Four Branches August 2017

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Exegetical Theology: The How of Old Testament Communication (part 3)

With the Old Testament reading for Pentecost 12 (Supplemental Lectionary Year A), Exodus 14:10-31, we encounter a convergence of words and phrases that carries enormous theological freight. These include: the Mal’ach ’Adonay [Angel of the Lord] as that pillar who stands between, and the one who is darkness to his enemies and light to those who are his; the salvation root [y-sh-‘] in both noun and verb (quite rare until this account); and the LORD’s intention to reveal his glory [c-b-d in niphal] by accomplishing an impossible act of rescue. Blended with these are those marvelous phrases that manage, paradoxically, to both quiet the mind and stir the blood: “The Egyptians you see today you will never see again” (14:13), and “The LORD will fight for you; you need only be still” (14:14).

Then, as the walls of water on left and right became a shimmering veil for the fallen enemies of God, we mark again the switch in genre from prose to poetry as Moses began to sing (15:1-18). In a “fusion of horizons,” the Song of the Sea is preserved for future audiences to blend their voices with the Israel of the narrated world, to cross over into their time and take their part in worship of the hidden God who is mediated by the divinely inspired, true story. Whenever the church is really the Church, it will meet this world in a collision. About all those so hostile to the “city of God” in this world, so goes the timeless poem:

By the power of your arm
they will be as still as a stone—
until your people pass by, Lord,
until the people you bought pass by. (Ex 15:16)

In this way Moses consecrated the great salvation event of the Old Testament in song, and we have been singing about it ever since. Here is a link to some brief dissertation excerpts having to do with the great re-telling of Israel’s history in prose versus poetry, each a remarkable alternative in its own right. Suffice it to say that it is special joy to bring Exodus 14 into conversation, not only with the Song of Moses that immediately follows, but also with: Psalm 66, 105, 106, 136, Isaiah 51 and 63, and so on. And not only those, but also with that greater Passover and Paschal Lamb of New Testament fulfillment, that other Exodus and the final Coming Home.

Rev. Mark Paustian serves Martin Luther College in New Ulm, MN, as a professor of English and Hebrew.

(Missed Part 2? Click here)

Systematic Theology: Sharpen Your Conscience… and that of Others

Of anyone who needs a sharpened conscience in the congregation, it is the pastor. Paul mentored Timothy to “fight the good fight, holding on to faith and a good conscience.” [ἀγαθὴν συνείδησιν, 1 Tim 1:18-19] A good conscience is something we daily fight to maintain. Who among us doesn’t wrestle with priorities, inferiorities, and never-ending responsibilities?  When we add personal iniquities into the mix sleep at night can come either from exhaustion – or not at all. From a more positive perspective, a basic German proverb states: a good conscience is a soft pillow.[1] Paul in the above passage similarly guides us to sleep soundly at night. Though our work on earth isn’t done, God’s work in Christ for us is. A good conscience rests in him through faith. Put a little differently, a good conscience fights to rest.

A pastor’s good conscience therefore needs constant sharpening. It needs this not only for its own sake but for the sake of those entrusted to his care. How does sharpening happen? Look at the wider context of the above Timothy passage. It follows one of the starkest confessions of sin in the Bible. Paul accurately penned his past: “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man.” Following, he proclaims the pure gospel, and in doing so admits and accepts his simil justus et peccatur present: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason…”

Conscience is sharpened through genuine repentance. When that takes place, the sinner acknowledges the law as true and binding. In repentance the goal of conscience is realized: the sinner is held accountable for sin before the highest authority, God himself. But God’s goal and authority goes so much further. He takes us by his Word to Jesus’ cross and empty tomb. He places us right there with Christ by our baptism. He forgives sin and gives us the righteousness of Christ. This gospel of Jesus knows no law. It has no obligation for the conscience to act. God’s pure gift puts the conscience to rest and makes it a good conscience.

Paul didn’t let his past or present sins mute or minimize the law – or it would do the same to the gospel. Instead, preach law and gospel fully. Repent and sharpen your conscience to keep it good. Then help others do the same.

[1] Alfred Rehwinkel, pg. 93. The Voice of Conscience.

An interesting read is Conscience by Rev. Dr. E. W. A. Koehler.

Rev. Aaron Mueller serves as pastor at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Howards Grove, WI.

Historical Theology: Responding to the Anti-Semitic Writings of Martin Luther

“I must first entreat your Majesty and your Highnesses to deign to consider that I have composed writings on very different subjects.”  Luther recognized at the Diet of Worms that not all of his writings were the same, and they called for different responses.  He set a good example for us as we wrestle with his writings on the Jewish people.

