember if it was my turn to be on watch or my turn to sleep, but all I know is that when that light flashed in the sky, my only choice was to be at full attention. I got my staff ready to fight, but I’m not even sure what it was I thought I was fighting.  What predator could make the sky light up? What thief looked like it had the glory of God surrounding him? This night went from very boring to very interesting—and very terrifying—very quickly.

Have you ever seen an angel before? I have now, ever since that night in the fields near Bethlehem, but I can hardly describe it. All I can tell you is what he said: “Do not be afraid.” Are you kidding me? A messenger from God himself bursts into my life, ripping the night sky with a light I can barely explain, and his first words are “Do not be afraid?” But as crazy as it sounds, that greeting…put my mind at ease. It was calming, even though I wasn’t even sure if I was dreaming or not.

The angel kept talking: “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: you will find the baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” So many thoughts and emotions began to race through my mind. This is clearly a message from God. This is clearly amazing. And the content of that message is almost unbelievable—the Messiah is here? The one who was prophesied has arrived? Is this real? Is this true?

I doubted it. Shame on me, in the middle of all this amazingness, I doubted it. The thing that kept me from really believing it was…well, myself. Why in all the world would an angel be announcing this to us? To me? Shepherds aren’t important. We’re nobodies. People hardly give us the time of day. We’re out in our fields doing our thing, and society doesn’t much care for our way of life. And even more than that, why this group of shepherds? I know these guys. They’re rough. They’re hardened. I’m one of them, and I know the things I’ve said and done in my life. Coming face-to-face with the glory of God really makes you do a gut-check. My heart wasn’t ready for this. I was not prepared. The coming of the Messiah? I think you’ve got the wrong audience, Mr. Angel. I can’t do anything with this message. That Savior has to be for someone else. I’m not ready.

Suddenly, a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

My thoughts were cut off. My doubts were silenced. My fears were replaced with wonder and amazement. I thought the one angel was glorious…and boy, did I not understand what I was in for. And all of a sudden, it made sense. This message isn’t about me. This message isn’t about how ready I am or how prepared I am. This message is about this Messiah. It’s about God’s glory. It’s about the entirety of my religion reaching its apex as the Promised One to Come actually came. A Savior—to save. A message of good news of great joy that will be for…all the people. Us included. Me included. I’m not prepared—I’ll never fully be prepared—but God sent these messengers to prepare us.

Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about. Let’s greet the Savior. Let’s worship the newborn king. Glory to God in the highest!

JWN

On Changing the World

This past weekend, for the first time in my life, my attention was drawn to a football game between Harvard and Yale. Though, I suppose, that’s not entirely accurate, because I didn’t watch a minute of the game itself. What I saw was the story that the game was delayed by a student protest of the two universities’ being “complicit in climate injustice.” I know very little about Harvard or Yale’s climate change policies, or lack thereof, but I admire the students standing up (or, I suppose, sitting down) for the cause.

An endless amount has been written on generational differences, but something that I notice across multiple studies is that younger generations strongly believe they can change the world. That core belief then goes on to affect their day-to-day lives and decisions. How can I make an impact? How can I play my part? You may have rolled your eyes at people declining to use plastic straws or opting for tofurkeys this Thanksgiving, but individuals’ decisions to do these things, like lower their use of plastics or cut meat from their diet, are decisions often borne out of a spirit of activism, a desire to change the world.

This change-the-world desire is so deeply embedded in people that it practically creates a total impasse between those “in” and those “out” of the mindset. World-changers will wonder, “Why aren’t people more conscious of their personal impact on the world?” The less concerned will wonder, “Why are people so conscious of their personal impact on the world?” It’s an idea so fundamental that it becomes hard to explain.

It’s not just young people that want to change the world, though, and it’s not just activists and protesters. Think of your Facebook feed and the political posts and statuses you see shared and written (unless you’ve hid all of them, like I’ve tried to). There are tons of people trying to change the world, thousands of people that think their opinion or political platform will change things. Liberals, conservatives, Christians, atheists–everyone would like to elect their favorite candidate so they can change the world, and they’re all attempting to do so at the same time, and loudly.

