St. John's - Morgan
4th Sunday of Advent - B
Text: Luke 1:26-38
Predicate: are not extra-terrestial beings but rather, those who bring a message from the Lord.
We got a new angel for the top of our Christmas tree at home this year.
It is a beautiful ornament. The angel's face is pretty and feminine. Her hair is golden blonde. Her gown is white and trimmed with pearls and her wings are satiny. She carries a couple of lights in her hands and at least 10 or 12 lights on the inside create an aura around her that reminds me of a halo.
In short - she's the "perfect angel."
At least, given the popular conception of what angels look like, she's the perfect angel.
If you turn to the Bible to find out what angels look like, you won't find much information. And from what little information there is, you'll discover that angels probably don't look at all like the one on the top of our Christmas tree.
For even though angels regularly showed up to talk to people to inform them of God's plans and promises, what they look liked was of little importance compared to the messages that they brought.
In the Old Testament, the only clue as to what angels look like comes in the fact that they ALWAYS appeared in human form, even if they were heavenly beings.
For example, when the two angels came to tell Abraham and Sarah that despite the fact that they were about 90 years old they would soon have a son, Abraham fed them and entertained them as guests or sojourners without even realizing that they were angels.
Years later, at Jericho, Joshua saw the commander of the heavenly host of angels, also known as the "army of the LORD," standing before him looking just like a man with a drawn sword.
And Manoah, the father of Samson, only realized that the man visiting him was an angel when the man suddenly vanished without a trace in the fire of a sacrafice.
Even in the New Testament, the most detailed description of angels interacting with people, the Easter story, simply describes them as young men dressed in dazzling white clothing.
Now if you look at the cover of your bulletin today you'll see a pretty good picture of the popular image of angels that many of us grew up with. But as I've indicated, this image, with wings attached to back, cherub like faces, and celestial trumpets, is not, in fact, the way that the Bible describes angels.
This image is more closely connected to the Biblical description of two other heavenly beings called cherubim and seraphim.
The Bible tells us that cherubim stood as sentinals on the path to the "tree of Life" in the Garden of Eden. They also flank the throne of God in heaven. And when the people of Israel built the ark of the covenant, God instructed them to place images of the cherubim with outstretched wings on the cover of the covenant box.
The second kind of heavenly being called the seraphim is only described briefly in the book of Isaiah. These creatures are 6-winged beings and apparently their only job is to stand near the throne of God and intone his praises.
Now it is interesting to think about what angels and other heavenly beings look like. But how they look is really not the most important thing.
In the case of angels, WHAT THEY DO is of paramount importance.
And what they do, in EVERY case recorded in the Bible, is to bring a message from God, to a person or persons, who need to hear what God wants them to hear.
In fact, the word "angel" in the original Biblical languages of Hebrew and Greek simply means "messenger."
So, even though angels are heavenly or spiritual beings, not all heavenly or spiritual beings are angels. Only those who bring a message from God, to people, are truly angels.
Now in the whole unfolding of the Christmas story, God's angels were very busy bringing messages from God to the various people who were involved in the events connected to the birth of Jesus.
First off, angels contacted Zechariah and Elizabeth concerning the birth their son John (who would be John the Baptist and who would prepare everyone for Jesus' ministry.).
Next, an angel named Gabriel visited Mary to inform her of God's plan to have Mary give birth to God's son.
Not long after that an angel called on Joseph in a dream and told him NOT to divorce Mary because of her unexpected pregnancy..
On the Eve of Jesus' birth, an angel told the shepherds to go into Bethlehem to look for the baby Jesus lying in a manger.
In another dream, God used an angel to warn the Magi not to return to King Herod.
Joseph had his second encounter with an angel when he was warned about Herod's plan to kill the all the children in the region and instructed to take Jesus to Egypt for his safety.
Finally, after Herod was dead and it was safe to return home, Joseph saw a third angel who told him that it was time to bring his family back from Egypt.
Now all these messages were important. Had they not been delievered, the story would have turned out differently. In fact had the messages not been delievered, and received, and believed, God's whole plan for our salvation could have been goofed up.
And that brings us the whole point of the Gospel lesson for today.
You see, the truth is, that God's plans for his people rarely coincide with the hopes and dreams and plans that we cook up for ourselves.
Invariably, we want to selfishly forge ahead in life, doing what we want to do, when we want to do it.
That doesn't mean that the things we want to do are necessarily wrong or sinful in themselves.
Mary's expectations for her life were perfectly reasonable and normal. She was betrothed (or engaged) to the carpenter Joseph and she was looking forward to her wedding day and the family that would soon follow if all went well.
The same was true with Joseph. He arranged for his marriage to Mary with Mary's father some time earlier, and was in the process of setting up his home and business so the marriage could be finalized and his new family begun
But despite their hope for a normal life, God had other plans. And through the angels, God let Mary and Joseph know what HIS plans were for them.
Through the angels God reaffirmed his total and complete freedom and creativity to do what ever God needs to do for the benefit of his people.
And through the angels, God convinced Mary and Joseph to do their part so God's plan might be fulfilled.
Now a lot of people read the Gospel for today and they think that the greatest miracle is the fact that Mary became pregnante as a virgin.
But for the God who created the universe by saying, "Let there this and let there be that. . .," making a baby by the power of the Spirit is a minor miracle.
Instead, the real miracle is that Mary, and Joseph (and all the others who were visited by angels) believed what the angels told them. And they changed THEIR plans, and adapted THEIR lives, to take part in God's plans.
