Sunday, December 25, 2011

Looking for Life in All the Right Places ~ Christmas Day ~ John 1:1-14

Business must be booming at our local auto body shops...
…because I can't remember a year when more people have been in deer accidents…
Thankfully, no one's been hurt, but the frequency of these accidents makes it frightening to drive, particularly at night. 

It's easy to think deer are dumb for running out in front of a speeding car-- but they're really doing what comes naturally to them.  Living creatures are attracted to light.  It's just a natural instinct.  Life cannot endure darkness.  Life is only found where there is light. 
Human beings are no different when it comes to our attraction to light. 

That is why the streets of cities like New York and Las Vegas are lined with lights.  The lights draw us into their retail stores and night clubs and casinos and theaters.  We go to these places in hopes of "feeling alive..."
We celebrate Christmas with lights for the same reason... 

The lights of Christmas express our longing for life in a world so full of suffering and evil.  Human existence was not meant to be the way in which we experience it.  We weren't meant to feel pain and hurt each other; we weren't meant to suffer loss and die…
We were meant for life—which is precisely the reason God became a human being in the person of Jesus Christ. 

Jesus is light-- because he joins us to the very source of the life that is our Creator.  We don't have to spend our lives stumbling around in the darkness looking for light; the light comes to us. He meets us within the darkness of our human existence; he gives us life in the midst of our suffering and pain. 
And the way in which God's gift of life is communicated to us is through God's Word.  God is speaking to us...  When we open God's Word; when we baptize; when we gather at the table; when we confess our sins-- Christ gives us life. 

We will still experience darkness in our journey through this life; but the darkness cannot destroy us.  Life is what we need, and life is what God gives to us.  And very soon, the darkness will be no more. 
But there’s a problem: not all people recognize Jesus as the source of life.  Many people simply don't know Jesus…  These are like children who know their parents.  There are also many who do not accept him.  It's not that they are rejecting Jesus; they’re simply rejecting Jesus as the source of life-- and seeking life somewhere. 

This is the heart of the problem for today's Christian.  We know in our minds and in our hearts that life is found in Christ, but we want life on our terms.  So we look to the world for the life we crave.  We look for life in achieving our own greatness and the ability to be everything to everyone.  We look for life in our relationships.  We look for life in possessions.  We take risks, seek thrills, we "get high"-- to feel alive...
But when we look to the things of the world for life, the best we get is a temporary escape.  Sometimes, the things we seek out as sources of life can plunge us into an even deeper darkness than we're already experiencing.  At our worst, we're like the deer that run out into the roads in front of speeding cars.  We run towards a light in search of life, but all we find devastation instead. 

But Christ doesn't give up on the people he loves.  Jesus finds us even in the darkness of our own making…  There's no place we can wander off that's too far for him to come to us.  God's forgiveness frees us from being forever trapped in the darkness of our bad decisions.  God's amazing grace breaks our hard hearts.  God's hope delivers us…
The life that our bodies and souls hunger for so greatly comes from Jesus Christ and him alone.  To be wise is to know this truth.  The only way in which we can receive that life is through Word and sacrament.  And knowing that we will still face times of darkness, we need to keep receiving Christ, to keep our faith in him steadfast and true. 

If we believe that Jesus Christ is our savior and giver of the life we need, we are children of God.  The gift of life is already ours; there's nothing we have to do to make ourselves worthy of it.  But if we don't believe that, and we reject God's gracious gift by looking for life elsewhere, all we will find is darkness. 
In Jesus Christ is life, and the life is the light for all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

God is Not Silent on this Silent Night ~ Christmas Eve ~ Luke 2:1-20

In silence, we pause from the busyness and stress of life...
In silence, we step away from the hustle and bustle of months-long preparations to celebrate this very day...
In the silence of this night, God is breaking into world

to be with us
bringing hope and salvation to all.

In silence we join some lonely shepherds, living in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks in the night...
For them, it’s just another long night of a very hard life—a life of extreme poverty and isolation…  These don’t even have a place to spend the night.  They live outdoors with their sheep… 

Like the shepherds, we bear hurts and hardships and fears this night—and these weigh especially heavy on hearts this time of year…  
But we have something else in common with the shepherds: God is speaking good news to us tonight…  So let us journey with the shepherds to the manager in Bethlehem.  But we go to witness more than a newborn baby lying in a feeding trough.  We go to receive a gift-- and with that gift, a whole new reality.  We go to see the salvation of the world coming to life. 

In this newborn child, God is joining us in human existence.  He comes to share in our suffering and in our pain.  There is nothing that we can experience that he has not experienced himself.  He is God with us. 
We don’t have to try and find Jesus—Jesus finds us.  He meets us wherever we are in life.

And as our Savior, he is born to deliver us from all that stands in the way of our living in God's love.  Jesus saves us from the sin that separates us from God.  He delivers us from the powers of evil that destroy both our bodies and our souls. Because of Jesus, we need not live in fear of death-- or anything that would come our way in life, because Jesus' claim upon us is unbreakable.  Our poverty and our pain are only temporary.  Hope is our reality; eternal life is our destiny... 
Tonight we celebrate God’s gift of our salvation—but Jesus’ birth is only the beginning of the story.  To know Jesus Christ as our Savior, we must also journey with him to the cross—because that is where his great love for us is revealed.  Jesus was born for the cross; to lay down his life as a sacrifice for our sin.  Without the cross, there would be no salvation. 

