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.