6th Sunday after Epiphany

6th Sunday after the Epiphany
February 17, 2019
Jeremiah 17:5-8
“Cursed…or Blessed?”

Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you all in the name of God our Father and our Good Shepherd Jesus. The text that we will consider for the sermon is the First Lesson from Jeremiah 17.

My dear friends in Christ Jesus,

Wait a second. You will have to bear with me for one minute. You see, I’ve been losing weight and not eating much and I am REALLY hungry. I kind of thought this might happen, so I brought a fortune cookie from home to keep my strength up so hang on. Oh look, here’s my fortune for today – “Success and wealth are in your future.” Boy, is that a great fortune or what! Man, am I ever lucky! Not everyone has success coming their way in the future, but I do. The cookie says so; the cookie has spoken!
What does that mean…to be successful? And just how does one get successful anyway? There’s lots of stuff on-line that’s available. You can order the “innertalk” CDs ($150) and they will subliminally create success messages in your head to alter body image, relationships, parenting skills as you walk the fine line between love and fear as a parent, improve your finances, and so on. Or one can log-on for “paid online training to re-program your subconscious to help you reach the highest levels of your creative potential and tap into the deepest wisdom within you.” You can dress for success, take classes for success, download apps designed for success, or hire motivational speakers who would be happy to come and speak about unleashing unlimited but untapped internal power to be successful. I think I’ll stick with the cookie.
We live in a country where self-help towards success isn’t just a multi-billion dollar industry, but it is a “creed;” an underlying driving motivation for American existence. Being successful is American, and if you cannot do it, find someone who can help you be successful. Don’t kid yourself; ALL self-help gurus would have us all believe that we have unlimited abilities and capabilities to be more successful than we ever dreamed and they can help you achieve that…for a nominal fee, of course. However, in today’s Old Testament lesson, the prophet Jeremiah blasts a gapping hole in the self-help industry.
Jeremiah was a prophet of God who was active from 628-580 BC. This was a time of deep, emotional crisis for Israel. Isaiah, who we heard from last week, served as a prophet during a time of great prosperity, but Jeremiah was sent during great turmoil. The Assyrians were smashing and destroying the Northern Kingdom and not too far behind them would come the Babylonians. In chapter 17, Jeremiah, in the face of certain doom, told the people that when it came to success, they only had two options: they were either shrubs or trees. They were either cursed or blessed. They either trusted in themselves, or they trusted in God.
Jeremiah pointed out that the people wrongly put their trust in their own flesh. They trusted in their own abilities, their own capabilities, their own might. Their hope and trust was in their fortresses, their political alliances, their city walls. They trusted in human things; they trusted in things created by the weak arm of human flesh. They had turned their backs on Yahweh, the God of Israel, and instead sought to protect themselves through their own means, which wasn’t working too good. Jeremiah compared these people to being like a shrubs out in the desert. A desert existence is never a good thing for long periods of time. There’s no water. It’s hot. There’s no protection from the elements…sounds like a typical south Florida summer day.
What about today’s world? We don’t have the Assyrian or Babylonian armies breathing down our necks, but the dryness is still severe and just as difficult. Today the droughts of unsure politics, fragile social peace, immigration issues, an addiction and substance abuse epidemic, and sin in general turns our American lives into barren deserts. When tough times come, the “shrubs” of this world also dry up and blow away for they are “cursed” based on what God’s Word has to say. Oh, but they will try and help themselves through these times! Self-preservation mode kicks in and grasping for success becomes critical. If they just use their own unlimited potential they can be truly happy…just ask the cookie!
The problem is that the cursed shrubs of this world have no real strength. They have no direction to turn towards – nothing to cling to – when the hot, dry desert winds blow. They are hopeless and helpless in an empty sinful life in which they are always seeking further success or anything that relieves the spiritual thirst that they feel apart from a relationship with Christ.
But there is another side. There are also the trees of this world, the trees being planted by life-giving water, just like it says in Psalm 1. The people of Jeremiah’s day who trusted not in themselves even as they saw their everyday lives falling apart around them but trusted in God held to a promise of something better…far better…which was yet to come.
Jeremiah said, “Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord.” Blessed is the one who is not self-reliant, but who relies on the true God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Additionally, in our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus provides even greater insight into the one who is truly blessed, and it’s radically counter-cultural…almost un-American! It is not the one who is rich or well fed or the most popular. Instead, Jesus turns the tables and tells us it is the poor, the hungry, those who mourn, those who are hated, those who suffer, those who are rejected. They are the ones who are blessed maybe not in the eyes of the world, but blessed in the eyes of God.
And how are we blessed? We are blessed not because of our positions, power, property, prosperity, or politics. We are blessed by virtue of our faith in Christ Jesus. We are blessed by his fulfilling of God’s lawful demands on our behalf. By our faith in Christ, not by the works of our hands, we are blessed. In fact, it was his hands that blessed us: hands that blessed bread and wine and gave it to the disciples as Body and Blood, hands that healed the sick and the lame and forgave the sinner, hands that prayed earnestly for us, hands that were nailed to a cross for us. Those are truly acts of real help; NO self-help guru is willing to die for you…but Jesus was.
Don’t be a shrub; be a tree. The difference? The difference is its proximity to life-giving water. The cursed shrub relies on its own strength and capabilities to survive, but eventually it withers and dies. The blessed tree seeks life outside of itself and finds life in Christ. Blessed is the one who clings to the arm of faith, the strong arm of Jesus Christ who will never let you go no matter how strong the wind blows or the seas rage in this life. His arms were strong enough to carry the sins of the whole world. He is our strength and our support…no matter what any fortune cookie might proclaim otherwise.
Speaking of cookies, I’m still hungry; anyone got another fortune cookie on them? No? Okay. Then, I guess…
Amen.

