Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Day - December 25, 2011

In the beginning was Jesus, and Jesus was with God, and Jesus was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through Jesus, and without Jesus not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in Jesus was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

The Gospel of John does not begin with an account of the birth of Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem.  It says nothing of angels or shepherds or wise men.  Instead, it goes all the way back to the very beginning and it talks about Jesus in cosmic terms.  John calls Jesus, “The Word.”  And it is by this Word that God creates the world, “everything came into being through him.” 

This beautiful passage echoes the creation account in the first chapter of Genesis which says, “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the Spirit of God swept over the face of the waters.  Then God said, ‘Let there be light; and there was light......’ and it was good.”  It is by speaking that God creates life.  And it is by speaking that God makes it good.  And what God speaks is the Word, Jesus.

So then, what is Christmas?  Christmas is this, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”  Before Jesus came, how did people approach God?  When the Israelites were in the wilderness, it was Moses alone who went up on the mountain.  The rest of the people were terrified.  To stand in the presence of the living God was to die.  God allowed Moses to see a fleeting glimpse of his backside.  When Elijah stood on that same mountain, God passed by him, not in earthquake, nor in wind, nor in fire, but in the sound of sheer silence, a frightening thing.  And in the Temple, none could enter the Holy of Holies except for the High Priest and him only once a year.  The presence of God was a fearful thing, a terrifying and deadly experience.

That is, until God sent his Son, Jesus, the Word that was there at the very beginning.  And this Word came to us, not in terrifying form, but as a gentle and vulnerable baby.

Why?  Why does he send his Word at all?  And why in the form of a baby? 

God sends Jesus to do what he has always done, to create new life and to make things good by speaking.  This is what his ministry will be about.  He will heal people with his words.  He will cast out demons with his words.  He will forgive sins with his words.  And finally, as he dies on the cross, he will say, “It is finished.”

God sends the Word in the form of a human being, a mere baby, in order to be near to us, in order to speak to us face to face and deliver a word that creates us new, a word that makes us good simply because God himself has said it.

And so your God says to you, “You are my precious ones, the ones whom I love, the ones whom I have chosen.  Receive my Son, listen to him, let his words fill your ears and hearts.  He will make you new and  he will bring you to me.” 

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve - December 24, 2011

First of all let me just express that Faith and I feel so blessed to be here, among all of you, this Christmas Eve.  We’ve been looking forward to this day all year long, looking forward to celebrating Christmas with this new family, looking forward to hearing the familiar Story in a new home. 

One of the things Faith and I decided to do to celebrate our first Christmas away from our childhood homes was to watch Christmas movies together.  We’ve watched “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “White Christmas,” “Miracle on 34th St” and more.  Watching the movies in the living room with our Christmas tree has been wonderful.  It’s been a really nice way to spend time together and get in the mood of Christmas.  [Especially since we are noticeably lacking snow.]
Aside from being fun time spent together, watching these movies has given me an opportunity to think about how our culture has viewed Christmas over the past sixty years. According to these classics, what is it that is important about Christmas?

I’ll start with one that the kids have probably seen.  “You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch.  You really are a heel.  You’re as cuddly as a cactus and as charming as an eel.  Mr. Grinch.”  This movie shows the terrible, horrible, awful Mr. Grinch, whose heart is two sizes too small, who just doesn’t have any Christmas spirit at all.  Instead of giving, he steals.  Instead of celebrating, he stews.  But on Christmas morning he discovers that the Whos down in Whoville are singing and celebrating anyway.  For you see, Christmas is not about presents and trees and stockings; it is about spirit.  This is the message of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a wonderful movie.  George Bailey, a talented young man, longs to get out of Bedford Falls, see the world and become a grand success.  Instead, he remains stuck in town because he feels responsibility for the people there.  He gives of himself, his time and his money.  He gives until it hurts.  And it does hurt.  He becomes very depressed by it all, until he is shown how much good that he has done.  And the people whom he has helped, turn around and give to him in his time of need.  Helping others, this is the Christmas Spirit in  “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Then there’s the classic, “A Christmas Carol.”  The rotten old man, Ebenezer Scrooge, is visited by three ghosts, of Christmas Past, Present and Future.  The first shows him his former happiness, when his boss was generous and when he had love in his heart.  The second ghost shows him the present, as his own employee, Bob Cratchitt who, though he is poor, shows generosity to others and celebrates a meaningful Christmas even without money.  The final ghost shows him the future, when Scrooge will die alone and unloved.  The message is clear, the Christmas Spirit is about generosity and friendship.

All of these movies teach us about the Christmas Spirit.  Christmas is about giving, not receiving.  Christmas is about generosity with our fellow human beings, whether or not they be friends and family or complete strangers.  Christmas isn’t about material things; it’s about love, love that we share with one another.

These aren’t bad messages.  Being generous is wonderful.  Giving to others, even those we don’t know is great.  And of course Christmas is not about mere objects and stuff; it is about love. 

And yet.......  And yet this is to miss the heart of Christmas.  At its heart, Christmas is not about giving; it is about receiving.  It is not about showing generosity; it is about being the object of it.  It is not about having the right spirit; it is about an actual living, breathing, warm little body.

Christmas is about one thing.  For nine months that one thing had grown in Mary’s womb, developing fingerprints, toes and eyelashes, kicking, hiccupping, making her uncomfortable, keeping her awake at night, filling her with joy at the thought of the precious human being who was so intimately connected to her.

Christmas is about flesh and blood and bones.  It is about tiny lungs drawing breath for the first time.  Christmas is about God saying, “I must be near to you.  I will not be some far off abstraction.  I will not live beyond the clouds.  I must be near to you.  I must be with you.”  And so he has come in a way that we can understand, in a way that every human being has come.  He has come to us in childbirth: overwhelming, painful, joyful....... and real.  This is how Jesus comes.  This is Christmas.  Amen.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

4th Sunday of Advent - December 18, 2011

For the past four months, our confirmation kids have been taking sermon notes based on two questions: What Law did you hear in the sermon?  and What gospel did you hear?  I have the kids listen for these two things because the Lutheran understanding is that God speaks those two words to us.  Sometimes they seem to have a pretty easy time hearing the two words and sometimes it's a little bit trickier.  Today, the two words sit side by side in a way that they can be clearly seen.  

            Now when the king lived in his house and the LORD had given him rest from all his surrounding enemies, the king said to Nathan the prophet, “See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells in a tent.” And Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that is in your heart, for the LORD is with you.”

This is a very clear instance of David applying the Law to himself.  He is aware that the Lord has blessed him.  He knew that as a boy he was just a shepherd with little prospect of every being anything more.  And he knew that God had plucked him out of obscurity, made him into a warrior and leader of men.  And he knew that he was now the king of his people only by the grace of God.  He is very aware of these things.  And so he says to Nathan, "I'm living in a beautiful palace, but God's ark, the symbol of his presence, is living in a dumpy old tent."  And he doesn't speak it, but the implication is clearly there, "I should do something about that.  God has blessed me richly and I should pay him back."  As I said, this is David applying the Law to himself, asking, "What should I do?"  

God responds to David through the prophet Nathan and he does so in no uncertain terms.  God lays it out for him.  

