In the month of May the Church experiences another transition according to the Church year calendar. We celebrate Jesus’ Ascension on May 9th and the Day of Pentecost on May 19th. Throughout the season of Pentecost the Church remembers that she and her members live a new life in God’s Son through the gift of the Holy Spirit.
A new Church year is upon us. That means the season of Advent has arrived. During the season of Advent we wait for our Lord’s coming even as we live now in his forgiveness. We live and wait in hope as we remember the ways in which our God in Christ has come and promises to come again for us. He has come for us in the incarnate Jesus Christ. He continues to come for us even now through the person of Jesus Christ as he is present in the hearing of the Word, and in the Holy Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. He promises to return to us in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ to bring to completion the entire work of salvation that he began through Christ’s incarnation. During Advent, we consider all of these ways in which God is present for us in Christ and at the same time we move closer and closer to the day in which we celebrate this God who comes near to us by celebrating his birth.
Throughout the history of the Church, households have celebrated Advent and prepared for Christmas morning in many ways. Perhaps your household has a few cherished traditions. In any case, below are a few ideas:
This month I would like to reflect on a question that Atonement has been considering for some time, “How do we grow as a congregation?” This is an important question.
When considering this question, it is also important to work with a clear definition of “the church.” As our Lutheran Confessions remind us, the church on earth is “the people of God gathered around his Word and Sacraments.” Atonement Lutheran Church is then one flock of God’s fold. We are “members of the body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:12-13) who gather together corporately, as one body of believers, on Sunday morning to hear God’s Word and receive his Sacraments.
If a Christian congregation is defined as a group of believers in Christ gathered around the Word of God and the Sacraments, then a congregation is growing when people are being connected to Christ and the universal church through the Word of God and the Sacraments. A Christian congregation is growing when the members of the congregation are continuing to grow in Christ through the presence of God’s Spirit active through his Word and Sacraments.
That is to say that “church growth” is not just numerical growth. Church growth is also members of the church growing in their Christian faith. In recent years, particularly among Christian denominations in the United States, there has been a great amount of emphasis put on the numerical growth of congregations. This type of approach is undoubtedly influenced by the business world which defines success and growth in terms of numerical, measurable goals—“How much and how many?”
The Fight Between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Brugel (1559)
In the church we mark time according to the calendar of the church year which centers on the events of the incarnation, life and ministry, suffering and death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. The church moves in and out of the seasons of the church year as she continues her life and witness here on earth. At this time of the year, the church and her members, you and I, are in the midst of a somber, penitential season of Lent.
At Atonement we have been observing the season of Lent with our midweek Lenten sermon series entitled, Words of Life from the Cross. To aid our pious reflection on the words of life that Jesus spoke during his final hours on the cross, we have been looking at various pieces of artwork that correspond to each word. It is fitting, then, that we consider a detailed image from a famous piece of artwork for the newsletter article this month. The painting is, The Fight Between Carnival and Lent by the Flemish Renaissance painter, Pieter Brugel (1559). The painting illustrates a common festival of the time that was celebrated in Southern Netherlands. The festival and the painting depict two sides of contemporary life.
The first way of life depicted in the painting is that of “pure enjoyment” (carnival) with little regard for the church and the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The second way of life depicted is that of “pure religion” (lent) with little emphasis on the truth that trust in the Gospel of Jesus Christ sets believers free.
The actual painting shows more than just the scene above. On the left side of the full painting is an inn and a crowd of merrymakers while on the right side is a church and a crowd of devout religious types. There is a beer drinking scene near the inn and well-behaved children gathering near the church. At the foreground of the painting a battle is about to commence between Prince Carnival and Lady Lent. It was a common event in community life throughout early modern Europe to enact a battle such as this in order to highlight the transition between the lavishness of carnival life and the fasting rituals of the church during Lent.
