Sunday, December 29, 2013

Love Always Wins ~ Matthew 2:13-23 ~ First Sunday of Christmas

Sometimes, it’s tremendously awkward to read from one of the four Gospels, and then to conclude with the words “the Gospel of our Lord.”  Case in point: today’s “gospel.”  The word “gospel” is supposed to mean “good news”—but sometimes, you don’t hear any…

When we open the Bible, we’re hungry for good news in a world where bad news is pumped into our living rooms around the clock.  One local TV network calls their newscast “eyewitness news”—and appropriately so.  Tune in, and instantly you become an eyewitness to the suffering of humanity. 

Today’s Gospel reminds us of what has been true since the beginning of time: that cosmic forces of evil are at war against God and God’s people. 

Jesus had just been born.  The Magi had just visited the infant and presented their gifts.  But the time of joy and celebration is not to last. 

King Herod learned from the wise men that the King of the Jews was born in Bethlehem.  Herod is the King of the Jews (in the political sense)—which means that this newborn king will comprise a direct threat to the power and riches he enjoys from his throne.  Consumed by greed and desperate to hold onto his power, Herod hatches a deadly plan. 

Joseph is immediately warned in a dream of the firestorm of death Herod is about to unleash.  So now Jesus and his parents are on the run—and precious, innocent lives become victims to human greed and cruelty at their worst. 

Flash forward two thousand years later, and very little has changed in the world.  Atrocities not all that different from this one are happening all around the world, every single day.  Everywhere, there is wailing and lamentation, just as there was in Bethlehem so long ago.

And yet, in spite of the carnage he creates, Herod’s war against God is a total failure.  God protects Jesus—and ultimately, it is Herod who dies.  Jesus will go on to take his throne as the ruler of all Creation.  Yet we all know that he will suffer the powers of evil to their fullest extent before he ascends to it.  Jesus will suffer hell on the cross.  But the cross will mark the beginning of God’s victory over all the forces of evil.  The empty tomb shall forever be the sure sign, for all the world, that NOTHING will thwart the coming of God’s Kingdom and the reign of Christ.

What this means for you is that when the powers of evil wage war against you, the power of God will save you in the end.

Evil has its power—but God’s power is always greater.

When we are the ones who are wailing in agony in the aftermath of tragedy, we can take comfort in knowing that the power of God will be working in and through that tragedy to accomplish God’s gracious will for your life.  The power of resurrection shall overcome the most heinous evil, the most horrific disasters, and the most deadly of diseases. 

Not only that, the power of God is sufficient to overcome of the sin and its dreadful consequences.  The devil’s greatest victory would be to snatch you out of God’s love—and that is why the enemy is so tireless in tempting you and luring you deeper and deeper into sin—until you would be completely alienated from God.  But there is no sin that’s beyond God’s forgiveness—and there is no sinner who is beyond God’s power to be freed and reborn a new creation. 

Finally, because evil’s power is no match for God’s power, we as the Body of Christ have the ability to fight back against all the evils in the world—and actually gain ground against them.  We can crush the devil as we forgive sins; as we give generously of God’s generosity to us; as we meet our neighbors’ needs; as we pray; and as we give testimony to God’s mercy and love.  We can build communities where there is peace and where the needs of all persons are met.  Christian love and Christian witness will always put the devil on the run.

In God’s world, love always wins.

Weeping may last through the night, but joy shall come in the morning. 

So remember—that no matter what you may be going through; whether it’s something terrible you’ve done or something terrible that’s happening to you, the power of Christ’s resurrection is upon you.  Nothing is going to stop God’s gracious will from being accomplished in your life.  The destroyer is going to be destroyed.  And until that day comes, God will be faithful.  If you believe and trust in Jesus, you will become an eyewitness to the power of Christ’s resurrection at work in your life, winning the victory over sin and all enemies, most especially death.

Fear not—God’s love always wins.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Comfort and Joy ~ Luke 2:1-20 ~ The Nativity of Our Lord

On July 22 of this year, good news made headlines around the world: the British royal baby, Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge, was born. 

We can be certain that only the best doctors and medical professionals were on hand for his birth.  Security was tight—and only those of royal blood would be there to witness the event.  The rest of the world would have to wait until the following evening to meet the newborn-future-king, when Prince Charles and Princess Catherine emerged from the hospital, to take the child home to Kensington Palace. 

It is a fairy-tale come true for all the world to see.  But there was a royal birth 2,000 years ago that was definitely no fairy tale.

A violent-and bloodthirsty emperor, who ironically declares himself as “savior of the world,” decides to flex his political muscles by ordering a global census.  Multitudes of persons, most of whom were very poor, are forced to travel, at their own expense, to the town of their ancestry to register for taxes.  This included a teenage mother-to-be, betrothed to a man who wasn’t the father of her child.  With the child due at any time, they set out on the ninety-mile trip to Bethlehem that would have taken days

When they finally arrive, the time has come for the baby to be born.  What’s worse, there is no lodging 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.

There was no comfort or joy to be had; just the dark and cold of night…

And then, in that dreadful night, God acts…  The Christ child is born; the savior of the world.   God’s gift of comfort and joy now sleeps on the hay in a manger. 

