St. John's Lutheran - Morgan
Easter - Sunrise
Text: 1 Corinthians 15: 12-19
Subject: The Resurrection
Predicate: is our sole hope upon which our entire faith is based.
One of the cardinal rules of investing is diversification.
It is a wise and prudent strategy because just about every day of the year, someone, somewhere, loses their life's savings because they put all their eggs into one basket.
Perhaps they have invested everything in just one company's stock.
Or maybe they only had one account at an unregulated savings and loan.
Others put everything they have into their own personal business.
And still others are lured down a dangerous road when someone offers the temptation of getting a fabulous return on their investment.
Now it is true that if things go well, such investors can do very well. But it is also true that if things go bad, or if their savings and loan was run by crooks, or if they have been duped into a worthless investment by a slick con-man, people can lose everything they've worked for just-like-that (Snap Fingers).
On the other hand, diversification, or spreading your assets around into several different investments, is a way of protecting yourself. In case something goes wrong with one investment, you may have to take a loss, but at least you will not be totally wiped out.
Now even though diversification is a good investment strategy, it is not a universally good idea for every aspect of life.
For example, in love and marriage diversification is NOT a very good idea!
Promiscuity, or sexual relations with a variety of partners, cheapens the emotional power of physical love and opens up the possibility of acquiring one or more of a number of diseases, including the fatal illness AIDS.
Another area where diversification is a really poor idea is in our religious beliefs.
A lot of people are tempted to pick and choose a little bit of this and a little bit of that from the pot-luck table of world religions.
Some do it because they are simply attracted to many different and varied religious beliefs.
In the 1960's, several eastern religions were introduced to the people of our country through the hippie movement which began in San Francisco. Lots of otherwise good Christian people dabbled in oriental religions such as "transcendental meditation" that was taught by the Marharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Other people have diversified their religious beliefs because they want to cover all the bases - just in case.
The best example I can think of is when the people of Israel built the golden calf.
Half way between Egypt and the Promised Land, Moses was up on the mountain called Sinai, having a personal visit with God AND receiving the gift of the 10 commandments.
Meanwhile, at the foot of the mountain, the rest of the people decided to build a calf out of gold and worship a false god named Baal. They figured that just in case Yahweh couldn't bring them safely through the desert, maybe Baal could, so it wouldn't hurt to worship him too!
Of course God didn't like this one bit! Through Moses and the commandments that God gave, God made it perfectly clear to the people that he is a jealous God and that people should place NO OTHER gods before him.
Still other people end up with a strange customized mixture of religious beliefs because they have been led astray by well meaning but incompetent pastors and teachers who don't stick to the Bible as the source and norm of all their preaching and teaching.
The best example here is probably the most current one. Over the last few weeks we've learned about members of the Branch Davidian sect who apparently believe David Koresh's claim that he is Jesus Christ, returned to Waco, Texas, to lead his small band of chosen people home to heaven.
But such aberrations of doctrine are not limited to oddball splinter groups. Even mainline churches are vulnerable to believing things that are not based in Holy Scripture.
The Roman Catholic Church in Martin Luther's day taught that you could buy forgiveness by paying the price of an indulgence.
Some religious leaders today, including a few in our own ELCA, seem to think that the way to determine who is a true Christian is to measure how much they are committed to justice for the oppressed people of the world
Now I am not saying that we shouldn't try to work for justice and to help others.
And I'm not saying that we should condemn, or shun, or mistreat people of other cultures and other religions because of what they believe.
But I am saying that there is a very real danger that if we are not careful, we can somehow end up with a diversified set of religious beliefs that are not focused on the core elements of our faith as taught in Holy Scripture.
And I am saying that the first commandment is a commandment we should take very seriously.
Or to put all of this in the terms of my sermon introduction this morning, "If one is going to be a Christian, a true Christian, then there is no diversification allowed!"
If one is going to be a true Christian we will have NO OTHER Gods before us!
If one is going to be a true Christian, ALL of our faith, and ALL of our hope, must be centered on and grounded on one person and one thing only.
And that is - the resurrection of Jesus on the first Easter Morning, a shade less then 2000 year ago today.
When I was in the seminary, one of the most influential books I read was Jesus: God and Man by a German theologian, Wolfhart Pannenberg. In his book, the author picked up on Paul's writings from the 15th chapter of First Corinthians. Building on Paul's ideas, Pannenberg eloquently argued that everything we believe and hope for depends upon the resurrection.
Now back in the years 50-55, there were members of the Christian church in Corinth who liked the teachings of Jesus and the ethics of the Christian faith.
But they didn't believe in the resurrection of the dead. Whether Christ was raised or not was of no concern to them. And they also thought that after a person died, that person was dead and gone, forever, and would never ever be bodily raised up from the grave.
But Paul knew that everything depends upon the resurrection.
And so, in his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul stated quite bluntly, that if there is no such thing as the resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and our faith is in vain.
And not only that, but Paul also wrote that if Jesus was not raised from the dead then we would be misrepresenting, or lying, about God, because we testified that it is God who raised Jesus from the dead.
