Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Conspicuous Christ, Conspicuous Christians ~ Colossians 3:12-17 ~ First Sunday of Christmas

In my nine Christmas shopping seasons working at big box stores, there was no time of the year I dreaded more than the after-Christmas returns season...

I still shudder at the thought of those endless piles of misfit gifts; many with shards of wrapping paper still clinging to them.

For me, there’s only been one gift I’ve ever received that I wanted to send to those piles—and that gift was a pair of Snoopy pajamas.

I’ve always loved the Peanuts gang—but I was 21 when I got these.  All I could think about was my college dorm-mates seeing me wearing them.  I would never live it down. 

I didn’t want to stand out from everyone else as the guy with Snoopy pajamas. 

But do we (as Christians) stand out from everyone else? 

Over the last several months, our adult Sunday school class has been discussing different religious faiths—and one topic that’s often come up is the way in which the people of certain faiths stand out from the crowd.  We’ve spoken of Muslims who stop whatever they are doing, to pray—five times per day.

We’ve spoken of Amish and the members of Mennonite communities who dress very plainly, in clothes they’ve often made themselves.

For our part, we may wear crosses—or even Christian T-shirts on occasion...  

But ultimately, how would someone really know that we are as people of Jesus Christ?  And how eager are we to stand out from the crowd?

It’s very easy to treat our faith and our relationship with God strictly as a matter of the heart, so that it is private and deeply personal. 

And because of that, there may be very little that sets believer apart from everyone else.

But Jesus is not about to be contained only in our hearts—because a human heart cannot contain him.  Jesus is born to be known—and not just in our hearts.  He is in the world, making himself known.  The more we know him, the more he will make himself known through us to an unbelieving world.  Our second lesson from Colossians shows us how...

It all begins with God’s claim of our selves.  We are God’s chosen ones; claimed in baptism.  We are born to be holy; born to be beloved.  Faith begins by knowing whose we are. 

It is then that we come to see God in all that we have and all that we are and all that God promises.  This is thanksgiving.  Thanksgiving is an act of faith through which we see God in every good gift we receive and acknowledge God as the giver.  Prayer is the first way—and the fundamental way—that we do this.  But once again, we cannot treat it as a private act.  Thanksgiving is a verb—and we express thanksgiving in public.  When you eat in a public place, do you pray over the meal?  Do you take your conversations with family, friends, and strangers as opportunities to testify to God’s goodness in your life?

Then, when you see a neighbor in any kind of need, what do you do?  Do you allow for God’s goodness to go beyond you? 

We all know from bitter experience how hard it is to see God in our darkest days.   Our world is desperate for signs that God is here—even those who wouldn’t even call themselves believers.  This is why Jesus gives us his holy clothing: the clothes of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and especially forgiveness. 

How rare it is that a person will ever receive these from someone else.  But a little bit of kindness and a little bit of care can change everything for the better. 

If we, who experience God’s goodness, use our blessings to bless others, God becomes a greater and more powerful reality.  It is in our acts of mercy and forgiveness that we come to see just how good God is and how blessed we really are.  People won’t just notice Christ in us—they will be drawn to the Christ in us.  We shall become as Jesus was in his ministry; a giver of strength and healing and unconditional love.  Our lives shall become as iron-clad proof of the goodness of God, by how we live and what we do.  And there will be no mistaking who we are and whose we are...

Today God’s Word invites us into a life of gratitude, because God is in every morsel of food that nourishes our bodies; every garment that keeps us warm; and especially in every person who blesses us with their compassion, their kindness, and their forgiveness.  Thanksgiving is the gift of seeing Christ in all that is wonderful and good.  So make your gratitude public; literally wear God’s goodness in your words and deeds.  Let the Christ you see and know be seen and known in you.  Let your every choice, every action, every word glorify him. 

All shall know that God is good when we, with our words, our deeds, and our very lives, make it real.  We shall become as One Body, to endure the hardships; and to overcome suffering and evil with forgiveness and grace.

And God’s peace will come for all to enjoy.


Monday, December 24, 2012

A Savior Born For You ~ The Nativity of Our Lord ~ Luke 2:1-20

We all know the story of Jesus’ birth for the peace and simple beauty we see in crèches and children’s story books.  But it doesn’t begin that way...

In fact, everything that could go wrong did go wrong...

First of all, you have the Roman Emperor Augustus ruling over God’s people.  To the Jewish faithful in those days, the mere mention of his name would bring both fear and loathing. He was ruthless, he was violent—and oddly enough, he proclaimed himself to be “the Savior of the world.”

And then he decrees that all people must register for taxes.  This means that Joseph and his pregnant-bride-to-be must make the nearly 70-mile, three-day journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  When they get there, the time comes for her to give birth.  She must lay the child in a feeding trough for animals—because more suitable accommodations were not available.

And then you have the shepherds.  Theirs was a miserable existence.  They lived outdoors, they worked around-the-clock, and they endured extreme poverty and isolation.

It was there, in the dark and loneliness of the night, that God’s angels appear to the shepherds, to bring them good news:

To you is born this day...a Savior.”

That is the good news—and the best news—Jesus’ birth...  He is born for us; for you, for me, for all creation.  He is born so that we may live in relationship with him. 

And the dire circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth should not be lost on us.  Yes, it was in the worst of times—but God worked through it all to draw them to Jesus.

God used Augustus and his oppressive decree to fulfill his promise to his people that their Savior would be born in Bethlehem from the house of David.  And God used in the dark and cold of night to invite the shepherds to be the first to meet Jesus.

All of this teaches us that nothing will stop Jesus.  When things are at their worst, Jesus will be there to save us.  He is not a Savior who prevents hardship, but he is a Savior who works through hardship and even in spite of hardship so that we may know him and the new life he gives.

