The Joy of All the Earth: Christmas Greetings from the ILC

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Dear friends,

ILC Vice-Chairman Robert Bugbee
ILC Vice-Chairman Robert Bugbee

Luther’s old Christmas carol, “Vom Himmel hoch” (“From Heaven Above”), is bright and cheerful when you come to verse 2:

“To you this night is born a Child of Mary, chosen virgin mild; This little Child of lowly birth shall be the joy of all the earth.”
(
Lutheran Service Book 358:2)

The holy Christ Child comes to be the joy of all the earth. That is so very true. But it wasn’t really Luther’s idea. He got it from God Himself, Who commissioned the Christmas angels to sing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men” (St. Luke 2:14).

God is sending Bethlehem’s Good News out across the world once again this Christmas. His Christ is coming into all sorts of lands and situations. He is there where people are terrified over the spread of Ebola, because they have witnessed loved ones and friends cut down in the prime of life and cannot see the end of the outbreak. He wants to enter into homes and families in eastern Europe, worried that they won’t get enough natural gas to heat their dwellings as the days grow colder, and sore at heart over the shooting and bombing which have killed their neighbours and blown up large sections of their towns and cities.

He wants to come close to the comfortable and often very self-satisfied inhabitants of prosperous nations, who imagine they are doing quite fine on their own and don’t need a god to help them with much of anything. The little Christ is seeking admittance to hospital units, prison cells, and lonely bedrooms where somebody lost a life’s partner this year and now faces the first holiday season alone.

“This little Child of lowly birth… shall be the Joy of all the earth.” Yes, He has come to be the joy for all those various situations, and a hundred others you cannot even imagine. He has come to be the Rescuer Who lived and died to win God’s pardon for the needy and often rebellious human race. He has come to make clear that the Lord of heaven and earth wants you badly, is on your side, and stands with you in your troubles. This includes the troubles you caused and the ones that overtook you like a hurricane you couldn’t stop. He has come to bring you and God together again. In so doing He also works to plant into you the kind of heart that comes together with other people from whom you are distant, for whatever reason.

He isn’t offering you magic or quick fixes. He never tells you that the political strife, the ravaging diseases, the economic wreckage, and your personal struggles will all dissolve and blow away immediately when you open your heart to Him. But He comes with love and mercy for your wrongs. He promises to hear your cries. He helps you hold up under your burdens so they become more bearable.

He’s not bringing you a fairy-tale world to live in. But He offers you Himself, all the kindness and help He came to bring. He presses it all into your hand, not because you earned it or have a right to demand it, but because He, your Saviour, wants you to have it. There is no life, no home, no town, no country, no person in any situation whom He does not want to have. It does you and me good to remember that as He comes toward us again this Christmas. Luther had it right: “This little Child of lowly birth… shall be the joy of all the earth.”

Whatever situation you find yourself in and wherever you are located as you read these lines: I wish you this joy very strongly and personally as God’s Christ once again makes His way to you.

Rev. Dr. Robert Bugbee, President of Lutheran Church–Canada and Vice-Chairman of the International Lutheran Council.

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Ukrainian Lutherans elect new bishop

Bishop Aleksandr Yurchenko preaches at his installation service.
Bishop Aleksandr Yurchenko preaches at his installation service.

UKRAINE – The Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches of Ukraine (SELCU), meeting in convention November 17-18, elected Rev. Aleksandr Yurchenko as its new bishop. He succeeds Rev. Dr. Viktor Gräfenstein, who served as bishop for 18 years and had declined to accept nomination for another term.

Bishop Yurchenko graduated from Odessa Theological Seminary in 2002. He currently serves as a missionary to prisoners in the Nikolaev region and as a temporary pastor at the newly organized congregaton in Nova Kachovka. He lives in Odessa.

The convention also elected Rev. Oleg Shewtschenko as Assistant to the Bishop.

Convention sessions were held at Concordia Seminary in Usatovo, a suburb of Odessa, located in the southern part of the country on the Black Sea. Long-time partner church Lutheran Church–Canada (LCC) sent representatives to the convention, with President Robert Bugbee (Vice-Chairman of the International Lutheran Council) and Rev. Dr. Norman Threinen (who has long served as Rector of the Ukranian seminary) in attendance. President Bugbee preached for the opening service of the convention, brought greetings from LCC, and was asked for advice periodically throughout the sessions on various business matters coming before the assembly.

