Saturday, December 29, 2018

Becoming Obedient, Year C, Christmas 1, Luke 2.41-52, Colossians 3.12-17

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
 Christ was born in Bethlehem.
Now, he had to grow up.
We know little of his childhood, though stories abound.  One of the sources of some incredible, meaning, unbelievable stories about Jesus the child, come from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.
The first example:
  1 1 When the boy Jesus was five years old, he was playing at the ford of a rushing stream. And he gathered the disturbed water into pools and made them pure and excellent, commanding them by the character of his word alone and not by means of a deed.
  2 Then, taking soft clay from the mud, he formed twelve sparrows. It was the Sabbath when he did these things, and many children were with him.
  3 And a certain Jew, seeing the boy Jesus with the other children doing these things, went to his father Joseph and falsely accused the boy Jesus, saying that, on the Sabbath he made clay, which is not lawful, and fashioned twelve sparrows.
  And Joseph came and rebuked him, saying, “Why are you doing these things on the Sabbath?” But Jesus, clapping his hands, commanded the birds with a shout in front of everyone and said, “Go, take flight, and remember me, living ones.” And the sparrows, taking flight, went away squawking.
  When the Pharisee saw this he was amazed and reported it to all his friends.
Some of the stories are horrible, suggesting that the young boy Jesus would curse people and they would die.
But then others present a more pleasing side to Jesus:
8 1 And again, after many days, Jesus was playing with other children on a certain roof of an upstairs room. And one of the children fell and died. The other children, seeing this, went to their homes. And they left Jesus alone.
  2 The parents of the dead child came and accused Jesus saying, “You knocked down our child.” But Jesus said, “I did not knock him down.”
  And while they were raging and shouting, Jesus came down from the roof and stood beside the body and cried out in a loud voice saying, “Zeno, Zeno—for this was his name—rise and say if I knocked you down.” And he rose and said, “No, Lord.” When they saw, they were amazed and the parents of the child praised God for these wonders.
Another story is one of my favorites:
 11 1 And he was about eight years old. And when his father, a carpenter, was making ploughs and yokes, he received a bed from a certain rich man so that he might make it exceedingly great and suitable. And since one of the required pieces was shorter and he did not have a measure, Joseph was distressed, not knowing what to do. The boy came to his father and said, “Put down the two pieces of wood and align them from your end.”
  Joseph did just as Jesus said to him. And the boy stood at the other end and took hold of the short piece of wood and stretched it. And he made it equal to the other piece of wood. And he said to his father, “Do not be distressed but do what you wish.” And Joseph embraced and kissed him saying, “Blessed am I for God gave me this boy.”
(Quotations are from The Childhood of the Saviour (Infancy Gospel of Thomas): A New Translation, Translation copyright 2009 Tony Burke. All rights reserved.)
The last story in the collection, is the story of Jesus staying behind in Jerusalem which we read in today’s Gospel.
It’s actually the only Biblical account of Jesus’ life from his birth until he began his ministry many years later.
There are other stories.  For example the Koran, the Holy Book of Islam has its own account of Jesus’ birth:
The Birth of Jesus
“So she conceived him, and she withdrew with him to a remote place.  And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm tree.  She said, ‘I wish I had died before this, and had been long forgotten.  [Mary was worried that people would think badly of her as she was not married.]  Then (baby Jesus) called her from below her, saying, ‘Don’t be sad.  Your Lord has provided a stream under you.’  Shake the trunk of the palm tree towards you, and it will drop on you fresh ripe dates.  So eat and drink and be happy.  And if you see any human, then say, ‘Indeed I have vowed a fast to the Most Merciful so I will not speak to any human today.’  Then she carried him and brought him to her people.  They said, ‘O Mary, indeed you have done a great evil.’  ‘O sister of Aaron, your father was not an evil man, and your mother was not a fornicator.’  So she pointed to him.  They said, ‘How can we speak to a child in the cradle?’  (Jesus) said, ‘Indeed, I am a slave of God.  He has given me the Scripture and made me a prophet.[4]  And He has made me blessed wherever I may be, and He has enjoined on me prayer and charity as long as I remain alive.  And (has made) me kind to my mother, and did not make me arrogant or miserable.  And peace be upon me the day I was born, and the day I will die, and the day I will be raised alive.’” (Quran 19:22-33)  (
Just to note, Muslims believe Jesus was a great prophet, and they ascribe to him a miraculous birth, with him being able to speak from the first day, but they absolutely do not believe that his virgin birth or special powers made him God.
It’s no wonder that some early authors sought to fill in the void with stories about his childhood.  Yet most of them appear fanciful, and in fact, are preoccupied with Jesus’ divinity.
