4th Sunday after Epiphany 

January 29, 2023

First Reading: Micah 6:1-8

1Hear what the Lord says:
  Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
  and let the hills hear your voice.
2Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
  and you enduring foundations of the earth;
 for the Lord has a controversy with his people,
  and he will contend with Israel.

3“O my people, what have I done to you?
  In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
4For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
  and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
 and I sent before you Moses,
  Aaron, and Miriam.
5O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
  what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
 and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
  that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

6“With what shall I come before the Lord,
  and bow myself before God on high?
 Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
  with calves a year old?
7Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
  with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
 Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
  the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
8He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
  and what does the Lord require of you
 but to do justice, and to love kindness,
  and to walk humbly with your God?

Psalm: Psalm 15

1Lord, who may dwell in your tabernacle?
  Who may abide upon your holy hill?
2Those who lead a blameless life and do what is right,
  who speak the truth from their heart;
3they do not slander with the tongue, they do no evil to their friends;
  they do not cast discredit upon a neighbor.
4In their sight the wicked are rejected, but they honor those who fear the Lord.
  They have sworn upon their health and do not take back their word.
5They do not give their money in hope of gain, nor do they take bribes against the innocent.
  Those who do these things shall never be overthrown.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

18The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19For it is written,
 “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
  and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
20Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
26Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12

1When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Children’s Sermon:  The Bear and the Bees by Aesop

A Bear roaming the woods happened on a fallen tree in which a swarm of Bees had stored their honey. Just then one of the bees came home. Guessing what the Bear was after, the bee flew at him, stung him sharply and then disappeared into the hollow log. The Bear lost his temper and sprang upon the log to destroy the nest. This brought out the whole swarm. The poor Bear had to take to his heels. He was able to save himself only by diving into a pool of water.

What is the bear in your life?  Who is in your swarm?

Let us pray.  Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, My Rock and My Redeemer.

SERMON

      Today starts the fourth week in Epiphany and we are finally getting to Jesus’ State of the Union Address, the Sermon on the Mount.  It may not be January 20th when our President addressed Congress about the condition of affairs in the United States but Jesus is giving a similar overview of his kingdom. We see Matthew opening this gospel by presenting Jesus, “Son of God” as the great teacher and revealer of truth about how life works best.  Jesus is going to tell us about life in his kingdom.  It will help us clarify whom we are seeking and where we can find him.

      Jesus sees the crowds, the people who are checking him out to see if he is the person John the Baptist was speaking about, the promised Messiah, the one who would “deal with” the Romans and the horrible living conditions in Israel at the time.  I suspect those people longed for life to be like the days of Solomon when silver was so common, no one kept track of it.  Even we long “to be great again.”  Perhaps we don’t call it that but for some of us, memories of our youth when we could do so many things, haunt our present leaving a sour taste in our mouth.  Ah, for the good ole days.  The unknowns of tomorrow can appear to us like that bear sniffing around the log.  And perhaps we feel like that little bee, guarding our little contribution to life.  Jesus opens the scene, not in the forest where we might find a bear but on a mountaintop, that liminal space between heaven and earth.

     According to Matthew, Jesus, in the face of the call to ministry to the needy people following him, first climbs the mountain and teaches his disciples who join him.  It is a scene reminiscent of Moses who went up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments.  Jesus will go up a mountain for the Transfiguration.  Jesus is crucified on Mount Calvary.  Important things happen on mountains, those liminal spaces between heaven and earth.  Many of us retreat to the lake cabin or some quiet place away from the bustle and confusion of life to sort ourselves out.  Some of us have developed the journaling discipline. Before we start a challenge, before we start tomorrow, we must know what we believe and whom we are facing.  We must know whom we are seeking and where to find him.  It is here on the mountaintop that Jesus gives us a picture of the Kingdom of Heaven that he is ushering in and the sort of God he is.

Bears

      The kingdom of Heaven is different than the Kingdom of this World. The kingdom Jesus is telling us about is unlike this world where bears seek to devour our honey.  In this world we are plagued by discouragement (poor in spirit), grief (mourning), pride and arrogance, cruelty, deception, war and persecution.  Do I hear anyone saying, “Amen!” or are we comfortable in our wealth?  The wolf of Little Red Riding Hood may wear Grandma’s clothes and promise her all sorts of goodies if she would use his products for health and beauty, use his investment schemes for wealth and prosperity, buy his insurance products to deal with those hard times or vote his philosophy into government but the solutions the world offers are temporary.  Jesus presents a different perspective. He starts with the truth. Life is hard. Bears are sniffing around the log where we are storing our honey.  But that is not the whole picture?

Bees

    Jesus encourages us to look closer and he shares the “bee – attitudes”.  His kingdom confronts the Kingdom of this World with “Bee” “Attitudes”-beatitudes.  He tells us where true blessings are found in this opening section of his sermon. The Kingdom of Heaven is not going to defeat the bear with a gun and war but by the person we will become as we follow Jesus and learn to live in kingdom ways.  We will not defeat the bear by being bigger and stronger.  Like a tiny bee we will be armed with the Spirit of God so that

  • Those times that discourage us and make us feel poor in spirit will become times when actually we are forced to find strength in the kingdom of heaven.  Our problems lead us deeper into God’s love.  Tough times are times of grace.
  • Those times when we mourn and are overcome with grief, the Holy Spirit will draw close and comfort us.  He will wrap his arms around us. And! And we will be comforted by the body of Christ.  Comfort is not found in alcohol, drugs, sex or worldly pleasures. The God we seek is a God that comforts the mourners.
  • Those times when violence reigns, the meekness of the kingdom that loves the enemy and helps the helpless will help us inherit this world, not war.  Hate cannot produce love but love covers a multitude of sins.
  • Those times when we give mercy and forgiveness rather than vengeance, hate and anger, we learn to receive the mercy and forgiveness of God that we need when we blow it.
  • Those times when we are confused by doubt and seek God with our whole heart, he will reveal himself and not be far off and busy in Washington.  We do not climb up to God but he is here with us in our hard times.
  • Those times of war, persecution and misunderstanding, God will not flee from us and we will be known by his presence in our lives.

It is in the midst of the bears of life that seek to destroy us that we build our faith, find our God active and involved, and learn to recognize God actively fighting evil.  It is in hard times that we find the Kingdom of Heaven, grace and a God who cares enough to enter the messes of life with us. Jesus is the Son of God revealing the Kingdom of Heaven to us.

      The beatitudes are not a Christian formula for getting the good life. They are not a new set of laws. The beatitudes tell us that life in the kingdom of this world is hard but there is another reality, another kingdom being built, that is not so apparent. That kingdom defeats the ugliness of this world and that kingdom is a gift of grace from God.  We see glimpses of it in the beauty of sunrises and sunsets.  We see it in the laughter of children.  We experience it in hugs of friends and family.  We cry in relief when we are forgiven as we come to the table of communion.  The bear does not come to create beauty, love, joy and forgiveness. The wolf is wearing Grandma’s clothes only to deceive us. Jesus is not wearing human forms to deceive us but incarnates along side us and lets us know he cares and will rescue us as we turn to him.

12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

      Jesus reminds us that when rough times come, the company of saints experienced our same situations.  We are not alone. We are part of a swarm.  The little bee in our story, all by itself is way out matched by the bear.  The bee has a “swarm” that it is part of and Jesus is ushering in a kingdom of bees to support each other and to remind us of the truth of God when we feel attacked by the bears of life.  Little Red Riding Hood could not fight the wolf by herself but it was as the woodsman came to her rescue that she was saved and able to free her real Grandma.

      So whom are we seeking?  Are we seeking a god who will promise to come in and kill the bear for us and give us the good life or are we seeking a God who walks with us, partners with us, in the midst of the problems of this world, creating a better world and ultimately declaring, “Well done my good and faithful servant.  Enter into your father’s delight.”