But the story does not end there…  Beyond that cross lies the empty tomb, where Jesus wins his victory over the powers of evil and death. At the empty tomb, we witness we see our future.  One day, we, too, shall rise from the dead.
But the story does not end even there…  The living and risen Christ is present in your life and in this world.  He speaks to us in the promises of the Gospel…  He delivers you and strengthens you in your most difficult times.  He shares your sorrows and your pain.  He hears your prayers, even in those times when we feel alone and forgotten.  And he forgives you when you stumble into sin and reject his will. 

So on this Christmas Eve, let us not just hear the story of Jesus Christ…  Let us receive Jesus Christ and his gift of new life. 
And when we go from this place tonight; let us join Mary in holding God’s promises in our hearts…

And in a few days, when our Christmas celebrations are ended and we return to the rhythms and routines of life, let us join with the shepherds in telling others of all these things that God does for us. 
Christ was born for everyone-- and not everyone knows of the life and the hope that he gives to us.  We will never know Christ for the true treasure that he is unless we commit ourselves to sharing his love with others and inviting others to come and receive the treasures of his love in the Water and the Word. 

In this silent night, God is anything but silent when it comes to loving us and saving us.  God speaks to us always…  God guides through all the dark valleys of life to the eternal home prepared for us.  So receive him today—and not just today, but every day. 
Let us live in the peace and the hope that is ours today—and may we never be silent in making our Savior known to a world in need.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Who Do You Think You Are? ~ John 1:6-8, 19-28 ~ Third Sunday in Advent

In my high school French class one day, the teacher asked us:
“What’s your raison d’être?”  That means “what is your reason for being” (but don’t take that to mean that I can speak French)…

Guess who she calls on first to answer her question…

So I tell her “I want to make a mark on the world.”

“Does this mean you’re going to write graffiti all over the desk?” she fired back.

What I really meant to say was that I wanted to be somebody.  I wanted to make a name for myself.  I wanted greatness.

John (the Baptist), on the other hand, was not concerned about making a name for himself  He had a different raison d’être:

God sent him to testify that the light of the world had come.  God used John the Baptist to announce to the world that Jesus was the Messiah—so that all would believe in him.  In other words, God sent John to make a name for Jesus Christ. 

John certainly “left his mark on the world,” so to speak, because we’re still hearing about him 2,000 years later. 

But this is not a story about how great John was.  This is a story about God.  It’s a story about God claiming the life of ordinary person and using him in the salvation of the world. 

Our lives have this very same purpose. 

Baptism is where it all begins…  We go into the water as persons who live for sinful purposes—and when we come out, we are not who we used to be.  God recreates us into people who live for God’s purposes.  We become part of God’s continuing plan of salvation for the world.

But as long as we live, we remain sinners—and as such, we resist God’s purposes in so many ways  We’re far more inclined to live and act in ways that bear witness to our own greatness, rather than God’s greatness… Think about it…

We seek greatness in important jobs that pay big money…  We seek greatness in fanciest, most expensive stuff…

Being a great person means that we never do wrong, we always do right…  We never make mistakes, we never fail…

Being a great person means that we can meet every single challenge in life; we overcome every obstacle; we can solve every problem and we never need anyone else’s help...

Being a great person means that we can do everything and they can please everyone, all of the time…

Living this way can lead to one of two things—we either become proud and arrogant because we’ve succeeded at achieving greatness—or we see ourselves as worthless because we fall so short.  The quest towards our own greatness leads us away from God.  The quest towards our own greatness leads to nowhere.

John said it best when he said “I am not the Christ.”  God didn’t send him to save; God sent him to serve—and the way he served was by his witness.  He didn’t need to be a great man to bear witness to Christ—he just needed God.  John was experiencing God’s greatness.  God had brought him into the light of Christ—and that is what he was bearing witness to.  Being a witness was his identity.  It was his life.  And John was faithful. 

As we wait the day of Christ’s promised return, now is the time for us know who we are as people of God.  We are not our jobs, we are not our bank accounts, we are not what we own, we are not superhuman, perfect persons.  We are not Christ.  We are baptized.  Christ lives in us.  Your identity, your life, your being are all rooted in Jesus Christ.  And that is something that cannot be changed…

So when you fail and stumble into sin, remember that you are baptized, and that your sins are forgiven through that baptism…

When you feel lost and helpless, and God seems so far away, remember that you are baptized, and that God’s Spirit dwells in you…  Your needs are known, your prayers are heard…  God is taking care of you.

And when you find yourself going through a time when you are unsure of what your purpose is in life, remember that you are baptized—and that God has made you a part of the saving work that God is doing in the world.  Your God-given purpose is to live in the light of God’s grace and hope—and share that light with others.

[And If you are not baptized, know that all of God’s gifts are already yours; all you have to do is come and receive them.]