Personally speaking, I’ve got a bit of the “change the world” fire lit under me. Some of that may have to do with my youth, or maybe my youth combined with my new position as pastor of a church. I’m a greenhorn pastor fresh out of seminary who would really love to get out into greater Nashville and change the world. What’s more, I have something in my arsenal that truly can change the world–my primary tool, the Word of God, is the very power of the Almighty Lord to effect change in people’s hearts and lives. I sit here wondering, “Why wouldn’t I want to change the world?”

But the world is a big place. And I’m just one person. Even with the power of God and his Word on my side, I’m a human being limited to one place and one space in time. I can maximize my influence or expand my sphere of influence, but none of that will necessarily change the world. I don’t know if I can speak for everyone who wants to change the world, but I believe the daunting nature of the task can cause a certain amount of stress and anxiety. I want to change the world, but how is that even possible? I want to change the world, but what can someone as small as I am possibly do? I want to change the world. I want to go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. But the world is really, really, really big.

To my fellow Christian world-changers out there, to people who want to share Jesus and in doing so change the world, I have this piece of advice:

Narrow the scope.

If you want to change the world, support your friends with the love of Christ.

If you want to change the world, raise your family on a strong Christian foundation.

If you want to change the world, reflect God’s love to strangers online and on the street.

If you want to change the world, volunteer in your church.

If you want to change the world, preach the powerful Gospel to the people in your life.

It’s a difficult task to change the world outside of your own sphere of influence. Not everyone is up to it. And you know what? That’s totally fine. Instead, identify your own sphere of influence…and influence it. Perhaps focus less on changing the world and more on how you can changing your world.

I might not be able to take greater Nashville by storm, but I can continue to preach God’s powerful Word to the people in my pews on Sunday. I might not preach to thousands of people a month, but I can focus on making my sermons the best they can be for the 100-or-so that will hear me. I might not get the entire North Side to join my membership registry, but I can take extra effort to follow up with individual visitors and friends and family members with connections to my people. The gospel will change my world; God’s Word does not return to him empty. And I pray that he uses me effectively to accomplish what he desires and achieve the purpose for which he sends it.

God has changed you, and he gives you his Spirit and a mission to go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. You might not be able to get to all creation by yourself, but you can get to the creation around you. Pray for the strength to do what you can. Be confident that God is working through you and many others. Change the world!

JWN

We Don’t Say “I Forgive You” Enough

“It’s OK” just doesn’t quite cut it

When is the last time you heard someone in your life say the words, “I forgive you?” My guess is that it has been a while. You may have heard plenty of people respond to an apology with “It’s OK,” or “You’re fine,” but to actually string together the phrase “I forgive you” has become so unused that it almost sounds awkward to say. It almost sounds too formal, too stilted. Maybe it even sounds plain weird to hear, or it feels weird to say.

I encourage you to push past the awkwardness and re-introduce the phrase into your vocabulary.

I usually don’t like to argue over idioms in everyday conversation. I once saw an article that claimed that younger people are entitled because their response to “Thank you” is “no problem” instead of “you’re welcome.” The article claimed that saying “No problem” indicates that person is burdened by the thank-er and is choosing not to acknowledge it, whereas the expression “You’re welcome” indicates that the speaker owes the thank-er whatever favor was asked. In other words, saying “no problem” implies that helping others should normally be a problem, while “you’re welcome” implies that by helping you just did what was expected of you.

The only problem with this entire thing is that saying “no problem” or “you’re welcome” doesn’t make even the slightest difference in what is being conveyed pragmatically. Both phrases are simply a response to thanks, and nothing more. Both phrases are meant to satisfy a gap in the conversation and bring the thank-er/thank-ee relationship to a close. This gap can also be closed with “No worries,” or “Forget it,” or “My pleasure” for the Chick-Fil-A fans. (Besides, “young people” are not the only ones who say “No problem”–in Spanish, the default way of responding to thanks regardless of age is “de nada,” which word-for-word means “it’s nothing.” Many Spanish textbooks, however, will list “de nada” as meaning…you guessed it…”you’re welcome.”)