Even when we find ourselves in the wreckage of our own sin, Jesus’ forgives us.  His forgiveness gets us back on our feet again, to begin anew, because God sees our sin no more.  

When everything falls apart, Jesus is determined that you know him in the strength and the comfort he gives. 

Tonight we celebrate more than just a birth.  Tonight we celebrate that OUR Savior is born.  We celebrate a love so great that the cross was not too high a price for Jesus to pay to save us from death and the devil.  We celebrate that Jesus will save us in the time of trial.  Jesus is the gift for you receive—and not just once in a lifetime, or once in a while, but daily—and that is precisely the challenge of this holy night.

The peace and joy of this night will soon pass.  Soon, we shall return to everyday life.  And it goes without saying that we are not living in the best of times.

The world and its evil ways are constantly feeding us reasons to doubt the presence of Jesus in the world.  We will sin, we will fail, and we will doubt how God could ever love such a person as ourselves.  There will be times when we will be disappointed with God.  We will wonder, “what’s the use in believing?”

All told, the gift of Christ can be easily forgotten amid the noise and struggles of everyday life.  That is why we must seize every opportunity that Jesus gives us to receive him and be with him.  When you pray and open the Scriptures, you meet him.  Every Sunday, you can meet him here in Bible classes, in worship, and at the table where he nourishes our faith with his body and blood.  We even meet Christ in each other.  We all sin, we all doubt, we all suffer; but by coming together, and by caring for one another, we receive him. 

And when you leave from this place, Jesus will turn your daily lives into sanctuaries where you will meet him.  When there is loss, where there is pain, where there is worry, Jesus will be there to walk with you and deliver you.  You will even meet Jesus in the people you serve with your love and good deeds.

Jesus, the Savior, is born for you—and God desires much more for you than to simply believe in him.  Jesus is born to be known.  So receive him tonight—and let his presence fill your hearts, your homes, and your days.  Receive him tonight—and let his presence calm your fears and fill your heart with peace.  Receive him tonight—and let his forgiveness transform you into a new person.  Receive the Savior who is born for you know, to worship, and to trust.

And let us join with the shepherds, in praising and glorifying God for this great gift we have received.  Let us be filled with the peace and joy of knowing him; not just tonight, but daily.  Let us tell the world that this Savior is born for all.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Peace In a Time Such as This ~ Philippians 4:4-7 ~ Third Sunday of Advent

Earlier this week, walking through town, I noticed the sign on the United Methodist Church down the street, which read: All I Want for Christmas is Peace.

All week, I thought about all the people I’d spoken to whom I know want peace more than anything...  All the people who are ill, who are stressed, who are brokenhearted, who are filled with fear at what tomorrow may bring...

And then, in just one week, we’ve heard news of two massacres, the one at a mall in Oregon, the other at a school in Connecticut...  Precious lives are lost; families are ripped apart; and a nation trembles in horror.

How can we ever attain this “peace that surpasses understanding” that Paul speaks of in our second lesson for today?  How can we rejoice in the Lord in a time such as this?

As we hear Paul’s words, we must first bear in mind that Paul writes these words from within prison walls.  With every day he faced the possibility that he wouldn’t make it out alive.  

That is precisely why the peace he speaks of today is one that is not dependent upon circumstances; upon prosperity or upon the lack of hardship.  This is a peace that comes from Jesus Christ and him alone.  That is what makes this a peace that surpasses understanding—because peace is a miracle that Jesus creates in our lives through faith. 

So if peace is something you lack, you do not have to go very far to get it.  You have only to turn to Jesus.  That is where peace begins—in your relationship with him. 

When you were baptized, you were reborn into Christ.  This means that your life is firmly planted in him.  You are in Christ; in him you live and have your being.  This was not by your choice or by your own effort.  God does this FOR YOU and even IN SPITE OF YOU.  You are a child of God—and nothing will change that.

Peace begins in our relationship with Jesus—and prayer is our acceptance of this gift of relationship.  And prayer is far and away more than just asking.  Prayer is connecting with Jesus and knowing him so that we can become aware of the ways that he is already here and blessing us.  For peace, we are totally dependent upon Jesus—and he is not about to let us down; for to see peace is to see Jesus.

And since our lives are rooted in Christ, we are in a position to do more than just receive peace.  We are empowered to create it.

In our Gospel for today, John the Baptist is preaching before an audience of what we could consider as the misfits of his day; the tax collectors, the soldiers...  They, too, long for the peace of new life that comes only from God—and they ask him, “what should we do?”  Notice how John does not make drastic, life-altering demands and lofty requirements that none could ever meet.  He simply says, “whoever has two coats must share with the one who has none; the tax collectors must collect only the prescribed amount; the soldiers must not extort money but be satisfied with their wages.”  In other words, the opportunities to be peace-creators existed in their daily lives.  They didn’t need to do anything heroic to achieve it, but simply to recognize that their lives were sanctuaries for which they could join their neighbors in entering into the peace of God.

It’s the very same for us.  Opportunities abound in our lives to CREATE peace.  We are disciples who are being sent out into our everyday lives, seizing opportunities to let our gentleness be known to everyone; and to proclaim the love of Jesus in our words and especially our good deeds. 

In Christ, we receive peace—and we create peace.

We all hunger for the peace that passes understanding, especially this time of year.  So today, remember that your peace is found in Christ and Christ alone.  Don’t run yourself ragged trying to keep all the plates spinning.  You’ll never succeed.  Instead, remember that Christ is in you and you are in him.  Focus yourself on receiving every gift he gives you that will nourish your faith and knowledge of him.  Focus on your “rootedness” in Christ—and his peace will guard your heart and mind in everything else you have to do.  Your schools, your workplaces, your homes, your communities will all become sanctuaries to meet Jesus in your everyday life. 