            "Would you build me a house to dwell in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling. In all places where I have moved with all the people of Israel, did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”’

In other words, "Who told you I wanted a fancy house?  If I would have wanted one of those I would have asked one of those other leaders, you're not the only one I've asked to shepherd my people you know, I would have asked one of them to build me a house.  But I didn't.  And you sure seem to be getting just a little big for your britches."

At this point, I'd expect God to give David a real dressing down.  I'd expect God to apply the Law to David to squash that pride.  But God does nothing of the sort.  Instead God uses his other word, the word of promise, the gospel.  And he uses a play on words to deliver this promise.  David wanted to build him a house, an architectural structure, stone and wood.  Well, God is going to build a house for David made of living people.  He is going to give him a lineage, a line of descendants.  And these descendants are going to rule the country forever.  At least, that is what is understood.  And as it was understood, this is a wonderful promise indeed.  To know that one's descendants will continue to rule, that there will be stability, and that one's own name will be secured for posterity, these are the dreams of every king.

But here's the thing, God's promise to David was underestimated.  The promise was actually better than that.  The good news was much better than that.  And we begin to discover this one thousand years later when a messenger from God, an angel named Gabriel, visits a young woman named Mary.  A woman who is a descendant of... David.  And Gabriel tells her the most amazing thing.  Not the virgin birth part, though that's pretty amazing.  No, he tells her that the son she will bear...

            "...will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

This was the promise all along.  This was God's promise to David.  Not just that his descendants would be king over a country called Israel, but that his descendant would be God's own son.  God's promise to David was this, "I am going to join your family.  Your son will be my son."  Now the promise that David understood was a very good promise, but this is much better.  

I tell you this morning that we too have become a part of that family.  Through faith in Jesus Christ we have become the relatives of King David.  But better yet, we have become children of God, our sins forgiven and our futures secured.  These are the promises that we received in baptism, though, like David, we did not deserve it.  And these are good promises, amazing promises.  But I can't help but wonder if God's promise to us is even better than we expect.  Even greater and more gracious than our minds can imagine.  One day we will know, but for now we can look forward with great hope and expectation, because our God gives good promises.  Really good promises.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

3rd Sunday of Advent - December 11, 2011

I confess to you that I like to make things overcomplicated.  Instead of doing things the simple, straightforward way, I have been known to spend hours or even days thinking about a project and then deciding on the complicated way. 

As I’ve probably mentioned, years ago I was a framing carpenter.  When I was on the job, I had to do things the simple and quick way, otherwise I would get an earful from my foreman.  But when I got home and went to the garage?  That was the time that I had all to myself.  That was the time I could needlessly complicate matters. 

I remember building a little end table for my sister out of scrap 1x6.  I wanted to figure out a way for it to be sturdy and elegant at the same time, while hiding the screws.  I didn’t have much in the way of tools: a circular saw and a handheld jigsaw along with a drill.  It was wonderful.  It was wonderful to puzzle over the many possibilities.

It’s the same way with sermons.  I puzzle over these things more than I should, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I make them needlessly complicated.  I recognize this tendency in myself and I try to go back through these sermons and simplify and make things more clear.  But I still get the sense that they are more complicated than they need to be.

A perfect example of this occurred this week.  The reading from Isaiah is about as straightforward as you are going to find as long as you understand one thing.  The one thing to understand is this.  It is Jesus who is talking.  It is Jesus.  And we know it is Jesus because he has said so.  Let me just read you the proof.  [Read Luke 4:14-21]  Jesus fulfills this scripture because those were his words back in Isaiah that the prophet wrote down.  They weren’t Isaiah’s words; they were Jesus’ words.

Jesus declares that he has been anointed by God to bring good news, to comfort those in sorrow, to free those who are imprisoned, to proclaim God’s favor to us.  That’s what the prophecy said he would do.  When he came to live amongst us that is what he did.  And that is what he does now.

Are you in sorrow?  I know that some of you are.  Then Jesus has come for you. 

Do you find yourself imprisoned somehow, unable to get free?  I bet that some of you are.  Then Jesus has come for you. 

Do you need some good news instead of bad?  Does the world and its cares weigh heavily on your shoulders?  Then Jesus has come for you.

As always I am tempted to make this more complicated than it is, but it really is this simple.  Jesus has come for you.  Jesus has come for you.

3rd Sunday of Advent - December 11, 2011

I confess to you that I like to make things overcomplicated.  Instead of doing things the simple, straightforward way, I have been known to spend hours or even days thinking about a project and then deciding on the complicated way. 

As I’ve probably mentioned, years ago I was a framing carpenter.  When I was on the job, I had to do things the simple and quick way, otherwise I would get an earful from my foreman.  But when I got home and went to the garage?  That was the time that I had all to myself.  That was the time I could needlessly complicate matters. 

I remember building a little end table for my sister out of scrap 1x6.  I wanted to figure out a way for it to be sturdy and elegant at the same time, while hiding the screws.  I didn’t have much in the way of tools: a circular saw and a handheld jigsaw along with a drill.  It was wonderful.  It was wonderful to puzzle over the many possibilities.

It’s the same way with sermons.  I puzzle over these things more than I should, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I make them needlessly complicated.  I recognize this tendency in myself and I try to go back through these sermons and simplify and make things more clear.  But I still get the sense that they are more complicated than they need to be.

A perfect example of this occurred this week.  The reading from Isaiah is about as straightforward as you are going to find as long as you understand one thing.  The one thing to understand is this.  It is Jesus who is talking.  It is Jesus.  And we know it is Jesus because he has said so.  Let me just read you the proof.  [Read Luke 4:14-21]  Jesus fulfills this scripture because those were his words back in Isaiah that the prophet wrote down.  They weren’t Isaiah’s words; they were Jesus’ words.

Jesus declares that he has been anointed by God to bring good news, to comfort those in sorrow, to free those who are imprisoned, to proclaim God’s favor to us.  That’s what the prophecy said he would do.  When he came to live amongst us that is what he did.  And that is what he does now.

Are you in sorrow?  I know that some of you are.  Then Jesus has come for you. 

Do you find yourself imprisoned somehow, unable to get free?  I bet that some of you are.  Then Jesus has come for you. 

Do you need some good news instead of bad?  Does the world and its cares weigh heavily on your shoulders?  Then Jesus has come for you.

As always I am tempted to make this more complicated than it is, but it really is this simple.  Jesus has come for you.  Jesus has come for you.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

2nd Sunday of Advent - December 4, 2011

A few weeks ago I preached a sermon on the psalm that Moses wrote, Psalm 90.  It was all about our struggle with death and our failed attempts to deal with it.  It was dark and gloomy and there was no good news in it at all.  At the end I said that all we could do was look ahead to Advent and cry out, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

Today is the day when we get a resounding answer from Isaiah.  He writes that messengers are being sent from God to give his people good news.  This is what the messengers are told to say, “Comfort my people.  Speak tenderly to them.  Tell them that the warfare is over.  Tell them that their sin has been pardoned.  Tell them that I am taking away their sin, and in exchange I am giving them a double blessing.”  

That sounds pretty positive, but what does it mean exactly?

This is what it means.  God is telling them about his son Jesus who is coming and he is telling them specifically about what Jesus is coming to do.  

