Thursday, January 28, 2010

Life Overflowing: Visible Words

Life Overflowing: Visible Words

In Baptism every Christian has enough to study and to practice all his life.
Dr. Martin Luther, Large Catechism (1529)

For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
I Corinthians 11:26

Walking to the Font

Recently I witnessed a baptism of two little boys. Though both were old enough to walk to the font, their parents still carried them. Have you noticed how we’re seeing more and more baptisms of children, youth and adults—not just babes-in-arms? In a missionary time, in a missionary church, smack dab in a mission field like North America, we can expect to see that sort of thing with greater frequency.

Later in the worship service, the two new “baptizees” got a little wild. Refusing to stay put in the pews, they kept “escaping” into the aisle of the church, making a small scene.

“Oh boy,” I thought to myself. “Those little guys and their parents have some learning to do, about how we ‘do church’ around here.” And almost immediately my own self-righteous words convicted me, making me realize that…. I was 100% correct.

Everyone, mark me, everyone who comes through the waters of Baptism has a whole lifetime to grow into the saving act and the enlivening identity God graciously bestows in the water-wed-to-the-Word. This washing is neither cheap fire insurance nor a precaution to be taken “just in case.” It is for life—full, free and eternal. Baptism and the Supper that nourishes the baptized is for life overflowing.

God’s Kiss

One of my favorite terms for the sacraments comes from the great church father, St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.) whose long-suffering mother Monica prayed fervently for his conversion from a sin-drenched existence into the fullness of the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. When he was finally baptized, ordained and chosen to be a bishop in the church of northern Africa, Augustine distinguished himself as one of the greatest theological thinkers of his age.

In describing the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, St. Augustine said that they were “visible words.” That is, the sacraments function in the same way that the bare Word works. The promise embodied in our Lord Jesus—the Word made flesh; the promise that grabs us by the ears in preaching; the promise that overflows from the printed Word—this same promise splashes in the water of Baptism and nourishes in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. God’s claiming, naming promise scrubs our skin, fills our mouths, gets deep down inside of us.

But if Baptism and the Supper convey the same Lord, utter the same promise we receive in the bare Word itself—why bother? Isn’t the spoken Word enough? God seems to think we need more--just as a married couple needs to do more than say they love each other. The sacraments are like the hugs, kisses and other wondrous acts that “seal the deal” in marriage. God wants to make sure that we don’t miss his promise, so God wraps the promise in syllables (for our ears) and signs or elements (for our other senses).

Elizabeth Ahola, baptized at Faaberg Lutheran Church, Rindal, on Mother’s Day, 2009.

A Fuller, Richer Sacramental Life

If the sacraments impart the overflowing life of God in Jesus Christ, why don’t we Lutherans always celebrate them with commensurate gusto? For a host of historical reasons, we Lutherans allowed ourselves to descend into a sparse, Spartan sacramental practice. Baptisms were all too often enacted away from the worshipping community, and the Supper was celebrated as infrequently as possible—sometimes only quarterly in the churches of our ancestors. I still remember the wry comment of one of my seminary teachers, when asked how he’d respond to a Lutheran who was concerned about Holy Communion losing its “specialness” if it was offered too frequently: “What’s the matter? Don’t you like to be forgiven?”

Thankfully, over the last few decades, we have welcomed a renewal in our church’s sacramental life. Baptism is not just celebrated “out in the open,” but baptismal theology permeates our faith, worship and witness. The Supper is available to more of the baptized, and on a more regular basis—in some of our congregations, every Sunday, if not every worship service.

Hunger for the Word

Although scholars and other proponents of liturgical renewal have played a part in this resurgence of God’s visible words in our churches, I believe that pure, simple hunger has also played a role. We hunger for the richness of the baptismal act—with colorful banners, blessed oil, and a blazing candle all complementing the confession of the Word and the splashing of the water. We hunger for the life, freedom and forgiveness that reaches down deep inside us every time we “taste and see that the Lord is God” (Psalm 34).

Parish pastors are most often the ones privileged to preside at the sacraments. And yet, over the past year I too have been delighted to exercise this aspect of my calling as regional pastor (bishop):

• In the baptism of little Elizabeth Ahola last May, at Faaberg Lutheran Church of Rindal, with Pastors John and Kelly, able to bring her to the font, living out their vocation as mother and father;

• In the scores of hungry young adults and others who stepped forward to partake of the Lord’s Supper during the August 8th wedding service for our daughter and her new husband, Kristen and Aaron Haddorff, in Sioux Falls;

• In the eager, open hands of Telegu-speaking communicants half a world away, at Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Vishakapatnam, India, during the Pastors Day Celebration of our companion synod, the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church last November.

