2nd Sunday after the Epiphany

2nd Sunday after the Epiphany (B)

January 14, 2018

John 1:43-51

“Christmas All Over Again”

Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you all in the name of God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The text that engages us today is the Gospel lesson previously read.

 

My dear friends in Christ Jesus,

 

Christmas has come and gone. Of that there is no doubt. Of course, you don’t need me tell you that. Just look around you. No more Christmas tree. No more manger, wise men, bright star, shepherds, etc., etc. Your homes probably also resemble the fact that Christmas has come and gone. The cards and wrapping paper are put away. The mistletoe taken down…or maybe you leave that up all year; maybe that’s the way YOU roll!

At and around Christmas, a multitude of gifts were given and received. As Christians you know and believe that ultimately all gifts come from God. This is most evident in the birth of Jesus, the heir of King David, the child of the Virgin Mary, the Savior of all creation. God gives gifts – the gift of Himself – of that there is no doubt, and his greatest gift to us is Jesus.

God gives, and God’s people receive. This is the most basic relation between God and his people. From the beginning of time until this time, God gives many gifts along with his greatest gift. And how do we handle or receive those gifts? Sometimes even the people of God act like spoiled children; of that there is no doubt. “Why couldn’t this or that be better?” “Why can’t I have a better house, better job, or better family?” “Why couldn’t we have this thing or that thing or have what that person has.” In spite of all of this, our text for today from St. John shows us that God continues to give, and he does not withhold his greatest gift. In this event – to Philip and Nathanael – God gives Himself and His people receive the greatest gift. It’s Christmas all over again!

From the days of old, God has promised to give gifts to His people. From the very beginning, the gift was forthtold. In the Garden of Eden, God first promised to fallen Adam and Eve the greatest gift: a Seed that would crush the head of the serpent. Centuries later, to a land-less and son-less Abraham, God promised to give the gifts of land and a son. The promise of a son by Sarah to Abraham was not just any gift, but rather looked into the future toward the greatest gift: the Seed that would one day crush the head of the serpent. Like sinful people, though, they had mixed reactions to God’s gift. Abraham scoffed and Sarah laughed. And yet, in spite of their sinful actions, God still gave to them as promised: a son.

The promise of God and the actions of his people were no different in the following generation. The Seed, first promised to Adam and Eve and later promised to Abraham and Sarah, was again promised to Isaac and Rebekah. Esau, the elder of twin sons, should have fulfilled God’s promise, but the younger twin, Jacob, in league with his mother, deceived his aged and blind father and stole his father’s blessing, which was intended for Esau. That’s some way for the people of God to behave, right? In spite of their sinful actions, God still gave to them as promised: a son. In fact, Jacob would have 12 sons and those sons would become the 12 tribes of Israel.

The nativity of our Lord, Christmas, is the celebration of God once again giving the greatest gift. The promise, first made to Adam and Eve and each subsequent generation of God’s people, was finally fulfilled in the birth of Jesus. 30 years later, God gave this gift, and Philip and Nathanael (Bartholomew) received this gift, a gift that was much more than they realized. To Philip, Jesus said, “Follow me,” and in so saying, Jesus gave himself to Philip. To Nathanael, Jesus said, “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit” (Jn 1:47). What does that mean? It probably meant that Jesus knew Nathanael was an Israelite – a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – who would always speak the truth about Jesus. As far as we know, that’s exactly the case. There is no evidence to suggest Nathanael ever denied Jesus or doubted Jesus. We can only imagine that Nathanael maintained that integrity until his death in India, as tradition says, where he was tortured and then stoned to death. God gave Philip and Nathanael the greatest gift – He gave Himself. For them, it was Christmas all over again.

In Jesus, God gave the Seed that would crush the head of the serpent. On that dark Friday, the serpent bruised the heel of Jesus, and Jesus bled and died and was buried. But on that glorious Sunday, Jesus stepped upon the head of the serpent, crushing it, as he rose up out of the grave from death to life.

God gives the greatest gift to you. As He did with Philip, so also God has called you to follow Him, and that invitation changes the way you think, act, behave, and give of yourself. Sure, there are many times you don’t feel it or sense the gift. Life has become too hard, your future too unclear, your day-to-day living has become not what you imagined or expected. And yet, still to you, the gift of God in Jesus comes. As gray and uncertain as your days can be, it is a glorious Christmas all over again because of just how richly God gives to you each and every day in Christ!

It is a gift that you receive it in the Lord’s Supper. Jesus says to you, “Take, eat; this is my body. . . . Drink of [the cup], all of you, for this is my blood” (Mt 26:26–28 ESV). With your body you receive the gift still being offered; you eat and drink the body and blood of the greatest gift of God for the “remission of (your) sins” (Mt 26:28 KJV). Every time we celebrate Holy Communion, it is Christmas all over again!

In spite of your sinful complaints and rejections and doubts, God continues to give to you the greatest gift each and every day. In His Word, His endless presence, and upon the altar, and hidden beneath the elements of bread and wine, is Jesus. The body and blood of Jesus, promised of old and born of the Virgin Mary, are given to you to eat and drink for the remission of sins and the strength to live each day. Yeah, the tree is gone, but the celebration of the nativity of your Lord continues; today for you at the rail it is Christmas all over again, and of that there is no doubt.

Amen.

The Epiphany of our Lord

The Epiphany of our Lord

January 7, 2018

Matthew 2:1-12

“Superstars”

Grace to you and peace this New Year and always from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. The text that engages us today for our celebration of the Epiphany of our Lord is the assigned Gospel lesson read earlier from Matthew 2.

