Category Archives: Sermons

3rd Sunday after Epiphany

3rd Sunday after Epiphany

January 24, 2021

Jonah 3:1-5, 10

“God of the Second Chance”

Grace and peace to you in the name of God our Father and our Good Shepherd Jesus. Today the sermon is based on the lesson from the Old Testament prophet Jonah.

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,

So many people, myself included, have stopped using a “land-line” telephone and just use their cell phone. One of the great features of a cell phone is that it tells you right away who is calling. If it’s someone you know, you see their name and maybe a photo. If it’s someone you don’t know, you’re given the location of the caller’s area code. That’s the beauty of something like Caller ID. You can pick and choose which calls to answer and ignore since telemarketers call ENDLESSLY! But what if the Caller ID window said that GOD was calling? What then? Well, welcome to the world of Jonah!

Jonah was a prophet of God – all be it a very reluctant prophet – in the 8th century BC whose book contains the least amount of actual prophecy. In fact, the only real prophecy that takes places in Jonah is found in today’s lesson in verse 4: “…forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” The rest of the book is Jonah’s story and how he was sent to Nineveh to provide this prophecy which the Ninevites heard, heeded, and God relented in His destruction of Nineveh much to Jonah’s disappointment. The book of Jonah is good stuff; it’s not about the “whale” and it’s not about Jonah; it’s about God’s compassionate dealing with a reluctant person and a reluctant people, and to both God shows mercy; He gives them a second chance.

In Jonah chapter 1, God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh, to which Jonah says “Yeah…I don’t think so.” He ran from God’s call, which is why we then get the narrative that involves the storm at sea and the “whale.” At the conclusion of chapter two, the great fish vomits Jonah onto dry land, and God calls Jonah a second time, and gives Jonah – even reluctant Jonah – a second chance.

God calls to us in His Word – daily – to live as His forgiven people ought to live, but it is so easy for us instead to ignore His divine Caller ID. It is easier to try to keep those sinful habits of ours in the dark. It is easier to have those sinful thoughts and rationalize them away believing that only we know what’s going on in our minds. It is easier to ignore God’s Word and will for our lives and instead do what our sinful flesh desires. God sees and knows our daily sinful rebellion, our nasty thoughts, our wicked and harsh words, and He knows that when His call comes, we are so prone in our sinfulness to either allow the call to ring or simply out-and-out ignore the call of God. Yet, God keeps calling! He never gives up on Jonah…He never gives up on you! Our God is a God of second chances.

When the time was right, Jesus Christ came into our world to provide the answer to God’s call regarding who would save His people. It was a call as old as time itself. After humanity’s fall into sin, God promised that one day One would come who would crush the head of the serpent – Satan – and that first-Gospel promise (Genesis 3:15) was fulfilled in and through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For every time that you have sinned, Christ paid the price for your rebellion with His body and blood. For every time that you have ignored God’s Word for your life, Christ obeyed it and satisfied it perfectly through His perfect obedience; an obedience that took Him all the way to Calvary’s cross. Why?

Why would God give us so many second chances? Why would He keep loving us and forgiving us? That’s what every loving parent does. God created you. He loves you. Christ died for you, that you might be His own. Your every day is a day of second chances; what you do with them is up to you.

On New Year’s Day, 1929, Georgia Tech played the University of California in the Rose Bowl. During the first half of the game, All-American center Roy Riegels (“regals”) recovered a fumble for California on his own 35 yard line. In evading some of the Georgia Tech tacklers, Riegels became confused. He started running – 65 yards – in the wrong direction. One of his teammates outran him and tackled him on the one yard line just before Riegels was about to score for Georgia Tech. The mistake resulted in a safety which proved to be the deciding points of the game. It was a colossal blunder in one of college football’s biggest annual bowl games.

