– Ben Martens

church year

500th Reformation Anniversary

Today is a church holiday called Reformation. It commemorates the work of the reformers, specifically Martin Luther, to try and bring the Catholic church back to a sound doctrinal position. He was a strong supporter of the church but did not support the places where they were deviating from scripture. His work to repair the problems in the Catholic church were ultimately unsuccessful, but the “protestants” did break off from the Catholic church to try and form churches that held to the teachings of the Bible.

As with all things human and sinful, some of those protestant groups also succumbed to falsehoods and inaccuracies over the years. It takes constant vigilance to keep the devil from eroding the basic truths of the Bible. That vigilance is what the church (or at least our church?) is really celebrating at Reformation. We’re not worshiping Martin Luther. We’re reminding ourselves to continue to test everything we are taught against the unerring Bible. We can sum it up in three phrases (often heard in Latin): sola scriptura, sola fide and sola gratia. Scripture alone reveals the saving work in Christ. Faith in that saving work of Christ is the only path to heaven. And grace, God’s undeserved love for us, is the only way we receive that saving work. If we hear teaching that involves non-Biblical “revelations from God”, requiring good works to get to heaven, or any part of the plan of salvation that requires our own input, those teachings are contrary to what God wrote for us in the Bible.

1 John 4:1-6

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.

You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood.

Want to learn more? Our church body, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, has a lot of resources available.

Holy Week

holy-weekContinuing in the “What do all those church holidays mean?” series, we’re now in Holy Week. It’s a big week for Christians. It started last Sunday with Palm Sunday. This is the day when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and was greeted by lots of people waving palm branches to celebrate his arrival. He knew full well what was going to happen to him later in the week, but he came anyway. The people were celebrating him as their king and Jesus cried because they still didn’t get it. He wasn’t their eathly king. He was there to save them from their sins for eternity! Some of those same people would be in the crowd later in the week shouting for him to be crucified.

Four days later, we celebrate Maundy Thursday. On this day, Jesus ate the “Last Supper” with his disciples. You’ve probably seen the famous painting depicting this scene. At this meal, Jesus gave us the sacrament of communion. We still partake in communion regularly throughout the church year. We receive his body and blood along with the bread and the wine to give us forgiveness and strengthen our faith.

The next day is Good Friday. This church service is usually very somber. This is the day we remember Jesus’s death on the cross. He was abandoned by his disciples and the crowds that he had preached to were now shouting “Crucify him!” He was executed in one of the most gruesome manners that humankind has ever developed, and it all happened because you and I sinned. The Bible says that the wages of sin is death, so God sent his only Son to die in our place to pay for our sins.

Thankfully, that’s not the end of the story. On Easter Sunday, various people went to the tomb and found that he was not there. He had risen! His death marks his victory over death and the devil. Because He died and rose again, we can live with Him forever in heaven.

It’s an incredible roller coaster of emotions for the Christian, but it’s a fantastic annual reminder about how seriously God takes sin. God demands perfection and even one single sin is enough to send someone to hell for eternity. We’re all hopeless, but Jesus took our place, bore the weight of the entire world’s sin and died for us. But because he was not only true God but also true man, he had the power to rise from the dead. God demands perfection but he also showed us mercy by sending Jesus to pay for our sins. Nothing we can do can ever pay that price, but if we believe that Jesus died for us, we will spend eternity with Him in heaven.

What Is Lent?

season-of-lentThis is the next installment of my “What does that religious celebration mean?” series. The first was Advent. We made it through Christmas. I forgot to write about Epiphany and now we’re onto Lent. So what is Lent?