Be accurate about the history

Luther did not desire or cause the holocaust.  Lutheran teachings did not in any way precipitate Adolf Hitler’s actions against the Jews of Western Europe.  In your reading over the last two months, you have seen the following:

  • Luther often spoke kindly of the Jewish people and prayed ardently on their behalf in a way that was almost unheard of in his day.
  • Luther was disgusted at the way Gentile Christians had often treated their Jewish countrymen and rebuked them for it.
  • The Reformer’s anger largely targeted the continued unbelief of the Jews.
  • Many Lutheran voices – and Lutheran countries, such as Norway –stood against Adolf Hitler specifically because of their Lutheran principles and beliefs.

It’s important to not allow caricatures of those who have gone before us. But honesty about history also means acknowledging that Luther’s words were misused powerfully by Hitler and others in support of violence against Jews, both before and after the rise of the Third Reich.

And while much of what Luther wrote was out of a truly righteous anger, it did overflow into racial slander – at times assigning the Jewish people an incurable lust for the money of others and condemning them not so much for being a people who didn’t accept the gospel, but as a people who never could.  In that, he went beyond – and against – Scripture.

Follow Luther’s example

Luther’s character shown through beautifully at Worms: His goal wasn’t to defend himself or his writings; it was to proclaim Scriptural truth.  Our goal as Lutherans is the same.  As important as it is to understand the history and context of Luther’s writings, our greater task and privilege is proclaim the counsel of God.  The Gospel that Martin Luther so powerfully reclaimed and proclaimed calls us to speak the truth in love, to bless those who curse us, and to point to Jesus who tears down the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile.  (Luther’s commentary on Galatians has beautiful examples of this.)

Where Luther’s writings fail to do that, we have no need to defend them.  Just as we rejoice at Luther’s clear proclamation of Scriptural truth, so we reject anything he wrote which goes beyond or against Scripture. That’s what it means to be a Lutheran Christian.  We don’t bear Luther’s name because we agree with all he wrote or because he was a man without the same sins that plague us all.  We stand with Luther because he pointed to God’s clear truth in Scripture, even when it confronted him with his own sinfulness, because in Scripture he found the priceless jewel of God’s grace in Christ.

Rev. Joel Seifert serves Shining Mountains Lutheran Church in Bozeman, MT, and is the editor of The Four Branches.

Practical Theology: The Gatekeeper

VP, short for “Virtually Pointless.”  If you’ve ever had the role of a VP, you maybe feel that way.  Often, vice-president is a role that is more about potential than practicality.  If you’re looking for a substantial role for a vice-president, consider using him as the “Gatekeeper.”[1] What do I mean by that?

Last month’s practical theology edition introduced the idea of getting the right people in the right seats.  As a general observation, that is something that I don’t think we always do well at the congregational level.  Popularity, being listed first alphabetically, or simply being a warm body are at times the best qualifications required for leadership positions.  How can we improve that?

On a large scale, we can spend time getting to know our people.  Tools like a spiritual gift analysis and StrengthsFinder can be wonderful tools, but the results often get buried in some database or shelved in a 3-ring binder.  So why not make it one person’s job to go beyond the data and determine (or at least recommend) who is the right person for the right seat?  That is what a VP[2] can do for you, especially when it comes to your leadership team.

How could he go about his work?  Whether you have 24, 240, or 2400 members, it is difficult to know just how the Lord has specifically gifted the body of Christ you call your congregation.  To help us, we ask the congregation at large to nominate potential leaders.  After receiving the nominations, the VP proceeds to inform the nominees and schedules a half-hour interview with them. During that interview, he is able to gauge not only the nominee’s interest in serving, but more importantly, he is evaluating how he would benefit the team at large (e.g., we don’t want a team of all “Analytics” and no “Activators”) and how he would work with the specific called worker[3] with whom he would spend the most time.  At the end of the process, the Gatekeeper can bring to the congregation a recommendation of what he determines to be the right people for the right seats.

Is it a fool-proof system?  No.  But is it better than, “All in favor of George serving as president?” when George isn’t even present?  I would argue yes.  So, please, consider finding a gatekeeper if you want to keep your gait moving as a congregation.

[1] Follow the link for a Christianity Today article about the importance of “guarding the gate.”

[2] The role of “Gatekeeper” doesn’t necessarily have to fall to the VP, nonetheless, the importance of a “Gatekeeper” is the point of this article.

[3] The called worker also supplies information regarding the position and potential candidates.

Rev. Joel Heckendorf serves as the Coordinating Pastor of Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church in Greenville, WI.