5th Sunday after Epiphany

5th Sunday after the Epiphany
February 10, 2019
Isaiah 6:1-8
“Let’s Get Busy!”

Grace, mercy, and peace be with you all in the name of our living Savior and Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is the Old Testament lesson as previously read from Isaiah chapter 6.

My dear friends in Christ Jesus,

There is an old saying that goes, “be careful what you ask for…you just might get it.” For example, there was once a church that, like many churches, struggled financially until one day they were flabbergasted to find out that they had been left a memorial gift in excess of $800,000. A widow, whose family had made a fortune but lived a humble existence – almost meager; to look at her you’d think she didn’t have 2 nickels to rub together. No one imagined she had that kind of money. And she left all that money to her church…and the church almost closed their doors because of it.
As soon as people realized that the church had been given all that much money, the members promptly stopped giving; “why give? the church has so much money now!” Then came the animosity, the disagreements, the back-biting, the name-calling, and Satan had a heyday with those people. Finally, out of utter desperation, the church gave all the money away to good causes, and they were able to stay together, but the damage had been done and it took them years to heal. Be careful what you ask for…you just might get it.
No one ever said that church work or the mission and ministry of the church would be easy. In fact, it is anything but! Today we are mindful of how dangerous, difficult, and daunting it can be when God calls your name and you respond “Send me!” Again…be careful what you ask for.
The first aspect of God’s call into action is the actual extending of the call. Isaiah was called into ministry “in the year that King Uzziah died” so that means that this occurred probably around 740 to 739 BC. This was a prosperous time for Israel. The Assyrians had not yet risen to power, and neither had the Babylonians. The Egyptians were trying to rebuild their dynasty. Israel was a major player on the world scene and they grew wealthy and powerful. Less than 50 years later, the bottom would fall out and Israel would suffer greatly. This is the coming ruin of which Isaiah was sent to proclaim. As you can imagine, this isn’t going to be a popular mission. Isaiah isn’t going to get invited to many social events, but he still was called and he did respond “send me.”
Good Shepherd was also called into mission and ministry. It was the year that Bob Marley died and President Reagan almost died. It was 1981, and the name for a Lutheran preaching station on the south side of rapidly-growing Sarasota was selected. By May of 1982 the congregation that is Good Shepherd was called into existence. By 1983 this building was constructed. The original 95 members have grown to more than 300 with more people joining every month.
The second aspect of God’s call into action is that we have to humbly recognize our unworthiness in the face of the one calling us! We have been called BY NAME BY GOD…whoa, that’s overwhelming. Isaiah’s reaction was swift and complete. “I am lost!” Isaiah exclaimed, but in the Hebrew that construction means “silenced.” In his sinfulness, Isaiah was rendered speechless.
What about us here at Good Shepherd? Has God called us here together to be his people? Of course. Like Isaiah, are we unworthy – sinful – as individuals? Yes. Like Isaiah, has our sinfulness silenced us? Is our ministry “moving” or has our sinful, silent, embarrassment at times stopped us from reaching out to our community and world with the love of Christ Jesus? Exactly…insert collective “gulp” here, right?
The third and final aspect of God’s call into action is the action itself, the mission. Is it easy? Hardly! Is it glamorous? I don’t think so! Isaiah, in his enthusiasm, begged “send me!” The optional verses you didn’t hear, though, were verses 9 and 10, and tell us what to expect in our mission, and they really aren’t optional: “He said, Go and tell this people: Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving. Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes.” In other words, we are being sent to an unresponsive audience that are going to reject what you say and do. Oooh…fun! Sound glamorous? You want a piece of that?
The same is true for our mission in this community. Does everyone like us? Maybe not everyone. When we speak, do they listen? Not always. Do they even know we’re here among all those trees? When you say, “Good Shepherd,” don’t people always say, “Where’s that?” It is not going to be easy to get people to come through those doors! But we have a mission. Our mission (2016) is to be a Christian family that models God’s love by connecting people to Christ and to one another, embracing our community and its needs, and by making a difference together. Friends, we cannot do that behind closed doors. We must get busy reaching out with the life-changing Word of God to open ears, eyes, and hearts giving the Holy Spirit a chance to work faith.
Isaiah carried out his mission and he was hated for it. Jesus himself pointed out that Israel was known as those who killed the prophets (Matthew 23:37). Jesus himself faced the full wrath of that rejection as the Roman soldiers nailed him to the cross. And instead of anger, he pleaded, “Father, forgive them.”
Apart from that cross we would be damned to hell – mission or no mission – but because of Jesus’ great love and sacrifice we are forgiven. This forgiveness empowers us to go forth and fulfill the mission that God has given us to do. Isaiah’s mission took him to the people of Israel and they hated him for it, yet he was faithful. We too have a mission in this community and people may also dislike us for it too. But we are prophets – forgiven sinners who proclaim the truth of God’s Word no matter what, and we live in the same forgiveness that we proclaim to others.
I’m not going to Nebraska. I’m staying…I’m in. Are you? Let’s get busy making a difference together. Here are WE…Send US and maybe we’ll get exactly what we asked for!
Amen.