And you may think that Mary and Joseph and a few others were the only ones in history to experience a call from God to participate in God's plans for them and the world.
But the truth is that God has plans for many more people than these few that we've heard about today. Though Mary and Joseph had a unique and important roll in the unfolding of human salvation, they didn't have the only roll.
And though we heard the story of a few encounters with angels, the truth is that millions of people over thousands of years have heard from God's angels.
That is one of the reasons that I emphasized the human appearance of Biblical angels in the first part of the sermon. And that is why I stressed the fact that an angel is a messenger.
For everytime that we receive a message from God through the words or actions of another person, we have had an encounter with an angel.
Perhaps the angels we've encountered were sent by God straight from heaven to us. But if they appeared in human form, we might never know of their heavenly origin, just as Abraham realize his guests were angels.
Or perhaps the angels we've encountered have been real people. Anyone who brings a message from God to us is functioning as an angel, even if they are made of earthly flesh and blood.
The people who told us the story of Jesus and the salvation he brings are angels to us.
The pastors and others who encouraged me to enter the ministry were angels to me.
Everyone who comforts us with God's word, or motivates us to participate in the ministry of the church, or preforms an act of caring and compassion that reaffirms our faith in God is being an angel to us.
And this also means that there are times when we will be angels to others. Whenever we share the gospel we are an angel. Whenever we say something or do something that enables another person to do what the Lord wants them to do, we are an angel.
And when we provide a shoulder for someone to cry on, or an embrace that says we care, or the ear that says we understand, so that in their strife someone knows that they have not been seperated from God's love, we have been and angel.
So my friends, though we put angels on the tops of our trees at Christmas, angels are not just cute cherubs with wings that we use for decorations. And angels are not only heavenly beings that haven't been seen or heard from since Biblical days.
Angels are messengers. Angels are all around us. And at times even we may be an angel.
And, just as Mary heard and believed the message of the angel that visited her, may we hear and believe the messages directed to us, what ever they may be. AMEN!
St. John's - Morgan
Christmas Eve - 1993
Luke 2: 12
Subject: The signs of God's grace
Predicate: are there - please don't ignore them!
I want to sincerely thank the Sunday school children and their teachers for doing a wonderful job this evening.
Through their words and songs and signs, they told us about the great grace of God. . .the fact that "God so loved the world that he gave his only son to die for us so that everyone who trusts in the Lord might be given the gift of eternal life."
Now as the kids told us the Christmas story this evening, they displayed a lot of different road signs for us to see. If I counted right, they raised up 15 different traffic signs during their part of the program.
But as anyone who drives knows, there are a lot more signs on our roads and highways than the 15 signs our kids displayed.
So, since the kids used traffic signs to share their message, I decided to make one more traffic sign and use it for my message. And here it is. . .(show sign).
As you can see, my sign is a speed limit sign.
And, as anyone who drives much knows, this is THE MOST IGNORED of all the traffic signs.
Only a fool or an inattentive driver would ignore a "Stop" sign. Just about everyone obeys "No Parking" signs. And if by some remote chance we miss a "One Way Street" sign, you can be sure that we'll get off the road or turn around the very first chance we get.
But how many drivers consistently obey ALL the posted speed limits? I'll be the first to confess that the only time I drive 55 on Highway 41 is when its glazed with ice or packed with snow. On a normal day I usually set my cruise control as 65! And even then, every other car passes ME up!!
Now even though our actions may not reflect it, there is wisdom behind the posted speed limit. And there is danger when we ignore it and exceed it.
Even though 99.99% of the time I make my trip to Green Bay and back with no problem, there is the very real danger that one day my excessive speed will be a factor in an accident.
So, everyone who ignores the posted speed limit, myself included, does so at their own peril.
Now the point that both the children and I are trying to make this evening should be pretty obvious to you by now.
And that is, that we have been given many signs that tell us that Jesus IS the Son of God and that he was born, and that he suffered and died to save us from eternal damnation.
On Christmas Day an angel told the shepherds to go and worship their savior, and the sign that they will have found their Lord will be a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
Years later, when Jesus began his ministry as an adult, the first of his signs occurred when he change water into wine at the wedding in Cana.
According to the Gospel of John. every miracle and every healing that Jesus performed was a sign that pointed toward his divine nature and saving power.
And John concluded his portion of the story of Jesus' life by saying that, "Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not written in the Bible. But," he goes on, "these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus IS the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name."
So then, are we going to heed these signs?
Or are we going to treat them like the speed limit?
Will we believe in Jesus and give thanks to God for his great gift of salvation? Will we express our faith and our gratitude in our daily lives through our worship, prayers, love and service?
Or will we keep cruising through life at breakneck speed, ignoring what God has done and ignoring his Son Jesus, thus living each day on the brink of eternal destruction?
By the grace of God and the power of his Holy Spirit, may we all heed the signs that have been set before us. AMEN!
St. John's - Morgan
Christmas Day 1993 - B
Text: Luke 2
Subject: the birth of Christ
Predicate: was a really low class affair for the king of the
This is the third Christmas worship service we've had this year.
In addition to today's service, we gathered here last night for our annual Christmas Eve worship and program, and on top of these two regularly scheduled Christmas services we added a third Christmas worship last Sunday evening.
Now in each of these three worship services we heard the story of the birth of Jesus and we sang songs that both told the story and praised God for his gracious gift.
But of the three services, one of them captured the essence of the first Christmas better than the other two.
And that one was our service in the barn last Sunday.
Now in some respects it was NOT the best of the three services.
There were a myriad of little glitches, most of them mine.