The circumstances of this birth have much to teach us about who this king will be for you and for me…  The fact that he’s a king does not mean that he’ll be living like one…

Surely, Jesus deserved to be born in the finest of castles; in the presence of the most skilled physicians.  But God chose the manger because so many of God’s people are poor.

Surely, Jesus deserved to be surrounded with the holiest of people at his birth.  But God chooses shepherds because Jesus is born to be the Savior of all persons—particularly those whom the rest of the world would count as unsuitable and unworthy of becoming God’s very own. 

We celebrate Jesus’ birth because God has personally joined us in the difficult realities of our human existence.  He’s here hear our cries and strengthen us by his presence.  He’s here to bear away the sin of the world by the power of the body and blood he gives to us.  And he’s here so that we may know the power of his resurrection as he delivers us through all the disappointments, heartbreaks, and fiery trials of life. 

Jesus is our comfort and joy because he is with us, whatever we’re going through.  He is our comfort and joy because his love for us is not based upon what we deserve.  He is our comfort and joy because he gives us a life we cannot get for ourselves what we cannot give ourselves—a relationship of peace with the Creator of the universe, and life that is ever-lasting. 

This is good news of great joy for all people.  But the news will not always be easy to believe or trust.

The peace and beauty of this night is soon to pass, and we’ll return to the struggles and challenges of daily life.  The comfort and joy we need from Jesus will not always come as easily or as quickly as we’d like.  The world and its evil ways will constantly give us reasons to doubt in the truth of God’s promises.  At the same time, we’ll be constantly tempted to believe that comfort and joy can be found in what we buy, what we do, the success we achieve, and the approval we try to gain from others. 

But true comfort and joy is found only in Christ.  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 water, wine, word and bread.  You even meet Christ in the people you serve. 

You don’t have to be royalty to live a life of comfort and joy.  Jesus makes his home with us, amid the struggles and challenges of our lives.  He was born for you, so that you may know the power of his love and compassion and forgiveness, all the days of your life.  God’s gift of comfort and joy is living in relationship with God’s only Son.  You won’t find it presents and traditions; you can’t earn it with hard work of stumble upon it with good luck.  It is given to you by God.  

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Where's My Christmas? ~ Matthew 11:2-15 ~ Third Sunday of Advent

This Thanksgiving day at Mom & Dad’s house, my mother comes downstairs carrying a box labeled ‘childhood memories.’ The box is packed full of photographs, finger-paintings, and various other relics from my childhood. 

One such picture was of me sitting on Santa’s lap at the mall.  Mom proceeded to tell her that when Santa asked me what I wanted, and I paused, thought for a moment, and then told him: “I haven’t really decided yet!”

I thought about this last Sunday afternoon as I ate lunch at the Happy Day CafĂ©—because Mr. and Mrs. Claus were walking through the restaurant, asking people what they wanted. 

Immediately I got “Santa stage fright” all over again—because Legos and Power Wheels don’t interest me like they used to. 

So when he finally gets to our table, he asks me: “have you been a good boy this year?”  I’m actually relieved! 

Now sure, there’s a lot of high-tech gadgets and shiny things I’d love to have

What I’d really love for Christmas is some answered prayers…  Wouldn’t you?  A little peace, a little rest; perhaps a miracle or two in the season of miracles…

Because, quite frankly, it’s difficult to rejoice at the birth of Christ when life is so full of sorrow, pain, and anxiety.  The gift of Christ can come as quite a letdown—especially while seemingly everyone else is enjoying storybook family gatherings of peace, health, and happiness, with all the high-tech gadgets and shiny things wrapped with fancy paper and ribbons, waiting under the tree. 

Sometimes, you just can’t help but ask, “where’s my Christmas?”

If anyone in the New Testament ever knew what it was like to be let down by Jesus, John the Baptist would be it…

Here was a man who faithfully lived out God’s purpose for his life.  He was “the voice crying out in the desert, ‘prepare the way of the Lord; make his pathways straight.’”  He prepared the way for the coming of Christ into the world.  People repented of their sin and were baptized.  John was fully worthy to be the one to baptize Jesus, and to witness the Holy Spirit coming upon him as a dove. 

His faithfulness to God eventually led him to be thrown into prison for his public decrial of “King” Herod Antipas’ sinful exploits with his brother’s wife.

Now knowing Jesus to be the Messiah (beyond the shadow of a doubt, based upon what he’d witnessed personally), John was expecting Jesus to overthrow the corrupt rulers who held God’s people captive, and establish the Kingdom of God on earth.  When that happened, he’d be free.  But that doesn’t happen—and the doubts and the questioning begin.  Finally, John sends his disciples to Jesus, to ask him plainly, “are you the one?  Or should we expect someone else?”

Jesus’ reply is to tell John what John already knows—the blind see; the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed; the deaf hear; the dead are raised; and the poor hear the good news of God’s reign.   Jesus doesn’t even tell John in person—John’s disciples deliver the message. 

How is this good news for John in his present circumstances?  What hope is there for him as he remains in prison?  And what hope is there for us who just keep waiting? 

Every day it’s winter—but when will it be Christmas?

This Advent, we light out candles because Christ is in the world—and today, he affirms that he is doing something about human suffering.  He’s in the hospitals, the nursing homes, and the hospices; the prisons and the halfway houses; the shelters and soup kitchens; the disaster and war zones; in broken homes with broken families and broken people.  In other words, he’s with people like us and our neighbors. 

