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"Raising the Praise"

Presented on The Lutheran Hour on August 27, 2023
By Rev. Dr. John Nunes, Guest Speaker
Copyright 2023 Lutheran Hour Ministries

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Text: 1 Peter 1:3

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to His great mercy, He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead" (1 Peter 1:3).

Greetings, dear sisters and brothers, with the echo of Easter yet in our ears, "Christ is risen!" And the echo repeats, "He is risen, indeed, Alleluia!" He is risen and so are we raised in order to live lives of praise.

If, as one poet once put it, "Theology is doxology," then, it follows that "All theology must sing." If, as the composer of Psalm 148 tells us God raised His baton, and upon the downbeat of His command the cycle of life began, then the echo of praise reverberates in everything, from microscopic "creeping things" to supermassive galaxies in the "highest heavens."

Because if Christ has been raised from the dead, then, we can, we must, we will, we cannot but raise our praise to Him still. No matter what condition or situation or location we find ourselves in. Every day, and everywhere they go, these followers of Jesus bring the echo of Easter with them: in grocery stores, at bus stops, in coffee shops, at community meetings, in hotel lobbies, at the gym, and even from a deathbed. Jaroslav Pelikan was not only a world class historian, but he was a master of the turn of phrase. It was while he lay dying from lung cancer, that he once uttered one of the cleverest and simplest truths. From his death bed, Pelikan proclaimed: "If Christ is raised, [then] nothing else matters, if Christ is not raised, [then] nothing else matters." In other words, if the resurrection actually happened then our dying, declining, decaying bodies will be transformed, beautifully glorified, and this suffering will not matter. But if the resurrection is not true—then, as St Paul says, nothing really matters. My very words to you today are a waste of my oxygen; our faith is a collective waste of time; our hoped-for forgiveness is a wasted hope; life has no purpose if Christ is not raised from the dead. Then you are dead on arrival, doomed to a destiny of nothingness.

But God has caused us to be born again to a living hope and since we believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, then it follows that we've got a reason to rejoice, a true creed to confess, a trumpet to play, a liturgy to pray, a drum to beat, a dance to offer, and a song that must be sung while we have life and breath.

In my family nobody can beat me at making, hmmm, let's call it "a joyful noise to the Lord," by which I mean many decibels of loudness that are often just enough off-pitch to be annoying. Especially because I love to sing. I leave the real singing to Monique, my wife. I often get invited to go places and speak and then Monique sings as a part of our package, and then they invite her back. Not only is she immensely gifted, but there's something about faith, isn't there, for all of us, that finds its fullest expression in song. St Bernard of Clairvaux ponders, "What language shall I borrow to thank Thee, dearest Friend, For this Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end?"

There's something, isn't there about the mystery of faith that cries out for music-making, for something that transcends the spoken word, especially the preachy preacherness that robotically just talks at us. We must raise the praise because if life wins, then death is defeated. If love wins, then hate loses. If God wins, then that's something to get excited about!

You and I live in the echo of Easter as eyewitnesses and earwitnesses to the words and deeds of Jesus, we've got tell somebody, like the first followers of Jesus did. Take a look with me in Acts 5. See Peter there in verse 30. Peter, an apostolic witness who doesn't tip toe around the truth, you can almost feel him punching home his point, punctuating the fact of the resurrection! He says, "The God of our fathers raised Jesus whom you killed by hanging Him on a tree." But, by the way, Christ is risen! "God exalted Jesus at God's right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins." Peter knows that if you know what only God can do, not only for you, but also that Jesus, the Son of God is the Savior of the world. Then you do not have the right to remain silent. As Peter and John put it in Acts 4:20, "For we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard."

Speaking of annoying, we live in a world where all manner of people believe they have a right to be seen and to be heard on every topic all the time, it seems. Strange that we who really have something to say are far too silent. If Christ is risen, then we too are called to rise with this good news above the unnecessary noisemaking, the political grandstanding, the social-media showboating, the religiously motivated fear-mongering. We rise as peacemakers, bridge-builders, hope-dealers, often "quick to listen, sometimes "slow to speak," but always ready to rejoice; confessing concretely, speaking life into the lives of real people. I have an announcement: there has been a resurrection, the echo of which has changed the course of history. Christ is risen, indeed. Alleluia!