I goofed up the music for Eileen's solo and she ended up singing a duet with Amy Grant. I forgot my Christmas story book and ended up doing a rambling, half storytelling, half Bible reading rendition of the Christmas story that, in my opinion, was pretty poorly presented. And my fingers were so cold by the end, that I know I muffed a few chords on my guitar as we sang "Silent Night."
But despite these relatively minor problems, I think that of all our Christmas worship opportunities this year, the service in the barn brought us closest to the reality, and the meaning of Jesus' birth.
Let me tell you why.
The main problem with the way we celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day is that we tend to get too comfortable and too fancy.
On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day we meet in warm sanctuaries that are decorated with beautiful trees and ornaments and flowers that run the risk of saying more about our affluence than the birth of Jesus.
On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day we dress in our finest clothing and adorn ourselves with glittering jewelry and fix our hair extra pretty. (I had may hair trimmed and I even put my best pony tail holder in today!)
And on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day we worship in a very precise, formal style, using what we consider to be some of the most sophisticated sacred music and poetry of our western-European rooted culture.
Now don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that these things are bad and that we should never worship in comfort amid the symbols and decorations of the season.
But at the same time, how can we appreciate the harshness of the conditions that Mary and Joseph and Jesus faced unless we have a chance to witness them first hand?
And how can we really appreciate the unexpected and unlikely way that God chose to enter into our world unless we see it and smell it and feel it for ourselves.
That is why I think the worship in the barn last week was so wonderful.
Instead of dressing up in our holiday best, we put on our jeans and boots and wool caps and long undies.
Instead of sitting on padded pews we sat on bales of straw and hay where the cows were supposed to be.
Instead of smelling the fragrance of the Christmas tree and fresh flowers and the perfumes and colognes we use on our bodies, the aroma of hay and animal dung permeated the air.
Instead of basking in 70 degree comfort we felt the 30 degree chill of the night air.
And because of all this, for me, and I hope for everyone who was there too, the radical nature of what God has done became just a little bit clearer.
And that is, that when it came time for God to visit our world through the birth of Jesus, the son of God, God spurned all riches and glory and pageantry, and instead, came in poverty, humility, and simplicity.
Instead of coming with the kind of fanfare that made people sit up and take notice, when God came to into this world virtually no one realized the enormity of what was happening.
In fact, 99.9999% of the people didn't realize that ANYTHING out of the ordinary had even occurred.
Oh, we may think that the angel talking to the shepherds and the heavenly host singing, "Gloria in excelsis Deo," and the star in the sky and the visiting magi were a big deal, but the truth is, they were events that went unnoticed by literally millions of people.
While the population of the country slept, only a few un-educated, un-named, un-important shepherds were told about the birth of the son of God.
Based on what they were told, (that is that the Lord of the Universe would be found lying in a feeding trough in an undisclosed location somewhere in Bethlehem), it wouldn't surprise me if there were a few other shepherds that scoffed at the angels and thought that their colleagues heading off to search for the baby had lost their marbles (or maybe had hit the bottle a little to hard that evening!).
And while everyone in the country went on living their normal daily lives, only a small band of magicians or astrologers from a far away country bothered to track down the meaning of the unusual star in the western sky.
Even the fact that Herrod decreed that all the baby boys in the region should be killed (as horrible as it was) was not that odd. The life of a king was dangerous in those days and the only kings who survived were the ones who ruthlessly eliminated everyone who might possibly be an enemy.
In short, the remarkable thing about Christmas is not found in the events that occurred, but the events that didn't occur.
And the primary thing, is that God entered this world and human life in the least likely way that anyone could imagine.
That is one of the reasons why I really believe the Christmas story is true. It is so preposterous to think that God would allow his son to be born in a barn, that no one in their right mind could have thought to make it up.
And because the birth of Jesus is out of the ordinary and out of character with what we might expect from God, we are confronted with the ultimate truth of the Gospel.
Our salvation is entirely God's doing.
We have done nothing to cause it to happen. We have done nothing to deserve it. We are simply the recipients of God's love and grace. We are the beneficiaries of God's gift.
Now just as the birth of Jesus meant very little (if anything) to the people of Bethlehem and Israel when it happened, the sad fact is that it still means very little to many people today.
There are those who push Jesus completely out of the picture and celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday with presents and trees and Santa.
And there are those who take the humble, simplicity of the crèche and unrealistically glorify it by dressing the holy family in silk and velvet, and polishing up the stable until it's clean enough to eat off the floor, and primping and grooming the animals like they were blue ribbon contenders at the state fair. (And I hope that by now you've caught my observation that within the church we are often guilty of this!)
Well, in each case, what has happened is that we've refused to allow God to be God and do what God wants to do. In each case, we've sinned.
St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians to tell them that the, "cross is a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the gentiles." And he could have added that manger the is a stumbling block and foolishness as well.
Because for all too many people, the method of God's plan simply does not fit what PEOPLE EXPECT of God.
But that's the way God does things. If God did things our way, then we'd be calling the shots. Then we'd be "God" (or at least we'd think we are!)
Instead, God has taken the initiative. God has done what God wants to the way God wants to in order that we might be forgiven and saved.
God loves us so much that He could not stay cloistered in his heavenly kingdom while we perished due to our sin and unbelief.
God had to come to earth to rescue us. And to rescue us he had to be like us in every respect. He had to take the form of a human being, and he had to experience all the temptations and suffering of human life, including death.
And so he did. Starting with his birth in the harsh environment of a strange city, far away from friends and family, with none of the comforts of home.