You see, it all boils down to this:
The single greatest offense of the Christian faith, the one that separates us from all other faiths, and the offense that stands counter to ALL reason, is that God could humble himself and become fully human, subject even unto death.
The second offense is related to that, and that is that God would do this in order to reach out to us in love.
Fully human.
Mary, not the angels, had to change his diapers.
She nursed him at her breast.
Joseph and Mary rejoiced when he learned to walk.
He would have to learn to speak.
Undoubtedly, he got colds and other childhood illnesses.
He studied.
He learned.
Probably he learned his father’s trade, and was skilled as a carpenter, though nothing is said about that.
He might also have misbehaved.
Which brings us back to Jerusalem, and Mary and Joseph’s worst nighmare.  Losing Jesus.
First of all, in Mary and Joseph’s defense, “it takes a village to raise a child.”  What I mean by that is that often, in communities such as theirs, children moved in and about the community and were with their neighbors and relatives as much as their parents.
I had the opportunity to grow up in one such town.  I asked my parents if I go could home to the farm of one of my friends after church.  I went.  I stayed because I was having so much fun.  Finally, on the next Saturday, my father came out to the farm and got me.  “Why didn’t you come home?”  “I was having fun.”
So, anyway, for Mary and Joseph to assume Jesus was somewhere with their friends and relatives would have been common.
Instead Jesus was present in the temple, talking with the teachers. 
Some of the apocryphal stories of Jesus childhood suggest that he always turned the tables and taught his teachers. 
But I’d suggest that instead of something miraculous occurring this is just an example of Jesus’ hungering for knowledge and wisdom.
At any rate, Jesus’ behavior concerned his parents.  They were alarmed, afraid of what might have happened to him, and perhaps even angry with him once they found him.
Jesus then, returned to Nazareth with them and obeyed them.
Obedience is one of the things we learn as we grow.
This is the one story about Jesus’s boyhood that is included in the bible, and it is a story about learning to obey.
On Christmas Eve, I shared the passage from Philippians 2:
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Jesus, God incarnate, becoming obedient.
Obedience is not the first word most of us would use to describe Jesus.
Yet it was Jesus willingness to submit to the Father’s will that allowed him to become our Savior.
In our lesson today, Paul writes:
12As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.
Bear with one another.
Forgive one another.
Love one another.
Be at peace.
This is the Way of Jesus.
And to walk with Jesus is to be obedient as Jesus was.
I’m suggesting to you, that just as the boy Jesus had to learn obedience, so also, our growth in faith is about learning to obey.
But this obedience is not one offered out of fear of punishment, but rather out of love.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Year C, Christmas Eve, Luke 2.1-20 Behold the Face of God

"Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
God had walked with Adam.  Walked in the Garden.  Together they had named every living thing.
God saw that it was not good for the man to be alone, and so caused a deep sleep to fall upon him, and then from his side he created a woman.
God taught them how to live.  What they could eat.  How they should act.
Yet though Adam and Eve walked and talked with God in the Garden, the one thing they couldn’t do is simply obey.  They ate of the forbidden fruit, seeking to be wise.
And instead they became afraid.  Afraid to stand before God.  Afraid to walk with him.  Afraid to see his face once again. 
And so they hid themselves from the God who had created them, and who loved them. 
They had wanted to be like God, knowing the difference between good and evil, and what they discovered was fear. 
That God, long since hidden from human eyes, appeared again to Abraham.  Three strangers with a message.
"I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son." And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, "After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?" 13 The Lord said to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh, and say, 'Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old? ' 14 Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son." 15 But Sarah denied, saying, "I did not laugh"; for she was afraid. He said, "Oh yes, you did laugh."
God came to Abraham and Sarah with a promise, and they laughed.
And then they were afraid, and denied the laughter.
Abraham would argue with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, and what would happen to Lot.
Lot was saved, but the cities were not.
And Abraham saw the destruction that the Lord had brought, and he was afraid.
In the wilderness Moses saw a bush, engulfed in flames, yet not consumed.  He turned aside to look at this great sight, and when he approached God spoke to him.
"Moses, Moses!" And he said, "Here I am." 5 Then he said, "Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground." 6 He said further, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
God would lead the people out of slavery into Egypt, through the Red Sea, a pillar of cloud by day, and fire by night.
In the wilderness, God came down to the mountain.
When Moses had told the words of the people to the Lord, 10 the Lord said to Moses:"Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes 11 and prepare for the third day, because on the third day the Lord will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. 12 You shall set limits for the people all around, saying, 'Be careful not to go up the mountain or to touch the edge of it. Any who touch the mountain shall be put to death. 13 No hand shall touch them, but they shall be stoned or shot with arrows; whether animal or human being, they shall not live. .  .
Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. 16 The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. 17 Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. 18 Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights. .  .
Later Moses would beg the Lord, "Show me your glory, I pray." 19 And he said, "I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, 'The Lord '; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20 But," he said, "you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live." 21 And the Lord continued, "See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; 22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; 23 then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen."
So it was with God and the Israelites.
He came to them, he led them, he gave them the Law, and the Land.
He was present with them in the pillar of smoke and fire.
In the Holy of Holies in the Temple, God was there.
There in the Temple many years later, Isaiah would see the Lord, and exclaim:
 "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!"
From the Garden, to the Temple in Jerusalem, God was with his people, yet they were afraid.
Yet though the presence of the Lord brought great fear into their hearts, and they could not bear to look upon the face of God, there was one thing that remained beyond them.
No matter how great and awesome and powerful the presence of God was, the people could not remain faithful.
They feared God, yet could not obey him.
And so God, in his great goodness and mercy, decided to come to them once again.  Not in glory and might, but in weakness.
In Philippians Paul writes:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Within Mary’s womb, the Lord God who had created the universe became a single cell, and there grew into human likeness.
The Lord God, who had been all powerful, emptied himself of all that power.
The Lord God, who had led the people out of slavery, became himself, a slave.
The Lord God, who had demanded from the mountain that the people obey, became himself obedient even unto death, even death on a cross.
The Lord God, who had parted the Red Sea, was now carried in the womb to Bethlehem, and a stable.
“While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
It was there, in Bethlehem, as she nursed the baby at her breast, that in the faint light of a star lit night, Mary looked down and beheld the face of God.
God came to us, in Bethlehem, a babe.
Shepherds were watching their flocks that night.
 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
Just a baby.
Yet the glory of God, shining brightly in the night, and they were terrified.
Once again.  Fear.
That wasn’t God’s intent.
As he laid there, a baby in Mary’s arms, fear was not his desire.
And so this time, God would himself hide, not his face, but his glory.
Jesus would grow into a young lad.
He would run and play and laugh.
Though he had created the universe, at Joseph’s side he would learn to create again, learning the carpenter’s trade.
When the time came, Jesus would speak, not from a smoking mountain with thunder and lightning, but gently and lovingly.
"Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
"Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
"Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
In the moonlit night of Bethlehem, Mary looked down and saw the face of God.
And then, three decades later, she would look up and see that face again, this time crowned with thorns and hanging from a cross.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Behold the face of God and hear the angels sing:
"Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Year C, Advent 4, Luke 1.39-55, Blessed are you among women. . .

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Hail Mary full of Grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed are thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus.
Holy Mary Mother of God,
pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
There are many differences between Lutheranism and Catholicism, as well as many common elements of our faith.  One of the differences that has emerged over the years is with respect to the Virgin Mary.
This prayer, the Ave Maria, epitomizes that difference.
For a devout Roman Catholic this prayer is second only to the Lord’s Prayer in common piety.
And for many Lutherans, praying to the Virgin Mary as opposed to praying to Jesus, is something we just haven’t done.
Let me share with you some statements on the Virgin Mary from a devout Roman Catholic:
1. ". . . she is full of grace,
proclaimed to be entirely without sin. . . . God's grace fills her with
everything good and makes her devoid of all evil. . . . God is with her,
meaning that all she did or left undone is divine and the action of God in
her. Moreover, God guarded and protected her from all that might be hurtful to her."
(Commentary on the Hail Mary (Luther's Works, American edition, vol. 43, p. 40 , ed. H. Lehmann, Fortress, 1968)

 2. ". . . she is rightly called not only
the mother of the man, but also the Mother of God. . . . it is certain that
Mary is the Mother of the real and true God."
(Sermon on John 14. 16: Luther's Works ( (St. Louis, ed. Jaroslav,
Pelican, Concordia. vol. 24. p. 107: )

3.  "Christ our Savior was the real and natural
fruit of Mary's virginal womb. . . . This was without the cooperation of a
man, and she remained a virgin after that."
(On the Gospel of St. John: Luther's Works, vol. 22. p. 23, ed. Jaroslav  Pelican, Concordia, 1957):

The devout Roman Catholic who so venerated the Virgin Mary in this way was, wait for it, Martin Luther himself.
Luther’s Commentary on the Magnificat is considered one of his richest and most profound works.
So what about that prayer?
Holy Mary Mother of God,
pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Notice that in the prayer, strictly speaking, we are not praying to Mary, but rather asking Mary to pray for us.  So contrary to Lutheran criticism, the Ave Maria is a request that Mary intercede on our behalf.
Have you ever asked someone to pray for you?
People ask me to pray for them all the time, but that doesn’t mean that they are putting me in the place of God and praying to me, as opposed to Jesus and the Father.
