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4th Sunday in Advent

4th Sunday in Advent

December 20, 2020

Luke 1:26-38

“Nothing is Impossible With God”

Love, joy, peace, and hope be and abide with you all in the name of our Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon is the Gospel lesson from Luke 1.

My dear friends,

Christmas is getting so close now…so close! Bring on the Christmas tree and break out the presents. But not so fast…back up the truck, Karen. Christmas is a 12-day feast beginning December 25, and we need to pace ourselves. WE still have a few days to wait, so cool your jets. “Slow your roll,” as the cool kids would say. It isn’t Christmas just yet. Our worship today is kind of a prelude to Christmas. A virgin girl conceives, and the Son she carries in her womb is the Son of the Most High God. Wait…a virgin, you said? Impossible, you say? I don’t think so. Nothing is impossible with God.

St. Luke is a good historian. Having been commissioned by Theophilus, Luke documented and wrote what we know as his Gospel and the book of Acts. Luke writes that the birth of Immanuel – God with us – happened at a specific time and place in history. This is no legend of the “divine child,” no myth of things long ago in a galaxy far, far away. It happened in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. You remember Elizabeth—old enough to be your grandmother, now pregnant out to here with a little boy soon to be named John. John the Baptist’s mom was old enough to be my grandma? Whoa! Just goes to show you… nothing is impossible with God.

Perhaps it will spin your head, but I’ll risk your dizziness It’s the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. In nine more months, Jesus will be born, and 40 days after his birth, Mary and Joseph will bring him to the temple for the first time. If you add all these months and days up, it comes to 490 days or 70 weeks from the time that Gabriel appeared to Zechariah in the temple to the time Jesus made his first appearance in the temple. That’s precisely the timetable the angel Gabriel gave the prophet Daniel in Daniel 9 hundreds of years before. “Seventy sevens (weeks) are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to stone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophesy and to anoint the most holy.” Impossible, you say? No, nothing is impossible with God.

The place is Nazareth in Galilee, a no-place in the no-place of the land of Zebulun. Seriously, did you even know that one of Israel’s sons was named “Zebulun”? Nazareth is never mentioned in the Old Testament. It’s not the place you’d expect a respectable messiah, or even his mother, to come from. The people of Judea despised Nazareth. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Nathanael once snorted. You bet it can. Nothing is impossible with God.

The angel Gabriel came to Nazareth in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy to pay a visit on a young girl named Mary, who was picking out invitations for her wedding day or whatever brides-to-be do. “Hail, O favored one,” the angel said. “The Lord is with you.” The angel explained. “You’ve found favor with God. You’re going to conceive and give birth to a Son and give him the name Jesus. He will be great and be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”

In other words, Mary, you’ll become pregnant before your wedding day, and everyone’s going t know. Joseph is going to want to dump you. Yet, the baby is God’s Son. Not only that, but he’s the fulfillment of every promise God has ever made—from the Promised Seed of the woman (Gen 3:15) to the promised successor to David (2 Sam 7:16) to the virgin who conceives and bears “Immanuel” (Is 7:14). A virgin mother? An eternal King? The Son of the Most High God in human flesh? What?! Impossible! But with God, nothing is impossible.

“How will this happen, since I’m a virgin?” Mary asks. Good question. Virgins don’t conceive, as a rule. Our sexually cynical world laughs or even dismisses Mary’s virginity. That’s impossible. We’re too scientific, too sophisticated, too street-smart to believe a tall tale like that. We may even squirm a bit in our pews. But friends, this is at the very heart of what we believe, that Jesus is true God, begotten of his Father from eternity and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary. This is the sinless Son of God become human. He is like us in every way, embracing every aspect of our humanity, from the cradle to the grave, from the womb to the tomb. That’s the kind of Savior He is; that’s the kind of Savior we need. All this hinges on Mary’s virginity – an article of faith – because nothing is impossible with God.

And perhaps that’s a message you need now more than ever. A virus-weary world waits for a vaccine. As a nation, we’re ready for some peace on earth and goodwill to men after the brutality of the summer of 2020 with violent anarchy in our streets. Maybe you’re waiting on resolution of your own impossibility: something’s wrong in your home, with your health, with your finances, or you’re your whole, stinkin’ life. Right now we need to know that nothing is impossible with God. A virgin can give birth. A death on a cross can bring life. An ascended Lord will return. No, not every difficulty of 2020 will be resolved by Christmas 2020, but we are encouraged and strengthened in knowing for sure that nothing is impossible with God.

Don’t let your cynical brain deadened by years of sin taint what you see and feel in your heart. Trust God’s Word. Our eyes see a splash of water, a preacher, a bit of bread and a little wine. But the Word speaks what we cannot see. That water is Baptism, a life-giving water full of grace, a water of rebirth and renewal. That preacher speaks real forgiveness, Christ’s forgiveness. That bread is the body of Jesus, conceived and born of Mary, given into death on the cross. That wine is his blood, poured out for you. A virgin conceives the Son of God. Sinners the likes of you and me are forgiven in Jesus. The dead are raised in Jesus. The Lord is with you even in 2020.