And he’s there when the bad news comes—as bodies weaken and minds fade away; when the boss calls you in and says, “I’m sorry;” when the money runs out; and when life slips away.

Therefore, we can do as John does: we name our disappointments to Jesus—along with our doubts and our questions.  And then we light our lamps to wait in hopeful expectation that Jesus will bring our deliverance.

Sadly, we don’t know what deliverance God brought to John—just as we don’t know what deliverance  Jesus will bring to us—or when, or how.  But Jesus didn’t forget John—and he won’t forget you.  Wait in trust and hope, and he will come.  Faith means keeping the light on, trusting that Jesus will come—and that you will have your Christmas.

Let’s not forget that your Christmas may be where your neighbors wait for God in their time of need.  Remember, Jesus is always with those who need him most—and when you go and serve them, you bring Jesus with you.  You bring the gift of Christ and Christmas with your acts of compassion and mercy; forgiveness and patience; prayer and encouragement.  It doesn’t matter who you are; where you’ve been, or how broken you may be—as a child of God, the power do the work of God’s deliverance is in you.  The healing you give may very well be the healing you receive from Christ.

Just nine days remain in our Advent season until Christmas—but Christ’s Advent may indeed last beyond December 25th.  But Christ will come.  The dark and cold of winter will give way to Christmas.  So lift up your heads, light your lamps—your long-expected Jesus comes.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Lighting Our Candles for Hope ~ Isaiah 11:1-10 ~ Second Sunday of Advent

I’ve said on more than one occasion that the sciences were never my strong suit in school.  In fact, my only near-death experience happened in a high school chemistry lab…

So I wasn’t thrilled to get to college, and learn that every student had to take two semesters’ worth of science courses…

Thankfully, they offered a year-long course for people like me who’d identify a beaker as one of the Muppets

They called it Fundamentals of the Universe  The purpose of the course was to teach us the basic scientific laws that govern all that exists in the universe. 

Now I’m no biologist, but there are more than just a few scientific anomalies in the words of the prophet Isaiah:

·         Cut down trees don’t come back to life

·         Wolves do not lie down with lambs or leopards with goats

·         Lions and bears don’t graze

·         Children don’t play with poisonous snakes

Nature can be beautiful—but it can also be cruel.  That’s reality. 

Take a look at the world and the times we’re living in right now, there are realities that we’d definitely not call “nice.”

·         Our society’s getting more and more secular

·         It’s getting harder and harder for families make ends meet

·         The lack of good-paying jobs is making this a depressed community

·         We’re all getting older, and age deteriorates our bodies and minds

·         Death separates us from those we love…

·         We all make mistakes—and sometimes, those mistakes have lasting consequences. 

As we endure these heartbreaking realities, they have tremendous power to shape our expectations for the future.  Without even thinking, we make some dreadful assumptions about what the future will be:

·         That this country is going to destroy itself

·         That our church and Christianity will one day cease to exist

·         The mistakes of my past determine my future

·         Life can never again be good since things will never again be the way they used to be. 

This is one of the greatest dangers facing Christians—and Christianity in general.  The worse things get, the more we believe that God is totally removed from our existence, holding back from us what we need, leaving us to flounder.  We become so consumed by what is bad and what is wrong that God pretty much ceases to exist. 

That’s a problem—for if we are completely fixated on what is tragic and terrible, we won’t see Christ in the world.  We will not be ready when he comes.

Someday soon, Christ will destroy all the tragic realities of our human existence.  All will see him in his glory; all creation will live together in justice, peace, and love.  But we’re not there yet.  Today, our Savior comes in the most humble of ways.  He is born to an unwed teenage mother in a Roman-occupied world.  He lives among the least and the lost of the people.  He abides amid the tragic realities of our existence.  He dies; despised, rejected and alone.  He’s born with us; he lives among us, he dies like us. 

This is good news—because the power that can make the lion lie down with the lamb has come upon the world today.

Christ comes as a shoot growing forth from a stump—as new life rising out of the ashes of death.

We light the candles of Advent so that our eyes may be opened to the reality of God blooming all around us—and not with fireworks or fanfare, but softly, quietly, and humbly  We light our lamps to behold Christ coming into the hurt and messiness of life to begin the work of resurrection. 

Just consider our church…  Given the present realities of our time, our church shouldn’t be getting ready to celebrate a 200th anniversary.  We should be preparing to close up our doors.  But that’s not what’s happening.  We’re baptizing.  We’re raising up new leaders in all our ministries.  We’re serving our community with ministries that recently did not exist.  We’re beginning a small group Bible study in the spring.  And we’re praying for God to inspire us, equip us, and lead us to be even more of a blessing to the world than we’ve ever been. 

We can dwell on the fact that life will never again be as it was in former days—OR, we can live by faith in the promises of God.  We can rejoice that the sins of our past are washed away with forgiveness.  We can receive saving grace in Word and water, wine and bread.  We can pray with confidence that God hears our prayers.  We can trust Jesus to show us the power of his resurrection in the most awful of circumstances.  We can reach out in love to the neighbors who truly need our prayers, our love, our gifts, and our testimony of God’s love, believing that the power of God will be at work within us to make a difference.