I hope that we'll be able to have a Christmas service in a barn again next year. Chris and Steve seem willing and I'm certainly all for it. And I hope that people who didn't have the chance to come this year might be able to next year.
But in any case, may the power of the Spirit help us all to see the unbelievable power, creativity, freedom, love and grace of God in this most unlikely of places. The baby in the manger. AMEN!
St. John's Lutheran - Morgan
5th Sunday After Epiphany - B
Text: Job 7:1-7
Predicate: happens yet God is there for us healing even in the midst of it.
Epiphany, and the Sunday's of the season after Epiphany, are supposed to be the time of the church year where we celebrate the "Light of God" coming into this world of darkness and sin to illuminate our way in the midst the suffering and despair of human life.
In our lessons today, we tasted each extreme.
In Job there seemed to be no light at all. In fact, I'd say that today's reading from Job is one of the darkest, most depressing readings in the entire three year cycle of Sunday lessons.
Just listen to some of the images and phrases the rolled off the lips of Job.
He said. . .
". . .is not human life a life of hard service?"
". . .and aren't our days like that of a laborer or slave?"
And he observed that. . .
". . . human life consists of months of futility and nights of misery."
". . .our days fly by swifter than a weavers shuttle and end without hope."
Now to understand why Job had such a pessimistic outlook on life, we need to hear the story of what happened to him. It is one of the most tragic stories in the whole Bible.
Yet people love hearing it again and again because it has what you might call "universal appeal." In other words, sooner or later just about everyone experiences the same kind of pain and suffering that Job did.
And so, to hear about Job's experiences is to hear that we are not alone in our suffering. Though we might prefer otherwise, suffering is a universal experience in human life. Eventually, ALL PEOPLE WILL suffer.
And at the same time, to hear how Job placed his faith and trust and hope with God even as he suffered in encouraging to those of us who are tempted to think God has abandoned us or that God is punishing us in and through our suffering.
Now we don't know exactly when and where Job lived.
Some scholars believe that Job is the oldest book in the Bible (in terms of when it was first written down). It seems that at the least, Job lived about 3000 years ago.
The Bible also tells us that he lived in the land of Uz (spelled U-Z). But there are no surviving maps with a place by that name on them, so we can only guess where it might have been.
But the Bible does tell us something clear and certain about Job, the man.
It tells us that he was a good man who feared and worshipped God. Job carefully kept all the commandments. In fact, the Bible describes him as "Blameless in the eyes of God." This means that Job obeyed the commandments as perfectly as possible, in all likelihood -- more perfectly than any other human alive at that time!
The Bible also tells us that Job was rich. Very rich.
He personally owned 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yoke or teams of oxen, and 500 asses.
He also owned and farmed lots of land. His 500 teams of oxen were capable of plowing and cultivating over 500 acres of land per day -- so it is entirely possible that Job had as much as 10,000 acres of land under cultivation. In addition, his sheep required hundreds of square miles of land for grazing. And of course, Job had plenty of servants and hired hands to take care of all the work.
The last time I preached on the book of Job I did some rough calculations and figured out that if you tried compare the scope of Job's operation to today's world of powerful tractors and multi-row plows, planters, cultivators and harvesters, it would be as if ONE PERSON OWNED AND FARMED the ENTIRE State of Wisconsin.
And in addition to his farm operation, Job had a "perfect family," consisting of a loving wife, 7 sons, and three beautiful daughters.
Now for may years everything was going well for Job. He was sitting on top of the world.
But then, suddenly, without warning, disasters began to strike, one after the other.
One day, one of Job's servants rushed up to tell Job that while his oxen were plowing and his asses feeding nearby, the Sabean army attacked and killed ALL the other servants and stole ALL the animals and that he alone escaped to bring Job this horrible news.
Job's ears had barely stopped ringing from this bad news when a second servant rushed in saying that a great calamity had befallen the sheep and shepherds. A fire from the heavens burned up ALL 7000 sheep and all the shepherds except the one who escaped to bring the bad news.
Immediately after that, a third servant burst through the door saying, "The Chaldean armies raided your camels and took all of them, and killed all of the servants except me who escaped to bring these bad tidings.
And as if that wasn't enough, a fourth messenger came with the most devastating news of all. "Job, your entire family, your wife, your sons, and your daughters were together sharing a meal when a great wind blew down the dwelling they were in and killed everyone inside except me who escaped to tell you.
Upon hearing all this, Job was stunned. He was numb with grief. I'm sure he cried and screamed since that is the custom in the Middle East when tragedy strikes.
The Bible does tell us that Job immediately began a period of formal mourning. For after hearing all the bad news, "he arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell upon the ground.
Not long after this, Job was afflicted with "loathsome sores from the crown of his head to the sole of his feet." And in pain and mourning, Job sat in a pile of ashes from sunrise to sunset, scraping the scabs from his body with shards of broken pottery.
And yet, despite all of his suffering and grief, Job remained faithful to God.
Even though to our ears it may not sound like it.
For if you read the whole book of Job you will read that Job complained bitterly to God about his losses. He let God know that in his opinion, he was not being treated fairly. Job vented his anger directly to God, literally asking why God allowed him to suffer like this.
According to their beliefs in those days Job had every reason to be mad at God. For their religion taught that people who were good people were blessed with health, wealth and happiness, while those who sinned were punished for their misdeeds though illness, injury and loss.
And since Job was a good, God fearing man, who the Bible itself described as "blameless before the Lord," he knew he did not deserve the agony that he was experiencing. But it came any way, and some how, he had to make sense of what it meant to him personally, and in terms of his relationship with God.