Aaron and Kristen (Wohlrabe) Haddorff, married August 8 in Sioux Falls. Their first meal together as husband and wife was the Lord’s Supper, during their wedding service.

Under the Gun

But sometimes we share the sacraments under less exuberant circumstances. Pastors are called to NICUs (neo-natal intensive care units) to don gloves and gowns, using eyedroppers to administer Baptism to tiny ones struggling to survive the perils of premature birth. The Supper is occasionally celebrated around a hospice bed, the elements hard to swallow for tearful family members with lumps in their throats.

In seminary I remember a classmate asking one of our teachers about so-called “emergency” baptisms. Stroking his beard, the wise professor reflected, “Well, in a way, every baptism is an emergency, wouldn’t you agree?” I’ve never forgotten that. We all live, every day, “under the gun” and therefore in need of the constant comfort of God’s promises in baptism. That’s why every prayer or act of repentance entails a return to our Baptism. It’s why we never outgrow our need for the assurance of Christ’s Real Presence in the bread and wine of Holy Communion.

Counting the Cost

When Joy and I visited India last autumn we were told that some persons, transitioning from Hinduism to Christianity, put off receiving baptism as long as possible because of the high cost they will pay. Going under the splashing promise of God signals a break with their past, often rupturing relationships with family and friends. Indian believers—like many across the world— “count the cost” before they hand themselves over to God at the font.

Disciples in the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church receiving the Body and Blood of Christ during Pastors Day Celebration in Vishakapatnam, India, November 2009.

We may not experience such pressures in North America, but I am grateful for the recovery of missional language in the baptismal service—especially at its conclusion. In Evangelical Lutheran Worship, we now make explicit what has always been implicit in the rite for Baptism, that God saves us in order to send us. “We welcome you into the body of Christ and into the mission we share: join us in giving thanks and praise to God and bearing God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world.”

Soon another Lenten season will begin, with signs that are profoundly sacramental—the sooty cross of Ash Wednesday on our foreheads, the Body and Blood of the Savior broken and poured out. Lent is no head trip. It is a “full body experience” of the Word—piercingly audible and stunningly visible. During these forty days of preparation for Holy Week may you and your fellow disciples return to God’s baptismal grace and “mark that miracle of time, God’s own sacrifice complete.”

Marked by the Cross of Christ,
Bishop Larry Wohlrabe
Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
God’s work. Our hands.

Some questions for reflection or discussion:
1. How does your congregation help Christians grow into a whole lifetime of baptismal grace?

2. In what ways have the sacramental practices of your congregation grown fuller and richer in recent years? What “next steps” might you take in that direction?

3. Recall some of the most memorable baptisms you have witnessed. Remember some of the places and circumstances under which you have shared in the Lord’s Supper.

4. What do you think about celebrating the Lord’s Supper during a wedding service or a funeral?

5. How do God’s sacramental gifts help you when you’re conscious of being “under the gun?”

This is the second of twelve articles on the theme Life Overflowing—an ongoing exercise in missional theology for the disciples and congregations of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod during the year 2010. These articles may be used for personal reflection; they may also serve as background study or a devotional resource for congregation councils and other parish leadership groups.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Serving the Good Stuff Last

Augustana Lutheran Church, Fergus Falls

January 17, 2010
John 2:1-11

What was it like, I wonder, to be on the cleanup crew, after this famous wedding at Cana?

That question’s on my mind because our daughter got married this past August down in Sioux Falls. Months of planning and thousands of dollars brought us to a day that was splendid in every way. Our guests all celebrated into the wee hours of the morning…and then around midnight the real work began.

A small circle of close relatives and friends, became the post-wedding cleanup crew. We worked liked dogs because the contract called for the wedding hall to be “cleared out” by 2 a.m.

So, I wonder what it was like to clean up after the wedding in Cana. What did the servants find, as they swept up and washed down the banquet hall?

In all likelihood the cleanup crew in Cana came across several things that puzzled them.

First, they likely discovered that there was all sorts of wine left over….and that would be surprising because firstt century Jewish weddings were grand affairs that lasted for days on end and usually concluded only when the wine was gone. But this wedding, in Cana, was over…even though the wine had not all been consumed. How curious!