A football coach usually has a great deal to say to his team during half-time. That afternoon Coach Nibbs Price was quiet. No doubt he was trying to decide what to do with Riegels. Then the timekeeper came in and announced that there were three minutes before playing time. Coach Price looked at the team and said simply, “Men, the same team that started the first half will start the second.” The players got up and started out. All but Roy Riegels; he didn’t budge. The coach looked back and called to him again. Riegels didn’t move. Coach Price walked over to Riegels and said, “Roy, didn’t you hear me? The same team that started the first half will start the second.” Roy Riegels looked up and his cheeks were wet with tears. Then Coach Price put his hand on Riegels shoulder and said, “Roy, get up and go on back. The game is only half over.” Roy Riegels did go back, and even though his mistake earned him the name “Wrong Way” and the notoriety of committing one of the worst blunders in college football history, Riegels blocked a punt in the 2nd half, but it wasn’t enough. Tech won the game 8-7, but the Georgia Tech players testified that they had seldom seen a man play as Roy Riegels did in that second half. Riegels made the most of his second chance. In 1991, he was inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame. Even “Wrong Way” Riegels was given a second second chance.

You’re still in the game, my friends, and although at times you may feel you’re running the wrong way, your loving and forgiving God is there to encourage you, to strengthen you, to forgive you, and empower you to live each day as His own. Our God is a God of second chances. Now, what are you going to do with the chance that you’ve been given today and every day? Today is your chance – every day is your chance – to “get back in the game” and make a difference for the Kingdom of God.

Oh…one more thing. Go Bucs!

Amen.

2nd Sunday after Epiphany

2nd Sunday after Epiphany

January 17, 2021

1 Corinthians 6:12-20

“An Epiphany…Wedding?”

Grace and peace to you in the name of God our Father and our Good Shepherd Jesus. Today the sermon is based on the Epistle lesson that was read from 1 Corinthians chapter 6.

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,

Well, here we are. It’s Epiphany…that season after Christmas when we focus on the revelation that the Christ – the light of the world – has come for both Jew and Gentile. Sadly, the brilliant glow of Christmas has faded away. The lights at UTC are off now. The candles and lights of Christmas have been taken down and put away. Almost forgotten already are the wonderful times we’ve had as a family and friends; being with children or grandchildren even if it was on Zoom, the house filled with music and light hearts and memories and traditions and foods that only come out once a year. Good times indeed, but now almost forgotten.

Now, especially it seems around here these days, without the light of Christmas, the darkness of the world begins to shroud our lives as we begin the grind of January and a new year. The grief and pressures of a new year are already piling up; 2021 is NOT off to a great start! We find ourselves, as St. Paul would say, in a world full of sin and darkness…a dark, illicit, un-epiphany-like world. The problems of our lives individually as people and collectively as a nation wear us down and possibly depress us and our families. Maybe what we need to lift our spirits is a wedding!

Now, you may find this hard to believe, but in the 17 years I have been a pastor I have presided at 60 funerals, but I have also done a whopping 40 weddings! That’s a lot of planning, counseling, rehearsals, and panicky brides! Why do we need a wedding around here? Well, the story of the brilliant Christ Child still enlightens our hearts this Epiphany season. If we close our eyes, we can still see the candlelight of Christmas Eve. We can still see the sanctuary decked out, the huge tree, the glow of the lights and the flickering flames. What better setting even now – especially now – for a wedding? An Epiphany wedding. Today, we are gathered here in the sight of God and of His Church for an Epiphany wedding – that we may be joined to the Lord. What a joyous occasion! Except…because in this world we are sinful humans, we’re already married in a sense. We have instead joined ourselves to things.

It’s not just for little children that this time of year is dark and moody; “You broke my favorite toy! Did not!” The bills of Christmas are coming due. “How did we spend so much money? It’s all because you won’t limit the gifts to your family,” some husband or wife might say. And the fight is on. Our relationships are damaged yet again. Why? Because we’d rather be joined to our possessions than to the people the Lord has given us.

And all those New Year’s resolutions we’re soooo committed to…they’re broken also. The new exercise program has already fallen into disuse. The new diet worked for a few days, but food is too good, and the addiction to our super-sized portions is too compelling (v 12). Paul would say, “Food is meant for the stomach” (v 13a), but don’t let food control you. If you do, you’ve joined yourself to another thing, as is common in our dark, sinful world. We join ourselves with so many other things beyond food: money, TV, gambling, alcohol, greed, power, the Internet, that we allow this union to take over the union that we are to have in and with Christ.

Above all, in 1 Corinthians 6, Paul reminds us that even the marital relationship is sadly not exempt from the fractured, quarrelsome darkness of the world. The perils of our sexuality, of being faithful in the illicit world, are EVERYWHERE and can shake our faith. Look at our sinful world. Sexuality is on our minds, on our televisions, in our music. All one has to do is try to watch one evening of prime time television…if you’re able.