The easiest thing for Job to do would have been to reject God.
A more difficult response would be to remain faithful to God and to hope and trust that God's healing power will one day restore and renew him.
Personally, I do not know how he did it (it had to be by the grace of God and the power of the Spirit), but Job followed the latter course. And in the end, God did bring a measure of healing and restoration to Job.
That's not to say that God made everything better in the sense of going back to the way things were before the disasters struck. Job was forever changed and scared by the grievous wounds he experienced.
But it is to say that with God's help, even people who have experienced the most devastating losses imaginable can heal to the point where they can once again live lives that are productive and happy.
And it is also to say that the most important aspect of healing is that our relationship with God is maintained, or if necessary, restored and renewed.
Now, though healing did eventually come to Job, the lesson for today never gets beyond the despair he was experiencing in the wake of his losses.
Partially this is because Job is a long book, and the healing portion of the story is 35 chapters away. But more importantly, it is because today's Old Testament lesson and Gospel lesson are designed to compliment each other and fit together like a beginning and end, or a before and after.
Our Gospel lesson for today introduces the notion that one of the main ministries of Jesus Christ, the son of God, was the ministry of healing and restoration.
The Gospel is from the very first chapter of Mark. In it, Mark gets right down to the basics. Last week we heard how Jesus both taught with authority AND had the power to cast out a demon.
This week we hear that as soon as Jesus left the synagogue, the very first thing he did was to heal the sick mother-in-law of Simon Peter.
And starting that very evening, the people of the region brought their family and friends who were sick or demon possessed to Jesus and he healed many of them who were suffering from a variety of diseases, and he drove out many demons.
And so it continued for the rest of Jesus ministry, culminating with the greatest healing act of all time, his death and resurrection, the event which won forgiveness and reconciliation and eternal life for all.
Now when you put this all together, the story of Job, and the ministry of Jesus, we have before us a picture of human life, as it is, and as God intends for it to be.
Sooner or later, in one way or another, we will all suffer. Many times it will not be fair or deserved. Many times we will be innocent victims who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And yet, even though we may feel abandoned or betrayed by God, the truth is that God is still with us, loving us, caring for us, and planning for us and our eternal future in heaven.
Ultimately, this is the healing that really matters. Even if the dead do not come back to life and even if the diseases we suffer from do not go into remission, the assurance of God's presence with us, and the assurance of eternal life with God through Christ will make us well in faith and hope. AMEN!
St. John's - Morgan
Text: Luke 7:36-50
Subject: The FEET of Christ
Predicate: Lead the way through live and on to the Kingdom of Heaven
In the late 1960's, the iconoclastic rock star Frank Zappa wrote a song called "What's the Ugliest Part of Your Body?" In answer to the title question, a part of one line in the song goes like this, "Some say your nose, and some say your toes. . .?
Zappa's song came to my mind when I began to prepare tonight's message, because what he sang is often times true. Our feet are not always the prettiest part of our body.
I remember when I was a child, I thought my dad had the grossest toenails in the world.
And as a pastor, I was once visiting a shut-in who had feet problems of some sort, he told me all about it and then even whipped off his shoes and socks to show me. Needless to say it was not a pleasant sight.
If you've had a similar experience, then perhaps you'll find the idea of focusing on the feet of Christ a bit repulsive too.
And even if you've never had to face or smell a dirty or diseased foot, you may find the idea of focusing on the feet of Christ a bit odd because feet are so basic and so human that it is heard to connect them with Jesus - the son of God.
If you find this challenging, don't fret, you aren't alone. From the earliest days of the church it has always been difficult for people to focus on Jesus' human attributes. In fact, one of the first false teachings of the church was that Jesus was only God and NOT truly human.
But we teach and believe that Jesus IS truly human at the same time that he is truly God. And so, despite the obstacles, let us look at his feet, and reflect on what this means for us.
The place to begin is when Jesus is a baby. Older feet may turn coarse and ugly, but baby feet are cute! So imagine Jesus on the lap of his mother Mary as she washes his feet and plays a count your toes game like "This little piggy. . ."
But Jesus didn't stay little forever. The Gospel of Luke says that he "grew in stature and wisdom," so those little feet and toes grew too.
In his childhood years the feet of Jesus probably looked like the feet of our kids after a long hot summer day, all grimy and dirty, perhaps even cut or scratched on occasion.
As he entered his adolescent years you can envision the sandal clad feet of Jesus walking down the dusty road to the temple at Jerusalem where he will offer sacrifices with his family, and then stand before the teachers in the temple discussing the Books of the Old Testament.
You should also try to envision the feet of Jesus standing in the sawdust and wood shavings of the family carpentry shop as he learned his trade.
Not long after this, the ministry of Jesus began. And note how it began with a reference to his feet. John the Baptist said that soon a greater man would becoming, one whose sandals John felt unworthy to stoop down and untie.
One day Jesus came to John. When John spotted Jesus walking his way he exclaimed, "Behold the lamb of God. . ." Then Jesus walked into the waters of the Jordan river. The silty mud oozed between his toes as he was baptized by John.
When Jesus walked up out of the water, his feet took him on a journey that would last about 3 years. He walked everywhere he went - from village to village, from mountain to seashore. And as Jesus walked, his disciples followed, and he preached and taught and healed everywhere his feet took him.
By then though, the cute little baby feet of Jesus were transformed into tough, callused feet from the many miles he walked.