4th Sunday after Epiphany

4th Sunday after the Epiphany
February 3, 2019
Luke 4:31-44
“Everything You Wanted to Know About Demons But Were Afraid to Ask”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our living Savior and Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is the Gospel lesson previously read.

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,

In 1949, the Rev. Dr. Louis Sieck, then President of Concordia Seminary in St Louis (my alma mater) was asked to perform an exorcism on campus in what is now called the Chapel of the Holy Apostles. Having no previous experience with exorcism, Dr. Sieck was at a loss on how to proceed. Unfortunately, the only Lutheran writings on exorcism he could find had been written in 1684…in Latin.
After several unsuccessful attempts to expel the unclean spirit from the young boy, Dr. Sieck gave up and turned the boy over to Jesuit priests in St. Louis. After several intense efforts, the exorcism was successful. The boy eventually became a father and grandfather, a devout Catholic, and was never bothered again by the demonic. This well-documented case was the primary study for William Peter Blatty’s book (1971) and subsequent film “The Exorcist.”
We can’t really blame Dr. Sieck. Maybe we as Lutherans are ill prepared when it comes to discussing, recognizing, and especially fighting the demonic. Know how many books I have on the topic? One. In the last 15 years, CPH has published 1 book on the subject. But not so in the case of Jesus.
The 1973 film “The Exorcist” – based on Blatty’s novel – sadly provides much of the modern mindset in thinking of demons: evil spirits that cause people to levitate, speak in dead languages, turn their heads 360 degrees, shirk away from anything holy, and spit soup-like junk all over the room. This is simply not the case; that’s more Hollywood than Holy Land, and we would do well to know what is the truth – the real truth – about demons. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus casts out not 1, not 2, but many demons. Throughout all 4 Gospels, Jesus frequently battles against demonic forces – demons – but there’s no mention of pea soup. So, how much do we know about them and are we prepared to deal with demonic forces? That’s where today’s sermon will try and help.
And so, here is a little “demonology 101.” To begin with, are demons real? Yes, demons are very real. The Bible provides plenty of evidence that demons are real and are at work in this world. Just because our Lord Jesus has ascended back into heaven does not mean the demons went away!
Where did demons come from? Demons are angels that were created by God. God created all the angels to be good and holy and righteous servants and messengers of His will. But some time before humanity fell into sin, many angels followed Satan’s – another angel – lead. Of their own accord, they fell away from God and they constantly exhibit and exert their rejection of God. This is manifested primarily in their constant attempts to bring about the ruin of His beloved creation – mankind. They are also exceedingly hostile towards the church of Christ and they do their best to strike church leaders, spread false doctrine, incite persecution and strife against the kingdom, and lure hearers away from God and His life-changing Word.
Should we fear demons? Yes…you’d better believe it! However, we don’t fear them in the sense that we worry they will bodily possess us. That’s EXTREMELY rare. We should be afraid of what demons can do and why they would do it to us. Demons can teach or deceive people away from God by any means necessary. They can do minor feats which appear “supernatural” causing people to doubt God; doubt is Satan’s favorite tool. Do you know, and I’m not making this up, that a woman in Hollywood, Florida made and then sold 10 years later a grilled cheese sandwich that is supposed to contain the image of Mary, the mother of our Lord? She sold the item on-line for…$28,000. God doesn’t work through grilled cheese sandwiches, and demons probably laughed at the thought He would.
Demons give information – false information – to people who claim to then have “revelations from beyond.” Case in point, the “renowned” psychic Sylvia Browne, working with law enforcement, told the parents of Shawn Hornbeck in 2002 that their abducted child was dead in a wooded area. Shawn Hornbeck was later found in Missouri in 2007 alive and well, but Browne still received her consultation fee of $1000/hour! In 2004, Sylvia Browne told Amanda Berry’s mother that Amanda was dead. In reality, she was not dead but alive and being held captive in Cleveland for 10 years until she and 2 other women escaped in 2013 – the same year Sylvia Browne died (11 years before she predicted she would die). Is that the work of a demon or a con artist? Is there a difference? You tell me.
All right, how about this? Do people still get possessed today by demons? Demons possessed and afflicted people in Old Testament times, they did it during the earthly ministry of our Lord obviously, and they continue to do it now perhaps more through influence rather than physical possession. I will say this. Anything which lowers or impairs a victim’s ability to say “no!” to satanic intrusion can lead to demonic influence. Alcoholism, drug addiction, or any form of chronic substance abuse can make a person more susceptible to a demon wedging its way into their life. Demons can still possess people – rarely – and each case needs to be judged individually by very specific criteria.
So, what’s the point of all this information about demons? If nothing else, please know and remember today that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is stronger than demons! Demons cannot stand up to Him, defeat Him, or resist Him and His commands. We saw that in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus has power and authority unlike the demons. The death and resurrection of Christ Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins seals His power and His authority forever over and against the temporal, temporary power of any demon or demons. As Luther wrote in “A Mighty Fortress is Our God:” “this world’s prince may still, scowl fierce as he will, he can harm us none, he’s judged, the deed is done.”
Jesus is the victor. He gives us the victory by our faith in Him. Will demons strike at you anyway? Absolutely. Will they try to harm you and your family and turn you away from God? Of course! Can they change Jesus’ victory over sin, death, and hell? No way. Jesus is the Holy One of God, and no demon in your life or in the life of this world can ever change that glorious truth.
Amen.