Now is the time for us to know who we are and live accordingly.  Now is the time for us to be faithful witnesses.

And being a witness is not necessarily what we may be accustomed to thinking it is.  I remember a day I was working in the bookstore, and a man asked me if I had accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior.  I’ve always thought of witness that way, until I had the chance to meet some of the staff at the nursing home where my grandmother lived as she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease...  Her mind and memory were nearly gone—but she was still the gentle, kind, patient, and joyful person she always was. 

My family often wondered why God was keeping her alive, given the terrible state she was in.

But the people who cared for grandma all spoke of what a blessing it was to know her.  Caring for her made their days good.  Grandma was baptized—and her purpose was her witness, even when there was nothing else she could do. 

We don’t have to go out on a limb to be faithful witnesses.  We just have to be true to who we are as persons baptized into Christ.  God doesn’t send us to save others, but to serve others—and that is how we bear witness.  We serve by listening; by learning their needs and responding in kind.  We serve with compassion and generosity.  We serve with patience and forgiveness.  We serve by taking advantage of every opportunity we are given to let the light of Christ’s love shine from within us.  No matter what, there are always ways we can be witnesses. 

Inside of each of us is the light of Christ, which God is using to save this fallen world.  That is what it means to be who we are.  May God give us courage to venture into the dark places of to let this light shine…  May God give us grace to be faithful witnesses to the Savior who is coming to redeem this world, so that all may hear the good news and believe.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Close for Comfort ~ 2 Peter 3:8-15a ~ Second Sunday in Advent

For the past three months, our confirmation class has been journeying through the Old Testament…

One recurring theme they’ve discovered is that God keeps promises—but God is not always quick to fulfill them…

Abraham and Sarah waited 25 years after God promised to give them a son …

The Israelites waited 40 years to take possession of the land God promised them after their exodus from Egypt…

And Jesus Christ has promised to return—but nearly 2,000 years have passed, and it hasn’t happened yet…

With famine, terrorism, pollution, disease, and a failing global economy, now would be the perfect time for him to come back.  So what is he waiting for?

This has been the burning question even for the earliest Christians, including those who were alive during the lifetime of Jesus.  But still we wait—and the writer of 2 Peter has a very striking answer to our question:

“The Lord is not slow about his promise, but is patient with you—not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance…  God’s patience is our salvation.”

In other words, it is good for us that Christ hasn’t returned. 

There can be no mistaking the fact that when Christ returns, there will be judgment.  But God does not you or anyone else to be subject to that judgment.  God wants everyone be saved—and God is busy making this happen.  Christ is on the move, wherever the Gospel is proclaimed, wherever people reach out in love for their neighbors, wherever there is peace and justice.  Christ is on the move, so that all people would be baptized. 

Christ’s return is delayed so that God’s gift of salvation can enfold the lives of every human being.  And God’s will for us is that we all come to repentance. 

Now when God’s Word speaks of repentance, it is speaking of a radical transformation of who we are and what we are living for.  Repentance is the re-orientation of our lives—away from our selves, towards God and God’s purposes.  Repentance is what happens when the reality of God’s salvation revolutionizes our reality.  We become a new creation.

But repentance is not a one-time act.  It does not instantly change us from sinners into saints.  As long as we’re in the flesh, we remain both sinners and saints.  And that is why we need God’s patience so much.  Every day we sin and reject God’s gracious will for our lives.  God’s patience gives us time to repent.  God’s patience gives time for his grace to transform us into the people he wants us to be. 

God’s patience is great news for us—because it means that God is not giving up on us, in spite of our stubborn refusal to live in obedience to him. 

Yet in the midst of these gracious promises of God’s patience, there is a great sense of urgency. 

God’s patience is not to be taken for granted.  We do not have infinite opportunities to come to repentance.  One day, Christ will return—which means we have limited time to commit ourselves to living for God.  We’re throwing away the precious gift of life if we’re living only for ourselves.  Fortune and power and prestige may be great in this world—but these things will not be a part of God’s future.  If we resist God’s will, we will perish.  We will be subject to judgment. 

These words of judgment and the destruction of the present order are not meant to scare us.  Yet we cannot ignore their urgency.

Now is the time to live in obedience to God’s will.  Now is the time to repent…  This is not something we can afford to put this off until tomorrow…

Now is the time to make the most of every opportunity we are given to do good.  When we love our neighbors, and when we share Christ’s love, we’re living Christ future. 

The good do now will live forever—just like we will live forever.  So now is the time to live according to what will be.

And now is the time for us to experience what will be.  Even as God calls us to repentance and holy living, God is speaking to us words of comfort. 

God comforts us with the promise that suffering and evil will be ended when Christ returns.  Peace and righteousness and love will fill the earth. 

Yet even as we wait for Christ’s return, God never waits to bring us comfort.  As we endure life’s trials and pains, we can live in expectation of God’s comfort right here and right now.  With God’s comfort, we experience God’s salvation, even in the midst of our darkest days.

Christ is a comforting savior—not one who scares us into submission…

We know God by knowing his comfort…

We serve God by sharing his comfort with others.