It’s like I said…nothing is impossible with God. May that promise keep you for the remainder of this year and every year yet to come.

Amen.

3rd Sunday in Advent

3rd Sunday in Advent

December 13, 2020

John 1:6-8, 19-28

“It’s Not About You”

Grace, mercy, and peace be yours in the name of God our Father and our Good Shepherd Jesus. The sermon today is based on the Gospel lesson read from John 1.

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,

If you were born between 1946 and 1964, you are considered a “Baby Boomer,” that is, a member of the generation born following the post World War II population explosion. After the “Boomers” came Generation Me or anyone born in the late 60s or 1970s. Anyone born between 1981 and 1996 is considered a Millennial, and anyone born from 1997 onward is part of a new generation known as Generation Z. These are people who are frequently and easily distracted, are constantly “updating,” desire instant access to everything, and have had it instilled in them that the self comes first. I have heard it suggested that they are also called the “iGeneration.” This generation has been profoundly shaped by technology and social media which demands too much of their time and effort to constantly update and maintain. The tragic side-effect is that people today tend to be self-centered and, as a result, they like to talk (or post) about themselves really regardless of what generation they are a member of. If you use social media a lot, there’s a good chance that you are your favorite subject. Just sayin’

We provide running commentary about our lives sharing pictures of what we eat, where we are, what we are doing, what we are feeling, what restaurants we eat at, our opinions on this or that, and on and on and on it gets posted. Our lives and our opinions are our favorite topics, and we are more than willing to share them with anyone with access to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok, Snapchat, and on and on it goes. “Me” is our favorite subject.

Nothing could be further from the purpose of John the Baptist. John the Baptist, however, wasn’t at all interested in talking about himself, and that strikes many as odd. The answers you can squeeze out of him seem to tell you mostly who he’s not. He’s not the Christ. He’s not Elijah. He’s not the promised prophet of Deuteronomy 18. In sheer exasperation the Jerusalem delegation demands: “Give us something to report to those who sent us. Who are you? What do you say about yourself?” That would be a great Facebook post, right?

“Me?” John seems to say. “I don’t have anything to say about myself, but Isaiah had a thing or two to say. He called me a voice out in the wilderness, crying, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’ “A voice? A voice calling for folks to get ready for the coming of the Lord? Yep. That’s what the man said, all right. He was just a voice. Well, then, they wanted to know, “Tell us, voice, who gave you the authority to baptize, to promise the forgiveness of sins, if you’re not the Christ and not Elijah and not the prophet? By whose authority?” John didn’t brag about himself, though he could have – “from God” – but he was content simply to announce the coming Lamb of God [vv 24-28].

John’s answer at first doesn’t sound like an answer at all. He says, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” That’s John’s answer. The One among them, whom they don’t recognize, is the One who has authorized John to preach and invite people to repentance. John knows that what is really important; if he had a Facebook page, there would be no “selfies” of him in the Jordan River. John knew that it is not about him; it’s about the One who was before all ages. And look at what that One has come to do! John didn’t come among us to be served, not even to have sandals tied, but he came among us in order to serve us…the One who came to save us.

John was content to say virtually nothing about himself and even to be nothing except a voice announcing the coming of that One who serves us all by being the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Being that voice defined John’s whole life. He didn’t want to talk about himself, because he was sent to talk about the greater One who comes to be our Savior.

2000 years later, nothing has changed in this regard. In the Church, the talk isn’t about us. It’s always all about another. Regardless of our generational affiliation – no matter how young or old we are – in the Church, the talk is always about the One whose sandals we are not worthy to untie. It’s about the One who’s infinitely greater than we, because he was before us all. He came among us as one of us precisely so that could serve all of us. He shouldered our sins as he carried his cross, and he died our death and shattered our hell, and by overcoming the sharpness of death he opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers. Truly, the Son of Man did not come among us to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as the ransom for many, indeed, for all.

And so, how are we talking of Christ especially during this season and these troubling times? How are we being a voice crying into the wilderness world about Jesus Christ? At Good Shepherd, we do so in many ways through our worship, through stewardship and gifts, and through support of others who proclaim Jesus into this world. But is there more we could be doing? Absolutely. This is not the time to focus on self, but it remains crucial that we, as individuals and as a congregation, seek to proclaim Christ crucified and risen for our salvation in all we do and say in our community and in our world especially in troubling days such as these.

John teaches us that the joy of the Church, the joy of Christmas, and the joy of each of our lives, is found not in self — it’s not about us — but in the One who is among us, Immanuel. Only in Jesus is there forgiveness of sins. Only in Jesus is the remedy for those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death. Before we greet him in the manger, let’s again welcome him as he comes to us at his Table, bearing the only Christmas gifts that any of us need, gifts that none of us can truly live without.

My friends, it’s not about us. It’s all about Jesus Christ, our Lord…it always has been and always be.

Amen.