Finally, Paul concluded by saying that if Christ has not been
raised from the dead, then we are still in our sins and those
who have died have perished eternally. And those of us who still
hope and cling to Christ are, "of all people, most to be
Wolfhart Pannenberg put all of this into very practical terms.
"Why do we celebrate Christmas," he asked?
The answer is because Jesus was raised from the dead.
A lot of us think that Christmas is the oldest, most important Christian holiday because it was the day that our savior was born. But Christmas wasn't even celebrated until many years after the Church was well established. The first Christian holy day was Easter. And it was celebrated once a week - every Sunday Morning!
It would be at least 100 years later before someone got developed the idea of celebrating the birth of Jesus too. And then, only because the birth of Christ derives its significance from the fact that Jesus was resurrected. If Jesus wasn't raised from the dead he would have been an ordinary human, soon to be forgotten in the flow if history. But raised from the dead, his entire life takes on new meaning, and becomes the focus of celebration.
Another question Pannenberg asked in his book is, "Why to we take Jesus' preaching and teaching seriously?"
Again, the answer is that since Jesus was resurrected we realize that his message was not the message of a mere human preacher and teacher, but the Word of God himself!
Before the resurrection, when Jesus said something like, "I am the way and the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except by me," there was no basis to prove, or disprove the truth of what he said. But after the resurrection, the stamp of God's personal approval was placed on every syllable that Jesus ever uttered.
Actually, we can go one step further and say that after the resurrection of Jesus, we can look back on everything Jesus said and everything he did, and believe that it is just as if God said it or did it himself.
Ultimately, we can sum it all up by saying, "It is ALL because of the resurrection that we know Jesus is the Son of God."
And it is the resurrection that becomes the basis of everything we hope for and everything we believe in.
And the first and foremost of our hopes for the future and all eternity, is that as Jesus was raised, we shall be too.
We are not allowed to hedge our bets, or to diversify our beliefs about this.
We cannot simultaneously confess the Apostle's Creed and say we believe in the resurrection of the body, AND at the same time think that when we die there is the possibility that we might be reincarnated into another body, OR think that we may roam the earth as a ghost, OR think that an immortal soul will spring free from our heart.
The Easter message is that all our eggs are in one basket!
The good news is that as Jesus Christ has lived and died and been resurrected, all who are baptized and believe in him shall be united with him in a resurrection like his on the last day.
No if's, and's, or but's about it!
This IS the Gospel of or Lord! AMEN!
St. John's - Morgan
The 2nd Sunday in Advent - C
Text: Philippians 1:3-11
Subject: Christian Faith
Predicate: is a "work" in progress, begun in our baptism and brought to completion
10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0 - Lift off! We have lift off!
When I was a child, every space launch was a big event. From the sub-orbital trip of Alan Shepherd, to the three orbits of John Glen, to the moon shots of 1969 and later, we all gathered around the TV to watch every minute of the launches, flights, and landings.
What we didn't see on TV, though most of us knew about it, was the immense amount of preparation necessary before the launch.
You know, it took over 40 years to design and develop a reliable rocket to launch the space capsules.
It took millions upon millions of work hours to build and test and refine and construct all the gear and equipment needed to travel to and survive in space.
It took the commitment of the entire nation to focus on and reach the goal of putting a person on the moon by the end of the decade of the 60's.
At times it seemed that certain obstacles were insurmountable and that the dream of traveling in space would remain just that - a dream. But one by one the problems were solved and the preparations completed and each new trip into space pushed the edge of the frontier a little further until we finally reached our goal.
Once begun, the work continued until it reached completion. //
In today's New Testament lesson, St. Paul wrote about how God has begun a good work in all of his followers and that God will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.
As we seek to understand what this means, the picture of a huge, lengthy, complicated undertaking such as a space launch is instructive.
For great events like this don't just happen.
As I've already pointed out in the introduction, to reach such a challenging goal takes time. It takes effort. It takes commitment. People need to be willing to commit their entire lives to the effort. Some people may even end up sacrificing their lives in the process.
And there is also a sense in which the ultimate completion of the work is always beyond any intermediate goals we may attain. There is always the possibility of going further or doing better.
Now I say all this because we must be clear about the fact that the "good work" that Paul was talking about is not a simple, easily attained goal. In fact to call what Paul was talking about, a "good work," is a little bit misleading because it is not a single, one time job that we have to complete at some point during our lives..
You see, the "good work" that Paul was talking about is FAITH.
And faith IS NOT a simple thing to achieve, or nor an easy thing to maintain.
Faith is a life-long process. Very few people, if any, are faithless one day, and suddenly, (snap fingers) just like that become deeply faithful, committed Christians the next.
In the Lutheran Church we believe that faith actually begins when a person is baptized.
For most of us, this means our faith began when we were tiny little babies, just a few weeks or months old.
A few others of us may have been baptized later in life, but we believe that in either case, the same principle applies - that faith initially comes by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Word and the water, and that it must grow and develop continuously over the course of our lives.
One good way to think about the faith that begins in our baptism is to imagine that it is a seed that has just germinated. At first it is tiny. It is fragile. But it is determined to grow.
