Message for Epiphany

January 11, 2018 Leave a comment

Note: the audio for this message can be heard at this link.

Ephesians 3:1-12

Grace and peace to you…

Today is the Epiphany and the theme of the day is how the Gentiles are also included in this prophecy and fulfillment God has made to His people Israel of sending them a Savior. Among the first people to worship Jesus are these non-Jewish “wise men from the East.” “Wise men” is how many try to soften magi because magi shares the same root as magic. Any fantasy fiction fans out there will recognize we are in the realm of mages and soothsayers and what, wizards? It’s not the kind of thing we hear too often about in church; it’s more like a discussion about a show or game on Reddit. But this word “magi” evokes the “other,” the alternative world that can be seen in dreams or from where incredible power can be summoned with spells. Come to find out that historically, there was a priestly caste of the Medes and Persians known as magi. They may well have been the folks who kept the knowledge of their civilization. We separate our academics and our clergy and our physicians. They had them rolled altogether along with a mix of philosopher and astrologer and maybe even architect, too. It makes perfect sense that while the Jews were in exile in the East for two generations they would have shared their story and their hope of a savior with people like magi who were always searching for and adding to their wisdom. And four centuries later, when the star appeared, these magi went to pay homage and worship the one who is born king of the Jews. And so some of the first folks who come to worship Jesus are not Jewish believers but pagan wizards.

We’re so familiar with Bible words but some words we really should hear in sharper relief. Magi is one of those words but so is “Gentile.” Gentile means everybody who isn’t an Israelite. It means, “pagan.” Jesus was not just a Jewish savior. He was born to save all people. Isaiah’s prophecy is happening. The “nations” are coming to the light of the Lord’s glory. And that’s the command Jesus makes to His disciples at the end of the Matthew’s Gospel: “make disciples of all nations.” The word there is Gentiles, it’s “everybody else,” “the pagans.”

And that’s the central theme of Epiphany. God is about His task of including people from every nation, tribe, people, and language, of making them His people. Like He once made the genetic descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob into a holy nation, so now through the message of Jesus crucified and raised, He makes all people into His holy people. Paul says it this way, “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”

Paul tells us, he is a servant of this gospel message and so it is “through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known.” The church exists to make known this message about Jesus. And that’s what I want to spend the rest of my time talking about with you this morning.

Even as I said it, you might have been thinking about looking around at who’s with you here to see what this might mean. Have you thought about it like that? God does this amazing thing: He sends His own Son to rescue humanity from death and eternal separation from Him and He entrusts the church to tell the story. Paul says it this way at the end of Ephesians, chapter 1, “And he [God] put all things under his [Jesus’] feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (vv. 22, 23) It’s not how I would have done it. I’ve met me. I would use the angels. It worked with Mary, Joseph and the shepherds. But Paul says it’s our job.

We keep using that word, church. I should be clear. We’re not talking about church, “the building” or even “church body” we’re talking about “the body of Christ.” We Lutherans talk about the visible church, usually the congregation or even synod, and the invisible church, the flock of all God’s true sheep who hear His voice. That’s all correct but I wonder if it’s not a step that leads us further from the visible reality of church. After all the eternal Logos of God took on human flesh and dwelt among us. We are analog creatures and that’s how God deals with us and how we should relate with one another. So we’re left with the vehicle God gave us, the local gathering of the body of Christ, the flock of God, to hear His voice, the church.

That may, or, more likely, may not, be what you think of when you think of coming to church. For some, church is a place where your parents brought you. Others made their way into the church later in life, sometimes out of curiosity, sometimes at the invitation of friends. We go to this church most Sundays. We get to know the names of the people there; some become friends. We are called to worship by the pastor. We sing hymns and listen to Bible readings and sermons. We receive the sacrament of the altar. Sometimes there is a baptism. But what takes place here is pretty ordinary stuff with pretty ordinary people. At least that’s what it looks like. There’s really no training required. No skills to master. There are just people singing and praying and listening, being forgiven, exchanging vows, receiving Jesus in the bread and wine, celebrating marriage, honoring the dead. Millions of men and women and children all over the world do it every Lord’s Day. We’ve been doing it for two thousand years and will likely continue for many, many more. But if anyone arrived on any given Sunday looking to be entertained or find relief from a dull and boring life, they’ll likely not find it today, and they’ll likely not be back. Anyone looking to see a miracle or a vision will most likely be disappointed. Because what we do is all pretty ordinary. What you see is what you get.1

I’ve been reading a lot on this topic and one idea from one of my pastors struck me. He said that when he was starting out in the 1960’s doing a new church plant in a suburb north of Baltimore he kept running into people who were not really into going to church, they were “into Spirituality.” He said he felt like he was trying to sell and repair bicycles in a country where bicycles used to be the primary transportation but were now suddenly replaced by cars. Bicycles were now obsolete. Cars were the thing, far faster, far easier; no pedals. Pedaling a bike was church going. Driving a car was spirituality.2 He talked about how he felt a generation ago, but I can still identify with that feeling.

A generation ago in Europe, after the second World War, church attendance fell off a cliff. Anybody watching what was happening there predicted it would happen here. But a generation later, I came of age at a time when the Missouri Synod and the American Church in general was still pretty healthy. The numbers had dipped a bit, but it was nothing a serious evangelism program or some new music couldn’t cure. Thirty years ago this year, I left home to study to be a pastor, and the difference is plain to see.