So challenge yourself not only to seize every opportunity to receive his peace; seize every opportunity to create peace.  Leave behind your comfort zone and show your neighbor into the sanctuary of Christ’s peace with your loving words and especially your good deeds.  Your hunger for peace will be satisfied. 

Sometimes, it’ll be a peace that overwhelms your fears; sometimes that peace may be but the string of faith through which God guides you through the worst of times.  But you will have peace—because your human being is in the living Christ.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

We Shall Stand ~ Luke 3:1-8 ~ Second Sunday in Advent

Recently, a group of quantum physicists conducted an experiment that would resemble your typical school science class project...

They start out with two samples of pure water.  The first sample, they stored in bottles that were labeled with words that praised it for its beauty and purity.  The second sample was stored in bottles labeled with words and slogans that were nasty and demeaning. 

After several months, people drank the water from both bottles—and they noticed a difference.  The water with the nice labels was pure and refreshing; while the water with the nasty labels was cloudy and foul-tasting.

They went on to put samples under a microscope—and to no surprise, the molecules of the “nice water” were more orderly, while the “nasty water’s” molecules were all twisted and fuzzy.

This experiment is absolutely stunning—because we don’t think of water as something living, that words would have an impact on it.  But that’s exactly what happens! 

And you know what?  God does almost exactly the same with the waters of our baptism.  When we are baptized, God speaks over the water.  These are words that promise God’s unconditional love and forgiveness.  These are words that save us.  Even though we cannot see God’s power, or even to fully understand it, God is acting.  When God speaks, we will not be unaffected by it.

What great news this is—because there is so much that happens in life that tears us apart.  There are giants in our lives.  These giants are sicknesses and hurts; they are losses; they are fears; they are failures and regrets.  The greatest challenge of our faith is trusting in a God whom we cannot see in the presence of all these giants whom we cannot help but see...  Sometimes it is beyond belief that God is greater and more powerful than all these giants...

What giants are you facing today?

The third chapter of Luke’s Gospel begins with the naming of some of the giants who ruled during the time of Christ.  Some of these names will be familiar to us—like Pontius Pilate, King Herod, the Roman Emperor Tiberius, and the High Priests Annas and Caiaphas.  When hearing these names, the people in Jesus’ day  would be more than a little disturbed—because these were not nice people.  They were ruthless and corrupt.  They sat atop a political and religious system that exploited the common people for the benefit of themselves and a fortunate few.  And we will hear many of these names again—because they will be responsible for carrying out Jesus’ crucifixion.

But there’s a reason why Luke names these powerful men...   Luke sets them up—because God is about to knock them down!  A man by the name of John comes from the wilderness (in other words, from out of nowhere) to announce that the present order of things is about to be overturned.   God has taken on human flesh and walks upon the earth.  The world as we know it is about to be turned upside-down, and all the world sees the salvation of God.

For us, it all begins at our baptism.

The moment we are baptized, we are born anew.  Our baptism is the sign of God’s power washing over us and immersing us grace. 

We’re drawn out of a life that was dominated by fears and anxieties about what tomorrow will bring.  We’re drawn out of a life that was defined by our shortcomings and our failures.  And God uses each and every one of us to bring new life and healing to all that is broken and dead in the world.

Just because we cannot see God’s power—or understand how it works—does not mean that God isn’t working...

New life comes to us in the living Christ—and today, God is calling you to pay attention to what is underway.  That’s not always easy to do, especially when we’re under pressure; as the days bring more and more challenges; and most especially when we feel as though our prayers are going nowhere.

So today, if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the changes and challenges of life; if you’re afraid of what tomorrow will bring; or if you’re struggling to keep the faith through it all, challenge yourself to do this:

Name the giants in your life.  Name your losses; name your worries; name your fears; name your pains.  Name your sins—and all the things that you’re struggling to let go of so you can live as a disciple of Jesus.  Stand them all up before God—so that Jesus can knock them all down and raise you up to new life.

And remember that you are baptized.  You are sealed with the sign of the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.  This means that there is a greater power at work in your life than the things that have you feeling broken, and weak, and afraid.  That power is the love of God.  And even though we can’t see it or understand how it works, there is no greater power in the world than God’s.

God is on our side.  All will be okay.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Preparing to Meet Jesus ~ Luke 21:25-36 ~ First Sunday in Advent

A couple of years ago, my grandfather received a phone call.

The male voice on the other end identified himself as “your grandson,” but it wasn’t me.  And I’m his only grandson...

The “grandson” proceeds to tell him that he was in Canada.  He had just crashed a rental car and killed two people.  He was in jail—and he needed Grandpa to wire him $2,000 for bail.

Without hesitation, he goes down to the bank to take out the money. 

Fortunately for him, he had known the teller for years—and when she noticed that he wasn’t himself, he wasn’t afraid to tell her what was going on.  She then suggested that he call me back first before wiring the money.

That is when he learns that I wasn’t in Canada.  I’ve never even been to Canada... I was in my seminary dorm room studying...

This had all the makings of the perfect crime—the scammer creates the shock and horror of his grandson’s distress, throwing him so off guard that he gladly sends away a small fortune without question...

That’s how some thieves operate.  They strike when you’re most vulnerable.  You don’t see them coming—and they’re gone even before you know what happened.  Our only defense is to learn their tricks, and beware their traps.  Our best defense is being ready.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is preparing his disciples for his return—and for the chaos and calamity that would precede it.  He says that people will literally “faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.”  So Jesus speaks of these things ahead of time so they can be prepared.  When people panic in confusion over what is coming to pass, they must remember that these are signs that God’s redemption of all things is drawing near.  Jesus’ promises will give them the faith to stand firm and wait for their redeemer to come.