And just as a seedling sends its roots into the soil and its leaves into the light, our seedling faith grows roots into our hearts, and sends forth leaves into the world around us through the visible expressions of our faith - which includes our worship, our prayers, and our good deeds done in the name of Christ.
However, once our faith has sprouted and begins to grow, the analogy of a seed and plant is probably not the best. Ideally, our faith SHOULD grow steadily, day after day, year after year, just like plant or tree. But reality is a lot more varied and unpredictable.
Actually, you might say that a life of faith is like a roller coaster.
There are times when things in life are looking up and our faith feels strong and healthy.
But there are other times when things get us down, or when the temptations of the world entice us away from the Lord, and our faith weakens.
And yet, with God's help, even though our faith will wane from time to time, we can hear God's Word of hope anew, our sins and shortcomings can be forgiven, and our faith can rebound and continue to grow stronger and stronger.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul does not envision any person (other than Jesus Christ) achieving a complete and perfect faith during their life time.
When he talks about the "good work" of faith, he sees it reaching completion only when Jesus returns at the end of this age.
No doubt Paul remembered the time that Jesus told his followers that if they had faith the size of a mustard seed, they would be able to move a mountain.
Take a moment and think about what that means.
On Thanksgiving Eve we heard the parable of the Mustard seed. We heard that out of all the seeds planted by the people of Israel in those days, the mustard seed was the smallest.
So later on in his ministry, when Jesus said that with faith the size of a mustard seed nothing is impossible, not even moving a mountain, Jesus is really saying something sobering about the faith of his followers, including all of us.
He is saying that if our faith is this big (show seed or picture of seed) - or should I say this tiny? - we really could move a mountain simply by willing it to happen.
Have you ever done it?
Personally, I'd like to think that I have a pretty strong faith. But the truth is - I've never moved a mountain - nor have I moved a small hill - I've never even moved a tiny pebble. And I think it's probably safe to say that none of you have either!
Therefore, we must never delude ourselves into thinking that we've reached perfection or completion in the matter of faith.
Instead, we need to realize that our faith is a tentative, growing phenomenon.
We need to see a life of faith as a life of working hard to reach the goals that God has set before us.
And we need to see that faith is not something that we can attain by our own intellect, or will, or might, but that God has begun this work within us, and that God is working in us on a daily basis to bring our faith to completion and perfection by the day Jesus returns.
Great events don't just happen. It takes time. It takes commitment. It takes preparation. And, of course, it takes the help of God through his Holy Spirit.
As you know, the season of Advent is understood to be a season of preparation. Most of our preparations are worldly and connected with the celebration of the Holy Day of Christ's birth.
But as I suggested in last Sunday's sermon; underlying, and primary to the preparations and celebration of Christmas is the question of faith.
Do we believe that Jesus IS the son of God, born to suffer and die for our salvation, - or are we just hyped up for the fun stuff of the season?
And do we live a life that really gives witness to our faith in Christ, - or are we hypocritically warming a pew on Sunday and reciting the words of worship with our lips while our hearts and minds are far from the Lord?
There is really on one thing that we need to do to prepare for Christmas - this year - or any year. And that is to let God continue with the "good work" of faith which was begun in our baptism, and which is even now being carried on toward completion. AMEN!
St. John's - Morgan
Second Sunday in Advent - B
Text: 2 Peter 3:8-14
Predicate: The day of the Lord has been "delayed" because God patiently desires that all may be saved, YET we must live prepared because it may come at any time.
When I was a child and the first of December arrived each year, even though it was getting close, it seemed to me like Christmas would never get here.
Though the decorations and the shopping and baking and cards and parades and parties all clearly said, "Christmas is just around the corner," each individual day seemed to take forever. And the more anxious I got, the slower time seemed to flow.
Now that I'm an adult, and in particular now that I'm a pastor, the problem is just the opposite. The days are flashing past like telephone poles on the highway.
As I look ahead to all the worship services, and program rehearsals, and decorating, and correspondence, (not to mention the normal weekly and monthly routines like preparing bulletins, visiting the sick, publishing the newsletter and preparing for the classes that I teach), a rush of panic frequently jolts my system, and I start talking to myself. . .
"How will I get everything done? What if I forget something important? There's so much to do and so little time to do it. Oh. God help me! Don't let me be responsible for wrecking the celebration of Christmas here at church for the congregation, or at home for my family!"
Now, if you can identify with the kind of feelings I've just described, then you're in the right frame of mind for understanding the message of our New Testament lesson from 2nd Peter.
The letter was written in the name of Peter to members of newly established congregations who were struggling with the paradoxical fact that though the day of the Lord seemed to be slow in arriving, it was in fact going to arrive for each individual a lot sooner than they expected.
The challenge to the people was twofold. First, they needed to be patient, because to the Lord, a thousand years is like a day. And secondly, at the same time, each person in the congregation needed to be ready, and ready now, for the time was growing short.
Now to more fully understand the urgency of the problem which the people faced back in the earliest years of the church, a brief lesson in historical theology is in order.