First, Jesus is coming to bring comfort to his people.  The gospel is always about comfort.  The gospel is never about fear or obligation.  The gospel is sent to comfort the troubled hearts of God’s people.  “Do not worry.  You are MY people.  I have chosen you.  And I know the plans that I have for you.  And they are plans for good.”

And then God tells his messengers to speak tenderly.  The word of gospel is a word of love directly from God’s lips.  “I love you,” he says.  To say, “I love you” right, one can’t be angry or impatient or boastful.  No, God’s love is gentle and kind and so this good news must be delivered that way.  It must be delivered tenderly.

Next he says this, “Your warfare is over.”  What is this warfare?  It is our struggle with sin, death and the Devil.  In Christ, God is declaring that this warfare is over and done with.  In my own battle with alcoholism, I kept losing battles.  Year after year I lost battles.  I came up with strategies to drink less or only at certain times.  I poured bottle after bottle down the drain only to buy more.  The warfare was never ending.  It was never ending until the day when God declared that it was over.  He declared that the warfare was ended.  And so it is with our battle with sin, death and the Devil.  God simply declares it over and done with.  

Next God says, “your iniquity is pardoned.”  Your sin is forgiven.  This is how God ends the warfare.  He forgives sin.  He doesn’t strengthen us so that we can win the battle with sin.  He doesn’t give us another chance so that we can maybe do better the second or third time around.  No, he ends the battle altogether by forgiving our sin.  He forgives our sin for the sake of Jesus.

Next come these words, “she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”  These words refer not to a double punishment, as is often understood, but to a double blessing.  We receive from the Lord’s hand a double blessing IN EXCHANGE for all her sins.  Jesus took our sins on himself when he was crucified.  He bestows this blessing on us at Holy Communion, “This is my body, given for you.  This is my blood shed for you.”  

But there is a deeper significance to this double blessing; it is not simply a blessing.  In the Old Testament, the first born son was the heir.  And the heir received a double portion of his father’s estate.  Therefore, what God is declaring to us here is that not only is he taking our sins and giving us a blessing.  He is declaring that we are his heirs.  And when we receive Holy Communion we are partaking in our inheritance.

So then, this is the message that your God gives you today:  Be comforted, you are my people.  I love you.  Your warfare is over for I have forgiven your sins.  My son Jesus has taken them and in exchange for these sins.  I am giving you a very special blessing.  I am declaring that you are my heirs.  You will inherit all that is mine: life, forgiveness, joy, peace, understanding, love...... beginning now...... and in fullness in the age to come.  This is the gospel of our Lord.  Amen.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Evening Advent Service - November 27, 2011

Advent is about waiting.  Any child knows this perfectly well.  There are many adults who seem to think Christmas starts the day after Thanksgiving, or in October for that matter.  But a child knows that this is not at all true.  They know because though the tree might be in the living room, with ornaments and lights, and though there might be cookies in the oven, and though there might be carols on the radio and all kinds of other things to throw them off the scent, there is a hard and fast rule that presents are not opened until Christmas arrives.  And so children wait and they wait,  and they wait.  Advent is about waiting.

Now there are different kinds of waiting.  The kind of waiting that I just described, children waiting to finally open presents, that is one kind of waiting.  It is hopeful anticipation.  The children don’t know what is under that tree, but they are pretty certain that whatever it is, it’s going to be good.

Waiting for our new baby Abigail to arrive has been like this for me.  I don’t know what she’s going to be like.  I don’t know if she’ll have blond hair or red hair or no hair.  I don’t know if she’ll be quiet and sweet or full of spit and vinegar.  I just don’t know.  But I do know that she’s going to be wonderful.  And so I wait in hopeful anticipation.

But there is a different kind of waiting.  And this other kind of waiting is not so nice.  It is called dread.  It is waiting with fear.  We might wait this way before having surgery.  Or this might be the kind of waiting we do before trying something new or dangerous.  This isn't the kind of waiting that we want to do, of course.   But it is part of our lives.  We all know what it means to wait with fear. 

As I said, Advent is about waiting.  But which kind?  Is it about waiting with fear?  Or is it about waiting with hopeful anticipation?  This is what I know.  God is holy and he demands that we be holy as well.  We are to do good without ceasing and flee from all evil.  We are to love God with all our heart, and all our soul, and with all our strength and with all our mind.  And we are to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Given this command, it makes sense for us to wait with fear, because we have sinned against God.  We have not done these things.  According to the law of justice, we should be condemned.  And so it makes sense to wait with fear for the judge to come and pass his sentence upon us.

But I am guessing that most of us gathered here tonight have not gathered in a spirit of fear.  Though we have all so clearly fallen short of God's glory, yet we gather tonight in hopeful anticipation, waiting for something good to happen.  Why is this?  It is because we know something.  We know that God promised us a savior.  We know that God sent his son to be with us.  We know that in baptism and Holy Communion he forgives our sins and gives us the promise of everlasting life.  It is because of these promises that we can wait with hopeful anticipation.  We wait these four weeks of Advent to celebrate the birth of our Lord.  And we wait our whole lives long for the judgment to come.  And we don’t know all of the details yet.  We don’t know all of the details, but we know that it’s going to be good.  

1st Sunday of Advent - November 27, 2011

This past summer, we celebrated the centennial of both Brunsville and Craig, one hundred years of history.  This celebration brought to the forefront something that we all know.  We have all kinds of stories that stretch back in time.  Some of us have families that were here from the start, back when farms were a little smaller, families a little bigger, winters a little colder.  And some of us have stories that have only come to these rolling hills in more recent times.  But the point is, we’ve got them.  We’ve got ancestors, those who have come before us. And when things are working as they should, these stories and these people help us to make sense of our lives right now.  They give us hope that adversity can be overcome, and they provide instruction for us so that we don’t have to learn the hard way, though some of us stubborn ones will insist on extra lessons. 

This idea of history is at the heart of our Old Testament lesson today.  Isaiah is a prophet who knows the history of his people.  He knows the stories; he knows the ancestors. And Isaiah is attempting to understand the situation of the people in his own time by looking at what happened to their ancestors.  He’s doing this because his people are in a tough spot. 

For one thing, Isaiah’s people were surrounded by enemies.  They had once been strong and independent, but now they had grown weak.  Some of them had already been dragged away into slavery.  More would follow.  Isaiah talks about Jerusalem and the temple being destroyed and becoming ruins.  So this is an exterior problem, a challenge that is coming from outside of themselves.  But that’s not the worst of it......

Because they also have interior problems.  They are neck-deep in sin.  Isaiah talks about how they have become unclean like dirty rags.  But what is worse, he talks about how no one is calling on God, no one is seeking him.  No one is repenting.  That’s a big problem.

So Isaiah is looking back at history to help his people.  And if we look at the chapter before our lesson, he starts mentioning names and events:  Abraham and Moses, going through the parted waters of the Red Sea, taking possession of the Promised Land.  Isaiah is looking back at the stories of his people.  He’s looking at those stories and he’s telling them to his people. 