Now there are different ways to speak resurrection into the lives of others. She was bagging my groceries at the local market, her nametag said "Anastasia." "Wow" I blurted out to her. "What an amazing name." "Thanks" she replied, "it came from my parents who totally loved that animated character, you know, in that movie from back in the day." I thought to myself, "Back in the day"—another reminder of my age, since 1997 doesn't feel that long ago. But I didn't say any of that out loud. "Of course," I added, "Anastasia is an awesome name. "Do you know what it means?" "Nope, just the movie," she said. "Well, it means 'resurrection.'" "Really," she responded with a look of honest bewilderment. "What is that?" "Oh," I began to gently explain, "it's from the Greek language. It's a very important church word. It has to do with Jesus on the cross, and then coming back from the dead, like, you know, at Easter." "Hmmm," she concluded, as I walked away with my broccoli, sparkling water, and brioche buns. "I' guess!" she said with a polite smile, "I'm gonna have to check that out."

Friends, we cannot presume that people know the story. Sadly, not even some church people seem to be very energized by it. And maybe that's the problem. Because if we don't raise the praise, if we who have been named and claimed in three splashes of water and now claim to be followers of Jesus, if we are silent, then how can they know the story? But these things are written, these Scriptures, this Word of God is written so that we may believe that Jesus is the Christ, risen from death to life and that by believing we may have life in the Name of the Son of God, Jesus. And because we have this life, we break out with words of joy, eager for every opportunity, not like a dogmatic sledgehammer, but lovingly, gently, carefully, we echo the same witness that the first followers of Jesus risked their lives for. They had been warned "not to speak in the Name of Jesus" —but check this out: they considered it an honor to sacrifices themselves, "to suffer dishonor for that Name." We live in that echo! And the fact that this news still echoes two millennia removed from the epicenter of that event is proof that one, the resurrection is true and two, that the Holy Spirit has power for us. "Blessed are those who have not seen," Jesus said, "and yet have believed." I am gripped by this description of the first followers of Jesus in Acts 5. "And every day, in the temple and from house to house," notice it's every day, not just Sunday, morning, for an hour, but 24/7. Notice it's in "every place," not just sacred spaces, every day, from house to house, "they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ." I am gripped by the way these first followers were gripped by that echo of Easter—like an earworm, like a song you can't get out of your mind like, as Martin Franzmann calls it, "that ancient, true, and constant melody," the echo of the Holy Spirit, God's "living breath did blow for all the world to hear, living and clear, for all the world to hear."

I encourage you to consider the discipline of pausing, taking an inventory of who or what is around you, who needs to hear the story the ordinary people, buried by the unrelenting stress of human existence, ordinary people, striving to find something extraordinary in life. Joe the handyman, trying to be a licensed plumber; Jane the professor, but she's only an adjunct; Juan the immigrant, too old to learn English; Jill the single mother holding down two jobs and two kids; Jeremiah, the body builder, fighting to stay clean—people, desperate in their silent cries for connection to a good news story, for someone without an agenda, for something more than a hook-up app, good news of great mercy, of a great God, of a living hope. For people lost in the obscurity of a loneliness that feels incurable; people hiding in the obscenity of unspeakable abuse; people fighting against the gloom of a terminal illness; people wandering in an aching valley of the shadow of death. There we are face to face with people, we, who have seen the Lord; we, who echo with life; we, who burst with joy: looking, listening, seeking opportunities "every day, in the temple and from house to house, we do not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ." Because if Christ is raised, where are those whose life is praise! We are those whose life if praise, and I encourage you to consider the discipline of pausing and praising, pausing and taking an inventory of who's around you and of what's around you.

Recently, one evening, at the end of a grinding day, I sat alone, in the empty nave of my darkened church in a pew about halfway back, near where Susan usually sits. And the world whizzed by, cars and busses on Wilshire Boulevard, streetlights shining through the red, blue, gold, and green stained-glass windows, which glowed casting pale streaks of light, but just enough for me to see the crucifix, gruesome, Christ alone, stark. "What language shall I borrow to thank Thee dearest Friend?" I had no words! And then my eyes were led beyond, up to the large cross above the altar. And there I lost track of time, as the empty cross stared back at me; it almost spoked. I imagined the blood that would still stain the wood, still be there on the first Easter. And I softly raised my praise for the One who died and rose for me. Praise isn't always loud. 1 Peter 3:8 "Though I have not seen Him, I love Him. Though I do not now see Him, I believe in Him. And I rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory." Because my God is my miracle-working, door-opening, grave-vacating, death-conquering, storm-calming, fear-removing God. My God is a mountain-moving, Good News-preaching, truth-teaching, water-walking, mercy-talking, Spirit-hovering over the waters of creation, outcast-loving, through the waters of re-creation in Baptism. My God, through Jesus, is a second chance-giving, cross-bearing, hope-sharing, people-caring, salvation-securing, heart-encouraging, kingdom-bringing, joy-singing, peace-making, chains-breaking sin-of-the-world taking, sinner-forgiving, saint-motivating, reason-for-praise raising. That's my God!

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We raise our praise. Amen.