Sometimes Christianity gets associated with rules: “Fast during Lent! Worship the way we tell you! Do this! Do that! Others respond with the opposite extreme: “Party! Worship how you please! Still others reject worship entirely, saying, “I don’t need to go to church to be a Christian”  The painting criticizes this struggle over worship and the Christian life by turning it into a jousting match. On the one hand, some can go too far by requiring man-made worship laws. On the other hand, some can go too far by using their Christian freedom in the gospel as a license to live and worship however they want. Both of these groups fail to simply remember the Lord and gladly hear his Word.
The season of Lent begins with Ash Wednesday which immediately follows the Sunday of the Transfiguration of our Lord. On the Mount of Transfiguration, the voice of the Heavenly Father spoke to Jesus’ disciples saying, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him” (Mk 9:7). Above all else, in the season of Lent, we are drawn to listen to the Word of God that proclaims Jesus Christ as our Lord. This leads us to hear of and worship anew our God who loves the world through the death of his beloved Son, our suffering servant.
In our Sunday worship and during our midweek Lenten services, we receive God’s gifts for us. We receive his promise of eternal life. Therefore, we ought to gladly hear and learn the Word of God that deposits these gifts of salvation for us. We do not need to mourn with Lady Lent or party with Prince Carnival.
 To All Eternity: The Essential Teachings of Christianity, written by Edward Engelbrecht, Edward Grube, Raymond AHartwig, Jeffrey Kunze, Erik Rottmann, Rodney Rathmann, and Harold Senkbeil. (St. Louis: CPH, 2002), 21.
 Engelbrecht, To All Eternity, 21.
Dear Members and Friends of Atonement,
This month we continue our reflection on the various seasons and important festival days of the liturgical church year by considering Ash Wednesday (February 22) and the season of Lent. Although the middle of February is typically reserved for feelings of love and romance, around that time this year the church is prepared to consider her unfaithfulness. Her members contemplate how they have not loved God and obeyed his will as they ought. We reflect on our mortality—“from dust you came to dust you shall return.” We reflect on the holy sufferings and death of our Lord Jesus Christ on our behalf. Bring on the ashes!
We are not morbid people. We are not overly obsessed with chilling, ghastly thoughts of our transience. No, we spend necessary, beneficial time reflecting on the reality of our mortality. We do this so that we are prepared to receive the life that God has for us in Christ, and to receive it to its full meaning. And so during the time in between the day that the church remembers Jesus’ transfiguration and the joyful festival day of Easter, we embark upon our forty day pilgrimage of Lent. This year it just so happens that our observance of Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent is sprinkled with a dose of irony. Our solemn journey of reflection on unfaithfulness, lack of love for God, and mortality begins a week after Valentine’s Day.
The word Lent comes from the old English word for “spring.” As I once heard it put, Lent is “spring training” for the Christian as we are tutored in repentance, faith, and holy living. The season has been kept as a time for devotion and self-denial that comes forth from a faithful heart that dwells on God’s Word and draws life and hope from it. Beginning in the 4th century the observance of Lent originally became connected with a forty day fast prior to Easter. This tradition continues today as some Christians give up meat during Lent or surrender a vice like chocolate, coffee, or television. Still others, like Atonement, eat a meager meal of soup and salad while gathering together every Wednesday during the season for worship. While a fast of any kind is not necessary, it is certainly a helpful way to discipline the body and the mind upon the things of God and the sacrifice of Christ on our behalf. Should you decide to fast in some way, it may be helpful to consider Jesus’ words about fasting in his Sermon on the Mount, “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward” (Mt 6:16).