Now I don’t know about you, but I can’t help being afraid when I hear Jesus words.  Our world really feels like it is spinning out of control. The fact that a person can be robbed over the phone shows you just how crazy it has become.  And fear is the most natural human response—because we seldom have to look very hard for reasons to be afraid. 

Yet President Roosevelt was definitely spot-on when he said “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.”  Fear is the most irrational of all human emotions—because it drives us towards irrational behaviors.  Fear may drive us into hiding like a turtle hides itself in its shell, so that we think and act only for ourselves.  Fear may drive us into a fierce and hateful blaming towards people we believe are responsible for the world’s problems.  This is what we saw during the election season, and the awful things that people continue to say about those who embrace one political ideology over another.  Fear may even drive us to reckless and careless living.  Why not eat, drink, and be merry, if tomorrow brings doom and gloom? 

All told, when fear rules our lives, we lose our senses.  We lose our heads.  And we lose hope—because we lose sight of our redeemer.

That is precisely why Jesus commands us to be alert—because we can be so easily caught in the changes and challenges of life that we lose sight of Jesus.  It’s not that he’s absent; we just aren’t seeing him.  We get caught up in the traps of doubt and despair; and we lose our faith. 

But that won’t stop Jesus.  He loves us so much that he’s not about to allow this chaotic world to swallow us whole.  Whether we believe him or not; whether we see him or not; Jesus is with us.  Our redemption is drawing near.

As we hear these words, we mustn’t limit our understanding of “his coming” strictly to a defined point at the end of days—which may not happen in any of our lifetimes.  Jesus’ redemption is happening right now.  We are gathered here today because Christ is truly present in his words of promise and in the meal where he gives us his flesh and blood.  We are here today to meet Jesus in the presence of our fellow believers. And we are here today so that we can prepare to meet Jesus outside of these walls, in the neighbors who need our love and our good works and our testimony of Christ’s love. 

The Advent season is all about preparing for the living Christ to be born into our lives.  Jesus is coming into your life—and he is coming today.

So prepare to meet your Savior.  And as you go from this place today, think about all the ways that Jesus has come to you in the past week.  If that’s hard to do, think of the people who showed care and concern.  Remember the tough days when you wondered how you would ever make it through, and yet somehow you did.  Remember the things you worried about which all turned out alright.  It was Jesus, every time.

And Jesus will be even more of a presence in the coming week.  So make sure you pray, because prayer is God’s way of keeping you alert for his presence.  Be sure to meditate on his word of promise, so that you will know God’s grace and mercy when it comes your way.  And don’t be afraid to venture out of your comfort zone to share God’s love with another, because Jesus will be there in every person you bless in his name.

Sometimes Jesus comes in awesome displays of power and might, and other times he comes as but a whisper of grace.  But he will come.  So keep watch—and prepare to meet your Lord.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The True Meaning of Power ~ John 18:33-38 ~ Christ the King Sunday

This Thursday, two turkeys by the name of Cobbler and Gobbler became the luckiest turkeys in the United States...

Unlike most of their peers, they did not spend most of her Thanksgiving Day in the oven...  Instead, they were pardoned by the President of the United States from her mealtime fate, and now, they’ll live out the remainder of her days in a petting zoo. 

And while it may seem rather odd—or even a little ridiculous—that the most powerful office in the world is being exercised on behalf of a turkey, this yearly Thanksgiving tradition has much to teach us about the true meaning of power...

With exactly one month until Christmas day, our Gospel takes us not to the little town of Bethlehem, but instead to the headquarters of Pontius Pilate, whose name we mention every week as the man responsible for ordering Jesus’ death.

Pontius Pilate’s official role was governor of what we know as the Holy Land.  You can think of him as the Roman Emperor’s errand boy, whose job was to keep Jerusalem and the surrounding regions firmly under Roman control.  If he kept the Emperor happy, he and his family would enjoy a life of power, prestige, and wealth. 

But Pilate wasn’t the only person wielding power in Jerusalem.  Enter the religious authorities: the Pharisees, the scribes, and the high priest, Caiaphas.  These are the ones whom Jesus is constantly speaking out against; the ones he calls hypocrites and the brood of vipers. They all acted as the gatekeepers to the Temple, and therefore God himself.  Their song and dance routine was to control the people so that they worshipped and served God on their terms.  Naturally, any dissenters would be dealt with swiftly and harshly.

These people didn’t get their marching orders from Rome or from Pilate—but they still owed them both for the power they enjoyed.  So they bribed their way into power, using the money from the Temple treasury which came from taxes and offerings.  This way, they could look and act like they were in charge—and Pilate was happy to play along, provided they kept the cash flowing. 

Then along comes Jesus.  With his signs and miracles and teachings, people were believing that he was the way, the truth, and the life; that he was the way to the Father.  With Jesus, the people had no more need of the temple or the religious authorities.  This is why they were bound and determined to get rid of him.  That is why it was inevitable that Jesus would find himself on trial before Pilate.

Now history has always been a little sympathetic to Pilate.  After all, he found no fault in Jesus—and why should he?  Jesus never said a word about raising up an army to depose Rome.  Pilate knew he was innocent—and Pilate had every power to set him free.  And if the religious authorities didn’t like it, too bad. 

But they didn’t like it.  They wanted Jesus dead.  And if Pilate didn’t play along, he’d be putting all his power, prestige, and wealth in jeopardy.  So Pilate gives in—and in so doing, shows himself to be, in fact, quite power-less.