But the human feet of Jesus, despite the wear and tear of walking hundreds of miles on hot, stony roads, were also the feet of God. Not everyone was able to see this, but by the power of the Holy Spirit, some did.
Such as the woman we heard about in this evening's gospel.
In the text, Christ was visiting at the home of a Pharisee. He had been invited for a dinner party of some sort. Quite possible, Jesus was the guest of honor.
Now in those days, at a dinner party like this, the people ate the meal while reclining on big pillows on the floor. If the feet of the guests were dirty or smelly, it would have detracted from the enjoyment of the party.
So usually a slave or servant washed the feet of all the guests. Or if the home was that of a lower class person, a bowl and towel would have been available for people to wash their own feet. (You'll probably recall how Jesus washed the feet of his disciple on Maundy Thursday - that's another good illustration of this custom.)
Well, on this night, at this party, the ritual of washing the feet of the guests had been neglected or ignored. For some unknown reason the host did not treat Jesus, and any other guests who were there, with proper hospitality.
Suddenly, an uninvited guest walked into the house.
The Bible calls her a "woman of the city," or "a sinner," which implies pretty strongly that she was a prostitute, but without a doubt she WAS a woman of ill repute and questionable morals.
She had a jar of ointment with her with which she intended to anoint Jesus. But when she saw Jesus she began to cry and she literally washed his feet with her tears.
After that she kissed them, and then she anointed them with a fragrant oil to soften the skin and get rid of any lingering foot odor.
Now though it seems clear that she intended to anoint the feet of Jesus, it is uncertain that she intended to wash them. After all, how could anyone PLAN on washing some one's feet with tears.
But something caused here tears to flow. Perhaps they were tears of repentance and shame. Perhaps she was overcome with remorse for the life she led.
Yet in any case, what the woman did is one of the most beautiful acts of devotion in the Bible.
For to fall at some one's feet is a sign of submission. To embrace one's feet is a display of honor and worship. To kiss one's feet is a gripping and compelling act of adoration and love.
What this woman did is a lovely and inspiring exhibition of the desire of every Christian to be with our Lord Jesus.
Have you felt a keen desire or deep need to be near Jesus?
I hope so.
For when we feel ashamed of our sins, or when we feel isolated and lonely, or when we feel angry at someone, or when we feel hurt or betrayed, we NEED to be near someone who can help.
And the one who can help us in the most profound, spiritual, and eternal way is our Lord Jesus.
When life is at it's darkest, we need to see Jesus, and hold on to him. We need to fall at his feet and cry out out our pain and suffering and remorse upon his sinless feet.
When we do, as we cling to his feet, we will see something that the woman of the city was unable to see yet. . . we will see his wounds, the holes where a nail was driven through flesh and bone to fasten Christ to the cross. We will see the wounds which are both a sign, and a guarantee of the forgiveness and salvation Christ gave to the woman, and gives to us.
Seeing the wounds may not be pretty, but it will bring on a sense of joy and wonder. For despite the death that came to Christ as a result of the nails and cross, the feet we cling to are very much alive.
They are the undying, resurrected feet of Christ.
The feet that will lead us on our way, through the ups and downs of this life, and on into the life to come in the kingdom of heaven.
The feet that will help us to believe the same words that Jesus reassured the woman of the city with. . . "Your faith has saved you. Go in peace." AMEN!
St. John's - Morgan
1st Sunday in Lent - B
As of last Wednesday, which was Ash Wednesday, we've begun a new season of the church year.
It is the season of Lent. And with the beginning of Lent, the mood and meaning of everything we do in worship suddenly changes.
Just a few short weeks ago the church was brightly decorated and we sang glorious "Alleluia's" to the new born baby Jesus, and rejoiced that the light of God was breaking into the midst of our oft times darkened lives.
But now, the color is now purple. The melodies of the hymns we sing are less joyous and more somber and reflective. The words of our hymns, the liturgy we use, and the lessons we read are now focused on sin, and repentance, and they point toward Jerusalem and Jesus' eventual death on the cross.
In short, Lent is not as pretty, nor as much fun as Christmas.
But it is more important.
Because the season of Lent is in fact our journey toward salvation. Lent is the time when we are called to focus our attention on, and put our trust in, the great saving work that Jesus Christ performed for all of us.
The novelist John Irving once put the following words into the mouth of one of his characters. According to Owen Meany, "Any fool can feel like a Christian at Christmas, but the main event in Christianity is Holy Week and Easter. So don't kid your self," he went on, "If you don't believe in what happened to Jesus then, then don't dare call yourself a Christian."
Though Irving's observation through the character in his novel sounds pretty blunt and critical, it is probably the most truthful observation about Christians and their faith that I have ever read in a novel.
For IT IS the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that imparts meaning to everything in his life that preceded it.
And IT IS the seasons of Lent and Easter that imparts meaning and purpose to the other seasons and celebrations of the church year.
And therefore, IT IS the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus that we commemorate and proclaim during the seasons of Lent and Easter, that give our lives meaning and purpose and that opens the way to eternal life for us all.
Now because of the centrality of Jesus' suffering and death in his mission of salvation, it is the aim and purpose of all of the lessons we will be hearing during the coming 6 weeks, to engender and encourage repentance and belief in all those who hear the Word.
Our lessons will help us to repent and believe through a weekly rhythm of action, followed by reflection on what the action means.
Today's Gospel from Mark is a mere 4 verses long, but it is packed with action and meaning for those who hear it.
Twenty centuries ago when Mark penned these words, it was his intention to begin his Gospel with a brief summary of the mission and ministry of Jesus, coupled with an urgent call to faith.