Our culture is full of “prostituting” its members with things. If someone asked you to out-and-out be joined to a prostitute, you’d probably say “Never!” Except, well, in a manner of speaking, we are—we all are—all the time by joining ourselves to the addictions and cravings of our sinful flesh. As a result, we’re doomed to hell, and that’s not good. It’s a reality that has a potential to make us even sadder than we already are these days!

But, my friends, by faith we have been joined to the Lord (v 17). Jesus Christ came into the world of our failures, our brokenness, our fights, our improper unions and our squabbles. He brought His peace, a peace which surpasses our human understanding. He came to give a peace different from what the world can offer us. He appeared at Bethlehem, and those who are wise still come to see Him and kneel at His side. Christ came into the world to wash us in His precious blood, to forgive us of all our sins, to claim us as His own, to dress us in His white garments, and to marry us as His beloved Bride.

Sin brought corruption of our marriages with the world, and we have to deal with those issues daily whether we are single, married, or whatever our situation may be. He came to be faithful to us in every way despite our unfaithfulness. Christ came into the world to do the things we could not do. He came to overcome our sinful nature and to win for us the right to be His; we are not our own; we belong to Him.

   Especially today, with the last year we’ve had so far, you may be feeling like you are anything but joined to the Lord in the bond of marriage. However, even in the fading glow of Christmas and the shroud of death that hovers over us all, the light of Epiphany illumines our lives. The great King of kings says to you, “You are mine!” While you were sinners, broken, in darkness, prostituting yourselves in so many ways, He married you. You are His beloved, loved now and loved forever that you might honor, love, and serve Him with your whole body and being. That’s the kind of promise that gets us through these dark days.

Now…who wants cake?

Amen.

 

Epiphany

The Epiphany of our Lord

January 10, 2021

Matthew 2:1-12

“Open to the Public”

Grace and peace to you in the name of God our Father and our Good Shepherd Jesus. Today the sermon is based on the Gospel lesson from Matthew 2.

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,

For those who live in Sarasota, I have a question. Where do you go for vacation when you live in a vacation destination? Good question, right? Recently I found a work-around by vacationing on the East Coast near Vero Beach. It was awesome…all except for the trip home. Sure, coming home after vacation is never fun, but I had a new dilemma. I was driving on New Year’s Day. Not every business I needed or wanted was open. Some were closed for the New Year’s holiday. Thankfully the PGA Superstore in Orlando was open; nothing says “new years” like new golf stuff! On the road, I found myself peering for a lit-up “OPEN” sign before stopping for anything.

Well, I bring that up because some 2000 years ago, God hung a very similar kind of sign in the sky. The bright star that led the magi to the baby Jesus shone bright enough to call these wise men from the east all the way to Jerusalem. It’s as if God had put a huge sign over Bethlehem that read “Open” and these gentile wise men came in response to this significant sign (2:2).

This Gospel text is familiar to us because we naturally consider it part of the Christmas celebration; every nativity scene always includes the 3 wise men. It seems so familiar and so straight forward, but the thing is problems abound with the scholarly interpretation of Matthew 2:1-12.

First of all, scholars debate about the star itself. It could have been a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn which occurred in 7 BC, which actually just occurred again a few weeks ago. It was neat, sure, but enough to coax the wise men to make a lengthy, dangerous journey? Doubtful. Others have suggested it was a comet, perhaps Halley’s Comet, which did appear in 12 B.C. And just who are these “wise men?” By the end of the 6th century, they were given names even though Matthew did not name or even number them: Melchoir, Balthasar, and Gasper. But who are these guys? They were not kings (I know we sing “We Three Kings of orient are…) but they were the best of the intellectual community in their cultural world. The stars were a part of what they studied. Then there is the question of when did they actually arrive? The night of Jesus’ birth or more like 2 years later? So many questions! The fact remains that a divine star led them first to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem. This star was a supernatural event; it was God’s handy work and not a cosmic coincidence. The “Open to the Public” sign had been hung in the heavens for all to see.