When we repent, we receive God’s comfort—comfort that begins right now and lasts forever.

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.”  This is God’s great promise to you today.

Take comfort in knowing that your sins are forgiven… Take comfort in believing that you are saved by grace.

Take comfort in knowing that you can live a life of eternal significance when you surrender yourself to God’s gracious will. 

Take comfort in knowing that your pains and hurts will not last forever.

Take comfort in knowing that your Comforter is here. 

Come and receive him and his comfort at the table today.  Repent and believe the good news.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Waiting is the Hardest Part ~ Isaiah 64:1-9 ~ First Sunday in Advent

I want to tell you about my cell phone.

I’m not here to brag about how fancy it is—because it’s not…

I want to tell you about some of the calls I’ve made and received on this phone that have changed my life.

I used it to tell my loved ones that I was getting married.

Bishop Kusserow called me on this phone to tell me about a congregation in need of a pastor in the town of Leechburg.

These were some good news calls.  But there have been plenty of bad news calls as well…

It’s amazing how much life can change with one phone call…

But sometimes, we wait desperately for a life-changing phone call that never seems to come…

Have you ever waited by the phone for a much-needed job offer?

…or for the results of a medical test for a serious illness?

Have you ever waited for someone you love to call so that a broken relationship can be restored?

So often in life, we find ourselves waiting desperately for a miracle; for God to pull us out of a desperate situation—and the waiting never seems to end.

The words of our first lesson from Isaiah were the words of a people who had been waiting desperately for God’s help…

Not so long ago, the city of Jerusalem had been destroyed and the most of the Israelites had been taken into exile.  But now they had been allowed to return to what little remained of their city—and starting over proved to be anything but easy.  The people needed a miracle of God to rebuild their shattered lives—but none ever came.  After years and even decades of waiting, many people began to give up on God.  Many felt that if God were real—or if God still cared about these people—God would have come through by now.  Others strongly believed that God had abandoned the people because of their sin…

Isn’t this what it’s like for us—there’s a tremendous need in your life, and you keep praying for months or even years—and nothing happens?  In time, you begin to question…  Is God angry with me?  Am I not praying hard enough?  Is it God’s will that I go through all this?  Does God even exist at all?  This kind of waiting can make it impossible to trust God—especially if things get even worse and we fall into a state of deeper anguish… 

How can we keep waiting on God when God’s help never seems to come?  How can we keep waiting on God when God seems hidden from us?

The best answer to these questions is to follow the example of the words of Isaiah… 

Since God was silent, they were crying out to God all the more…  And they were blatantly honest about their feelings towards God.  These were words of frustration and hurt and anger.  They voice to God every question, every doubt, every pain they feel in their hearts… 

And we must do the very same.  If God seems silent to us, then we must cry out to God all the more.  Even if all you can do nothing but yell at God, God will still hear you—and not reject you for your feelings. 

The second thing we must do is remember what God has done for us in the past.  We learn to trust God by remembering all the ways that God has carried us through life’s ups and downs to get us to where we are now.  There wouldn’t be a God for you to believe in had God not done great things for you during your life. 

The third thing we must do is obey God; to continue to do the things that we know God wants us to do.  We continue honor God by serving our neighbors.  We gather together with the Body of Christ to be nourished by Word and sacrament.

By doing all these things, we are preparing for God to come to us.  We’re keeping watch for Christ’s promises to be fulfilled.  We’re tuning ourselves in to the works of Christ right in our own lives. 

In Vacation Bible School last summer, we taught our kids about “God sightings.”  They learned to see God not in miraculous, earth-shaking events, but in everything that was going on around them.  They saw God in the animals and trees.  They saw God in the people who love them, and in little things they did for others and others did for them.  They learned to see the significant in what would have ordinarily been insignificant.  That is how we keep watch for God and God’s deliverance…

God works in ways that we can’t be aware of.  God works in ways that we just don’t expect; ways that we our human minds even imagine.  So often do God’s most extraordinary deeds come cloaked the ordinary. 

Just consider the way the Savior of creation came to this earth.  Jesus didn’t come with lightning flashes and earthquakes or fanfares.  He came as an infant wrapped in strips of cloth, lying in a manger. 

God does not work out our deliverance in accordance with our plans or our expectations.  God works in ways that are far too great for our human minds can imagine. 

Never should we interpret our unanswered prayers as signs of God’s absence, or worse yet, God’s rejection…  And while it can be so very hard to wait for God’s deliverance, we are given this assurance today: God is always active in our lives, even when we cannot perceive it.  Even while we wait for that one miracle that changes everything, God cares for us in the little miracles of everyday life.  When we cry out to God, when we obey God’s Word and we remember God’s acts, we will be better able to experience the power of Christ’s presence with us.

God is working out your salvation every moment of every day in your life.  We keep watch and get ready not just to see God, but even for God to send us so that we can be a God sighting for someone else. 

It is impossible to wait in vain for God’s deliverance.  Christ is coming—and Christ is already here.  Now is the time to prepare ourselves for God’s promises to come to life.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving, Thanks-living ~ Deuteronomy 8:7-18 ~ Thanksgiving Eve Community Worship Service

I have a confession to make: this is only the second time in my life that I’ve celebrated Thanksgiving by coming to worship.  It’s not that there haven’t been opportunities for me to worship. I just never went.