You all know the story.  God chose a man named Abraham.  To Abraham he gave three promises: land, numerous descendants and the promise that through him and his descendants all the nations of the world would be blessed.  It took awhile for the descendants to begin arriving, but Isaac was born.  And then Jacob.  And then Jacob had twelve sons.  One of these sons, Joseph, became a very important man in Egypt and his father and brothers and all their children moved to Egypt where life became more prosperous for them while Joseph lived.  But in the generations following his death, prosperity turned into slavery.  These descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob became slaves in the land of Egypt

The parallel that Isaiah see is this: for the people of his time, just like those people of old, prosperity has turned into slavery.  What was good has turned into bad.  And like the people of old, Isaiah’s people don’t seem to have the power to do anything about it.  So what is to be done?  Well what does the story say?

The Book of Exodus tells us that the slaves cried out for help and God heard them.  God sent them a deliverer whose name was Moses.  And God used Moses to lead his people through the Red Sea and out of slavery; he led them through the wilderness and brought them to the land that he had promised to Abraham.  So the lesson of history that Isaiah draws from this is that God is the one who has the power to save.  The slaves in Egypt cried out and God heard them and God saved them.

So what does Isaiah do?  He cries out the powerful words that began our service today, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence...... to make your name known to your adversaries, so that nations might tremble at your presence!  When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.”

Here is what Isaiah is saying, “God, I know history.  I know what you have done.  I know that you have shown yourself to be powerful, mighty to save.  I know that you brought my ancestors out of Egypt. I know that you drowned the Egyptian chariots in the Red Sea.  I know that you brought my people into the Promised Land, overcoming every obstacle.  I know that you have been powerful on our behalf. 

Lord, rip the sky open and come down for us now.  Tear the clouds apart, come and help us now.  Send us a savior.”  Isaiah cries out on behalf of his people, “Send us a savior.”

Now all of what I have spoken of is history.  And today we know how God responded to Isaiah’s cry; and this response has become a part of history as well; it has become a story that we know very well.  God became human in the person of Jesus.  He tore open the heavens and came down.  He tore open the sky and came down and lived among us and died for us.  This is God’s response to Isaiah’s cry.  It is now a part of our history.

But this cannot remain history.  This saving act of God cannot stay in the past as a story of God’s goodness to other people, people of long ago.  It must not remain a dusty page in some old book.  Isaiah cried out to the God of history on behalf of his people, “Save us too!  Come to us in power like you came to our fathers and grandfathers......”  It wasn’t enough for Isaiah to know history.  He needed a savior.

Likewise for us.  It is good that we know the history of our people.  Our ancestors were slaves in the land of Egypt and they cried, “God save us!”  And he delivered them.  Our ancestor is Isaiah who cried out, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down......”  And God became man and walked on earth.  It is good that we know this history, but it is not enough.  Because what we need is a savior. 

“Jesus, come to us like you came to the slaves in Egypt.  Answer us like you answered Isaiah.  Save us.  For in so many ways we are sorely afflicted.  We have fallen into slavery and sin of every sort and we cannot free ourselves.  Jesus, tear open the heavens and come down.”  This is the cry of Advent.  And the good news of Advent is this: Jesus is coming.  Jesus is coming.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thanksgiving Eve - November 23, 2011

O Lord our God, through all this year,
In Winter's chill and darkness drear,
In Springtime's rain and windy blow,
In Summer's heat as crops did grow,
In Autumn when the harvest came,
You are our God.  You stay the same.

The Winter wind, it froze our faces;
     Icy roads made our hearts race.
     Soil laid dormant under snow
     And darkened days drug on so slow.

     Yet you cheered us every morn.
     On Christmas day your son was born.
     With joyful alleluia greeting,
     In this season our God meeting.

Springtime wind, the constant blowing,
     Muddy fields and then seeds sowing,
     Rivers rising, then the flood,
     Newborn cattle chewing cud.

     In this life and chaos swelling,
     You, our Lord, were always dwelling.
     Raised victorious Easter morn,
     Thus your children are reborn.

Summer heat and dry conditions
     Aphids on destructive missions,
     Straight line winds that bent the crop,
     Cloudless skies without a drop,

     Yet through these you brought us through.
     Lacking rain, the corn still grew.
     Ever faithful you were there
     In pardoned sins and answered prayer.

Autumn came with combines churning
     Wayward sparks and fires burning.
     Yet we brought the harvest in
     And put it safely in the bin.

     Likewise, God, you gather us,
     Though we can be ornery cusses.
     So hallelujah, praises sing!
     Lift thanksgiving to our king!

O Lord our God, through all this year
You've been our hope and strength and cheer.
Your mercies given new each morn,
Baptismal pardon for newborns,
Assurance for our loved ones dying,
Comfort for us in our crying,
Lord your goodness has abounded.
Let Thanksgiving praise be sounded!


This sermon is based on events in our countryside this year.  All except for the newborn cattle chewing cud.  Apparently they drink milk.  ;-)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Christ the King Sunday - November 20, 2011

It’s really easy to listen to our gospel reading today and hear Jesus teaching about who gets into heaven and who doesn’t.  The scene is this: all the nations are gathered before the king for judgment.  He divides them into two groups: sheep and goats.  He speaks to the sheep and tells them that they have done well.  They gave him food and drink when he needed it; they welcomed him and clothed him.  They took care of him when he was sick and visited him in prison.  In short, they showed mercy and love to one who was in need of it.  These sheep express surprise because they were not aware that they had done any such thing.  The king replies, “When you did this for the least of these, you did it for me.”

And then the king addresses the goats.  He calls them to task for doing none of these acts of mercy.  They didn’t help him at all when he needed it.  When they express surprise at this he tells them, “Just as you did not do it to the least of these, you did not do it for me.”  And they are sent away for punishment.

It is easy to hear the parable and come to this conclusion: “Those who do good deeds and are merciful towards the disadvantaged get in to heaven, those who are stingy and mean are kept out.”  It’s really easy to hear that.  Then, if we hear it that way, we might start thinking, “Are we sheep or are we goats?  How can we make sure to be in the right group?”  This is an unfortunate and, I believe false, interpretation of the gospel lesson.  Apart from being wrong, it can distract us from what the scripture is really trying to communicate to us.  So that is what I’d like to talk about today.  Just what does this parable mean?  And how does it apply to us?

First of all, and I can’t stress this enough, it is important to know the context.  Who is Jesus talking to?  Is he talking to a huge crowd?  Is he talking to foreigners who don’t believe in the God of Israel?  Is he talking to the Pharisees? 

No, he’s talking to his disciples.  Jesus is talking to the ones whom he has already chosen.  We can learn from this that the point of the parable is not to tell them what they need to do to get into heaven.  That horse is already out of the barn.  And if you don’t believe me you only have to look at the scripture itself to see that this is true.  In the parable, the first words out of the king’s mouth are this, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”  The sheep aren’t entering in because of their deeds of mercy.  It is the opposite.  In some way, their deeds of mercy are the result of their having been chosen.  So this parable is aimed at those who are already presumed to be the sheep. 

So if he isn’t telling the parable in order to get them to make the right spiritual decision, why does he tell it?  What’s the point?  Again, this is where paying attention to context makes a huge difference.  I was trying to get a handle on the parable early this past week and so I backed up in Matthew all the way to chapter 21.  And I read the almost four chapters that come before our gospel lesson.  And lo and behold, things started to come into focus.