Let’s consider the reaction of those already in Jerusalem. King Herod’s reaction is typical; he is jealous and paranoid. Judea had been attacked many times from east (Assyria, Babylon), and he feared a future attack from Persia. Herod loved power, inflicted incredibly high taxes on his people, and resented the fact that many Jews disliked him. In fits of jealousy and rage he killed close associates including his own wife and two sons. Herod was jealous and afraid of what this child might become.

The chief priests and scribes, or experts in the law, were surprisingly indifferent. These religious leaders, who no doubt had heard why the wise men had come, show NO interest in joining the wise men in their worship pilgrimage! The Magi, Gentiles, are the ones who worship the new born king. God has hung his bright light, his “OPEN” sign, in the sky for all to see but not everyone realizes the implications of what’s going on.

In the Christian Church, our sign still says “Open for business.” But not everyone wants it, do they? Many are not interested in a faith that demands that you forsake yourself and care for others. Like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, many are completely indifferent to the message of the Gospel. There is such a prevailing attitude of “I’ve been to church – my grandma goes all the time – and I’m a good person so that means I’m going to heaven.” People want connection to church without commitment to cross-bearing, they want religion without relationship, they want deliverance without attendance. In their mind, Salvation is a fringe benefit of twice-a-year church attendance on Christmas and Easter or maybe God will give everyone a “pass” because of COVID. But that’s not how it works!

So, how does it work? The wise men knew. They knew that salvation was found in Jesus the Messiah. Driven by that truth they walked across the Middle East so they could bow down and worship him. They were right. Salvation is not a bonus for good behavior. As a part of God’s plan, Jesus came to be the ultimate sacrifice; to pay the blood price we could not pay. Salvation is found in Jesus Christ for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. The birth of this child makes God’s glory “Open to the Public” for both Jew and Gentile alike through faith. What a marvelous bright star that has come into our dreary and dark world!

Now…let me ask you another question. How does God’s “OPEN” sign change you? How does his “OPEN” sign affect those suffering from the “Coronavirus blues?” How does his “OPEN” sign help someone who is sick, lonely, or impacted by disease and death? How does the coming of the Messiah change those facing a difficult time financially? This sign to us and for us, the gift of our Savior, is a gift that gives hope – and hope is in short supply these days. Our response is like that of the wise men. We worship our king born to save us not just during Christmas or just one hour every week but every day of our lives!

This gift of our Savior Jesus Christ is given to ALL. His free gift of salvation opens the kingdom of God to us by our faith in Christ. “Open to the Public” was the message of the star that night above Bethlehem and “Open to the Public” was also the message as Jesus died on Calvary’s cruel cross. 3 days later the message would be repeated because Easter’s tomb was open and is still open. The Savior has come to save his people. The wise men knew it. We know it. That’s what Epiphany is all about. Come, let us follow that sign to worship; let us behold Him in Word and sacrament, and bow down before our king.

Amen.

 

1st Sunday after Christmas

1st Sunday after Christmas

December 27, 2020

Galatians 4:4-7

“The Fullness of Time”

Grace and peace to you in the name of God our Father and our Good Shepherd Jesus. Today the sermon is based on the Epistle Lesson read earlier from Galatians 4.

My Dear Friends in Christ,

Time. There is a lot of emphasis on time these days. People want time to run out on 2020, which it will do later this week. What kind of time will it take to get the COVID vaccine out and the population vaccinated? When will we get a stimulus check, and how much? $600 per American with hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to other countries? I’m no politician, but even I know that’s no way to run a railroad. Why send all that aid to Oman and Burma when people in Omaha and Birmingham are still reeling from COVID-19?

I know that the tendency by now is to think that the time for Christmas is over. In so many people’s eyes and hearts, homes and lives, Christmas time is over. But here’s the thing. Christmas is not just a day. It is also a season – a time – in the Church. Christmas as a church season lasts for 12 days (we don’t even get THAT song anymore). The time of the Christmas season extends from December 25th until January 5th. On January 6th a new season begins; the season of Epiphany. Many people in the church, and most definitely outside the church, are of the opinion that the time of Christmas is over. That’s not true, and today I would have us consider “time.” What is the “fullness of time,” and what does that mean to you this Christmas season?

