Sunday, May 26, 2013

The God You Need ~ Romans 5:1-5 ~ Holy Trinity Sunday

Every Christmas, we receive at least one holiday letter from a friend or relative that we typically call “the brag letter.”  It’s not that we resent hearing news from our family and friends, but some letters amaze us by how perfect their lives seem to be…  It’s like everything they touch turns to pure gold—and the worst thing that ever seems to happen is that the cat eats a goldfish.  “God has been so good to us;” “God has blessed us” they say.  No one ever gets sick, no one ever loses their job, no one ever fights or does anything wrong.  Everything comes up roses. 

After I read these, I can’t help but feel a little sad.  How are we supposed to feel, given that our family’s lives aren’t exactly fairy tales?  Part of me wishes that we did have that much to boast about to my family and friends.  But life is no fairy tale.

Today, our second lesson comes to us as part of one of the many letters written by the Apostle Paul.  In fact, much of the New Testament consists of letters written by Paul’s own hand.  And today, we find Paul writing something absolutely stunning: he says “we [Christians] boast in our sufferings.”

This has to be one of the most outrageous sayings of all the New Testament.

For starters, we were taught from childhood never to boast—because when we boast, it’s usually of our own “greatness.”  It’s a way of getting an undue measure of other people’s admiration and acclamation. 

But one thing we can say about Paul is that he was no stranger to suffering.  Throughout his ministry, he suffered beatings, imprisonments, riots, sleepless nights, hunger, and bitter hatred. 

So why would he would boast of his suffering?  Are we to think that Paul has some kind of ego problem?  Or is Paul actually embracing his suffering and calling it “good?”

Consider the people in Oklahoma who lost everything in the tornadoes.  There is certainly nothing to boast of in this tragedy.  Think of the families of the ten children that perished at Plaza Towers Elementary School.  It’s outrageous to think that any silver lining is going to be found in a tragedy of this magnitude. 

It is in times like these when faith can feel as fragile as the homes and schools swept away by the tornadoes.  But Paul is not teaching us to call “good” what is horrible.  Instead, Paul is testifying to the God who embraces is in our suffering.  God as Father, Son, and Spirit embraces us in our weak and sinful and helpless condition, acting in mercy and might to redeem us from death and the devil.  Paul teaches that if there is anything to boast, even in the worst of times, it is not our own strength, our own wit, or our own faith…  It is the ministry of the Trinity upon which we boast. 

We have peace with God, the creator and sustainer of the universe, because Jesus Christ made us right with God by sacrificing himself for our sake.  In Christ, we are at peace with the God who holds the universe; all time, all things in hand—even amid the chaos of the present days. 

Amid the storms, as we endure the sting of suffering, the Trinity acts on our behalf.  That is what we boast; not ourselves, but of the redeeming work of God.  God fights back against the power of evil with the power of the Spirit, who works through the suffering to produce in us endurance, and then character, and then hope.  And it is hope that sustains us even in the worst of times—for it is hope that assures us that suffering will last only for a time, and that death and evil will never have the last word over God. 

It is God the Holy Spirit who then gives us faith to witness the saving work Jesus Christ still being done.  When all around and above us is in trouble; when we are hated and despised, crushed and broken, we rest by faith in the communion of our Triune God.

I wish I could stand here and explain to you the mysteries of how there can be One God in Three Persons; just as much as I wish I could explain the reasons why bad things happen, and why some people’s prayers are answered and others are not.  I can only testify to the ministry of the Triune God, spoken to us in God’s Word.  God will not always be the God we want or the God we can understand.  But the Trinity will be the God we need—and the God whose love and care we will receive through faith.

If you need a God who brings life out of death, you are invited to come and meet your God of mercy, majesty, and might.  Believe in God, trust in God, obey God—and you will know the truth.  What it requires of you is that you participate in the life of the Trinity.  There are no substitutes for prayer; for hearing and knowing the Word; for eating and drinking the body of Christ; for serving others and bearing witness to the Trinity’s work on our behalf. 