3rd Sunday after Epiphany

3rd Sunday after the Epiphany
January 27, 2019
Luke 4:16-30
“Not Just Another Service”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our living Savior and Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is the Gospel lesson previously read.

My dear friends,

(Sigh). Just another week, just another church service. Out of curiosity, did you have that “Ugh…do I have to?” moment before you left? Even if we never say it, that’s what our old sinful nature thinks. It’s why we sometimes find ourselves dragging our feet to come to church with a heavy heart and no smile on our face. It’s why we find it so much easier to make a habit out of something—anything—else on Saturday night or Sunday morning. We justify it because there are so many “important” things in life, aren’t there? It’s why our daily devotions suffer and time in God’s Word suffers and prayer suffers…we have “too many other important things to do. Do we? Really? As the people of God, time with God – worship – should be the most natural thing in the world for us…but it isn’t. It’s not natural for us, but it is for Jesus.
Luke wrote “(Jesus) came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day” (v 16). How about that? Jesus is the Word of God and Scripture is His Word! He attends services faithfully. His custom and habit is to hear and love His own Word. Wouldn’t that be something? To come to church not out of a sense of obligation, not as a “have to” or simply as a matter of routine, but to come out of love for being here! Whoa! That’s the life of Jesus. It was normal and natural for Jesus to be in church.
However, this Sabbath Day was different from others; it was not just another service. Having been baptized and undergoing His wilderness temptation and with His ministry now underway, this time Jesus wasn’t there to be a hearer of the Word. This time he went to the Nazareth synagogue as a teacher of the Word, a guest preacher in his home congregation.
“And he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor’ ” (vv 16–19).
“And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him” (v 20). Isn’t that a great description? All eyes in the church are fixed on Jesus. No dozing in the pew after a long day or late night, no wondering what I’ll announce at the end of the service or daydreaming about next Sunday’s Super Bowl, no stealthy glances at a cell phone or watch. Wouldn’t it be great if those words described us today? Jesus, here in our midst, and the hearts and eyes of all fixed on him! Now THAT would be a worship service!
With Jesus seated and all eyes fixed on Him, I bet you could hear a pin drop. Then came the sermon. It wasn’t a lecture on theology, a list of ten steps to a better you, or a rally for some social cause or issue. In a simple and profound way, Jesus applied God’s Word to the people right there: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (v 21). In essence, what Jesus said was “You know that stuff that Isaiah wrote? It’s about me.”
Jesus told them He is the Anointed One, the Messiah, the long-awaited Christ. That’s why he went to the synagogue that Sabbath Day, and they couldn’t believe their ears! “All spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. And they said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ ” (v 22). No, not really. Truly, he’s “the Son of God” (Lk 1:35), conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. Not the son of Joseph…the Son of God.
That’s why he comes to church so faithfully still, including today: to deliver the Good News of salvation to you poor and needy, to proclaim liberty to you who are in debt with sin, to give sight to you who walk in darkness of pain and anxiety and frustration, to set free you who are in bondage to addiction or loneliness or fear or sadness or hopelessness. It all happens “in your hearing”—literally in your ears. That’s how Jesus makes himself and his forgiveness, his love and his grace known to you. Today in your ears in this place at this time, this scripture is fulfilled again: Jesus, the Christ, comes with the Lord’s favor for you.
That, my friends, is the point of worship. Not to be entertained, not to be whipped into a spiritual frenzy. God speaks…we respond. Flesh-and-blood Jesus, true God and also true man, steps into our service to be the Word for poor, lost sinners like you and me. Worship isn’t about you and what you’re doing here, though it’s good that you are. It’s not about what I might do or might not do. What matters is that He’s here and what He says: words given for the depressed and despairing, for the sinner and the sinned against, for all who are oppressed, victimized, abused, taken advantage of, unsure, uncertain, and suffering. That’s the kind of God we fear, love, and trust. He is not a disinterested, disengaged, distant deity. He is here…forgiving, loving, and showing mercy to us each and every time.
The joy of life in the church is that it’s never just another service. Every week, Jesus himself uniquely proclaims the Lord’s favor for you using a variety of means (hymns, prayers, lessons, Sacraments, fellowship), showering you with his mercy and grace. Have you ever missed church for whatever reason and you felt “off” because you weren’t here? That because you were denied the chance to be overwhelmed with love and mercy and grace. Why would someone willingly deny themselves that opportunity? What’s the “down side” of attending church? There isn’t one! Being in worship is ALWAYS a good thing and Jesus makes it so.
Jesus is always in church, always in his Word, always flesh and blood, always crucified and risen for you, always with more forgiveness to speak and strength to give week after week after week. Unlike us, He faithfully comes every single time we gather in worship and He’ll do so until that day comes when we’ll be forever with the Lord – perfect, eternal worship – and I promise you’ll love every moment of it. Plus…just look at how much shorter Jesus’ sermon are than mine!
Amen.

