Saturday, January 18, 2020

Year A, Epiphany 2, John 1.29-42, Behold the Lamb

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
“Behold the Lamb of God!”
Behold the Lamb.
If you were a Jew living in first century Palestine how would you hear those words?
You would think of Abraham, of Isaac:
1 After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." 2 He said, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you." 3 So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. 5 Then Abraham said to his young men, "Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you." 6 Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. 7 Isaac said to his father Abraham, "Father!" And he said, "Here I am, my son." He said, "The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?" 8 Abraham said, "God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son." So the two of them walked on together.
9 When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." 12 He said, "Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me." 13 And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place "The Lord will provide"; as it is said to this day, "On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided."
God had asked of Abraham the impossible, as a measure of his faith.  God asked that he sacrifice his son Isaac, the son who he loved and which had been the fulfillment of God’s promise to him and Sarah.
How could God demand such a sacrifice of Abraham?
"God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son."
In the end, it was God who provided the Son to sacrifice.  Jesus.
Behold the Lamb of God.
21 Then Moses called all the elders of Israel and said to them, "Go, select lambs for your families, and slaughter the passover lamb. 22 Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood in the basin. None of you shall go outside the door of your house until morning. 23 For the Lord will pass through to strike down the Egyptians; when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over that door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you down. 24 You shall observe this rite as a perpetual ordinance for you and your children. 25 When you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this observance. 26 And when your children ask you, 'What do you mean by this observance? ' 27 you shall say, 'It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses. '" And the people bowed down and worshiped.
It is notable in the Gospel of John that Jesus is introduced by John as the Lamb of God and then is crucified at the very hour that the Passover Lambs were being sacrificed in the temple.
The Passover Lamb whose blood saved the house of Israel from the angel of death that they might be free.
God comes to us as a Lamb, vulnerable and weak, that he might destroy the greatest power that holds us captive—death itself.

“Behold the Lamb of God!”
Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, "Woman, here is your son." 27 Then he said to the disciple, "Here is your mother." And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
28 After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), "I am thirsty." 29 A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. 30 When Jesus had received the wine, he said, "It is finished." Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
31 Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. 32 Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. 33 But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34 Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. 35 (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) 36 These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, "None of his bones shall be broken." 37 And again another passage of scripture says, "They will look on the one whom they have pierced."
“Behold the Lamb of God!”
And then finally, in Revelation, yet another vision of the Lamb.
9 Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, "Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb." 10 And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. 11 It has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal. 12 It has a great, high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites; 13 on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. 14 And the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
22 I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. 25 Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. 26 People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. 27 But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life.
“Behold the Lamb of God!”
From Abraham to the end of time the Lamb of God was central to God’s plan of salvation.
God provided the lamb for Abraham to sacrifice.
God destroyed Israel’s enemies and set free those who were marked with the blood of the Lamb.
On the cross, Jesus was the lamb whose blood both was the sacrifice for our sins and the means by which God saved us from our enemies.
And finally, the Lamb will be the light of all people.
God with us, in the form of a vulnerable Lamb.
Crucified and Risen.
People laugh at this message.  They scoff and ridicule it.
Just read the comments on Facebook.
Its part of the vulnerability of the Lamb that God would be laughed at.
Of this Paul writes:
18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
19 For it is written,
"I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart."
20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Year A, Baptism of Our Lord, Isaiah 42.1-9, Matthew 3.13-17

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
Who are we?
Who are we related to?
And what shall we do?

