Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Funeral of Esther von Hagel

We gather together today to mourn the loss of Esther von Hagel and to hear the good news of Jesus Christ for all who are called according to his promises and believe in his name.

I know that today is a day of sorrow, a day for saying goodbye to one who is dearly loved.  To read a psalm like Psalm 100 might seem out of place with its call to sing joyfully.  How can we joyfully sing on a day such as today when death has done its terrible work and one whom we love can no longer be with us?  Surely it is not easy for us.  But I chose this scripture with Esther in mind, with her being in particular being the one to sing.  

During our visits together at Brentwood, Esther and I would often sings hymns.  Or rather, I would sing and she would join in by appreciating the words and remembering the melodies.  She would always hasten to explain to me, “I would so dearly love to sing.  I would love to sing.  But I just don’t have the breath.  I just don’t have the breath, pastor.” 

“Esther,” I would say, “I’ll do the singing for today, but don't you worry.  You will have plenty of breath.  When you die and are raised again with a new and perfect body, you will have your voice again.  For you to not sing is only for a short time.  But the time will come when you will sing, and it will be sweet music indeed, because you will be singing your savior’s praise in his very presence, face to face."  

Esther liked to be reminded of this.  She liked to be reminded of the promises that God had given to her.  Esther liked to be reminded that God had chosen her.  She liked to hear the promise of Communion that Jesus Christ had died for her sins.  The Bible says that faith comes by hearing, and Esther loved to hear all of these things because they strengthened the faith that she had been given.  

Now one might ask on what basis I was so willing to repeat these promises to her so extravagantly.  Was is because of her exemplary qualities or her great goodness of life?  No.  “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  Was it because of particular actions that she had taken?  No, for it is written, “by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not the result of works.”  Was it because of her intellectual assent to a list of things that must be believed?  No, the thoughts of God are far too much for us to understand; who can count the sum of them?  Nor was it that she had undergone some spiritual experience.

Faith is none of those things.  Faith is hearing the promise of God over and over again and being grasped by it.  Esther first heard that promise in baptism.  And we have heard that promise this morning.  The Apostle Paul writes that in baptism we are joined to Christ's death so that we might also be joined to his life.  That is a promise that depends not on us, but on God himself.  That is the point of a promise.  It depends not on us, but on the one who gives the promise.  I was pleased to deliver these promises to Esther over and over again because they did not depend on her at all, nor did they depend on me.  They depended only on the one who had given them, God himself.

And those who hear these promises are enabled to confess the words of Psalm 100: "Know that the Lord, he is God!  It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture."  It is by hearing what God has to say to us, over and over again, that we are able to make a joyful noise in his presence, that we are enabled to come into his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise.  It is because we have heard that we are able to say, "For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever."  And so by hearing, Esther looked forward to the day when she would have all the breath she needed to proclaim the praises of her Lord Jesus Christ, who died and was raised so that she might have life, so that she might be able to sing again.  Amen.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Baptism of Our Lord - January 8, 2012

There is a question that I had earlier this week about the gospel lesson.  Why is Jesus getting baptized?  It is a topic about which we could talk for a good long while.  As I did some reading on the matter, I ran across this quote, “The Baptism of Jesus Christ is one of the most carefully examined and extensively interpreted events in the New Testament.” 

Yes, we could talk about it for a long while.  But that isn’t what I want to do.  I’m just curious about this one thing: How is the baptism of Jesus like our baptism?

This is what the catechism says about baptism, “In Baptism God forgives sin, delivers from death and the devil, and gives everlasting salvation to all who believe what he has promised.”  So according to the teaching of the church baptism is about delivering us from three things: sin, death and the devil.

Now that makes perfect sense for us.  We sin, we are going to die, the Devil plagues this world with his wickedness and can make our lives very difficult.  It makes sense for us to get baptized because we need it so badly.  But Jesus was without sin.  Why does he need it? 

Maybe Jesus is just doing it because it is something that he knew that all of us would have done to us and it’s a way of relating to us, of being like us.  I suppose this is possible.  But it doesn’t sound like a great explanation to me. 

Another thought which occurred to me is has to do with what the Gospel of Matthew says about the baptism.  John the Baptist basically notices what we are noticing this morning, that it doesn’t seem to make much sense to baptize Jesus.  And then Jesus says to do it anyway “to fulfill all righteousness.”  When I hear that, it makes it sound like baptism is some kind of rule that you have to follow.  And even Jesus had to follow it.  But that just can’t be right, because baptism is about good news, about God giving something to us, not about us following some kind of law.  So if that’s why Jesus got baptized, that’s not anything like our baptisms.

The second lesson points out that maybe it’s a different kind of baptism altogether.  Jesus is being baptized with the baptism of John, and we are baptized with the baptism of Jesus.  That’s fine, but it doesn’t tell us what is similar between ours and his.

And then it came to me.  There is a way that the baptism of Jesus and our baptisms are exactly the same; and it comes right at the end.  Listen to what God says to Jesus as he comes up out of the water, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  This is exactly what happened to us in our baptisms.  I won’t ask you to remember your baptism, since most of us can’t.  Instead, I am going to tell you again what God told Jesus and what God told you that day, “You are my beloved child; I am pleased with you.”