2nd Sunday in Advent

2nd Sunday in Advent

December 6, 2020

Mark 1:1-8

“In Medias Res”

Grace, mercy, and peace be yours in the name of God our Father and our Good Shepherd Jesus. The sermon today is based on the Gospel lesson read from Mark 1.

My dear friends in Christ Jesus,

   So many of our favorite stories start with a dramatic technique called (from the classical Latin) in medias res, meaning simply “into the middle of things.” We are dropped into the middle of the story, and the roller coaster ride begins. As a matter of fact, one of the most beloved stories that we read and watch and hear over and over again this time of year begins exactly like this, in medias res. It begins with three little words: “Marley was dead.” And with that, Charles Dickens plunges us into the life of Ebenezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim, and what it means to “keep Christmas well.”

Or perhaps even more famously, in medias res is the opening scene of the Charlie Brown and Linus discussing Charlie Brown’s sadness as Christmas approaches and Lucy, fatefully, suggests that he direct the school Christmas play to “feel the Christmas spirit. In “A Christmas Story,” Ralphie is already a 9 year old boy in Indiana about 2 weeks before Christmas in the early 1940s. We are dropped into the middle of his story and his mania for an official Red Ryder 200 shot range model air rifle, but we catch up pretty quick.

We conceive of our favorite Christmas stories—and all of human history, really—in narrative terms: we like a good story with a beginning, middle, and end. That’s how we make sense of our world and our place in it. All these stories that start “in the middle of things” play with our sense of how any story should go. For the story to work, it often uses flashbacks from the past to fill in the blanks of the present and move it forward into the future. We already know, from previous experience (started in 1950), that Charlie Brown is doomed to fail at directing because he fails at everything. Thankfully Linus intervenes and we learn what Christmas is really all about. Eventually we learn that Ralphie – the adult narrator – is telling the story of the greatest Christmas present he ever received. The story is one big flashback! They did try and tell the story going forward – A Christmas Story 2 – but it didn’t work. At all.

Then we have the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (v 1). The Gospel of Mark begins in the middle of the story. For one thing, it starts with a sentence fragment, almost as if we came in somewhere in the middle of a conversation. Second, Mark doesn’t have any of our favorite stories for this time of year. No nativity (that’s Luke). No Wise Men (that’s Matthew). No big speech about the Word made flesh (that’s John). Mark simply begins in the middle of a sentence, and then immediately flashes back hundreds of years to a prophet named Isaiah. Only to flash forward again to land us in the wilderness with this other prophet named John. Preaching repentance. Wearing camel skins and eating locusts. Preparing the way for the mightier one who will come after him.

And then, fade to black. Mark leaves us in suspense until the next scene opens. Why would Mark do this, drop us into the middle of the story only to leave us hanging?

Part of it, I’m sure, is to pique our interest. Mark wants us to be so filled with eager anticipation that we can’t help but read it all the way through to the end with an ending that will also leave us hanging at Mark 16:8. And then, like any great story, to turn back to the beginning to see what we missed the first time around. As a matter of fact, the Gospel of Mark moves so fast that you could do exactly that this afternoon—read all sixteen chapters—with time to spare before dinner. But the real point is that this is exactly how Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came into the world. In medias res. In the middle of things. Into the middle of human history.

The way Mark tells the story, this Jesus seems to come to us from out of nowhere, out of a nowhere town called Nazareth, from a nowhere place called Galilee. The way Mark tells the story, it is almost as if we never would have noticed him, except that there is this prophet named John, prophesied by another prophet named Isaiah, preparing the way.

Well, this is exactly how Jesus Christ, the Son of God, comes into our own lives. Jesus comes in medias res, in the middle of things. Into the hustle and bustle of a holiday season that often doesn’t even remember the “reason for the season.” Into the messiness of our everyday lives. The stressful job. Our frantic home life. Our financial and physical problems and setbacks. Into all the brokenness and failure—all those things “we have done . . . and left undone”—that we want to gloss over with a red-and-green sweater and a happy, holiday smile. Jesus comes into the middle of our lives to stir up our hearts to the life that only he can give.

John the Baptist prepared the way for this life to enter our lives by proclaiming “repentance for the forgiveness of sin” (v 4). To repent simply means “to turn” from one thing to another. John is calling us to turn from whatever it is that is distracting us from the life that really matters in the middle of this hustle and bustle. John is also calling us to turn to the One who speaks tenderly to Jerusalem, who speaks comfort, comfort to all his people (Is 40:1–2). The One who is patient toward us all, so that none of us may perish (2 Pet 3:9). The One who would eventually give his all, his life into death on the cross, so that we might have eternal life. But that’s jumping ahead.

Our Advent expectations hinge on the certain hope that just as Jesus Christ came into the world, he will come again. And he will come then just as he came two thousand years ago and just as he comes to us now: in medias res, in the middle of things. We don’t know when. We don’t know how. But he will come into the messiness of this world, into the messiness of our own lives at a time when we don’t expect him.

I already know how A Christmas Carol, Charlie Brown Christmas, and A Christmas Story end. I’ve seen then countless time. But I also know that “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise.” And he will come again to bring forth “new heavens and a new earth” (2 Pet 3:9, 13). Haven’t seen that one before. Then again, no one has. And I can hardly wait to see what happens next.