 ----Sexist stereo type alert----

One of my observations over the years is that if you ask a room full of women to tell you who they are, they will most likely begin by talking about the relationships in their life.
On the other hand if you ask the same question of a room full of men they will tell you what they do.
There is not a right or wrong here.
Be we men, or be we women, we are both related to many people in our lives and called to do many different things, and together, our relationships and our vocations define our lives.
But what is more important?  What comes first and lasts longest?
It is the relationships, the many different relationships, that are primary and which endure.
Our vocations will inevitably change over the course of our lives.
But our relationships have much more of an enduring character to them.
Your mom and dad, are forever, your mom and dad.
Your siblings remain your siblings.
When we enter into marriage it is with the intent that it be life long, and even if we fail at that, that relationship shapes who we are throughout our life.
Children are our children forever.
Even when death separates us, these relationships of our lives continue to define who we are and whose we are.
Our vocations are much more fleeting.
Our earliest vocation is to be a learner, a pupil of life.
And then as our life unfolds we are called to various vocations.
Some of our vocations are defined by our relationships:  for example, being a parent means that we do certain things.  A mother, a father, has to do the work of ‘mothering’ and ‘fathering’.
Likewise, husbands and wives are called to do the work of marriage.
Many of our vocations shape our relationships beyond our immediate family.
I am a pastor.
And a woodworker.
Early in my life, I had a wide variety of jobs that gave me the experience I would rely on throughout the remainder of my life.
I mowed lawns, delivered papers, worked in a grocery store and lumber yard.  I drove a truck.  I’ve been a custodian.  I’ve built a house. 
Even as a pastor I’ve been called to do a wide variety of things, from baptizing little children to being with the elderly as they died. 
Who am I?
Who am I related to?
And what shall I do?
These are the questions each of us answer in one way or another throughout our lives.
They are all interrelated.
You can’t answer one, without reflecting on the others.
From the perspective of faith, baptism answers all those questions.
“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
These words spoken at Jesus’ baptism shine light on all three of life’s questions.
Who is Jesus?  Who is he related to?  And what about his vocation?
Jesus:  A child of God, God’s own son.  Beloved of God, and called to be Savior of the world.  That is the meaning of his name:  He saves.
Isaiah speaks about the servant of God in today’s first reading:
1Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.
I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, 7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.
In thinking about Jesus, and this question of identity, this is the bottom line:
Jesus cannot be Jesus apart from his relationship to the Father and to us, or apart from his vocation to serve the Father and save us.
Jesus cannot be Jesus apart from his relationship to the Father and to us, or apart from his vocation to serve the Father and save us.
Jesus baptism speaks to his identity, his relationships, and his vocation. 
And likewise, when we are baptized it shapes our identity, our relationships, and our vocations.
The three are intimately intertwined. 
In Baptism we are identified as Children of God.
And we are brought into a relationship with God as our Father and our brothers and sisters throughout the world.
And finally we are called to be servants of God and each other.
This is expressed in our Affirmation of Baptism service:
You have made public profession of your faith. Do you intend to continue in the covenant God made with you in holy baptism:
to live among God’s faithful people,
to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper,
to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed,
to serve all people, following the example of Jesus,
and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth?

Who are we?
Each of us is a child of God, created in his image and called to be his own through our baptisms.
Who are we related to?
Here we have both an extended family and an immediate family.
In breadth, as creatures of God, we are one with all creation and all people.  Our relationship with the world in which we live and the people with whom we live is established in creation.
But also, as Christians we have a more immediate and intimate relationship with those brothers and sisters who share the same faith in God, and in Jesus Christ.
And what are we called to do?
What is our vocation?
It is to love God, and each other. 
We do that by continuing in the covenant God made with us in Holy Baptism.
Who are we?
Who are we related to?
And what shall we do?

These three questions and their answers are intimately intertwined. 
But inevitably we as humans have taken these intimately connected issues and made them into conditional laws.
If you don’t do the right things. . .
If you don’t hang out with the right people. . .
Then, you must not, cannot be a child of God.
When we do that we make everything into a status that is dependent on our efforts and not the Grace of God.
But our identity as Children of God and heirs of the promise is not the result of our actions, but rather God’s saving grace.
What Martin Luther talks about is that those other things, who we relate to and how we act flow from the first, our identity as children of God.
In the Augsburg Confession this is called the New Obedience of Faith. 
Put simply, the more that we live in the promise that we are loved by God, claimed as his children, and called according to his will—
Then we will naturally begin to love as we have been loved, care for our brothers and sisters, and act according to the will of God’s Spirit within us.
Well, what about when we fail?

Not everyone has faith in God.
Not everyone cares for their neighbor as a brother or sister.
Not everyone does the will of the Spirit.
In fact none of us does so to perfection.
We all fail.

And that, my brothers and sisters, is simply a sign that God is not done with us yet.  He’s still working on us.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Year A, Christmas 2, Ephesians 1:3-14, John 1:1-18, Children of God

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
I believe that there is an ongoing argument between God and the whole of humanity,
An argument that has continued since humanity first became conscious of God till the present day.
This argument has shaped the very scripture that we read and has formed our common faith, sometimes in good ways, often in bad ways.
At the core of the argument is a simple question:
                “Who are the children of God?”
Or to put the question in a different way:
                “When God sent Jesus into our world, when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, who did God intend on saving?”
From a theological perspective, it all comes down to the starting point.
Where do we begin when we answer that question about “Who are the children of God?”
                If we begin with Creation, we will come up with one answer.
                If we begin with Redemption, and our baptisms, we will come up with another answer.