2nd Sunday after Epiphany

2nd Sunday after Epiphany
January 20, 2019
John 2:1-11
“No Fuss, No Muss!”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our living Savior and Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is the Gospel lesson from John 2, Jesus’ first miracle.

My dear friends,

Here’s a blast from the past…anyone remember Ron Popeil? Ron Popeil is famous for his many inventions you used to see on TV. He and his company, Ronco, have given us the Popeil’s Pocket Fisherman, Mr. Microphone, and the Veg-O-Matic. But one of his “best” inventions was his “Showtime” rotisserie oven that could be yours for 5 easy payments of $19.95! You put the food in. You set the oven. You walk away. Set it and forget it. No fuss. No muss.
In this Gospel text, Mary reminds us to do the same; walk away, set it and forget it, no fuss, no muss. The situation confronting Jesus was pretty simple. He was at a wedding, and they ran out of wine. At the least, this would have been a very embarrassing, maybe even humiliating situation. Jewish wedding ceremonies in the 1st century could last a week. Guests would stay, abstaining from work and sticking around to share the family’s joy. But to run out of wine? Ouch! The only thing worse I can think of is running out of Diet Dr. Pepper…may it never be! The social “scar” from this situation, though, would last for some time; it would have been super embarrassing. We’re talking about wine – a fermented drink – a drink that needs the one thing the host doesn’t have…time. So the problem had to be dealt with.
Mary apparently knew the family because she came to Jesus with the problem. She told him, “They have no wine” (v 3). I wonder what Mary expected Jesus to do about this situation. Did she want him to send his disciples out to buy more wine? Was she just telling him because she felt bad for the couple? What, if anything, did Mary want Jesus to do about it? What was she expecting? John tells us that this was Jesus’ first “sign.” It’s not like Jesus was known as someone who did miracles growing up. Luke 2 says that Jesus grew up like any other child and was obedient to his parents. When Jesus went to Nazareth in Mark 6, the people wondered when he had received the power to do miracles, for he hadn’t evidenced any miracle power before. So why tell Jesus about this couple being out of wine?
Whatever the expectation, Mary comes to Jesus with the news that the family is out of wine, and Jesus tells her that his hour has not yet come. He makes it clear that this isn’t his issue. You would think that Mary would walk away, perhaps a bit disappointed, but trying to figure out a way around this situation. But she doesn’t. Instead she tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” (v 5). BIG faith move! Mary had incredible faith in her Son. She knew – as maybe only a mother could – that he would answer her request. She committed the situation to Jesus, and she knew that he would take care of it – walk away, no fuss, no muss.
Mary’s faith was rewarded. Jesus not only took care of the situation, but he did so big time! Filling six jars with 180 gallons of water, Jesus changed it into wine. And this was no cheap box of Franzia or a bottle of “2 Buck Chuck” from Trader Joe’s; this was an excellent wine, the best wine. Jesus gave the couple a gift of extreme value, and if there happened to be any left following the wedding, they could sell it and have a good financial cushion to begin their married life.
Question…have you ever felt like Mary? I don’t mean complaining when there’s no more wine. You cry out to God, but it seems as if he isn’t listening or helping? Have you ever felt as if your prayers are going as far as the ceiling in the room and they’re getting stuck there? That’s a pretty common feeling. In Psalm 6, David says that he is in great anguish and is flooding his bed with tears. He cries out, “O Lord—how long?” (Ps 6:3). The disciples were scared to death in a storm at sea while Jesus was in the boat sleeping. They cried out, “Lord, don’t you care if we drown?” St. Paul prayed to the Lord three times to take away his thorn in the flesh, but the Lord refused. We all have times when we cry to the Lord for relief, but it just seems as if God doesn’t answer. If he would, then everything would be fine…no fuss, no muss. But it’s NOT fine…it’s not fine…and that hurts.
The reality is that God hears our prayers and he answers them. It might not be in the way we hope or expect, but he will do it. We can commit our problems to Jesus, knowing that he will take care of them. David knew that. In Psalm 6, right after he complains about his terrible weeping, he says, “The Lord has heard my plea; the Lord accepts my prayer” (Ps 6:9). So many times, God answers our prayers in ways we don’t expect. Look at Mary: do you think she expected Jesus to create wine from 180 gallons of water? I think Jesus’ response took her by surprise. When the disciples cried out to Jesus for help, did they expect him to quiet the sea? I don’t think so. They were astonished at what he did. I’m sure Paul didn’t expect the answer he received, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). That answer allowed him to rejoice in his sufferings and hardships. In the same way, we can commit our situations to Jesus knowing he will answer them, no fuss, no muss. How do we know? Because of his hour.
Jesus’ “hour” is his time of suffering. Now this, at the wedding of Cana in Galilee, is not his hour. Jesus’ hour is his Passion and his cross. The cross of Jesus is his promise and guarantee that he will hear and answer our prayers. He has borne our sin. He has borne our punishment. He died in our place. He rose again for us. He has made us his own. He did all of that even though we do not deserve a bit of it. He does it all so we don’t have to…no fuss, no muss.
Given all that Christ has done for us, does it make any sense that he would ignore our pleas now? No. As Paul points out in Romans 8:32, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” Christ, by his sacrificial life, death, and resurrection, is the promise and the guarantee that God will hear our prayer. His death and resurrection allow us to commit our cares to him knowing that he will take care of them.
We have many cares and worries in life, right? Most of them are beyond our control. Mary was worried about this family, but she knew there was nothing she could do. She committed the situation to Jesus. She asked him to take care of it. She committed the situation to him, knowing he would take care of it.
Don’t count on God whipping up 180 gallons of wine for you, but still commit your cares and worries to the Lord. He will take care of them. He gave his life for you. He rose from the dead. He has baptized you in his name. You are his. He will take care of you. No fuss, no muss!
Amen.