Who comes to church anymore? By and large the people who come to church are not all that different from the people who don’t if the surveys are to be believed. We are pretty secularized, with little sense of reverence or practice in entering into the mystery of God. We are used to talking life as a series of problems to overcome. We generally interpret the world around us in terms of commodities we can get for ourselves. We have little sense of true need for God. To cultivate that sense is uphill work. On top of that, we are in general, uprooted from our previous homes and strangers to one another. Very few of us know our neighbors. We are, by and large, lonely. And we miss our friends so you might think we’d be interesting in creating community and being neighborly. You’d think. But there is this individualistic streak in us. We want, above all, to be independent and self-sufficient.3 They’re supposed to know we are Christians by our love, by our love. How can we possibly love one another, if we don’t even like one another? Evidence of all that out there in here is that try as we might, the church is a real place among real people with real challenges.

Church, inglorious as it is to the naked eye, is the body of Christ, warts and all, as it comes to live in this hostile country, among people who are strangers to one another—some who think they are better than others and are quite willing to help God do what He has to do, and some who think they are inadequate for anything that has to do with God. Christ Jesus, our head is active in this place at this hour. Make no mistake about it. Paul makes this clear in Ephesians chapter two, where God and Jesus are the doers of what’s happening in church nine times: Jesus is our peace (v. 14), He made us one (v. 14), He broke down the dividing wall of hostility (v. 14), he abolished the law (v. 15), He created one new humanity (v. 15), He made peace (v. 15), He reconciled (v. 16), He put to death (v. 16), He proclaimed peace (v. 17). This is the place and the hour where Jesus invites and welcomes you, where He greets you and speaks to you, where He tends and serves you, where He forgives and blesses and sends you. This is where God’s divine service to us turns us into and binds us to one another as the people of God, the body of Christ. Maybe that’s not obvious on any given Sunday but Jesus as the Savior of the whole of humanity is not obvious. As long as we try to gauge our effectiveness by secular values and insist on having church as we think it ought to be, formulating this “ought” from what we see “work” in our culture quite apart from God, we may never recognize the church that is right in front of us. Let me put it this way. American culture is doing it’s best with our celebrities, consumerism, and marketing practices rooted in greed. The church must not adopt the same methods and ideals. Instead, quietly and without false advertising we must immerse those who enter our doors into the presence of the peace God has made for them in Christ as he has for all of us. We’re not selling bicycles. Church is not obsolete. Church can never be obsolete. The Church is because God has called it to be. We do not create church. It is. We enter and participate in what is given to us. That might sound more like magic to you but I assure you it’s not. What it is, is the manifold wisdom of God being made known in you. Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus. Amen.

1 The content of this paragraph was largely shaped by and sometimes lifted from Eugene Peterson’s Practice Resurrection, p. 114, 115.

2 This story came from Eugene Peterson’s Practice Resurrection, p. 115. I mention Peterson as “one of my pastors” and I feel like I should explain. In the absence of really any other person being a pastor to me on a regular basis over my career, even though I never met him personally, Peterson’s work has helped me and shaped me to be the pastor I am. If we “are the sum total of the five people we spend the most time with,” I am always better off when I spend time with his work.

3 Again from Peterson, p. 135.

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Message for the First Sunday in Christmas

January 3, 2018 Leave a comment

Note: the audio for this message can be heard and/or downloaded at this link.

Grace and peace…

“Fulfilled” is the word that keeps coming up in the Gospel of Luke because the Old Testament is like a thousand rivers each rushing together over a long distance, deeper and faster until they crash over one great water fall of God’s grace to which ever river of revelation pushes. Just consider that metaphor for a minute. Snow that melts in Ohio or Minnesota eventually winds its way through the streams and rivers into the Great Lakes and eventually down over Niagara Falls on its way to the sea. The Old Testament is much like that, multiple streams of revelation all pointing to one single great rushing in of God’s grace, Jesus Christ.

Jesus is the unveiling of every divine plan; he is the answer to every holy mystery! When Luke says “fulfilled,” the Holy Spirit opens mysteries, tells us the secrets of eternity as the tributaries of the Law and the Prophets wind through space and time and rush together all at once and we see all of God’s divine glory in the forty-day old baby boy Jesus.

Luke saw the rivers clap together in one small unstoppable outpouring. One river came rushing in from the prophet Daniel. “Seventy weeks are decreed about your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal both vision and prophet, and to anoint a most holy place.” (Da 9:24) Luke heard that river rushing toward him. In 1:23, he said, “And when [Zechariah’s] time of service was fulfilled, he went to his home. (Lk 1:23) Then in chapter 2, verse 6 Luke says, “And while they were there, the days were fulfilled for her to give birth.” (Lk 2:6) In the verse just before our reading for today, he writes, “When eight days were fulfilled, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” (Lk 2:21) And then in our text, in verse 22, “And when the days were fulfilled, the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.” (Lk 2:22–23) The operative word here is “fulfilled.”

Luke had done his math. From the time of Gabriel’s appearance to Zechariah until the annunciation to Mary was 6 months or 180 days. From the annunciation until Jesus birth was 9 months, or 270 days. From the nativity of Jesus until his presentation in the temple was 40 days. 180 + 270 + 40 = 490 days or 70 weeks. The passage from Daniel that so many try to make into a prediction of the end of the world, was in fact about Jesus arriving in the temple. At the temple at 40 days Jesus was dedicated to the Lord just as all first-born males in Israel had been. In Jesus was the end of sin. Luke describes what Zechariah saw rushing together that day. The fulfillment of Daniel’s otherwise enigmatic 70 weeks.