The Lenten season begins with Ash Wednesday and the imposition of ashes. In the Lutheran church the purpose of the imposition of the ashes is to call to mind the curse given to Adam by God after the Fall in Gen 3:19, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
The Sundays in Lent focus on the themes of temptation, God’s mercy, the life of a disciple, the refreshment that God gives to his disciples, and the lordship of Jesus. In the middle of each Sunday in the season of Lent, it has become a common part of Lutheran piety to provide an opportunity for reflective worship during the middle of the week which is centered in the suffering and death of Jesus. This year our midweek Lenten sermon theme will be, “Words of Life from the Cross.” The series will incorporate different images and paintings that illustrate the words of life taken from various Gospel readings. Furthermore, to enhance our devotional reflection on this theme, a Lenten devotional booklet entitled, Words of Life from the Cross, will be made available to take for all who are interested on the table in the narthex.
May our Lord richly bless your contemplation on the penitential and contrite character of the Lenten season even while you reflect on God’s great love for you through the suffering, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me—Epiphany! We all know and adore the “Twelve Days of Christmas” song. We enjoy the challenge of trying to remember every part. Children especially enjoy singing it. This beloved song brings to mind the tradition throughout the history of the church to celebrate twelve days of Christmas, beginning with Christmas Day on December 25 and ending on the day of Epiphany, traditionally celebrated on January 6. On that day the Christmas tide flows into the season of Epiphany.
Epiphany comes from two Greek words epi and phaino. Together the two words mean “to show forth” or “appear.” In the Epiphany season the church focuses on showing forth or making known to the whole world the newborn Christ as “God in the flesh.” (Charles A. Gieschen, “Preaching Through the Seasons of the Church Year” in Liturgical Preaching, 94). Epiphany uncovers who Jesus is and so forms the foundation for understanding what he has done for us, the focus of the Lent and Easter seasons.
Four events from Jesus’ life are highlighted through the readings during Epiphany: the visit of the Magi to Jesus sometime after his birth (Mt 2:1-12), the baptism of Jesus (Mt 3:13-17; Mk 1:4-11; Lk 3:15-17, 21-22), the miracle of changing water into wine at the wedding of Cana (Jn 2:1-11), and the transfiguration of our Lord (Mt 17:1-9; Mk 9:2-9; Lk 9:28-36). The theme of “making Christ known to all nations” is found in the account of the Magi and continues to show itself in the other readings during the Epiphany season (Charles A. Gieschen, “Preaching Through the Seasons of the Church Year” in Liturgical Preaching, 95).
The theme of “making Christ known to all nations” comes to our doorstep as members of the church. We are invited not only to recall the truth that Jesus died and rose for the whole world but to act on it by witnessing to all people, including those across the street, in our family, in the same aisle of the grocery store, and in the cubicle next to us. We can take seriously this Epiphany theme of “making Christ known” by focusing on Jesus’ way of witnessing. In his book, Speaking of Jesus: Finding the Words for Witness (Fortress Press, 1982), Richard Lischer highlights five ways that Jesus himself spoke the gospel to others. We can use these five ways as an example when applying the theme of Epiphany to our lives. We can also use these five ways as a mirror in which we see how we have often failed to “give a reason for the hope we have in Christ” (1 Pet 3:15). In this way we can be positioned to turn to the foot of the cross and receive God’s forgiveness in Christ. Jesus’ five modes of communicating the gospel, according to Lischer, are paraphrased as follows:
He was an active listener and used the questions of the other person as a way to understand that person and probe that person’s heart (cf. Mk 10:17-18).
Jesus was concerned for the whole person—body and soul. He forgave the sick and healed the sinners. And so we are called to forgive others (Mt 18), continuing the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:10-19).
Jesus was “on location.” He went to where the people were—the bank, the city park, the local store, the neighborhood—and reached out to them in their life situations (Mt 4:18-25; Lk 19:1-10). He didn’t wait for them to come to church. And so we can bring the gospel of all healing, peace, and comfort to people.
Jesus communicated in simple language and often spoke in parables employing common, everyday objects from the life and work of the people to make his points (Mt 13; Jn 7:37-39).
Jesus moved people to repentance (Mk 1:15). We often hear the saying, “Jesus loves you just the way you are.” This is true. However, he also has no plans of leaving us “the way we are.” This is how much he loves us.