Second, this leftover wine wasn’t the usual rot-gut that wedding hosts serve toward the end of the festivities….when all the guests are so sloshed that they don’t care. No—this leftover wine was finer than fine--and that made no sense at all. How mystifying!

Third, this vast store of top-drawer wine was in the strangest of containers. Instead of fresh wineskins…this leftover wine was stashed away in stone water-jars…..old containers that normally held water for ritualistic washing, not wine for enthusiastic drinking. What was that all about—all that fine wine in such inappropriate containers?

As puzzled as the members of the clean-up crew after Cana’s wedding probably were, they weren’t the only ones. If we take this story at face value, very few guests had an inkling about what had happened at the wedding feast.

Picture this celebration for a bride and group, with the whole town turned out….along with some friends and relatives from neighboring villages. Over in a corner, Jesus, his mother, and his disciples are there in the crowd, too—eating, drinking, making merry….until the wine gave out.

Few people probably noticed at first. Jesus’ mother whispered in his ear—and they exchanged a couple of sentences. Then Jesus’ mother hustled over to the waiters and said something to them that was for their ears only.

Just a handful of the revelers had a clue that anything was happening….

And even after the miracle had taken place, it’s still hard to tell how many persons knew what had happened. In fact, the only indication that something amazing had happened is the brief exchange between the host of the feast and the bridegroom: “What gives here?” asked the host. “Everybody knows the rules for serving wine at weddings—uncork the good stuff first, when everyone is still sober—then bring out the cheap wine toward the end, when no one can tell the difference. But you have kept the good wine until now” (v. 10).

This whole scene reminds me of how those old Lone Ranger TV episodes ended: “Who was that masked man—I wanted to thank him?” Who averted disaster at this wedding feast? There was no bright, shining moment when the steward of the wedding feast grabbed a microphone, hushed the crowd and announced that ”Jesus of Nazareth has just performed his first miracle, folks—you can thank HIM for this abundant, delicious wine.”

Nothing like that! Nothing public, visible, or noticeable…..

…and yet some persons “got it,” as we see in the last verse of our text: “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”

Please notice that last line: the disciples didn’t just believe that Jesus had successfully pulled off a neat parlor trick. No! “His disciples believed in him”….which is to say: the disciples placed themselves in Jesus’ hands, trusted him with their very lives, aligned their futures with what Jesus was up to.

What happened here at the wedding in Cana was a sign—and a sign always points beyond itself.

What did this amazing sign point toward?

1. First, it pointed toward the sheer abundance of God. Living as they did in a “scarcity society,” in which most of the time Cana’s wedding guests wondered where the next scrap of bread, the next cup of water was coming from….the miracle of the wedding wine revealed instead how abundantly God gives his gifts.

All that wine, all that leftover “fruit of the vine”--it was an over-the-top wedding gift that Jesus quietly, unobtrusively bestowed in Cana. Those who kept walking with Jesus would witness similar displays of abundance—crowds fed (with baskets of leftovers to boot)….a miraculous, net-breaking draught of fish….countless healings….along with a wealth of parables and teachings that we’re still trying to unravel and understand.

All that leftover wine was a sign of the overflowing generosity of God that Jesus our Lord came among us to share with you and with me. God doesn’t know the meaning of the word “stingy.” God gives gifts with an open hand…always providing far more than we can ask or imagine.

God’s breath-taking abundance spurs our generosity—so critical especially at a time like this when our neighbors in Haiti are crying out for help, when human needs and God’s urgent mission calls forth our faithful response. We can and will be generous because our God gives gifts abundantly.

2. But the miracle of the wedding wine wasn’t just about quantity. There was, in the second place, an incredible quality here. For some strange reason, this wedding feast served up the best wine at the end….far exceeding the expectations of the guests.

Anyone halfway familiar with the Old Testament could hardly miss the connection. For what Jesus quietly, unobtrusively pulled off here at Cana had all the marks of Isaiah’s prophecy that

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear. (Isaiah 25:6)

The richness of God’s gifts flies in the face of our reluctance to believe such goodness could ever come our way. Perhaps that’s why you and I pray such puny, paltry prayers—why we find it so hard to imagine that God might want to give us the very best.