Amen.

1st Sunday in Advent

1st Sunday in Advent

November 29, 2020

Mark 13:33-37

“Wakey Wakey”

Grace, mercy, and peace be yours in the name of God our Father and our Good Shepherd Jesus. The sermon today, on this a brand-new church year is the Gospel lesson read from Mark 13.

My dear friends in Christ Jesus,

I would be willing to be that your parents used a variety of ways to wake you up every morning. Maybe they were traditional about it and just turned on the light in your room. Maybe they were clever and played reveille with their mouth to wake you up. Yeah, that one is ALWAYS hysterical at 6:00 AM. Maybe they came in and nudged you; maybe they came in and yanked the blankets away. My parents, my mom specifically, came in my room in the morning and almost always said, “wakey, wakey, eggs, and bacey.” I’m not making that up! She would say “wakey wakey, eggs, and bacey.” It’s not as if we had eggs and bacon every morning, but it was her clever little way to wake me up in the morning.

I bring that up because the theme for our Gospel reading – and one of the themes of Advent in general – is the idea of being awake, vigilant, and ready for the coming of our Lord Jesus. This is Advent – a brand-new church year, a brand-new church season, and a new theme for us to consider for the next coming weeks. Before we celebrate the coming of the Lord as the Word made flesh as the Babe of Bethlehem, we will focus for a few weeks on His Second Coming and our need to not be found sleeping; to “wake up” and be ready! Wakey wakey!

In Mark 13, Jesus warns the disciples 4 times in 5 verses (repetition was a common way to emphasize in Greek) using a Greek word form known as an imperative. That would be like our exclamation today. In verse 33 he tells them to “be on guard” and “keep awake.” In verse 35 Jesus says they should “stay awake!” and in verse 37 he again strongly urges them to, again, stay awake. Wakey wakey!

What does this mean? Were the disciples or are we supposed to never go to sleep? No…that’s not it at all. The message for the disciples – and for us as modern-day disciples – is that we are to stay vigilant and be in a constant state of spiritual readiness should the Lord return at any given moment. Sounds easy, right?

Well, not so fast. As we prepare to enter the Advent season and a new church year, today is a good opportunity for us to stop and reflect on our state of readiness for the coming of Christ. Are we ever vigilant and ready to meet the Lord, or have we allowed ourselves to become distracted, that is, lulled to sleep by this world and the awfulness of this year? Are we being faithful to what Jesus calls us to do on this earth – to know Christ and make Him known – or are we often times distracted by how much of a struggle it’s been since March? There is SO MUCH out there to distract our attention and make as “asleep at the wheel” so to speak: worries about the future, struggles with our money, our pursuit of sinful desires, and on and on it goes. Especially amid all our COVID-19 issues, there is so much that makes it so difficult to focus on what our tasks are as Christians.

Through this Gospel lesson, Jesus encourages us to live just the opposite – not to fall asleep in our sinfulness as life stays tough, but to stay awake and remain in a state of grace-filled readiness. But living in a state of constant readiness is almost impossible, and God knows that so He did something about it.

He issued the ultimate wake-up call for humanity. He did not encourage us to “wakey wakey,” but instead His wake-up call was a shout…“It is finished!” (John 19:30). The cross was the call that wakes us out of our sinfulness when we realize the sacrifice that was made there. The death that Christ died was not just the result of Jewish persecution or Roman viciousness; His suffering and His death had a purpose. St. Paul wrote “The death (Jesus) died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God” (Romans 6:10).

Those are more than just words; they are a promise. That promise and that gift changes us; the life that Christ lives to God is also the life that we desire to live to God. We are called to not spend our time in pointless speculation about when that might be, but rather to wake up and watch and be ready ALWAYS. Wakey wakey!

And how do we do that? Easy. Hebrews 12 says, “let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith” (verses1b-2a). To be prepared for the end of the age, whenever that may be, is to stay awake spiritually and keep our focus on Jesus. That means more than just looking up to heaven or the occasional pre-meal prayer. It is living in the faith that He gives. It means that we are to work faithfully for the Master who will return just as He promised. But we also work with confident assurance because we know it is the Master who returns.

Today’s Gospel lesson is a call for us to Watch! Stay awake! Be alert! Watch out! It is not a simple call to “wakey wakey,” but instead we are to remain vigilant in faith until the end comes. Christ has overcome sin and this world and given us faith in Him so that, when the end comes, there will be no need to fear the end, but instead welcome it with wide open eyes and a wide open heart and then, one day, we will “wakey wakey” to an eternity in Heaven with Christ for all eternity. May our Advent plea this year – and ever – be “Come Lord Jesus, come quickly.” Welcome to Advent in the year of our Lord 2020

Amen.

 

Last Sunday of the Church Year

Last Sunday of the Church Year

November 22, 2020

Matthew 25:31-46

“Two Types of People”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon is the Gospel lesson read from Matthew 25 – Jesus’ narration of the day of final judgment.

