“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw His star when it rose and have come to worship Him.’” ~ Matthew 2:1-3
HE STILL SEEKS WISE MEN. This is not the phrase you see this time of year. In fact, nobody would buy it or understand it. Instead, we see the bumperstick “Wise men still seek Him.” We would all agree that it would be very wise to seek Jesus! But, alas! We are not wise! Even the fall into sin could be understood in light of Romans 1:22, “claiming to be wise, they became fools.” The Gospel is foolishness to those who are wise (1 Corinthians 1:18-19). In Matthew 2, it is the Lord Who is seeking the magi! The best translation of the Greek word magi is . . . you guessed it . . . magi! If we call them “wise men,” it is only because they were wise in their dark arts. They were definitely pagans. As Chaldeans rulers, they may have had some lingering memory of what the faithful Hebrews told them in Babylonian exile, but they were still wandering and wondering souls. They were lost.
We must gladly remember this. This is consistently Biblical from the beginning to the end. We don’t end up believing in God because we find Him. Or seek Him. Or make a decision for Him (read Ephesians 1:3-14 sometime!). Or even “accept” Him. Uh. . . . you can’t do that either. Only the Holy Spirit can create the new life that we call saving faith (1 Corinthian 12:3). God was not lost in Genesis 3 or any chapter after that. God is the One Who has been seeking and finding as a Good Shepherd looks for His Sheep. He is the One Who drew the wise man out of their spiritual darkness to the place where they could interact with the King of kings. The Light of the world was shining forth through this toddler (Jesus was living in a home in Bethlehem by the time the magi arrived) that themagi would eventually “find.” One tiny, lasting word from one of Yahweh’s dear people in exile was enough to prepare the wise men to travel to see the true King when the star drew them forth. And . . . coming to the place where Jesus was, they fell down before Him and worshipped Him. They opened up to Him their gifts, which were gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The first two were kingly gifts indeed, but the last one, myrrh, which was used in the burial process, was already revealing that this tiny eternal Messiah would be the Savior of the world. He was born to die and born to save the lost.
God finds us. He sent Jesus to find both Jews and Gentiles. He sent Him to save both the low-born and the high-class. He came to save the notoriously sinful, but also those who still think that they are wise in their own eyes. Yes, He still seeks wise men! He still seeks those flirting with all kinds of false spirituality and the deep darkness of self- worship. He is seeking all those trapped in the new age movement and worshipping idols in temples. Christ came to liberate us from the our bondage to sin through His liberating life and salvation through His atoning death and glorious resurrection. He puts down a name through Word with water in Baptism to find, to save, to keep. This very Lord, Who once was so tiny and helpless, is now at the right hand of the Father with all things under His feet. He is the very merciful and conquering Lord Who stoops down to strengthen with His Body and Blood in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. Jesus is a King Who stays for us with the forgiveness of sins until the closing of the age (Matthew 28:20).
As recorded in George Malech’s Book, “History of the Syrian Nation and the Old Evangelical-Apostolic Church of the East,” there is a group of Christians who claim that their origins go back to the mission work of the converted Magi who told of the newborn King. They also have a record of the names of the 12 ruling magi who came to see Jesus. Do we know this for a fact? No, because it is not recorded in the Holy Scriptures. But . . . what we do know from Word of God is that Jesus is our Savior. He has come for both Jew and Gentile. He has delivered us from our spiritual blindness. He has given us His Words. These are the very words that we gladly get to tell to those who around us in a lost and hurting world. Arise, and shine, your Light has come!
Rev. Tim Droegemueller
As Rev. Scott Keith with the 1517 Legacy Project does presentations all around the country on the need for clear distinction between Law and Gospel, he is asked one question more than any others. The question is “where can I get this stuff on a regular basis?” And . . . 99% of people who ask this question is already attending a church. To serve the necessity of growing in our understanding of this eternally crucial need, here is some instruction from Martin Luther about the “The voice of one crying in the wildnerness (Isaiah 40:3).”