This year I’m in church with all of you—and it’s good to be here.  It’s good to be here because we don’t have TVs blaring with all of the commercials telling us to go shopping.  It’s good to be here because we are not rushing around, trying to get our holiday plans in order.  Here and now, we turn our hearts and minds to worshipping God and giving God thanks.

It almost goes without saying that our national day of Thanksgiving has changed significantly, and not for the better.  It’s still a day to give thanks—but it’s also a day to overeat, watch television, and welcome in the Christmas season.  And this year, Thanksgiving Day has become another day to “shop ‘till we drop.” 

But we still have some freedom of choice as to what we will do this day.  We can make it a day of giving thanks to God—or we can make it something else.  And ultimately, Thanksgiving is not a once-a-year happening in the life of the Christian.  Every day is a day to give thanks.  Thanksgiving is not a holiday; it’s an attitude…  It’s a way of life…

It was the way of life that God was calling the people of Israel to live, in our first lesson from Deuteronomy.

For forty years, God’s people had been wandering in the wilderness, following the exodus from Egypt.  And now they were about to take possession of the Promised Land.  Great wealth and prosperity were in store for them there.  So God has a simple message for them: “remember me.  Remember that I delivered you from slavery in Egypt.  Remember that I took care of you in the wilderness.  Remember that all of the good things you enjoy have come from me.”

I wish I could say that Israel obeyed God’s commands.  But they did not.  As their wealth and prosperity increased, their obedience to God decreased.  They gave themselves all the credit for their success.  They didn’t give thanks to God—because they believed they had nothing to thank God for…  They didn’t need God to take care of them.  In time, they completely forgot about God and ran after other gods—and the consequences were disastrous.

There is danger that comes from not living thankfully.  If we’re not giving thanks, we’re not acknowledging God as the source of all the good things we enjoy.  We’re simply giving ourselves the credit for our own good fortune.  And if we still happen to acknowledge God at all, we see God as obligated to give us everything we want because we’re such great persons.  Without thanksgiving, God is a stranger to us.  God may as well not even exist—because we’re living only for ourselves and our own satisfaction.  If we’re not thankful, we’re in danger of becoming so self-absorbed that other people are of no importance to us, apart from what we can get from them for our own benefit.  

Just imagine what our world would be like if everyone cared only for themselves... 

But there is a great power for good that comes from living thankfully… 

Thanksgiving is not the way to earn our way into God’s goodness.  Thanksgiving is the way in which we enter into the experience God’s goodness.  God’s provisions are not rewards; they are free gifts.  God cares and provides for us every day because that is who our God is.  Our God cares for us apart from our merit and deserving.  By giving our thanks to God, we learn to see our lives and our possessions as sure signs of God’s great love for us.  We learn to know God for all of the beautiful ways that God takes care of us. 

We know God as the provider of our daily bread.

We know God as the listener to our prayers.

We know God as the redeemer who forgives us of our sins and gives us strength to walk in newness of life.

We know God as the Savior who delivers us from our most painful trials gives us hope even in the face of death.

For a Christian, there’s never a question of if God has blessed you…  It’s always a question of how  Most of the time, we can never know what God is doing until we stop and take the time to remember what God has already done.  God is telling a story of love and faithfulness in your life.  And what better way to celebrate God’s goodness than to share that story with others?

As we experience God’s compassion and mercy, we are transformed.  When we live thankfully, we learn not to see our treasures as the trophies of our own greatness…  We learn that the life worth living is not the one in which we accumulate the most treasures, but rather a life of sharing and doing good things for others.  God’s love compels us to be loving people.  God’s love draws us into God’s work of caring for the lost and the needy.

Giving thanks to God gives us hope.  We are better able to put our faith in God when we look back and remember all of the ways that God has carried us through life’s ups and downs to get us to where we are now.  Even when our future is clouded with uncertainty, God’s faithfulness in the past is the promise of God’s faithfulness in the future. 

We have so much to be thankful for today.  God has given us today our daily bread.  God has forgiven us of our sins.  God has given us the promise of new life in Christ’s resurrection.  And God has blessed us to live in a country where we are free to worship Jesus Christ without fear of persecution. 

But giving thanks is a choice.  It’s one that we must commit ourselves to making every day.  It’s a choice we must make when we rise in the morning and go to sleep at night.  It’s a choice we must make as we sit down to eat.  It’s a choice we must make any time we enjoy God’s many gifts to us.  We cannot forget the giver of our gifts; the source of our strength, the creator of our life.  We can come into possession of every treasure this world has to offer—but if we forget God, we have truly lost everything.  But if we remember God, there will always be hope and there will always be joy, even in the worst of times.  With Christ in our lives, we have all we need.  Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

It's Hunting Season ~ Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 ~ Christ the King Sunday

Every January in Gettysburg, the town’s churches and social service agencies join forces to hunt for homeless people.
Teams of three to four people canvas the town, looking in abandoned buildings, cars, back alleys, dumpsters—and even in the woods.