      So where do we find the God Jesus is the son of?  We find God in the midst of problems.  He is there with us, enabling us, encouraging us, and involved in his creation.

      The bear runs away and jumps into a pool of water.  Sounds like baptism to me.  As we believe and identify with Jesus in our baptism, the Holy Spirit comes to live in us and help us conquer the bears of life.  And we join a body of believers that is world wide, the Kingdom of Heaven.

Let the people of God say, “Amen,” may it be so!

 

 


2nd Sunday after Epiphany

January 15, 2023

First Reading: Isaiah 49:1-7

1Listen to me, O coastlands,
  pay attention, you peoples from far away!
 The Lord called me before I was born,
  while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
2He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
  in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
 he made me a polished arrow,
  in his quiver he hid me away.
3And he said to me, “You are my servant,
  Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
4But I said, “I have labored in vain,
  I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
 yet surely my cause is with the Lord,
  and my reward with my God.”

5And now the Lord says,
  who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
 to bring Jacob back to him,
  and that Israel might be gathered to him,
 for I am honored in the sight of the Lord,
  and my God has become my strength—
       6he says,
 “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
  to raise up the tribes of Jacob
  and to restore the survivors of Israel;
 I will give you as a light to the nations,
  that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

7Thus says the Lord,
  the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
 to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
  the slave of rulers,
 “Kings shall see and stand up,
  princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
       because of the Lord, who is faithful,
  the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”

Psalm: Psalm 40:1-11

1I waited patiently upon the Lord,
  who stooped to me and | heard my cry.
2The Lord lifted me out of the desolate pit, out of the miry clay,
  and set my feet upon a high cliff, making my footing sure.
3The Lord put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God;
  many shall see, and stand in awe, and put their trust in the Lord.
4Happy are they who trust in the Lord!
  They do not turn to enemies or to those who follow lies.
5Great are the wonders you have done, O Lord my God! In your plans   for us, none can be compared with you!  Oh, that I could make them   known and tell them! But they are more          than I can count.
6Sacrifice and offering you do not desire; you have opened my ears:    burnt-offering and sin-offering you have not required.
7And so I said, “Here I am; I come.
  In the scroll of the book it is written of me:
8‘I love to do your will, O my God;
  your law is deep within me.’ ”
9I proclaimed righteousness in the great assembly;
  I have not restrained my lips, O Lord, you know.
10I have not hidden your righteousness in my heart; I have spoken       of your faithfulness and your deliverance;
  I have not concealed your steadfast love and truth from the great     assembly.
11You are the Lord; do not withhold your compassion from me;
  may your steadfast love and your truth continually keep me safe.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:1-9

1Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,
2To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:
3Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

4I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, 5for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind—6just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you—7so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Gospel: John 1:29-42

29[John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
35The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” 37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). 42He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

Children’s Sermon:  In the childhood story of Little Red Riding Hood what causes her to question if it is really her grandmother in the bed? 

Do you have a question for this year as you look at the babe in the manger, the man baptized and declared the Son of God, something that raises questions about Jesus’ identity?

Let us pray:  Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, My Rock and My Redeemer.

SERMON

         Little Red Riding Hood goes through the woods to Grandmother’s house to take her goodies because Grandma is sick.  Something is wrong when she gets there, though.  The “person” in bed is wearing her grandmother’s clothes but Red Riding Hood comments:  Grandmother your eyes are so big!  Grandmother your ears are so long!  Grandmother your teeth are so big!  It is not her Grandmother but the evil wolf wanting to eat Little Red Riding Hood.  Epiphany is a journey where we look at the babe of Christmas who just does not look like a savior as we think a savior should look and we ask questions about his identity.  Is Jesus really the Son of God as affirmed at his baptism?

           Last week we opened the seven weeks of Epiphany to be reminded again that our God incarnated. We watched him be baptized with other people. He identified with us but then a dove descended from heaven and a voice spoke.  Matthew reports God saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  The Gospel text from John expands the report by sharing that John the Baptist heard a voice too, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’  John the Baptist calls him, “Son of God.”  As we look around our world in chaos, we with many might ask if Jesus is a wolf disguising himself as Savior or is he who those witnesses old say he was?

         The text presents four titles for Jesus that clarify the identity of this person standing before us and two questions that drive even us today as we come to church.  Jesus asks, “Who are you seeking?”  The disciples of John the Baptist counter, “Where are you staying?” that is “Where can we find you?”  Like them we ask, who are we seeking today and where can we find him?

“Who are you seeking?” 

         As 2023 opens, let us ask ourselves whom we are seeking.  The call process certainly throws that question into our face and demands an answer.  We tell the call committee that we want a pastor – someone to shepherd us (for that is the definition of pastor), or perhaps a leader and administrator for the person will deal with the Day Care and the Garden and the Church, or then again we want someone who will be compassionate with our aging population and who can speak words of comfort into our deminishing strength.  When we come to church, maybe we are looking for an inspiring sermon that helps us get through the week. Not only the text but also the call process challenges us today to ponder these questions.  Beneath the surface of the questions is our thirst for God.  Let’s ponder what kind of God are we seeking.

         John the Baptist first gives Jesus the title, “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”  When we hear the title “lamb” we might first think of the Passover Lamb.  In Exodus 12:1-21 we read that the people of God had been slaves in Egypt for 400 years.  God sent Moses to deliver them.  10 plagues are visited on Egypt til Pharoah “lets God’s people go.”  The tenth plague is the threat that the Angel of Death is coming.  People are given instructions to prepare a lamb to be slaughtered and its blood was smeared over the door frame of the home.  Homes marked by the blood of the lamb were spared by the Angel of Death. They did  not perish. Those people made the journey to the Promised Land.  Many theologians see this as symbolic of the faith journey.

         Later, Abraham is told to sacrifice his son, Isaac, but the Lord provides a ram and rescues Isaac.  This took place on Mt. Moriah that later became known as Golgatha.  Jesus dies on Calvary, on Golgatha, as the Lamb of God.  His blood covers our lives and protects us from perishing and eternal death.  As Christians we believe our death is our release to enter the Promised Land or Eternity with God.  That is a statement of faith that the resurrection speaks to.  But let me not get ahead of myself.  John the Baptist first identifies Jesus as the Lamb of God, the deliverer from death.

         Like Little Red Riding Hood, we don’t understand if we are facing a wolf or a friend as the promise and title are sitting on a man who seems to be human and in-fact is human.  Also, to seek a savior, we must admit we are sinners that need saving.  Accusations of being a sinner feels like a wolf seeking to devour us.  We don’t want to admit we need help.  So perhaps we must ask ourselves if as we are seeking in the call process a messenger who leads us to the Lamb of God and if we are seeking the Lamb of God today to deal with our short-comings, our sins.

         John the Baptist concludes his testimony, “He is the Son of God.”  Do you note that John does not identify Jesus as a messenger like an angel, not as a prophet like of old, not as a saint who lived a good life, and not a sage who is wise like Solomon.  He describes Jesus as God incarnate, not an agent of God but God himself.  We are still looking at a person who is obviously human but whom people are declaring is God.  Faith requires us to enter into a mystery that starts with acknowledging our need for a savior and embracing him as able to incarnate human.

         Who are we seeking this year?  Do we want someone who makes our lives easier and more comfortable or someone who leads us to a God who walks through death with us?  There is a difference between talking about Jesus and meeting with Jesus in church through the elements of worship, the music, the sacraments, the word, an fellowship.  My prayer for Bethany this year is that we meet the Lamb of God, the Son of God and not a cheap imitation.

“Where are you staying?”