The Baptism of our Lord

The Baptism of our Lord
January 13, 2019
Isaiah 43:1-7
“Fear Knots…Fear Not”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our living Savior and Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is the First Lesson from Isaiah 43.

My dear friends,

Have you ever thought about how powerful fear and worry are in our lives? When fear moves in, happiness moves out. When our hearts are filled with fear, there can’t be room for anything else. Fear and joy are mutually exclusive; you cannot be happy and afraid at the same time. And what do people fear? Pretty much everything under the sun! We fear being sued, finishing last, having no friends, disappointing those closest to us, losing our job, losing our business, going broke; we fear the mole on the back or new spot on our arm, what will happen if pastor leaves, and the sound of the clock as it ticks us closer to the grave.
Fear grabs us. Worry holds us. We find ourselves held by “fear knots.” When I was a kid, I used to get them every time I had to go to the dentist. Those are knots in our stomach when we think about that upcoming procedure or the looming court date, or the notice from the bank or the insurance company we just received. Fear knots are the things that migrate up and bind our hearts when we’re concerned about our children and grandchildren, a pain for which there are no words to describe. Fear knots tie us up and refuse to let us go.
Ancient Israel was bound up by fear knots. They were worried about how God felt about them. After all, they had disobeyed God time and again. Beginning in the wilderness with Moses, the people of Israel complained against God, doubted his goodness, and turned to idols. Moses is up on top of Sinai getting the Commandments; the frightened people are busy at the base of Sinai already breaking the 1st one! As the centuries rolled on, God continually warned his people against their idolatry, but they refused to listen. Instead of changing their ways and repenting, they told the prophets to stop preaching, even imprisoning some of them and killing others…right up to the day when the Lord punished them with the Exile.
The Exile…yeah…that didn’t help their fear. They were now afraid of the future because, for all intents and purposes, it looked like they DIDN’T HAVE a future. Yes, God had promised that their exile wasn’t permanent (70 years), but would he keep his promise? They had sinned against the Lord. They deserved his anger. They had earned his punishment. Could God ever forgive them? Would God ever forgive them? These knots of fear bound them like chains.
Ever felt like that? We are often bound by fear knots. Like Israel, we have disobeyed God. We even admit that. Earlier we confessed that we have sinned against God. Will my confession be enough? Is God still angry with me? Are all these fears and doubts and troubles in life my punishment for acting so poorly? We don’t trust God to take care of us, so we worry about what tomorrow may look/be like and end up being tied up in fear knots. We don’t have full confidence in God, so we get filled with anxiety – tied up in worry – and are bound with fear knots, which is NOT a great feeling.
The previous chapter, chapter 42, ends with scathing judgment. However, our lesson began with “But now . . .” With those words, Isaiah comes to comfort us! Yes, the Lord was angry, but now his anger is taken away. Yes, he punished his people Israel, but he will do so no longer. Now he will save them. Now he will protect them. The Lord comes to release Israel from their fear knots. He says to them, “Fear not.” “Fear not!” says the Lord. “Remember what I have done for you! I created you. I formed you. I redeemed you. I have called you by name; you are mine.”
Passing through the waters, walking through the fire – all the trials of life – it makes no difference. God is with his people, and he will bring them through. The water will not overwhelm, and the fire will not burn; the difficulties of life will not destroy you. God will protect you. “Fear not,” says the Lord, “for I am with you” (v 5). Jesus said the same thing before His ascension: “I am with you always” (Matthew 28).
Now in our Baptism, God says the same to us a hundred times over every day. God has created you in His image. That’s not physical, but it’s your ability to think and reason, to understand good/evil, right/wrong, your ability to make choices, to appreciate beauty, to be in relationship, and ultimately to love. In Baptism, he lovingly made us his own. In your Baptism, God reached down from heaven and placed his name on you. He called you by name, and he said that you belong to Him, and that is a day-by-day, hour-by-hour relationship.
Here’s an interesting note. The Lord told Israel that he gave Egypt for them and that he gave “men in return for you” (v 4). That happened to Egypt on the night of the 10th plague. But, the Lord has done even more for us. He did not give men in our place; he gave one Man in our place: his Son, Christ Jesus. The Baptism of our Lord is the beginning of His ministry and Jesus knew full well that the manger of Bethlehem led to the waters of the Jordan which would lead to the cross of Calvary…but let us not forget the empty grave of Easter. At the cross, something miraculous happened. The Lord redeemed us with His body. He paid for our sin with His blood. He made us his own.
Since God has done all that for us, we do not need to be afraid. We are his children. Since we are his children, we do not have to be afraid of what life throws at us. We will be tested by many trials. We will be confronted by many challenges. We will be frightened about the future. But the Lord promises to bring us through them all. “In the world you will have tribulation,” says Jesus. “But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Fear will knock on the door of your heart…but you don’t have to let it in! Instead, the Lord says, “Fear not.” “Fear not, for I have created you. Fear not, for I have redeemed you by the blood of my Son. Fear not, for I have summoned you by name in your Baptism. You are mine.” Be confident in the Lord; live life confident in the Lord. Let his Word undo your fear knots. Always…ALWAYS…remember his promise: “Fear not, for I am with you.”
Amen.