In chapter 21, Jesus enters into Jerusalem.  The crowds love him; they wave branches and cheer.  Jesus gets into the city, goes to the temple, and overturns the tables of the moneychangers.  In short, he causes a ruckus.  Then he leaves town for the day and spends the night in Bethany, which is a nearby village.  The next day, Jesus comes back.  And where does he go?  He goes to the temple.  While at the temple, and in front of his disciples, Jesus has a series of conversations with the priests, scribes, Pharisees and other religious leaders of the people. 

Jesus and these leaders play a cat and mouse game.  They try to trick him into saying something that will get him into trouble.  He attacks their authority and shows them up in front of the people.

And then finally, after a chapter and a half of this high stakes, back and forth, verbal combat, Jesus turns to the crowds, which includes his disciples, and starts to talk to them about the religious leaders.  In the presence of everyone, he starts to pronounce a series of woes.  Here is one example, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth  So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy.”  He mercilessly condemns them for saying one thing and doing another.  He condemns them for caring more about all their rules and laws than they care for actual flesh and blood people.  Again, Jesus is doing this with his disciples close by, soaking up every word.

After he finishes his series of accusations, Jesus and his disciples start to leave the temple.  They bring up another subject.  He takes the opportunity to talk to them about the future.  He tells them parables about being prepared for this future, about staying ready.  And then finally, we arrive at our parable for today. 

This is what I believe to be happening here.  Jesus is preparing his disciples for the future, for the time after his death and resurrection.  In the confrontation at the temple, Jesus bluntly condemned the religious leaders for being hypocrites and for not caring about the people.  He is preparing his disciples to be a different kind of religious leader.

So with this parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus is saying, “Dearest disciples, do not be like them!  Do NOT be like them!  Those scribes and Pharisees, those old goats, they get all tangled in their rules and their rituals and this and that; and they forget all about loving people.  Do not be like them.  Instead of helping people and leading them, those old goats just burden them and make their lives miserable.  Do not be like them. 

No, because you are my chosen ones, you must be different.  You must be ones who help people.  You must go out of your way to serve those who are the lowliest.  You must feed the hungry one and give her water to drink.  You must help the sick and visit the prisoners.  That is your job.  As religious leaders, that is your job.  You must be leaders who serve. 

So then, this parable is not about how to get salvation.  It is about how to act because we have already been given salvation.  We are not to be like the scribes and Pharisees who burden people and hurt them.  We are not to get so caught up in our own lives that we fail to serve the one who is in need.  No, we are not to be like that because Jesus has chosen us to be his sheep.  He has chosen us to be the ones who help people.  To give them water, to visit them in the hospital and in jail, to clothe them.  In short, he has chosen us to show mercy and love to those who need it so desperately.  And so we must take this responsibility very seriously.  Not so that we will be chosen, but because we have been chosen.  Amen

Sunday, November 13, 2011

22nd Sunday after Pentecost - November 13, 2011

We begin with a quotation:

“Even now I cannot understand the measure of a life, but I can tell you this. I know that when he died, his eyes were closed and his heart was open. And I'm pretty sure he was happy with his final resting place, because he was buried on the mountain. And that was against the law.” 

This past year, Faith and I saw a movie called The Bucket List, starring Morgan Freeman as Carter and Jack Nicholson as Edward.  The two men are both terminally ill with cancer.  Edward is a wealthy man and an atheist, and he determines that he is going to fit as much as he can into his remaining weeks.  And so he makes a bucket list, things to do before he kicks the bucket.  He invites Carter along, as the two had become friends while sharing a hospital room.  And so the two men start doing things like skydiving, racing classic cars around a racetrack, visiting the Pyramids and so on.  As their travels continue, it becomes more and more clear that Edward is vainly trying to give his life meaning with all of these fabulous activities.  Deep down, however, he is hurting because he has failed at what matters most to him: he has a broken relationship with his daughter.  Without setting this relationship right, the arrival of death will be bitter indeed.  But maybe, with enough courage and wisdom, Edward can set the relationship right so that he won’t have to die all alone.  And then maybe death won’t be so bad.  This is the message that the movie conveys.

The Bucket List is a very interesting movie because it looks at how we deal with the inevitable arrival of death.  The conclusion of the movie, which is captured by the quotation with which I began, suggests that one can win some kind of victory over death by the manner of living one’s life and also by the circumstances of one’s death.  Thus, according to the film, Edward wins a victory over death because he has reconciled with his daughter and so he doesn’t have to die alone. Take that, Death!  Edward also wins a victory over death by being buried on top of the mountain.  Death is the ultimate law, but Edward is able to break that law, just a little bit, by being buried where he was.  For it was illegal to be buried on the mountain.  Ha!  Take that, Death. 

This kind of thinking is very common.  We try to win small victories over death in all manner of ways.  By great athletic performances, for example.  Breaking an important record might be described like this, “Adrian Peterson has achieved football immortality.”  “People will always remember what happened here today.”  It isn’t uncommon to hear these kinds of things.  We want to be remembered, even after our death.  To be remembered is to win some small victory over that death.

We also try to win small victories over death by giving assurances to those who have died, “You will live forever in our memories.  We will never forget.”  In other words, we are denying to death a complete victory by treasuring memories. 

We try to win small victories over death by appreciating every moment of our lives, “Make every moment count” we say.  “Live like there is no tomorrow.”  Because maybe by living intensely and passionately in the present, we can make our life so big and so overflowing, that death will be unable to swallow it all up.

I am talking this morning about these things this morning, because humanity has struggled with them for a very long time.  In our Psalm for today, Psalm 90, we find the great prophet Moses struggling with these things.

He writes, “You turn us back to dust, and say, ‘Turn back, you mortals.’  For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.  You sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.”

Life is like the grass which sprouts in the morning, but by evening it has been burned up by the sun and is dead.  Life is short.  Before we know it, life is drawing to a close and death draws near.  Nothing can be done to hold it back. 

Why is this so?  Moses knows.  Death, that terrible enemy of life, arrives as the result of sin.  Or to be more direct, death is the punishment for sin.  Moses writes, “For we are consumed by your anger; by your wrath we are overwhelmed.  You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins right in front of your face.”  Moses knows that God sees everything.  He sees it all.  He sees every shameful nook and cranny.  No sin escapes his knowledge. 

Moses knows this very well because he was the one who brought the Law down from the mountain.  He was the one who met God there and he brought down the Ten Commandments on two stone tablets.  He brought the Law to the people and told them to live by it.  And yet he knows full well that they cannot.  He knows that he cannot.  And he sees death approaching.  As they wander in the wilderness for those forty years, all of the people who left Egypt are dying.  All of them are dying and are replaced by new generations who will enter the promised land.  And he sees death coming for himself.  And he wonders what is to be done.  Is there some small victory that can be won over this dreaded enemy?

Moses, like us, seeks somehow to soften what he knows what must happen.  This is what he says, “Teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.”  “Lord, I know that we must die.  I know that this is the punishment for sin, but help us at least to make the most of the days that we have.  Teach us to take advantage of that time at least.  And let not the time be used for that which does not matter, but for something more important, for the pursuit of wisdom.”  You can see here that Moses thinks much like we think.  He knows that death is the end and seeks to gain some small victory over it.  “Lord, give us this small victory over death.  We know that it is coming.  We know that we will die because of our sin.  But give us this little victory to console us.”