Our faith is no fairy tale.  It is the greatest truth of the universe.   You, too, will boast of the ministry of the Trinity in your life, bearing witness in word and deed to the hope of all creation.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Riding on the Winds of Change ~ Acts 2:1-21 ~ Pentecost Sunday

Last Friday was a somewhat of a milestone for me…

My baby sister turned thirty.  My absolute earliest memory is the day she was born.  I was 2 ½.

One of her friends sent her a birthday card, listing funny memories a thirty-year-old would have; things like:

·        You remember when mullets were cool…

·        You begged your parents for a jean jacket…

·        You thought your Fisher Price record player was cutting edge technology…

·        You remember when the New Kids on the Block really were the new kids on the block…

Not long ago, one of my elder friends said something that wasn’t on her card, but that is certainly true:

“When you’re young, you can’t wait to get older.  When you get older, you wish you could be young again.”

This was certainly true for me.  I remember not all that long ago going to a restaurant and being absolutely insulted when the server gave me a children’s menu and a little box of crayons.  When you’re young, it’s not cool to be young. 

Life is all about change: and when you’re young, change often comes in the form of opportunity.  But as time passes, life brings us more and more changes that are NOT good.  Time becomes a thief; stealing what is precious and valuable to us. 

Jesus’ disciples would certainly have known this to be true.  In our second lesson from the book of Acts, Jesus had just ascended into heaven.  Jesus was no longer with them to lead them and guide them in spreading the Gospel.

But Jesus made a promise.  He says: “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”

On this day, the Pentecost, they learn exactly what he was talking about.  All the apostles are gathered together in one place; then, all of the sudden, the Holy Spirit comes upon them as a violent, rushing wind.  They began to speak “in other languages” (or tongues).  The whole thing draws the attention of a large crowd—and everyone begins to hear the Word of God in their own language.  The end result is that people come to faith in Jesus Christ.  The church as we know it today is born.

What this all teaches us is that God’s Holy Spirit rides the winds of change in our lives—even when changes come that we would not call “good.”  So when time takes away something precious and valuable to us, we can count on the Holy Spirit to give birth to something new and powerful to draw us into Jesus Christ and the life he brings to the world.  And it goes without saying that we need the Spirit right now.

Consider the losses we’ve suffered as a church: think of all the people we’ve loved who’ve died or who’ve become homebound.  If you’ve been a part of the church for a long period of time, you can probably remember a time when every pew was filled and we didn’t have to worry about enough offerings coming in to keep the church going.  Think of the losses our community has suffered: the steel mills and factories and businesses that have closed down; the people who’ve had to move away.

It isn’t hard to lose our faith in God as change takes away that which brings us stability and purpose.  Will time and change render our faith and our church irrelevant and void?  Will fear and sorrow consume our faith?  Will secularism and unbelief completely rule our society?  Or, is Jesus still keeping the promise he made to his disciples?

Dear friends in Christ, the Pentecost is not a once-and-for-all occurrence to ruminate upon every year, seven weeks after Easter.

The Holy Spirit rides the winds of change, so that when the changes come, good or bad, we can be drawn more deeply into the life of Jesus Christ. 

God can be so hidden in times like the times we’re living in.  That’s why we must readjust our vision.  God is still giving us gifts and blessings to preserve us in faith.  Right here in this church is a community of love.  We generously share our time and our talents with one another; we pray for one another; we love one another.  And we can’t forget that Christ is present as we proclaim the Word together, and feast on his flesh and blood at the table.  The power of God is here and present for us to claim—because we have the Spirit.

And the passing of time continues to present us opportunities to reach out in love to a world in need.  As much as our clothing ministry has grown, there are still people who don’t even know about it…  Vacation Bible School is just a month away—and we have a whole town full of children who aren’t even baptized.  Generations of people we know are going through life, never really knowing a real sense of peace or purpose.  Are we going to sit idly by and become victims of change and the passing of time?  Or, are we going to claim the power being given to us?

In these changing times, in these trying times, ask yourselves: what gifts does God give you that help you through?  And then challenge yourselves with this question: what opportunities exist in your life to bear witness to the love of God?

The Spirit of the Lord is upon you.  There’s no question.  To know the Spirit’s presence; to know the Spirit’s leading, is simply to do this: come eat and drink of the Body of Christ today.  Be filled with God’s saving grace.