One of the most clear and certain promises that Jesus made during his ministry was that he would return again, after his ascension, to preside over the resurrection of the dead, the final judgment, and the ascension of the faithful to eternal life in heaven.
Of course the Bible is equally clear and certain about the fact that the day and hour of Jesus second coming is totally secret, known only to God, and not even by the son.
And yet, though the exact date and time is not known, the expectation was that Jesus would return soon. The disciples believed this. The people who were baptized and joined the church believed this. And from what we can tell in Holy Scripture, even the human mind of Jesus envisioned his return in a matter of days or months, or at the most about year or so.
So, in short, EVERYONE expected the imminent return of the Lord. And they lived each day expecting that IT might be the last day. They lived a life of preparation. They were ready to close up shop and head for heaven with Jesus on a moment's notice.
But (as the lesson for today reminds us) God's time is not like our time. The days turned into weeks. The weeks lengthened into months. The months piled up into years. And the years added up into decades. And still. . .there was no sign of Jesus.
A noted professor of early church history has observed that the number one crisis that the Christian church faced during it's infancy, was this delay of the second coming of Jesus.
The delay forced both leaders and members alike to confront their faith and ask some serious questions.
Questions such as, "Was Jesus really going to keep his promise? Or, were they clinging to a false hope? Should we stick with the church? Or, should we return to our Jewish or pagan roots? Or, maybe we should just chuck it all together and forget about all this religion stuff?"
Well, even though the people were beginning to feel betrayed and abandoned, God was determined to patiently wait until the time was right for Jesus to return.
And yet, so the church didn't collapse entirely, by the power of the Holy Spirit, God inspired some of his ministers address the situation, both to sustain, and to rebuild the faith of those who were beginning to have their doubts.
So, Peter, and Paul, and a host of others, wrote to their flocks, encouraging them not to lose hope. For even though it may seem like God was reneging on his promise, HE WAS NOT!.
To effectively communicate this proclamation of the good news that God would indeed keep his promises, Peter set forth two facts.
The first, as I've already mentioned, is that God's concept of time and our concept of time are totally different.
We live in a world where time is marked by the rising and setting of the sun and the cycle of seasons. We know that at the most, a person can live about 100 years, and the majority of people only reach the age of 72 or so, and many even less than that. Because of this, we are extremely time conscious.
Yet God lives in the realm of eternity. A place beyond time. A place where there is no such thing as "the end." A place where even the concept of the future is meaningless because it is always and forever, "Now" in heaven.
To help us understand this, Peter explained God's lack of time concept using a time concept that we can grasp. He wrote that, "to the Lord, a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years is like a day."
"So, therefore, the Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as people understand slowness."
Then, after telling us that we need to think about time differently when waiting for God to keep his promises, Peter goes on to make an even more important point.
And that is, that it is actually because of the goodness and love of God that Jesus has not returned yet.
For it is the Lord's earnest desire that ALL people have a chance to hear the good news about Jesus and come to the point in their lives where they repent of their past unfaithfulness and put their trust in the Lord.
If Jesus returns too soon, there will not have been enough time for the gospel to spread around the world.
If Jesus returns too soon, certain individuals will not have reached the point where they cast all their trust and hope on the Lord.
So, "the Lord is PATIENT with us, not wanting anyone to perish."
Now that is a tremendous piece of Good news.
Not only did God so love the world that he sent his only son to die for us so that everyone who believes in him might be saved, but God so loves the world that he is allowing plenty of time to pass before Jesus returns, so that everyone has an opportunity to believe.
So, in anticipation of the return of the Christ, we are to be patient with the Lord, just as he is being patient with his people.
But -- at the same time -- we dare not take the Lord's patience for granted.
For even though God has decided to bide his time before the end of the world, we are still rushing toward the end at a breakneck pace. Every moment and every day that passes means we are that much closer to the end no matter when it will be.
And so, starting with Jesus, and then continuing with the apostles and pastors of the early church, those who are Christians have been instructed to be ready!
Jesus said that the end would come unexpectedly like thief in the night, so be alert and watch!
Paul told us that someday, without warning, the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised and in the twinkling of an eye the living shall be changed.
In today's lesson Peter used Jesus' thief in the night image and added that the heavens will disappear with a roar, and the elements will be consumed by fire, and the earth will be laid bare.
In anticipation of this, Peter instructed those who read his letter to make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with the Lord.
That's not to say that we earn our salvation by being spotless and blameless. Salvation comes through the grace of God and the forgiveness won for us by Christ.
But it is Peter's way of saying be ready, and don't do anything, at any time, that might compromise your relationship with Christ and put your salvation in jeopardy.
Don't reject the Lord. Don't persist in thoughts, words and deeds which you know to be sinful. Don't turn your back on those in need. Don't forget your obligations in terms of worship.
Because even though God IS patient, we ARE rushing toward the end.
Just as the Christmas celebration of Christ's birth will be upon us before we know it, so too will the day when we meet the Lord face to face be upon us before we know it. AMEN!