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,

We now begin the season of Epiphany. The Day of Epiphany is the day that our attention turns on the Magi, coming from the East to bring gold and frankincense and myrrh to Jesus. You know the story, right? The Wise Men (we assume 3, but do not know the real number) travel a great distance – perhaps as far as 900 miles – to Jerusalem to find the newly born King of the Jews. They consult with wicked King Herod – that’s what visiting dignitaries do – and Herod pretends that he desires to worship Jesus too. Then, leaving Jerusalem, the Magi complete their journey to Bethlehem and reach their goal.

That’s Epiphany. The Christmas angels have gone away into heaven; the shepherds have returned from the manger glorifying and praising God. Now the Wise Men are the stars of the show. But I’ve got a proposition for you. May I suggest that Herod was just as much the superstar of Epiphany as were the Wise Men?

Wait one cotton-pickin’ minute! How can that be? You know what the Wise Men were like. They were shining examples of faith: “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem…wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who

has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him'” (w 1-2). The Wise Men seem well-suited to be THE superstars of Epiphany, don’t they? They were educated, rich, respected, and sophisticated. The Wise Men were well-studied in the wisdom of the world, but apparently they had a working knowledge of the Old Testament. It is likely that they were astrologers; that was usually part of the job of men who advised the kings of the ancient East. That, of course, is no example for us. God prohibits astrology, horoscopes, fortune-telling, because He tells us everything we need to know in His life-giving, sin-forgiving Word that makes us wise unto salvation.

But it wasn’t through astrology that the Wise Men understood the meaning of the amazing new star that had appeared in the sky. Most likely it was through diligent study of the Old Testament Scriptures. The captivity of the Jews six centuries before Christ had spread God’s Word to Babylon, Persia, hence “the East.”  In Numbers 24:17, God had promised, “A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.” It’s likely the Wise Men had studied or heard that passage from local Jews who after the exile had not returned and interpreted it to mean that a star would mark the birth of the One who would hold the scepter of Israel, that is, the new King of the Jews.

The Wise Men were also men of wealth and position. And yet, they were humble. When their quest was finally completed, “going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts of myrrh, frankincense and gold; perfect gifts for the perfect prophet, priest and king. These Magi are rich men…important men. But here they are, bowing down to a child! A beautiful example of faith, isn’t it? That’s a “Superstar” kind of faith!

On the flip side, Herod was an example of darkest evil. He was nobody’s star. Using a Greek play on words, even Caesar had said it was better to be Herod’s sow than his son, because the sow had a better chance at survival than Herod’s son. Herod was a crazed murderer. He had his favorite wife and his son executed because he thought they wanted his throne – a preemptive execution of his own family. Herod would also order the murder of the 2 year old infants in his region; that’s a whole kind of crazy. Yikes!

“When Herod the king heard [about a new King of the Jews], he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (v 3). You think? No wonder all Jerusalem was troubled! There was no telling what Herod might do! Herod had only real one intent, but he concealed it under the guise of religious piety. Herod sent the Wise Men to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him. Wow…that’s low. It’s the worst kind of wickedness, isn’t it? Herod used the religious teachers and the sincere, naive faith of the Wise Men for his devilish plan. Herod was the worst!

So, then, how in the world could Herod be just as much the superstar as were the Wise Men? Herod was just as much the star as were the Wise Men because neither of them are the star; the star is the superstar of this show. The star is the superstar of the Epiphany show because the star is God’s invitation inviting all people to the Savior, and that is what Epiphany is really about.

Not the Wise Men, not Herod, but the star is the superstar because it announced Christ, the fulfillment of all God’s promises, the One who would be born and live and suffer and die and rise to save all people. God put the star in the sky where all could see. That was God’s way of announcing that Jews and Gentiles alike, people of all lands and languages and backgrounds, are included in those promises. We, even though we never saw the star and never met the wise men, are included…you and I. All people. The star shined in the East over the Wise Men. You know what else? It shined over Jerusalem too. Over Herod. Yes, the star of Epiphany included him too.

The star itself bears the message of Epiphany: Christ Jesus is our Savior no matter who we are, where we are, how sinful we’ve been. We’re all people who aren’t worthy to be superstars before God – we’re outsiders – sinners – on whom the real Star has shone with the bright light of salvation for all to see and believe. What a glorious show indeed!

With that being said and in conclusion, how can you be a Superstar of the faith in 2018? No, you don’t have to walk great distances from the east (900+ miles to Dallas, TX), but maybe you’ll walk across the driveway to help your neighbor. You don’t have to bring gold or frankincense, but maybe this is the year you challenge yourself to further develop your stewardship and consider giving your time in addition to your treasures. You don’t have to dodge a maniacal, murderous king, but maybe it’s time you took head-on that position or task that you’ve been avoiding. With the light of God’s love and grace shining upon you, is there anything you cannot do? Gabriel told Mary that nothing is impossible with God…do you believe that for your own life? God’s inviting and forgiving light has shone on you. You are a superstar in the faith as you repent, love God, and love your neighbor. You’re a superstar whose forever has been changed because of God in Christ. That star makes all the difference.

Amen.

 

 

1st Sunday after Christmas

1st Sunday after Christmas

December 31, 2017

Galatians 4:4-7

“Whose Idea Was This?”

Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you all in the name of God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Today the sermon will once again be based on the Second Lesson from Galatians 4.