But truly, that’s all God knows how to give. No thrift-store, second-class, hand-me-downs…..God chooses, God insists on bestowing the very best upon us, with no care for our inadequacies, no score-keeping of our sins, no grudging concern over our deficiencies. God gives the best, not because we’re deserving of it, but because God wants to do so—because that’s how God operates.

All that leftover wine at Cana was exquisite, because God only knows how to give the best….which is, after all, why God gave us Jesus--his life, his death, his resurrection---all of it, for us and our salvation.

3. And then there is a third thing this sign points toward, and that’s the fulfilling of the old ways in the advent of the new. Those six stone water-jars represented an ancient, passing-away age that focused on trying to wash away our sin, extract our impurity, remove our uncleanness—really a never-ending task, when you think about it.

But Jesus saw in those six stone water jars the raw materials for a new way, a fresh path. Jesus boldly determined, in one single act, to sweep aside the old and make way for the new.

For all we know, it might have been a bit scandalous for Jesus to commandeer these sacred vessels of the old age, in order to inaugurate his new age….as the six water containers were filled to overflowing with the soul-gladdening, face-brightening wine of God’s Kingdom, bursting into this old, dying age.

How can we miss, dear friends, the connection to the wine that we still share, cup of the new covenant that conveys to us, indeed allows us to receive into our dying bodies the life-giving blood of our Savior?

If they kept their eyes open and put two and two together…it may well have dawned on the cleanup crew after the wedding at Cana that something amazing had gone under their very noses.

There’s more than meets the eye here, just as God keeps dropping signs in our laps as well….

• signs of God’s amazing abundance,

• signs of God’s undeserved richness, and

• signs of God’s fierce determination to sweep away the old, and make a way for the new creation, in our lives as well.

In the name of Jesus.


Friday, January 15, 2010

Inherently Communal

Cultivating Vitality in Multi-Point Parish Ministries

January 16, 2010
Climax Lutheran Church, Climax, MN
Luke 10:1-10

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.”

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

This familiar gospel text (which will pop up in our lectionary this summer) is about going out into God’s mission field, proclaiming God’s rule over all things, and doing so with haste and urgency. The 70 apostles are to travel light, not get bogged down with “stuff,” and keep on the move.

And that always strikes me, because I’ve got too much stuff, and I keep managing to accumulate more….and I am not alone in that.

So a text like this makes discipleship sound focused, disciplined and heroic—which it is—but it’s about something else, as someone recently pointed out to me.

The reason, you see, that Jesus can send out his disciples in such Spartan fashion is that Jesus is counting on them running into allies along the way. There may be wolves out there in the mission field—but there are also other lambs out there. Jesus’ representatives can “pack light” because he’s assuming that others will help them, supply their wants, look after their needs…

….all of which is to say that mission in Jesus’ name is always a group endeavor; discipleship is inherently communal. The seventy proclaimers of the Kingdom, as they head out “two by two” will be sustained by others, strengthened by the generosity of strangers, protected by those they will encounter on the way.

Mission in Jesus’ name is always, always, always a group endeavor. It’s a “we” thing, not a “me” thing. Following Jesus is inherently communal….

….and we forget that fact, we bypass that reality, at our peril.

One of the late great teachers at Luther Seminary in St Paul liked to say that “there are no Robinson Crusoe Christians”….which is true….and this morning I want to drive that point just a little farther and say that there is also no such thing as an autonomous congregation.

In this part of the Lutheran world, “them’s are fightin’ words.” One of the great Lutheran predecessor church bodies that used to have a strong presence in the Red River Valley, held as a central tenet of its confession that “the congregation is the right form of the Kingdom of God on earth.”

The congregation is the right form of the Kingdom of God on earth. That stark statement has a huge element of truth to it—mind you!—but it has also fostered a most unfortunate heresy, namely that a congregation can be independent or totally “free” or autonomous. That, according to the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions and the lived experience of Christians down through the ages and all across this globe, is patently false.

The Body of Christ, the catholic/universal church of our Lord Jesus, has exactly zero—count them, zero--“autonomous” congregations. And that’s because this whole business—bringing Christ to the world, proclaiming God’s surprising and gentle Rule over all things, serving God’s global rescue mission—it is an inherently communal, you-and-me-together business.

And if that is true, then it has implications for what we’re about here today.

I don’t know about you, but the dominant image of “church” I grew up with was of one congregation served by one pastor. St Paul Lutheran Church of Amboy, Minnesota had one pastor for about three hundred members when I was a kid…and Eagle Lake Lutheran Church of Willmar, Minnesota had one pastor (that would be me!) for about three hundred members when I served my first call.

