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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Message for Advent 2

January 3, 2018 Leave a comment

“God Comforts His People”

Grace and peace…

Jesus is the Comfort of God, the evidence of God’s patience, but also the evidence of God’s call to repentance before the earth and the heavens are burned up on the coming Day of God. That’s the context for meeting the wild-eyed prophet John the Baptizer, in the wilderness of the Jordan. And this week, that struck me as particularly Good News. We can all use some Good News these days.

It’s been a week, hasn’t it? In international news and in national news, I can’t keep up with all the speeches that cause riots and the riots that prompt speeches. Who is left in Hollywood anymore unaccused of impropriety? But we do react. The weaker reactions are more along the lines of: “Aw, now I’m sad. I liked him.” But the reactions among the tribes of true believers are much stronger. The accusations against your guy are real and he has to resign but the accusations against my guy are fake and he should stay where he is making movies or policy. I should also point out this has been happening in the church for decades too and not just in the highly publicized cases in the Catholic Church but also among Evangelical Christians and Lutherans. It all boggles the mind but it is the truth getting out, and, in its own way, making paths straight and rough places level.

The media says this is a particularly good time for women. I hope it is. No woman should have to put up with the kinds of stories that are coming to light. But I can promise you, no matter how much of a reckoning there is, it will not be enough. It will miss the mark. This is not the day of the Lord Peter says will come like a thief. On that day, all will be laid plain on that day. We may be in the midst of a day of reckoning but it is not THE day, at least not yet.

John too, came warning of the coming of that day, like Isaiah and the prophets before him.

Yes, John’s coming is OT prophecy fulfilled, but that’s about like saying true love is about biochemical reactions in lovers’ brains. It’s true, but it’s almost the more boring and least wonderful thing you could say about it. Almost seven hundred years after Isaiah’s prophecy and some 400 years after the prophets went silent, God is making it happen. He has sent John to proclaim the Coming One is near. Repent. You don’t want to meet the mighty One who comes in the state you’re in. Repent now, said John. John looked and sounded like an OT prophet. In fact, it would be far more helpful for us to think of John as an OT prophet, or to get rid of the idea of an OT altogether. Both Isaiah and John looking forward to Jesus’ coming and people like Peter looking back at what Jesus’ coming meant. I read this week that the one page of the Bible we should completely rip out of our Bibles is that page after Malachi and before Matthew that announces the beginning of the New Testament. Just like the end times come to the front of our thinking about the beginning of the Church Year, the OT prophets bleed their way into what we call the New Testament. The New Testament is not like a new formula of laundry soap that once you’ve tried you’d never go back to the Old formula. It’s more like the key that unlocks the door. Everything said by God to the world up to that point is completely understood now fully in the light of Christ’s coming.

It’s the kind of awareness of the universe around us that some are trying to get through altering their brain chemistry or deep meditation. The challenge for us Christians is to see and hear these passages for what they truly are, glimpses and sidelong glances of the reality that lay just beyond the grasp of our normal understanding and only truly understood by faith.

Let me see if I can find an example to get at what I’m trying to say. Ever heard a man talk about the miracle of childbearing and birth? There is no man in the world empathetic enough to understand what it means to daily watch as life stirs from with and it is born into the world. Interestingly, it is this very way, the limitless and eternal God Himself comes into our world. Maybe I should save this line for Mother’s Day but in this way mothers are closer to the experience of God. Father’s experience it in a very different way. In this way, mothers and fathers are supposed to complement each other as they are God’s conduit of creation in our world. But now in searching for an illustration, I’ve gone a little wide of my target. My point is that we can only be aware of what we can truly experience in its fullness, not just by association.

What must if have been like to hear the authentic voice of God come from the mouth of John. “Repent! Now is the time to turn around and go in the way God wants you to go.” And, “After me comes he who is mightier than I.” Whoa! I’m not sure I want to meet him who is mightier than John. John is impressive enough to me. This guys is authentic prophet of God. That’s camel’s hair he’s wearing. Do you think he even realizes what he smells like? He eats grasshoppers and wild honey. That’s pretty extreme. And there’s one mightier than He is coming? What will he look like? What will he wear? What will he say? What is this baptism of the Holy Spirit? Of course we know, It’s Jesus.

Isaiah was right:

Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might,

and his arm rules for him;

behold, his reward is with him,

and his recompense before him.

11 He will tend his flock like a shepherd;

he will gather the lambs in his arms;

he will carry them in his bosom,

and gently lead those that are with young.