Luke saw another river rushing in from the prophet Malachi. “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap.” (Mal 3:1-2) So take that text and now read verse 27 of our reading today, “And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law.” (Lk 2:27). The Lord Jesus entered his holy temple. How did anyone endure the day? The temple in Jesus’ day was only a cartoon temple, a caricature of the real thing. Jesus was the true temple. When the glory of the Lord entered again the temple, there should have been a meltdown, a cosmic implosion, like a supernova star consuming half a galaxy. The Lord came to His temple as it was foretold. How did anyone survive the day?

Verse 25, “Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.” (Lk 2:25) By the Holy Spirit, Simeon saw more rivers, sweeter waters coming toward him than all the prophets who had come before him. And he saw all those rivers come together in his arms, because he had been waiting for the consolation of Israel. He had the consolation of Israel in his arms; he saw the light of revelation for the Gentiles, he cradled in the crook of his arms the glory of the people of Israel! How did he survive? Simeon survived because that word translated as consolation is parakleysin. It has the same root as paraklete, the advocate or comforter, which we know to be the Holy Spirit. Simeon saw the river coming from the prophet Isaiah “Comfort, comfort, you my people, says your God.” (Isa 40:1) And again from chapter 61, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the Lord has anointed me… to comfort all who mourn.”

Simeon’s eyes see the river coming from the prophet Haggai. “’The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former,’ says the LORD of hosts. And in this place I will give peace, declares the LORD of hosts.’” (Hag 2:9) Simeon saw it. Solomon’s glorious temple in which dwelled the presence of the Lord in fire and smoke was long gone along with the rest of that Jerusalem. The Babylonians had destroyed it centuries earlier. All of the sacred things from that temple were gone. How could the glory of the latter temple that Haggai foretold ever be as great as the temple of Solomon in which the Lord dwelled personally? The Ark of the Covenant from Solomon’s temple was missing. The all-important mercy seat, the lid to the ark where the Lord dwelled in glory for the protection of His people, it was long gone. The tables of the Law stored inside the ark were gone. No jar of manna, no flowering rod of Aaron. The temple was but a shell of itself.

When Simeon’s eyes beheld the poor couple from Galilee coming to offer sacrifice in the temple according to the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons,” his eyes saw the glory of the Lord and his eyes saw the sacrifice. He knew it was not Mary and Joseph who would redeem their son with the humble sacrifice of pigeons. Simeon knew their son would redeem them, because He was the sacrifice. Simeon’s eyes saw the Ark of the Covenant for the first time as he held in his own arms the Mercy Seat, not the three hundred pound gold lid with angels wings outstretched, a mere forerunner to the real thing, but rather the 12 pound reality whose tiny arms would grow to stretch out in atonement for all the world’s sin. Simeon saw and could endure it because the Lord came in mercy once again in the flesh of His own Son, Jesus born of Mary. In Jesus, the Lord gives peace. Simeon saw the face of the Lord and lived! And yet it was enough for him that he asked to die. “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word.” (Lk 2:29)

We just sort of assume Simeon was old but the Bible doesn’t tell us how old he was. We assume he’s old because now that he’s held the consolation of Israel in his arms, he’s ready to go. He talks how some older people talk. Young people say, “I only want to see God after I’m spent doing everything else.” Right? And so after we have received the Lord’s true body and blood we sing Simeon’s song from the heart, don’t we?

“Lord, now you let your servant go in peace, according to your word.

   Cause this all well and good and all,

but there’s a lot more important stuff

than communion, like after Christmas sales.

I hope the service is over soon, though it’s been divine,

and I thank you that church fit into my pla-a-a-ans this time.

We’re not ready to die because we’ve just barely come alive our eyes barely opened we’re still too blind, too distracted, preferring to play in the stagnant mud puddles to look for the deep rushing waters emerging out of the prophets bearing their gifts, presenting to us the Lord of our salvation. Lord, have mercy.

He does! Simeon was ready to die because those rivers he read, those rivers he knew, once he saw them clap together at long last, he longed to be released from this life shadows and types, of stone models of the true temple, of gold precursors of the Mercy Seat, and of animal rehearsals for the sacrifice of the blessed Son of God for the sins of the whole world, who offered himself once for all, Jesus Christ the propitiation for our sins. Simeon’s eyes had seen the real thing; he had bathed in the rushing torrent of the great waterfall of God’s grace in Christ that had come together from ever river of revelation from God. Simeon had seen the real thing and he was finished.

And how is it that his eyes could see? Why did the Nunc Dimittis pour out of him like the after splashings of a great waterfall? Mary and Joseph certainly looked like any other poor pious couple coming to the temple. Jesus certainly looked like any other 40 day-old son of Israel. He could see because the Holy Spirit was upon him. He could say, “For my eyes have seen your salvation,” because God opened his eyes to see it. Yes it was a miracle. But there was something else too. How did Simeon have the Holy Spirit upon him? By the Holy Scriptures.

Just like at the end of Luke’s Gospel were the two men on the road to Emmaus could not see that it was Jesus, alive from the dead and walking along the road with them until He opened the Scriptures to them and showed them the rivers of revelation that always were meant to join together in him, it was then that their hearts burned within them and they recognized Him in the breaking of the bread.

The Holy Spirit does not blow in over the mountains. He comes through the Scriptures. It is there we see the rivers of God’s revelation come rushing together toward salvation, joining together in the Virgin and taking on our human flesh by the same power of the Holy Spirit. In human flesh Jesus restores the perfection of created human nature from Eden. In Jesus who lived perfectly a life through which we are given credit. See today what Simeon saw, the forty-day-old Jesus presented to the Lord as holy, on your behalf, as if the whole human race was offered there and called holy before the Lord. See Jesus being sacrificed in your place, buried in your grave, and rising from the dead in order to guarantee your resurrection. Recognizing Him in the breaking of the bread we sin, “Lord now let your servants go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared.” Yes, it’s a miracle. With opened eyes see in humble bread and simple wine, Christ’s body and blood, given and shed for you.