Lent covers the six weeks before Easter and kicks off with Ash Wednesday. Many churches will have extra Wednesday night services so you end up going to church twice each week. The extra services are there to giive you even more time to reflect on the meaning of Lent. The whole point is to show us our need for a Savior and what’s about to happen at the end of Lent (Jesus’s death and His resurrection at Easter.) Lent reminds us WHY Jesus had to come to suffer, die and rise again. He did all that because we are sinners. The law that God sets forth in the Bible is very clear. He demands 100% aboslute perfection. If you can pull that off, you get into heaven. But as you probably guessed, that’s impossible .From the moment we are conceived, we’re sinful. If that’s all we covered in Lent services, it would be extremely depressing because we’d leave knowing that we’re heading straight to hell when we die. But the story doesn’t end there. After each reminder of our failures, we are presented with the reminder that Jesus came to pay the penalty for sin in our place. Through him, we are guaranteed spots in heaven and all that’s required is faith.

You may have heard people talk about Lent in terms of giving something up for the season. The idea has lost a lot of its good intentions. Many people now do it because they think they’re going to gain points with God if they choose to not eat Skittles or drink coffee during Lent. Nope. But giving up something for Lent can be a good thing if you use it as a constant daily reminder of the meaning behind the season for Lent.

So if you step into a Lent service, it might seem like a somber occasion. There’s black on the altar and there’s a lot of talk about all the suffering that Jesus had to endure because we are screwups. But stay for the end and you’ll hear the wonderful message of what that Jesus’s death and resurrection mean for us if we believe. We get eternal life in heaven. It’s the ultimate gift.

What is Advent?

AdventReligions have a lot of seasons and celebrations. I readily admit that I don’t know most of the non-Christian ones and even some of the lesser known Christian ones are hard to remember. I won’t do this for every single Church season or special day, but I thought that for some of them I would do a little write up about what it means for Christians and why I celebrate it. It just so happens that the Christian “liturgical year” starts in December.

The church year starts with the season of Advent. Advent starts four Sundays before Christmas and runs up to Christmas. So for most years it starts the Sunday after Thanksgiving. These four Sundays are sometimes represented by four candles. One more candle gets lit each week. Some Advent wreaths have a fifth candle in the middle and that one gets lit on Christmas Day.

Advent is a season of waiting. We’re not just staring at our watches, waiting for Christmas to come. We are joyfully anticipating Christmas and reflecting on why we need Him and what His birth meant for us. Believers in the Old Testament waited thousands of years of Jesus to come. We only wait a few weeks and we get to celebrate it each year. But in addition to preparing and focusing on the birth of Jesus at Christmas, we also expectantly wait for his return at the end of the world when those who believe that Jesus died for their sins will be taken to heaven.

Want to know more? Check out this article about Advent from our church body.

I’ve already written a post about why I celebrate Christmas so it will be a little while before there’s another post in this series.

Easter vs. Christmas

emptytombAs we drove to church on Easter morning, I thought about how different it was than Christmas morning. Many of the stores were still open and traffic was about average for a Sunday morning. Almost nobody had been taking vacation at work the previous week and only parents with kids on spring break were taking the following week off. I bet a large part of the population didn’t even know it was Easter.

As a Christian, it’s hard to decide whether Easter or Christmas is a bigger holiday. Both are critical to my future. I suspect that a lot more people understand the importance of Christmas than Easter. A couple years ago, I wrote an explanation of what Christmas means for the Christian. Today I’ll do the same thing for Easter. If you’ve ever been a little curious why we get excited about this holiday, here’s your chance to find out.

At Christmas we celebrate the almighty God coming to earth as a human. That in itself is pretty impressive, but if that’s all it was, we’d all still be in a bad spot. That’s because every one of us is sinful. We’ve all broken God’s law at least once (more like millions of times) and God demands perfection to enter heaven. So on our own, the only fate for us at death is eternal damnation in hell. But that’s where Easter comes into play.

Jesus didn’t just hang around on the earth for a while to sight see. He was here to live a perfect life and take the punishment for ALL of us. His death, which we remember on Good Friday, wasn’t just one man dying. It was God punishing His only Son for our sin. But it doesn’t end there. On Easter morning, Jesus rose from the dead proclaiming his power over death and the devil.

Without the death and resurrection of Jesus and without our faith that it happened, when we die, we would be judged by our own track record. We’re all sinful so we’d all be condemned to hell. But because Jesus did die and rise. Those who believe will not be judged on their own record. Instead, Jesus steps in and points out that he paid the price for our sins so God the Father counts us as blameless and we enter heaven for eternity.