If our minds and our souls become fixated on the power of death wreaking havoc on the world, we will become dead as people of God.  There is no greater tragedy for a child of God than to live as a prisoner to fear while God is in the world to establish victory over the objects of your fear. 

Sometimes, sin and death will literally cut us down.  But Jesus will never leave you for dead.

The power to make the lion lie down with the lamb will be coming upon you, to liberate you from the realities of sin and death—and to deliver you into the reality of God.  So turn your eyes from the tragic and hopeless.  Stop looking for new life in worldly treasures. 

God’s reality meets your reality.  Lift up your heads and be on the lookout for newness and life.

Only God knows exactly what the future holds.  But if you are struggling to believe these promises; if your reality is so dire that you see no hope, take it to the Lord in prayer—and rest assured that your Lord will take it from there.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

When Jesus Calls- Don't Stay Behind! ~ Matthew 24:36-44 ~ First Sunday of Advent

Right after Elizabeth and I were married, our home was a tiny apartment in the town of Red Lion, Pennsylvania—about fifteen miles southeast of York…  This was home as we completed our one-year seminary internships.

The day we moved in, I noticed a box truck pull up, with a sign that read “A-Plus Piano Movers.”

The door opens, and out steps one of the largest men I’ve ever seen.  Easily seven feet tall, with arms the size of three trunks.  He’s so large, he crouches his neck and turns sideways—just to fit through the door.

Later that weekend, about 3 a.m. on Sunday morning, we’re awakened to what sounds like World War 2.  This neighbor and his friend are playing video games.  The game console was hooked up to a sound system that would’ve been better-suited for a stadium than an apartment.  Our apartment literally shook from the noise of explosions—and the roars of two men.

My first instinct was to go downstairs and tell them to turn the volume down.  But all I could think about was the sheer size of this man.  I certainly did not want to get on his bad side.  Therefore, we decided we had no choice but to suffer through the noise.

Maybe that was the wrong decision—but I was intimidated by this man and his sheer size.

And sometimes, God can be even more intimidating …

This is most especially true whenever Scripture speaks of God’s coming in judgment.  The God who is gracious and merciful becomes tremendously large and perhaps even frightening. 

Just hear Jesus’ words: “As it was in days of Noah, so it will be again…”  “Two persons will be in the field; one is taken and the other left…”  “Two women will be grinding meal together, one is taken and the other left.”

At least for me, these words instantly bring to mind the bestselling Left Behind novels and the movies—and their nightmarish stories of God’s elect disappearing from sight, leaving cars without drivers, planes without pilots, and a world gripped with terror. 

Hear Jesus words and you can’t help but ask: “Will I be left behind?”

But I urge you never to read the Bible’s end times passages as play-by-play guides for the end of the world.  Do this, and you’ll be hearing God’s Word only in terms of what could happen to you.  The truth is, we can never fully know or understand how God will bring the present age to an end.  That’s beyond our ability to comprehend—just as God is beyond our ability to comprehend.  We have no choice but to entrust the future and ourselves to God. 

Jesus speaks these words to describe what God will be doing.  Jesus will be coming into this world, to permanently establish God’s justice and righteousness in all the universe.  He will be making right everything that is wrong, and resurrecting everything that is dead.  This is good news.

So don’t be asking, “could I get left behind?”  Jesus is calling you to be his disciple today!  The question before you is, “will I stay behind, as Jesus calls me?  Will I stay behind as Jesus calls me to faith and to repentance?  Will I say no to doing justice, to loving kindness, and walking humbly with God?” 

We have just begun what is undoubtedly the busiest and most stressful time of the year.  There’s so much to buy and to do to prepare for Christmas, on top of all the other commitments and obligations that crowd our lives.   Therefore, when Jesus calls us as disciples, it’s easy to hear his call as burdensome—like it’s one more thing that we don’t have the time and the energy to do.  We don’t want to hand over control of what little remains of our time and energy and resources.  We don’t want to be bound up in any more demands.  So we detach from Christ and attach to that which brings us instant gratification: like buying and having cool stuff; of doing cool things; achieving success; and winning everyone’s approval. 

But discipleship is a gift—not a burden.  We become disciples for the sake of what God wants to do for us and for the world.  Jesus attaches us to himself so that we may become one with him in healing the world, doing justice, and establishing righteousness.  Attached to Christ, we witness resurrection—and to do his work of resurrection. 

Today you are called to be a disciple.  Jesus is not leaving you behind.  You are invited to surrender your life into God’s saving purposes for all the world.  This way, you won’t be caught off guard when Jesus comes again in glory.  You’ll be right there with him at the resurrection of all things.

Sometimes, the power of God lies just beyond those things for which we cannot bear to let go.  To be a disciple, we must to die to every attachment that is not Christ—and that can be a scary thing.  But in dying to these worldly attachments, we are reborn into the reality of God’s reality salvation.  We let go, and the power of God takes over. 

Advent is the season to prepare for the coming of Christ—and not just as a baby in a manger, but as a conquering king.  Now is the time to carefully examine our lives, and ask God, “what attachments exist in my life that tempt me to detach myself from Christ?”