So let’s just put aside some of our anti-Catholic bias and consider again just why she has been called blessed for all generations.
Mary is introduced to us in the opening chapter of Luke’s Gospel:
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He 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 ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." 34 Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" 35 The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God." 38 Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.
Two statements of Mary stand out:
1.       “How can this be?”
2.       And “Let it be.”
Mary’s life was a journey of faith, and her faith is a model of perfect obedience and submission to the Word of God.
Mary knew how things worked.
One of the facts of life, is virgins don’t conceive and bear children.  This fact was not lost on Mary.
"How can this be, since I am a virgin?"
There are those in the Church today that question whether Mary was truly a virgin or whether this was a later theological development, rendered in order to support the belief that Jesus was sinless.
Those who have thought this way have been quick to point out that the term for “virgin” in Hebrew also simply means a ‘young maiden’ who has not yet given birth.
Every woman remains a maiden, until she becomes a mother.  This logic allows the modern mind to avoid the stumbling block of believing that God did the impossible.
Yet it avoids Mary’s own assessment and question.  “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”
Faith.  It is to believe and trust in God’s Word above all else.  In Mary’s case it is to believe that all things are possible with God, and that, if it be God’s will, she could indeed conceive and bear a child as a virgin.
"Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."
Joseph could have had Mary punished for infidelity.  To be found to be with child, when one is already betrothed to another, was a great sin.  Adultery.  And a woman who was found guilty of adultery could be stoned to death. 
The risks were high for Mary.
Let it be to me according to your word.
In saying that she exhibited the ultimate faith, trusting not only that what the angel said would happen, but trusting also that God would protect her from all harm and that she would be allowed to bear the child.
In this way Mary is the pioneer of our faith, our teacher.
“Let it be to me, according to your word.”
These should be the words on all of our lips.  Let it be.

Elizabeth declared:  “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?
John, Elizabeth’s baby, leapt for joy within her womb as Mary approached.
The Orthodox refer to Mary as the Theotokos, literally, the God bearer, the Mother of God.
Why do they hold Mary in such high regard?
Because it was within her womb that the Word became flesh.
And it was she, that young maiden, who bore the Christ Child into the world for us.
To encounter Mary, is to encounter Jesus within her.
Imagine this young maiden, bearing the Son of God within her womb.  God within her.
It was a holy communion. 
We will gather at the altar to receive our Lord, in, with and under the bread and the wine.
With Mary, we too ask “How can this be?”
And the answer is the same:  by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Consider this.
“This is my body.  This is my blood.”
“Eat, drink.”
God within us, as God was within Mary.
And as she was blessed, so also are we blessed.
Mary sang her song:
"My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.

God has looked upon our low estate with favor and grace.  “His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.”
And God has done great things for us.
Mary’s song is our song of praise, as well.
One final word, about the Blessed Virgin Mary:
Sometimes only a mother will do.
This is, I believe, the reason why Mary has been held in such high regard by Christians throughout all generations, including Martin Luther.
As the Mother of God, Mary bears witness to the tender compassion of our God and his mercy and love.
And whenever Christians have been embraced by this compassion and mercy, they have been embraced by God.
It’s not that Mary is God, but rather that through her God is with us.
And for this, we call her blessed.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Year C, Advent 3, Luke 3.7-18, Good Judgment

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
John the Baptist was a firebrand of a preacher.
And by that I mean that he was passionate, calling for a radical change in the hearts of all who heard him.
And he came with a word of judgment, or more specifically, a warning about the judgment that was to come.
The most amazing thing about John the Baptist is that though he preached a radical message, calling the people to repentance, he was popular.  People came out to hear him. 
“You brood of vipers!” John proclaimed, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
The irony of that statement was that it was John himself that was giving the warning.
God will judge his people.
Those words incite a fear and trembling within us.
“Now is the day of judgment!” is not a sentence that produces a warm fuzzy feeling within us.
We do not like preachers who preach a word of judgment, even if they are right.
For me, that was never so clear as when the issue of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright came up within the 2008 presidential election.
You no doubt remember that he was Barack Obama’s pastor, and his preaching stoked a controversy during the campaign.  So much so that Obama ended up having to resign his church membership.
The most controversial of Wright’s words were:
“And the United States of America government, when it came to treating her citizens of Indian descent fairly, she failed. She put them on reservations. When it came to treating her citizens of Japanese descent fairly, she failed. She put them in internment prison camps. When it came to treating her citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. She put them in chains, the government put them on slave quarters, put them on auction blocks, put them in cotton field, put them in inferior schools, put them in substandard housing, put them in scientific experiments, put them in the lowest paying jobs, put them outside the equal protection of the law, kept them out of their racist bastions of higher education and locked them into positions of hopelessness and helplessness. The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing "God Bless America". No, no, no, not God Bless America. God damn America — that's in the Bible — for killing innocent people. God damn America, for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America, as long as she tries to act like she is God, and she is supreme. The United States government has failed the vast majority of her citizens of African descent.”