Like Simeon, with opened eyes, depart in peace, because you have seen your salvation, you have seen every river of God’s revelation come rushing together and overflowing in the great waterfall of God’s grace in Christ Jesus pouring all over you. When you do, it will pour out of you too. Amen.

The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus. Amen.


Note: I wrote the majority of this message some years ago and don’t remember if I came up with the whole “rivers” of fulfillment idea or, more likely, lifted it from someplace.  Typically, if something is that good, I found it.

Categories: Uncategorized

Christmas Day

January 3, 2018 Leave a comment

Note: audio for this sermon can be heard or downloaded at this link.


Jesus is the Eternal Meaning for the World

Grace and peace…

I want to speak about Jesus’ birth just a little differently this morning.  I know it’s a little bit of a risk, but you’re here on Christmas morning.  Clearly, you’re the folks who know what’s worth celebrating  .I want to be clear that I am not really trying to say anything new about the birth of Jesus.  But I am trying to say it differently and I think we need to try to see what the birth of Jesus means in our world.

A perilous time

I think we are living in a perilous time.  The world of self-defined reality, is not longer just a Hollywood phenomenon, it reaches into our common life.  A world where chaos and misdirection is seen as a good thing.  It’s a terrible time for a preacher to try to communicate, to speak and be heard and understood. But John the evangelist still has something to say, today, just as he has for centuries.

A logos for these perilous times

John’s unique contribution to the descriptions of Jesus’ birth, reach back not through ancient genealogies but to before time, to the beginning.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  (Jn 1:1)  You’re here on Christmas morning.  My guess is you’ve heard at some point that the Greek for the word “Word” here has a pretty deep meaning behind it that comes out of Greek philosophy.  The word is logos.  And John is doing something very interesting to anyone in his time familiar with this Platonic idea of logos.  He’s saying that the logos was present at the beginning of the world and was with God, and even was God.  Logos is one of those deep concepts that’s pretty difficult to have a one-word translation into English.  But I would offer you one today logos is meaning.  Pope Benedict offered this idea in a Christmas sermon about a decade ago.  He says, “We can understand John’s words as: the “eternal Meaning” of the world made himself tangible to our senses and our minds.”

We normally focus on the part of the Christmas message that in behind born a human being, Jesus is just like us.  He knows exactly what it’s like to be human in every way, to know hunger and thirst, and pain and sorrow, and even death itself.  And this is absolutely true.  But I would offer that not only does the Incarnate Logos have a personal consequence, it has a cosmic one.  If Jesus, before he was born of Mary and named Jesus, was present at the beginning, He is not just the source for all the things but the meaning behind all things.  

There’s a long-standing joke about a philosophy student who went into for his final exam and the exam was only one question: “Why?”  And the student, thought and thought, and after an hour, wrote, “Why not?”  And turned it in.  And his professor gave him and A plus.  To which we must scream, “No!”  There is a “Why.”  It’s wrapped up in Jesus as the answer, the meaning of it all, the Logos the Greeks knew about but did not know personally.

Paul is trying to tell us that by Christ, “all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things were created through him and for him.  And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”  (Col 1:16-17)  In the next chapter Paul goes on to say, “For in Christ, all the fullness of the deity dwells in him bodily.”  (Col 2:9)  Jesus is the eternal Logos made flesh.  This is what is essential to the Christian message and what is essential to our faith at Christmas.  God, in Jesus, is about the restoring of His meaning in our world.  A meaning that was rejected, and dare I say it? called Fake News by Adam in the garden.  And yet, God’s order, God’s meaning, for His creation is real.  

I don’t expect the people who celebrate a Christmas that consists merely of yule logs and mistletoe and Frosty and Rudolph to ever get it.  For them, Christmas can only be at best a season of “goodwill toward our fellow” and help for the poor like Tiny Tim.  Those folks are worried that another culture will appropriate or take over the season in some way if it’s reduced to “Happy Holidays.”  My thought has been that I don’t expect checkout clerks at stores or Starbucks cups to convey the Christmas message into the world.  The message must be preached, and heard, and treasured and carried wherever true Christians go.  And that can never be lost in a war against Christmas.  The very idea is absurd.

The eternal logos-God, became human flesh and dwelt among us.  The world that was in chaos in the beginning as was ordered by the utterance of the Meaning, still rebels against that order.  In Christ and only in Christ is there true meaning, coherence, intelligibility, and order.  Everything is sustained by its connection to Him.  And in Him all things in the world suffering under the curse of of the fall are reconciled to God and restored to their proper order.

The writer to the Hebrews is trying to sing in harmony with this tune by assuring readers that an intelligible and decisive word has been received from God.

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. 3 He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. (Heb 1:1–3)

Dear Christians who suffer in a world of conflict, doubt, chaos, lies, and misdirection, there is meaning in the world.  He was born into it and dwelt among us full of grace and truth and we have seen his glory.  We celebrate His birth today.  Amen.


Note:  I got the central idea about Jesus being the “eternal meaning” from a letter by Ken Myers, the producer of the Mars Hill Audio Journal to which I’ve subscribed for years.

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Christmas Eve Midnight

January 3, 2018 Leave a comment

Note: audio for this message can be heard or downloaded at this link.