I pray that all of you have a blessed Epiphany season. Celebrate it with “Epiphany parties” or other traditional celebrations like “the King’s cake,” “the Magi-chalk blessing,” or the “Epiphany candlelight” (you can do an internet search to learn more about these traditions). Though, in the middle of all of these celebrations I pray that we also “become all things to all men” (1 Cor 9:22) as we make Jesus known to our family members, our friends, neighbors, and our coworkers. May we join the shepherds on that first Christmas to glorify and praise God for all the things we have heard and seen (Lk 2:20).
_ The season of Advent marks the beginning of a new church year in which we reflect anew on the meaning of the incarnation, ministry, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus for us. In the season of Advent we focus on the threefold coming of Jesus Christ to the world in the flesh, in the Word and the Sacraments, and in glory. At this time each year we in the church should ask ourselves the same question that Martin Luther asked as he pondered the rich meaning of the Christmas story, “Why would the Lord of all the universe care enough about us mortals to take our flesh and share our woes” (Roland Bainton (ed.), Martin Luther’s Christmas Book (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1948), 5)?
We learned from our teachers in grade school that there is no such thing as a bad question. While this may be true, it is also true that some questions serve a greater purpose than others. By asking ourselves, during the season of Advent, why God would care enough about us mortals to take our flesh and share our woes, two important purposes are being served.
First, the connection between the manger and cross are brought into closer companionship. Luther would often say that the manger and the cross are made of the same wood. That is to say that they are both made by wood stained with the blood of the sin and disobedience of God’s creatures. They are also stained with the sweat and tears of our personal God who cares about his entire creation. His care is shown in his action to send his Son, Jesus and close the gap of distance and separation between him and creatures that have forgotten to hear, listen, and obey the good and holy Word of their heavenly Father.
The second purpose that is served by asking the question, “Why would the Lord of all the universe care enough about us mortals to take our flesh and share our woes?” is that it leads us to consider all the ways in which our God comes to us. Since the season of Advent occurs during the four weeks prior to Christmas Day, it can be easy for us to focus our eyes only on the baby Jesus cradled in the manger. But if we pull back the curtains a little farther we can bring into view all the ways that God comes to us.
Our God splits the heavens and comes down not just during the event that we celebrate one month from now on Christmas morning. The purpose of the season of Advent is not so that the church can transport itself back two thousand years ago and pretend to be first century Jews who are waiting for their Messiah to be born. We live in the twenty-first century. So let us believe more firmly the truth that God has already come to us, is continuing to come to us, and will come back to us.
We certainly take time within our congregation and within our families to celebrate God’s coming to us on Christmas morning. However, at the same time we embrace the fact that our God who is beyond time and space comes down to us in time and space every Sunday morning to deliver the fruit of his Son’s crucifixion and resurrection over two thousand years ago through his Word and Sacraments. He comes to us through his instruments: the water and the Word of God, the bread and the wine, the mouth of the pastor who forgives our sins, and the Bible which contains all of God’s promises in Christ. In these ways we receive, Immanuel, “God with us,” now! As we live in a world where the evidence of the sin, suffering, and brokenness of creation is all too evident, we receive God’s peace on earth as he comes to us “hidden” in the Word and Sacraments. We also embrace his promise of Christ to restore his broken creation and to completely “reveal” his victory over suffering and death in his coming again to us in glory, just as he said.
The truth that God cares enough for us mortals to take on our flesh and share our woes is shown to us in the wonderful Christmas story which we eagerly wait to celebrate. But take comfort now in this truth as it is made known to you now through God’s Word and his Sacraments. As members of his church we should equip ourselves to share this good news with others who live among us and are confused in their questioning, suffering, and despair. And as you equip yourselves this Advent season and share the reason for the hope that you have in Christ, rest assured that he is coming again soon.