For Pilate and the religious stooges, their power rested in their ability to get their own way.  And as we see in Jesus’ crucifixion, there was no limit to the brutality by which they would try and hold on to it.  At the same time, their power was quite fragile—because if they offended the wrong people, they could quickly find themselves on a cross...

But Jesus, on the other hand, will show us what true power really is.  Instead of using his power as God’s only Son to ruthlessly oppress and subjugate people for his own benefit,  Jesus uses his power to set us free.  He lays down his life at his own accord for the sake of the world that he loves.  He offers himself as the perfect sacrifice that reconciles a sinful world to God.  Thanks to Jesus, there is nothing that we have to do to get right with God; Jesus does it all for us.  That’s grace, plain and simple.  That is what makes Jesus a different kind of king. 

And furthermore, because of Jesus, the powers of evil and death that wreak so much havoc have no ultimate power over us.  They can cause us pain, they may even take our lives, but their power is no match for Jesus Christ.  Christ the King makes us free—and he will always have the last word over our ultimate destiny. 

As people who believe in Jesus Christ and call upon his name for our salvation, we are given the power to become the children of God.  And we are called to use our power, as Jesus does, for the benefit of others—to set them free from whatever binds them in darkness and despair.  So easily we forget how much power we have from God—to do God-sized works.

What gifts can you give to set people free from poverty and need?  What gifts can you give to free people from loneliness and isolation?  How can you share the gift of your faith, so to free people from despair and hopelessness?  Over the past week, we celebrated Thanksgiving for the purpose of remembering all of the ways God has blessed us.  Now, it’s time for us to ask God how we can use these blessings to set others free.  And there is not one person here today who is without power to set another free.

So in this season of giving, remember the power you already have to set others free—and discover the true joy of the Lord.

You yourself are God’s gift to the world for setting others free—so challenge yourself to participate in the life of your king and feel the power that comes with doing good in our King’s name.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Living as People of Hope ~ Mark 13:1-8 ~ 25th Sunday after Pentecost

It used to be that I’d watch 24-hour cable news channels as a way of boring myself to sleep...  I stayed awake long enough to see the headlines, and once the news started repeating itself, I’d nod off and the sleep timer took care of the rest...

That was before September 11, 2001...when the world became a much scarier place to live.

Anymore, You can’t NOT pay attention to the news because it is so disturbing...  Every day we hear of wars and terrorist attacks, political upheaval, natural disasters, and economic turmoil...

Now that the election’s over, we’re faced with the “looming fiscal cliff,” which threatens our fragile economy with a tidal wave of tax increases and a tsunami of government debt.

All told, our world is not all that dissimilar to what Jesus is describing in today’s Gospel.  So what are we to think?  Is the end coming soon?

There are many prominent voices within modern Christianity, telling us, that yes—we are living in the end times.

There are best-selling books and blockbuster movies, all of which place the end times in our time. 

Some people go as far as to pinpoint the exact date of judgment day, claiming that the Bible revealed it to be so.  And, sadly, they have led many astray. 

When Jesus’ disciples ask him for signs as to when the end will be, Jesus gives them no time-table—because there’s none to be had.  That information simply isn’t for us to know.

All Jesus says is that there will be great trials and tribulations in the world before his return.  Disciples will be hated and persecuted on account of their testimony.  Families will be divided—and lives will be lost—because of Jesus.

And none of these events shall serve to tell us when the end will be.  All we can know is that the end is coming.  And while this may sound like frightening news, Jesus does not speak these words to make us afraid.  Jesus gently warns us of these things so that we won’t think it unusual when they come to pass.  When persecution and suffering come to pass, the devil is going to be right there telling us either that God has rejected us, or that God isn’t real.  Jesus does not want you to be fooled.  Persecution and suffering are the norm for a disciple of Jesus. 

Yet this is good news.  If we are dragged into court on account of our faith, Jesus promises that the Spirit will give us the words.  If parents or children turn against us, Jesus will still be on our side. 

As the earth trembles, as waters rage, as the nations war, we have nothing to fear.  We will be okay in the end.  Jesus will meet us in our hardships—and care for us every step of the way. For it is in suffering and turmoil that Jesus is born into our lives. 

So let us not get caught up in trying to know the “ifs” and “whens” of Christ’s return.  This is one case where the devil truly is in the details—because you won’t see Jesus if you’re trying to know the unknowable.  Jesus’ work is redeeming the world he loves from the destructive forces that torment it.  So this is where we need to be.  This is where we will see Jesus.  This is where we receive his power.

When death and destruction strike, let us fight back by caring for those who are broken.  When evil strikes, let us fight back by remembering that God’s enemies will never have the last word.  When all signs point to our faith being in vain, let us fight back by remembering Jesus’ promises, and remembering all the ways he’s helped us in ages past.  Nothing can take Jesus away from us—and therefore, nothing can take away our hope.

Hope.  That is what our neighbors need, that is what we need.  This world and its ways are tearing people apart.  And because of that, people need communities of faith just like ours to make it through. With so many lonely and isolated, people need the genuine community of love and support we can provide.  With so many in poverty, people need our gifts of time, talent and treasure.  With so many afraid at what tomorrow may bring, the world needs our church to proclaim the words of God, telling us all that we are going to be okay.  The church may not be what it was in yesteryear, but the world’s need for the church of Jesus is growing by leaps and bounds.  Jesus is our hope—and our work is to make that hope a reality.

We are not a persecuted church—and this is a freedom that not all Christians know.  So let us be good stewards of this marvelous gift by sharing the good news, until the whole world hears the truth.  Christ has overcome the world—and so shall we.  In the meantime, God will take care of us—and see to it that we make it safely to the end, to be raised to new life.