My Dear Friends,

Happy New Year! Now, with that being said, whose idea was this? Church on New Year’s Eve? Well, New Year’s celebration on the weekend is not all that uncommon. It just so happens that 2017 started that way with New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day on Saturday and Sunday. It also happened in 2012 when I was in Braham, MN. It happened in 2006 when I was in Crosslake, MN. It happened in 1995 when I was in Baudette, MN. I was also in Baudette when it occurred in 1989; Joanne and I were just about to complete our first year of marriage. When you look back at life like that, you realize just how fast it can and does change. And, in case you’re curious, it will happen again in 2023 so start planning ahead, I guess.

So…the question remains. Whose idea was this? That would be the folks who established the Gregorian Calendar. The Gregorian calendar is the most internationally used civil calendar. It is named after Pope Gregory XIII, who introduced it in October 1582. The calendar was a refinement to the Julian calendar involving a 0.002% correction in the length of the year. The motivation for calendar reform was to stop the “drift” of the calendar with respect to the equinoxes and solstices—particularly the vernal equinox, which set the date for Easter celebrations every year. So, in other words, it was the Church’s idea…not mine. Not that it matters to me. My days of being hung over on New Year’s Day are long since in my rear-view mirror of life!

Now that we have that solved, have you ever asked yourself the same question in regards to salvation: “Whose idea was this? Why would God send a baby?” Good question. Here is a fun fact to start your new year. How many times does the word “baby” appear in the 39 books of the Old Testament (ESV)? Answer? Once. Only in Exodus 2. This is the narrative in which a certain infant is spared from certain death, raised by a special family, spends time as a shepherd, and then later embarks on a task in which he leads God’s people out of bondage. His name? Moses. And just as Moses did in the Old Testament, Jesus will do in the New Testament once and for all. Jesus is spared from certain death at the hands of Herod’s goons. He is raised by a special family – Joseph and Mary. Jesus spends 3 years shepherding: preaching, teaching, leading, healing, feeding, and nurturing. And, yes, He too will lead the people out of bondage…bondage to sin, death, and the devil.

Okay, I see that connection…but why a BABY? Well, in order to save us, Jesus had to be one of us. And how did we all start life? As babies, of course. Isaiah 7: “The virgin shall bear a SON,” and since no one is born an adult, Jesus had to start like each and every one of us…a helpless infant. Why a “like us?” Because Jesus is ONE of us, and that is the only way to save us; “That WE might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:5).

It is very important for us to understand today whose idea this is and why. 2017 is gone…2018 stands before us now as a blank slate. 365 blank pages of possibilities and change. Some of those pages will be filled with pleasant surprises and happy endings. But not all of them. As the children of God, we should expect that not everything is going to go as planned in 2018. About the one thing you can count on is the fact that you won’t be able to count on everything!

Paul, in today’s lesson, states that we are sons and heirs of God and because of that we have adoption. But also because of that fact we should expect to suffer. Paul also wrote in Romans 8, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (8:16-17). Did you catch that? As children of God we should expect to suffer in order that we too may be glorified.

And suffer you will in 2018. You will experience pain and crisis and loss and maybe even death. These are a natural result of the sin-stained world we live in. That is Satan’s idea for us…to see us suffer…in hopes that we will abandon our faith out of frustration and fear. May this never be! Granted, we may be called to suffer and bad things may happen to you in 2018. You may even be expected to be like Job and endure the loss of everything. And if that does happen…then so be it.

What I mean by that is consider the example of Peter. Can you imagine the pain and anguish that Peter must have felt after Jesus’ passion? Peter was supposed to be our Lord’s “right hand man,” the “leader” of the 12. But what did Peter do? Denied Jesus not once, not twice, but three times. And then Jesus died a wretched, horrible, public death. I can only imagine Peter really wondered whose idea this was at that point when he saw Jesus dead on a Roman cross.

Then, on the 3rd day, Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to the disciples that night, but John doesn’t say if Peter and Jesus had reconciled. Later, in John 21, the disciples have returned to Galilee and are fishing again. How much time has gone by? A week? A month? We don’t know. But it is at that time that Peter and Jesus are reconciled. Imagine the anguish that Peter must have felt in-between! The guilt! The anxiety! The emotional suffering! Most assuredly, Peter knows what it meant to suffer for the faith. Church tradition says that, when Peter was executed, he asked to be crucified upside-down because he wasn’t worthy to die the same way as Jesus. And it was Peter who wrote “Let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (1 Peter 4:19 ESV).

And there you have it. We can suffer in 2018; it’s part of the plan. And when we suffer for doing good, we do so entrusting our souls to a loving, faithful, creator God who has a plan of salvation for you. Will you always understand the plan? No. Will you always be able to follow the plan? No. Will you sometimes wonder “whose idea is this anyway?” when you experience trial, trouble, and tribulation in 2018? Probably. But know that it is God’s idea that you receive adoption as His children for an eternity of privileges that come from being the loved and saved children of God.

Happy New Year everyone! Amen.

4th Sunday in Advent

4th Sunday in Advent

December 24, 2017

Romans 16:25-27

“A Strange Twist”

Love, Joy, Peace, and Hope be unto you all in the name of God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The text that engages us today is the Epistle lesson previously read from Romans chapter 16.

My dear friends in Christ Jesus,

 

Bruno nervously ran his fingers through his hair and that’s when he saw his partner Shorty Lopez walk in. “Where you been?” Bruno growled. “You ready for another heist?”  “What’s the job?” said Shorty. “First National Bank of Prairieton, Iowa” Bruno replied. “Rich farmers across the state line. We should split a hundred grand. Here’s the plan. Tonight while you’re holed up in a motel, I’ll meet with the bank president.” “You’re going to dinner with the president?” Shorty asked. “She’s my aunt. I’ve got to find out when the vault opens. But listen. There’s a new foolproof escape plan.  I’ve snatched a ‘Student Driver’ sign. You’ll steal a car, attach the sign to it, and park at the bank like you’re some kid waiting on his Drivers’-Ed teacher. I’ll get the money, slip into the passenger seat and you’ll drive– slowly. Cops won’t be looking for a slow-moving car with a student driver sign on it.”