I tell you this morning that this is what life is like under the Law.  We seek to wriggle away from inevitable death.  We try to win small victories.  We try to convince ourselves that death really isn’t that bad.  This is life under the Law.  When Edward was buried on the top of that mountain, he was not winning a victory over death or the Law; he was succumbing to them.  His life had been reduced to ash and was no more.  When we say that we will never forget, we may have good intentions, but we tell ourselves a lie.  We lie because our minds grow frail and though we would like to remember, so often we cannot.  And in any event, death will wipe away any such memories.  This is life under the Law.

In Psalm 90, there is no gospel.  There is no good news.  There is no promise.  There is no Jesus Christ.  There is no hope.  Death swallows everything because God has decreed that sin must be punished.

In just two weeks, the season of Advent will begin.  Advent, the time when we wait.  The time when we hope for a future.  Advent, the time when we ask God to send us a savior to rescue us from this law of sin and death.  Advent, the time when we yearn for the Word that is good news, the Word who gives forgiveness.  And so we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

Sunday, November 6, 2011

All Saints Sunday - November 6, 2011

What is All Saints Day all about?  That’s the question I’ve been pondering for the last couple of days.  I’ve never really thought much about it, truth be told.  To me, All Saints Day is the Sunday when we honor those who have died in the faith, particularly during the past year.  We put their names in the bulletin.  Perhaps we read them out loud.  Maybe we light a candle for them.  We sing particular hymns.  More or less it is this, we take a moment to remember our dead.  That’s what All Saints Day has always been to me.

What is less clear to me is what this has to do with saints.  What are saints, exactly?  What I’ve always understood is that saints are one of two things.  The first possibility is this: saints are living people who are closer to perfect than most of us are.  So and so is a saint because she volunteers so much of her time.  Or this other fellow is a saint because he isn’t subject to the same sinful urges that the rest of us are.  He just always seems to do the right thing.  This understanding of saints thinks of them as a cut above the normal person, like Mother Theresa.

The other understanding of saint that I have is this:  A saint is a Christian who has died.  Most of us living folks aren’t very saintly.  There’s all kinds of evidence against us in our words and deeds.  We do things we shouldn’t and we don’t help out as much as we should.  We get angry and have mean thoughts.  And so on and so forth.  There’s all this evidence that we’re not saints.  But, and I’m just trying to put my finger on what it is that I’ve thought through the years, when we die and go to heaven, then things change.  All of that sinful stuff just drops off; it falls away and we’re left with just the good.  In any event, the dead no longer sin.  And so it seems like death makes Christians into saints.  That’s the second basic understanding that I’ve always had.

Now I want to make clear, especially for those who are taking sermon notes, that I’m not saying any of what I’ve said so far is true.  It’s just the way I’ve thought about things.  And maybe some of you have thought about it this way too.

So it seems to me that All Saints Day has more to do with this second understanding.  On this day, All Saints Sunday, we are honoring our dead.  We are remembering Christian brothers and sisters who have died.  They weren’t exactly saints when they were with us, but now that they have died we can think of them as saints because they have been transformed.  So All Saints Day is about honoring the dead, whom we can now call saints because they are no longer part of the nitty gritty business down here, where people just aren’t that holy.  This is more or less the way that I have understood the matter.

Upon some further thinking, though, I think that I may have gotten it wrong.  Well, not all of it.  For instance, I think that it is absolutely right that we should honor our dead and I think that it is absolutely right that we should think well of them.  But the major part of it I have gotten wrong.  Connecting sainthood to death, for instance.  This is wrong, because the Bible doesn’t talk like that at all.  I looked up the word “saints” in my Bible concordance and I started looking at each verse that used the word.  And what I found was very interesting.  Over and over and over again, the word “saints” refers to members of the church, followers of Jesus.  All of these people are very clearly living people, not dead ones.  The saints are members of the church who are alive and well, here on earth. 

The other point that is clear is that the people being called “saints” are not being called that because they are the cream of the crop, the very best.  The Apostle Paul talks about visiting the saints in one town or helping the saints in another.  Clearly he isn’t talking about going to some town, to which he’s never been, and visiting only the holiest people.  He wouldn’t have the foggiest idea who they were!  He’s just talking about visiting the people who follow Jesus, the Church. 

So when you put these two points together, what you’ve got is this: “saints” just refers to living folks who are followers of Jesus.  It doesn’t refer to dead Christians in particular, nor does it refer to people who are some kind of spiritual elite.  In other words, it refers to people like you and like me.

“That’s all well and good, Pastor, that’s very nice.  But what does that have to do with anything?  It’s not as if I’m going to go around telling people I’m a saint.  What’s the point?”  You are right to ask that question.  All by itself, this is pretty meaningless knowledge.  It does us no good.  And do you know why?  Because we think it’s just a label.  We think it’s just a fancy word that has been dumbed down so that it doesn’t mean anything at all.  Sure, we’re called saints, but no matter what you call us, it doesn’t change the fact that we’re still the same old sinners.  What meaning does a first place ribbon have if everybody is given one?  If everybody got a Lombardi trophy after the football season, it wouldn’t mean much.  And so it is with the word “saint.”  If everybody’s a saint, then nobody’s a saint.  The word doesn’t mean anything anymore.  That’s what I’m tempted to think.

But that's not right.  In fact it's all wrong.  And maybe this is a simple point to make, but I want to make it because it is the gospel after all.

It isn't what we do that makes us right with God.  It isn't what we do that makes us righteous.  It isn't what we do that makes us saints.  If we look at ourselves and say, "Not saints," we're being very foolish indeed.  If we do that we have fallen into the trap of playing God.  At the risk of stating the obvious, that’s not our job.

Being God is God’s job.  He's the one who makes us right.  He’s the one who forgives our sins.  He's the one who makes us saints.  Our lesson from Revelation says this, "Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb."  He's the one who does it.  And if we can’t see it, that’s because we are the ones who are blind.  If you don’t look around you this morning and see a crowd of saints, it’s not because it isn’t true.  It’s because you’re trusting your own stinking eyes and not the Word of God.  It is God’s word which is true.  It is his word which is real.  

And so today, we honor the saints whom God has made this past year in baptism.  We honor the saints who have been affirmed in the faith just this past week.  And we honor the saints who have died.  They are all of them saints, along with us, for God has declared and made it so.  And thus it is so.  Thanks be to God alone.  Amen.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Confirmation Sunday - October 30, 2011

Tyler, Ellie, Andrew and Lane.  Today I want to talk to you about what Confirmation isn’t.  And then I’ll say just a bit about what it is.   

First, Confirmation isn’t something that is a good deed or something that makes you holy.  Being confirmed today does not mean that you have pleased God any more than you did yesterday or four years ago.  Getting confirmed isn’t going to change anything about you.  It isn’t making you into a better Christian.  It isn’t adding points to your score or any of that kind of business. 