_On the evening of Saturday, October 15th I was reminded that we as God’s creatures cannot help but live all our days in seasons. October 15th marked the end of a great season of baseball for the Detroit Tigers and for me and Talitha personally, as former residents of Michigan and big fans of the “Mo-Town” boys of summer (although the score of the game was very disappointing—a 15-5 loss to the Texas Rangers). This is just one example of the tendency that of us have to live by seasons.
The author of the article entitled “Marking Time is Making Time” in the September 2011 issue of the Lutheran Witness reminds his readers that “we live by the seasons of nature. We live by the seasons of our favorite sports teams and whether or not they get to celebrate festival days like the World Series or the Super Bowl. We live by the seasons of our favorite TV shows or the next must-see summer movie. We even live by the ever-changing Google logo marking the virtual days of the internet” (pg. 6). The truth that we intertwine our lives in the rhythm of seasons is probably more relatable for our grandparents and great grandparents of a more agrarian culture who worked closely with the land and depended deeply upon the changing seasons. Nonetheless, it is evident that there is a rhythm to the day—sunrise and sunset, work and rest. There is a rhythm to the year—springtime and harvest. There is a rhythm to our lives—birth and death. In the church, this rhythm is interwoven in God’s time.
The church keeps time differently than our culture. For the church, the last Sunday of the year is the fifth Sunday before Christmas (November 20th this year) and the first Sunday of the year is the fourth Sunday before Christmas (November 27th this year). Like in many parts of the world the changing of colors and the falling of leaves on a tree gives way to Winter and the first snowfall, so also the Last Sunday of the church year gives way to the first Sunday of Advent and the church begins a new year of keeping time.
As we roll into a new church year and shift from the parament and vestment colors of green to blue, from the season of Pentecost to the season of Advent, let us remember that the purpose of doing so is to tell the most important story of our lives. The purpose for keeping time according to a church year is to “tell the story of how a God beyond time acts within time to save and restore life” (“Marking Time is Making Time,” Lutheran Witness, pg. 5). The church year is interwoven in the midst of your busy life and mine to tell the story of how God acts today in the person of Jesus Christ to save and restore your broken, sinful life and mine. Indeed, God acts in history to save and restore a broken creation in its entirety. For, “The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to sin and decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom 8:19-21). The church waits with patience and in hope (Rom 8:25) while she “fixes her eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of the faith” (Heb 12:2) of all her members.
The church waits with patience and hope in the season of Advent for the birth of Jesus Christ on Christmas morning. The church celebrates the birth of Christ and looks forward to the ministry of Christ for the world, inaugurated in the baptism of Jesus and the season of Epiphany. The church looks in faith to the one who was transfigured before men and was revealed in glory to be the beloved Son of God in whom the Heavenly Father is well pleased. The church travels together through a somber Lenten season in its pilgrimage to the cross of Calvary. The church praises the God who brings life from death on Easter morning and lives in Easter joy for the weeks to follow as she proclaims triumphantly, “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” The church adorns itself in red on Pentecost Sunday, fifty days after Easter Sunday, to remember that even though Jesus has ascended to be with the Heavenly Father, God has not left his church without his presence—the gift of the Holy Spirit, the comforter and helper for all Christians. And for the long weeks of the summer, while plants and flowers grow and flourish and many people prepare for the Fall harvest, the church and her members continue to live by God’s grace, through faith alone in the Spirit of God until the Last Sunday of the church year—and to be sure—until the very end of time. We revolve through the seasons of the church year and remember that all time revolves around the good news of God acting in history through Jesus Christ to save and restore all things.
As God’s creatures we live in time and we cannot help but keep time. As a baseball season ends, another football season approaches its conclusion, our favorite TV show airs the final episode of its season or series, or even as certain events remind us that we are in a different season of our lives, let us continue to fix our eyes on Jesus who envelops all time in the seasons and events of his life, death, and resurrection.
Atonement is ...
Atonement Lutheran Church is a Christ centered congregation that cares for the whole person with the Good News of Jesus Christ.