One congregation, one supposedly “omni-competent” pastor, serving enough parishioners to sustain the whole operation. That was, and I suspect that still is, the default position many of us have for what a church, a congregation is supposed to look like.

And yet, dear friends, I think we may have gotten that all wrong.

When I breeze through the New Testament, when I wander through the Book of Acts and when I read between the lines of the letters of St Paul, I get the impression of a whole bunch of fledgling congregations yoked together, networked with one another, all across the Mediterranean world, bound to one another for witness and service and mission in Jesus’ name….led by all sorts of Spirit-driven ministers and disciples.

And when I poke around in congregational histories here in the upper Midwest, I’m struck by how often our Lutheran congregations began as circuits of preaching points, collections of faith-communities that shared a pastor and engaged all the people of God in doing the work of ministry.

And as I witness the global church of today—for instance, the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church in India where I visited in early November—I see scads of multi-point parishes, sprawling collections of lively mission outposts, sharing clergy, calling forth laity and other leaders, doing most of God’s work “in formation” with others.

What if, what if the solo congregation served by a solo pastor—what if that’s not the default position at all? What if it is the exception, not the rule, for most of the New Testament, most of Christian history and most of today’s Christian world?

What then? Might we not think of what we’re doing here in our two synods in fresh ways? What if we simply stopped acting as if multi-point parishes were second-best options or “consolation prizes”—you know: “We tried to make it on our own, but couldn’t, so formed a parish with a neighboring congregation?”

What if we started from the premise that all congregations, will be tied to other congregations—not just because “survival” drives them to it, but because mission—God’s work—calls, beckons and invites them…invites us…to embrace shared ministry as the only ministry really worth doing?

As we begin this event, I invite you to accept the following working assumptions:

  •  Mission in Christ’s name is an inherently communal endeavor—and that is God’s gift to us.
  • There are no Robinson Crusoe Christians and no autonomous congregations—and that too is God’s gift to us.
  • And the “right form of the kingdom of God on earth” might just be the congregation—the congregation that sees itself deeply interdependent, joined hip-to-haunch with one or more other congregations….all so that God’s work might be accomplished not with my hands, but always with our hands.

In the name of Jesus.



Friday, January 1, 2010

Life Overflowing: The Word

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us,…full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and spout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:10-11)

Many church buildings in the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church have “eagle lecterns,” from which the scriptures are read in worship—reminding the faithful of how the Word soars like an eagle.

Dry Well?

In my first year of pastoring my biggest worry was that I would run out of things to say from the pulpit.

Serving a country church near Willmar, Minnesota, I preached every Sunday, midweek Lenten service, and festival day. Nothing in my background had prepared me for the relentless task of cooking up a new sermon every week. At the end of my first month, I was sure that I had said it all. My well was already running dry.

But another month came and went, as did ten more months after that. And at the end of my first year as a pastor I realized I was not at all depleted as a preacher. In fact, it dawned on me—slowly at first—that I would not live long enough to plumb the heights and the depths of God’s Word. I could preach until I was a little old man, and I would barely scratch the surface of God’s Word!

This discovery wasn’t about my cleverness or my “way with words.” Rather I became aware of the sheer magnitude of God’s Word. Like all God’s good gifts, the Word overflows, like “the rain and the snow that come down from heaven,” in Isaiah’s image.

A Three-Layered Word

What makes God’s Word so all-encompassing? Our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Confession of Faith (  describes our three-layered experience of God’s Word.

• The Word, first and foremost, is “Jesus Christ…the Word of God incarnate, through whom everything was made and through whose life, death, and resurrection God fashions a new creation.” The amazing, abundant capacity of the Word of God comes from the overflowing life of Jesus who, as John’s gospel proclaims, is “full of grace and truth.” Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead, is God’s magnum opus—God’s best love letter to you and me and the whole creation.

• Second, the Word is “the proclamation of God’s message to us as both Law and Gospel…revealing judgment and mercy through word and deed, beginning with the Word in creation, continuing in the history of Israel, and centering in all its fullness in the person and work of Jesus Christ.” As Lutheran disciples we revel in the notion that the very same Jesus who was born in a manger, died on a cross and stepped froth from the tomb is alive and active now whenever his gospel is proclaimed, whether in the public space of weekly worship, or in the more intimate space of daily conversation.