St. John's - Morgan
3rd Sunday in Advent
Text: Luke 3:7-18
2 - 4 - 6 - 8 - Who do we appreciate?
How about John the Baptist?
What a preacher! What a man! John was definitely NOT a wimp. In his mind, his mission and message was crystal clear and nothing could tempt him to soften it up or compromise it in any way.
John wasn't beholden to any one. He lived alone in the desert. He wore clothing made of camel hair rags. He foraged his food from the wilderness, surviving mainly on bugs and wild honey.
John didn't care what the people thought of him. And he didn't try to preach the kind of sermons that prompted folks to shake his hand after the service and say, "Nice sermon Pastor."
John was a preacher who had the courage to look the congregation in the eye and call the people gathered around to listen to him a "Brood of vipers! A bunch of snakes!""
John was preacher with the gumption to challenge the lives and the faith of his listeners.
If John was up here in the pulpit preaching to us, he'd be brave enough to confront us saying, "What are you doing here today? Why did you decide to come to church today?"
"Did someone warn you to flee from the coming wrath? Are you here because you think your mere presence will be enough to merit salvation?
"Well folks, don't you go thinking that you've got it made because you are members of this Lutheran church. Don't you know that God can raise up all the Lutherans he wants from the stones laying on the ground?
"Even now the ax is at the root of the trees and every tree that does not bear fruit will be chopped down and burned in the fire!
(And by the way folks, just in case you are missing the symbolism of what I am saying, YOU are the trees! The ax is hovering over you. If your faith does not move you to produce the fruit of loving deeds, you'll be the one to burn in the unquenchable fire!)"
2 - 4 - 6 - 8 - Who do we appreciate?
John the Baptist?
After being confronted by the harsh, blunt message of his preaching we might be tempted to say, "No way!"
But, my friends, we SHOULD appreciate John the Baptist and the call to repentance which he preached.
Because it takes strong words to wake us up to recognize our sins. And because it takes a good kick to get us going, to get us doing the kinds of things that give witness to our Christian faith.
Now the call to repentance and the admonition to live a "faith-evident life" is good for us to hear just about any time of the year. But it is particularly good and important for us to hear it during the season of Advent as we prepare for Christmas.
For one thing, there is the whole idea of preparing for the coming of the messiah.
When John was preaching the call to repentance for the forgiveness of sins and was offering baptism in the Jordan River as a sign of that repentance, he was keenly aware of the fact that at any day THE true messiah would appear.
Some people actually thought John himself might be the messiah. But John knew he wasn't, and he told the people that very soon, "ONE who is more powerful than I will come - someone whose sandals I am not worthy to untie, and this ONE will baptize you with more than just water, he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit of God."
John knew that the coming Messiah would be the son of God who had both the power and the authority to judge and forgive the people of the world. And John also knew that people couldn't rely on their family tree or religious heritage to receive the forgiveness and other benefits that the Messiah was bringing.
John knew that the way to receive the benefits of the Messiah was through a deep and complete faith in the Messiah, and that the best (and perhaps the only evidence of such a faith) was to turn from sin and live according to the basic principles of God's commandments.
When the people asked him what they should do to live like this, John's answer was simple and straight forward. He said we should. . .
. . .Share,
. . .Be fair,
. . .Be honest,
. . .And treat people decently.
The other reason why it is important to hear the call to repentance and the admonition to live a "faith evident life" during Advent, is that there is the temptation (even for Christians and the church) to push Christ out of Christmas.
In other words, even though Christmas is specifically intended to be the day when we remember the birth of the Son of God who was designated by God to suffer and die an innocent death on the cross so that we might have eternal life, the salvation mission of Christ is all too easily glossed over or forgotten.
It happens in the commercialization of Christmas.
The companies which manufacture Christmas gifts and decorations and cards and food, and the stores where these things are sold, do not care about Jesus Christ's mission of salvation. To these entities, Christmas is a marketing opportunity.
Many businesses depend on their sales from October to December. A good Christmas sales season can literally mean the difference between a profit or loss for the year!
And so, anything that leads to increased sales is fair game.
TV ads shamelessly brainwash kids into thinking they HAVE TO HAVE the latest hot toy. People are encouraged to write out selfish lists of the gifts we REALLY want for Christmas. And our feelings guilt are subtlety manipulated by the marketers so that we go ahead and spend freely lest any of our family or friends be disappointed.
And the worst perversion of all is when Jesus is pressed into service as a sales pitch.
It certainly is true that God gave us the very best gift ever in the salvation Jesus won for us on the cross. And the only response that God desires from us for this gift is our gratitude -- our thanks!
God does not care one way or the other whether we give each other gifts at Christmas. And, if the exchanging of gifts pushes Jesus out of our minds, It is safe to say that God despises the practice!
Another way in which the ministry of Jesus is forced out of the picture is when we get hung up on the traditions of the season and forget the reason for the traditions.
The first time that I spent Christmas in southern California taught me something about the place of and reason for traditions. When we walked out of the house to head for church on Christmas Eve the temperature was 65 degrees. The grass was green. The palm tree leaves were rustling in the warm breeze.