Reflections for August 27, 2023
Title: Raising the Praise

Mike Zeigler: I'm visiting with Pastor Joe Cox. He is a fellow of the International Academy of Apologetics, Evangelism, and Human Rights. Also serves as director of curriculum and department head for theology and English at Lutheran High School South right here in St. Louis. Welcome, Pastor Joe.

Joe Cox: Thank you for having me, Dr. Zeigler

Mike Zeigler: Joe, you were also recognized recently as Teacher of the Year by the Herzog Foundation, one of 12 Christian educators from around the country recognized, and part of the experiences that you get a trip out to Washington D.C. in the Museum of the Bible. Tell us a little bit about that.

Joe Cox: It's really an overwhelming experience to be notified, specifically when I got the phone call I was shaking a little bit. The Herzog Foundation is one that is dedicated to the development of Christian education and Christian educators, and they really put a lot of money into making experiences for professional development, specifically in bringing one's Christian faith into the classroom, available.

Mike Zeigler: Tell us a little bit about how you became interested in being not only an educator, but a pastor. Who were some of the people who inspired you?

Joe Cox: I grew up going to a Lutheran church in an area that had a lot of Lutheran high schools and so forth, but I wasn't the kid that went to the Lutheran high schools. I was a public-school kid through high school and college. So my home pastor, Ron Briggs, was one who just his love and his compassion, we were a very small church. I like to joke that I was the youth group of one. So, we did everything together. And then when I went and went to college, I attended the University of Michigan and wound up involved at University Lutheran Chapel. And the pastor there at the time was Pastor Ed Krause, who once again was just this loving man who demonstrated patience and really was a fatherly figure for a number of us.

And I still remember the conversation with Dr. Krause where he—at one point I said, "I'm not sure I want to be a parish pastor." And he says, "Just go to the seminary. There's lots of other things you could wind up doing." And I did. And while I was on vicarage, which is our internship through that pastoral program. My primary job was teaching religion classes in the grade school, and I absolutely fell in love with it. I came back to the seminary and said, "Please put me in a school." And I've been working in education ever since.

Mike Zeigler: Joe, what are some of the most rewarding parts of your job as a teacher?

Joe Cox: Yeah. The easy first thing is when a student has that 'a-ha' moment, a student who literally will blurt out, "Oh, wow! As they've suddenly been introduced to a new way to look at the world, a new way to think about our relationship with Christ, a new way of reading Scripture, as we really delve into looking at what does it mean to have a Christocentric approach where we're looking at Scripture and asking, "How is Scripture pointing us specifically to the revelation of God's love manifested through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ?" And so when I have these students have these moments where suddenly they realize the world is so much bigger than they realized, the world in a sense is so much more mysterious than they've been led to believe. And I mean that in a good mystery way, where we have this opportunity to recognize for each and every one of us, we have our own unique quests, if you will, that the Lord has placed us upon. And as He's preparing these students for whatever vocations they find themselves in professionally, not to mention personal vocations, there is so much out there for them to learn and to experience and to find joy in all that's been shared before them.

That is my goal, whether it be teaching literature and using literature as a means to point students to consider their faith and to consider what it means to be a Christian human being, whether it be diving into Scripture or guiding students into different ways of understanding how we can use apologetics to answer the questions that people have as we prepare to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That for me is the real joy.

Mike Zeigler: So you've devoted 20-plus years. Your first call right out of seminary was into a school setting.

Joe Cox: Correct.

Mike Zeigler: You've devoted your whole time as a pastor, as an educator. Why is that important? Why is it important to remember that there is this education part of making disciples for Jesus?

Joe Cox: We are teaching the next generation how to view the world. There are presuppositions that are being taught sometimes, not even intentionally. It's impossible to separate that from real teaching. With my students, I want to inculcate into them that recognition that the head knowledge, the facts that they're being taught, are merely a stepping stone for being able to think in deeper ways about the world in which they find themselves and being able to evaluate that world and being able to interact in that world in a way that continues the work that Christ would have them do.

Some are going to do that in very secular ways. Some are going to walk into a courtroom, and they are going to fight for the justice of some poor woman who can barely afford to put food on the table who's being taken advantage of by someone who has the power to do so. Others are going to go through the halls of seminary and they're going to stand up on Sunday morning and they are going to proclaim the Gospel as purely as humanly possible. Again, absolutely it's important to do, to build that foundation, but that education isn't just about teaching you how to be a robot or how to have utility in the world—but how to make an impact on the world and how to find joy in the world that God has given us.

Mike Zeigler: Well, thank you for joining us today. God bless you and all your colleagues in this great task and Christian educators all over the country, all over the world, as they help students integrate that faith and be Christ-centered human beings.

Joe Cox: Thank you so much.

Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"Built on the Rock the Church Shall Stand" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House) Used by permission.

Change Their World. Change Yours. This changes everything.

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