So come, Lord Jesus, come.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Give Until You Rejoice ~ 1 Kings 17:8-16 ~ 24th Sunday After Pentecost

I wasn’t in history class that I first learned about the Great Depression...  I learned about it from my grandparents who survived it.

My grandmother on my mother’s side grew up in a small coal mining town in Greene County called Crucible.

Her father was a coal miner—and in those days, if you worked in the mines, the mining company was your whole world.  They owned the house you lived in and the stores you shopped in...  And the wages were anything but fair.  A miner was paid based upon the amount of coal he dug out of the ground—and if he didn’t get enough, he would end up in debt to the mining company for the cost of the oil for his miner’s hat light.

He was never without work during the depression—but the family was down to its last dime at one point...  With that, he purchased a can of beans from the company store, and that was their dinner.  There was no guarantee that there would be food on the table tomorrow...

Without a doubt, it was the worst of times—and if there is any vibe to be read from this election season, it is that there is a tremendous fear that we may be headed there again...

That is one reason why the stories from 1 Kings and Mark are very hard to hear. 

In 1 Kings, there is a widow who gives the last of her food to a man she just met, who claims to speak for God; and later at the temple, a widow puts the last of her money into the treasury.  In both cases, their acts left them destitute.  How could they do such a thing—and why?

The trouble with the Gospel story is we know very little about who or what compelled that widow to give what little she had.

On the other hand, we do know a little bit more about the widow of Zarephath...  Elijah spoke the very words of God to her, which promised her that if she provided for Elijah, she would have enough to eat until the rains returned to the drought-ridden land.  And, remarkably, she believes Elijah; she trusts God’s promise.

What a remarkable transformation we see: when Elijah first met the widow, all hope was lost.  But after hearing God’s Word, she gives what little she has, because now, she has hope.  This was a hope offering; not one made out of fear or guilt.  This was an act of faith—and that is what the widow teaches us.

Giving must be an act of faith—because we will never have to look very hard for reasons NOT to give or be generous with the gifts God has given us.

First of all, we know just how much need there is—and when we consider what gifts and abilities we have, they will always seem so insignificant, that we wonder, “how can I make any difference?”

But the biggest challenge to our acts of giving comes from what we see in the two stories: scarcity.  Both widows’ acts of giving put them in the position of being without.  That’s not a position we want to be in.  We don’t want to be without, do without, and fall short of meeting other people’s expectations.  And that will compel us either to give only what we can comfortably spare—or not give at all.  And this is wrong—because God’s love isn’t ruling our lives.  Instead, we’re being ruled by fear and by worry—because we’re too afraid to risk ourselves and our security for the sake of others.  Where is the joy in that?

On the other hand, the joy of the Lord is in giving.  Jesus became a human being and gave of himself for the life of the world.  The invitation for you today is to join him in bringing hope and new life into the world.  Jesus is not out to lay a guilt trip on you and shame you into giving.  Instead, Jesus is affirming that you have the gifts and the abilities to make a difference in the world just the way you are today.  At the same time, he is inviting grow in your faith by trusting him so much that you’ll risk yourselves and your security and see for yourself that your trust will never be in vain.  We all know how quickly health, wealth, and prosperity can disappear.  So God is leading us to receive the indescribably-greater blessings that come by living as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

And you know what else?  Your acts of giving will be far more effective in proclaiming God’s goodness than any words could ever be. 

What a day full of grace we had, right here, yesterday, with our clothing closet.  In these tough and discouraging times, we experienced the grace and goodness of God through the simplest acts of kindness.  About an hour after we opened our doors, a man came up to me and said “the Holy Spirit is alive in this place, I can feel it!”  And how amazing it was, that with all the need there is, there was more than enough to meet people’s needs.  Life may be so difficult, but God is good.  God’s joy is in giving himself through Jesus Christ for the sake of the world.  So hear God’s call to enter that joy.

Challenge yourself to give so generously that “it hurts a little bit.”  But don’t get wrapped up in the hurt.  Seek the joy of giving.

Discover the greater gifts God will give you; greater than what the marketplace, the easy chair, the television, and even your dreams could ever offer. 

Imagine your life and your world being ruled by hope and not fear.  Imagine hope abounding on our streets and in our homes.  Imagine the peace and joy of the Lord filling hearts and minds.  Imagine—then let us act—and see what God can do...

Sunday, November 4, 2012

What Do You Believe? ~ John 11:32-44 ~ All Saints Sunday

The story we heard from the Gospel is one that will be familiar to many of us—even if we’ve never even heard it before...  We’ve lived it...

At some point in the past, Jesus came into our lives when we may not have been expecting him or even seeking him.  It wasn’t difficult to put our faith in him—because we saw his love all around us.  Prayers were answered.  His help came when we needed it.  We had his peace.  Life was never the same again...

But when tragedy strikes, Jesus is nowhere to be found...

This was the experience of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha.  Lazarus becomes gravely ill—and immediately, the two sisters send word to Jesus.  But he stays where he was.  Lazarus gets even sicker, until finally, he dies—and still, they wait on Jesus.  After four more days, Jesus finally shows up—and it’s too late.

So where is Jesus when tragedy strikes...when prayers are unanswered...when someone we love dies?

What does Jesus expect us to do when all signs point to his cold and cruel absence?

For answers to those questions, we turn to the Gospel...

There, we see that Jesus does not abandon his friends when he needs them most.  Even as they cry out to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” he does not reject them for their anger or their disappointment. 