         John the Baptist’s disciples hear John describe Jesus as the “Son of God” and see Jesus walk by.  It would seem they wanted to check Jesus out for themselves.  Hearing someone else’s testimony of faith, while inspiring, does not necessarily make you “own it” for yourself.  It may only make you impressed.  Jesus asks these men what they are looking for and they answer with a question, “Where are you staying?”  That can mean “Where can we find you?”  Like how Little Red Riding Hood realizes there is something wrong with this picture and asks questions to check out reality, the disciples want to go and check out Jesus.  Can a man be THE Son of God? They do not address him as Son of God but as “Rabbi,” teacher, someone appointed by the religious establishment.

         Many of us struggle too with trying to figure out how to find Jesus.  We are willing to admit he was a great teacher and master of the law, an amazing rabbi, but going deeper, past appearances requires accepting Jesus’ response, “Come and see.”  For some of us that may mean a “face to face” with Jesus through a vision or dream but for most of us faith means going deeper through prayer, through Scripture, through music, through Bible studies, in worship and through those hard life experiences when we realize God is with us.  For most the truth is that faith is a journey from believing Jesus is a great teacher like Confucius or Mohammed to understanding he is the “Son of God.”  That is the journey of Epiphany we are entering.  Jesus is more than a sacrifice for our sins like human sacrifices given to gods around the world.  Jesus is more than a great teacher like others in history.  Jesus is the Son of God.  He is God. 

         John’s disciples went and stayed with Jesus all day.  Faith is not just a mountain-top experience when the “light dawns” or when we have a personal encounter.  Faith is not an intellectual assent to a doctrine.  It is more than the experience of baptism or communion.  It is a journey in relationship.  It is a journey of going and seeing.  Like the ideal marriage, faith is a togetherness through the good days and the ugly days, through riches and poverty, plenty and war, through applaud and persecution.  We return to our first question, who and what are we seeking this year?

         One of the two disciples that followed Jesus was Andrew, the brother of Simon who becomes known as Cephas or Peter, the Rock.  Andrew returns and tells Simon, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed).”  Andrew takes Simon to meet Jesus for himself.  Messiah means “anointed” and deliverer.  Many religions look for a Messiah, a savior, a deliverer from the hardships being experienced.  Many, I suspect, come to Jesus because they want deliverance by someone anointed, chosen by God, who can help them deal with the guilt, with the pain, with the disappointments of life and they want a special person to shepherd them through the sacred times of life like birth, confirmation, marriage, death, or baptism.  We want Jesus to be our lamb and sacrifice for all we’ve done wrong.  We want Jesus to be our teacher, our rabbi, because we know we don’t know it all.  We want Jesus to be our Messiah, our deliverer from the hard times in life to lead us to the happier-ever-after. 

         We are challenged by these four titles.   During Epiphany, like Little Red Riding Hood, we will look at the babe born in Bethlehem, baptized and identifying with us, and we will ask questions about his title, “Son of God.”  Who are we seeking today and where are we looking in 2023?  I pray we will grow in our faith that Jesus who was baptized is indeed the Son of God who delivers us from sin and evil and teaches and guides us as we grow deeper in faith.  Jesus invites each one of us to “Come and See!”

Let the people of God say, Open our eyes to see you, Lord, in 2023!


1st Sunday after Epiphany  

January 8, 2023

First Reading: Isaiah 42:1-9

1Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
  my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
 I have put my spirit upon him;
  he will bring forth justice to the nations.
2He will not cry or lift up his voice,
  or make it heard in the street;
3a bruised reed he will not break,
  and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
  he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4He will not grow faint or be crushed
  until he has established justice in the earth;
  and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

5Thus says God, the Lord,
  who created the heavens and stretched them out,
  who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
 who gives breath to the people upon it
  and spirit to those who walk in it:
6I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
  I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
 I have given you as a covenant to the people,
  a light to the nations,
  7to open the eyes that are blind,
 to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
  from the prison those who sit in darkness.
8I am the Lord, that is my name;
  my glory I give to no other,
  nor my praise to idols.
9See, the former things have come to pass,
  and new things I now declare;
 before they spring forth,
  I tell you of them.

Psalm: Psalm 29

1Ascribe to the Lord, you gods,
  ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
2Ascribe to the Lord the glory due God’s name;
  worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.
3The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders;
  the Lord is upon the mighty waters.
4The voice of the Lord is a powerful voice;
  the voice of the Lord is a voice of splendor. 
5The voice of the Lord breaks the cedar trees;
  the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon;
6the Lord makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
  and Mount Hermon like a young wild ox.
7The voice of the Lord
  bursts forth in lightning flashes.
8The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
  the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. 
9The voice of the Lord makes the oak trees writhe and strips the forests          bare.  And in the temple of the Lord all are crying, “Glory!”
10The Lord sits enthroned above the flood;
  the Lord sits enthroned as king forevermore.
11O Lord, give strength to your people;
  give them, O Lord, the blessings of peace.

Second Reading: Acts 10:34-43

34Peter began to speak to [Cornelius and his household]: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Gospel: Matthew 3:13-17

13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Children’s Sermon:  Most people in the United States cannot state the five freedoms of the first Amendment of the Consititon of the United States.  Turn to your neighbor and see if between you, you can name our five freedoms.

Our five freedoms: The five freedoms protected are: speech, religion, press, assembly, and the right to petition the government.  The right to bear arms is the second amendment!

Let us pray:  Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptible in your sight, my Rock and my Redeemer.

Sermon:  Declaration of Dependance

January 6 we celebrated Epiphany, the coming of the Wise Men or Magi to see the baby Jesus whom they knew had been prophecized to be “King of the Jews.”  They had seen his star and came to worship.  The 12 days of Christmas from Dec. 25th to Jan 6th are completed and the Epiphany season starts with the baptism of Jesus, his Declaration of Dependence.  As we start 2023, we are deciding how we will live with our dependencies and be public about our relationship with Jesus and how our faith will mark us as “children of God.”

         In 1776 the 12 colonies that were to become known as The United States pulled themselves together and with much debate and discussion wrote the Declaration of Independence from Britain and King George’s rule.  The signing of that document changed history, set in motion a series of events in the colonies, and provided the foundation for governance and debate. We still live into our identity as citizens of the United States of America even today.  I would propose today that Jesus’ baptism and hence our baptism is like the Declaration of Independence except baptism is a Declaration of Dependence.

13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan,

to be baptized by him.

         Jesus went to John the Baptist to make a public statement, a Declaration of Dependency.  When I hear the word “dependency,” I think of “co-dependency.”  The Internet defines co-dependency as “an emotional and behavioral condition that affects an individual’s ability to have a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship. It is also known as “relationship addiction” because people with codependency often form or maintain relationships that are one-sided, emotionally destructive and/or abusive.”  I cring at the definition because it is definitely implicit that independence is the desired mental state valued by most and that value has formed me. Dependency can be destructive and abusive.  As Americans we do not want to be labeled co-dependent.  I must ask myself if as Christians, we are addicted to a relationship with God and is it unhealthy?

         We believe Jesus is part of the Godhead, part of the Three-in-One.  He incarnated as True God and True Man.  The whole Christmas story declares this mystery that we believe but have trouble explaining.  A star shone that men from afar could see.  Prophecy declared the birth since long ago.  The religious advisor in Jerusalem knew about it.  Angels appeared to shepherds declaring a “Messiah”, a “Savior’ had been born.  When Jesus was baptized, he was not suddenly becoming someone he did not already know himself to be.  He was doing a public act that defined him.

         When we as parents or adults step up to the baptismal fount, we are not asking God to suddenly change us or our baby into a different person.  I would maintain, though, that we are declaring that we do not want our child or ourselves to be dependent on this world for our identity but that we are declaring that we want our identity to be dependent on God and his Word.