 If we believe that he’s coming, and we trust that God knows what’s best for us, then let us follow Jesus in joy.  But do remember this: God is bigger than us—and God’s gracious will shall be done on earth as in heaven.  A human being can gain the whole world—but nothing can stand against God.  God’s will shall be done.  And there is no resurrection apart from God.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Power at the Cross ~ Luke 23:33-45 ~ Christ the King Sunday

I’m about to tell you what is very unusual for a Lutheran pastor to say: “I love the new Pope!” 

Don’t worry, I’m not going to turn Catholic!  But I can’t help but love how he’s not all about fancy vestments, posh palaces, and living like a king.  He is using himself and his position to show Christ to the world.

He’s washed the feet of inmates in a juvenile detention center…

He welcomed and embraced a small boy as he preached to a crowd of thousands…

And most recently, he blessed a man with a severe skin disfigurement…

It’s so refreshing to see Christians and Christianity making the news because the Pope is truly embodying the compassion and love of Jesus Christ—instead of Christians making the news for hatred, bigotry, and clerical abuse.

Both Christian and atheist alike find this pope to be easy to accept and easy to love.

But do we always find God to be so easy to love and accept?

Perhaps we would if God never allowed bad things to happen to good people; if God didn’t allow wars and shootings, mental illnesses and diseases, super typhoons, tornados, or famines…  But that, of course, is not reality—and trusting in God is always a struggle…

And at the same time, can we accept and love a Savior who was crucified and died?

How is it that God would become human and then allow himself to suffer and die?

Is he the Savior that humanity desperately needs?

Save yourself, since you are the King of the Jews; save yourself, since you are the Messiah!” they shouted.  These aren’t outrageous statements.  Wouldn’t we expect Jesus to do the very same?  After all, he has the power! 

From the time of his arrest, through his trial, and as he hung from the cross, Jesus has the power to save himself; he has the power to destroy his persecutors.  But notice what he does instead: he asks God to forgive his executioners as they mock and hurl insults at him.  Then, he uses his power to welcome a condemned criminal into paradise.

Jesus cannot be known apart from his cross—because the cross reveals the truth about who Jesus is to us: Jesus does not exist above the realities of our human existence; Jesus exists within it.  Jesus chooses to suffer and die because we suffer and die.  He subjects himself to suffer death and evil at their worst—so to pave the way for their defeat.  

You see, the cross is the power of God to take away the sin of the world.  And the cross is the first step on the way to the empty tomb, where death is destroyed and resurrection begins.

Therefore, when it’s us hanging on a cross, Jesus is right there beside us just the same. 

So often, when difficult circumstances go from bad to worse; our strength fails us; and we reach our breaking point, we will feel no power from on high.  And the devil’s going to be there, just like the soldiers were, hurling insults at us and at our God.  Trusting in God to be our Savior will be hard—because we can’t see God’s power at work. 

And on our cross, there will always be temptations:

Pride will tell us that we’re strong enough to save ourselves—or that we don’t need any saving at all.  Pride will tempt us to deny our need for Christ’s power.

Then there’s the temptation to worry!  Worry tells you that your cross will destroy you.  It backs you into a corner, where all you know is fear, and God becomes hidden behind your fears.  No one will be more frustrated by the truth that God’s power is made perfect in weakness than the worrier—because it is so difficult for the worrier to trust in a power they cannot see or control…

But salvation is trusting in the promise of God even when dying on the cross.  This is what we are witnessing in today’s Gospel.  The criminal knows he can’t save himself.  He knows his only hope is the man dying on a cross right next to him.  His words are a beautiful act of surrender—and that is when the power of God takes hold. 

When we are powerless and give up trying to save ourselves; when we accept that our only hope is to trust in a power we cannot see, the power of God’s salvation begins.  At your cross, you will know God’s mercy and grace—just like the criminal.  You’ll be set free from your past sins and mistakes.  You’ll be set free from the power that evildoers had over you.  You’ll be set free from the frustrations and anguish over your weakness and helplessness. 

It’s all about surrender: we surrender because our troubles are bigger than us, to be saved by a God who’s bigger than our troubles.

Jesus meets us at our cross—and we receive his power at our cross.  In love for you, your Savior chooses to be born, to live, to minister, and even to die with us amid the tragic realities of human existence.  The cross is where resurrection begins.  So prepare for the birth of the baby Jesus by hearing and believing his words:

“You belong to me.  My body and blood I give to you.  Your sins are forgiven.  I will remember you in mu kingdom.  You will be with me in paradise.  And until then, I will pour my power and love upon you to get you there. 

Where there is brokenness, evil, and death, there will always be resurrection.  God’s love will get you through.


Sunday, November 17, 2013

You Don't Want to Miss This ~ 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 ~ Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost

No day for me is ever complete without at least one hour at the YMCA.  It’s the ideal stress-reliever and a fun way to keep myself healthy.

But one day, late last winter, a Saturday snowfall kept me home.  So I asked Elizabeth if I could join her as she did her daily DVD workout.

The DVD was entitled Boot Camp: Kick Butt Cardio Blast.  In spite of the name, I expected it to be an absolute cakewalk.  Now I’m no marathon runner, but I do consider myself to be “somewhat fit.”  If Elizabeth could do it, I could do it.  And it was only twenty minutes. 

So she presses play, and out comes this wide-eyed, bubbly instructor with granite abs.  As the music thumps rapidly, she’s encouraging me “to train like a athlete [sic.]”  so I can “look great in a bathing suit!” 