One professor has described these verses as a concise set of instructions to ready the heart and minds of the readers for the events to follow. He also suggested that for those of us beginning the season of Lent, that the text has been selected because it is intended to accomplish the same purpose in us - that is, to ready OUR hearts and OUR minds for what is to follow.
To accomplish this, Mark does two things.
First of all, he tells us that even Jesus had to get ready for what was to follow.
Unlike Matthew and Luke who go into a great deal of detail about what happened out in the desert, Mark pares the event down to bare bones.
He simply writes, that after Jesus was baptized, the Spirit "immediately drove Jesus out to the desert where he was tempted by Satan for 40 days."
In the ancient literature of the Middle East and Mediterranean region, there are lots of epic stories about heroes of various sorts. One thing every epic tale has in common is that before the hero departs on his mission, he always undergoes a period of testing and preparation.
Now even though Jesus was the son of God, he also underwent a period of testing and preparation before embarking on his mission.
While he was out in the desert Jesus faced the devil himself, and Jesus faced the kinds of temptations that could have potentially led him astray from God's plan for our salvation.
In doing this, Jesus was both equipped and strengthened for his work.
And note too, that it was God the Father working through some of his angels that provided for Jesus during this period of temptation and testing.
The second thing that Mark does in this short but powerful Gospel lesson is to tell us that in Jesus we will find the Good News of the Kingdom of God -- so therefore, we ought to repent and believe in him. And we ought to do it now. Today!
Mark does this by quoting from the lips of Jesus.
"The time has come," Jesus said, "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news."
Unlike English, the Greek language (which Mark used to write his gospel) has several words for "time," each one with a unique shade of meaning. The word used for "time" in today's lesson conveys the idea that "right now, at this very moment, it is the right time, both for the Kingdom of God to be established, and for people to decide to be a part of it."
With the beginning of the ministry of Jesus Christ, and these words of what is essentially his first sermon, all that God has done and promised is coming to fulfillment. In Jesus, something special and unique is happening.
In Jesus, hope and life for all eternity is being offered to the people of the world. In Jesus, the forgiveness of sins and the restoration of our relationship with God is being laid out before us.
And the best part of all is that there is nothing that we have to do to earn it or deserve it! It is the free gift of God because God loves us.
The only imperative is that we REPENT and BELIEVE this good news. And NOW is the time to do it.
Now it you listened to the children's message this morning, you were reminded of a simple and pretty good definition of repentance. For at its core, repentance is nothing more than a U-turn.
But to expand this definition and focus it on our faith we need to be more specific, and we need to be more positive.
Usually when we hear the word repent we think of it in negative terms. Usually when we are told to repent we are exhorted to turn away from our sin.
Now that IS a good thing to do. God will always be happy when we turn away from any sinful act or thought, no matter what it may be.
But there is a more positive way of expressing repentance. And that is to change the orientation of our life toward God and God's will.
I think this is the best way to think of repentance, and the best way to repent. For given the negative definition - to turn away from sin - does not necessarily mean that we will turn toward God. You see you could choose not do something sinful or harmful and then pat yourself on the back and say, "Look how good I AM!"
But to repent in the sense of turning toward God and orienting our lives according to his will, means that we will BOTH turn away from sin, AND, place all our trust and hope in God and God alone.
The other side of the coin of repentance it to believe.
Belief also means that we orient our lives toward God and God's will. But belief starts from the perspective that we are already facing God and do not need to turn or re-orient our lives, but rather sustain our focus and continue on the path of faith.
Repentance and belief can never be separated. For no matter how well we try to live our lives, there will ALWAYS be times when we MUST turn back toward God. In the Small Catechism, Luther stressed the need for "Daily repentance!" because like it not we will turn from God and sin daily.
Ironically, at the same time, as baptized children of God we will also face our Lord and cast our faith and trust on him daily.
And in both cases, we will be able to do it -- we will be able to repent, or to believe -- by the power and the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus, and by the presence of the Holy Spirit working within our hearts.
So my friends, as this season of Lent begins, turn to the Lord. See what he has done for all of us. Give thanks to God for the great gift of salvation Jesus won on the cross. For the time is at hand. The Kingdom of God is upon us. AMEN!
St. John's - Morgan
1st Wednesday in Lent
Subject: The hands of Jesus
Predicate: help and heal.
Human hands are remarkable.
Did you know that when a baby is born they can grip so tightly with their hands that they can support their entire weight while hanging on to a bar or someone's fingers?
Don't try this at home however -- its only a temporary reflex that disappears within a few hours or a day of birth. But it is an example of the wonderful abilities that God created in us, and the wonderful things that we can do with our hands, starting at birth, and continuing on throughout the rest of our lives.
With our hands we can write, and draw, and play music, and build things. We with our hands we can sew, and cook, and play games and sports. To one degree or another, just about everyone works with their hands. Some of our occupations are classified as "manual labor," meaning that we use our hands to complete our work.
But even those of us who have what might be called "white collar" jobs are more hand dependent that we might realize. For example -- ever week I type out my sermons, and a host of written materials. Even though the ideas start here -- in my head -- I need to use my hands to bring them to fruition.
In addition to work and play, our hands are also vital in the expression emotions and in relating to and communicating with other people.
Think of a parent with a new baby. Through the care and caresses of mom and dad's hands the tiny child grows up knowing that he or she is loved.
Think of the strong reassuring, protecting hands of a father.
Think of the gentle soothing stoke of a mother's hands on a fevered brow.
Think of the handshake that seals a business deal.