Now this is the thing.
The Indian reservations are a fact.
The Japanese internment camps were a fact.
And the plight of the Black people in this country, from the days of slavery till now is a fact.
These are not the brightest parts of our history.  Prejudice has impacted us in negative ways.
But we don’t like people speaking a word of judgment, even though we acknowledge that these things happened.  And we certainly didn’t like the way Pastor Wright spoke that word of judgement.
“No, no, no, not God Bless America. God damn America — that's in the Bible — for killing innocent people.”
We didn’t want to hear such a word of judgment then.
We still don’t like those words.
But this is the thing.
Prophets have never been popular when they spoke of God’s judgment of his people—which is why John the Baptist is so unique.  Even King Herod enjoyed listening to John.
Sometimes prophets are appealing to us, especially if we view their words as pertaining to others.
President Trump campaigned on the basis of what could be called a ‘prophetic’ message:
“Make America Great Again”.
Implicit in those words is the criticism, the judgment, that it isn’t doing so well right now.  And so he called for things like ‘draining the swamp’ of Washington, a call for political reform, and getting rid of the politicians he sees as the problem in Washington.
Trump’s message is a call for a radical change, but I’d suggest that few who embrace that message hear it as an admonition to change themselves.  The focus is on other things and other people that are the problem. 
To a certain extent, the reaction to Jeremiah Wright’s message, and to Trump’s message is the same.  Both of those messages ring true to a group of people, though not the same people, but neither group that embraces those messages see themselves as being the problem.
Who are the prophets in our midst today, who’s message rings true, and who will indeed inspire us to repentance?
In the Apostle’s Creed, week after week, we confess our faith in Christ Jesus as we recite the words:
“On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and will come again to judge the living and the dead.”
The final judgment will be Jesus’ judgment.
That is the good news in John’s exhortation:  That one greater than he is coming, and it is he, Jesus that will judge the world in righteousness.
The judgment will not be Jeremiah Wright’s.
The judgment will not be Donald Trump’s.
It will be Jesus, the child born in Bethlehem, God’s only son, who speaks that word of judgment.
Should we fear that child?
Or wait in anticipation for his judgment of our world and our lives to be spoken?
When Jesus judges the world, is that day to be dreaded or hoped for?
Is judgment a good thing?  Or a bad thing?
Well, the answer to that question lies in who is doing the judging.
The dictionary tells us that “judgment” means two related things:
1.       the ability to make decisions or to make good decisions, or the act of developing an opinion, esp. after careful thought.
2.       A judgment is a decision.
Does someone exhibit “good judgment” or “poor judgment”?
And when someone renders a judgment concerning us, our lives, and the world in which we live, will that judgment, that decision, be favorable or unfavorable.  Will we be vindicated?  Or condemned? 
John’s message was that “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
It is a message that we will all experience both vindication and judgment.
Of all the images of the judgment in scripture, this is the one I embrace most whole heartedly, the separation of the chaff from the wheat.
You see the world is not divided between those that are wheat, and those that are chaff.
Chaff is the outer layer that surrounds each kernel of wheat.
As wheat is harvested, the chaff is separated so that you are left with just the kernel of wheat.
The judgment that John speaks of, the judgment that Jesus will render, is a judgment that will purify each of us by separating the child of God within each of us, from the sinfulness that has so often been part of our lives.  The chaff, which is our sinfulness will be destroyed, but we will not.  We will be gathered into the granary.
“I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and will come again to judge the living and the dead.”
“Born of the Virgin Mary, to judge the living and the dead.”
Should we fear that judgment, or wait for it with hopeful anticipation?
The truth lies somewhere in between.
We fear the judgment that is to come, but rejoice in the judgments that have been made which have set us free.
It’s like the judgments made by our doctors.
We fear finding out what is wrong, but rejoice when on the basis of that judgment we have been healed.
I dreaded hearing the word of my cardiologist that I had a mitral valve failure, but now rejoice that I have had the surgery done to repair that valve.
I dreaded hearing the words of my doctor that I was an alcoholic, but rejoice in the fact that now I’m enjoying a life of sobriety.
We don’t like to find out what is wrong, but without that knowledge we will never be made right.
And that is the judgment of Jesus.
It’s not to condemn us, but to cure us.
“But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
In order to save us from our sins, Jesus must first render a judgment about our sins.
We won’t like it, at first.
But when we have been made whole, we will look back at it as the greatest thing that ever happened to us.