My dear friends,

The brilliant poet Robert Frost once said, “There are two kinds of people: some willing to work and the rest willing to let them.” Do you agree? Would you agree that there are two kinds of people in the world? I would anticipate that some of you will accept that statement, and others will not. Which, I guess, just goes to show you that there are two kinds of people.

For example, there are people who think that salvation is a free gift from God, including myself. Then there are others who would say, “No, salvation is something you can earn.” Take today’s Gospel for instance. One group would analyze Matthew 25:31-46 and say, “See! You can get into heaven by the things you do! That’s what Jesus is saying as the basis for why He separated the sheep from the goats.” That collection of people is free to say that, I guess. They’re wrong…but they can still say that.

That group of people is wrong because they fail to understand the real reason for the separation of the sheep and goats. Did you notice that, at the final judgment, neither the sheep nor the goats – the righteous vs. the damned – are surprised by the fact they are sheep or goats? No…they are surprised by the reason that Jesus gives. The sheep know they are sheep because they are God’s people called by faith. Those called by faith do what the faithful do! The people of God serve our neighbors for the sake of the neighbor; our single motivation is the need of the neighbor. Sheep serve our neighbors because we love our neighbors serving them for the neighbor’s sake. The sheep don’t serve because they perceive Jesus standing over their shoulders. Sheep are motivated by a faithful heart; the goats were not motivated from the heart. Their hypocrisy and their apathy towards Jesus are what condemn them, not their “inferior” works. Salvation is a matter of the heart, then the hands and not the other way around.

You know what I find interesting? This lesson is the end of Jesus’ long narrative about the end of the age. And what happens next in Matthew’s Gospel? The events of our Lord’s passion are set into motion: Passover celebration preparation, His anointing, and Judas’ betrayal. This final judgment narrative is Jesus’ last public teaching session…and His topic is the end of the world. Why? Because very soon one group of people will be crushed by the events of Jesus’ passion that end in His death and another group will be indifferent. It’s just like I said…there are two different types of people in the world. And perhaps you’re confident that I’m going to tell you that God also thinks there are two kinds of people in this world.
And if that’s what you’re guessing, my friends, you are wrong. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. God believed there is only one kind of person in this world: sinners who are helpless, lost and condemned to hell. There were no exceptions.
Of course, while that may have been true at one point in time, thankfully it no longer is. This means God believes there are three kinds of people in this world. What! Two kinds, then one kind, now three kinds! Pick a lane, Pastor! Ok…I will. First, there are the lost. Once upon a time all of us were on that list. Then something happened to change the makeup of that list. A second kind of Person came into this world. That second kind of Person was the Second Person of the Triune God…Jesus Christ.
Born of a virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is unique in the history of humankind. His perfection, His godly qualities, His dedication to giving His life for others, make Him an individual who is head and shoulders above anyone else. Jesus fulfilled both prophecy and His Father’s lawful will. His life was lived without slip or stumble – the only PERFECT person. Type #2.
So, to recap. First, we have the lost. Second, we have the perfect – Jesus Christ. He’s the only One in that category. This, of course, takes us to the third group of people. The third type – these are those who have been given faith in Jesus as their Rescuer and have had their sins washed away in the blood of the Lamb. The redeemed – the sheep – have a righteousness of the heart given by God, fed and nourished by His life-changing Word and soul-sustaining Sacraments. God desires that all people fall into this last category (1 Timothy 2:4), but the goats are there by their own choosing, and that, my friends, is tragic.

Do you know any “goats?” Are you okay with the fact that the goats will be cast into eternal punishment after hearing Jesus say “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (25:14)? Scary thought, right? How will your prayers and attitudes and behaviors be different knowing that your neighbor is destined for eternal damnation?

This is the end of the church year and many times at the end of the year, people reflect on “big ticket” issues like life and death (Charlie Crowder, COVID-19). Do you ever wonder what people will think of you when you’re gone? What will your legacy be? Did people “see” Jesus in you? Will you be remembered as one who fed and welcomed and clothed and visited? If your faith was examined in a court room, what evidence would be used to make a case one way or another? Do people already know you’re a sheep? How come? Why not?

On the Last Day, Jesus will make a final separation into two types of people. True believers – sheep – will be welcomed into heaven. The other group – the goats – are condemned. Live this upcoming church year and the rest of your days confident of what type of person you are and allow that to reflect in your daily living until that glorious day of deliverance.

Amen.

24th Sunday after Pentecost

24th Sunday after Pentecost

November 15, 2020

Matthew 25:14-30

“Living in Our Master’s Joy”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of God our Father and our Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon is the Gospel lesson read from Matthew 25.

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,

Americans have long struggled with the Parable of the Talents. Early in our country’s history, this parable was used against America. Preachers in England saw the Puritans as unprofitable and wicked servants rejected by the Master, declaring that their emigration to America was God casting them into a land of darkness, where there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth (v. 30). Later, this parable was used for America. Revivalist preachers declared America to be a place of opportunity, where profitable servants would be blessed by the Master. Same text; polar opposite interpretations. Great. I love it when that happens.