Take the time to pray and pray often.  Don’t rush through it.  Take time to listen; to be in silence; to ponder…  Study the Word; study it and ask questions and seek to understand it.  Believe what it teaches.  And finally, go…  Don’t sit around waiting for epiphany.  Go and use the gifts that God has given you and bear witness, and there you witness the Spirit’s power at work.

Dear Christians, it’s high time for another Pentecost.  And we don’t have to wait for it.  We simply respond to Jesus’ invitation. 

Don’t surrender your faith or your church to the ravages of time and change.  Surrender yourself to the Spirit of power and gentleness and peace—and never be the same again.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Confirmation: What Does This Mean?

One of the most joyous days in our life as the church is when we baptize a sister or brother into the Body of Christ.  It should be a day of joy because this is our God-given purpose, commanded to us by Christ himself.  In other words, we are God’s hands and voice to call and gather others into the community of Christ just as we ourselves have been. 

For a young person, growing up in the church, one of the most sacred and memorable days is confirmation day.  Most will have been too young to remember their baptism.  But this day they remember—for it is today that they celebrate that they are God’s children—and vow before God and God’s people their promise to follow Jesus as his disciples. 

Most children come to church and Sunday school, pray, and study the Bible because of their parents  promised to raise them God’s way.  But all children grow up, and the time comes for them to make their own commitments: to what they will do in life; what they will believe, and who or what they will live for.

To do this, the young Christian must learn and understand—what does it all mean?  Who is God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?  What does it mean to be a child of God?  What does God demand of me?  Why do I exist?  How do I know where I will spend eternity?

Four of our young people have spent the last two years learning God’s answers to these questions.  They’ve studied the Word.  They know God’s commandments by heart.  They know God’s promises.  And now, they are here to confirm, before you and before God, their sacred promise to live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.  Yet they do this not so as to earn God’s love and favor.  They confirm their identity as children of God because God has first confirmed THEM.  Make no mistake—confirmation is God’s work. 

You are here, because God claimed you.  Your parents may have brought you to baptism and driven you to church and Sunday school and confirmation class, but God used them for this purpose. 

Today, God confirms that you are a beloved child.

God confirms that you are forgiven of your sins.

Today, God confirms the promise of everlasting life.  By God’s grace and promise, you know where you will spend eternity.  There’s no question. 

You are a child of God—which means that your life has a definite purpose, even if you’re not entirely sure what career path you will pursue as an adult.  Your purpose is to know Jesus through ever passage of life; to be lifted up with saving grace in times of trouble; and, to shine as stars in the world because of who you are and the gifts God has given you.

Jesus gives his life to you—and today, you are invited to give your life to him.  This means that Jesus will be your Lord and Savior. You will be his disciples; who serve others rather than be served; who love others rather than be loved.  You promise to let the light of Christ shine in your life within a world so full of darkness.  You promise to make Christ first, to give him the best of you—and not in reluctance or fear, but in absolute joy, so that the peace of Christ may fill your hearts and minds as his love enfolds you every day.

So delight yourself in the Lord.  And rejoice in the person God has created you to be.  Don’t let others put you down; don’t believe the lies this world tells you that your worth is measured in how you look and what you own, what you do or how much money you have in the bank.  Be the child God created you to be, for you are wonderfully loved and awesomely made. 

You are a blessing just by being who you are, by forgiving and loving and caring for others just as Jesus loves and cares for you.

Today is just the beginning of all that Jesus is going to do for you and through you.  So rejoice and be glad.  Shine as the stars you’ve been created to be.  Abide forever with the Savior who abides with you. 

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Are You In? ~ Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5 ~ Sixth Sunday of Easter

Being a lover of all things chocolate, one of my favorite childhood was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

It’s about a poor, little boy from a working-class family named Charlie.  He and three other (more privileged) children win the prize of a lifetime: they unwrap their chocolate bars to find golden tickets to tour the magical yet mysterious Willy Wonka Chocolate factory.

The reclusive but charismatic and whimsical creator of all things sweet and wonderful, Mr. Wonka himself, takes the four children and their families on a tour through his factory—and the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes are more spectacular than they ever imagined. 

But there are a few sights that Mr. Wonka forbids them to see.  He explains that those secrets just aren’t for them to know.