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

1st Sunday after Christmas - January 1, 2012

The Christmas story is so wonderfully familiar to us.  Every year we hear the story of the humble Christ Child being born in the stable.  Every year we hear of the shepherds in the fields with their animals.  Every year we hear of the angels filling the sky with their glory.  We hear these things in the scriptures that are read to us.  We hear them in the children’s program on Christmas Eve.  We hear them in the hymns that we sing.  The Christmas story is so wonderfully familiar to us.

So familiar, in fact, that it might be easy to miss something strange, something just a bit...... peculiar.  Side by side, at the birth of Jesus, are two things that just don’t make any sense together: Jesus as glorious king who is destined to be a man of power, and Jesus as lowly peasant.  This just isn’t normal.  How can he be both?

First, let us look at the signs that point to the two different descriptions of Jesus.  The angels, the messengers of God, deliver to the shepherds what they call “good news.”  “Good News” in the Old Testament had a particular kind of meaning.  Messengers would run from the field of battle to report “good news” to the king, news of victory.  Or, alternatively, messengers could be sent throughout the land, telling everyone of a great victory.  A couple of examples: When old King Saul was killed in battle, messengers came to David preaching the ‘good news’ that the man who was trying to kill him was dead and that the throne was empty for him to take.  Later on, when there was a rebellion in the kingdom, messengers came to David preaching the ‘good news’ that the rebel leader was dead.  Good news meant victory.  Good news had everything to do with power. 

When we hear the angels tell the shepherds about “good news” this is where our minds should go.  Good news means that there has been some great victory. This assumption is emphasized by the messengers themselves.  Aside from God himself, what messenger could be more glorious than a crowd of angels?  So Jesus being announced by angels certainly speaks to his power and glory. 

Now, in the normal run of things, babies being born would not be the subject of this kind of attention.  The birth of babies was wonderful, of course, a matter for a family’s personal joy, but it had nothing to do with power and victory.  So while a birth would be a great thing, it wouldn’t be “good news” in the way the term was understood at the time.

Unless, the baby was a royal baby.  The baby of a king, particularly the first born son who would himself become king, this baby would merit messengers proclaiming good news.  And so it is in this context that we must understand the circumstances of Jesus’ birth.  The angels are proclaiming “good news” because a royal baby has been born. 

Upon hearing this good news from the angels, the shepherds would no doubt have understood the royal nature of the child as the matter of primary importance.  For surely, if the baby is the messiah as the angels declared, that means that he is a descendant of David, for everyone knew that the messiah would be a descendant of David.  The baby being born in Bethlehem, the city of David, would have made all the sense in the world.  So everything fits together.  This baby Jesus is a descendant of David; he is a royal baby; he will become king.  This makes sense.  This is “good news.”

This leads us to the other side of things.  Lowly, peasant shepherds are given this news.  These are people whose closest relationships are with sheep.  They are told that they will find a baby in a feeding trough.  No doubt there will be some animals around with their saliva and their smell.  He’ll be wrapped in some spare bits of cloth.  This isn’t the romantic scene that we imagine.  Instead it points to poverty and want and squalor.

That is the strangeness of this story.  Side by side God places two things that don’t fit together.  We can imagine the royal baby; Jesus is King!  We can imagine the peasant baby; God came for the least and the lowliest!  But it just doesn’t make much sense that he is both at the same time.  We’ve gotten used to the two things being together, but we shouldn’t lose track of the fact that it doesn’t make any sense according to reason.

And yet that is what God does.  God works in ways that defy our expectations.  He is not subject to our reason or logic.

Is Jesus royalty or is he the lowest of the low?  He is both.
Is Jesus a man or is he God?  He is both.
Is Jesus an historical figure who won our salvation on the cross or is he the one who is actively giving us life today today?  He is both.
Jesus defies classification.  He will not be pigeonholed. 

Likewise, he gives to us this same nature when we are baptized in his name. 
In this baptism, are we killed or are we raised to new life?  Both.
Are we sinful ne’er do wells who can’t do anything right?  Or are we beloved saints who can’t do anything wrong?  We are both.
Are we absolutely free or are we servants who do good works in his name?  Both.
Are we to be peacemakers or are we to stand up zealously for the truth?  Both.
Can you be suffering from disease or sickness and at the same time be the subject of God's perfect favor?  Yes
Can there be brokenness in your family and  at the same time the beautiful blessings of God?  Yes

The life of a Christian is very much like the person of Christ.  God combines things that simply cannot exist together by logic or reason.  This can make us very uncomfortable as we struggle to make sense of it.  But making sense of it is never the point.  On that Christmas night, the shepherds were right in the middle of something that didn’t make sense.  And yet they heard the words of the angel, “I am bringing you good news of great joy.  To you is born this day a savior.”  Salvation comes to us and it is useless to try to pin it down or figure it out.  You have been saved by Jesus, this baby peasant king.  Against all logic and reason, you have been saved.  Alleluia.  Amen.