Think of the hands of lovers that are used in playful affection and in the heat of passion.
Now think of the hands of Jesus.
In the hands of Jesus we see strength, gentleness, love and more. His hands were the strong hands of a carpenter, and at the same time the gentle hands of a healer.
The Bible is full of references to Jesus' hands. Once, on the Sabbath Jesus began to teach in the synagogue; and many people who heard him were astonished saying, "where did this man get all this authority? Look at the mighty works wrought by his hands.!"
Another time, when Jesus entered Peter's house, he saw that Peter's mother-in-law was sick with a fever. With his hand, Jesus touched her hand, and immediately the fever left her and she arose and served him.
The hands of Jesus even welcomed and helped infants and little children. The Gospel writers tell us that on one occasion people were bringing their children to Jesus so that he might lay his hands on them and pray for them. The disciples didn't think Jesus should be wasting his time with babies and kids so they rebuked him and told him what they thought.
But Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven." Then he laid his hands on them.
Back in Jesus' day, people who suffered from the disease of leprosy were considered "untouchable," because it was feared that this dread disease might be spread to others. So not only did the leper suffer the pain and agony of the disease, but they suffered further because of the lack of touch and affection that normal people enjoyed.
Yet one day when Jesus came down from a mountain, great crowds followed him and a leper came out of the crowd and knelt down before Jesus begging, "Lord, if you will, you CAN make me clean." And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched the leper and immediately his leprosy was cleansed.
And so it went with literally hundreds of people. Mark writes that in the evening, after the sun had set, all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to Jesus, and he laid his hands on everyone of them and healed them.
Through the hands of Christ, not only disease was cured, but physical handicaps were too.
Some people brought a blind man to Jesus and begged him to touch the man. So Jesus took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he spit on his eyes he asked the man, "Can you see?" The man looked up and said, "I see people, but they look like trees walking." Then Jesus laid his hands on they eyes of the man; and he looked intently and was restored and saw everything clearly.
And in the ultimate healing, Jesus restored life to the dead through the touch of his hands.
Behold, a ruler named Jairus came and knelt before Jesus saying, "My daughter has just died. but come lay your hands on her and she will live." And Jesus arose and went to the ruler's house with his disciples. When they arrived they saw flute players and the crowd of wailing people. "Depart from here," Jesus said, "for the girl is not dead but sleeping." The all laughed at him. But after the crowd had been sent away, Jesus went inside, took the little girl by her hand and she arose from the dead.
The hands of Jesus not only were the source of physical healing for many people, but they were instrumental in the spiritual healing that comes with the forgiveness of sins.
In the Gospel lesson this evening, Jesus was confronted by the Pharisees, who brought before Jesus a woman who was caught red-handed in the act of adultery.
The Pharisees reminded Jesus of the law of Moses which said that adulters should be put to death, then they challenged Jesus saying, "What do you think?"
But instead of responding verbally, Jesus looked down at the dusty ground, and with his finger he began to write on the ground.
No one knows what he was writing. Any guess would be pure speculation.
As he wrote, the Pharisee's continued to press him for an answer. After a few minutes Jesus replied, "Let the one without sin cast the first stone." Then he turned his attention back to the dust where he continued writing with his finger.
The power and the truth of Jesus words, coupled with the mysterious words written in the dust made it obvious to the Pharisee's that none of them were righteous enough to demand that the woman be executed, let alone to cast the first stone. Perhaps Jesus was writing a list of their names and the sins that they committed for which they all deserved death. But in any case, one by one, the accusers departed until only Jesus and the woman remained.
Ironically, since Jesus was the sinless one, by his own words he was the one who could have thrown the first stone. Instead, he looked at the woman and asked, "Has no one condemned you?"
"No one Lord," she responded.
And Jesus replied, "Neither do I condemn you; so go and do not sin again."
Now to ensure that the same forgiveness that Jesus gave to the woman that day is available to all of us, the strong, skilled, talented, beautiful, healing, loving and forgiving hands of Christ were nailed to a cross.
It is not a pleasant thought is it? To think of a hand forged spike driven though the flesh and bone of Christ's tender hands.
But it is because of this that the sinless hands of Jesus are able to reach out and grasp our sinful hands. A hole was gouged in his holy hands to accept the sin of our hands so that we can be made holy like him.
As important as the nail holes in Jesus' hands are, they are only a part of the story however. For as Jesus breathed his last, the hand of God the Father reached down to guide Jesus though the gates of death to the door of resurrection.
From the cross on Good Friday, Jesus cried out with a loud voice saying, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." And having said this he died.
But the hands of Christ did not remain lifelessly folded across his chest, wrapped in a linen shroud. On the third day they were raised to new life by the power of God.
They were clasped in joyous welcome by the disciples. Like Thomas, who though he doubted at first, reached out and touched the wounded and once dead but now living hands of Christ.
And finally, forty days later, as Jesus ascended into heaven to be seated at the right hand of the Father, he raised his hands in blessing, imparting his eternal presence to all who believe and trust in his saving death on the cross.
All this means that we too are safe in the hands of Christ. The strong, healing, gentle, touching, forgiving living hands of Christ have us firmly in his grasp.
We are in good hands no matter what should come as the days of our lives unfold.
We are secure in the hands of our Lord. As Jesus said, "My sheep hear my voice and I know them and they follow me. I will give them eternal life and they shall never perish and NO ON SHALL SNATCH THEM OUT OF MY HAND.
My friends, trust and believe that this is true, that through the saving hands of Jesus OUR SINS ARE FORGIVEN! AMEN!