         At baptism, Jesus publicly claimed his intentions to live pleasing God, not the religious or political system of the day.  He stood before people and owned his missional mandate.  He knew who he was at age 12.  At the baptism, he declares it.  And so the first question to reflect on today is to ponder what our missional statement is that we are living out.  Are we dependent on God for living our life or do we carry him in our pocket like a driver’s license.  Our picture is on the card for ID when we get to the pearly gates but we choose which rules we will obey and which we will fudge about.  We might change states or churches but formost we function as Americans.  Or, do we function formost as God’s representatives as we enter 2023? 

“I need to be baptized by you,

and do you come to me?”

         When immigrants take the oath to become Americans, they change their allegiance and they declare to be part of the system of community in the USA.  Baptism is a declaration of dependence on God but it is also a declaration of membership in the Church (capitol C, universal church), the body of Christ.  Look at each other and say, “We’re in this together.”  John the Baptist did not feel worthy to baptize Jesus but Jesus chose the act to identify with people preparing for the coming Messiah.  Jesus did not have sin to repent of so he did not need a baptism of repentance being done by John.  He did not need the gift of the Holy Spirit as he was God.  But as True Man he was under the law and so submitted to baptism by John to fulfill the law of righteousness.  He and John were equals and we are partners with those others in the body of Christ.,

         As an elder who worries about the spiritual journey my children and grandchildren are taking or maybe even a neighbor or relative, I find comfort in baptism as a declaration of dependence on the universal church.  Not all flowers are roses and not all trees are fir trees and likewise God has many flavors or denominations.  I may not agree with them all, but I believe the God who helped me through my youth, young adulthood, and following years, that God can speak through other voices than mine and guide my loved ones.  I can release my doubts and fears into his hands.  Even as soldiers are Americans when they are on foreign soil, we are God’s children when we are filled with doubts, filled with anger, filled with despair and when we are filled with praise.  Baptism is the start of a relationship that we know God will be faithful to pursue and that identifies us with his people…  Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Romans 8 says,

         “38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

         God-parents stand with parents and commit with the parents to shepherd the child’s faith.  We as a congregation commit to shepherd the person being baptized too.  I pray that is not just a formality but we realize we are committing to caring for each other when we feel good and when we are sick, during periods of faith that moves mountains and during dark and cloudy days when we struggle and grieve.  Being church is not just about hearing a sermon or gaining knowledge.  It is about relationships, about being the body of Christ, and baptism declares that is a relationship we want.

17And a voice from heaven said,

“This is my Son, the Beloved,

with whom I am well pleased.”

         Baptism is a declaration of dependence on God not our world for our identity.  Baptism is a declaration of dependence on the Body of Christ as our communal identity.  But most importantly, we believe baptism is a Declaration  of Sacramental reality.  God says, “I am well pleased.”  Soak in that statement from the God of the universe.  When we choose relationship with him, he is well pleased.  There are now no hidden agendas from God.  God is not saying to Jesus that he will be pleased with him after Jesus is faithful to die on the cross and do all the miracles and teach all the good lessons he taught.  NO!  At the point of baptism God says, “I am well pleased.”

         Luther’s Small Catechism defines a sacrament as a sacred act that is commanded by God, that has visible elements or means, and offers God’s grace or forgiveness.  The Great Commission given by Jesus as his last words were for us to go and baptize all nations.  In baptism, water is combined with God’s command.  We baptize for the forgiveness of sins.  Now a days we don’t like to think of babies as sinners because they seem so innocent.  I have heard sin explained like this.   We can spell sin with a capitol “S” and that is our separation from God that needs to be restored. We do not walk and talk with God in the Garden face to face anymore.  Sin spelled with a small “s” are the deeds we do that separate us from each other and from God.   Babies are born separated from God and eventually we will see the selfishness present itself. In Jesus’ baptism we hear God say, “I am pleased” and I hear that as not only are there no issues waiting to be discussed, no hidden agendas, no separation anymore but there is actuallly positive warm feelings from God.  We no longer need to work to appease an angry judge but we can live in the love of a loving father.

         The Constitution of the United States or of any group declares membership, puts parameters around relationships, and states the rights and privileges of members.  The Constitution declared our independence from England and our rights to be self-governing.  As Christians our baptism declares our freedom from judgment by the laws of the land and declares our dependence on the laws of God: to love the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves.  Our baptism unites us with a universal church found in all languages and with people of all ethnicities whom we call brothers and sisters.  Our baptism is sacramental, removing barriers between us and the God of the universe and forgiving the sins we do that alienate others.   We are forgiven, valued and dependent on God.  Sounds like a pretty healthy relationship to me!


Christmas 2

January 1, 2023

First Reading: Numbers 6:22-27

the Aaronic benediction

22The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 23Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them,
24The Lord bless you and keep you;
25the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
26the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
27So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.

Psalm: Psalm 8

How majestic is your name in all the earth! (Ps. 8:1)

1O Lord our Lord,
  how majestic is your name in all the earth!—
2you whose glory is chanted above the heavens out of the mouths of infants and children;
  you have set up a fortress against your enemies, to silence the foe and avenger.
3When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
  the moon and the stars you have set in their courses,
4what are mere mortals that you should be mindful of them,
  human beings that you should care for them? 
5Yet you have made them little less than divine;
  with glory and honor you crown them.
6You have made them rule over the works of your hands;
  you have put all things under their feet:
7all | flocks and cattle,
  even the wild beasts of the field,
8the birds of the air, the fish of the sea,
  and whatever passes along the paths of the sea.
9| Lord our Lord,
  how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Second Reading: Galatians 4:4-7

4When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. 6And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

Gospel: Luke 2:15-21

15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

21After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

Children’s Sermon:  As you think back over this past year is there something that you are pondering and wondering what God was up to in your life?  A time when you asked God, “What was that all about?”  Share with a neighbor.

Let us pray.  Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, my Rock and my Redeemer.

SERMON

Today we turn from Advent and all the excitement of preparing for Christmas that celebrates the arrival of Jesus, to looking at his childhood.  We call these two weeks the Christmas Season.  This year we look at our faith through the Gospel of Matthew.  Advent we focused on the Matthew’s buildup to Christmas day. For our gospel text today, though, we are going to go over to the Gospel of Luke that includes experiences of Jesus as a child not included in the other gospels. Luke is the only one who includes these early childhood details as important so we will focus on the assigned text today and ponder what God is saying to us.

         The first half of the church year we look at the big question of learning more about who our God is.  The second half, Pentecost Season, focuses on who we are to our God.  Advent starts the year by leading us to the reality that our God is not a being far distant in the heavenlies, the CEO of life whom we never see but whom is ultimately “the big cheese.”  The buck stops with God!  God is not an all-present force like in Star Wars, a force we allign our lives with and learn how to master. We are not becoming Jedi masters.  We do not hold our hands up, fingers split to form a V, and say, “the Force be with you.”  No, the Bethlehem account brings the eternal God into our reality, incarnate, and in human flesh.  The angels announce to the shepherds “today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” 

         Houston, we have a problem.  The shepherds go to see this promised savior but the baby does not look like a Messiah, someone destine to save the world.  It is not quite obvious to anyone just what is happening.  In fact, I would say it is not quite obvious what God is up to at any point in time.  It is only as we look back that we better understand what was happening and even then we often have questions.  I want us to ponder today with Mary all these things and treasure them in our heart.

“Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place,

which the Lord has made known to us.”

         Every culture has rituals around the birth of a child.  Americans hold showers to help the mother prepare.  We send out announcements.  In Kenya they would kill a goat.  The mother would live in seclusion for a month and neighbors would bring in milk.  In one tribe, the baby would be called “little monkey” for its first year as everyone waited to see if the child liked its home and would stay or die and return to heaven.  At one year, a naming ceremony would be held, a goat prepared, and a feast was had.  Luke gives us a glimpse of some of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth.  John the Baptist was conceived to prepare the way for the Messiah.  God sent an angel to Joseph and Mary. God, as father, declared the child would be named Jesus.  God claimed his role in the life unfolding.  He sent angels to shepherds announcing the birth of his son.  He made sure everyone knew.  A star shone above in the skys.