By this prophecy Isaiah promises a new kind of teaching beyond that which had been in vogue heretofore. For in this way the evangelists begin. The voice of one crying. It is as if he were saying: “The preaching of the Law was a muttering, incomplete and unpleasant to all ears, and produced nothing but hypocrites. But here comes a voice, a clear and complete and universal proclamation which purely and joyously and most loudly declares that the warfare is ended and that sins are forgiven.” This is received from “a voice,” that is, through the public preaching of the Word. It must be heard and recieved from a speaking voice. Away with our schismatics, who spurn the Word while they sit in corners waiting for the Spirit’s revelation, but apart from the voice of the Word! They say one must sit still in a corner and empty the mind of all speculations, and then the Holy Spirit will fill it. The sophists also taught this. In vain, however, do we rely on this, and that for two reasons. In the first place, because we are not able to empty our souls of speculations. The devil will provide you with many thoughts. In the second place, because the flesh has not yet been killed in you. When you have heard the Word, you earnestly kill the flesh and empty your soul. It will happen in no other way. No one becomes spiritual without this voice. Away with all Enthusiasts (those who trust God will work apart from the Word and Sacraments). Take note: The beginning of all spiritual knowledge is this voice of one crying, as also Paul says, Romans 10:14: “How are they to believe . . . without a preacher?”
The voice of one crying, that is, a new kind of teaching which should be proclaimed everywhere. In the wilderness. This voice is sent forth in the wilderness both by the preacher himself and by the hearers. By contrast, wilderness is placed opposite the teaching of the Law. For like a jail, a wall, and a city, the Law secures and fences us in. The voice of the Gospel, however, is a free wilderness, open to all, public, and unrestrained like a wilderness. There is indeed a limitation about the Law, but the teaching of the Gospel is most free and most unrestrained. Hence all these words are as by contrast set against the teaching of the Law. The voice of one crying in the wilderness. This voice of the Gospel takes the place of the whispering murmur, which teaches the Law in specified localities. This voice, however, has no definite place and teacher. Moses whispers, but the Gospel shouts confidently and most vigorously.”
~Luther’s Works vol. 40: 8.
Look at this video the next time you are tempted to that anyone has “found” Jesus. Thank you Rev. Adam Ellsworth of Grace Lutheran in Midtown for providing…
The Parable of the Lost Sheep
1Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Him (Jesus). 2And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
3So he told them this parable: 4“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? 5And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
Essay from John J. Bombaro
For the better part of four decades, pollster and prolific author George Barna has influenced the trajectory of North American evangelicalism. His 1984 founding of the Barna Research Group (now the Barna Group), more than fifty books, and now presidency of Metaformation (a faith development organization) has made him perhaps the most quoted person in Protestantism today. His genius has been to interpret evangelical churches, parachurches, and associations in marketing categories and to think of parishioners along with unchurched persons as consumers.
Barna understands our times. Barna understands the modern person as well. Consumerism shapes, even begets, our basic identity. Here Barna approaches an insight that requires more penetrating analysis; namely the idea that consumerism drives secularism, not the other way around. If this is in fact the case, then our understanding of the context into which we preach should be that we live in a consumeristic society in which secularism is a byproduct. Consumerism would then be more basic to our belief formation and the formation of our habits and rituals than secularism or nationalism or (and here is Barna’s point) Christianity. Christianity, at least as we find it throughout the US and Canada, has been enveloped by consumerist thinking and practice.
So, if evangelical churches are going to be “successful” in our present milieu, argues Barna in many of his publications, then it needs to reorient its thinking about what is foundational to our culture and identity: consumption. It is neither the holy faith, nor the constitution that binds together “we the people”. Instead, it is consumerism. This is an important insight. However, Barna took things into a direction that steered American evangelicalism deeper into the problem, rather than challenging consumeristic ideology in ways that Alan Noble and James K. A. Smith presently are doing. Stated differently, Barna encouraged embracing consumerism as a paradigm; for the church and in the church. Furthermore, reflecting on the evidence of his polling data, Barna came to understand that if the church is not necessarily defined in the confessional categories of the local assembly gathered around the pure preaching of the Gospel and the Sacraments administered according to that Gospel (such as we find in the Augsburg Confession, VII.1 http://bookofconcord.org/augsburgconfession.php#article7), but rather reconceived as a voluntary organization that provides resources for personal enrichment, spirituality, and felt needs, then the church attains the potential to compete in the marketplace of religious experiences.