As we gather at the manger, and celebrate again the birth of Christ, know this: that he came to save us, and that in that saving there is both judgment and healing.  Both.
There will not be one without the other.
Judgment without healing is cruel punishment.
But healing is not possible without judgment.
But both the judgment and the healing are the work of Christ, who loves us.  Amen

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Year C, Advent 2, Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 3:1-6, Prepared?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
The preparations have begun in our house and throughout the communities in which we live.
You walk into the stores and Christmas is all around.  No surprise as the decorating and selling begins as soon as Halloween is over.  Black Friday has become the most significant day of the year for retail sales.  Billions of dollars are spent.
In our own home we have a tradition regarding our Christmas preparations and our observation of Advent.
Beginning with the first Sunday in Advent, Karla takes a portion of our Christmas decorations out each week.  She often begins with Christmas quilts for our beds.  The nativity scene, a beautiful carved one that I bought for her when we were in Russia, takes its place on the mantle.
Christmas quilts and pillow cases adorn our beds.  And yes, Karla has made so many quilts over the years that we have seasonal ones that she switches out through the course of the year.
Usually, about a week before Christmas, the tree goes up.  It was a tradition in her family to wait until her sister Alicia’s birthday to decorate the Christmas tree.  It’s kind of funny now because we observe that tradition, but Alicia’s tree is already up and decorated.  Our tree then remains up through the Christmas season and comes down following Epiphany, on January 6th.
Finally, the Christmas baking begins.
Sandbakkels, Pfefferneise, Krumkakka, Homemade Oreos, peanut brittle, Chex mix, fudge, spritz, and a variety of other treats fill the house and our stomachs.  Actually there are so many cookies and treats that they cover a counter in our laundry room throughout the season.
But the most important thing is the making of the lefse.
Our recipe comes from Grace Lutheran Church in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.  Rice the boiled potatoes and add enough butter and cream so that you can taste each (it’s a lot of butter and cream), then they are chilled over night.  In the morning they are rolled out with flour and fried on the lefse grills.  After they come off the grill they are placed on a towel in a “clean” garbage bag to keep them moist and tender.
And then, they are buttered and rolled up with brown sugar for a delectable treat.  When the lefse is done, we are ready for Christmas.
Over the years we have tended to make a lot of the present that we have given at Christmas, though we still purchased plenty.
A few years ago our kids let us know they thought it was time to celebrate a grown up Christmas, meaning that it was no longer necessary to fill the area under the tree with gifts.
One of the programs we’ve begun using on occasion is the ELCA’s Good Gifts program, where essential items are purchased for people living in third world countries, from water purification kits to pigs, and ducks, and cows.
All the while these preparations are underway in our culture, you will also hear admonitions.
“Keep the Christ in Christmas.”
And “It’s a ‘Christmas’ tree, not a holiday tree.”
And “We say ‘Merry Christmas’, not ‘Happy Holidays”.
I have to admit that I get amused at all of this.
First of all, because our Christmas celebration originated with the desire to transform the various cultural traditions and celebrations that took place around the Winter Solstice.  Basically, primitive peoples around the world tended to celebrate the Winter and Summer Solstice, and the Spring and Fall equinox.  Christmas and Easter have their roots in these celebrations.  Christmas was chosen as the date to celebrate Christ’s birth, because it was already a holiday in many cultures.  It didn’t originate as a “Christian” holiday until quite late.  By the way, Epiphany, the 6th of January was the original celebration of Christ’s birth.  Christmas came later in our history.
And related to that, people in Northern Europe celebrated the Winter Solstice by decorating with evergreen branches and trees long before Christianity became part of their culture.  Basically, the evergreen was a sign and symbol of life in the midst of the dead of winter.  Christians ‘appropriated’ this cultural practice, even though there is nothing Biblical about it. 
Well, enough of that.
One of the questions I’d like for you to consider this day is how the Bible tells us to prepare for Christ’s coming. 
There’s a liturgical tradition that irritates many people.
We observe the Advent season, and put off the celebration of Christmas till Christmas. 
And as we read the lessons assigned for this season, it is John the Baptist that takes center stage.
Zechariah prophesied concerning his son, John:
“And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare the way, to give God’s people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins. In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
John, in preparation for the beginning of Jesus’ ministry “went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  .  .”
The bottom line is that if we were to take the Bible as our guide in our Christmas decorations, repentance would be front and center.
John did not call for decking the halls with boughs of holly, and trimming the Christmas tree.
He bid the people to repent.
Unless we recognize our need for a savior, celebrating the birth of the Savior makes no sense.
That’s what is lost in all of our culture’s preparation for Christmas.
We trim the trees.
We deck the halls.
We sing the carols.