         We say, “Seeing is believing.”  But we also say, “I can’t believe my eyes,” and “Looks are deceiving.”  The shepherds raced off to see for themselves what the angels sang about.   They saw baby Jesus in the manger.  We have created movies, songs, cards and folklore around how this encounter must have been experienced.  The text says that the shepherds are not silent but share with others about this night and “all were amazed.”  I note there is no triiumphal procession as when Jesus enters Jerusalem before the cross.  There is no loud proclamation that the Messiah has been born.  I suspect, people heard with their ears, were amazed at the news report, went to see with their eyes but did not truly understand or believe the meaning of the happenings.  We turn on the news and hear reports about Ukraine and believe they are somehow true but it does not really impact our lives.  I suspect that like Mary, the shepherds saw and went back to their fields to ponder what God was up to.  God works in ways that are not always as we would expect.  God had started the world on a journey that we will learn more about as Jesus grows – leaves the manger and enters lives.

         On the other hand, the religious advisors of Herod heard about the possible birth of a new king from the Wise Men and they could even quote Scripture that said the king would be born in Bethlehem and they could look out their windows and see the star but they did not go to Bethlehem.  Hearing the news and seeing did not lead to faith and actions.  Herod who knew there was a prophecy of a Messiah that was to come, heard the Wise Men’s report but he did not go to Bethlehem either.  Hearing and seeing led him to fear and anxiety.  Neither the priests nor Herod walked the talk but watched as others went to “see this thing that has taken place.”  Seeing may well have been believing for the shepherds but it does not mean they understood what was happening.  Hearing for the priests and religious scholars and Herod, resulted in indifference and even fear.

         It is possible to see something and walk away marveling but not understanding or believe.  And so the question for us who hear the Christmas carols their “brave glad tidings tell,” is what is our response now that the babe is born.  Will we go to the manger like the shepherds and Wise Men and depart sharing or will we like the scholars and Herod move on to New Year resolutions about improving our lives?  A savior has been born but what does that mean to us today? 

“17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child”

“20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”

The shepherds go to Bethlehem to see but the story does not stop there.  What they experienced moved their hearts to praise and their mouths to share with others.  Christmas for the shepherds could not stay in the manger and stable but moved with them back into their everyday lives.  The shepherds told others what they had experienced.  They did not understand the whole picture of what a Messiah being born meant but the little they understood, they shared.

         I suspect often we think the pastor’s role is sharing and explaining spiritual experience.  We pride ourselves as Lutherans that we are a confessional church and not dependent on testimonials from emotional people.  Back in the day, seeing spilled over into sharing.  Events that deeply touch our lives, we often talk about.  Getting that engagement ring most often becomes the center of our conversations.  Being accepted in the college of our choice is news worth sharing.  Holidays are days when we share our joy communally.  The birth of Jesus spilled over the confines of heaven as the angels praised God and shared with the shepherds.  The joy of the manger spilled over the stable into the lives of the Shepherds and the Wise Men as they shared their experience.

         So how do we want the joy of Christmas tio spill over in our lives this coming year?  Yes, we gave presents.  Yes, we sent Christmas greetings.  Yes, we decorated.  And for many, we bowed our heads and hearts in faith as we grieved the missing people and the hard times God carried us through this last year.  Life was messsy.  The birth of the Messiah did not mean the shepherds would no longer care for smelly, stupid sheep.  It did not end the Romans occupation.  It did not guarantee a car in every garage and two chickens in every pot.  So what did it mean that a savior was born?  And what does it mean to us?

         Houston, we have the on going challenge of living between the promise and the total fullfilment of salvation. Christmas is a seed that will grow but only as it is shared and cherished.  Our passage challenges us about how we will leave Christmas day and face the New Year wiith the message of the angels and the sights we have seen.  Will we too share with others the experience we have had?

“19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

         Mary challenges us to go deeper.  She had seen the angel at the announcement.  She had birthed the baby Jesus, but the text tells us she “treasured” and “pondered.”  Take a moment and think.  What do you treasure?  What is important and precious to you?  Turn to your neighbor and name that which is precious to you.

     How do we nourish, protect, and insure the continuing presence of that person or thing in our lives?  That is a good question.  My family has always had a silver box, somewhat like a safe deposit box, where our passports, identity documents like marriage and birth certificates, and other important papers are kept.  As a child, I was the oldest and in case of a tornado my assigned item to get to the basement was that silver box.  Scrap booking is another means of preserving those memories that bless us and help us hang in when life is hard.  As beloved people decline with dementia, we turn to our memories and remind ourselves that we are more than the fragile bodies we have.  Reunions and genealogy charts help us cherish.  We create physical ways to treasure that which we value.  We treasure someone by spending time with them.  We treasure Jesus by spending time with him and getting to know him.

         Mary not only “treasured” but she also “pondered” all that was happening in her life.  Pondering is an interesting word.  It would imply to me that Mary did not see life as random but realized something from God was unfolding.  College allows us to ponder and prepare for the future.  As young adults I suspect we pondered relationships as we asked if this was the person we wanted to spend our life with.  As parents we ponder the characteristics and talents of children and just how we can develop the talent and where it might lead.  As seniors our ponderings turn to decluttering and the inheritance we leave to the next generation, perhaps the contribution of our lives.  People who go to church on special occassions, may be guilty of neglecting pondering their faith like Mary and be more like the religious scholars of Herod.  Hmmmm?

         We believe God is not random and we believe God speaks into our reality.  BUT we often must stop and listen or ponder to realize what is being said.  Have you ever been driving home distressed about the burdens of the day and suddenly see a dazzling sunset and have the feeling that everything will be ok?  Perhaps a song comes on the radio or a friend calls or a verse comes to mind.  Then again we are delayed just that little bit that means we were not in the accident that happened that might have involved us had we gone earlier.  Life is not random and God speaks into our lives.  Pondering is sitting in an experience and listening for God’s message in the event.  Mary and Joseph had seen the angel.  But now as the shepherds come, Mary ponders.  May our prayer for the New Year be that we will have hearts open as we ponder events that touch our lives.  May our ponderings lead us deeper into seeing how Jesus, our Savior, speaks into our lives today.

“21After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus,”

         We see, we share, we ponder, but also we must carry through with the good news.  Mary and Joseph were told by the angel to name the baby Jesus as he would save his people from their sins.  They named the baby Jesus.  We all know the New Year resolutions we make and by February, if not sooner, our determination fades.  Mary and Joseph by obeying and naming their child Jesus they are speaking into eternity a message from God. Jesus is “Savior.”

         Salvationn is a reality he is initiating.  Ultimately salvation depends upon what he does on the cross and our ongoing relationship with him.  Salvation does not depend on our actions like New Year’s resolutions. Salvation is a relationship.  It is faith and not works.  Jesus means God is acting and we are receiving by faith.  This coming year there will be dark days when salvation will seem as impossible as a little baby in a manger out in a stable.  We will be tempted to doubt and dispair but God has acted and declared.  May we spend time pondering life with Mary. God has come into our world and his goal is our salvation.

         The baby in the manger, the baby named Jesus, will grow and his story will expand even as through this coming year hopefully we will grow and expand in our awareness of salvation, Jesus, in our lives.  

         The Aaronic blessing that is our Old Testament reading for today says, perhaps summarizes it best:

“24The Lord bless you and keep you;
25the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
26the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.”
 