And in Jesus, this promise was made good too. Jesus came and tended the people like a shepherd. And it’s right that even looking at John our gaze would be drawn to Jesus.

But I think too often we look at John baptizing in the Jordan and we miss how significant a figure he is, how jarring a figure he is, how wild and untamed he is. It takes someone like John in all his strange ways to begin to wake the world out of a 400-year slumber. And John preaches repentance.

How do you hear that word? Is it a call to wake up for you or not? The word repent is like an alarm clock. For those who went to bed early and are prepared for the next day, it’s a gentle reminder of what time it is. For those who worked or partied into the wee hours, it’s a painful reminder that the time has come. Is there some area of your life where God is speaking where you have tried to hit the snooze button? What would happen if you just gave that thing over to God?

If John’s coming is what was promised in Isaiah, his coming is a good thing: it’s a word of comfort to the people that their hard service is over. He comes as a herald to tell the people, fear not, the Lord comes to care for his people, to tend them like a shepherd.

I know there is a great deal that competes for attention at this time of year. And there are a lot of things that sound good like “goodwill toward others” and “Christmas spirit.” But I would offer that if the message doesn’t smell a little bit like camel, it’s probably not really pointing us in the right direction. Be careful that the Good News is not eclipsed by our attention on what passes for news today. There’s no need to worry; it’s all going to come out one day. And until then, the one John promised has come. And he proclaims comfort. God forgives your sins. Wake up. A new day has dawned and God wants you to be part of it. Amen.

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Message for Advent 1

January 3, 2018 Leave a comment

The King Comes!

Grace and peace…

It’s Advent. I love Advent. There’s just something about the anticipation of Advent that grows sweeter each week. Of course children and adults alike are anticipating the celebrations of Christmas, but even our Gospel reading is wringing wet with anticipation of what’s coming next for Jesus. After three years, we say, of public ministry, Jesus enters Jerusalem at the beginning of Passover week to hails of “Hosanna” and “Welcome to kingdom of our father David! The king comes! It couldn’t be any clearer, Jesus enters Jerusalem as her king.

I know, about this point in messages about Palm Sunday, you hear preachers start to waffle a bit and say things like, “Well, Jesus comes like a king, but kings ride horses and here he is riding a donkey so he comes as a humble king. And that’s not really wrong, but it misses the point. Jesus comes like a Davidic king. Mark takes great pains to explain the use of the unbroken colt Jesus rides and how Jesus came to ride it. One commentary I read mentioned something I’d never heard before which was that if Jesus was truly king, he would have the right if “impressment”, that is to acquire and use the animal for an immediate purpose. (EBC) Kind of like the police commandeering a vehicle in the movies.

Those details are interesting because it suggests there is some importance to them either pointing to Jesus’ authority or Jesus’ divine ability to know beforehand that the animal would be there. Regardless, the disciples found the animal just as Jesus had said they would and did what he told them to do.

And Jesus rides to enter the City of David as her king. Kings ride horses, proud horses, warhorses, not donkeys. Right, we know that. Roman kings will come not just with one horse but with four powerful warhorses pulling a chariot. Jesus comes riding a donkey. But that’s a completely king David kind of thing to do. And the OT tells us that no other king of Israel rode a donkey since David’s son, Solomon. So, yeah, Jesus isn’t on a warhorse, but if he was, it wouldn’t have made him a Davidic king. And Jesus rides.

Now think about it. Where else do we read that Jesus rides a mount? Nowhere. All the Gospel writers tell us that Jesus walked everywhere he went except this time. This is a special event. Observant Jews would travel to Jerusalem at least three times a year and the normal way to do that was humbly on foot. By riding, Jesus is doing something special, claiming something special. It’s pretty clear that Jesus is intentionally acting out the messianic prophecy of Zechariah 9:9-10.

ESV

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
10  I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall speak peace to the nations;
his rule shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.

Jesus rides into Jerusalem as her king. And the crowds understand it very clearly as a fulfilling of God’s OT promises.

Crowds of pilgrims were coming to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. But there was also another crowd following Jesus from Bethany where he had raised Lazarus. The combined crowds spread their garments out on the road in front of him. There’s actually an OT precedent for this in 2 Kings 9 where the crowds do the same thing for Jehu. Its an act of submission, like making a an oath of loyalty or fealty. Which begs the question, how ready are we to give of ourselves to honor king Jesus? What would be the equivalent of laying down our cloaks and cutting palm branches to welcome him?