The Epiphany of our Lord

The Epiphany of Our Lord
January 6, 2019
Matthew 2:1-12
“One Wild Ride”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our living Savior Jesus. The basis for the sermon on our celebration of the Epiphany of Our Lord is today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew chapter 2.

My dear friends,

Many of our snowbirds are back after their annual “White Christmas” up north and everything that comes with that: cold, snow, ice, frost, bad roads. Oh…FUN! One of the wonderful features of where we reside in south Florida is that we don’t have to deal with snow packed, icy roads. As someone who has driven on some pretty dangerous roads in all my years spent in Minnesota, I can tell you that is what I miss the least about the upper Midwest. That and the mosquitoes. But that doesn’t mean that driving is always easy peasy on the Suncoast. You ever been caught out on traffic during one of our torrential downpours of rain? They are brutal! Traffic slows to a crawl and it is downright dangerous to be on the roads. Whether it’s ice or rain or some other nasty condition, it always feels good to safely reach our destination and the comfort of home after a wild ride in difficult traveling conditions.
Today is the annual celebration of the Epiphany of our Lord. Epiphany is one of the oldest seasons in the Christian Church Year. The season emphasizes the revelation of Jesus as both God and man to Jew and Gentile alike. And every year we initiate our Epiphany season with the re-telling of the visit of the wise men or Magi from the east to newly-born Jesus. Boy…talk about a WILD ride!
As Matthew chapter 2 opens, the time frame of Jesus’ birth has jumped ahead upwards of two years. The baby is now a “child” (2:8-9); He is no longer a “babe/infant” like in Luke 2 and these are 2 very different Greek words. Additionally, the family lives in a house in Bethlehem in Judea (2:11), six miles south/southwest of Jerusalem.
The term “Magi” (magoi) was originally used in early records to refer to a priestly class in ancient Persia. Tradition has dictated that there were three wise men who came to see Jesus and their names were Casper, Balthazar, and Melchior, but we don’t know for sure their names or even number. Regardless, these Magi were leading advisors in the religious court life of their country of origin. Since a large colony of Jews remained in the east after the Exile, espe¬cially in Babylon and Arabia, these Magi apparently had been exposed to Judaism from those Jewish colonies.
If the Magi came from the vicinity of Babylon, they would have traveled approximately 900 miles. Since they would have had to make arrangements for the jour¬ney and gather a traveling party, it could have taken several months from the time they first saw the star until they arrived in Jerusalem. That’s easy to figure out.
The average person can walk 2.5-3 miles per hour over normal terrain. The terrain between the area of ancient Babylon (modern day Iraq) and Bethlehem (modern day Palestine) is not the easiest ground to walk. Also consider this is a caravan of people and materials. If you’re going on a long journey in the ancient Near East, you’re going to take a lot of stuff: clothing, food/water, weapons, tools, money, medical supplies, charts/map, and anything else they would need. If the caravan could travel 2 miles per hour, and the distance to travel was 900 miles, it would take 450 hours or 19 days of non-stop walking. Factor in stopping for meals and sleep, it would have easily taken 30+ days through harsh terrain into a foreign land. Talk about a WILD ride!
But imagine their joy upon finding Jesus at the end of their journey! They had been walking across the desert for a month or more following this holy star, and now the end of the journey was finally upon them. Relief! Joy! Matthew 2:10 says they “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy,” and that’s a good translation. They were overwhelmed with excessive joy! Their elation was without measure! Upon seeing Jesus they did what came naturally when you see God…they prostrated themselves; they fell down upon their faces not as a Yoga pose but in an act of total contrition and worship. They then presented their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh which were HIGHLY symbolic, and then they, like Simeon from last week’s Gospel lesson, disappear from the pages of Holy Scripture. Wow…talk about a WILD ride!
Well, I told you all of that so that I can now tell you this. Friends, you and I are also on a wide ride in life. It has its ups and it has it downs. It is not always easy. There are plenty of moments in life that make us smile and just as many that make us cry. As the people of God we are on one wild and crazy ride – this thing we call life – and the only way we get through is by and through faith in our born, lived, crucified, died, and risen Savior Jesus Christ.
In His Word, God has given us more than few reminders for confident, daily living because of who we are in Christ: “Be strong and courageous…for it is the LORD your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you” (Deut. 31:6 ESV). “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20 ESV). “…the righteous shall live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4 ESV).
2019 is going to throw things at you that you don’t expect – maybe it already has. There will be unexpected highs, and confidence-shattering lows. As you go forward into a new year – 365 days of wild riding – know and remember that it is God who goes with you; loving you so you can love others, forgiving you so you can forgive others, providing for you so you can provide for others, and show you compassion, mercy and grace so you can do the same each day.
And just imagine the joy when you reach the end of this wild ride! Just imagine how good it will feel when you reach the eternal glory of heaven! Talk about relief! Talk about rejoicing exceedingly with great joy! Sure, it’s going to be a wild ride, but what a glorious finish awaits us! May that hopeful promise sustain and keep you throughout 2019 and into eternity.
Amen.