Barna’s economic reconception of the church in light of market forces helped to legitimize the shift from the institutional church to “alternative faith communities.” In 2005 he wrote, “Whether you examine the changes in broadcasting, clothing, music, investing, or automobiles, producers of such consumables realize that Americans want control over their lives. The result has been the ‘niching’ of America—creating highly refined categories that serve smaller numbers of people but can command greater loyalty (and profits).” Niche churches, vying for shelf space in the religious marketplace, have been the result.
During the past four decades local churches have seen the need to embrace niche strategies and market themselves as appeal-boutiques. Barna continues:
With the advent of the church’s design for every generation, some congregations offer divergent styles of worship music or emphasize ministries of interest to specialized populations and so forth. The church landscape now offers these boutique churches alongside the “something for everybody” megachurches. In the religious marketplace, the churches that have suffered most are those who have stuck with the one size fits all approach; typically proving that one size fits nobody. Furthermore, consumers are demanding practical faith experiences over doctrine. They seek novelty and creativity rather than predictability in religious experiences, and the need for time shifting rather than inflexibility in the scheduling of religious events.
In other words, traditional faith that is committed to traditionary ecclesiology and manifest through traditional liturgy to form and inform heirs of the Gospel tradition calls for far too much costly discipleship, inconvenient conformity, and unity (if not uniformity) in an age of self-expression, personal preferences, and individualism. Stated plainly, the old way of doing church will not sell. There is no market for it, so do not preach to that end, advises Barna. Western culture, through the marketing medium of pop-culture, engenders auditors (both inside and outside the church) who believe they deserve this and that, that they, “could have it [their] way.” The value is the consumer is always right and, indeed, the customer is king. Hence, Barna’s advice for contemporary Christianity:
It is… critical that we keep in mind a fundamental principle of Christian communication: the audience, not the message, is sovereign. If our advertising is going to stop people in the midst of hectic schedules and cause them to think about what we’re saying, our message has to be adapted to the needs of the audience. When we produce advertising that is based on the take-it-or-leave-it proposition, rather than on a sensitivity and response to people’s needs, people will invariably reject our message.
The questions for the preacher who subscribes to Barna’s credentialed, researched, and substantiated theses then are these: What is my sovereign’s bidding? What do they want to hear and how will they like it? Or, put differently, how do I market a niche with the branding and content with which target consumers are familiar and comfortable and would keep them coming back for more?
But while George Barna was convincingly opining about the need for new methods in these new times due to new market forces, Tenth Presbyterian Church’s Senior Pastor, James Montgomery Boice (esteemed voice of the “Bible Study Hour” and master expositor), cautioned that whatever you use to get them into the church is what you have to use to keep them in it. If it was preaching as the church of “what’s-happening-now” that was your curb appeal, then the expectation will be a givenness to what is trending. The problem is, warns Boice, that is not the commissioned message or means for making and sanctifying disciples.
Boice was making an appeal to integrity: don’t bait and switch. That would be deceptive advertising and akin to bearing false testimony. Instead, Boice admonishes staying true to our pastoral mandate to proclaim the full counsel of God in His two words: Law and Gospel. Boice was concerned to say that preaching and gospel evangelism is not about techniques. It is about faithfulness and a reliance upon the Holy Spirit to convict and convert. Preach the Law of God and the Gospel of Christ. After all, the Word of God is the sword of the Spirit, not the marketeer or salesman. It is, “Christ Jesus who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). We preach a message already stipulated, already defined, already packaged… in weakness. And preaching faithfully the King’s message, his two words of Law and Gospel albeit ever so weak and feeble in the ears of the world, requires courage and integrity from the outset.
Yet, there is a more basic issue at play. If the customer or, better, the consumer receives allegiance as king, then Christ Jesus does not. If the audience’s sovereignty marks the starting point for preaching, then the message, the means, and the results are all going to be aberrations. Nothing is real. It is an alternative, bastardized kingdom, and that is where Barna failed evangelicalism. He capitulated to an economic Zeitgeist rather than calling for preachers to plow up the soil of consumerism in order to plant the Word deeply. Plow, then plant. That is how the King said it would be in the Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13). The two always go together: plowing the earth as you find it (consumerist) in order to plant the kind of seed that brings forth the fruit the Sower intends.