Everyone likes a good mystery or a story with a strange twist. It appeals to our human nature to find out the “who did it” and the “how” of something that was done. God’s plan for salvation for His people also involves a twist – a “mystery” as Paul called it in verse 25 of today’s lesson from Romans 16. This story took many twists and turns while being revealed by prophets and apostles, but this story of salvation is not some TV movie, but it is the centerpiece of human history.

The strange, twisting story of who the Christ child is and what He has done for us is a mystery that requires revelation. That revelation began way back in the Garden of Eden. In Genesis 3 God promised that One would come who would crush Satan’s head even after Satan had bruised His heel (Genesis 3:15). It is a story that was foretold by prophets and countless generations until Jesus was born in a village outside of Jerusalem. And then, 30 years later, the story took a strange twist.

Bruno and Shorty checked into the Prairieton Motel, and when they were settled, Bruno drove to his aunt’s elegant home. Aunt Alice greeted him at the door with a warm hug.  “It’s good to see you after all these years, Bruno. Where are you working?” “Omaha,” he lied. He hadn’t done an honest day’s work ever since he got fired from his last job. Aunt Alice invited him into the dining room. “How’s the banking business going?” he asked. “Very well, thank you. After we eat I’ll show you my scrapbooks and bring you up to date on my life.” “Oh…great.” Bruno remembered those musty pages from his childhood. Aunt Alice clipped articles that highlighted the news events of each week, pasted them in her albums and as she put it, kept track of “progress.” Boooooring!

“I suppose you still work a full day,” Bruno said. “Certainly. I may be 75 years old, but as bank president it’s my duty to be there at 9 AM when they open the vault.” Nine AM. That’s all Bruno needed to know.  Once they finished dinner, his aunt led him back to the parlor, handing him leather-bound scrapbooks. What did he care about Prairieton? Finally he faked a yawn and spoke. “I must be going. It’s sooo late.” “Why, it’s only eight o’clock!” His aunt protested. “Here, just take a look at this one. You’ll be surprised at what’s happened this year in our little town.” Bruno pushed the book aside. “Really, gotta go. It’s been nice seeing you again and thanks for dinner.” On the way back to the motel, Bruno stopped a few blocks from the bank and cut the wires connecting the alarm system to the police station. Everything was going according to plan.

The mystery of God, the revelation of salvation through Jesus Christ, was also once a mystery, but has been made known. It was certainly made know to St. Paul. Once a feared persecutor of Christians, he was converted by God Himself, and Paul became a heroic figure of the Christian faith. But the strange twist of Jesus didn’t begin with Paul. It is not “his” Gospel (verse 25), but it is the Gospel message that he proclaimed. The content of the message of God loving this world so much that He would send His only Son into this world to save it is the unifying theme of Holy Scripture. The Bible points to Jesus, whether it’s Old or New Testament and the fact that He came to save sinful humanity from its sinfulness.

God’s mysterious tale of salvation took a strange twist. The same Jesus Christ whose birth was announced by angels was killed on a cross! That was not what people expected of the Savior of the world! And yet that is what He does to save sinners; to bring forgiveness of sins and restore our broken relationship with God. No one expected a Messiah that would die…and even fewer expected a Messiah that would rise again. A strange twist, to say the least. But that’s not the end!

The next morning Bruno donned his disguise to fool the bank’s cameras and the cops. Even Aunt Alice wouldn’t recognize him. Bruno helped Shorty hot-wire a gray Buick. They secured the oversized ‘Student Driver’ sign to the car and drove to the bank. Shorty parked in front while Bruno went inside and approached a teller. “Fill this,” he demanded, passing her a bag. “Keep quiet and nobody gets hurt.” Once he had the loot, he ordered everyone into the vault and locked the door. Too easy!

Shorty eased away from the bank and drove slowly down Main Street. They were almost home free when sirens screamed behind them and they saw police cars approaching from every direction. Bruno realized they were trapped and, as the first officer to reach the car eyed the cash-stuffed bag on the back seat, he asked, “How did you know?” Before the cop could reply, Aunt Alice appeared, glaring at him. “Bruno, what do you think you’re doing, young man?” Aunt Alice impaled him with a steely gaze. “You should have done me the kindness of looking at that last scrapbook, Bruno.” “What does your dumb scrapbook have to do with all this?” Bruno asked.  “I told you Prairieton had problems. One of them is that funds were misappropriated from the education budget. As a result, we can’t afford drivers-education class for the high school.” The cop nodded. “The student-driver sign was the tip-off. Prairieton doesn’t even have drivers ed.” Aunt Alice gloated. “It was all in the scrapbook, Bruno.”

When the twist of a story is revealed, it has an effect. Maybe it makes people groan or feel amazement at how the story ended. In God’s revealed mystery of how He saved His people in Jesus, that too has an expected result. Jesus dying and rising again is not the end; the twist does something. The intention is that the revealed twist of God’s salvation history is proclaimed so that faith is established in Jesus Christ. We too have heard the message and heard the strange twist of God’s plan of salvation for His people. As we gather later tonight on a glorious silent night, we will rejoice at the revealed mystery that has set us free from death and gifted us instead with life through the life of the Christ child born to save us all.