Grace and peace…

Merry Christmas!  Tonight we celebrate the birth of Jesus and all that means for us and for all people of all times and places.  The central truth of Christianity is that God has come into human flesh for the sake of all humanity.  It’s the central hope of Isaiah:

     The people who walked in darkness

     have seen a great light;

                 those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,

     on them has light shone. (Is 9:2)

It’s the message of the angels to the shepherds:

     Glory to God in the highest,

     and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased! (Lk 2:14)

That’s what we celebrate tonight.  And that’s certainly what Paul has in mind as he writes to pastor Titus in our epistle reading:  “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people.” (Tt 2:11)

Humankind has certainly had an idea or two about how to live better, more equitable, more purposeful lives.  We need only look back through history to see Thoreau heading to the woods to “live simply” or even harken again to the tune played by our American forefathers, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”  From the perspective of the 21st century, we’re still waiting for all of the equality envisioned by our forebears.  Every -ism that has come since has promised a new configuration, more equality.  The last century gone, had several.  They didn’t last the century much less reshape humanity.  It’s enough to make an observer a little pessimistic to the project of how we humans organize ourselves.  George Orwell gave to one of his characters the following line: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.”  Orwell’s bleak vision of the future had a different moral: if this is how things are going to be, you should either lie very low indeed or take care that you’re on the winning side.

So it’s easy to see Christianity as just one more “-ism,” more or less, no more true than others.  The skeptic says, “If it works for you, fine, but spare me the claims to universal truth.”  But Paul in our Epistle reading tonight, is actually claiming not just universal truth but a universal claim to how we should live.  Paul was no dummy.  Surely he knew what could be known of empires past built not just on ethnic superiority but the superiority of their gods.  Paul’s claim here is that in Christ, God has acted in glory, the future has become a present reality, and we are called to act in accordance with it.  This is no new “-ism” or even a new religion or even another oppressive regime stamping on the face of everyone in its path.  This future came into the present in the form of the death and resurrection of Jesus.  That what he means here by “the grace of God has appeared.”  The death and resurrection of Jesus were the way the generous and powerful love of God were unveiled for the benefit of all people.  The future had become present.  Everything looked different as a result.

The future of every believer is assured in the generous, self-giving love of God’s grace.  And if, that’s the case, (and it is) we can see how we should live in the present.  Those who wait eagerly for Jesus to appear must lead lives which can be summed up in three words, sensible, just, and pious.

First, sensible.  Wrapped up in this word is the idea of being self-controlled, sober, moderate.  For those of you who were with me for our discussion of the Reformation, this idea was paramount among the Calvinists in Geneva.  But they took it to the extreme.  Paul has in mind a general sensibility for Christians that doesn’t lead to pagan ecstasies.  If the future has become present by the grace of Jesus, the Christian finds fulfillment in being clear minded and settled.

Second, just, or as we have in our translation, upright. The Christian who hears the call of God will respond in such a way that he or she will not be to stand idly by and watch injustice at work.  There is a passion, albeit a sober passion, to seek what is right and not accept, “that’s just the way the world is.”  There are plenty of calls to justice and fairness in our world right now.  The future righteousness of Christ is brought into the present through every one of our just actions.

Third, pious or as we have it, godly.  It’s not even a word we use, is it?  Pious.  The word seems to creak.  It brings to mind religious obligation, not joy.  But a genuine piety, true devotion, doesn’t need to look like a characterization of a Christian in a bad movie.  Someone who is devout in the way Paul is talking about here is someone who is at ease with themselves and able to put others at ease.  They can embody a peace from being in God’s presence, to pray, and show others how to live in such a way as to anticipate the future final appearing of Jesus.

But those words, self-controlled, upright, and godly,  sounds hard maybe even impossible.  They sound the way we think monastic life looks.  And yet Paul tells us in verse 14, Jesus isn’t telling us to live in an impossible way.  He is welcoming us into a way of life for which he has set us free.  His own death and resurrection on our behalf has unlocked the door of this new life, this new way of living, and we are now invited to go through into his new world, the world of genuine purity, the world where we can begin to contribute positively to people and society around us.  Remember, God doesn’t need our good works but our neighbor does.

It should go without saying that Christianity is not just a new “-ism” on the world stage.  But too often it has been reduced to rules for behaving, as if we could behave our way into the world that has been revealed by the grace of God in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and in our case tonight, the birth of Jesus.

We we celebrate that the grace of God has been revealed and brought salvation to all people, in angelic heavenly song, in prophetic fulfillment, in your hearts and lives and actions as you hear it all over again and as if the first time.  Tonight we’re not celebrating the birth of an “-ism” but the the birth of our Savior, and the rescuer of the whole world.  Amen.

Note: I borrowed the idea of not a new “-ism” from Tom Wright’s commentary on this passage in his Matthew For Everyone.

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Message for Christmas Eve

January 3, 2018 Leave a comment

Note: Audio for this message can be heard by clicking this link.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Merry Christmas! Thank you for coming tonight. I hope you’re enjoying the service. The candle-lighting is coming up. That was always the part I looked forward to as a kid. Oh, who am I kidding? It’s the part I look forward to now! It’s coming up. It won’t be long now.

Before we get to that, I wanted to take another listen to one of the readings from tonight, Matthew’s Gospel of the birth of Jesus. I won’t read the whole thing again, but I wanted to note the last bit about the name. The angel appears to Joseph in a dream to tell him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife because the baby she carries is by the Holy Spirit. He continues saying, “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” And Matthew goes on to explain that all of this took place to fulfill a 700 year old prophecy spoken by Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.” Matthew explains that Immanuel, means God with us, in Hebrew and then he goes on to tell us that when Joseph woke up, he took Mary as his wife. And when her child was born, Joseph named the him Jesus. Did you catch that?