Second, Confirmation isn’t the end of something.  For many, confirmation is understood as the finish line, as the goal.  After Confirmation, many think, “Now I can take some time off.  I’ve fulfilled my duty.  I’ve done what I had to do.”  Hogwash.  When you prepare the field in the spring, and plant the seed, and spray during the summer, and then when you harvest in October, is farming over?  Of course it isn’t.  You keep working.  And soon enough, there will be manure trucks on the road in the springtime and seeds will be going in again.  Farming does not end just because there comes a moment to reflect on the season just past.  Confirmation isn’t the end. 

On the other hand, Confirmation isn’t the beginning either.  Sometimes we can think of Confirmation as a rite of passage.  And all of a sudden, so the story goes, you are starting something new.  I’m afraid I don’t really agree with this.  Your life of faith isn’t beginning with confirmation.  Faith was given to you long before this day.  Later, I will pronounce a blessing over you, asking that the Holy Spirit be stirred up in you.  Is this a new gift?  No.  The Holy Spirit was given to you long before this day.  Confirmation isn’t the beginning of something new.

So what is it?  If it isn’t something that is changing you, if it isn’t a good deed, if it isn’t the end of something, nor the beginning either.......  What is Confirmation and what is happening today?

The three years of confirmation exist for this reason.  They are to teach you the basics of the faith.  Confirmation exists so that you will learn the nuts and bolts of the church teaching.  You were required to come on Wednesday night for three years to learn these things.  You were required to take sermon notes in order to learn these things. 

Now in the past months, I have often been talking about Law and Gospel, and how important it is to distinguish between the two.  And today is a good day to do it again.  Your three years of Confirmation have been about the Law.  You were required to do certain things.  You were fulfilling a duty.  You were doing the action.  And this is good and right.  God certainly calls on us to study his Word.  He definitely calls on us to come to church to hear his Word spoken.  Without question he calls on us to serve others in and outside of the church.  These are all examples of what the Law has required of you.

These are also examples of what the Law will continue to require of you.  The Law does not cease making demands of you because you are confirmed.  In fact, it demands all the more.  You have learned, but you have not learned enough.  You have served, but you have not served enough.  In a scripture lesson next month, we will hear God say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.  You have been faithful in little.  I will put you in charge of much.”  And so I tell you, you have been faithful in a little.  And so God will demand all the more from you.  This service will only end when you die.  It is the work of a lifetime,...... an entire lifetime. 

Now, I have been speaking of your duty and what is required of you.  I have said that Confirmation has been the Law makings demands of you.  This is true.  But it isn’t the whole story.  Aside from the Law, we must hear God’s gospel.  The gospel is different from the Law.  It doesn’t have anything to do with what you have done.  It has only to do with what God has done.  So let us hear the gospel. 

I said that Confirmation was not a beginning.  In fact, your beginning was your baptism.  For it was on that day that God gave you a promise.  These were the words that the Pastor spoke that day, “God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we give you thanks for freeing your sons and daughters from the power of sin and for raising them up to a new life through this holy sacrament.”  This is what we call the gospel, the forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life.  This is the good news that was delivered to you as you lay helpless in your mother’s and father’s arms.  It was on that day that you were changed.  It was on that day that God made you a new creation and gave you a new beginning.

So what is happening today?  Well, I suppose it’s a bit like harvest time.  You are taking a moment to look back on this season just past.  You are taking a moment to remember how God has blessed you so far.  And you are looking to the future, confident in his blessing and resolved to work hard through many seasons to come. “Yes,” you are saying, “I have heard the promises that God has declared to me.  I have heard that he has forgiven my sin.  I have heard that he has promised me eternal life.  Because he has done these things, therefore I renounce sin.  I renounce the devil.  I renounce all in the world that rebels against God.  He has chosen me and so I am his.”  This is what you are saying today.  Amen.  

Monday, October 24, 2011

19th Sunday after Pentecost - October 23, 2011

I saw something kind of funny on the computer recently.  It was a picture of an elderly woman with a caption above and below.  Above her head the caption read, “Let’s eat grandma.”  Not a very nice sentiment.  Underneath the picture, however, the words read, “Let’s eat, grandma.”  The same words meant something very, very different!  The only difference between the two sentences was a little old comma.  The whole picture carried the explanation, “Punctuation saves lives!”

When reading the Bible, similar things can happen to us if we aren’t careful.  That is why I have been teaching the idea of Law and Gospel.  Just to review: The Law is what we are supposed to do; the Law is accusation; the Law is perfect and unforgiving.  The Law is a good thing, but it isn’t a life-giving kind of thing.  The Gospel, on the other hand, is God’s word of promise to us.  The gospel is his choosing us.  It is his mercy towards us.  It does give us life.  Now, if we confuse the two, bad things can happen.  For example, we might embrace the Law as God’s promise to us and his mercy towards us.  That would be like hugging a cactus.  A cactus is a fine plant, very beautiful and all that, but it isn’t made for hugging.  The Law isn’t made to give us life.  That’s not it’s job.  So we need to recognize the difference between the two, then we can know how Bible passages apply to us. 

Today’s Old Testament lesson gives us a good opportunity to listen for these things.  I’m going to read it again, along with the verses that got cut out.  Listen hard for the Law.  And also listen for the gospel.

[read Leviticus 19:1-18]

It isn’t too hard to hear the Law in there, is it?  It starts right at the beginning and it goes the whole we through.  The whole passage is a list of commandments, rules.  When I listen to this passage I hear God telling his people what his expectations are.  “This is the way you are supposed to be!  “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”  “You shall revere your mother and father; you shall keep my Sabbaths; you shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not defraud; you shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge.”  The list goes on and on.  Rule after rule after rule.  Command after command. 

What is all of this?  This is the Law.  God has very high expectations of us.  Following all these commands, obeying all of these rules, they are what we must do.  These are the kinds of things that make us moral.  They are important.

Alright.  Now to switch gears.  I asked you to listen for the gospel too, for the promises of God, for his mercy.  Did you hear the gospel in what I read?  I think the gospel is harder for us to hear in this passage.  I think it is harder for us to hear in general.  Whether we are good at following them or not, rules make sense to us.  But God choosing us and making promises to us, that doesn’t make as much sense.

So here’s the promise.  “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”  Do you hear that?  “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” 

There are two promises there, actually.  The first one is this, “I am your Lord.  I am your God.”  In this day and age, in our society where there are so many different religious options: Catholic, Methodist, Bible Church, Islam, Buddhism, Atheism, etc......, in our day and age we can think that it is we who choose God.  “God, I have decided to follow you.”  But no, here God is saying something that is just the opposite.  He says, “I am the Lord your God. I choose you!”  This is certainly the gospel.

The second promise is this: “You shall be holy.”  What does holy mean?  To be holy means to be set apart.  To be holy means to not be common, but to be chosen for something special.  God is declaring something about you, promising something to you.  You are going to be holy.  What is he choosing you to do?  What is he setting you apart for?  He is setting you apart for two reasons. 

The first reason is to bring himself glory.  God sets you apart and works in you so that others can see what God can do.  It brings God pleasure to see his handiwork. 