Amen.

3rd Sunday in Advent

3rd Sunday in Advent

December 17, 2017

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

“Getting Ready to Get Ready”

Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you all in the name of God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The text that engages us on the 3rd Sunday in Advent is the Second Lesson that was read earlier from 1 Thessalonians.

 

My dear friends in Christ Jesus,

 

Scott and Paul Nash were football-playing brothers in western Texas. Scott, the older brother, grew up to be big and strong. His brother Paul was smaller, but very fast; he had to be in order to avoid getting beat up by older brother Scott. With Scott blocking on the offensive line, he opened huge openings that speedy Paul ran right through. College recruiters drooled over the Nash brothers, and both signed scholarships to play for Texas State University.

In college not too much changed. Scott continued to pound smaller players on defence and brother Paul, known as “Crash,” would bust long runs. Texas State was already a good team, and the Nash brothers made it even better. By the time they were seniors at Texas State, they were unstoppable. When it came time for the voting for the Heisman Trophy that year, the award given each year for the best player in college football, there was never any doubt. Paul “Crash” Nash easily won the award. His face was on the cover of newspapers and magazines. He was on ESPN constantly. Older brother Scott Nash, however, was mostly forgotten. He was just as important and necessary as his brother Paul, but with all the attention gathered by Paul “Crash” Nash, Scott was primarily ignored. Doesn’t seem quite right, does it? Doesn’t seem real fair, right? Well, for what it’s worth, the story is not real either.

I made that up; it’s an allegory. Al-a-what? You know…a story that reveals another hidden meaning. This allegory is about the relationship of Advent and Christmas. This is the season of Advent (the Scott Nash of the church year), a very important time of the year, but outside of the church the attention is all going somewhere else. This time of year, every year, is dedicated almost exclusively to Christmas, the Paul “Crash” Nash of the church year. Merchants and advertisers have done their best to remind us that we need to get ready for Christmas. But let us not do so at the expense of Advent. In Advent, we get ready to get ready.

So, how are you doing on getting ready? Oh, not so good. You still have holiday parties to attend and gifts to buy or order or wrap or send, some baking to do, cards to mail, and so on. But wait just one second! This is ADVENT! Those kinds of preparations are for Christmas. Advent is about getting ready for something related, but also slightly different from Christmas. How are you doing on getting ready for Advent? Maybe our lesson from 1 Thessalonians can help.

St. Paul did his best to get the people of God ready by sending his letters to the churches in Thessalonica, a bustling seaport town situated on the tip of the Aegean Sea between modern-day Greece and Turkey. These were churches that were heavily persecuted and filled with new converts who lacked direction. Paul, because he could not be there himself (2nd missionary journey; 51 AD), tried to encourage them in their trials, give them some instruction in the faith, and – perhaps most important – give them assurance concerning the future of believers in Christ. In fact, every chapter of 1 Thessalonians ends with a reference to the coming of Christ. Paul wanted the people to get ready to get ready for the coming of Christ…and this is also our encouragement in Advent.

But that is kind of hard to do, and I get it. Even the most gifted scholar doesn’t know when Jesus is going to come again, but almost every 3rd grader in America can tell you when Christmas is going to happen. Then there is all the noise and hustle of this time of year. There are the constant financial pressures that Christmas brings. Shopping itself is no picnic with the crowds and the strain to find the right gift for everyone on your list. The emphasis of this season may be one of “peace, love, joy and hope,” but in reality a great many people are stressed out, burned out, tapped out, and ready to check out. But there in lies the rub…Advent isn’t supposed to be about that kind of preparation. Advent is getting ready to get ready; preparing by repentance for the coming of Jesus Christ.

 

Whether He comes as a child or a Judge over all, Christ Jesus comes into our hearts and our lives, and His presence changes us. As we sit or lie in the darkness of our day’s regret brought by our repentance, we often wish we were different people, wiser people, better people. But we are who we are in our coming Savior Jesus. The knowledge of what God has done for us in Christ gets us ready to receive Him in a manger, on a cross, or on a great white throne. The true beauty of the narrative doesn’t end in the fields of Bethlehem or in the manger or with the wise men. For that same child born in Bethlehem was also the One who would face the cross and the tomb for us, but He did so to bring the gift of salvation and redemption – the same gift announced by angels the night Jesus was born. That knowledge of our sure and certain salvation by faith in Jesus gives us hope, gives us peace, and gives us joy and gives us love this time of year and always. It’s not about cards and parties and gifts. It is about Jesus…it always has been.

God Himself gets us ready to be ready for the coming of Christ, and Paul gave us a laundry list of things we can do as we live in a state of readiness: be joyful or rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all things, allow the Holy Spirit’s fire to burn brightly inside us for all to see, hold on to the good, and avoid evil. These are more than just words from an ancient letter; this is a picture of repentant Christian living IN ACTION! Your Advent faith is a living, breathing thing; don’t “shelf it” in favour of Christmas bustle. Don’t overlook the preparation of the Advent season in favour of the more glamorous, much-hyped Christmas season in which we sing “Joy to the world, the Lord IS COME.

With that being said, Merry Christmas everyo…I mean, Merry Advent everyone.

Amen.

 

2nd Sunday in Advent

2nd Sunday in Advent

December 10, 2017

Mark 1:1-8

“A Weird Beginning; A Strong Ending”

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. The text that engages us this is today’s Gospel Lesson which are the opening verses from St. Mark’s Gospel as just previously read.