And we continue to struggle with this parable today, but our struggle is a bit different. In this parable, Jesus is not talking about America. He’s preaching about the kingdom of heaven. His preaching does, however, challenge our American misconceptions. Jesus does not invite us into a world of earthly wealth, where faith is driven by profit margins, but into a world of divine love, where faith responds in joyful service to the Master.

When the master returns to settle accounts, Jesus wants you to hear, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master.” And so, we consider today, what does it mean to live in our master’s joy?

First and foremost, living in our Master’s joy means trusting in God as revealed in His Word rather than in the god we may imagine. In the parable of the talents, the cause of the unprofitable servant’s damnation is his own imagination. He chooses to live with a master he has imagined rather the master who has revealed his generous love.

In the parable, Jesus reveals a generous master, one who gives all that he has into the hands of his servants. The Master left one servant with five talents, another was given two, and a third servant was given one. A Talent wasn’t a coin. It was a unit of measure to quantify large quantities of money. 1 silver Talent was equal to 7300 denarii…and the average laborer would earn 1 denarii for one day of work, so 7300 denarii or 1 talent is about 20 years’ worth of wages. So…the servant given 5 Talents would have been given a literal lifetime – 100 years – worth of wages! That’s very generous…very trusting.

The unprofitable servant, however, lives with a different master, not a generous and trusting master, but the master he has imagined. For him, the master is “a hard man, reaping where [he] did not sow, and gathering where [he] scattered no seed” (v 24). This belief causes him great fear. It paralyzes him so that he buries his master’s talent in the ground. When the master returns to settle accounts, he judges the servant according to what he has believed. As the servant believes, so it is done to him. It’s not about money or investment strategies; it’s about trust. Because he did not trust in the loving generosity of his master, the servant is cast out into darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Unfortunately, there are many in our country and our world who live with a god they imagine rather than the God Jesus reveals. The god they imagine, however, is not hard and demanding and someone to be feared (like the servant’s imaginary master); a Master to be feared, loved, and trusted. No, the “American” god is all-loving. He is like a kind-hearted grandfather (terrible with Smart phones and remote controls), too weak to do any real harm but strong enough still to love us and pat us on the head when we’ve done wrong. Instead of repentance, this imagined god calls for tolerance. Instead of forgiveness, this imagined god offers acceptance of everyone no matter what. People in our world imagine they can stand before God with all of their sins and be accepted for who they are and tolerated for what they have done. In their imaginary little world, it’s okay to fear a virus but not fear God.

Unfortunately, this god is a figment of the American imagination, and, in the end, this imagined god will save no one. God saves us not by our imagination but by His action. In Jesus Christ, God has entered into our world and acted to save. His love goes beyond our wildest imagination. He saves not by becoming what we want him to be, but by being the one we need him to be, our Savior. Our Savior knows the very real danger of sin and therefore calls us to repent. Our Savior knows the eternal cost of sin and therefore dies under our eternal punishment. But our Savior also knows the eternal joy of salvation and therefore rises again, not to tolerate sin and accept sinners, but to forgive the repentant and invite the faithful to live in eternal joy. Living in the joy of our Master means turning away from America’s imaginary god and trusting God as revealed in Jesus Christ, the Son of God who gave his life for us that we might live in eternal joy.

Living in our Master’s joy also means serving as people differently gifted but equally loved. While one servant fears the master he has imagined, the other servants trust the master they know. Their master is a gracious and generous man. Instead of harshly ruling over them, he graciously rules through them, giving them his great wealth for service in the world. He divides his possessions between them according to their ability (v 15) and sends them forth as servants differently gifted but equally loved: one receives five talents, one two, and to another one. Living in the joy of their master means not questioning the difference in divine giving, but rejoicing in faithful service, differently gifted but equally loved.

It doesn’t matter if God has entrusted you with a lifetime of wages or you live check to check. Instead, living in our Master’s joy means trusting in what God has revealed to us in Jesus Christ—that he loves all of us equally—and faithfully serving in the various places where God has called us, differently gifted but equally loved, and equally saved.

Now…who has a Talent they can loan me? That new car isn’t going to pay for itself…or do they? Maybe my car has that feature. Better yet…who has a talent they can joyfully use in service to the Master until we all hear the words we long to hear…“Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master?”

Amen.

23rd Sunday after Pentecost

23rd Sunday after Pentecost

November 8, 2020

Matthew 25:1-13

“Those Who Were Ready”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of God our Father and our Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon is the Gospel lesson read from Matthew 25.

My dear friends,

In my ministry I have presided at 40 weddings and to summarize most of my experiences in a word…Yikes! I have seen it all from weird bridal requests to fainting bridesmaids to a bride 25 minutes late to her own wedding! Have you ever planned a wedding? Weddings require a TON of planning; you don’t prepare at the last minute. Can you imagine an engaged couple on their wedding day if there was no preparation: securing the pastor or wedding site, sending out invitations, planning the food, purchasing the clothing, planning a reception or getting the marriage license? What would happen if the day came and no one was ready? I’m guessing you’d see one upset bridezilla! Not too much sympathy from me. A failure to plan on their part does not constitute an emergency on my part. They did it to themselves; they were not ready and there are consequences for their choice.