The second reason God sets you apart is so that he can work in you for the sake of the world.  God chooses to help people through other people.  When we follow God’s commands with hearts full of faith, we serve our neighbors and help them.  God has chosen us to do that.  Jesus talks about us being salt for the earth.  That means God wants us to make life better tasting for other people.  And Jesus talks about us being light.  That means that God wants us to make life brighter for other people.  God has chosen us, set us apart, for this work.  So to be holy means God working in us to bring himself glory and it means helping our neighbor.

Now I do want to address a question, a question which relates to that picture of grandma that I talked about at the beginning of the sermon.  How do we know that we can say it like this [You shall be holy because I the Lord your God am holy] and not just like this [You shall be holy because I the Lord your God am holy]?  How do we know that this is actually a gospel promise and not just us changing the way we are saying the words?  We know this because God trains our ears to hear it.  This is exactly what we are promised over and over again in scripture!  I took a minute or two and looked for some examples of where God promises this.  Here are three examples.

This is what Peter says, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.”

This is what Paul says, “You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God......”

This is what Jesus says, “You will be my witnesses......”

Over and over again in scripture, God makes this promise to us; he promises that we are his chosen.  This is what the gospel is. 

But it can be strange to hear the gospel in the midst of all of those commandments.  And that is why we need to train our ears to hear the difference between the Law and the Gospel.  We need to hear the Law so that we will know what to do.  For we certainly must do what is right, what God teaches us to do.  But even more importantly, we must listen for those words of Gospel.  Perk up your ears to hear the promises of God which are for you.  “You shall be holy.  Because I the Lord your God am holy.” God chooses to make you holy, to set you apart, to be his people.  And that is good news.  Amen.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

18th Sunday after Pentecost - October 16, 2011

Many, many years ago, God’s people were second class citizens in a place called Babylon They had been brought there as slaves by evil King Nebuchadnezzar who had taken over their country, burned their homes, looted their temple and destroyed their way of life.  There was a time when God’s people lived in Babylon against their will and were desperately unhappy.  Psalm 137 describes it like this, "By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion."  God’s people wept because they did not know if they would ever return home.  They did not know if they would ever worship God again in his temple.  They did not know if they would ever again be free.  Surely they called out to God, praying for freedom, praying to have their own country and their own king, praying for a future.  But two generations passed and they were still far from home.  This dark time was known as the Babylonian Captivity. 

But there was a word.  There was a word from the prophet Isaiah.  It was a word addressed to a man named Cyrus.  Now you might ask, “who in the world is Cyrus?”  History tells us that Cyrus was the king of a people named the Persians who lived to the east of Babylon.  History tells us that the Persians came up against Babylon , took the city by force and destroyed the Babylonian Empire.  History tells us that for centuries the Persians were a very powerful empire. They are perhaps best known to us as the mighty army who attacked the Greece of Socrates, who battled the Spartans at Thermopylae and were defeated, in part thanks to the sacrifice of 300 foot soldiers, a story that is told in a film from a few years back called “300.”  What we know about these Persians from history would lead us to believe that they were bad news, bad news for God’s people.  History would seem to say that Cyrus was much like Nebuchadnezzar, just another brutal king of just another brutal empire. 

But let us return to the word from Isaiah, for in it, God says something unexpected, something contrary to all that we might expect.  God reveals that he has chosen Cyrus, anointed him and blessed him to do something special.  King Cyrus, it seems, is going to serve God's people by liberating them from their captivity.  In this word from Isaiah, God is revealing that the slavery imposed by evil King Nebuchadnezzar will be undone by King Cyrus.  It is actually for the sake of God's people, that God will bless Cyrus, open doors for him, make his path level.  It is for the sake of God’s people that Cyrus will be made mighty. 

Now for the people who were captive in Babylon, this wasn’t entirely good news.  Certainly it was great that they would soon be free to return home.  But it wasn’t exactly what they had been hoping for.  They had lost their freedom at the hands of a brutal foreign king.  And now they were to regain their freedom from the hands of a brutal foreign king.  Their weakness and inability to control their own world, these things weren’t changing.  Their dearest desire was to regain the days of their own powerful kingdom, when David and Solomon had been mighty kings, kings anointed by God.  But God was not giving them that.  God was not giving them what they wanted.  Instead, he was anointing a foreign king who would be strong and powerful, while they would remain weak and dependent. 

I guess you could say that God answered their prayers.  But God didn’t answer their prayers in quite the way that they had hoped.  And we might find that this touches a nerve in us.  God answered their prayers.  But God didn’t answer their prayers in quite the way that they had hoped.  Here is the basic fact of the matter, God does not always act like we would like him to act.  He does things differently than we would do them.  God is beyond our control.

And that is what this passage from Isaiah is really all about.  There is good news here.  God is answering their prayers.  God is appointing a king so that they might go home.  But God isn’t answering prayer on their terms.  God is just a little wild.  He has plans that they can’t quite understand.  God is unapologetically doing what he wants to do, and the result seems like it is good and bad at the same time.

God is saying words to Cyrus, but it seems like it is really his own people that he is addressing:  “I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god.  I arm you, though you do not know me, so that you may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the Lord and there is no other.  I form light and create darkness; I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things.”  “Look here,” God is saying, “You are going home soon.  I am responsible for this.  These things aren’t accidents or coincidences.” 

So what are they to make of this?  Their fate is beyond their control, but it isn’t random.  The events that swirl around them aren’t meaningless chaos.  It isn’t a matter of “Que sera, sera.  Whatever will be, will be.”  No, God is claiming responsibility for all of it.

These are God’s words to us too.  God is saying, “I make the good and I make the bad.”  God is claiming responsibility for all of it.  And that means that we don’t control our lives as much as we’d like to think.  We don’t control God.  Good and bad will arrive.  God will work in ways that confuse us and even hurt us.  And I don’t have to tell you that.  You know it perfectly well.  I was riding in the combine this week, talking with one of you, and what was the topic of conversation?  How little we can control.  The market goes up and it goes down.  The rain falls or it doesn’t.  The tornado rips up our field or it passes us by.  You all know this better than I do.  And God says, “I make weal and create woe.  I make the good and the bad.”  God is telling trying to tell us something here.  Life isn’t random; it has purpose.  We’re not the pawns of fate; we are in the hands of the living God.

Now this can make for an awfully uncomfortable life.  When we can’t control what happens, when we don’t know what is around the next corner, when we don’t know how God is going to work, that can be tough.  But as it has pointed out to me, it can also be very reassuring.  I don’t know exactly what is going to happen.  I can’t control it.  All I can do is trust.  All I can do is trust.

I want to make one more connection.  Those ancient Jews who were captives in Babylon, they wanted God to give them back their own king, their own anointed one.  But God anointed another, he anointed Cyrus.  He chose Cyrus to give them back their freedom.  But this was really only a temporary thing, a half-measure.  For God had decided to give them another anointed one altogether.  You see, “anointed one” means Messiah; it means Christ.  Those ancient Jews wanted a king.  Well, God gave them a king of sorts, a foreign king and he let them go back to their home.  But then God did something completely different.  He did something much different than we would have done, something that we couldn’t have seen coming.  He did something absolutely out of our control.  He sent his son to be our anointed one, our Messiah, our Christ.  We couldn’t control that.  It has just burst into our lives.  And all we can do is trust.  All we can do is trust.