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,

To start out with, I want you to take a pop quiz. So as not to stress anyone out, you’re not getting graded or anything, so don’t worry. I am going to present you with a list of pop culture phrases; each one comes from a TV show, a song, or from literature. Try to name the source of each. Okay, here we go. 1. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” 2. “Is that your final answer?” 3. Just do it. 4. “Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.” And finally 5. “Start spreading the news I’m leaving today. I want to be a part of it.”

How did you do? The first phrase was from the Charles Dickens classic “A Tale of Two Cities.” The second phrase is from “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” The third is the marketing slogan for Nike. The fourth phrase was from the old Superman TV shows and the fifth reference was the opening lines from the song “New York, New York.”

Odds are you could identify most of those phrases, if not all of them. That’s because these phrases permeate our culture; they go beyond their original audience and influence a much wider audience. For the phrases that you knew, didn’t it

generate an emotion or a piece of familiar music or a short flash of a mental image? I’ll bet it did!

I told you that to tell you this. If you were a resident of 1st century Palestine, the content of Mark 1:1-8, our Gospel lesson for today, would have had the same kind of effect. Today we look back and SO MUCH of the impact of this text is just lost on us. As readers separated by thousands of years from the original context of this event it comes across to us as weird or unusual. Clothes made of camel’s hair? Eating locusts and wild honey? Gross! And why are all those people going out to see and hear this one called John the Baptizer (1:4)? Here is why. Just as each one of us is steeped in American culture, the Jews of Jesus’ day knew the Hebrew Scriptures. And what was going on out there in that weird desert scene actually triggered A LOT for those who were there.

John the Baptist’s clothing, environment, and diet caught the people’s attention. Maybe it just seems weird to us, but to the Jews in that region it meant something completely different. John wearing clothing made of camel’s hair isn’t weird or a way of showing his self-induced suffering for God’s sake. People who know the Old Testament scriptures know that God’s prophets wear clothes like this! In 2 Kings 1:8 we are told that Elijah, that great prophet of God, wore clothing made of camel’s hair and a leather belt. Zechariah 13:4 reminds people that prophets wear clothing made out of hair. John the Baptist isn’t causing himself to suffer for God’s sake; he is wearing what a chosen prophet of God wears…and the people knew that.

In addition, he was out in the wilderness baptizing people and telling them they needed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (1:4). Well, that just seems weird, right? I mean, if God really had a serious prophetic message that needed to be heard, wouldn’t He use means to ensure that it spread as far and as fast as possible? If you were given that kind of message, wouldn’t you approach television producers or contact SiriusXM or find a 13-year-old to explain social media to us? You certainly wouldn’t wander out on Highway 72 east way out past Myakka River State Park and just start preaching, would you? Yet that is essentially what John the Baptist did. He did not go to the heart of Israel in Jerusalem or the epicenter of civilization at that time in Rome. Instead he stood in the Judean wilderness…and the people came to him! Walking from Jerusalem to the Jordan River is about 20 miles. That’s like walking from Sarasota to Venice to see what is going on down there. Worse yet, the return trip home to Jerusalem would have been 20 miles back, but uphill as well – 3000 feet uphill. Why would thousands of people walk to this weird scene? Because John had tapped into two powerful themes of Jewish thought: salvation comes from the wilderness and the return of Elijah.

Because of Old Testament prophecies, the Jews believed that Elijah would return prior to the coming of the promised Messiah and deliver the people of God in a new exodus; a journey that would start in the wilderness and end in the Promised Land just as it had for their ancestors under Moses. So here was John the Baptist in the wilderness looking like and sounding like Elijah: saying the right things and having the right look to indicate the end of Jewish oppression under the Romans.

Some thought John was the fulfillment of the coming of Elijah, but John the Baptist puts a spin on the expectation; he introduces a radical change. “After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (1:7-8). Baptism? How will Baptism end their suffering? How will Baptism kick the Romans out of their country? That was not the kind of Messiah that people wanted. They wanted results, not to get in the river; they wanted war and not to get wet.

Indeed, that is still not the Jesus that people want. They want a Jesus who will make everything okay for their relationships, for their pocketbooks, and for their careers. They don’t want a Savior who says things like “Repent and believe the good news” (1:15). To repent is to recognize one’s sinfulness and the need of forgiveness before God. That’s not what people want. They don’t want to have to admit their guilt; that they’ve done anything wrong. They would like Christmas, without the guilt-giving Christ thank you very much.

John’s baptisms, though they seemed weird, pointed to a more solid ending. They pointed towards One who would come and bring the Holy Spirit. The questions of our past are resolved and our forgiveness is sure through repentance, forgiveness, and faith – gifts given through Baptism! And the object of our Baptismal faith is the One whom John the Baptist pointed to – the Savior Christ the Lord.

In the waters of our Baptisms we are given forgiveness of our sins, rescue from death and the devil, and eternal salvation. But those don’t just come through some water. Those blessings were bought at a price – the body and blood of Jesus, whom John the Baptist openly called The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Christ, through His perfect life, suffering, death, and resurrection has won full forgiveness and salvation for the whole human race. Those gifts are distributed to us through Baptism; they are a means by which God’s grace is given to us. In your own Baptism God called you by name to be His. Whether your baptism occurred 75 years ago or 75 months ago or 75 days ago, it was and remains a significant event in your life to be remembered on a daily basis!

What John the Baptist was doing out in the Judean wilderness may look weird to us, but it was anything but to those who went to him. For what John the Baptist pointed to was not weird, but a rock-solid ending for the people of God. It is a future that was purchased for you by Christ.