Do we call God “Father” because he created us?
Or do we call God “Father” because we were adopted?  That is, out of all of humanity God chose a few to be adopted, and through our adoption as children of God we have been granted an inheritance in the Kingdom.
How inclusive is God’s love?
How exclusive is God’s grace?
This is not just a theoretical question.  I’ve had to preach at the funerals for a number of unbaptized infants – are they children of God, loved and redeemed by him – or not?  What do you say to their grieving parents?
One response to these questions is to rush to the statement “The Bible says” and then quote one verse or another.
To which I say, “Not so fast, the Bible is shaped by this question, and if we read the entirety of scripture it is clear that within the Bible, this question is consistently answered in a variety of ways.”
It’s not as clear as we would like it to be.
In the earliest scriptural passages, God was Israel’s God.
Israelites were the chosen people of God, and the rest of the world, the gentiles, were not.
God would fight on behalf of the Israel against all her enemies.
The Israelites alone, were the children of God.
It was their birthright.
So much so, that throughout the history of Israel, conversion was simply not part of the conversation.
You either were Gentiles – or Jews.
There was never any missionary movement within Judaism.  And to this day you will not see Jews going door to door in an attempt to convert the world to Judaism.  It just doesn’t happen.
One of the most interesting books of the Old Testament from this perspective is the book of Jonah.

When we think of the book of Jonah, we think of the large fish that swallowed Jonah, and often miss the whole point of that book.
The story begins with God calling Jonah to go and proclaim a message of warning to the city of Ninevah, Israel’s arch enemy.  Jonah refuses to prophesy to the Ninevites, and tries to flee from the presence of God, in Israel, heading in the opposite direction.  That’s when God steps in, brings on the storm, causes Jonah to be thrown overboard, recues him with the whale, and brings him back to Israel, where once again the call is issued for Jonah to go to Ninevah.
So Jonah goes.
When he gets there, his message is simple.
In forty days God is going to destroy you.
And then Jonah sits down to wait.  He wants only one thing, and that is to see the fire from heaven destroy his enemies, the Ninevites, one and all.
Only the Ninevites repent.
And God shows mercy.
And then Jonah is angry and wants to die.
Jonah says: “That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
God says:  “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?"
How inclusive is God’s love?
How exclusive is God’s grace?
Is God’s grace limited to the faithful few, the chosen ones?  That’s what Jonah wanted.
Or does God love all, even the Ninevites, Israel’s enemies, because they too are created by him and for him?
As Christians we too continue to struggle with this question.
One the one hand you have scriptural passages such as Matthew 22: 14 where it is written “many are called, but few are chosen.”
And then on the other hand you have passages such as Romans 3: 22-24 “For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,”
And the promise that is so near and dear to us from the end of chapter 8 that nothing in all of creation can separate us from the love of God.

John 3:16 sums up this question perfectly.
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
How inclusive is God’s love?
                “God loves the whole world.”
How exclusive is God’s grace?
                “Everyone who believes in him”
In today’s Gospel lesson this same tension is present between the inclusiveness of God’s love and the exclusiveness of God’s grace.
1:3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being

1:4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
And then again in 1:16 “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.
There is an incredible inclusiveness to that one little word “ALL”.
All things came into being through Christ.
We have ALL received, grace upon grace.
But then the exclusivity is there as well:
1:12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God,
I have wrestled with this question throughout my life.
On the one hand you have passages such as our reading from Ephesians where Paul writes: “ He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ.”
It’s hard not to hear in that the exclusive statement that “He destined US for adoption”, but not “THEM” whoever the “THEM” might be.
Often we cling to this exclusivity of God’s grace.
One of my parishioners once said “If God plans on saving everyone, what is the point of Christianity?”
But just when we get convinced that God’s love and grace are for the chosen few we hear the other side to the story,
“With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”

The longer I struggle with these questions the more I am convinced that the inclusivity of God’s love and the lavish generosity of God’s grace will win the day.
I wish I could tell you that there is one scripture passage that answers this question conclusively for all time, but I cannot.
What I do know is this:
As a human Father I have four children.  And there is no way that I could love one more than the other.  And never, never, would I choose to condemn one, while embracing the other.