• Third, the Word comes in a written form as well, in “the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments….Inspired by God’s Spirit speaking through their authors, they record and announce God’s revelation centering in Jesus Christ. Through them God’s Spirit speaks to us to create and sustain Christian faith and fellowship for service in the world.” None of us will live long enough to plumb the depths of this amazing Book.

What we dare not miss here is not only the three-layered nature of the Word of God, but also how each layer is about Jesus. Jesus himself is “the-Word-with-skin-on” (incarnate). Jesus’ saving life inspires proclamation of the Word as gospel-address. And the Holy Bible, is always and forever the “Jesus Book.”

“Does” More Than “Is”

Definitions are important, but they take us only so far. The ELCA Confession of Faith offers a splendid three-layered definition of the phrase “Word of God.” It tells us—richly, abundantly—what the Word “is.” But the greater question is: what is the Word good for? What does it do to us? What change does it bring to the whole creation?

Lutherans, at their best, have always focused more on the “does” than the “is” when it comes to the Word. We believe this bias is true to the Word itself, which is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.” (Hebrews 4:12)

As a confirmation student back in the 1960s, my pastor had our class memorize (several times over two years of instruction!) Isaiah 55:10-11. What I took away from that assignment was the amazing notion that the Word “accomplishes” God’s intentions for it. The Word does what it is—killing the god-forsaking rebel in me, raising up the hope-filled believer in me.

But the Word accomplishes more than my personal salvation. It is the means by which God is recapturing the entire universe, reclaiming the whole creation, ushering in God’s reign over all things. That’s what Jesus the incarnate Word is still doing, in the power of his resurrection. It’s what faithful proclamation of the Word is all about—unleashing in the world the viva vox (living voice) of the Word. And this is also the purpose of the written Word, the Book of Faith.

A Dangerous, World-Turning Book

But do most folks think of the Word in this dynamic way—especially with respect to its written form? Nowadays the Bible conjures up, for too many of us, other notions. Some write off the Bible as passé, the dusty byproduct of an age that has passed away. Others are mystified by the Scripture and too embarrassed by their own biblical ignorance to risk opening its pages. Still others regard the Bible as a battleground—lobbing proof texts like hand grenades.

The problem with such approaches is that they all over-emphasize what the Bible allegedly is, to the neglect of what it does. They each, in their own way, reduce the Bible to a dead letter.

But the Bible isn’t dead. It’s alive. It snaps, crackles and pops with energy. When we open its pages, we can expect to be changed, converted. It is a dangerous, world-turning book.

In a very helpful article, ( Bishop N.T. Wright of the Anglican Diocese of Durham speaks of the Bible’s authority not in terms of its commands or doctrines, but its “long, sprawling, complex but ultimately coherent narrative (emphasis added) about the creator and the creation, the people of Israel, and particularly Jesus Christ and his first followers.” And what is the point of this narrative?

Bishop Wright continues: “The Bible as a whole offers a paradigm, a framework, an overarching context in which the text itself is designed to function, through the mercy and providence of the God of creation and covenant, as a crucial means of guiding God’s people to be the people through whom new creation will come about (emphasis added). The Bible is there, not simply to impart true information about what God is up to…, but to be part of the action, part of the means by which God does what God intends to do. This (to put it mildly) is a more dynamic concept of ‘authority’ than is sometimes imagined, and also more complex…. It isn’t just that Christians today need to read the Bible again and again to be sure that they are believing, or doing, everything it says. It is, rather, that Jesus (like his Jewish contemporaries) read his Bible as the single great narrative…of how the creator God had called out a people through whom he would redeem the world…. And the Christian follow-on from that is that the Bible itself urges us to read it in full cognisance of the fact that we are ourselves actors in the ongoing drama, the story of the Holy Spirit….”

We Help Write the Conclusion

Wright’s last sentence underscores something that happens as we dwell in God’s Word. We realize that there is an open-ended, indeed unfinished quality to this Word. It flows forward, into God’s future. And we realize that God allows us to help write the conclusion to his story.

This amazing, aching, anxious age in which we live—as we begin the second decade of the 21st century—is the arena where God is pursuing his great mission of rescue and renewal, in and through our hands. God doesn’t need you and me, of course. But God chooses to do nothing without us. Our dwelling in God’s Word, our daily encounter with that Word leads us toward God’s tomorrow in Jesus Christ.