The crowds are shouting Hoshi’ah na, from Psalm 118. “Save us, we pray, O Lord!” O Lord, we pray, give us success! (Ps 118:25)

Psalm 118 was the last of the Hallel, the pilgrims’ processional songs from the psalms for Passover. It isn’t striking that they would be singing it. What is striking is that they are singing to Jesus. This was a shout of welcome to Jesus, the Davidic king.

Two hundred hears earlier, Judas Maccabaeus who had defeated the wicked Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes, entered Jerusalem with the crowds waving palm branches and singing. He cleansed and restored the temple from the desecration of Antiochus. He started a royal dynasty that lasted a hundred years, until the Hasmonians came to power. And blessed is the one who comes in the powerful name of God Most High! Jesus is following in not just ancient Israel’s history, but some rather recent history for them too.

Jesus heard the crowds calling out to him with shouts of Hosanna! and did not correct them. He accepted the titles of Messiah and Davidic king. Jesus was every bit a king as human kings and then some. Jesus entered Jerusalem as king. And not just of Jerusalem or Israel, or a non-Roman occupied Palestine. Jesus entered Jerusalem as king of all the earth deliberately reenacting OT prophecies.

We hear this passage with the anticipation of a coming holiday celebration. Do we hear it with the anticipation of the return of our king? All of that expectant energy that we feel at the end of the church year doesn’t evaporate with the turning of the calendar to a new Church year. In the season of Advent, we’re not supposed to act like we don’t know the Christ is born and more than we’re supposed to be surprised Christ is raised on Easter morning. No, we’re supposed to look forward to his coming again, which is clearly promised by his having come once already. And when he comes, welcome him as king.

I asked the question earlier about how much of our selves we would give to honor Jesus in his coming? Would we lay down our cloaks? What is the modern equivalent? Do we understand that king Jesus comes today in this very hour? We even sing the same words the crowd sang that day to welcome him and honor him as king of all the earth. Hosanna. Hosanna. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He who comes in the the name of the Lord. Make no mistake, He comes. Do you long for that? Is there as much joy for you in that moment as any imagined moment of being among that crowd that day on the ascent into Jerusalem? If we’re honest, we have to say no.

But the good news is the same king Jesus who entered Jerusalem that day, humble and riding a donkey, is the same king Jesus that comes to you today with one significant exception. What was only just about to happen that week, his final teaching, his last supper and institution of the Lord’s Supper, his betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion, his death and burial, his resurrection and conquering of death itself, that was all only just about to happen. What the crowd could only wait for in eager expectation, king Jesus has already accomplished for you and is delivered to you as the king’s royal pardon of all your sins against the crown.

To anticipate his coming again, would simply be to anticipate the celebration of all that he has already accomplished for us all. That’s something to celebrate. Welcome, King Jesus. Hosanna. Amen.

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Message for Nov 26

January 3, 2018 Leave a comment

Grace and peace…

It’s the Last Sunday of the Church year and certainly if the readings for a past few Sundays have been hinting at the Last Day, today the theme is total. Over the past couple messages, I’ve tried to say that the Last Day is not a day for Christians to fear but in many ways to look forward to. The Gospel reading and the Old Testament reading today go together to highlight that idea, too. There is coming a day when the Shepherd will tend and care for His own in a way that forever protects them from further harm and jeopardy. Like the reckoning of accounts last week, Jesus’ coming to separate the sheep from the goats is a good thing not a thing to be feared. I think we need to be hearing this week’s Gospel reading with last week’s in mind because they come one right after the other. And again, remember, Jesus speaks these words mere hours before He’s arrested on Thursday night after the Last Supper. He’s speaking to His disciples to prepare them for what’s coming and He’s speaking to confirm His teaching in opposition to the scribes and Pharisees in Jerusalem. In fact, immediately after our reading this morning, Matthew confirms that the chief priests and elders in Jerusalem met to conspire with Caiaphas to kill Jesus.

So, if that’s the context, who are the sheep in our Gospel reading? Who are the goats? The sheep are the people who have come to accept what Jesus has taught about the kingdom of heaven. The goats are those that have rejected that message. What has been Jesus’ chief criticism of the Pharisees? Their religiosity has them pointed in the wrong direction. Jesus insists they’re wrong in a diatribe against them that starts back in chapter 23. “Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.” Instead of being blessed in order to be a blessing to others, they try to store up for themselves treasures in heaven and impress God with their religious acts. What follows those verses then are seven pronouncements of woe. Like an OT prophet of Israel, Jesus speaks against them and their twisted religiosity. In one woe, Jesus says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” Whoa! That’s some woe. The scribes and Pharisees are religious in all the wrong ways.