For as much as that article bugged me, you’d think I wouldn’t care if someone says “I forgive you” vs. “It’s OK.” Isn’t the same thing being conveyed pragmatically? Aren’t both of those phrases just a way for the offended party to satisfy an apology? Isn’t there forgiveness in both cases? I think the answer is yes, on its surface. “It’s OK” has become the default way of forgiving someone. When someone says “It’s OK,” they truly do mean to forgive. But I have an issue with the phrase we’ve come to make the default, and here it is:

Whether or not something is OK isn’t the deciding factor in forgiveness.

In fact, the most impactful instances of forgiveness are those times when it’s decidedly not OK.

If I punch you in the face as hard as I can and do it on purpose, that is absolutely not an OK thing to do. And even if I sincerely apologize, you telling me “It’s OK” will not actually make punching you in the face an OK thing to have done. You’re intending to forgive me by saying “It’s OK,” but in a sense, what you just did was validate my action of punching you in the face. That’s not an OK thing to do. So why tell me that it is?

Now imagine the same scenario, but with “I forgive you” instead. You can still be upset and in physical pain in that moment, in the aftermath of that absolutely-not-OK thing, and have the courage and strength to actually give forgiveness to the person who punched you. That’s different. That means more. You’re not erasing what that person did; you’re willingly choosing to look past it.

Another reason to re-introduce “I forgive you” into parlance is because it’s a whole lot harder to be sarcastic with it. I have to fight my sarcastic tendencies often (and I unfortunately lose that battle with frequency), and I know that sometimes the words “It’s OK” or “It’s fine” can be said or typed with absolute insincerity. You know the tone: “It’s fiiiiine.” Maybe accompanied by an “ugh” or a sigh. But try saying “I forgive you” with a sarcastic tone. It’s…a lot harder. You have to deliberately spit each of those words out, and it’s all meaningful.

I–the one whom you hurt, the one who received an apology, the one who doesn’t owe my offender anything, the one who was affected by my offender’s words or actions…

Forgive–absolve, excuse, acquit, overlook, remit, grant pardon of an offense…

You–the one who hurt me, the one who offended me, the one who insulted me, the one who damaged me and my reputation, the one who doesn’t deserve forgiveness.

I forgive you.

This isn’t intended to make you feel bad for saying “It’s OK,” by the way. I do it all the time. But I’ve made a deliberate effort to bring back “I forgive you” lately, and I think there’s merit to it.

Because we don’t only forgive when something is OK. In Ephesians 4:32, Paul says. “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Think about what that means. Think about what God’s forgiveness entails. In fact, why don’t we let Paul tell us with the words of Romans 5: You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Jesus didn’t forgive us because it was OK. Jesus didn’t forgive us because he owed us anything. Jesus didn’t forgive us because we earned it. Jesus came to earth, lived perfectly, and died innocently precisely because things were not OK. And he came to make things OK. Better than OK, in fact–he came to re-establish true peace between the eternal, holy God, and all of humanity of all time. God died for the ungodly, and that’s what it took to forgive us. Jesus is the only one who truly has the power to make our offenses OK. But he said more than “It’s OK.” He said “It is finished.”

Next time someone hurts you, harms you, or damages your reputation, keep this in mind. Next time someone apologizes and makes themselves vulnerable to you, putting their pride and past decisions on the line for you to absolve or condemn, remember the state you were in when Jesus laid his life on the line for you. Things weren’t OK, but Jesus forgave you. Is what your offender did OK? Probably not. But it doesn’t have to be for you to forgive.

I forgive you.

It’s hard to say.

That’s why we need to start saying it more.

JWN