The name Jesus means that God is choosing to bless us and he will keep us in all situations we encounter in the coming year.  His goal for us is salvation.  The Lord looks at us and smiles.  His heart’s intent is love.  He wants to be gracious and kind to us.  The Lord lifts up his countenance upon us.  He is not so busy in Ukraine that he cannot be concerned about things that touch our lives.  His eyes are on us.  His desire is that we have peace or perhaps security in our relationship with him and with those around us.

         Allow me to pray this blessing over you this morning –

“24The Lord bless you and keep you;
25the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
26the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.”
 

Let the people of God say, “AMEN!”


Advent 3,  December 11, 2022 JOY

December 11, 2022

First Reading: Isaiah 35:1-10

1The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
  the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
 like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly,
  and rejoice with joy and singing.
 The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
  the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
 They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.
3Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.
4Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
  “Be strong, do not fear!  Here is your God.
  He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense.
  He will come and save you.”
5Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf        unstopped; 6then the lame shall leap like a deer,
  and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
 For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
  and streams in the desert; 7the burning sand shall become a pool, and        the thirsty ground springs of water;
       the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
  the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
8A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way;
 the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people;
  no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
9No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
       they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.
10And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
  and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their         heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness,
    and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Psalm: Psalm 146:5-10

5Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help,
  whose hope is in the Lord their God;
6who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them;
  who keeps promises forever;
7who gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger.  The Lord sets the captive free.
8The Lord opens the eyes of the blind; the Lord lifts up those        who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. 
9The Lord cares for the stranger; the Lord sustains the orphan and        widow, but frustrates the way of the wicked.
10The Lord shall reign forever, your God, O Zion, throughout all    generations. Hallelujah! 

Second Reading: James 5:7-10

7Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. 8You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. 9Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! 10As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

Gospel: Matthew 3:20-25

20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
    and they shall name him Emmanuel’,

which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Children’s Sermon  “The Lion and the Mouse”

A Lion lay asleep in the forest. A Mouse came upon him unexpectedly. Roused from his nap, the Lion laid his huge paw angrily on the tiny creature to kill her. “Spare me!” begged the poor Mouse. “Please let me go and some day I will surely repay you.”  He was generous and finally let the Mouse go.

Some days later, the Lion was caught in a hunter’s net. Unable to free himself, he filled the forest with his angry roaring. The Mouse quickly found the Lion struggling in the net. She gnawed the ropes and soon the Lion was free.

So what was the joy of the lion about?

What was the joy of the mouse about?

Let us pray.  May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, my Rock and my Redeemer, the source of my joy!

SERMON

Today is Advent 3.  We are entering the third week before Christmas and preparing our hearts for the arrival, the advent, of the Christ child.  Today we focus on JOY.  Traditionally on Advent 3 we light the third candle in the Advent wreath and for many will it be a pink candle. 

         We are approaching Christmas through the Gospel of Matthew.  We have a challenge because Matthew’s account does not focus on Mary, the Bethlehem manger scene, or the shepherds and angels.  His version embraces the ugliness of lives then…and now!  He opened with a long genealogy with names we cannot pronounce and barely recognize. So we saw in Advent 1 that by knowing the prophecies God has given through those ancestors and how he always fulfilled them, we find hope for the promise of Christ’s return.  Last week we focused on Matthew’s honest report of the challenge Joseph faced when he, betrothed to Mary, had to figure out what to do when he learned Mary was pregnant.  Problems that arise on our journey often undermine our peace as we search to live our faith with integrity.  HOPE, PEACE and now we focus on JOY, our banner for today, as our story continues to unfold in the middle of political intrigue and social unrest.

         We have laid the Biblical account next to the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a modern day Christmas story that pulls similar themes into the reality of our baby boomer generation.  We put it next to the Biblical account to try and bring Christmas truth into modern lives.  It takes the Christmas story out of ancient Bethlehem into modern Bedford Falls, out of a carpenter under the thumb of Rome to a building and loan owner under the thumb of the bank examiner.  As each of our heroes, Joseph and George Bailey, grapple with their problems within the framework of their belief system, a chorus of prayers ascends to heaven.  Second class angel, Clarence Oddbody is sent to help George Bailey and an angel of the Lord is sent to help Joseph.  As God steps into the problems of our life that we meet between now and the promised future, we live in JOY as we recognize God’s hand in life.  But let me not get ahead of myself.

…an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream…

         When writing my master’s thesis, I used as a backdrop Social Cognitive Theory developed by Albert Bandura of Stanford University.  He proposed that life events have psychological, sociological and environmental factors but the author also posited a fourth category, “fortuitous events.”  They are

         “chance encounter as “an unintended meeting of persons unfamiliar to each other”. A fortuitous event is an environmental experience that is unexpected and unintended. The everyday lives of people are affected to a greater or lesser extent by the people they chance to meet and by random events they could not predict. One’s marital partner, occupation, and place of residence may largely be the result of a fortuitous meeting that was unplanned and unexpected.”

Even a secular scientist is willing to admit the possibility of what we would call “an angel appeared” that impacts the course of history.

         Joseph is a righteous man and seeks to live his life trying to please God.  He decides to quietly divorce Mary rather than have her stoned.  We do not know if she had an opportunity to explain to Joseph “her truth” for women had little voice then or if Mary was powerless in this marriage arrangement but we do know the angel told Joseph not to be afraid.  The point I want to make is that God is a significant factor in the reality that is unfolding and speaks as we encounter the problems of life.  Often we may recognize his voice and often we miss it.

         George Bailey stands on the bridge contemplating the suicide solution to his financial problem.  His insurance policy will cover the missing money and then some.  The solution is not perfect for death by suicide is often not recognized by companies but in crisis we often do not think clearly.  George cannot think clearly in his desperation but his friends realize something horrible is wrong and pray.  God reaches into George’s experience through Clarence but it takes George a while to understand. 

          George tells Clarence that “it would have been better had he not been born.”  Has that idea ever gone through your mind?  I recognize that thought.  When our eyes shift from God to our circumstances, the Evil One can sit on our shoulder and tell us all sorts of lies.  Clarence listens to George, reflects, and gives George the opportunity to see what life would have been like had he not been born.   Erasing George Bailey, biblical Joseph, you or me from the unfolding of events here in this life, changes the whole course of history. 

         The message of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” is that every life is important impacting the whole course of history.  Every life is important.  The message of Matthew and the angel for Joseph is that God cares about every life.  The child to be born is from God.  The message to us today is that God can speak into our lives today in the midst of the problems we are facing.  Ponder how many times just the right song comes on the radio as you are reflecting.  Perhaps you pick up the phone and a dear friend has thought to call you at that moment.  Then again it might be an email, a card, a sunset or sunrise.  Of course there are the near misses when you realize you just missed an accident by a hair.  God did not remove the pregnancy for Joseph.  God did not open George’s eyes to the missing money or return the Uncle’s memory but he did grant an angel to help George get life back into perspective.  As a caveat or corollary, I will admit that God does not always intervene as I think he might.  We hear about Ukraine and wonder.  But that does not mean that God does not know and it does not mean he does not care.  It does not mean God is absent.  Sometimes we are called upon to trust.  That’s hard.

“…do not be afraid…”

         God’s message starts “do not be afraid.”  I don’t know about you but I need to hear this message more than I care to admit.  Fear is a horrible enemy.  Joseph was afraid. George Bailey was afraid.  What are we afraid of today?  If we turn on the evening news, it could be Coved, the change of power balance in congress, ethnic random violence, and of course the world scene.  Focusing on who may run for the 2024 elections, how the federal reserve will deal with interests, or Putin’s intentions can lead to genuine depression.  It could be us standing on that bridge in Bedford Falls.  Fear focuses our attention on our helplessness and we loose sight of our resources.  George Bailey runs to Mr. Potter for a loan and not to his friend Sam Wainwright.  Joseph focuses on his position in the community and obeying God’s law.  The Evil One knows how to raise fear in our hearts and so when the angel comes, he first says “fear not.”  When we are paralyzed by fear, we become paralyzed in faith also.