Jesus loved these women dearly—as he loved Lazarus.  He was heartbroken that death had struck the lives of his friends. He knew the dreadful power he was up against—because he would soon be facing it head-on at the cross.  But Jesus had a plan.  Death was not going to win.  And being a few days late wasn’t going to thwart that plan one bit...

So they go to the tomb... 

Now, at this point, we’d expect Jesus to perform a miracle, with everyone watching in amazement.  But that’s not what happens...

Jesus tells the people that they must roll away the stone—even as Martha reminds everyone that the smells of death are very much still in the air.

All signs were still pointing to more disappointment; that all they were going to find behind the stone was death.  But Jesus assures them that if they have faith, they will see the glory of God.

Against all odds, they act on their faith by rolling the stone away. 

At Jesus’ Word, Lazarus comes out of the tomb.  Still, Jesus has more work for the people to do—because Lazarus is still bound in strips of cloth.  Once again, they must act on their faith by unbinding him from the grave clothes—not knowing what they’re going to find underneath. 

In the end, they see the glory of God—because they believed Jesus’ word.  First, they confronted the reality of death head on; complete with all its sights and smells.  Then, they answered Jesus’ call to act on their, faith against all the odds.  They saw with their own eyes that death would not have the last word in Jesus’ world. 

That is what this Gospel teaches us—that Jesus can work through every hardship and every loss for the sake of our redemption.  But we must have faith if we are to receive his healing—and not just any faith; a faith that expects to see the glory of God.  We must have a faith that acts...

The tragedies of life have a way of binding us in a darkness that feels as though there is no escaping.  We interpret all of the hardships and frustrations as signs of Jesus’ absence—and resign ourselves to living out our days in fear and misery.  But that is the worst thing we can do—because we are surrendering to the very powers that Jesus defeated at Golgotha. 

Faith, on the other hand, is a bold defiance of death.  It’s more than just the belief in life after death; it is believing that Jesus is right there with you and all who are hurting.  It is also hearing Jesus calling us out of the dark places so to receive his healing. 

Acting on faith means that we receive him where he promises to come to us—in prayer; in Scripture; in sacrament.

One of the most powerful ways that we receive Jesus’ healing is by participating in the healing work Jesus is doing in the world, just we see him doing throughout the Gospels.  He’s caring for those who hurt.  He’s befriending those who are lonely.  He’s giving to those who are in need.  His love is freeing people from misery and despair.

If we as a church do these very things, there’s no limit to the healing that Jesus can accomplish through us.  Jesus can use each one of us to unbind our neighbors from misery and despair and bring them to new life.  And we will be healed as we become Jesus’ healers..  We’ll see that truth, that death will never have the last word in God’s world.

There is healing for all who will hear Jesus call to come to him and believe.  We can bring to him our every hurt, and even our anger and our frustration.  We can bring to him our fears and our worries.  We can bring ourselves to him just as we are, even if we’re the worst sinner in the world—and he will never, ever, reject us.

Jesus is compassionate.  He is faithful.  And whatever the tragedy, whatever the loss, Jesus will always have the last word.  He will work in your life, through that loss, to bring you to a knowledge of his glory.  So hear his call.  Come out of the darkness.  Discover his love for you in the Body of Christ.  Participate in his work.  Receive is healing.  And wait with hope for the life that is to come.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The hardest Truth? ~ Romans 3:19-28 ~ Reformation Sunday ~ October 28, 2012

Last month, our adult Sunday school studied a lesson series entitled “Lutheranism 101.”  The series begins with a question: “are we Lutherans people of a culture—or a confession?”

Usually when I think of being Lutheran, I tend to lean to the cultural end of things...  Like how we’ll stand in line for hot coffee when it’s ninety degrees outside and we don’t have air conditioning...  Or how we instinctively take the back seats in a room...  I remember so many Sundays when the most memorable words I heard were “bring a side dish or dessert...”

Yes, we have our ways, but those things don’t make us a Church...  We are people of a confession; meaning that our church and our faith are built upon a set of fundamental truths that come straight from the pages of God’s Word.  These truths are what launched the European Reformations almost five hundred years ago—and they are the basis for our life and witness to the world here today.

Chief of these truths can be found in our second lesson from Romans 3, that...

“...there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, but they are now justified by his grace that is in Christ Jesus...”

To be a Lutheran means that our faith is built upon these promises.  And keep in mind that these promises apply to those who aren’t Lutheran, but to all who put their faith in them.

We pull no punches on the problem of sin... We recognize that we are all, all sinners; and that there is no person or persons who are more righteous in God’s eyes based upon all the good things they’ve done and the bad things they’ve never done.  “There is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

But we don’t see this truth as a reason for beating ourselves up.  We don’t take this as cause for living in fear or in shame... 

In fact, we don’t have to worry about whether or not we’re good enough for God to love us.  God in Jesus Christ took up the cause of getting us right with God.  He suffered the condemnation we deserved by dying on a cross, and through that cross he gives us his righteousness.  This means that God does not see you for your failings or your shortcomings.  God does not look upon you with disgust.  Instead, God sees in you a beloved child.  And as a beloved child, God will do whatever it takes to ensure that we love in his love forever.

How awesome a truth as this: that you are loved. 

And how hard it is to believe such a truth.

The greatest lies the devil will ever tell you are:

1)      that there is no devil; and,

2)      that God could never love someone like you. 

If the devil can’t convince you of the first, the devil’s going to move right on to convincing you of the second.  And the devil’s work in this department isn’t very hard.

Years ago the man who hired me for my first job in business management told me, “no one ever says ‘thank you’ or ‘good job’ in this business.  The only feedback you’ll ever get is that you’ve failed and that you’re best is not good enough.”  How true his words proved to be...