In these last few weeks of the church year, we now focus on the end of the age. In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus tells a parable about a wedding feast and ten virgins. These ten virgins are like modern bridesmaids…sort of. Not a lot is known of 1st century wedding customs, but we do know a few basics. In the days of Jesus, the couple’s parents would have arranged the marriage. The groom would save money until both he and the bride were of age and he could support himself and a wife, and then it was time for the consummation of the marriage. The groom would inform the bride’s family and the bride would begin her preparations for consummating their marriage at the bride’s house. Afterwards, there would be a procession to the groom’s home for a wedding feast that might go on for days. The processions often took place at night, when torches made for a spectacular display. The ten girls in Jesus’ parable were involved in going out to meet the bridegroom, They would then have had their place in the procession to the bridegroom’s home for the feast. But only 5 were wise in that they were ready…they had extra oil. 5 of them were not. They didn’t have enough oil and had to run off to buy some. By the time they came back, the doors of the feast were shut, and they were not allowed to enter (vv 11–12). So…what does this mean?

These wise virgins are the believers in Jesus Christ. The foolish virgins are unbelievers in this world. They would love to go to the eternal feast on the Last Day. They may even know a little bit about this Jesus. But they love the world and themselves more and will, one day, find themselves greatly unprepared. They had their chance, though.

This parable is about the kingdom of heaven and ten virgins with lamps of oil. The lamps are faith. The lamps of the foolish virgins are filled with the wrong thing: emptiness, space, air, a lack of oil. If faith were an oil container, with what does the world fill it? In what does the world put its faith? What does the world fear and love and trust above all else? The foolish of this world fill their faith with belief in other gods: Allah, Buddha, wealth, self, government, Hollywood, sports heroes, their own idols. This world’s foolish people fill their faith with total spiritual apathy—not knowing what they believe, not caring that they don’t believe in anything, taking a chance that if there is some god out there he’ll let everyone in to whatever this afterlife is. They also will not enter the marriage feast. The doors will be slammed shut, and they will hear its hollow ring of the joy on the other side.

In this parable, Jesus is teaching about the Last Day, the Day of Judgment, when the Bridegroom, Jesus Christ, will return and call His Bride – the Church – the faithful, repentant believers – to the eternal marriage feast. And when he comes, O wise believers, you will have been filled with Christ, which will mean you are prepared. Your lamps are filled with Christ and his Word, which has sustained your faith through life’s trials and temptations and given healing and forgiveness to you in your sinful life. It has strengthened your faith to endure even the days such as these. Your lamps are filled with Christ in his font, where faith in him was created, washing your sins, and where he shields and wards off Satan and his constant deadly attacks against you. Your lamps are filled with Christ at this Table, where Christ enters your body and your soul to forgive your sin, to strengthen your faith in this difficult, fallen world, and where he promises you a place at the greater feast to come. This parable is about the Bridegroom who prepares you for the marriage feast on the Last Day as he fills your lamp of faith with himself—his death and his resurrection—and in him you are ready and prepared to enter the feast . . . no matter when he comes. A failure to be ready by the foolish unbelievers of this world’s part does not constitute an emergency on Christ Jesus’ part.

In 1992, country music artist Billy Ray Cyrus released his first album entitled “Some Gave All.” Neither critics nor Rolling Stone magazine liked it. In 2006, “Some Gave All” ranked at number 33 in Q magazine’s list of “The 50 Worst Albums Ever,” despite the fact it sold more than 20 million copies worldwide. The first release from that album was “Achy Breaky Heart” which became an overnight sensation sparking the popularity of country line dancing and the aptly named “achy breaky shuffle.” Yikes. I prefer the title track from that album. The chorus of “Some Gave All” – a tribute to veterans – goes like this: “all gave some, some gave all. Some stood through for the red white and blue and some had to fall. And if you ever think of me think of all your liberties and recall some gave all.” Wednesday is Veteran’s Day and we give thanks for and remember our brave men and women who have served, sacrificed, and stood tall. When the call to arms came, they were ready.

If Jesus returns today, will you be ready? Will your loved ones be ready? May we do all that we possibly can to ensure that our nation remains the Land of the Free Because of the Brave and that all people will be ready for the coming of Christ because of their saving knowledge of His truth.

Amen.

All Saints’ Day

All Saints’ Day
November 1, 2020
Matthew 5:1-12
“Blessed…Who, Me?”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of God our Father and our Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today on our celebration of All Saints’ Day is today’s well-known Gospel lesson that is the opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount known specifically as “The Beatitudes.”