Time and again I see how God’s Word is active and alive in our midst, in our synod, in our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and in our global partners in Christ. Here are some parting snapshots that illustrate what I’m saying:

• I think of Pastor Bill Reck (St. Paul’s, Crookston) beaming with joy as he describes the 30+ parishioners who have journeyed with him through the entire Bible, via the time-tested Bethel Series.

• I recall with fondness, meeting some of the “Bible Women” of our companion synod, the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church. Much of their ministry involves sharing the Word with women who are in transition from Hinduism to Christianity. “We can get in the back doors of our neighbors’ homes, where the women do much of their work,” they testified during our pilgrimage to India this past November.

Some of the “Bible Women” of the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church—bearers of the Word to Indian women transitioning from Hinduism to Christianity.

• I still can see and hear all the ways—in skits, songs and testimonies—that youth at two synod gatherings this past fall delved deeper into what it means to reflect God’s image in the world.

• I am heartened, in the wake of the much-discussed human sexuality decisions at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly, to learn of so many pastors and church members who’ve been re-engaging the Bible, making use of the ELCA Journey Together Faithfully resources, especially the biblical resource by Professors Arland Hultgren and Walter Taylor (

God strengthen you in 2010 as the Word washes over you, overflowing through Jesus the Word made flesh, through the refreshing proclamation of the Word, and through the awesome Book that unleashes God’s saving reign over us and the whole creation.

Your fellow witness to the Word,
Bishop Larry Wohlrabe
Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
God’s work. Our hands.

Some questions for personal reflection or group discussion:

1. How have you experienced the “overflowing” of God’s Word?

2. When you hear the phrase “Word of God” do you think of all three “layers” of the Word described in the ELCA Confession of Faith? Why or why not?

3. In your congregation’s life how do persons hear the Word as a viva vox (living voice)?

4. How do you perceive God using you (or your congregation) to help write the conclusion to his story?

This is the first of twelve articles on the theme Life Overflowing—an ongoing exercise in missional theology for the disciples and congregations of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod during the year 2010. These articles may be used for personal reflection; they may also serve as background study and a devotional resource for congregation councils and other parish leadership groups.

A Messy, Risky, Dangerous Business

Calvary Lutheran Church, Bemidji, MN
January 3, 2010/Christmas 2/Installation of Pr. Andrew Ronnevik
John 1:1-18

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

The geniuses who have put together our lectionary want to make sure that we ponder this first chapter of St. John’s gospel….not just once, but 2-3 times every Christmas season.

So pastors need to keep coming up with fresh language to unpack this ancient, venerable text.

This past week, as I realized it would be my turn to preach once again on John chapter one, a phrase popped into my head: Think globally. Act locally.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve probably heard that phrase before—maybe even used it. “Think globally, act locally” has been around for some forty years—applied to realities as varied as urban planning, environmentalism, education, business and even mathematics.

Think globally. Act locally.

Isn’t that what God was doing when the Word became flesh and lived among us? Wasn’t God “thinking globally and acting locally?”

In a way, that’s true of course. God had a global purpose in mind when God sent his Son down, down, down to the manger in Bethlehem—when God “acted locally” for us and for our salvation.

But as I pondered this popular phrase, I realized that while it “sort of” speaks to what God was up to, it is nevertheless inadequate for describing, let alone defining what we Christians mean by the Incarnation--not because this phrase says too much, but because it says too little.

God does more, after all, than “think globally.” God thinks, God dreams, God imagines cosmically….God’s horizon is so very much bigger than ours here on planet earth.

God imagines things cosmically, God envisions everything in the universe—“seen and unseen,” as we confess in the Nicene Creed….

….and when God imagines the whole created order, God acts, but in the most amazing of ways, in the small backwater locale of Bethlehem, in the baby, in the tiny son born to Mary and Joseph.

God imagines cosmically, but acts locally….and more than that. God invests himself, God places himself at incredible risk, God opens himself up to being changed by humanity, God becomes incarnate, intervening personally in all that has gone awry. God takes on sin, death and evil personally in the flesh and bones of Jesus of Nazareth.

God doesn’t just think globally and act locally…..God imagines cosmically, envisions a New Heaven and a New Earth, and God intervenes in all that stands in the way of that vision. That is: God takes matters into his own hands, rolls up his sleeves, squeezes himself down into Mary’s womb--intervening personally, for us and for our salvation.