We all understand that.
Love is like that.
Even in all of our human imperfection we know at the very depth of our being that a parent’s love for their children is absolute, and does not depend on a child’s behaving in a certain way. 
I believe that God’s love and grace will be even more inclusive than a parent’s love for their children.
I believe that we will be surprised at the depth of God’s love, and the breadth of his grace.
I have become convinced that the love of God, shown to us at Christmas, as the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, is in fact a love that embraces the whole world.
And I believe that it is God’s utmost desire to save and redeem the entirety of his creation.  Not just a part.

I think part of the reason I want to believe this is that if God only plans on redeeming a select few, I am tormented by the question if I am one of them.  Finally, the question gets very personal.
It’s not so much about whether God loves the world, or if God’s grace is sufficient to cover all –
                It’s about whether God loves me, and whether I can rest assured of his grace?
And the answer to that is “Yes”.  That is the bottom line.
Wondering if God loves the whole world is one thing.  But at the heart of the question is whether we can believe that God loves us.
And the answer to that question is simple.
It was for you, that God sent his Son,
It was for you that he was born,
It was for you that he died.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Year A, Christmas 1, Hebrews 2.10-18 Jesus

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
“So what you preach on today, Dad?  Jesus?”
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that from my kids on a Sunday afternoon.  It’s a safe bet.  Even when I don’t mention Jesus by name, to speak about God’s word is to speak about Jesus as the Word, and so he’s always the subject.
And if the sermon has anything to do with what God is doing, and I’d like to believe every sermon I preach does, it’s also then about what Jesus is doing, for he and the Father are one.
On Christmas Eve I explored Mary’s question, “How can this be?”, and shared that I believe the biggest miracle of all in the Christmas story is that through Jesus, that baby lying in a manger full of grace, God could bring salvation to all.  To all.  Not just to some, but to all.  A gift freely given.
If the question on Christmas was “How?” the question today, based on the Hebrews text, is “Why?”  “Why did he come? And What did he do?”
In answering the “Why?” and the “What?” of Jesus life the Church, the Bible, and Christian teaching has focused on three different  dimensions of Jesus’ life and work.
Each of these understandings is very different from the other, yet all of them speak to the truth of who Jesus is.  There’s not one right answer, but many right answers because each of them employs human analogies, none of which are sufficient to convey the mystery of God in Jesus.
And so, from three different directions, each image sheds light on Jesus, even if only partially.
They also work off each other as correctives.  By having three different understanding of the “Why?” and the “What?” of Jesus life it helps to prevent us from pushing any of these images too far. 
The three understands of Jesus are all present in the passage from Hebrews.  They are:
Jesus, our Brother.
Jesus, our Savior.
And finally, Jesus, Lamb of God.  That is, Jesus the sacrificial lamb that died to take away our sin.
Jesus, our Brother:
“10It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. 11For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, 12saying, “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.” 13And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Here am I and the children whom God has given me.” 14Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things,  .  .  .”
Jesus, our Savior:
“so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. 16For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham.”
And finally, Jesus the sacrificial lamb:
“Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. 18Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”
And of course we know that when we speak of Jesus making the sacrifice of atonement, he speaks of the sacrifice of his own life.

When we speak of Jesus as our brother, and God as our Father, we are in a relational model, a family model, and the end game is an intimate oneness between all of us.
The ‘evil’ in this relationship model is separation and estrangement from God as our Father, and Jesus our brother, and also all our other brothers and sisters.
When we speak of Jesus as our Savior, the evil of which we are concerned is an evil that is beyond ourself.  It is an enemy that threatens to undo us.  It is that evil power that must be defeated, whether we speak of it as the devil or death itself.  The end game here is that we are freed from our bondage and slavery to these evil powers.
And finally, when we speak about Jesus as the sacrificial lamb, we speak of evil as the sin within us that must be atoned for.  Our guilt and shame are the problem.  Jesus offers himself as a sacrifice to atone for our sins and achieve forgiveness for us.
Well, what is true?
The answer is that all of these understandings are true, even though quite different.
Well, what is most helpful?
That depends on your situation in life.
If you feel lonely and afraid, like an outsider, then Jesus as your brother who reconciles you to your Father in Heaven and your brothers and sisters on earth will ring especially true and helpful.
If you feel under attack from evil beyond yourselves, including every form of earthly evil including our own mortality and death, as well as evil powers and principalities, then Jesus as our Savior will bring great comfort to you.
And if you are overwhelmed with your own failures, the Jesus the atoning sacrifice for your sin will bring you peace of mind and wellness.

