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’ĂȘtre?”  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’ĂȘtre:

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.