1st Sunday after Christmas

1st Sunday after Christmas
December 30, 2018
Luke 2:22-40
“It’s All Over…Or Is It?”

God’s grace, mercy and peace be to you all in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, the newly-born King. The basis for the sermon is today’s Gospel lesson from Luke 2.

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,

Well, it’s all over for another year, right? No more halls to be decked. No more yuletide carols being sung by fires. No more bells to be jingled. No more chestnuts to roast. Christmas is over. The presents are open. Many have their Christmas trees down, gift cards redeemed, and mistletoe safely stowed for another year.
But not so fast! Hang on there, little Grinchs. Technically, Christmas is not over. You see, in the world’s eyes Christmas ends sometime shortly after the presents get ripped open. But not so in the Church. Christmas is both a day – December 25th – and also a season. It is short, yes, but a season nonetheless. The Christmas season is 12 days long (hence the song “Twelve Days of Christmas”), lasting from December 25th until Epiphany on January 6th (next Sunday). What has begun – Christmas – will be completed next week (Epiphany). So for now, we’re in the middle; what God has started we now wait for its completion. See where I’m going with this yet?
There was a man named Simeon who was in the same situation; what God had begun, he waited for completion. The Bible tells us very little about Jesus’ infancy and teenage years. It tells us even less about Simeon. Here is what we know from today’s Gospel as we set the scene.
You already know what happened previous to this: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered” (Luke 2:1) and then comes the angels, shepherds, swaddling cloths, and the whole 9 yards of the Christmas birth narrative. Now, 40 days had passed since Jesus’ birth. How do we know? Because Luke records that “when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord” (Luke 2:22). The Law of Moses says that after a woman gives birth she was ceremonially unclean for 7 days, then had to be isolated for another 33 days (Leviticus 12). Hence, 40 days had passed since our Lord’s birth. 40 days is significant: it is the period of rainfall that flooded the world in Genesis 6. It is the years of wandering for Israel. 30 years later, it is the number of days of fasting that Jesus will eventually endure prior to His temptation (Matthew 4).
Now, after 40 days, here comes Simeon. We know that he was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation or deliverance of Israel (2:25). We know the Holy Spirit was upon him (2:25). And we also know it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ (2:26).
Well…here He comes. Joseph and Mary arrive at the same time that Simeon just happens to be in the Temple in Jerusalem. Coincidence? I think not. The Holy Spirit has brought all the “players” to the same place at the same time for a reason. Simeon has just met the Christ Child face-to-face meaning that he could one day die at peace knowing that God’s salvation of Israel would take place for sure. Simeon, who had longed for Israel’s deliverance, could depart this world – he could die – knowing that everything was going to be okay because he had seen God’s salvation.
Did you recognize the words of Simeon? You should. This song of Simeon is also called the Nunc Dimittis; the title is formed from the opening words in the Latin Bible called the Vulgate, “Now thou dost dismiss thy servant, O Lord”. It is a beautiful song that was sung for decades in The Lutheran Hymnal and still appears in Divine Service Setting Three: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy word, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people.”
Simeon knew that what God had started by way of promise He had now fulfilled in sending His Christ to redeem – save – His people…all people Gentile and Jew alike. And then, like so many others in the NT, as mysteriously as he entered the scene, Simeon disappears from the pages of Scripture.
So, with the sermon nearly over and with the calendar year nearly over, can the same thing be said about you? What is it that you are waiting in life to see? Are you anxiously awaiting better health, a better job, a better home, better family? In short, are you waiting around for things to get better? Well, I hate to burst your bubble, because if that is the case for you, you may have a LONG wait.
Nowhere in scripture does God promise “better” lives. Nowhere does He promise riches or fame or glory or success. Nope. In fact, you should expect the opposite: suffering, pain, loss, grief, and persecution. Habitual sinners such as us shouldn’t expect glory this side of heaven.
But here’s the thing that Simeon teaches us. What God has begun He has also fulfilled in sending the Christ Child Jesus. What God promised in the Old Testament begins its fulfillment in the manger of Bethlehem will one day 33 years later be accomplished at Calvary’s cross and eternally finalized at Easter’s empty grave. That is the kind of information good enough to live AND DIE in. let that sink in a little bit. No one I’m sure will set a New Year’s resolution to die, but if we did we could do so in complete peace knowing that according to God’s Word we sinners have forgiveness and life everlasting because of what the Christ does for us. God never promises a “better” life, but he does promise a forgiven life…an eternal life.
Over? Nothing is over. Simeon’s life is over, sure. But you and I? Well, we’re in the same boat as Simeon in a sense. It’s not over for us just yet. We have seen what God has promised AND completed.
And in the meantime, as faithful people we get a wonderful reminder from Paul in today’s Second Lesson what we should be doing: “Put on…compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other…above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts…And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly… And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:12-17 ESV).
May God enable you to do just that throughout 2019 and always.
Amen.