Amen.

1st Sunday in Advent

1st Sunday of Advent

December 3, 3017

Mark 10:1-11

“A Not So Sentimental Journey”

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. The text that engages us on the 1st Sunday of Advent is today’s Gospel lesson from Mark 10.

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,

Have you ever felt like you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time? Or like something is out of whack? Maybe that’s how you feel today. I’ll explain. It’s after Thanksgiving so the preparation for Christmas is kicking into a higher gear. In church we expect to be transported to Bethlehem, to a manger, surrounded by animals. Instead, our Gospel lesson takes us to Jerusalem with Jesus riding on a donkey. Remind you of another time and place? Like Holy Week? But wait! The Christmas decorations are up! Wal-Mart’s Christmas stuff has been out for weeks. Cyber Monday came and went. Santa Claus appeared at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and the mall here in town. So why do we have the Triumphant Entry for a Gospel lesson?

Interestingly enough, the traditional Gospel lesson for the First Sunday of Advent is the same as that of Palm Sunday—Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. It seems, in a way, wrong. Out of place. Children everywhere are already rehearsing for Christmas programs, getting ready to reenact the story of Mary, with child, riding on a donkey into Bethlehem. And instead, we heard about Jesus riding on a donkey into Jerusalem a week before He dies. In Advent, we should be moving toward a celebration of our Lord’s birth in Bethlehem, and instead we hear a story about our Lord moving toward his death. We should all be going to the theater to see A Christmas Carol, and instead we get The Passion of the Christ. What gives?

But maybe there’s something we can learn—something that, like Mary, we can take with us and ponder in our hearts. Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. “Ride on, ride on in majesty! In lowly pomp ride on to die” (LSB 441:2). For this reason, our Lord came from heaven. For this reason, the Son of God became the Son of Mary. The narrative that we hear today is the reason why Christmas has real meaning and lasting value.

In our society, Christmas has become a largely secular, worldly affair. We celebrate Christmas, and we even fight for the right to say “Merry Christmas” in the public square, but we rarely talk about why Christmas is merry. The absence of Christ has left for many a big hole, an emptiness that needs to be filled. And so many folks try to fill the void with man-made traditions, songs, stories, and receipts. Rather than tell the story of Christ at Christmas, the world tells countless other stories: Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “Frosty the Snowman,” not to mention It’s a Wonderful Life and A Miracle on 34th Street. The world has its own hymnal as well, with Christmas “hymns” ranging from Elvis’s “Blue Christmas” to Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.” Nat King Cole sings about chestnuts roasting in “The Christmas Song,” and Gene Autry still can be heard singing of Santa Claus coming down Santa Claus Lane. I like a lot of those stories, enjoy some of those songs. But if that’s all there is, we don’t have much to celebrate.

But if we’re to be honest, even for us Christians, Christmas often does fall flat. Perhaps we should blame the angels for raising our expectations. “It came upon the midnight clear, That glorious song of old, From angels bending near the earth To touch their harps of gold: ‘Peace on the earth, goodwill to all’ ” (LSB 366:1). A beautiful hymn and a beautiful sentiment. But peace and goodwill? Really?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t see much peace on earth, nor, for that matter, good will to all. For two thousand years, we’ve had nothing but wars and rumors of wars. And so at Christmas, when peace on earth seems unattainable on a large, global scale, we attempt it on a smaller scale, at home with family and friends. But even at home, there is not always peace. Christmas is great, but the bills aren’t so wonderful. Throw in anxieties over work issues, a chronic medical condition, a dispute with the kids/family, the loss of a loved one, or a broken relationship, and there’s a lot of strife and sadness. Some of this sadness is because we live in a fallen sin-filled world, and truth be told, some of this sadness is of our own making: bad choices we’ve made, people we’ve hurt, relationships we’ve damaged. Where, then, is peace to be found? Nowhere else than in the Christ Child. Not in some Precious Moments Christ Child but in the Child who was born to die. I want my Christmas to be about a real-world Savior for a world with real problems.

At our Lord’s birth, the angels sang, “Peace on the earth, goodwill to all.” But there is still another song to sing, and we sing it as Jesus is riding on a donkey into Jerusalem: “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna” Sure, it doesn’t have the same ring to it as “Silent Night,” but you know what I mean.

If we are to reclaim Christmas, we must, I think, recover Advent. Granted, Jesus is the reason for the season of Christmas, and Advent is a season FOR a reason. Advent is NOT “almost Christmas” or “X # of days until Christmas.” Advent is a season of preparation—not simply of our homes, the tree, meals, and presents, but a time of preparation for our hearts. A time of assessment and acknowledgment and a time to recognize WHY our Lord came in the first place. We cannot have Mary and the manger without palms and Pontius Pilate. But by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we now have peace and forgiveness and life eternally because of the Christ Child; the One who as a man rode into Jerusalem to die.

The season of Advent is one of self-assessment and not getting sucked into the things of the world. It’s a time to remember that the things of this world are indeed already passing away, a time to set our hearts, now more than ever, upon things above. A time to look at the child who came to die, a time to crucify our sinful passions. Indeed, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” and we who bear his name now also take up our crosses, follow him, care for the “least of these,” and go forth to make disciples of all nations.

In this season of Advent, let us prepare our hearts once more for our Lord’s coming. Let us forgive as we have been forgiven. Let us embrace the child who came to embrace us; to die for us and for the forgiveness of our sins. And let us offer up our lives as gifts to the One who came to offer up his life as his gift of salvation for us all and joyfully sing this Advent “Hosanna in the highest! Hosanna!” Sure, it doesn’t have the same ring to it as “Santa Claus is coming to town,” but you know what I mean.