We see all of these situations in life expressed in the Gospel lesson for today that speaks about Mary and Joseph fleeing into Egypt following Jesus’ birth.
When they were refugees who sought asylum in Egypt they experienced isolation from their family as they waited for the time when they might return home, once again. 
Both they and the people of Bethlehem were victims of the oppressive and evil reign of Herod, who sought to kill Jesus and did murder all those children in Bethlehem.
And finally Herod was guilty of a great sin and needed forgiveness.

In speaking of these three dimensions of Christ’s work, it is important to remember that whether we speak of Christ as our brother, or savior, or as the One who died for us, we are speaking of what Jesus did, not us.
It’s all about Jesus.
We talk about the Law and the Gospel.
When we speak about the Law, it is always about what we do or fail to do, and the judgment that results.  And rather than being found righteous, we will always fall short.  We stand condemned in the face of the Law.
On the other hand, when we speak of the Gospel it is always about what Jesus has done and Jesus did not fail.  That’s what makes the Gospel good news.
And finally, because the Gospel is and always will be the work of Christ, not us, we do not get to judge.  Period.  It’s above our pay grade.
We don’t get to judge who Jesus reconciled to the Father.
We don’t get to judge who Jesus set free from the power of evil.
And we don’t get to judge to whom Jesus offered forgiveness.
You see, all these things are the work of Jesus; it’s why he came and what he did.  For us to judge one another is for us to judge Jesus himself.
Let’s just pause and let that sink in.
If I ever say that you, or anyone else including myself, are not saved, I am judging Jesus as a failure.
I am judging Jesus.
That’s not something I’m qualified to do.
What we are called to do is not judge Jesus, but to proclaim Jesus and the work that he does.
Jesus reconciles us with God and one another.
Jesus defeats evil.
Jesus atones for our sin.
In the end, any judgment belongs exclusively to Jesus, not us.  Exclusively.
And should we ever fear that judgment, we need only remember that the judge, Jesus, is also the one who came to save us.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

"All" Year A, Christmas Eve, Titus 2.11-14, Luke 2.1-14 [15-20]

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.  .  .
Dare we believe in a love so deep, so broad, so high?
A love so lavishly given that there is no one beyond its reach.
Dare we believe in a God who so loved the world that he would come to us, not in power and glory, but weak, vulnerable, and lying in a manger as a little baby?
Dare we believe in a God who would empty himself and become obedient even unto death on a Cross?
Dare we believe in God, at all?
And is that in which we DO believe, truly God?

There is something about the Christmas Story that we lose, after hearing it throughout our lives.
It is so familiar.  We take it for granted. 
And yet there is this question mark hanging over it, and that question, is the question of belief.
“How can this be?”
“Born of the Virgin Mary” our creeds declare.
Born of a Virgin, free from all sin, Child of God.
For many this is a stumbling block. 
And it certainly was for Mary as well.  “How can this be?”  She would ask.  “How can this be?”

That question, how can this be?, would not, will not, go away.
A census.  An unscheduled trip back home to Bethlehem.
And a make shift shelter among the animals in the stable.
The Word made flesh.
God incarnate.
And there was no room for him in the inn.  Just in a cattle stall.
How can this be?

Humble shepherds, asleep on a hill side.
Angelic messengers filling the night sky.
"Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"
I haven’t personally seen an angel.  There are people whom I have known who have been to me, angelic.   Their words were of God.  Their love touched me.
But to look up and see the sky full of the heavenly host, praising God and shouting out for joy. . .
Nope, haven’t witnessed that.
What a contrast.
Shepherds and Angels.
The one so common, so ordinary, so everyday.
The other so extraordinary.  So uncommon. So “I’ve never seen anything like it.” 
How can that be?
I don’t know what is more remarkable.
That angels were present at Jesus’ birth, or shepherds.
How can that be?

They saw a star in the East and journeyed from afar.
Wisemen.  Magi.  Perhaps astronomers.  Certainly foreigners.
They came bearing gifts fit for a king.
The star led them.  The star led them.
Lost in the wonder of such a night is this simple statement, “the star led them”.
How can that be?
Again, I don’t know what is more difficult to believe.
That three wise men from the east would come to greet Jesus at his birth?
Or that they would do so at the beaconing of a star.
And how can a star, a real star, lead them to a place, one house in Bethlehem?
How can this be?
But for all the questions we might come up with, for all the things that challenge our sense of how things should be, it’s that first question that reasonates with me.
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.  .  .
Dare we believe in a love so deep, so broad, so high?
“O love, how deep, how broad, how high!
How passing thought and fantasy,
that God, the Son of God, should take
our mortal form for mortals' sake!”
Gathered around the manger this evening is not only Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the wise men.
Singing God’s praises are not just the angels.
But every living thing as the whole creation shouts for joy.
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.  .  .
How can this be?
We struggle with this.
That God’s grace might cover all.