When a homeless person is found, they are brought to the town square, where they receive a hot meal, clean clothes, and a warm place to stay for the night. 

I was rather surprised when I heard that we’d have to hunt for homeless people.  I always thought they’d be easy to find.  I was always accustomed to seeing persons standing on street corners, with signs asking for help.  But most homeless people stay in hiding; out of sight and out of mind.  Few ever seek out help.

Some simply don’t know where to find it…  Some have asked for help—but have been turned away. Others don’t seek help because they’re too ashamed.  

That is why we have to seek them out—just as we hear of God seeking out his lost people in our first lesson for today.

 God is announcing a mission through the prophet Ezekiel.  Babylon had conquered Israel, and God’s people were in exile.  Having been driven away from home and scattered all throughout the land, God’s people were lost and injured.  But God wasn’t holding Babylon responsible for Israel’s plight.  Israel’s kings were responsible.  These kings were “bad shepherds” who failed at their fundamental duty of caring for God’s sheep.  The bad shepherds only looked after themselves.  They exploited and oppressed God’s people for their own selfish benefit. 

God is on a rescue mission.  God is sending a new shepherd who will seek out God’s people from far and wide—and gather them into himself so that he can care for them forever. We know this shepherd as Christ the King.

He goes far and wide to seek out his sheep.  When they’re hurt, when they’re scared, when they’re in danger, Christ the king is present with them… Even when his sheep foolishly wander away, he will not let them be lost.  Christ the King is with his sheep when they need him the most. 

This is Christ’s ministry on earth.  Christ the king isn’t seated on a throne up in heaven, watching us all from afar.  He doesn’t wait for God’s lost sheep to find him.  Christ is on the move, seeking out the least and the lost.  Christ takes the initiative to find us, so that he can care for us and give us everlasting life. 

Knowing full well that there are people who are lost and in need all around us, we must take the initiative to seek them out.  We must take the initiative and seek out the unbelievers and those who hunger for a deeper and stronger relationship with God.  We can’t wait for them to come to us—because, in most cases, those who are in need won’t ask for our help. 

We live in a culture that celebrates self-sufficiency.  We pride ourselves on being independent and able to help ourselves.  We’re culturally-conditioned not to ask others for help.  And given the tough times we’re in now, there’s far too little help to go around. 

And when it comes to matters of faith, we’re culturally-conditioned to pursue a relationship with God on our own.  It’s taboo to share our faith with others—as it is to share with others our struggles and our questions…  So often people describe themselves as “spiritual, not religious,” as if to say “I don’t need the church to grow in my relationship with God.  

Our rigid individualism isn’t God’s way.  Self-sufficiency is not a Christian virtue.  We were made to need each other.  And as people of Christ the King, it is our duty to care for God’s people.  We are our sister’s keeper and our brother’s keeper.  Therefore, we have to take the initiative to seek out our neighbors in need; to meet them where they are, and care for them in their needs.

As our Gospel lesson warns us, if we reject this duty, if we see our neighbor hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or in prison—and do nothing to care for them—we are rejecting Jesus Christ himself. 

On the other hand, whatever we do for the least of God’s children, we do for Christ himself. 

Therefore, to do our duty, to be faithful disciples, we need God’s Holy Spirit to give us new hearts that burn with compassion and mercy for the lost and the least of God’s children.  We need the Spirit to give us new eyes, so that we recognize Christ’s presence in those who suffer.  And we need the Spirit’s courage to care for our neighbors’ needs—because that will seldom ever be easy.  We will be in uncomfortable situations; we will be doing things we’ve never done before; our hands will get dirty in the mud of human suffering.  There will always be that question of whether or not we can truly make a difference.

But we also have this promise: Christ is with those who suffer.  So Christ will be with you to help you do what God wants you to do.  You will bear witness to Christ’s power at work.  Others will see Christ in you just as you will see Christ in them.  There will be healing.  There will be transformation.  There will be hope.

 We are entering into a time of year in which people’s hurts and fears are especially heavy.  Christmastime is not the most wonderful time of the year for everyone.  But it is prime time for us to celebrate the birth of our king by joining him in caring for the least and the lost of God’s children.  It is time for us as the church to come alive with the love of Christ, to proclaim his peace and his hope to all creation.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Risky Business of Following Jesus ~ Matthew 25:14-30

About two years ago, an unassuming woman by the name of Susan Boyle shocked the world when she stepped onto the stage to audition for the TV show Britain’s Got Talent.

With her ragged appearance and awkward personality, everyone expected her to be laughed off the stage.

But as soon as she opened her mouth to sing, she became a worldwide sensation.  Her first album became one of the fastest-selling records of all time.  Even today, her fame hasn’t subsided.

As amazing as her talent is, it took more than just raw talent for her to be so successful.  She had to take risks—huge risks—to make it to where she is today.

She didn’t know what the outcome was going to be.  She didn’t know how the world was going to receive her.  And with little experience performing in front of an audience, she couldn’t have known how she was going to handle the pressure.  She risked being humiliated and disgraced with the whole world watching.  Without that risk, her talent would have remained in obscurity; hidden away and buried… 

But taking that risk made all the difference for Susan Boyle…

Risk is certainly what makes all the difference for the three servants in today’s parable.