Incidentally, this was precisely Luther’s criticism of the Church’s teaching about monks and nuns in his day. Is God really that impressed that you prayed all seven hours today if the hungry lie at the gate unfed? Is God really impressed that we prayed all 150 psalms this week if the poor have no shelter? Think clearly about which act is truly a good work in God’s eyes. Luther’s line was “God does not need your good works but your neighbor does.” And so, Jesus’ proclamation against the goats today sounds quite a bit like Luther’s comments against the Church’s teaching about monastic life in his day. But Luther isn’t just concerned about what amounts to true good works and nor is Jesus. But what about us? Is there some danger that we would become more like the scribes and Pharisees. Could as we wrap up the Church Year, which we have to admit is man made, and head into another Advent season, which again is man made, are we at risk of religiosity rather than true faith?

Or is our only sin that we may unnecessarily fear the Lord’s return? Jesus speaks these words against the religious leaders of Jerusalem. Is there not also a warning here for us lest we become like the Pharisees and let religiosity overtake love for others and serving them in their need?

If you’re up for it, let’s do a thought experiment. It’s the last Sunday of the Church Year, so let’s just take it as it is the Last Sunday, the Last Day. Jesus is coming back at the end of this message. He will separate the sheep from the goats. Have no fear, dear Christian. The Lord knows you didn’t do everything right. That’s not the point of this experiment. Jesus was born for you. He suffered and died for your sins. He rose to show you the way to eternal life. It was the Father’s plan all along. So now, “‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” When He comes, He will welcome you to His table to eat in His presence His feast with His blessing in His peace forever. Amen.

There are probably a couple reactions. One might be, “Wait a minute, how can I be sure I’m a sheep?” That’s not really Jesus’ point in this reading, if you’re not a scribe or Pharisee, you don’t have to be too worried. But my question was asking whether we have become like them. So let’s use the idea of a man-made tradition like the Church calendar as a test case. We’re a Lutheran Church and so the Church’s calendar underwent reform like almost everything else in the Church. Do you have any idea what the rule was in those reforms? The Gospel was the criteria by which everything was judged. So how about a saint day that competed with a day that was significant in the life of Jesus? The Gospel criterion pushed it back toward Jesus or off the calendar altogether. The Gospel was the criterion that everything was judged against.

I would argue the same Gospel criterion should be in place for us today. Which is more important, Sunday morning service or a fellowship activity? Specifically, which is a function of the Gospel among us, that is, where will you find the forgiveness of sins. The fellowship activity is important but not a function of the Gospel like the Divine Service is. We’ve arrived at the nexus of our life together here. The Gospel must determine what’s most important to our life together as Christians, lest we end up a club with some traditions that look religious but in the end point us away from Jesus instead of drawing us closer to Him.

We’re getting closer to that time when we’ll be decorating for the Christmas season and so consider the Christmas tree. There has to be a congregation out there where there has been a nasty argument about the Christmas tree, not just whether or not to have one, although that was probably over a hundred years ago, but maybe also when to put it up or to take it down. Again all of this is based on a given tradition, not anything in Scripture. There are no Christmas trees in the Bible. Having said that, why do we bother? Why a Christmas tree? Some might see it is a nod to pagans about bring evergreens inside during the bleak mid-winter. That won’t do for Christians. The Christmas tree points us not toward nostalgia or the sparkle of lights but toward the cross as the one who is born has come to die on a tree. The Gospel is the criterion we use for all such things. Does it point us to Jesus or draw us away from Him?

And I would also say that that Gospel criterion is what should also be operative in the rest of our lives. It should direct our decision making about everything from who our spouse should be to what job we should take to what entertainment we should engage in. And when we do that we’re full circle back to what Jesus is finding in those who followed Him. And the believers sound surprised, don’t they, when Jesus said they fed Him, gave Him something to drink, welcomed Him, clothed Him, and visited Him? It’s because they saw Christ in everyone they served. The unbelievers sound maybe even more surprised when Jesus tells them they failed to see Christ in others. Still the bar for salvation is not what one has done, so much as faith in Christ, as it has always been.

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