And bake the cookies.
Many of us still send out Christmas Cards.
And we look forward to connecting with family and friends.
But rarely do we focus on our own need for forgiveness.
And the Church is part of this as well.
Last week I shared with you that even in the Church, the penitential nature of the Advent Season has been changed.  Now the focus of the season is on hopeful anticipation.
But if you don’t recognize the need for a Savior, why the hope and anticipation?
For me, this never was clearer than six years ago.
It was on October 14th that I hit my ‘rock bottom’.
On the 15th  I entered chemical dependency treatment at Kootenai Medical Center where I remained for the next four weeks.
And then, in the middle of December, I returned to the pulpit and faced my congregation.
The lessons for the day were about John the Baptist.
And I was keenly aware of my own brokenness and sinfulness.
And then, that Christmas Eve, I shared with my congregation that though I had preached about the birth of the Savior for over 25 years, that year was the first year I recognized deep down my desperate need for a Savior.
“By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace."
As Advent progresses, I’ve chosen some Christmas carols to sing, which we will begin next week.
We’ve decorated the Church.
Yet for all the joy that comes with this season, and our commitment to keep ‘Christ’ in Christmas—we also need to remember to keep John in our preparations, for it is he who prepares the way for the Lord.
And it’s not just our sins that we are concerned about.
It’s also the state of the world in which we live.
The signs of the times are not good.
And we truly do not know what to expect in the coming months and years.
Last week I mentioned the fears that abound regarding global warming.
There are also rumblings in Washington about the state of our democracy.  The Mueller investigation is nearing its conclusion.  Will the outcome of that be to exonerate those involved?  Or will it be a day of reckoning, not only for the President and his administration but for our country as well.  Only history will tell.
Fires destroy communities such as Paradise, CA.
Mass shootings too frequently make the news.
Drugs remain a huge problem in our culture, in spite of our waging a War against drugs for decades now.
The Israelites wandered out to the Jordan seeking John and heeding his call to repentance.
For them the most critical issue of the day was the rule of the Roman Empire in their land.
They longed for a Savior.  And they heard John’s call to repentance.
One of the reasons we can repent, is that we do in fact have hope that Jesus will save us.
It would be difficult at best to name our sins and the issues in our world that threaten us, if we had no hope.
But we do hope.  We have heard the promise.
We can repent because we already know the outcome and that forgiveness waits for us. 
I had an idea as I wrote this sermon.  It probably won’t ever happen even in my own home.
What if we prepared for Christmas by hanging symbols of our sinfulness and the sinfulness of the world on the Christmas tree?  That would give us a visual reminder of why we need a Savior.
One of my favorite things to do is to turn down the lights, and bask in the glow of the Christmas tree. 
As we have the opportunity to do that this year, in our homes, and certainly at Church on Christmas Eve, we should do so remembering that Jesus is not just the reason for the season, Jesus is the light that shines in the darkness of our troubled lives and world.  And most importantly, that he came to save us from our sins.
It’s this Jesus we await.
And for him we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus.  Come quickly King of Kings.  Amen.”

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Wait for it. . . Year C, Advent 1, Luke 21.25-36,

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
The world in which we live is warming.  Global warming is not some future event that might one day happen.  It is happening now and is evident in concrete and measurable effects.
Here’s a bit of information from NASA’s website:
“Global climate change has already had observable effects on the environment. Glaciers have shrunk, ice on rivers and lakes is breaking up earlier, plant and animal ranges have shifted and trees are flowering sooner.
Effects that scientists had predicted in the past would result from global climate change are now occurring: loss of sea ice, accelerated sea level rise and longer, more intense heat waves.
Scientists have high confidence that global temperatures will continue to rise for decades to come, largely due to greenhouse gases produced by human activities. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which includes more than 1,300 scientists from the United States and other countries, forecasts a temperature rise of 2.5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century.
According to the IPCC, the extent of climate change effects on individual regions will vary over time and with the ability of different societal and environmental systems to mitigate or adapt to change.
The IPCC predicts that increases in global mean temperature of less than 1.8 to 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit (1 to 3 degrees Celsius) above 1990 levels will produce beneficial impacts in some regions and harmful ones in others. Net annual costs will increase over time as global temperatures increase.
"Taken as a whole," the IPCC states, "the range of published evidence indicates that the net damage costs of climate change are likely to be significant and to increase over time." 
Some of the specific effects of this warming are:
·         Rising temperatures
·         Longer growing seasons
·         Changes in precipitation patterns
·         Droughts and heat waves
·         Stronger and more intense hurricanes and other storm systems
·         Rising sea levels
·         Melting of the polar sea ice
Here in the Northwest we can expect ”changes in the timing of streamflow reduce water supplies for competing demands. Sea level rise, erosion, inundation, risks to infrastructure and increasing ocean acidity pose major threats. Increasing wildfire, insect outbreaks and tree diseases are causing widespread tree die-off.”