         As we come into church we open with the confession and absolution.  We have not done it right this last week, we are afraid of what God and other’s think.  We are afraid of how our actions have impacted the lives of those around us. We enter worship with confession. The pastor or leader then says the absolution, the assurance of the entire forgiveness of all our sins.  Wow.  As we listen carefully – all sin is forgiven in Christ – we are free to worship.  As we kneel for communion we are reminded that the elements are “for the forgiveness of sin.”  We come to church weekly because we need to be reminded that we are forgiven and we do not need to be afraid.

…the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit

         The angel continues to enlighten Joseph.  Mary’s baby is conceived from the Holy Spirit.  People who like details find this news shocking.  Like Zachariah, we are tempted to respond, “How can that be?”  Many have scoffed.  I would suggest that when I look at a flower, bird of paradise for example, I always marvel, “How can that be?”  When I watch the sunrise unfold in oranges and purples across the horizon, I always marvel, “How can that be?”  In giving birth, one moment there was that lump of pregnancy and people instructing “push” and then a small cry and a real person, a baby, was placed in my arms.  I confess, I marveled, “How can that be?”  I place the angel’s announcement in the same category of marvel.  I cannot explain the mechanics.  Knowing the science of events does not explain the miracle of life.  I hear the angel’s message as, “this is from God.”

         Not all events are so dictated by God.  If they were, we would be fatalistic and be drones or robots.  We are not victims of God’s plans.  We have free will and we have the freedom to choose our level of involvement with God. We are his children, not his toys.  Sometimes, even though we have a God who is all powerful and all knowing, we encounter experiences when knowing God is in the experience, as hard as it is, still means it is going to be tough.  Knowing God is present brings a joy not based on reality but based on presence.  Walking with a husband with a terminal disease is like that.  I would love a miracle but I also know death faces all of us, so knowing God is walking with him and me is a wonderful message that battles with grief.  Joseph will have to face social disapproval and the challenges of raising a child that the Evil One will remind him, perhaps daily, is not his.  God did not remove the problem Joseph was facing but assured Joseph that God was there and would be with him as he went forward.  Sometimes that is enough to give us the strength to take the next step.

         George Bailey walks through Bedford Falls and his life and realizes how different events would have been had he not been born.  Harry would have drowned.  Mary would have never married.  The poor would never have been helped to get a better life.  All the things he valued and had to work so hard to achieve, would never have happened.   He returns to the bridge and prays, “Please, God, let me live again!” 

JOY:  Emmanuel …God is with us…

         Joseph is told to name the child Emmanuel that means “God is with us.”  So what is your joy grounded in this Christmas?  Like the lion in our opening story, are you happy to be free?  Like the mouse, are you happy to have helped a friend?  Perhaps like George Bailey you will take time to draw aside and reflect on your life and all the ways you have been blessed in the good and rough times and you will renew your desire to “live.”  It has been a wonderful life.  You are important.  For many of us our joy is not based on the outcome of our lives for the decision is still out with the jury but like Joseph we hear the message of the angel.  We trust and believe God is with us.  Jesus is our Emmanuel.  We do not see him yet but we hold on to the promise that what is happening in our lives is known by God, cared about by God, and we know that somehow God is in it.  God is with us, the unseen guest.  And that is enough.  We can leave the results in his hands.  HOPE, PEACE, and JOY comes in the Christmas story!

Let the people of God say, “Amen!”


Advent 2, December 4, 2022 PEACE

December 4, 2022

First Reading: Isaiah 11:1-10

1A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
  and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
2The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
  the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
  the spirit of counsel and might,
  the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
3His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
  or decide by what his ears hear;
4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
  and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
 he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
  and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
5Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
  and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
6The wolf shall live with the lamb,
  the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
 the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
  and a little child shall lead them.
7The cow and the bear shall graze,
  their young shall lie down together;
  and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
  and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;
 for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
  as the waters cover the sea.
10On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Psalm: Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

1Give the king your justice, O God,
  and your righteousness to the king’s son;
2that he may rule your people righteously
  and the poor with justice;
3that the mountains may bring prosperity to the people,
  and the hills, in righteousness.
4Let him defend the needy among the people,
  rescue the poor, and crush the oppressor.
5May he live as long as the sun and moon endure,
  from one generation to another.
6Let him come down like rain upon the mown field,
  like showers that water the earth.
7In his time may the righteous flourish;
  and let there be an abundance of peace till the moon shall be no more.
18Blessed are you, Lord God, the God of Israel;
  you alone do wondrous deeds!
19And blessed be your glorious name forever,
  and may all the earth be filled with your glory. Amen. Amen.

Second Reading: Romans 15:4-13

4Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. 5May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
7Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. 8For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, 9and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
 “Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
  and sing praises to your name”; 10and again he says,
 “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”; 11and again,
 “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him”;
12and again Isaiah says,  “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises          to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.”
13May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Gospel: Matthew 1: 18-19

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.

Children’s Sermon:  “Belling the Cat” by Aesop

Let’s come back to one of my favorite Aesop Fables.  Let’s listen for how the mice found PEACE, our Advent 2 theme.

“The Mice once called a meeting to decide on a plan to free themselves of their enemy, the Cat. At least they wished to find some way of knowing when she was coming, so they might have time to run away. Indeed, something had to be done, for they lived in such constant fear of her claws that they hardly dared stir from their dens by night or day.

Many plans were discussed, but none of them was thought good enough. At last a very young Mouse got up and said:  “I have a plan that seems very simple, but I know it will be successful.  All we have to do is to hang a bell about the Cat’s neck. When we hear the bell ringing we will know immediately that our enemy is coming.”

All the Mice were much surprised that they had not thought of such a plan before. But in the midst of the rejoicing over their good fortune, an old Mouse arose and said:  “I will say that the plan of the young Mouse is very good. But let me ask one question: Who will bell the Cat?”

Let us pray:  Lord may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, my Rock, my Redeemer, my source of Peace.

SERMON

         Last week in Advent 1 we laid the foundation of prophecy that gives us HOPE as we face the future.  The Gospel of Matthew opens Advent with the stories of God’s faithfulness to the generations of faulty people in Jesus’ genealogy and God’s faithfulness working through them and the kings that were leading the growing Jewish nation.  We felt the tension that despite a wonderful God predicting a wonderful future not just for Abraham but for all people, something has gone wrong.  The Jews are now living under Roman occupation. We have hope, though, in the face of hard times because God is faithful to bring about his prophecies.

         We are tracking the Biblical Christmas story told by Matthew with the popular movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” so that we can bring the Biblical reality into the Baby-boomer reality we live in.  George Bailey’s life when reviewed by Clarence Oddbody, Angel Second Class, who is going to be sent to help George, looks promising.  “I like that face,” says Clarence as he sees the choices George has made to bring him to the problem he is facing.  George Bailey has tried to live a life of integrity in Bedford Falls, helping the poor and caring for his family but something has gone wrong.  Money is missing and the bank examiner is at his door.

         In Advent 2 we come to the moment of problem that both Joseph and George Bailey face.  How do we find PEACE in the midst of life’s traumas that challenge our resources?  Matthew zeroes in on Joseph and the dilemma he faces.  Mary, his promised wife returns from a trip to visit her aunt Elizabeth of Zachariah and Joseph realizes she is pregnant.  Houston, we have a problem.  Joseph must decide what to do about a pregnant fiancée and George Bailey must decide what to do about missing money.  How will they find PEACE?