President Bugbee (front left) struggles to read a portion of the Russian-language installation of SELCU Bishop Aleksandr Yurchenko (right). Standing between them is outgoing Bishop Viktor Gräfenstein, while Dr. Norman Threinen looks on.
President Bugbee (front left) struggles to read a portion of the Russian-language installation of SELCU Bishop Yurchenko (right). Standing between them is outgoing Bishop  Gräfenstein, while Dr. Norman Threinen looks on.

Among other things, the convention determined to resume instruction at Concordia Seminary in September 2015. The seminary had suspended classes in the past year due to the political instability caused by the Russian invasions. Odessa is fortunately far from the fighting, and so students and teachers should be able to do their work in a secure environment. The convention resolved to ask LCC to extend the appointment of Dr. Threinen to continue serving as Rector of the seminary as preparations are made to begin classes again.

President Bugbee took the opportunity of this visit to accept preaching invitations at local parishes in Nikolayev, Oktyabrskoye and Savran. He was also the featured preacher at an evangelistic service hosted by the congregation in downtown Odessa on a Saturday evening as it sought to invite unchurched people from the area.

“Our brothers and sisters here have gone through a very trying time in recent months,” President Bugbee observed, “but I am impressed with their willingness to carry on and make the best of the crisis besetting their country. They are deeply grateful for the attitude of support on the part of the Canadian government and people, and are glad for the partnership between LCC and their church. They took time during their convention to pray for the work we do in Canada, and I do hope our churches will repeatedly name them and their needs before the Lord in their public prayers. The relationship to this church remains one of our primary partnerships, and there’s still a lot of work to do here!”

Lutheran Church–Canada—a member church of the International Lutheran Council—has long supported SELCU in its outreach work, its social ministries, and its theological education. SELCU is a young church body, with thirteen congregations throughout the region. Five of these congregations are in Crimea. Consequently, the emergence of a new federal border between these congregations and the rest of SELCU’s congregations (in Ukraine) has created significant difficulties for the church.

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Ukraine’s bishop asks for prayer

SELCU Bishop Gräfenstein (left) and ILC Vice-Chairman Bugbee in Ukraine (file photo).
SELCU Bishop Gräfenstein (left) and ILC Vice-Chairman Bugbee in Ukraine (file photo).

UKRAINE – The situation in Ukraine continues to be tense, following the occupation of the Crimean peninsula by Russian military and pro-Russian militia. And things are only getting worse, according to Bishop Viktor Gräfenstein of the Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches of Ukraine (SELCU).

“The situation is deteriorating every day,” Bishop Gräfenstein reports in a March 4 letter. “Nobody knows what tomorrow will bring. One of our brothers from Odessa, who is currently serving in the armed forces, reported that all soldiers are armed and constantly in a state of readiness for war.”

“Of course the Crimean Peninsula is the primary focus,” the letter continues. “Crimea formerly belonged to Russia, but was transferred to Ukraine in the Soviet period. Now, while Ukraine grapples with the question of whether to line up with Russia or with the European Union (EU), Russia threatens Ukraine with war, especially if Ukraine goes with the EU. Most Crimean residents are Russians who wish to be part of Russia. So now Russia uses this sentiment to hold the Crimea back from the EU.”

SELCU has five congregations on the Crimean peninsula, but Bishop Gräfenstein notes that, while the situation is tense, the people are still safe. “Our brothers and sisters are not doing badly at this moment,” he writes. “People in general are rushing to stockpile groceries, and nearly all the store shelves are empty. Everyone is concerned that, if it comes to war, a famine will break out.”

Bishop Gräfenstein ends his letter with a request for prayer: “We pray that the Lord would give to the responsible leaders grace and wisdom to govern in peace,” he writes. “Thank you for your prayer support.”

We pray that the Lord would give to the responsible leaders grace and wisdom to govern in peace.

SELCU is a young church body, with thirteen congregations throughout Ukraine. It has strong ties to Lutheran Church–Canada (LCC) which has long supported its ministry, especially with theological education and missions. Late last week, Rev. Dr. Robert Bugbee (President of Lutheran Church–Canada and Vice-Chairman of the International Lutheran Council) called on the wider church to hold up Ukraine in prayer.

“We ask the Lord to comfort the sorrowing who have lost loved ones,” President Bugbee wrote. “We ask Him to meet the legitimate needs of the Ukrainian people, regardless of their preferred languages and political orientation. We implore him that the work of our mission partners in the Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches of Ukraine may not be disrupted by the trouble.”

“Above all,” he continued, “we ask God to give courage to our pastors and people there in the mist of turmoil to point their neighbours to Jesus Christ, the great Prince of Peace.”

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Published concurrently at The Canadian Lutheran.