The angel said the prophecy was the child will be called Immanuel, which means God with us. And Joseph ended up calling him Jesus. I want to try to explain this naming discrepancy and try to make a point about it.

In the first place, this apparent discrepancy about the name isn’t really a discrepancy. As anyone who has taken a high school language course knows, names are different in other languages. Andrew becomes Andres in Spanish and Anders in Swedish. Jesus is the Greek equivalent of Joshua, which means, “Yahweh saves.” Now imagine living in a community with people who have names like this. So you know that guy who lives down the block? His name is “he laughs (Isaac).” He’s married to “Sea of Bitterness (Miriam).” Oh, did you hear, they had a baby. They’re going to name him, “Yahweh is salvation (Isaiah).” I know, it’s weird to us but it was normal to them. Maybe the closest thing to us are aboriginal communities and tribes who have names that mean things. Bindi means “skip” among the aboriginal peoples in Australia and maybe we remember the name “Dancing with Wolves” the Kevin Costner film. In our cultural world “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” but in the Israelite/Jewish world, names have meaning. So we should be paying attention to this use of names in Matthew’s Gospel. Should Mary’s baby be called Immanuel or Jesus/Joshua?

Isaiah said the baby will be called Immanuel. Matthew reminds his readers that name means, “God is with us.” This is supposed to be a particularly comforting prophecy in that God is promising to once again, be with His people in a very real and tangible way. Readers of the OT know that God led Israel through the wilderness and into the promised land by His manifested glorious presence in a pillar of fire and smoke that came to rest in the tabernacle and later in the temple above the outstretched cherubim’s arms on the Ark of the Covenant. Day and night, Israel could look up to the temple and see the fiery presence of the Lord, there, with them, in real time. They need never doubt where their God was. He was there. Isaiah’s prophecy was a promise that God would dwell with His people once again. The birth of Mary’s child as Immanuel means God is not just blazing fire and smoke, but in human flesh and blood exactly like you and me. All the holiness of God, born and wrapped in diapers and a blanket, laying in a manger. And Mary’s child was fully human in every way. And yet… He was very different from you and me.

When the angel cites this prophecy, he means to say that, what is conceived in Mary is from the Holy Spirit. The baby is not Joseph’s. The reading makes that point pretty clear, twice. You and I, while we may be reborn by the Holy Spirit, we definitely had human fathers and were conceived in the way all people but Mary’s first child were. I think this point bears reflection too. As much as Mary’s child is God with us, there is much more expected of Him than there ever was of any one of us. Mary’s child was born with a unique purpose in the whole of humanity, “to save His people from their sins” and so His name should be Jesus or Joshua, which means “Yahweh saves.” There’s really no discrepancy about these names. They word together to describe Mary’s baby. He is Yahweh in human flesh born to save people from their sins. Mary’s baby is one special case.

The en-fleshed God is born to intervene in our sin-cursed world. That’s a lot to take in, I know. But that’s the real meaning of Christmas. This is what Christians celebrate every Christmas and recognize is complete at every Easter, God with us to save us.

A lot of people today celebrate what they call Christmas. And they have a tree and lights and tinsel and cookies and presents. And they have a good time with it. Christians might do quite a few if not all of those things. But behind the good times is the Good News that the “enfleshing” of the eternal God was born for us. It’s not a metaphor. Tonight is not just about something that happened a long time ago in a place, far, far away. Jesus was born on a quiet night in human history just as Matthew recorded it. Think about that as you sing tonight. As you hold your candle and hear again the words, “Holy infant, tender and mild.” “Christ the Savior is born.”

Immanuel is born. He is called Jesus because he will save His people from their sins. I pray it’s your favorite part because God has done it for you. Amen.


Note: this message was posted on the Goettingen Sermon Archive where I am a contributor.

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Message for Advent 4

January 3, 2018 Leave a comment

Audio for this message can be heard at this link.

Note: I got the outline and the tone for this message from Concordia Pulpit Resources but edited significantly from what was published there.

Grace and peace…

Do you promises to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?

Do you promise to love, honor, and cherish, for better or for worse, till death parts you?

Do you solemnly swear to defend the Constitution of these United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic?

Do you promise to be my best friend forever? Check yes or no.

We live in a world of promises made. Some are kept and many are broken. It seems that where there are large sums of money or property on the line, those promises are irreducibly defined in long and complicated legal documents to make sure there’s no wiggle room or loopholes. It’s not sufficient to depend on another’s word. And even then, every one has his or her price.

Even in the closest of relationships, promises are broken and people are let down, disappointed, even betrayed. A father tells his 10-year old son, “I know I promised I’d be at your game, but something at work has come up.” A woman tells her husband, “There’s someone else.” One nation tells another, “Your security is no longer in our self interest.” Most likely, you’ve been both the victim of a broken promise and someone who had to break a promise.

The sermon text for this morning is what we call the annunciation, the announcement by Gabriel to Mary that she will conceive and bear a son. This great announcement to Mary, and ultimately to us is part of the ongoing fulfillment of God’s promises. In this reading, we have the assurance that we can trust God, for God acts according to His word.

God fully intended to act according to His Word of promise despite our unfaithfulness. That’s the message of Genesis, even after Adam and Eve sinned, God continued to act on their behalf, for their good, according to His promise. Later, with Israel and their multiple failures, God continued to act on their behalf, for their good, according to His Word to them. Our OT reading today is an account of just that, a recording of God’s promise, in this case to King David, whom God promised would be made into a house, we might say a dynasty. That what God means when He says, “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.” (2 Sam 7:16) And while the rulership of David’s house was emptied into the dustbin of history, from David’s lineage came the Savior, because by Joseph, Jesus was “of the house and lineage of David.”