Our human nature demands that there must be winners and losers.  Some who will be saved and some who will not.  And that somehow, what we do, makes the difference.
But grace is of God, not of us.
Grace is about what God is doing in Christ Jesus, not about something we must do.
Anytime we talk about  what we must do to inherit eternal life we are no longer talking about the grace of God, and the salvation that God has created through Christ Jesus.
When we talk about what we must do, we are talking about the righteousness of the law, in which we, by our own actions become righteous.
But we cannot.
Paul writes in Romans:
"There is no one who is righteous, not even one;
there is no one who has understanding,
there is no one who seeks God.  (Romans 3:10-11)
No one can do this.
That’s what the Bible says.
No one.
Yet WE say that salvation belongs to those who seek God.
That salvation requires our correct understanding and belief.
And that only those who repent and live righteously can be saved.
But the Bible says that since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God;  they are now justified by his grace as a gift.  (Romans 3: 23)
“A gift.”
How can this be?
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.  .  .
That is the most unbelievable dimension of the Christmas story.
That God so loved the world that his grace would appear in the form of the baby lying in the manger, and that through that one, small, vulnerable child, all might be saved.
But we can’t handle it.
Every time the Bible says “all”, we want to say “some”.
There will be some reading this sermon online that will scream out at me for even suggesting that Christ brought “salvation to all”.
The thing though, is that’s what the Bible says. 
The Bible.  God’s word.  Not mine.
Could it be that God’s grace is deeper, broader, higher that we can ever imagine.
And would Jesus be any less God if he was able to accomplish what the Bible says he accomplished, namely bringing salvation to “all”?
How can this be?
The miracle of Christmas, and of Jesus, is grace.  And love.  And God’s gift.
The miracle of Christmas is not about virgin birth, or guiding stars, or angelic hosts.
The miracle of Christmas is about the salvation of our God.
Two words to meditate on this Christmas.
And “All.”
When we grasp those words, we will grasp the marvel of God’s grace and love and salvation.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Emmanuel, God with us. Year A, Advent 4, Isaiah 7.10-16, Matthew 1.18-25

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
First on the docket this morning is the boarded up window in my office.
On Friday morning, one of our neighbors experienced a psychotic episode, came here to the church, and proceeded to break the window of my office and then use the shards of glass in a suicide attempt.
His family and the police were able to intervene and he was taken to the hospital to receive medical attention and a psychiatric evaluation.
We pray that he will receive the help that he obviously needs and thank God that he was not successful in his attempt to end his life.
It raises a broader prayer concern at this time of year.
For the mentally ill the holiday season is too often a living hell through which they must negotiate, and many are not successful. 
We struggle as a nation to figure out how to most effectively care for the mentally ill.  There are no easy answers.  For many people the right medications can work wonders, but even that is hit and misses.  Further complicating the matter is the fact that many of the mentally ill struggle to maintain their prescribed treatment.  Sometimes they can’t afford the meds, at other times they fall prey to the belief that they don’t need them anymore. 
It’s difficult for their family members as well.
You’d like to help them.  But often we don’t know what to do, and even when we do, help is not always accepted.
Our Church helps.
Lutheran Services in America, an umbrella organization that works on behalf of both the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, is by far the largest charitable organization in the country.
LSA has a total annual revenue of 22.62 billion dollars.
That’s over twice as much as the Salvation Army, United Way Worldwide, and the American Red Cross combined.
On the streets, we are known as “Lutheran”.
I make a point of sharing this because so often when we think about our Church we get caught up in all the controversies and issues that can divide us in these difficult times.  And there is a sentiment against “organized religion”.
But the reason we are part of this Church is very simple.
Christians working together can make a profound difference in the world.
Lutheran Services in America is one such example.
I hope that the individual who injured himself here on Friday receives this kind of help.

