Four Branches February 2018

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Exegetical Theology: The LORD Is There!

It was a stunning and welcome conclusion to Ezekiel’s prophecy. Working among the exiled, Ezekiel’s message concludes with a lengthy picture of spiritual restoration for God’s people (ch. 40-48). And with the climactic culmination of Ezekiel’s view of a restored temple and city comes the powerful and poignant description:  וְשֵׁם-הָעִיר מִיּוֹם יְהוָה שָׁמָּה [1]

In the final words יְהוָה שָׁמָּה a message of comfort is given. While the adverb שָׁם (here with the addition of a directional ה) is found hundreds of times in the Old Testament text, there is reason for us to pause because of the preceding word. What is indicative of this restored city? The Lord is there – present and accessible! Some see additional insight in the relative similarity between יְהוָה שָׁמָּה – the name perhaps expected for this restored city – and יְרוּשָׁלִַם, the name which is given.[2] So also, some literary beauty is found in the interplay of שֵׁם and שָׁם.

The extent to which this verse employs a stylistic play on words can be debated. More importantly, however, is the stated truth. Profundity is found in simplicity. We do well to appreciate that Ezekiel’s message has come full circle. Chapters 8-11 detail the departure of God’s presence from the temple which had been defiled and corrupted. The Lord was not there. And yet, the God of grace continues to lift eyes to a future, glorious reality. In Ezekiel 43 the glory of the Lord filled the temple again.  And what is more, the book concludes with the beautiful promise: Jehovah Shammah. What comfort for the listeners at Ezekiel’s time!

And what comfort for us as well.  While our sin is the sobering separator from our holy God, the message of the Gospel is the message that the Lord is “there for us” in Christ. When we celebrate the incarnation, we celebrate the Lord’s presence among us.  And when we rest in Christ’s saving work, we look forward as the Apostle John did to the full extent of Jehovah Shammah that describes our heavenly home. In Revelation 21-22, John, speaking with firsthand knowledge of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, picks up on imagery similar to that found in Ezekiel. And so we also look confidently forward to the New Jerusalem awaiting all of God’s redeemed children. Why? Because in the fullest sense, the Lord Is There!

Rev. David Bivens serves Christ the Lord Lutheran Church and Sienna Lutheran Academy in Sienna Plantation, TX, and as chairman of the BWM’s Administrative Committee for African Missions.

For further study: Consider reading through this brief essay which highlights the common thread in Ezekiel and Revelation.

[1] Ezekiel 48:35

[2] Cf. Daniel Block’s The Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 25-48. p.739ff. It is part of the NICOT commentary series.

Systematic Theology: Making Too Much of the Natural Knowledge

The natural knowledge of God is a tremendous gift. It moves believers to marvel at God’s power, majesty, and goodness and serves as a point of contact in our witness to unbelievers. However, just as there are some who have made too little of the natural knowledge, some have made too much of the natural knowledge and claimed that it is all that we need.

In Athens, Paul said that God made the world and every person from one man and even determined the exact times and places they would live, so that “they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:27). It seems reasonable to conclude that if God wants us to seek him through his work in creation, he could be found there. Paul says God’s “eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Romans 1:20). Again, it seems reasonable that a person could move from an understanding of God’s attributes to a knowledge of his person.

Is the natural knowledge of God all that we need to know him? Many, often influenced by neo-platonism, have thought so. The Roman Catholic theologian Robert Bellarmin wrote, “Add the fact that the fathers teach that the Gentiles, although they commonly worshiped a number of gods, nevertheless were able by nature to know the one God, just as the philosophers in fact recognized the one God and from that point of view were, so to speak, Christians naturally” (Disp., I, de Christo, l I, III, 14, p 139). But it’s not just Medieval Jesuit theologians who think so. It’s also your neighbor, who has never read John Muir, but “finds God in nature and chooses to worship there,” and your acquaintance, who has never studied Schleiermacher, but insists that she experiences God when she “feels connected with the universe.”

The idea that the natural knowledge of God is all that we need to truly know him is one that has been hardwired into the human psyche since the Fall. If religion is just apprehending the beauty in the world around us and moving from created things to the Creator, then there is no need to repent and no need for Christ. But such a religion is far from the grace revealed in Holy Scripture. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Instead of trying to climb into heaven by observing the clues in nature and doing one’s best with that knowledge, Jesus comes down to us.

While God testifies that he exists through nature, he proclaims his grace through his Word. There he shows us that a beauty far above anything in nature can be seen in his Son stretched out on the cross, guaranteeing our place as his brothers and sisters. Sadly, if we make too much of the natural knowledge, we make too little of Christ crucified.

Rev. Justin Cloute serves Living Savior Lutheran Church in Missoula, MT.

For a challenging read that explores the philosophical and theological background of Luther’s understanding of beauty, which is related to this topic, check out Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty: A Reappraisal by Mark Mattes.

Historical Theology: Mendelssohn – A Student of History

Mendelssohn’s music can certainly stand on its own two feet, but his revival of J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion literally changed the course of music history.

Note the word revival. Bach’s music was dead on arrival by the time Bach died in 1750. Theologically, his music was panned both by the Pietists and the Rationalists, albeit for different reasons. Musically, even Bach’s sons had warmed to the new style galant before their father’s grave was cold. The sun was setting on the Age of Lutheran Orthodoxy – and had already set on her musical treasures.