In the parable, a master hands over incredible amounts of wealth to three of his servants. 

The first two servants immediately get to work and they double their money.  But the third takes the money and buries it away for safekeeping. 

Now with today’s economy being what it is, that doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.  You’d probably be better off to stash your money away under your mattress than invest it in the stock market.

But the trouble here is that the master handed his money over to the servants because he believed all three were capable of putting that money to work and making it grow.  The third servant was no exception—but he was too afraid to take any risks to make it happen. 

When nothing is ventured, nothing is gained… 

So when the master returns, he’s not happy with the play-it-safe servant…  He takes his wealth and gives it to the servant with the greatest wealth—and throws him into the outer darkness…

As we consider this parable, we shouldn’t hear it as a description of what God is like or how God will treat us.  This is a parable about living as disciples under the reign of God.

Like the servants in the parable, God has given us great treasure; in fact, the greatest treasure in the universe—that is Jesus Christ. And when much is given, much is expected.  God expects us from us a daily commitment to live as disciples. 

·         We must love God above all else;

·         We must love our neighbors as ourselves. 

·         We must pray, study Scripture, and gather for worship

·         We must help those in need and share our faith. 

The trouble is that when we do God’s work, we have no guarantee that things are going to turn out the way we hope…  There is risk…

Loving others doesn’t mean that they will love us back…  People may not want to hear our testimony about Jesus; they may reject our invitations to come with us to church; our gifts and our good deeds may not be appreciated…

There is risk that comes by putting Christ first in our lives.  Even as we’re committed to Jesus Christ, we have other commitments, too….  We have our careers and our schooling; our families, and our own personal interests.  So often, we fail to do those things that matter most to God—because we’re afraid of depriving ourselves of the time and energy and resources we need to live a good life. 

Ultimately, following Jesus will mean taking risks—because we cannot be faithful disciples unless we follow Jesus out of our comfort zones.  We can’t always play it safe and expect to grow in our relationship to Jesus Christ.  We must do those things that make us uncomfortable; we must be prepared to venture out into unfamiliar territory where we do not know what to say or what to do or what will happen—because it is only then that we will experience the amazing grace of God.  We don’t need God to do what is easy and familiar.  We’re fine on our own.

Outside of our comfort zones, anything goes—and we have no choice but to trust the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead.  For when we are at are weakest, God is strongest.  And when we take risks and go out of our comfort zone, God is in a position for God to amaze us.  Our witness to Christ’s love will be at its strongest.  It is only by getting out of the boat that we will walk on water; that we will do and experience things we never thought possible.  It is there that we experience Jesus Christ as a true treasure. 

We are very much accustomed to an economy of scarcity.  With every risk there’s the possibility of failure; and with failure, we lose something that we cannot get back.  In an economy of scarcity, there’s usually never enough time and money and resources to go around…

But as disciples, we live in an economy of grace.  When we take risks for Jesus’ sake, things may not turn out the way we hope—but nothing we do for Jesus is ever a failure.  In the economy of grace, our failures are milestones of growth.  Very often, it is in failure that we come to a better understanding of God’s will.  God can take even our failures and do things greater than we can ever imagine.  

In the economy of grace, your gift of love may just be the turning point in a person’s life, even though that person didn’t appreciate your gift when you gave it…

Your personal testimony of Jesus Christ may just be the turning point in that person’s coming to faith, even though that person rejected your testimony and called you stupid for believing in God…

A new ministry of our congregation that ends in failure may just be one step towards a new ministry through which God will grow us in faith and numbers, and the love of Christ will shine forth into this community…

And in the economy of grace, we can be generous with the confident expectation that God will provide abundantly for all our needs—even in times of scarcity.  When we risk being generous, we see God’s hand providing.  When we don’t take that risk, all we see is scarcity.  There’s never enough…

When nothing is ventured, nothing is gained.  If we as a congregation and as disciples do not take risks, we will not grow.  For it is only by going out of the comfort zone, taking risks, trying new things, venturing out into the unfamiliar, that we will experience God’s amazing grace. 

There is nothing to fear when taking risks as disciples.  We can take risks to do what matters to God.  God can use us to do things greater than we would have ever thought possible.  God will guide us every step of the way, and provide all that we need to live according to God’s will. 

And ultimately, it is in taking risks that we enter into the joy of our master in daily life—a foretaste of the eternal joy that is to come.

You have been given the greatest treasure of the universe.  And with that treasure, you can do amazing things by the grace of God.  You can experience the treasure that is Jesus Christ and the power of his resurrection.  You can take risks with the confidence that God is at work in you.  And above all, you can live a life that is free of fear, because Christ is with you every step of the way.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

To All the Saints ~ Revelation 7:9-17 ~ All Saints' Day

Our table for four had become a table for three…

Grandma was gone.  This was the reality my dad and I faced two weeks ago during our visit to my grandfather.