What does all this OT stuff have to do with the Gospel reading today? Simply this, as we survey the whole of God’s promises, His Word to His people in throughout the OT, it becomes evident that the announcement to Mary is an account of God at work, keeping His Word.

In the sixth month of old Elizabeth’s pregnancy, no less than the archangel Gabriel himself, appeared to Mary and announced that God was at work. He was keeping His word, through the child Mary was to conceive. “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father, David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Gabriel is not speaking in metaphor. Mary knew that. And she also wondered how in the world this could be since she wasn’t yet married. Again the plain literal sense is exactly what it is, although we will have to explain this more and more as the culture around us seeps in from every angle. Gabriel goes on to assure Mary, according to God’s promise, that just as Elizabeth was in her sixth month, so also with Mary in an even more extraordinary way, God was at work. He would accomplish what He said He would do. Nothing is impossible for God. And Mary responds in faithfulness, “Le it be to me, just as you have said it; I am the servant of the Lord.”

Tonight at our Christmas Eve services and tomorrow at our service on Christmas Day, we will hear once again that familiar account of the birth of Jesus. But don’t get wrapped up in the nostalgia or sentiment of Christmas. Take this event for what it is. Focus on Gabriel announcing this Word to Mary. And then hear how what Gabriel spoke happened exactly as he said it would. According to God’s Word, Mary miraculously conceived, and gave birth to a son. This isn’t some later interpretation of the Christian community turning Jesus into Christ. This is God doing what He said He would do.

Maybe you’ve recently been wounded by someone who didn’t keep his word. And you’ve experienced the frustration and the hurt that comes with it. God is with you in the midst of it. Hear the word of Jesus. “Come unto me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” In Jesus Christ, God is at work and is acting according to His Word.

Maybe you’re the one who hasn’t keep your word. You’ve broken a promise or betrayed a trust, and you’ve hurt others. What do you do with that guilt and shame? First, know that in Christ, you have forgiveness. “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Rom 8:1) And while there is nothing you can do to atone for past wrongs with God, that forgiveness and grace you have freely received from God, gives you the ability to humble yourself with those you’ve wronged and seek reconciliation with them. It’s proof that Christ Jesus is at work not just in you and for your benefit, but among us all in our common life together in Christ.

Or, perhaps you’re someone who struggles with whether these old words are reliable and trustworthy. We live in an age that is dominated by skepticism and cynicism and so it’s easy to be tempted to question whether this word is really God’s. Is there something here that will strengthen and sustain faith in us? Well, I find it very reassuring that the prophecy of Isaiah 7, “a virgin will conceive and bear a son, and you will call His name Immanuel,” happened 700 years before Jesus was born of Mary. That’s quite a gap in terms of prophecy and fulfillment but still a confirmation that God actively keeps his word. It might also interest you that by one scholar’s count there are at least 353 direct and indirect fulfillments like this one. Is that proof? We don’t prove the faith but it is evidence that God acts in real events. May God strengthen our faith to believe what the eye cannot see and what the ear cannot hear.

Mary’s response is the right one. “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your Word.” The content of what we believe is a gift from God and the ability to believe it in our hearts and say it like we mean it is a gift of the Holy Spirit. Mary heard what Gabriel said and believed what was seemingly impossible. That’s faith. And in the same way, God has spoken and acted in Christ. And today God gives the gift of believing as He did for Mary. Gabriel appeared and spoke to Mary. Of this we have no reason to doubt. What he spoke happened just as he said it would. Mary conceived and gave birth to a son. And all the rest of it too happened as the Gospel writers record it. Jesus of Nazareth was born, lived, ministered, suffered, died, and was raised. Our response is simply, “Let it be to me according to your word.” Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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Sermon for Advent 3

January 3, 2018 Leave a comment

Note: the audio for this message can be heard by clicking this link.

Theme:  Choosing Joy is the will of God 

Text: 1 Thess 5:16-18

Grace and peace…

This third Sunday of Advent is all about rejoicing and so the sermon text is from the Epistle for today, “ 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

Actually the text is “Always rejoice! In all circumstances, give thanks, and unceasingly pray.” The adverbs are placed forward for the sake of emphasis. And this gives us a rough outline for the message today. Joy, prayer, and thanksgiving form a unity and this unity is at least part of what God wants from us, yes, but even more than that, wants for us. Joy—prayer—thanks, these three are well called the foundational attitude of the Christian.

G. K. Chesterton, has a wonderful line that has been working on me for over a year, “It’s easy to be heavy; it’s hard to be light.” Look at the news. It’s easy to be heavy. It’s hard to be light. It’s hard to express joy, especially when times are uncertain. We need to remember that joy, true joy, does not start with us, but rather its source is with God Himself and that joy comes to us and through us to others. Joy is evidence of the fruit of the Spirit. (Gal 5:22–23) In this way, Joy is not the achievement of our desires but rather the highest expression of them.

I’m thinking especially about joy because of the memorial service for Marlene Zaleski yesterday. I’m not sure I ever remember Marlene not smiling. And when you read the statement of faith she published in her book, you find that her faith, along with her joy came from God. And that joy and that trust was there even in the midst of the struggles. I don’t know whether she would have agreed with Chesterton, that it’s hard to be light, but she certainly embodied the idea of always rejoicing.