But after about fourteen minutes, my body turned to butter.  I was wasted.  My heart was pounding; I was out of breath; my muscles burned.  I couldn’t go on.  There was nothing left to do but to collapse in the chair like a rag doll.  The human body can only take so much—and contrary to what I believed, I was not invincible. 

And our faith in God is just as vulnerable to exhaustion as our bodies. 

When life gets really hard and you can’t see God answering your prayers, faith takes a beating.  When people hate you and mistreat you, faith takes a beating.  When you sin, make mistakes, and fail, your faith takes a beating. 

You turn on the news and see the horrific images of the biggest storm in recorded history obliterating an entire nation.  Seemingly every day now, someone’s walking into a school or a public place and murdering innocent people.   And people say, “how can a loving God let these things happen?”  In these times we’re living in, faith takes a beating. 

Paul writes the letter we know as 2 Thessalonians to early Christians who were living in times of bone-chilling fear.  They knew poverty.  They knew sickness.  They knew grief.  But that wasn’t the worst of it.  They were despised and harassed because they were Christian.  Some were even subjected to public beatings.  And then, they firmly believed Jesus was going to return in their day and make everything right that was wrong.  But that didn’t happen.  Their faith took a beating.  The result of this was that some became idle.  They burned out and gave up living Christian. 

The same thing is happening right now, in our time.  Generations are wandering away from the church.  More and more people are hiding their faith in their hearts, such that you’d never know they were a Christian unless you ask.  With all the other commitments and priorities pressing in on us, we’re struggling to give Jesus the first-fruits of our time and resources.  It has never been easier to say “no” to the life of discipleship because we don’t have the time or the energy; or because we believe nothing good will come out of it.

But Paul teaches us that a Christian cannot be idle—because God is not idle.  God is near and God is active.  God is present in the hurting places, with the hurting people.  Wherever there is evil, God is bringing righteousness.  Wherever there is death, God is bringing new life. 

The key to knowing and experiencing the power of an active God is in participating in the life of God. 

Do you believe in the power and the presence of living God?  Yes or no… 

For if you believe that to be true, there is your reason to be intentional about taking time for daily prayer and reading of Scripture.  There is your reason to be intentional in share the love of Jesus Christ by serving your neighbor. 

There is your reason to participate in the life and community of your sisters and brothers in Christ. 

How easy it is to forget what a gift it is to be a community in Christ—because yes, it takes a lot of time and work and resources to make it happen.  And yet we are a community so that we can be the presence of God for each other.  There is no more powerful a way to know God’s love than in a brother or sisters who prays for you or even with you, or who shares their gifts to meet your needs.  There is no more powerful way to give the gift of faith to another by inviting them to come with you to church and by sharing your story of God’s love at work in your life.  We have a responsibility to build up each other’s faith.  But with that responsibility comes a great joy of meeting God in each other.

There is no mistaking the discouraging times we’re living in right now.  It’s doubtful that the economy is going to recover anytime soon; or that our elected officials will fix all our nation’s problems.  The future will bring wars and insurrections, earthquakes, famines, natural disasters, and the persecution of believers—just like Jesus said.  Some of these calamities will strike us personally.  That is why it is a very dangerous thing to say “no” to Jesus; “I can’t;” or, “I don’t have time.”  Fear will take over and run our lives.  And why should this be?

Yes, we’re tired.  Yes, we’re hurting.  Yes, we’re carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders.  But God does not call us into discipleship because we have time or because we have it all together.  Instead, God uses people like you and me, and a church like ours, to create new life in the world. 

The unfailing truth, amid all the turmoil and calamities of life, is that God will be with us, no matter what happens.  Death and evil and destruction are not winning the world.  God is—and the joy of being a disciple is participating in God’s victory.  And today we’re invited to fall into the loving hands of our God, so we can rise up in the strength and power of God, to heal as we are healed.  We’re invited to live and work together as one Body to worship, to serve, and to overcome.

Why would we want to miss out this?

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Blessed are You (who Need God) ~ Luke 6:17-31 ~ All Saints Sunday

They came from all over to be with Jesus.  They were sick; they were poor; they were tormented, broken, and afraid.  No one in their right mind would call them “blessed.”

But Jesus says: “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.  Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh…”

Is this something you’d say to a starving child?  To a family being foreclosed or evicted out of their home?  Is this what you would say to someone whose loved one just died?

It’s not a blessing to be poor or to be hungry or to be broken.  These are not circumstances we deliberately seek out.  This isn’t how we want to live. 

To be blessed means that you never worry about having enough money to pay the bills.  You can always have and do nice things.  You enjoy good health and great relationships.  You’re completely unaffected by the struggling economy and the healthcare crisis.  You are safe and well; with not a care to weigh you down…

Don’t we all want to be blessed?  We’re not asking for the world; just enough of everything that makes life truly good

But can anyone really live this way?

At the end of the day, the only certainty in life is uncertainty.  We are all, all just one breath from death.  Our lives are just one lightning bolt away from chaos.

This is why Jesus says “woe to you who are rich; who are full now; who are laughing… Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you…”  Theirs is a reality that is more fragile than a house of cards in a windstorm.  The trouble is, they’re doing too well to notice.  They need God just as much as those who are “less blessed”—but they don’t know it. 