Now on to Isaiah.
Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.
He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.”
These words from Isaiah were a promise and a sign that he gave to Ahaz, the King of Judah.
Ahaz was afraid, deeply concerned because King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah of the northern Kingdom of Israel had plotted an attack against the southern Kingdom, Judah, and its capital in Jerusalem.
Isaiah’s message to Ahaz was a simple one.
Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint.
He promised that in a short while, these two Kingdoms that threatened Jerusalem would be gone.
The sign that he gave Ahaz was this.
A young maiden would give birth to a child and name him Emmanuel, God with us.
And prior to that child reaching the age of accountability, knowing the difference between good and evil, which in Judaism was considered to be at the age of 12, these two Kings who threatened Ahaz would be no more.
As history played out, this is exactly what transpired, with Syria and the Northern Kingdom both being destroyed while Judah, the Southern Kingdom remained.

I decided while I was preparing my sermon this last week that this is a ‘new rule’, actually and ancient rule.
We might call it the Isaiah rule, or the Emmanuel rule.  Or perhaps even the Rule of 12.
The rule is:  “Don’t get your undies in a bundle over issues that will all be water under the bridge in twelve years.”
More succinctly “This too shall pass.”
Just as a point of reference, twelve years ago the first iPhone came out.
And it was almost twelve years ago that the housing market collapsed, sending the country into the great recession of 2008.
George Bush was still president.
We were still sending more and more troops to Iraq.
In 2009 the ELCA passed the resolution of human sexuality.
The Soviet Union Collapsed. . .
Actually, that wasn’t twelve years ago, that was a whopping 28 years ago, already, in 1991.  The first George Bush was president at the time. 
We could rattle off a long list of all the issues that dominated the news and our lives over the last 12 years.
Issues flared up.
They resolved themselves.
Bush the Second was president.  Then Obama.  Now Trump.
And in twelve years we will have had other presidents.  We will have faced other issues.
I humor myself with the thought that of all the events of the last twelve years, the introduction of the iPhone may have had the most lasting impact.
Isaiah’s word to Ahaz was simple.
God is with us.
All these issues that seem so overwhelming will pass, but God will remain steadfast and true.

This promise is picked up by Matthew regarding the birth of Jesus.
Jesus was born during tumultuous times when the Roman Empire ruled Israel.
The message of Emmanuel was the same as in Isaiah’s day.
All of the issues that threaten you will pass, but God will remain with you.
It’s an invitation to faith.
I remember a person saying once that before we get too upset about all the events of our day, just think about how many paragraphs that event will be given when the history of Western Civilization is written in five hundred years.
What remains constant is that God is with us.

This last week the House voted to impeach President Trump.
In all likelihood, the Senate, controlled by the Republicans will acquit the President, and like Bill Clinton before him, he will finish his term.  Possibly even get reelected, though the jury is out on that.
But in twelve years, all this political jostling will have worked itself out, our nation will still be here, and we will be on to the next, or even the next after that, President.
The issues that dominate FOX News, or CNN, will be forgotten in large measure.
The world will not have come to an end.
Life will go on.
Change will happen.
There will be surprises.
For example, who would have guessed twelve years ago that today you would be able to get it a car and let it drive itself down the road???  Tesla cars can do that.
When we look forward to the future there are many things we simply don’t know.  Actually, we know very little.
We don’t know how long we will live.
Or what triumphs and tragedies we will face.
We don’t know whether our country will continue to drift away from the Church, or if there will be a reawakening to matters of faith.
Will Peace Lutheran be here in 12 years?
Perhaps not.  But perhaps it may have grown beyond recognition. 
Will Otis Orchards still be a sleepy semi-rural community or will the housing development finally transform it into something quite unrecognizable?
Some of us will have died by then.  Some not.
Change happens.
But what does not change is the love of God for his people and the promise that he will be with us always even to the end of the age.
May this peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Year A, Advent 3, Isaiah 35.1-10, Matthew 11:2-11 Rejoice