We all commented that it didn't seem like Christmas because it was so warm and snowless. We chuckled when we saw a house with a Santa and sleigh up on the dry, cedar shake roof.
But when we got to church, and the worship service began, and the pastor proclaimed the birth of the savior of the world, it definitely was Christmas - because Christmas is defined by the fact that Jesus was born.
No matter how much we treasure the traditions of trees and gifts and family gatherings and carols and children's programs and seasonal concerts and greeting cards and cookies and even fruit cake, if you eliminated every tradition from the face of the earth, Christmas would still be a special day and a reason for great joy. Because the only thing - THE ONLY THING - that matters is that Jesus was born to fulfill the mission God set before him.
And the only reason we remember Jesus' birth is that he fulfilled the mission. He taught us about the kingdom of God. He called us to faith. He suffered under Pontious Pilate. He died. He was buried. And he rose victorious on Easter morning.
Therefore, all our traditions, especially in the church, must be seen as optional, human invented devices, that (when properly understood and used) are aids in proclaiming Jesus.
But if we think that Christmas depends on the songs we sing, or the decorations we put up, or the style of our worship, or if we elevate the importance of our human endeavors above the simple proclamation of the gospel, we are falling victim to the same sin that John the Baptist pointed out when he chastised the people for thinking they were saved because they were of the lineage of Abraham.
For God can raise up a billion new traditions with the wink of an eye.
We must never forget that the source and authority of all our words and actions, including all our feeble efforts to express our faith and gratitude are from God and God alone.
2 - 4 - 6 - 8 - Who do we appreciate? John the Baptist?
Yes we should. Because by the power and authority of God, John had the courage to clearly and forcefully set the people straight about what really matters in living the faith.
May this word, as spoken long ago, and as I have re-proclaimed it today, do the same for us. AMEN!
St. John's - Morgan
3rd Sunday in Advent - B
Text: John 1:6-8, 19-28
Subject: Our identity
Predicate: as a Christian is a tangible and specific preparation for the coming of our Lord.
"Who are you?"
That sounds like it would be an easy question to answer. After all, who knows who you are better than you yourself.
But in actuality, to answer the question, "Who are you?" is probably one of the most difficult things we can do.
We may think we know who we are, but when we are asked to say who we are, nine times out of ten, the best we can come up with are a few facts that barely scratch the surface.
For example, I've frequently attend functions where one of the first things we do is to introduce ourselves, or in other words, to tell the others in the group, "Who I am."
My typical introduction goes something like this: "Hi! I'm Paul Heykes, from Sobieski, and I'm the pastor of the Lutheran Church in Morgan."
Then, more often than not, the first question directed back to me is, "Where is Sobieski?" And my response is, "Have you ever heard of Luigi's Pizza?"
Well, by the time the introductions are over, the rest of the people know where to get a great pizza, but what do they really know about who I am other than where I live and what I do?
Now this isn't to say that where we live and what we do are unimportant. But just as Jesus said that "Life consists of more than the abundance of possessions," so too does our identity consist of more than where we live and what we do.
And if we don't get in touch with the other and deeper aspects of who we are, many problems can affect us.
For example, the most dangerous year of a person's life is the year after they retire. I can't remember the exact statistics, but the percentage of people who die between 3 and 12 months after retirement is extremely high.
A large number doctors and psychologists believe that this high death rate is connected to the loss of identity, value and self-esteem that many people experience when they no longer have a job that they can identify themselves by.
As an illustration: If, for the last 40 years, a man has identified himself as the production manager of the WXYZ Widget Company, and his entire life revolved around widgets, including golf outings with clients, hunting trips with colleagues, and attending the annual widget convention in Walla Walla, Washington, and so on, you can imagine how empty and meaningless his life might be when he retired and woke up the next morning with the realization, "I don't do that any more - now what do I do, now, 'Who am I?'"
Well, today, on the third Sunday of Advent, as we continue this season of preparation for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, I want us all to reflect on the question, "Who are you?"
And I want us to go on beyond the surface facts including where we live and what we do. I want us to answer the question "Who are you?" on the basis of our faith.
For I believe that to answer this question in the context of our relationship to Jesus Christ is the key component of understanding who we REALLY are, and the main way that we prepare ourselves for the arrival of our Savior, and for our participation in his eternal kingdom.
Now to start OUR quest to answer the question, "Who are you?" let us turn our attention to our Gospel lesson from John and learn how John the Baptist answered this question when he came onto the scene in the Judean countryside in order to prepare the way for the coming Messiah.
By any one's standards, even back in those days, John was totally weird. He dressed in the first century equivalent of a gunny sack or rags. He ate bugs for lunch and he washed them down with wild honey that he removed from the beehives with his bare hands (no doubt being stung a few times in the process).
But as odd as he was, John knew who he was.
And the basis of his self identity was a combination of his relationship to, and his ministry on behalf of the soon to arrive son of God.
Now according to the Bible, when John preached and baptized he made it abundantly clear that he himself was not the Christ. Yet still the people wanted to know who he was.
So they asked him, "Who are you? Are you Elijah?" because many people believed that Elijah would return to herald the way for the coming messiah.