Welcome to Advent 2017. Amen.

 

 

 

Last Sunday of the Church Year

Last Sunday of the Church Year

November 26, 2017

Matthew 25:31-46

“The Five Ws”

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. The text that engages us as the basis for the sermon is today’s assigned Gospel lesson from Matthew chapter 25.

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,

When I stop and think about it, I have already had a number of jobs in my 50 years of life. I have washed dishes and mown grass for money, I was a radio DJ, I worked for a pharmaceutical company, and now I am a pastor. One of the jobs that I had for about 2 years was as a sports writer for our hometown newspaper. I wrote an opinion column called “As I See ‘Em” and I covered all the local high school sporting events. Of course, anyone who has ever written for a paper or even read a paper knows about the “Five Ws”: the who, what, where, when, and why of a story usually captured in the story’s lead sentence.

Locating the five Ws of today’s Gospel lesson is easy, but it is the answers themselves to those questions that are a whole lot tougher. Today is the last Sunday of the church year, a day which traditionally focuses upon the final judgment, again not something that is easy to write or even talk about.

We have before us today an awesome scene in which the masses of humanity from all generations are brought before the majestic throne of God, where their hearts and lives are laid bare for judgment. We are told that a clear separation is made between those who are righteous and those who are unrighteous – a fairly scary topic. Jesus the Judge praises the caring acts of the righteous (vv. 34-36). Then they will ask him, in effect, “When did we ever do such things?” And Jesus will reply, “as you did it to the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (vv. 37-40).

Now, before we go any further in trying to understand what this passage says, we must be clear about what it does not say. We can’t isolate Matthew 25 from the rest of the Bible, but we interpret it in light of what the rest of the Bible clearly teaches. And the rest of the Bible makes it abundantly clear that our salvation and eternal life is a free gift that is not earned by our good deeds or acts of mercy. We don’t get to heaven by feeding the hungry or clothing the naked or welcoming the stranger or caring for the sick; “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works – so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).

Notice that in Matthew 25 the separation of the sheep and the goats takes place before any deeds are even mentioned! Why? Because the separation is based upon who they are, not on what they had done. The people on Christ’s right hand are placed there because they are sheep, because they are righteous. The people on the left hand are placed there because they are goats, because they are unrighteous. And Scripture makes it very clear that the people who are righteous are so because God has made them righteous by the blood of the Lamb, not by their works.

And so, let’s again consider the five Ws and think about the who, what, and why regarding Christ’s calling to us. Who are the “least of these my brothers”? What are we to do for them? And why are we to do it for them?

First of all, who are the “least of these”? They are the needy and hurting of the world, those who are suffering and considered insignificant by society. Often times they are the ones the world would just as soon dispense of: the unwanted fetus, the battered child, the poverty-stricken family, the homeless addict. Thanksgiving just rolled past and we comfort ourselves with the assumption that everyone had plenty, but that is just not the case. The “least of our brothers” are all around, not just in rundown parts of the Tampa. It’s not just a Bradenton problem or a Newtown problem. It’s right here even in affluent Sarasota too.

But our next question calls for action. It is the question of what. What are we as Christians to do for them? In a cartoon I saw once, Garfield the cat, seated in a comfortable chair, sees his friend Odie the dog at the window peering in eagerly. Garfield says to himself, “Poor Odie. Locked outside in the cold. I just can’t bear to see him like this. I gotta do something!” At that point Garfield gets up from his chair and closes the curtain.

We can laugh, but not too loudly, because that behavior is so much like us. As we live in comfort and abundance, throwing away the table scraps from our meals, once in awhile the reality of the needy and starving world outside our borders breaks in to our lives. We view on our big-screen TVs those skeletal creatures in the Third World which look like the living dead but are really human beings just like us. They seem so distant and unreal. So, we pull the curtains or turn off the TV so that we don’t have to think about it. That may make us feel comfortable again, but it doesn’t change the reality that they are hungry and starving and dying.

So what are we to do? Jesus says: “Whatever you do to the least of these my brothers, you do it to me. I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me.” Some great organizations for accomplishing this commission of our Lord include LCMS World Relief, LWML, Habitat for Humanity, and Feed My Starving Children to name only a few. They go to those areas of the world in crisis conditions to provide care and relief to people. Maybe we cannot go like they do, but we can support them through our prayers and through our gifts.

The final question to be answered today is why. We’ve already seen that such acts of mercy do not earn us salvation. So why should we seek to show mercy? Of course the most significant answer is because God has shown mercy to us. When we were in the poverty of our sin, Jesus Christ entered into our condition for us. As Paul writes: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you, through his poverty, might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). Because of Christ’s sacrificial death, we have our debt of sin cancelled. And we are made rich – rich with the righteousness of Christ credited to us. That righteousness makes us sheep, not goats! That righteousness makes us acceptable to God today and on the final day of judgment. But that righteousness is now also expressed to others as we share Christ’s love with them in deeds of compassion.

A story is told that during World War II a beautiful cathedral in Europe was so severely bombed that about the only thing left standing in its midst was a statue of Jesus. But this statue did sustain some damage, because the hands of Jesus had been broken off in the destruction. Not true. The statue is real, but it happened in California, not Europe and vandals broke off the hands, not a bomb. Regardless, the inscription of the statue now reads “ He Has No Hands But Us.” May we go forth as His caring and helping hands in a hurting world of suffering and hunger to bring the badly needed answer of Jesus to all people in every place.

Amen.