Directly, related to constant joy is unceasing prayer, because the only way to cultivate a joyful attitude in times of trial is through constant prayer. Unending prayer grows out of a settled attitude of dependence on God.1

Fun Greek of the week, the adverb for “continually” (adialeiptōs, also in 1:3) was used in Greek of a hacking cough.2 But we’re not necessarily talking about verbally praying at all times, but rather cultivating a spirit of prayer and being ever ready to pray. Luther writes in the Large Catechism, “The Lord’s Prayer has also been prescribed so that we should see and consider the distress that ought to drive and compel us to pray without ceasing” (LC III 24). And yet, Luther wouldn’t rule out times for more formal prayer. Luther rarely let his work serve as an excuse to not pray. He rather famously said, ‘I have so much to do that I cannot start with spending three hours praying.’ Prayer and rejoicing work with each other. And so the way to always rejoice is to continually pray and to have that close walk with the Giver of joy. We need to cultivate a spirit of constant devotion so that our lives are filled with the presence of God. Prayer is a lifting up of our hearts to God in humble submission and dependence, trusting him as our loving Father and acknowledging him as our almighty Lord. Paul is encouraging the Thessalonians to take hold of God in every situation and at all times, to draw near to him especially in difficult times, and to develop that close relationship with Him.3

The third part of this foundation of the Christian life in all circumstances is thankfulness. The other Scripture that comes to mind is Romans 8. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” Can anything separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus?” No. No one and nothing. And if this is the case, can anything the we go through be bad for us? Someway, there is always an avenue for thanksgiving born of a life of unceasing prayerful communion with God. Paul seals this apostolic instruction by noting it’s the will of God in Christ. We should pay attention to that. The will of God is that life of always rejoicing, unceasing prayer and a life of constant thanksgiving. When we fail to live in this way, we fall short of God’s will for us. The other way of saying this is that Christians are supposed to find reasons to be thankful, and therefore be in regular communication with God, regardless of the outcome. And when we lapse into a state of fear or anger, we’re really putting our trust not in God but in our circumstances.

I don’t know about you but I’ve always had a hard time with this idea. Part of it is probably driven by personality. Personality is what develops over time with experience in the world. Somehow along the way, what I thought was my realistic view of the world, when pressed, too easily turns cynical and mean. This week Paul forced me to admit that to myself. That’s a hard thing. You have to reprogram your brain. You have to learn to think differently. And so I want to share just a little bit of the process I learned to try to change my thinking. I learned this on the Internet, so I’m pretty sure it works. No, in all seriousness, this works. I’ve been doing it for over a year, off an on. And when I feel overwhelmed, I do this and it helps.

First close your eyes, so no one is looking at you. And put both hands over your heart. And take a deep breath. Let your lungs fill up and feel that breath go into your heart. Feel how strong your heart beats. Feel how powerfully your heart works. Your heartbeat is a gift from God. And so ask yourself, what is your heart is leading you to be grateful for, or leading you to be proud of, or telling you to enjoy? Feel the strength of your life flowing through you as the oxygen you breath courses through your body. If you can’t answer any of those other questions, then just feel grateful for your heart. You’re alive and it is pure gift from your Creator. You didn’t earn your heart. You didn’t have to prove your value to get it. God loved you and gave you the gift of life, more than that, his love, and it beats right now in you. You don’t normally pay attention to this gift. But now, I’m asking you to feel true gratitude for this gift of your strong heart. And now I want you to think of one event in your life that you can feel purely grateful for, a moment of pure joy, a moment of pure beauty. Step into that memory for just a minute. Try to be there for just a minute. Hear what you would have heard. See what you would have seen. Smell what you would have smelled. Even breathe now the way you did then. And fill up right now with a sense of gratitude for that moment. How do you smile when you are so grateful, so thankful, so full of joy? Just take a minute and fill up with gratitude. Notice how you feel right now. What happened to that fear or that anxiety you had when you came to church this morning? It’s gone because you can’t feel fear or anger at the same time you’re feeling grateful. Gratitude drives away fear. Now breathe again deeply into your heart and think of a second event or moment. It can be anything that brings you joy. Just breathe it and feel it and enjoy it. It can be a long time ago or last week. It can be a simple experience or something that took a long time to happen. Just take a moment and really feel grateful for it. And lastly, I want you to think of something that may look like a coincidence. Something that just turned out to have happened in your favor. You were going to do one thing and something else happened, and it led to meeting someone or a partnership or an insight and you’re so grateful for it. And was it a coincidence or were you guided? Now keep breathing into your heart and just be thankful. Remember, that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. Dear Christian, God has called you; you are His. Breathe that in. Nothing can hurt you. Breathe that in. God wants nothing but the best for you even if you are in the midst of some struggle or trial. Feel this way always. Thank God for his gifts.

You can open your eyes.

Maybe you thought that was kind of kooky but Eastern Christians use breathing all the time. We in the west tend to get trapped in our heads. Maybe you found it helpful. Maybe you don’t have any trouble feeling joy and remembering to be thankful in all circumstances. Look, I’m as annoyed sometimes by these constantly energetic types you see on TV who are always smiling. I always want to know what they’re selling. Come to find out, that attitude is not just unhelpful, but contrary to the will of God. So when I remember to do this exercise, it helps me put the cynical me away and be the kind of person God wants me to be and wants for me to be.

We have an incredible ability given to us by God to affect not just how we ourselves feel but how others feel around us. This is really part of our Christian witness. It’s hard to be light. But we have a God who has not held back on anything for us. So, “Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” It’s not that hard. Jesus was born for you. A blessed Advent. Amen.

1 Robert L. Thomas, “1 Thessalonians,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition), ed. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland, vol. 12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 431.

2 Thomas L. Constable, “1 Thessalonians,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 708.

3 Tim Shenton, Opening up 1 Thessalonians, Opening Up Commentary (Leominster: Day One Publications, 2006), 109.

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