So THAT is why Christians are so excited about Easter. We should be this excited every day of the year, but Easter is an extra special reminder of the incredible gift that we have been given.

P.S. I’m turning off comments on this post because I’m not looking to start a public discussion, but if you want to know more about what I believe, you can of course ask me or check out this website from our church group. I also left out specific Bible references to keep this short and approachable, but I’m happy to provide passages to back up everything written here.

P.P.S. If you want to hear Pastor talk about this more in his sermon from this past Easter service, you can view it on YouTube.

Merry Christmas

It’s somewhat of a tradition around here to post our Christmas card along with the text of Jesus’s birth from Luke chapter 2. This year I decided to do it a bit differently. You saw the Christmas card yesterday, and today I thought I’d ramble for a bit about Christmas.

There are lots of phrases bandied about this time of year like “Jesus is the reason for the season” and “Don’t forget the true meaning of Christmas.” Christians know exactly what those phrases mean, but there are probably quite a few people out there for whom those phrases are nothing more than cryptic codes. So today I’ll explain why I celebrate Christmas.

The short explanation is that Christmas is the day that Jesus, the son of God, was born on earth. While the almighty God coming to earth in human form is quite the event in it’s own right, there’s so much more to it than that.

Let’s start back at the beginning. When God created the world, He created Adam and Eve as perfect human beings. They sinned, rebelling against God’s perfection and forever changed the course of history. God demands perfection. Do you want to get to heaven? Great, all you have to do is be perfect every single day of your life. If you deviate from perfection even a single time, that’s it, you’re going to hell. And I’ll give you a hint, no one has ever done that. Adam and Eve sinned and from then on, every one of us were born sinful. God’s rules are simple. Heaven is for perfection, hell and eternal death is for everything else. That’s a pretty grim judgment for us.

When God confronted Adam and Eve about their sin, he explained those consequences to them but then promised to send his son to earth. His son would live a perfect life, be killed as the payment for all of our sins, and then rise again to declare his victory over death, sin and hell. The entire Old Testament (roughly the first two thirds of the Bible) teaches us about God’s law, showing us the many ways in which we have fallen short of His perfection, and it continues the promise that God’s son would come to save us.

This is where the story of Christmas comes into play. God placed his Son, the baby Jesus, in Mary’s womb and nine months later, in a stable full of animals, the son of God was born as a human being. His name, of course, was Jesus, and in addition to being fully human, he was also God. On the night he was born, the star appeared, the shepherds saw it, and your nativity scene came to life. So that’s pretty impressive. The all-knowing, all-powerful God is now here on earth in human form. But if the story ended there, we would all still be going to hell because we’re still sinful and sin equals death.

Thankfully, Jesus went on to do what none of us could do: he lived a perfect life. He was then crucified, and with his death, he paid the price for all of our sins. Three days later, he rose from the dead and about a month later, he ascended back into heaven.

We’re all still here on earth, sinning our lives away no matter how hard we try. But because of Jesus, we have hope. Because I believe that Jesus died for my sins, I know that when I die, I’ll go to heaven because God the Father accepts Jesus’s death as payment for my sins. If God actually did ask me why he should let me into heaven, my answer would be simple: “I believe that Jesus’s death paid the price for my sins.” There’s nothing that I can do to improve on that. No amount of trying to be good or making up for things I did wrong can get me into heaven. I’ll be there solely because when God looks at me, he sees me through the death and resurrection of Jesus. It’s a free gift for anyone who believes.

Knowing all that, is it any wonder why I celebrate Christmas? Yes, I enjoy the Christmas lights, Bing Crosby singing about a White Christmas, and stuffing my face with food on Christmas Day, but it all comes in a distant second place to celebrating the birth of my Savior.

P.S. I’m turning off comments on this post because I’m not looking to start a public discussion, but if you want to know more about what I believe, you can of course ask me or check out this website from our church group.