Grandma was always the queen of conversation, particularly at mealtime.  Her cheerfulness and unmistakable belly laugh made it a joy to be in her presence.  But her death had changed things—and certainly not for the better.  All throughout the week, an uneasy silence fell upon us.  It reminded us that life was better when she was alive. 

One of the greatest tragedies of human existence is that we suffer loss.  We’ve all lost people we love; and their deaths leave us burdened with sorrow and pain.  God created us to be in relationship with others.  So when someone we love dies, we are literally left broken.  Time does not heal all wounds when it comes to the death of a loved one…

But death is not the only kind of loss we suffer in life…

With illness and old age we lose the freedom to live the way we want to live.  We lose our independence—and have to rely on others to care for us.

We suffer the loss of relationships due to divorce and conflict.  People we care about hurt us—and we hurt them…

Economic hardships rob us of careers and income; life savings are lost; homes are foreclosed.

Hopes and dreams for the future crumble beneath our feet…

We as a congregation have even suffered losses.  Our pews aren’t as full as they used to be.  Our brothers and sisters have died.  Some have moved away; others have joined other churches—or stopped coming to church altogether. 

Loss strikes us in more ways than can ever be named.  But regardless of what the loss may be, the experience of loss impacts every aspect of our being.  We suffer our losses physically, emotionally, spiritually, and socially.  We realize that life will never again be “normal” as it was before.  Loss thrusts us into a reality we never want to face—and very often, there’s nothing we can do fully gain back what we’ve lost…

So what are we to do?  All too often, we hear all these clichés that people either say to us or that we say to ourselves; things like “it could be much worse;” “put on a happy face;” “look for the good;” “it’s all part of God’s plan;” “get over it and get on with life…” 

But God’s way isn’t about pretending that all is well when we’re not well.  God isn’t “well” with the state of this world. Poverty and hunger are not part of God’s plan for the world; it isn’t well with God that we sin against God and each other…  And God certainly doesn’t see the good in your suffering.  Loss tears us apart.  God’s not fine with that.

So God became a human being—to do something about sin; to do something about suffering; to do something about loss.  Christ came and entered into the ordeal that is life on this earth.  He came to turn the tide—so that this world, that God created and that God loves so much—would not be lost.  Christ’s death and resurrection marked the beginning of the end for all the forces of chaos and evil that wreak so much havoc on everything and everyone that God created.

Therefore, we don’t have to help ourselves.  We don’t have to wander helplessly through the darkness trying to seek Jesus out like some buried treasure…  We simply open our arms to Jesus—because comes to us.  He comes because we belong to him.  He comes as someone who’s experienced everything we’re going through.  He comes to us as a risen Savior, so that we can live in the hope of his resurrection.  Jesus comes to be our shepherd, to lead us to a future in which suffering and sin are no more.  So even as our losses cut deeply into the fabric of our being, they’re not permanent.  God will one day wipe away every tear from our faces.  We who are battered and broken will be made whole again.

This is the good news for us on this All Saints’ Day.

But the greatest challenge is believing the good news—especially when everything suggests that the good news is nothing but fantasy.  We need God’s help to believe—and we must seek it where we know it can be found.  In the midst of our busy and chaotic lives, we need to be still and allow for God’s Spirit to speak to us.  We need to express our sorrows and our fears to God in prayer, even though God knows our every hurt.  We need to hear God’s promises again and again in the Gospel.  We need Christ’s presence in the Sacrament to nourish and sustain our faith. We need Christ’s presence in the fellowship we share as baptized brothers and sisters. 

It is so tragic that in these times of turmoil and uncertainty, fewer and fewer people are fleeing to the refuge of Christ’s presence in his church.  We’re literally turning our backs on Jesus Christ when we need him the most.  Real and lasting hope cannot be found anywhere else.  We can lose everything in this life, but if we have Christ’s hope, we have all we need to make it through.  But without hope, all is lost.  “When hope ends, life ends.”

With so many of God’s children suffering so much need and such great losses, we need to be a people who say “I’m here for you because Jesus is here for you.”  Believing in God’s promises cannot just be a matter of the head.  We believe with the whole of our being—and we express that faith with what we do.  We all know people who desperately need our gifts of compassion.  We all know people who do not know Jesus Christ.  We all know people who don’t attend church.  We all know people who need to hear our personal testimony of the hope that is ours in Christ.  God sends us to these people.  Don’t worry about what you’re going to do or what you will say.  God will help you every step of the way.  And if you can’t think of anyone right now for whom you can show Christ’s love, God is going to put someone in your life. 

Saints don’t become saints by what do, but by what Jesus Christ does for them.  That is what we celebrate today as we remember those who have died.  We are celebrating Christ.  We’re celebrating the people Christ has redeemed.  And we’re celebrating God’s grace that has makes us saints in the waters of baptism.  We are all saints because Christ has died for us, and because we have eternal life in his resurrection.  We are saints because our hope is in Christ. 

And we live as saints by holding fast to God’s promises, even in the midst of our greatest pains and losses.  As saints, we live in hope—and we share that hope with all who are in darkness. 

It is by God’s amazing grace that we will live as God’s saints forever.