I don’t think any of us realize just how often we are reminded of our own imperfections every single day.  There’s always someone to tell us that we’re not working hard enough or fast enough.  Our celebrity-obsessed culture always reminds us that unless we look a certain way or dress a certain way or act a certain way, we’re nobody.  Our material-obsessed culture tells us that if we don’t have the best stuff, our life is meaningless.  And to top that all off, the people in our lives and the commitments of our lives make demands of us that we try with all our might to satisfy but seldom ever do. 

So how can you believe in God’s unconditional love with so many voices telling us that you’re not good enough?  And sometimes, there is no voice saying this to you more often than your own...

How quickly we forget, “Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so...  Little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong.” 

That is what we celebrate here today—that God has acted through the suffering and death of Christ to bring us into a right relationship with God’s own self. Our sins are nailed to the cross and we bear them no more. 

You are freed from the deadly grip of sin to live in the peace and the joy of God’s love.  And you are free to share that peace and joy with others—because Jesus’ righteousness is now yours.

Far too many people in this world know no kind of unconditional love.  It is all too rare that someone will experience patience or generosity or forgiveness just because they need it.  This is our opportunity.  We can show grace to our world.  We can meet people’s needs.  We can testify to all the world that God has not forsaken the world, but that God so loves the world and that God is in the world.  We can make a difference because we are loved by God- and because we believe that God can and will use us to do good in the world.  And God will be pleased by our offerings, even if the good we do doesn’t turn out like we’d hoped.

So hear the truth, see the truth, and taste the truth—that Christ is given for you.  You are claimed, you are saved, you are loved.

This is what it means to be a Lutheran.  This is what it means to be a Christian.  We are children of God, claimed for eternity, and sent to love the world that Jesus loves.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Cost of Dependence ~ Mark 10:17-31 ~ Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost ~ October 14, 2012

One of the first things Elizabeth and I discovered about each other is that we are both very cost-conscious people...

We are coupon cutters and bargain hunters—and we never pay full price for anything.

That’s why we buy “Crispy Hexagon Cereal” instead of Crispix for breakfast...  That’s why we drink Dr. Thunder instead of Dr. Pepper...  That’s why we enjoy meals out at Arby’s more than we do the really fancy places...

The struggling economy has forced just about all of us to be cost conscious.  At the same time, none of us enjoys a super-abundance of time and energy.  There are always things that we would love to be able to have and to do—but there’s only so much of ourselves to go around.  Every purchase and every commitment we undertake comes at a cost—and there always comes a point where the cost becomes too much...and we must say no, and walk away…

This was indeed the case for the “would-be” disciple in today’s Gospel...

He runs up to Jesus, kneels down before him, and asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?

Now this would seem a strange question for him to ask, because he has kept all of the commandments.  He firmly believes that he has not fallen short of keeping God’s Law, and yet, there he is, begging.  What must I do?

But Jesus does not tell him what he should do.  Jesus tells him what he lacks, what he must receive—and what he must become to receive it...

Here is a man who is used to relying on his riches and his righteousness in order to gain whatever he’s needed.  These are his security.  These are what he has built his life upon; these are what give his life meaning and purpose.  But to inherit eternal life, he is completely dependent on the mercy of God in Jesus Christ—just like a person who’s poor; just like a person who’s a sinner; just like a child.

To inherit eternal life, he must become as one who is dependent on God for everything.  But first, he must suffer the loss of everything.

This is why he goes away grieving.  He cannot let go…

Now we may not have much in common with this rich man.  None of us has the wealth of kings and queens to be able to buy whatever we want—and I don’t think anyone here would honestly say that they’ve kept every commandment perfectly since birth.

But we, too, struggle with the problem of cost when it comes to following Jesus. 

When Jesus calls us to follow him, there are a lot of things in our lives that we would rather not let go of, because they bring security and meaning and even enjoyment to our lives.  It’s not that Jesus is telling us that we literally have to divest ourselves of everything we have, but he is teaching us that we cannot be attached to them.

Have you ever found yourself thinking, “as long as I have this or I can do that, everything will be okay?”  We become attached to wealth and health; our careers, our relationships, our interests.  We can’t imagine life without them because we build our lives upon them.  We do not want to lose of them, let alone let go of them.  But we know all too well how quickly these can disappear; we know all too well the turmoil and the pain when we suffer the tragedy of loss…

Today, Jesus is calling us to let go of everything we count on to bring us security and meaning and enjoyment, so that we become fully and completely dependent on him.

But these words are an invitation; not a demand we have to meet in order to become fit for heaven.  These words are an invitation for Jesus to become the one who meets your needs and guides you through life.

When we become dependent on Jesus, he will be our Savior.  He will provide for our daily needs.  He will give us strength to make it through tough times.  He will bring joy and meaning and purpose to your life.

So if you are ready to become a disciple, you begin by giving Jesus the first-fruits of who you are and what you have.  You give Jesus the first moments of your day; giving him thanks before you enjoy your meals; giving him the first-fruits of your treasures before you buy the things you need and want.  You begin by striving to meet the needs of others with the same urgency as you meet your own.

It is not too high a cost to put Christ first because you will receive treasures in heaven as Christ comes to rule in your life.  God’s promises will become more real to you; and he will become the one sure rock and fortress for you to build your life upon.  God will not fail to take care of you, whether times are good or times are tough.

Today, God’s Word announces to you that the Holy Spirit is going to be working on your heart and transforming it so that Jesus is your Lord.  Your life will not be rooted in that which is so easily lost, but instead in the unfailing and amazing grace of God.  So don’t be afraid of what the Spirit will do, because you will taste the goodness of the glorious future that awaits you.