Preachers are called to proclaim Christ as King over-and-against the sovereignty of the consumer (or even the sovereign voter). And just like a naval ship in which there cannot be two captains, so too for the Christian there cannot be but one Sovereign Lord, and that Lord is Jesus. Jesus came to inaugurate His kingdom, not to sell a product. He came to save sinners and make them coheirs of His kingdom, not to satisfy consumers with happiness because they deserve it. That will take preaching that breaks up the comfortable and expectant soil of consumers. That will take some consistent and persistent explaining from the pulpit. That will take no small amount of courage and faithfulness.
 See Noble, Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2018) and Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009).
 Barna, Revolution: Finding Vibrant Faith beyond the Walls of the Sanctuary (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005), 62-63.
 Barna, Marketing the Church: What They Never Taught You About Church Growth (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1988), 145.
Read this ridiculously good blog from Hillary Asbury who writes for Jagged Word…
I used to love spending time at my friends’ houses as a kid. It was a new environment, one that was different from my own. The smells were different, the furniture and color schemes were different, and many times the rules were different too. It fascinated me.
I think you can tell a lot about a person or family simply by walking into their house.
Some houses feel sterile and controlled, others are homey and lived in. Some feel chaotic and neglected, others are warm and cared for. A lot of this has to do with how the family simply exists within the house, how they interact, the words and tones they use to communicate with each other. Some of it has to do with the way the house is physically cared for, and a lot of it is affected by the atmosphere created by decorations, heirlooms, nick knacks, or trinkets. Is the house essentially a large display case for Start Trek memorabilia, or are the walls bare except for a few pieces of modern art? Are the shelves lined with pictures of family and loved ones, or are they stocked with treasures from past travels? When you walk into another person’s house, you can get a pretty clear snapshot of who they are and what is important to them.
It’s quite an intimate experience if you think about it.
I don’t think churches are any different. Every church has its own feel, its own architecture and set-up. The pews may be made of solid wood or softly cushioned. The chapel my be designed to face the pulpit and lectern face-on, or curve around the cross. A baptismal font may be found at the entrance to the sanctuary or at the front of the chapel. You can walk into a church and immediately get a feel for what is important there.
Just like every family has its own story, every congregation has its own history, and the houses in which each live become a reflection of those histories.
There is one big difference I have noticed lately, though. No one ever questions the importance of maintaining the comfort and beauty of a house. Wallpaper starts to peel and we replace it with new paint. We hire plumbers and electricians to keep our houses running efficiently. Our color schemes or décor become outdated and we update or replace them without question. We provide safe and attractive toys and equipment for our children. We decorate with enthusiasm.
When we move to do the very same things in our churches, however, it is often scoffed at or ridiculed.
Many believe we should be doing other things with the Church’s money- feeding the poor or ending homelessness. Some say that by beautifying and updating our churches we are putting our priorities in the wrong place, in superficial, worldly matters. Some worry that when the world sees our beautiful, well maintained facilities we will be judged as being selfish with our resources. I really can’t blame those who see it this way, the Church does have a history of existing in extravagance while the surrounding people suffered- stealing from the poor and enjoying the spoils. I don’t think that is really what we are talking about here, though. We are talking about being good stewards, being trusted with a little (ensuring that a church and its congregants are healthy and flourishing) so that we may be trusted with a lot (doing the same for the surrounding community).
A house is a place in which a family is nurtured and cared for so that they will have the strength and energy to go out into the world and do their work.
A church is very much the same. We need to ensure that we are building a nurturing place in which to feed people’s souls and speak the Gospel- a place where congregants can find rest, be strengthened and fortified, so that they can then go out into the world and serve their neighbors.
We sometimes forget that spending time and money on our churches does serve the greater community.
We forget that the surrounding neighborhood benefited from my church’s playground, that artwork in a sanctuary can be viewed for free by anyone on a Sunday morning. Not only do these things inherently serve our community, but they create more opportunities to speak the Word of God to those that need to hear it.
They also show our community, and potential future congregants, that we can be trusted to take care of what has been given to us, that we take those gifts seriously, and that we have the capacity to give them the support and nurturing they need.
We must keep in mind that the way we care for and maintain our churches not only reflects our history and identity as a congregation but it also speaks to who we are as God’s children, as stewards of His gifts. Most of all, though, we must keep in mind that it reflects our theology and affects the ways in which we are able to present the Gospel.
By Hillary Asbury –