On the other hand—the poor, the hungry, and the weeping ones come to Jesus.  They come because they’ve lost everything—or because they never had anything to begin with.  They cannot help themselves.  Divine mercy is their only hope.  Thankfully, Jesus’ mission field was never the palaces of wealth and power of the world.  Jesus was sent to those who needed him most.  They are blessed because the Son of God is mindful of them and their hurt.  God will take care of them.  They who are empty now will be blessed and made whole with the love of Jesus—not with stuff. 

This is what it means to live by faith.  Your reality is no longer rooted in the present order of things, with all its uncertainty and unfairness.  Your blessing is not found in what is here today and gone tomorrow.  Instead, you live by God’s grace.  You are blessed because God is fully mindful of your hurts, your burdens, and your fears.  You are blessed because God will be taking care of you through the destroying storms of life.  You are blessed because God will always be your daily bread.  

So hear the voice of Jesus as he calls you by name: today is the day for you to be reborn into the reality of God.  Today is the day to be reborn as a saint. 

We don’t become saints through what we do; rather, we are transformed into saints by the living God.  We become saints as the Holy Spirit draws us into the reality of God.  What do saints do?  They pray constantly; they hear the Word and they study it; life is transformed into worship.  Saints see, by faith the work of God in their lives.  They live their lives so to magnify the presence of God before all people, particularly those whose realities are consumed with suffering and fear.  And ultimately, saints are those who prevail by God’s grace against the dreadful realities of evil and death in the world.  Saints are those who live forever.

Therefore, let today be the day that you stop pouring yourself into realities that are perishing.  You’ll never be able to achieve for yourself a permanent, problem-free existence.  You’ll never be a perfect person who pleases everyone and never does wrong.  You’ll never find the good life in material possessions.  These are but castles made of sand that time and tumult will inevitably sweep away. 

Instead, present yourself; along with all your weakness, your brokenness, your sin, your hurt, and your need as an offering to Jesus Christ.  Jesus will make you whole.  Jesus will give you peace.  So be today the person you were created to be: a saint.  Trust in Jesus as your Savior.  Let God’s love fill and consume your reality.  Rejoice that death shall never prevail against God—or God’s saints.


Sunday, October 27, 2013

Grace for Less-Than-Perfect People ~ John 8:31-38; Romans 3:19-28 ~ Reformation Sunday

I must confess that I am a man.

As a man, I don’t read instructions.  I don’t ask for directions.  I don’t ask for help in lifting heavy objects.

All I need is my mighty strength, my infinite wisdom, my vast experience, and my nerves of steel…

And…I get into trouble.  For all the confidence I put in my flesh, my flesh fails me.  Contrary to what I’d like to believe, my flesh is weak  And that just stinks!

Who among us, male or female, wants to admit to being weak?  Who enjoys being imperfect?  Who loves to ask for help?  That you don’t have it all together? 

Who wants to rely on someone other them themselves to get through life?  Who wants to ask for forgiveness? 

Blindly, we believe that we can achieve anything, endure anything, or overcome anything, totally on our own. 

This can-do spirit can even infect our faith.  We define the Christian life in terms of what we do for God.  We “work our way into up to God” with our good works and our good faith.  We comfortably assume that God will judge us favorably if we do enough good works.  But even then, our flesh fails us.  We are so easily ashamed of ourselves when we question God, when we doubt and cannot trust; when we read the Bible and don’t understand it; and especially when we fail to do what we know is right.  When bad things happen and prayers aren’t answered, do you blame yourself?

The trouble is, we put so much faith in our own strength and our own greatness, that we literally make idols of our flesh.  After all, if we are so strong, so powerful, what do we need God for?

The most painful truth about ourselves is that our flesh is weak.  Very weak.  We all need God. 

And the most outrageous truth about God is that God is gracious.    

This is the truth that sets us free from the bondage of our sinful flesh.  Bound to the flesh, we die; bound to Christ, we live

Our Christian faith is built on the truth that God acts through the person of Jesus Christ to make us right with God’s own self.  Jesus’ blood washes away all of our sin and make us sons and daughters who shall inherit God’s kingdom, totally apart from our merit or deserving. 

Grace means that God does for us what we cannot do ourselves.  God freely gives what we cannot achieve—and what we do not deserve. I daresay that it’s easier to believe in God’s existence than God’s grace.  But this is the greatest truth.

And yet, grace remains so much of a mystery to us because we cannot bear to acknowledge our desperate need for it.   

Given the choice, we’d always choose a faith built upon what we do for God; so that we could put our trust in ourselves rather than in promises that we have yet to see come to fulfillment. 

Dear friends in Christ, the sinner in all of us loves the idea that we can achieve anything—even perfect faith—apart from God.  But if we fail to confess our daily need for God’s grace, we will turn away. 

We’ll never read God’s Word, thinking we already know all there is to know.  We won’t confess our sins because we believe we’re good people.  We’ll put other things first in our lives, believing that our lives won’t be as good if we miss out on them.  We won’t turn to God as long as we believe we’re doing fine. 

Yet God cannot be known apart from grace—and we can never know grace unless we confess our tremendous need for grace. 

Today, Jesus speaks of truth that sets you free: God comes to give you what you did not ask for and what you do not deserve.  God comes to give you what you desperately need. 