But John replied, "I am NOT Elijah."
Then the people asked, "Are you THE prophet?" because many other people believed that one of the other great prophets like Isaiah or Jeremiah would return in conjunction with the messiah's arrival.
But John simply answered, "No."
Now had John wanted to, he could have claimed to be Elijah, or THE prophet, and everyone would have believed him.
But as I've already mentioned, John knew exactly who he was and what his ministry was.
And so when the people pressed him harder and said, "Come on John, give us an answer! What DO you say about yourself?" he replied, "I AM the voice of one calling out in desert saying, 'Prepare the say for the Lord.'"
In other words, "No I am not the messiah, and no I am not a dead prophet come back to life, but I AM a servant of the Lord, I AM one whose calling it is to announce the coming messiah and help people prepare for his entry into their lives."
Or to say it a little differently, John's response means that, "Who I AM is determined by my relationship to the coming Christ, and my ministry on his behalf."
Now it may be nearly two thousand years later, but what was true for John the Baptist is still true for us. For who WE ARE is also determined by our relationship (or lack of relationship) to Christ, and our ministry (or lack of ministry) on his behalf.
To develop this further, so we can better understand who we really are, I'd like to quote from our order of worship for Christian burial.
One of the last things I do at a funeral service is to raise my hands over the body of the deceased and pray, "Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive this person into the arms of your mercy, the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen."
Not only is this an important prayer in the funeral worship service, but it is a powerful statement of who we are in relationship to Christ.
To begin with, who we are is defined in terms of our need.
As the Bible tells the story, in the earliest days of the human race, Adam and Eve ignored the instructions of God and ate the forbidden fruit. Because of this, sin entered into the world and spread throughout the human race, and, as St. Paul wrote, the human situation is that "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God."
So, "Who are We?"
WE ARE sinners. And unless something is done, as unforgiven sinners we are doomed to be separated from the presence of God forever.
Therefore, if there is to be any hope for us, we need the forgiveness and salvation that God offers freely through Jesus Christ.
So then, in as much as Christ suffered and died FOR US, "Who are we?"
WE ARE Christ's redeemed! We once were lost but now have been found. We once were blinded by sin, but know we see.
And as Christ's redeemed we have been embraced by the Lord's arms of mercy and given a place among the glorious company of the saints in light.
In other words, though we shall one day pass through the gates of death, by the power of the Spirit and the grace of God we shall be resurrected to a new life for all eternity in the kingdom of heaven.
Now until that day comes, there is one more aspect of "who we are" that we must be aware of. And that is, that just as who John was was clearly conveyed by his ministry, who we are is clearly conveyed by what we do too.
In fact, as the old saying goes, our actions speak louder than our words.
Christ certainly knew this to be true. That is why he considered the things that he did to be more important, than the things that he said.
That is why Jesus told his followers to love both neighbors and enemies.
That is why he told us to let our good works be a light that shines in the darkness of this sin infested world and thus bears witness to our faith in God.
So then, "Who are we?"
Well there may be times when an appropriate response is "I'm from 'here' and I'm a 'whatever.'"
But remember that as a Christian, the real answer is that "I'm a sinner of Christ's own redeeming."
And remember that this is further expressed as we live out our faith in the practical, day to day ministries of helping others, of praying and worshipping our Lord, and of sharing the good news of Jesus with throughout the world. Amen.
St. John's - Morgan
The 4th Sunday of Advent
Predicate: The power that matters and that will prevail over all human power (especially evil uses of power) is God's power.
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 are the numbers printed on the master volume control on the PA amplifier/mixer I use with my synthesizer.
(Note different text for 8:00 and 10:30 [italics])
At our (8:00) Sunday worship services (where we use the keyboard and amp each week) I usually keep the master control set a little bit under 3. Loud enough to be heard well, yet hopefully not too loud so as to over-power (the congregation's singing.) our singing.
But there's 300 watts of POWER in MY amplifier. And I AM THE MASTER of that power.
Through MY will and MY fingers, I AM in total control. If I WANT more volume, all I have to do is turn the dial up. The power output will increase, and so will the volume of the music.
In fact, I don't even have to touch the dial myself, Ben and Brandon have been trained to watch ME and set the volume according to MY instructions. All I have to do is give them the thumbs up, and they'll increase the amp's power output for me.
So either way, when we are using the amp in church, by my hand or by my instructions, I AM IN CHARGE. I have the power to control the power of the music and in turn I wield a kind of power over, the assembled congregation. I have to power to decide how loud or soft the congregation will sing. I have to power to make the music enjoyable or to inflict discomfort. //
Now I hope you don't think I'm some kind of crazy maniac who takes a perverse delight in wielding this power over you, the worshippers!
It is simply a matter of fact that the power output of the amp (or the organ) needs to be controlled, and someone must do it. And whoever does it has both the power of the machine, and the power to decide how to use the machine, in their hands.
This little illustration should help us to see that power and control is an all pervasive part of human life. In one way or another, just about all of us wield some kind of power at one time or another.