A couple of personal observations:
If you visit Glacier Park, one of the things you’ll immediately become aware of is that the glaciers are themselves almost gone.
My own cousin is feeling the effects of global warming.  He farms in  Northeast South Dakota, where the rising levels of the lakes has claimed over 1/3 of his farm, which is now underwater.
And finally, all you have to do is watch the high water level of the spring runoff just down the road on the Spokane River.  Thirty years ago the high level of spring runoff occurred well into June.  Now that is happening earlier and earlier.
There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
Now, just when we are duly uneasy and concerned about the effects of global warming, there is another potential disaster on the horizon:
People who are into apocalyptic predictions of the future point to the Yellowstone super volcano.  A massive eruption such as has occurred about every 600,000 years could bring about a volcanic winter, where the ash shades the earth from the sun, causing in the worst case scenario a total failure of the crops worldwide.  This, these futurists muse, could be the end of humanity.
What doesn’t make the tabloids, is that the chances of this happening are very remote, and may never occur again.
Feeling good about the world and life in general, yet?
What do we make of Jesus’ ominous warnings of the tribulations that are to come?
Well, for starters, the good news is that what Jesus was likely warning his disciples about occurred shortly after his words of warning were uttered.
“Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.”
What indeed happened just forty years after Jesus was that the Romans destroyed the temple, and then in another forty years, thoroughly destroyed the nation of Israel.  Israel remained scattered across the face of the earth until the reestablishment of the nation of Israel in 1947.
So, take a deep breath, and a sigh of relief.  Jesus wasn’t predicting the end of the world, but rather the end of the nation of Israel.  That happened.  Old news.
There’s another thing to give us hope when faced with the dire warnings and predictions of cataclysmic events on the horizon.
Jesus says, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
These words remind me of the Exodus and Moses’ words to Israel.
They had just left Egypt and were at the shores of the Red Sea.  Pharaoh’s heart had been hardened and he sent his chariots after the Israelites.
And so there they were, caught between the Red Sea on the one side, and the advancing armies of Egypt on the other side.  They feared their death was imminent.
Moses said:  "Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again.  The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still."
One of the major themes throughout the Bible is “deliverance”, and God’s saving his people from one calamity after another.
It’s like a good news/bad news joke, though it is no joke.
The good news is that God will deliver you.
The bad news is that there will be difficult times ahead as we await that deliverance.
It’s like when a pregnant woman shows up at the hospital in labor.  The good news is that the pain she is experiencing will soon be over.  The bad news is that it is going to get worse before it gets better. 
You see the thing about this theme of deliverance in the Bible is that God does not promise to spare us the suffering that is an inevitable part of this life, but rather that he will bring us through the suffering to a new day.
We will face many struggles in this life, some great and some small. 
Some of these struggles will be our own personal struggles, some will affect our families, and some will affect the community as a whole.
There may even be epic times of great difficulty that impact the whole of humanity, like world wars, or famine, or diseases and the like that render us all vulnerable.
Sometimes the difficulties we face will be of our own making. 
When that is the case, it is possible that what we have done we can also undo, but not always. 
At other times we will face suffering and crises that come upon us through no fault of our own whatsoever.
There is innocent suffering in this world.
But the promise remains the same.
“Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
The one issue that all of us will experience in due time, is our own deaths.
Sometimes that will come without warning.
At other times the signs that the end for us is coming will be clear and foreboding.  It may be a cancer diagnosis, or heart disease, or Alzheimer’s, or any number of other things that affects our mortality.
No one is spared that day.
An old saying is “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case.”
The bad news is that there are no exceptions.
But there is redemption and new life.
In Romans 8 Paul writes:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
Labor pains.  Suffering.  Redemption.
That’s the cycle of life.
One final thought.  One of the deepest regrets that I have regarding the pastoral care I offered over the course of my career was the counsel I offered to my youth director and her husband.
They were in my office one day, alarmed because Ben was losing his strength in one leg.  I tried to reassure them that most often we fear the worst, and yet it ends up being not nearly as bad as we fear.
It turned out that Ben had a glioblastoma, a fast growing brain tumor, and in a few short weeks he died.  Yeah, it was that bad.
Sometimes the signs we see are indeed warning signs of a great and looming tragedy.  Denying that possibility is not where we find ultimate hope.
Our hope is in the redemption that Christ has promised.
We will not face the worst that life has to offer, or death itself, alone.
But the sufferings that we will endure are but birth pangs, and the hope that we have is of the new life that is ours in Christ Jesus.