Mendelssohn’s early acquaintance with Bach’s music came through his great-aunt Sarah Levy. Levy studied keyboard with Bach’s son Wilhelm Friedemann. She possessed a large collection of Bach manuscripts and regularly hosted a gathering of musicians and academics in her home. One of those musicians was Carl Zelter, the director of the Berlin Sing-Akademie. She arranged for her ten-year-old nephew, Felix, to study with Zelter. Zelter, in turn, had studied with Fasch and Kirnberger. Both Kirnberger and Fasch studied with the greatest of Bach’s musical sons, Carl Phillip Emmanuel (the so-called “Berlin Bach”). Kirnberger had even studied with J. S. Bach for a time. Mendelssohn’s musical pedigree was impressive.

Ironically, Mendelssohn was reborn in Holy Baptism on J. S. Bach’s birthday, March 21st. Mendelssohn, the Judensohn and Neuchrist, would preside over the rebirth of the Lutheran Church’s great music after eighty years of neglect. Shockingly, he would do it at the age of 20. The streets of Berlin were abuzz with the news of “this youngster who conducted and accompanied each rehearsal with passion, with thoughtful precision, and entirely from memory.”[1] This was no small feat for human memory. A full performance of St. Matthew Passion requires 2 ½ hours!

Bach’s St. Matthew Passion premiered on Good Friday of 1727. The passion was re-introduced to the world on March 11, 1829. A second sold-out performance was held ten days later. Since March of 1829, the Lutheran Church has never again been without the music of her foremost musician.[2] Mendelssohn’s reintroduction of Bach to the world led to further chapters of Lutheran musical revival. The music of the older Lutheran masters like Buxtehude, Schütz, and Praetorius would once again see the light of day and proclaim the light of gospel truth.

Mendelssohn’s revival of Lutheranism’s greatest music happened in the earliest days of Lutheranism’s recovery of confessional doctrine and practice. To what degree was the recovery of Scriptural teaching encouraged or promoted by an earlier recovery of gospel-centered Lutheran music? This question is worthy of study and consideration.

It was Bach’s custom to begin his compositions with the initials J.J. for Jesu Juva (Latin: “Jesus, help!”). Following in the footsteps of Bach, Mendelssohn inscribed his compositions with the letters L.e.g.G for Laß es gelingen Gott! (German: “God, Let it succeed!”) God answered Mendelssohn’s musical prayers. And we’re are richly blessed because of it!

Rev. Aaron Christie serves Trinity Lutheran Church in Waukesha, WI, and is chairman of the Hymnody Committee for the WELS hymnal project.

[1] Taylor, 75

[2] “The Bach revival erupted with full force throughout Germany, where the St. Matthew Passion became the emblem of the ideal Protestant artwork.” (Todd, 198)

For further study:

We are in the middle of the Season of Lent. Dedicate one afternoon in March (the 11th or 21st?) to listen to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. My favorite recording by Helmut Rilling is available on Spotify, i-Tunes, and YouTube. You can easily google a parallel English/German libretto.

For a layman’s read on the clash of Lutheran orthodoxy with German Rationalism read Evening in the Palace of Reason. It recounts the 1747 meeting of J. S. Bach and Friedrich the Great in Potsdam outside of Berlin. Mendelssohn spent much of his life in Berlin as German society was moving from the Age of Reason to Romanticism.

Practical Theology: My Kingdom for a Good Records System

A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!

Of course, that’s not from the Bible. You probably recognize it as the cry of King Richard in Shakespeare’s play, Richard III. The cry teaches us that seemingly simple and unimportant things can be very important. Church Records of your Ministry are like that. You (and whoever follows you) will be well served by records which detail membership and the gospel ministry which is part of the lives of the people of God whom you serve – gospel ministry like: baptism, confirmation, marriage, divorce, congregational service, worship and communion attendance, offerings and even death.

There are many digital options – each having its own set of advantages and disadvantages. Some to research are:

This installment is not to plug any one system; in fact, you may be aware of many others. The point is that there are many systems to choose from and no excuse for not doing anything. Some systems are cloud based and allow restricted access to various components so that board members or called workers or volunteers can do data entry from home or even from a smartphone, perhaps after performing an emergency baptism at a hospital or making a member call.

Some things to consider as you investigate:

  • Some programs will allow you to add pictures and print picture directories.
  • You or your staff can generate financial and attendance reports and even give alerts regarding who has not been in church for three weeks.
  • Most platforms have a financial module to do budgeting, record offerings, and generate financial reports.
  • There is an investment of time for users and the challenge may be learning to harness all the power that is available.
  • Some software can be purchased and some come with a monthly or annual fee.

Finally, don’t underestimate the power of pen and paper to capture the times and ways you bring God’s word to bear on the hearts of the people you have been called to serve. Even a simple record of your ministry is better than no record at all.

Because you care for the souls the Lord has called you to shepherd (and because another called servant of the word will follow you some day) record the blessings God brings through your means of grace ministry. From those records you and the pastor who follows you will know whom to comfort and how to comfort and even whom to confront. After all it’s not just your means of grace ministry, it’s the means of grace ministry of those who follow you, too.

It’s caring for souls that makes good church records important. God bless your work.

Rev. John Seifert serves Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Midland, MI, and as president of the Michigan District.