In our day to day activities many of us have the power of machinery at our disposal.
For example, every time you climb behind the wheel of your car, you have an incredible amount of power under your control. You control the engine, the speed and the direction of the car. You can go where you want to go, when you want to go, as fast or as slow as you want to go.
Others of us manage the power of business. We decide what to produce, how to produce it, and who will produce it. We hire and fire. We determine who will work and when they will work. We decide where the product will be sold and how much it will be sold for.
Some of us control power in the family. We make all kinds of decisions, ranging from what's for dinner to how the family income will be spent and invested.
Those of us who are parents must exercise power over our children by providing for them and keeping them safe until they are ready to assume control of their own lives.
And its also possible that a few of us may be politically powerful. If we are, we are able to make decisions or to impose policies in our town, county, state or nation that affect how others will live their lives.
Now the assumption of and use of power (what ever kind of power it may be) is a normal part of human life.
But be clear about the fact that all power involves both risks AND responsibilities.
When we take the reins of power into our hands we can use it, or abuse it. We can control it, or it can control us. We can help ourselves and others when we use it well, or we can hurt ourselves and others when we mis-use it.
These dilemmas involved with the acquiring of and the use of power are part of what it means to be human in this modern world.
But what raises the most problems for us is that we are accustomed to defining and using power strictly in human terms.
At best we see it as a tool to get things done.
At worst we see it as something to grab for and harness for our own, selfish purposes. We see power as a sign of status and prestige. We see power as a way to advance ourselves over and above others. We see power as a way to control our own destiny.
But there is another kind of power.
One that is more fundamental than any earthly power. One that is more powerful than the greatest of all human powers. One that is the source of every other power in the entire universe.
And that, my friends, is the power of God.
Our Gospel lesson for today is a story of God's power. It is an illustration of how God's power can transform lives. And it shows us that the way God uses his power is totally opposite of the sinful ways in which we humans usually use power.
Let's use the rest of this morning's sermon to take a closer look at the transforming power of God as we see it in the life of Mary.
Now when Mary suddenly and spontaneously became pregnant, it is safe to say that her life was transformed by this event! In fact, the power of God thrust her into a VERY difficult position.
Mary was only betrothed, or engaged, when she became pregnant. She had not yet engaged in sexual relations with her husband to be, Joseph. So, she faced the prospect of personal disgrace and a broken engagement when Joseph found out she was expecting.
For even though Mary knew she was pregnant by the power of God, the only logical explanation for Joseph would have been that Mary was sleeping with another man, and the only proper response in such a situation was to call off the marriage.
She also faced the prospect of death. In those days adultery was punishable by death. If she fell into the hands of zealots like the Pharisee's and Saducees, they could, if they wanted to, have stoned her to death.
So, when Mary found out she was pregnant, she was frightened and upset about what was happening to her, and about what would most likely happen to her when others, including Joseph, found out.
That is why she hurried off to Elizabeth's house in a town in the hill country of Judea. She needed time to hide out in a safe place so she could figure out what to do next.
But the moment she walked in the door at Elizabeth's house, the most important way in which Mary's life was being transformed became evident.
When she saw Mary, instead of crying out, "Oh you poor girl!" Elizabeth exclaimed, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear." And not only that, but the baby in Elizabeth's womb also expressed his joy and excitement with a great kick.
At first, I'm sure Mary wondered what it all meant. How could she be pregnant? Why did God select her? And how could she manage to cope with the difficulties that lay before her?
Personally, I do not know all the exact details about how Mary came to grips with what was happening, but the Bible does make it clear that the most important factor in understanding what was going on in her life, and how God had called her for an important task in the salvation of the world, was that she simply cast all her faith and trust on God.
You see, Mary was blessed, not because she was special or powerful, but because God chose her and called her to a mission.
And Mary accepted the mission along with its risks, not because she was strong and confident of her worthiness and abilities, but because she believe and trusted in the power of God to do what was good for all people.
Mary had every reason to be scared, and to run away and hide. At first that's what she did. But in the end she literally placed her life and future in the hands and power of God.
And she sang a song to the Lord, giving Glory and thanks to God for his awesome power, and the way that he uses it for the good of his people.
It is instructive for us to hear Mary's song about how God has used and will use his power to strike down those who use their earthly power to take advantage of the poor and the hungry and the weak and the helpless people of the world.
And it is good news for us to hear that the ultimate power of God is his mercy.
His mercy as expressed in his willingness to forgive those who sin.
His mercy as we see it in God's willingness to sacrifice his only son so that we might have eternal life.
And his mercy in how he has promised to lift the humble and faithful up to life everlasting life in the Kingdom of Heaven.
There is a way in which Mary is representative of all of us in the Christian community.
Just as she heard the good news of the coming Lord and Savior and then responded with joy and faith, so should we.
Just as she did not fully understand God's power and purposes but yet trusted in God to do what is right, so should we.
And just as the day came when Mary's eyes were opened to God's
mighty grace and salvation, so shall ours when we discover how
Jesus Christ, son of Mary, son of God, redeems us, sustains us
and gives us new and eternal life. AMEN!