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,

What do you get if you combine quality cuts of ham, some sugar, salt, a pinch of potato starch, water, and some sodium nitrite? These are the primary ingredients of perhaps the most misunderstood meat product in the world. These are the ingredients of SPAM, a product that has been available to the general public since 1937. However, poor SPAM has gotten a bad rap over the last 83 years. SPAM is a high-quality meat product that people have loved for generations upon generations. But does it ever get served at fancy dinner parties? NO. Can you find it on the menu of fine restaurants…or any restaurants? NO. You know how bad it has gotten? What do people call undesirable, junk e-mail that no one really wants to receive? It’s called — (sigh) — SPAM. It’s just not fair! SPAM…so good, but so misunderstood!

But I guess SPAM is not the only thing or event that has been misunderstood in history. Case in point…today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew chapter 5 has been and continues to be misunderstood today in so many places and in so many contexts. Just as people misunderstand SPAM, so too they also misunderstand the “high quality” passage known as The Beatitudes.

Let’s set the scene. Jesus and His disciples are in the region of Galilee. The traditional location for the Sermon on the Mount is located on the northwest corner of the Sea of Galilee not far from Capernaum – a hill about 1800’ above sea level. Those who followed Jesus and learned from Him were with Him, and upon seeing the large crowds that followed (5:1) He sat down which is the classic position for a teacher to take before a lesson begins. What then follows is one of the most impressive narratives that we have in all of the Holy Bible — the Sermon on the Mount. The followers of Jesus are gathered around Him, He is sitting on a mountainside so that His voice can be heard, and He begins to teach the crowds with words like they had never truly heard before (7:28-29).

The reason that this section of teaching is called The Beatitudes comes from Latin. The name “beatitude” is derived from the Latin noun beatitudo because the first word of each statement in the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible is “beati,” which is the Latin translation of the Greek verb “makarioi,” hence the name “Beatitudes.” If you misunderstand, it’s okay? That’s not the primary thing that confuses people anyway. What really causes misunderstanding is not Latin vs. Greek, but what Jesus means here when He says that these people are “blessed.” So what does that mean?

In our contemporary culture the connection is made that if you are “blessed” then you have to feel “good” about yourself, having a good self-image, being in control of everything in your life, having a plethora of material things, and being free from illness or injury. There are some in Christendom who believe that God wants you to be healthy, wealthy, and wise and all you have to do is believe more and give more and do more and all this will be given to you; you will be “blessed.” The theological term for this is “bologna” because that’s not how grace works. This is why The Beatitudes can be so greatly misunderstood by people today.

We don’t think of panhandlers as blessed. We don’t think of the elderly isolated in nursing homes as blessed. We don’t think that those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, or the meek as being “blessed.” Those kinds of people aren’t “blessed,” we rationalize, “they’re miserable! What they need are a few blessings…that’s what they need.” Being “blessed” is more than being happy. To be “blessed” – truly blessed – is to know the distinctive joy of those who share in the salvation of the Kingdom of God.

If you really, REALLY want to understand what Jesus is talking about in the Sermon on the Mount in general and The Beatitudes specifically, you have to realize where all this is taking place. Verse 1 states that Jesus “went up on a mountain.” Now, when things happen on mountains in the Bible you know something really important is going on. The Ten Commandments were given to God’s people on a mountain. The Transfiguration of Jesus takes place on a mountain. God revealed Himself to Elijah on Mount Horeb. Noah’s Ark came to rest on Mount Ararat. In the Scriptures, Jerusalem is associated with “Mount Zion.” But perhaps the most monumental mountain experience will come later in Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew 27:33 remind us that Jesus was led to the place called Golgotha, or what you and I know as Mount Calvary to be crucified. The truth is that the glory of the Sermon on the Mount will soon be replaced by the gore of Mount Calvary. At the cross of Calvary Jesus will suffer death and hell in our place for our eternal salvation. That being the case, today’s Gospel lesson from the Sermon on the Mount is better understood — finally — through the perspective of the crucifixion that also occurs on a mountain. All of the blessings of The Beatitudes and the contents of the Sermon on the Mount are only available to us sinners as facilitated by Jesus’ death on the cross of Mount Calvary. It is the cross of Christ that truly blesses us. It is the resurrection of Christ that truly blesses us. It is the forgiveness of sins that comes though these history-shattering events that truly blesses us.

The blessings of The Beatitudes are not challenges or guidelines for righteous living that we are supposed to try and attain. The Beatitudes are both present and future gifts of God. Yes, we are poor in spirit. Yes, we mourn. Yes, we are meek and hunger and thirst for righteousness. And through faith and discipleship, we become what Jesus promises we become: merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and so on. All these things — and then some — are given to us by virtue of our faith in Christ Jesus.

Perhaps you are tempted to look at your own life and think, “blessed — who me? I don’t feel blessed. I feel sick and tired and run down and poor and stressed and addicted and sad.” My dear friends…don’t misunderstand. You may not “feel” blessed or your financial statements may have figures that you don’t think are a “blessing,” but you have something even better. You can, just as Jesus Himself said, “Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven” and this is the same reward that those who have gone before us in faith – the saints – now enjoy all of God’s blessings in their fullest. Blessed…who, me? Yes…you. Now, if you’ll excuse me, there is a sandwich with my name ALL over it!

Amen.