St. Paul is a man who knew the beautiful and, at the same time, cruel march of time. Paul wrote Galatians somewhere between 51-53 AD. It is a letter written to demonstrate that faith in Christ changes a person here and now but also eternally…for all time. Paul had been among the Galatian Christians, but since his departure they had fallen away from the true Gospel. Paul’s duties would not allow him the time to return physically, so he wrote his letter to them.

In today’s lesson, Paul writes “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5 ESV). At a specific and appropriate time in human history, God acted to fulfill His eternal purpose. All of God’s eternal, cosmic, divine tumblers all had to come together in the “fullness” of time to fulfill the salvation narrative/plan.

In this world there is a time for everything: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1 ESV). But why then? Why not today when our Lord’s birth could have been fully documented and photographed by journalists and played endlessly on YouTube? Why entrust the proclamation of the birth of this world’s Savior to shepherds and not CNN or endless postings on social media? Could it be that had it occurred another way, that is, that involved technological advancements, that faith itself would no longer matter? “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV). In the fullness of time – God’s time – He acted to bring forth His salvation so that you might hear the Word (the testimony HE provides) and believe, which now changes your life at this time and for all time…eternally.

When I was growing up, my parents listened to KFAB radio out of Omaha. KFAB used to broadcast segments done by radio legend Paul Harvey, who signed off each program the same – “Paul Harvey…good day.” He once told a story that helps explain why and when God does the things He does. It goes like this.

There once was a kind decent, mostly good man. Generous to his family, upright in his dealings with other men. But he just didn’t believe all that incarnation of Jesus stuff which the churches proclaim at Christmas time. It just didn’t make sense and he was too honest to pretend otherwise. He just couldn’t swallow the Jesus story, about God coming to Earth as a man, so he chose not to worship or live as a Christian.
“I’m truly sorry to distress you,” he told his wife, “but I’m not going with you to church on Christmas Eve.” He said he’d feel like a hypocrite. That he’d much rather just stay at home, but that he would wait up for them. And so he stayed and they went to the candle light service.
Shortly after the family drove away in the car, snow began to fall. The man wasn’t worried; the church was close by so his family wouldn’t be in danger. He went to the window to watch the flurries getting heavier and heavier and then went back to his fireside chair and began to read his new Lee Child book. Minutes later he was startled by a thudding sound…Then another, and then another. At first he thought someone must be throwing snowballs against his living room window. But when he went to the front door to investigate he found a flock of birds huddled miserably in the snow. They’d been caught in the storm and, in a desperate search for shelter, had tried to fly through his large picture window in the front of the house.
Well, he couldn’t let the poor creatures lie there and freeze, so he remembered the barn where his children kept their horse. That would provide a warm shelter, if he could direct the birds to it. Quickly he put on a coat, boots, gloves, and tramped through the deepening snow to the barn. He opened the doors wide and turned on a light, but the birds did not come in. He figured food would entice them in. So he hurried back to the house, fetched bird food, sprinkled it on the snow, making a trail to the yellow-lighted wide open doorway of the barn. But to his dismay, the birds ignored the food, and continued to flap around helplessly in the snow. He tried catching them. He tried shooing them into the barn by walking around them waving his arms. Instead, they scattered in every direction, except into the warm, lighted barn.
And then, he realized that they were afraid of him. To them, he reasoned, I am a strange and terrifying creature. If only I could think of some way to let them know that they can trust me. That I am not trying to hurt them, but to help them. But how? Because any move he made tended to frighten them, confuse them. They just would not follow. They would not be led or shooed because they feared him.
“If only I could be a bird,” he thought to himself, “and walk with them and speak their language. Then I could tell them not to be afraid; that it’s okay to trust me and follow me. Then I could show them the way to the safe warm barn. But I would have to be one of them so they could see, and hear and understand and trust me and follow me.”

At that moment the church bells began to ring. The sound reached his ears above the sounds of the wind. And he stood there listening to the bells – “O Come, All Ye Faithful” – listening to the bells pealing the glad tidings of Christmas. And that’s when the true meaning and magnitude of Christmas sank into his heart and he sank to his knees in the snow.

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” That is what time is all about; how God in time – the fullness of time – works to save you. He did it 2000 years ago in Bethlehem. He will come again to bring about final completion of time. And He will work mightily and wonderfully in the fullness of your lifetime as well.

Happy New Year everyone. Good day! Amen.

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.