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen

How can we sing the Lord’s song, while we are captive in a foreign land?
How can we leap for joy, while our legs are still in shackles?
And what good news is there that could lighten the load of our suffering and oppression.
Two weeks ago Isaiah sang a song of peace.
Last week it was of righteousness that Isaiah wrote, of reconciling all creation.
And today Isaiah’s vision is of rejoicing and healing.
Isaiah goes back and forth.
Much of his message is one of judgment and stern warning about the disaster that was looming on the horizon.
The earliest writings of Isaiah come from about the year 600 BC, just prior to the destruction of the Kingdom of Judah and the deportation of the people into exile in Babylon.
But remarkably, even while the impending disaster is still on the horizon, he sings these songs of hope and rejoicing.
5Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.  .   .
10And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
It’s a mixed message that Isaiah brings.
Imagine, for example, that Isaiah is speaking to a group of young recruits prior to being sent off to war.
As these soldiers hear the words, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy” there are two messages:
1.       They will be blinded, lose their hearing, be wounded and lame, and be left speechless for the ordeal; and
2.       There will be an end to their suffering, and at that time, in spite of being blind, deaf, lame, and speechless they shall rejoice.
Or to put it differently, it’s like promising a young soldier heading off to Iraq or Afghanistan that they need not worry because the Veteran’s Administration runs hospitals all across the country they can be fitted with prosthesis when they get home.
In the years that followed, Judah was conquered and its people taken into captivity in Babylon for a generation.
Then Persia conquered Babylon, and allowed the people to return to Israel to rebuild the nation.
In Ezra we hear the story of the return from Exile and the mixed emotions surrounding that:
And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. 12 But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, 13 so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people's weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.
Ezra 3:11b-13
They could not distinguish between the laughter and the weeping.
Again, it’s this mixed message that runs throughout Isaiah.
It’s like hearing that we will be healed, prior to knowing that we were even sick.
Our response is “Wait, what?”

To celebrate the coming of a Savior, is also to admit the reality that we need saving.
We live in interesting, troubling times.  Much like Judah during the time of Isaiah.  Or at least it seems like it.
On the one hand, we are enjoying a long period of economic growth and prosperity.  This began following the “Great Recession” of 2008 and continues to this day.
And yet even in the midst of our prosperity there are those who are sounding warnings, who speak like Amos did when he said “Alas, for those who are at ease in Zion. . .”
Some of those warnings come regarding the environment.
Greta Thunberg, the sixteen year old environmentalist activist, was named Time Magazine’s “person of the year”. 
The message that we hear from climatologists around the globe is that if we don’t act now, and decisively, there will be hell to pay in the future.
In the political arena, we hear voices of warning coming from all sides.
Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” resonated with those people who were deeply concerned that our country had gone astray and was not so great anymore.
On the other side of the aisle, the Democratic candidates are working diligently at casting a vision for our country, their own version of what it would be to “make America greater than it’s ever been.”
The common thread weaved through the messages of both the right and the left, is that “all is not well”.  That in spite of the prosperity, all is not well.
Economically there is a disconnect.  On the one hand, the stock market is at an all time high.  On the other hand, wages of many Americans, especially in the lower economic brackets, are stagnant or even declining. 
Others would warn us about the sustainability of our healthcare system.  We have an incredible health care system, but the cost is an ever increasing issue.
Others would warn us about the overreach of government into our lives.
Still others would warn us about our country losing its status as the leader of the free world.
And all these warnings, warnings from every end of the social/political spectrum, come at a time of prosperity.
For all the warnings, life is good.  Or to put it in a Norwegian sort of way, it could be a whole lot worse.
But going back to the promises of Isaiah, that eventually there will be a time of great rejoicing, and the words of Jesus answering John the Baptist’s question, there is reason to hope and rejoice, but that will come to us after a period of great suffering.
During Advent, the whole point is that we look forward in anticipation of the birth of our Savior, and his coming again – but it is always with an acknowledgment that we NEED a savior.
On a personal level, we believe that the Savior has come and is coming to forgive our sins.
Good news.  Our sins are forgiven.  Rejoice.  Dance. Leap for joy.
But to get to that point of rejoicing, we must first deal with the reality of our sin and repent.
There is no point in celebrating the birth of a savior if we do not acknowledge our need of a savior.
That’s the two edge sword of the Gospel.

Likewise, when Jesus comes to us proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is at hand, we rejoice, but, only in as much as we also confess that the Kingdom in which we live is NOT the Kingdom of God.
In the Lord’s prayer we pray:  “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Every time we pray that prayer we implicitly admit, confess, that the Kingdom has not yet come and God’s will is not being done.
And so we wait for a savior.
We long for Jesus.
And we wonder when, and how this world will be redeemed as has been promised.
The message of the Gospel is that it will be redeemed, and it will get better, much better, but that there will be times of suffering and great ordeals before that happens.
What we hope for is that we will be sustained by the love of God through those difficult times and be able to wake one day to the redemption that is coming.
And so we light the candle of hope.
And we look forward to the day of rejoicing.
And we trust Jesus.