You are a child of God because of what God does for you.  God doesn’t come to us from within our hearts; nor do we compel God to come to us by our good works.  God comes from above and beyond yourself, to meet you where you are.  It is grace that brought you here to church today.  At the font, at the table, in the Word, and in the brothers and sisters who care for you, you are reborn into the being of God.  You are no longer a slave to sin, death, and fear.  You are bound to the one who forgives you and gives you righteousness, peace, and hope. 

Without God’s grace, you shall forever be but dust and ashes; no matter how much greatness you achieve in this life. 

Is your life filled with fear and worry?  Are you running yourself ragged to try and please everyone?  Are you ashamed of things you’ve done and the mistakes you’ve made?  Are you questioning God and struggling to believe because of all the hurt in your life and the evil in the world?  Stop putting your faith in your flesh.  Put your faith in Christ and his cross.  Let God’s grace fall upon you like rain. 

You free from your past and your mistakes.  You are forgiven.

You are free to entrust your fears, your worries, and your future into God’s hands.

You are free to be the person God created you to be—a living sign of God’s love in a world that knows so little grace.

You are free to live in God’s peace.  Don’t worry—there will be grace to meet your every need. 

Life will surely bring trouble—but God will always be gracious. 

So leave your sins, your sorrow, and your fear at the cross—and feast on the goodness of God. 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Go Ahead. Wear God Out with Your Prayers. ~ Luke 18:1-8 ~ Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

My life of prayer began beneath this picture that hung on the wall of my bedroom since the day I was born.  From the time I could speak, my parents would kneel with me at my bedside while I said my bedtime prayers.

I love images of prayer like this one—because they illustrate the beautiful gift of peace that God gives us when we pray.  Prayer is the gift of peaceful communion with God.  It is such peace that we are to pursue with prayer; “the peace that passes understanding.” 

But much of the time, our prayers will not begin with such peace.  Many of our prayers will begin in anguish.  Our heads will be pounding with stress; our hearts stinging with sorrow; our bodies worn and weary.  We cry out to God with the weight of the world on our shoulders, if only that God would come and take all the hurt away.  But is this what happens when we say “amen?”

Consider for a moment Jesus praying on the Mount of Olives before his crucifixion…  Luke writes that “in his anguish…his sweat became like great drops of blood falling on the ground.”  His disciples couldn’t even stay awake because of their grief.

And then there’s this parable about a widow who’s pleading for justice from the city judge…

In Jesus’ day, people generally didn’t do much to take care of widows.  With their husbands dead, they had little means to support themselves and their children.  Unless their parents or their husbands’ families had the means to care for them (and were kind enough to do so), they’d be beggars for the rest of their lives.  They’d also be an easy target for scoundrels—as this particular widow bad become…

So she goes to the judge and begs him for justice.  Time and time again he refuses; but time and time again she returns.  And finally, he grants her justice—just to shut her up…

Jesus teaches us that we are to be that persistent in our praying.  The reason why, is that God will seem not unlike the judge—as cruel and uncaring when we do not receive the answers we’re expecting. 

We cannot ignore the fact that there is a very real danger for all of us to lose heart in our faith and trust in God—especially considering the times we’re living in right now. 

Just consider our community: how many steel mills have closed and the businesses that have vanished.  Think of how many families who can’t make ends meet.  Many of us who’ve been in this church can remember when this sanctuary was packed and not like it is now. 

There’s the people in our lives that are so precious to us that have departed this life and now we must go on without them. 

How can someone not lose heart when things are already bad—and they get even worse?  Why bother to pray at all?  How can you really believe in the power of prayer when the answers don’t come?

It is in times like these where we have no choice but to surrender—but to what?  To hopelessness?  Or, do we surrender to God?

The first miracle of prayer—is that God gives you the faith to pray.  Prayer is an act of surrender.  We pray because there is no one else; there is nothing else upon which we can rely.  We pray because we are powerless against Satan and chaos.  We pray because we can’t make it on our own.  When we can’t—God can

When you give up trying to fight that which is bigger than you and that you cannot control, God takes over.  God will give you faith by which you will begin to see what God is doing: God is destroying death, eradicating evil and injustice; bringing peace and healing and new life to the world.  And God is taking care of you personally.  You will be okay.  We can’t necessarily pray our troubles away, but we can be at peace as we see by faith what God is doing. 

Furthermore, God will act in your prayers to draw you into God’s saving work for all the world.  The Holy Spirit will transform you into an angel of God’s compassion, mercy, and healing.  You will literally become the answer to someone else’s prayers as God answers yours.  God will form you into the faith of Christ, the love of Christ, and the hope of Christ.

One thing is certain—prayer will often be a wrestling match with God.  When times are tough, there will always be the temptation to give up on prayer; on church; on doing good—and even God.   But your life is a gift from God—so why should you lose it to what is terrible since you can pray?

If you spend more time worrying and weeping about what is, make today the day you turn the tables against fear.  Let that perfect peace with God be the goal you pursue in every prayer—because we will have to wait, sometimes a long time, for God to make right what is wrong.  But pray fervently for that perfect peace with God.  Go ahead and wear God out with your praying.  And always remember: we don’t pray to get God to do things for us.  We pray because of what God is doing for us.  So bring before God what hurts the most today.  Be drawn into God’s presence.  Pray because you believe God will overcome, and by grace, you will too