Well, I can’t help but feel like Charlie when I read Revelation—because it makes our imaginations run wild with its spectacular visions of the world as it will be when God makes all things new.  Now it can also be a very frightening and disturbing book—but at its heart, it is a book of beautiful promises. 

Yet there remains one elusive secret: this mysterious Book of Life that Revelation mentions of six times.  It is very clear that citizenship in the city of God is exclusively for those whose names “are written in the Lamb’s book of life.”  Nothing unclean will enter there, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood.

Inquiring minds want to know: whose names are written in that book?  Is my name in there?  Is yours?  Are our loved ones’ names there?  And—are the names of terrorists and mass-murderers excluded? 

I know that if I saw this Book of Life sitting on a table in front of me, I’d want to open it up.  I’d want to know!  Wouldn’t you?

This Book of Life can be a very uncomfortable thing—because it makes us feel as though our ultimate destiny is a done deal—and we’ll just have to wait to learn whether or not we’ve made the cut. 

So: how do we really know that we’re saved?  How do we live with this question?

Does this question strike fear into our hearts, because we know we’ve sinned?  So do we do good works out of fear, so that (hopefully) our good deeds will outweigh our bad deeds?  OR, do we assume that our names are included because we’re baptized; because we believe; because we’re good people, and only bad people will be excluded.  We’re not like those people that don’t go to church or believe in God or who just do whatever they feel like.  Not a chance…  We have our golden ticket! 

If we take to heart either of these two beliefs, we need to really pay more attention to what Revelation teaches—and not just Revelation, but the rest of the Bible.  The divine economy doesn’t work this way.

Salvation belongs to our God and to Christ the Lamb.  It is Jesus who saves us, apart from our merits or deserving.  Forgiveness is freely given to all—even the most despicable, wretched sinners.  And even though it’s not for us to know whose names are written in the Lamb’s book, God is not going to pull the rug out from under you in the moment when it really counts.  The assurance of your salvation is found on the cross—and in your baptism, where you were marked with God’s seal of ownership.  You are a child of God—period.  Therefore, there is no question.  Are you in the Book of Life?  Go to the cross.  Go to the font.  You’ll see.

But God’s gift of salvation to you is not to be treated as a golden ticket you can tuck away, then go and do whatever you want in life, and then present it when you need it.  How sad it is that we do that so easily.  We live on our terms.  We disregard God’s commands and do what feels good.  We indulge in materialism and the love of money.  We pray to God to take care of our neighbors but do nothing to help them ourselves.  We acknowledge Christ as Lord and Savior with our lips but pay to homage to him with our lives.  We all do this—which makes it all the more ridiculous that we’d question if we’re in the book of life.  Why do we even ask?  We’re basically erasing our own names from the book because we’re not living as God’s beloved children!

Christ’s cross and Christ’s baptismal waters PROMISE that our names are written in the Book of Life.  Salvation is not a golden ticket—it is a total life commitment.  It’s every moment of every day and every decision lived on this question: what would Jesus have me do?  I know what I want to do—but what does Jesus want me to do?  Do I have FAITH that what he wants me to do is more important than what I want to do?

SINCE our names are written in the Book of Life (as God’s gift to you), we are obligated to live as citizens of the City of God.  We pray to him and give him thanks in all circumstances.  We listen to his Word so that his promises can reclaim us from our stress and our pain and everything else that we’re tempted to put first in our lives.  We worship him so he can bring us as close to heaven as we’re going to be until we finally get there…  We live every day in passionate devotion to our Savior. 

And we witness.  We know all too well how much this world is hurting; how much PEOPLE are hurting.  But we can’t forget Christ’s victory that’s already going on.  Yes, it seems like chaos and evil are having their way with the world.  But the TRUTH is that Jesus is reclaiming this world.  In the darkest places of the world, light is dawning—and that is what we are called to do: to shine the light of Christ by living as people of compassion, mercy, and forgiveness.  Jesus sends us to the dark and hurting places to bear witness to the hope of all creation: that this world belongs to Jesus—and he’s not going to lose it.  Will you be the one to reveal the truth to someone who does not believe—that their names are written in the Lamb’s book of life—because Jesus gave his life for them, just as he gave his life for you?