Imagine cosmically, intervene dangerously, personally, at great cost to God’s very being. Now that gets it even better than the old environmentalist slogan!

The incarnation of God in human flesh, in the birth of Jesus, is something that can’t be reduced, really, to any slogan…no matter how fine-tuned it might be.

And that’s because the incarnation is an inherently messy business…and you and I can’t begin to imagine all that it has meant for God to become human, in Jesus. Our best efforts to describe that miracle will always fall short, especially because we have only an inkling of how much God has set aside, how much messiness God has embraced, how much risk and vulnerability God has taken on, to be born among us, as one of us.

It’s a messy, risky, dangerous business…this “Word becoming flesh” move that God has made.

It’s messy because it means that God lets himself get close to all manner of human beings, God hobnobs with a whole astonishing cast of characters, God opens himself to all sorts of folks you and I would never on your life get close to, if we had a choice in the matter.

Incarnation is such a wide-open, no holds barred, strategy for God to adopt. I could see God maybe getting close to some people--good and decent people, like you and me (!)--people who would be properly grateful for such a gracious intervention in their lives.

But instead God has gathered up in himself the whole sorry human family. It’s a mess, really, this whole teeming mass of humanity, but that’s where God in Christ chooses to be.

The incarnation is also a terribly risky venture. God set aside all his divine prerogatives, God made himself amazingly vulnerable. Think of how high the infant mortality rate must have been in the 1st century A.D. Imagine God coming to that pre-scientific age, before childhood diseases and communicable illnesses had been cured. Picture God descending into a subsistence society like Judea, under Roman rule—a time and a place where just staying alive was a daily struggle.

Count up, if you can, all the risks God took on when God took on human flesh, in the fullness of time, when Jesus was born.

It was, it is, a messy, risky and downright dangerous decision—for God to become incarnate. God came among us with absolutely no guarantee that he would be welcomed or appreciated. John the gospel-writer puts a sharp point on this element of danger when he says of Jesus, the Word, that “he was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (John 1:10-11).

No guarantees of success. No safe bets. God has extended himself, risked himself, put it all on the line in this amazing strategy of becoming incarnate, taking on flesh and blood and bones, in Jesus, for us and for our salvation.

And—wonder of wonders—God has determined that this is the way it will be permanently. By becoming incarnate, by the Word taking on flesh, God has opened the door to a transformation in God’s very being. Since the birth in Bethlehem, there has been some human DNA in the divine genome. The God we know in Jesus Christ has human features, human substance, forever, at the heart of the divine essence. This is God’s way—the way of always coming to us, descending into our lives, embracing all the messiness of human existence,, not merely to commiserate with us, but to rescue us, and to renew the whole creation.

That, my dear friends, is more, so very much more than “thinking globally and acting locally!”

And, even after saying all of this, we have still just scratched the surface, still barely begun to understand the miracle of Christmas, the wonder of the Incarnation.

But it is enough for now…enough to keep us going…enough to realize that Incarnation is God’s way, and because it is God’s way, it has also become our way.

I’ve come to think of the Incarnation not just as a one-time miracle of astounding proportions…but rather as God’s mission strategy for all the ages. And as God pursues this mission strategy of coming to, coming down, embracing the messiness of all creation…God catches us up in the act, as well.

Your life, your following of Jesus the Word made flesh, your mission and ministry here at Calvary is a continuation of God’s astonishing incarnation strategy.

Your words, spoken in Jesus’ name, deliver Jesus’ goodness to the whole messy bunch of sinners that come through these doors, week in and week out. The Word that is at the center of your life, incarnates God, here and now, for whoever happens to show up!

Your way with water, bread and wine….in the baptismal bath and the nurturing meal….continues God’s incarnation strategy….revealing how God keeps squeezing himself down into H2O, wheat germ, the fruit of the vine, and the promises that enwrap those physical elements.

Your way with one another, your bearing of one another’s burdens, your embracing of the stranger, your nourishing of little ones in the faith, hope and love of Jesus….this too reveals God’s incarnation strategy still playing itself out.

Your welcome, this morning, to a new servant of the Word, Pastor Andrew Ronnevik, is also a working-out of God’s incarnation strategy. Pastor Andrew may not be God (though little children may at times think so!)…he may not be God, but he does and he surely will join Pastor Genelle in bearing God into your midst…reminding you, again and again, how God has wrapped his arms around the whole human family, around the whole created order, in Jesus, in order to make you and me all things new.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.