“…before…”

         Joseph, engaged to Mary, along with George Bailey, and perhaps ourselves have stepped into traumas “before…”.  Before what?  The gap between prophecy and perfection will often involve facing problems.   We have a dream about how life might be going to unfold but then something happens.  It is so easy for problems to sabotage prophecy and cloud our thinking.  We get T-boned by life.  The dream is out there and we can almost touch it but then Coved happens.  We about have the money for a down-payment on the next phase in our life plan but illness enters.  The pre-college test scores arrive and the weight of family expectations will not be met.  Joseph has organized all the cultural hurtles to marry Mary but she is pregnant.  Let me just say that Joseph has put all his dreams for his future with Mary. God too has put his plans on Mary.  The problem is not the dream.  The problem is the detours that happen to get to the dream.

     The detours in life often throw us into choices about alternatives like trying to figure out which turn to take when working a maze.  We know the exit we want but how to get there.  George Bailey knows he does not have a booming loan business but he thinks he is solvent.  When his uncle confesses that $8,000 has been misplaced, George panics.  The bank examiner is there and it is Christmas Eve.  Joseph also must decide what to do with a pregnant fiancée.  Both men consider alternatives when unexpected problems block the way forward.

“…planned…”

         George madly searches the office for the misplaced money.  He grabs his uncle by the collar and shakes him.  He runs to Mr. Potter, his arch-rival, and bargains for a loan.  He yells at his children and kicks the furniture.  He goes to the bar and drinks.  Then he drives while drunk!  Oh my, a distraught man!  But let’s be honest, we have done all of those tactics.  We have scapegoated a loved one because we are upset about something else.  We may have turned to alcohol or drugs or TV or shopping, anything that relieves the fear.  I won’t ask if you’ve grabbed someone and given the person a good shake.  George does all these things and then when George offers Mr. Potter his $15,000 life insurance policy as collateral for a loan, Mr. Potter suggests George is worth more “dead than alive,” George caves and agrees with the enemy.  The thought of suicide has been planted in his mind.  He stands on the bridge ready to jump.

         Joseph likewise looks at his alternatives.  Under Jewish law he could have Mary stoned.  That kind of revenge would certainly make him appear innocent and salvage his reputation.  Joseph knows he is innocent of breaking the law but no one else does.  This problem is going to be played out in the court of public appeals before his hometown.  Ouch.  Mary is not guilty of sneaking a candy bar but is guilty of adultery.  The pregnancy is the talk of the town.  She is front line news.  My friends, we know this dynamic that is so much in our face today.  Before the trial, the news media has interviewed all possible experts and all possible angles and all sorts of explanations have weighed in on why the person is guilty.  We no longer live by “innocent until proven guilty” and Mary and Joseph lived in times like ours.  The pregnancy was proof enough of guilt of unfaithfulness.  The missing $8,000 for George’s company proved guilt before there was a trial.

         One choice is to shift the blame.  If Mary would cooperate, maybe Joseph could claim rape by a Roman soldier.  Movies like “The Nativity” have Mary’s parents asking her if it was a soldier.  She could have lied and kept the conception to herself but she does not.  George Bailey runs to Mr. Potter and confesses that he, George Bailey, misplaced the money.  Potter knows it was the uncle and George knows it was the uncle but George realizes he will be held responsible and must decide what to do.

         Another solution is that Joseph could quietly divorce Mary.  He would be vindicated, she would live a life in disgrace as a single mother and he could move on.  The solution satisfies the law mostly but does not satisfy grace.  George Bailey stands on the bridge and contemplates the suicide option.  Joseph goes to bed having decided to “dismiss Mary quietly.”

PEACE

         So often we live in this tension between law and grace and we just don’t know which way to turn.  How can we find peace? Peace is a word used in the Bible a lot but what does it look like in the life of Joseph or George Bailey and especially in our Baby-boomer reality?  Peace cannot just mean the absence of war for it seems like there is always war somewhere in our world.  A friend posted on FaceBook, “Peace . . . does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart. – (unknown author)”  As Jesus heads to the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus shares with his disciples,   

         “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you         as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let          them be afraid. (John 14:27)”

If Jesus said it, it must be true.  Jesus gives us peace for today and worked eternal peace with God. So let’s look at our text and story.

         “Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace.”  Joseph being a righteous man tells us that Joseph tried to live his life in right relationship with God.  We are told in James that “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness (James 2:23).”  Peace does mean that we are no longer enemies with God because of the cross but peace can now come as we live out our faith in our actions. 

         I would suggest that means we are able to live not in conflict with ourselves and our values but can live in harmony, security, and with an inner tranquility even when there is war without.  Jesus is my ultimate model as he stayed in control of himself through the whole crucifixion event.  Peace means we have an internal integrity that is not necessarily based on our own comfort and happiness but on the greater belief system that supports our life.  Jesus was one with God and so could walk through life at peace.

         Joseph had come to peace with God’s rule in his life and would not manipulate to gain Mary as his wife or fight to protect his reputation.  He would satisfy the law as gently as possible.  Do men cry?  I think he might of.  I do not believe that it was an easy decision for Joseph.  Some of us may wrestle with the problem of putting a spouse away because of infidelity but most of us wrestle with other moral problems.  To wrestle is not wrong.  It is human. 

         George Bailey did not wrestle with infidelity but he did wrestle with how to achieve financial integrity.  We do not see a man at peace.  We see a man struggling and desperate.  Interestingly we do see other moments in the movie when George struggles with complex issues and comes to peace.  As a youth, he does not deliver the wrong prescription but chooses to confront the pharmacist.  As a young man he chooses not to travel the world but take on leadership in his deceased father’s loan business.  He does struggle but decides to wed Mary.  He uses his honeymoon money to keep the loan company afloat during a bank run.   He turns down the offer to join Mr. Potter’s team and have a more comfortable life.  As George Bailey listens to that voice inside himself he always chooses a path that demonstrates integrity with what appears to be his core values.  When he comes to his moment of crisis over money, he flounders to find the right answer but his friends know George is not the normal man of peace and a chorus of prayers ascend to heaven.  Next week we will see how God steps in, not only to fulfill prophecy that gives HOPE and to resolve problems that result in PEACE but also to bring JOY into our lives.

         Our Advent 2 challenge this week is to rejoice at the PEACE we have with God because of the birth and life of that child born in Bethlehem.  We are challenged to live in PEACE with our world today as we seek to live with integrity our spiritual values during the stresses and pressures of the Christmas season.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you         as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. (John 14:27)”

Let the people of God say, “Amen!”

 


Advent 1 Year A, November 27, 2022 HOPE

November 27, 2022

First Reading: Isaiah 2:1-5

1The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
2In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house
 shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
  and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.
  3Many peoples shall come and say,
 “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
  to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways
  and that we may walk in his paths.”
 For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from   Jerusalem.
4He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many   peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
  and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
5O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

Psalm: Psalm 122

1I was glad when they said to me,
  “Let us go to the house | of the Lord.”
2Now our feet are standing
  within your gates, O Jerusalem.
3Jerusalem is built as a city that is at unity with itself;
4to which the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord,
  the assembly of Israel, to praise the name of the Lord. 
5For there are the thrones of judgment,
  the thrones of the house of David.
6Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
  “May they prosper who love you.
7Peace be within your walls
  and quietness within your towers.
8For the sake of my kindred and companions,
  I pray for your prosperity.
9Because of the house of the Lord our God,
  I will seek to do you good.”

Second Reading: Romans 13:11-14

11Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Gospel: Matthew 1:1-17   The Genealogy of Jesus the Messiah

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.

And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, 10 and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, 11 and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.

12 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, 13 and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, 14 and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, 15 and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, 16 and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.

17 So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.

CHILDREN’S SERMON:  Turn to a neighbor and tell about a relative that impacted your life story.

Let us pray:  Lord may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, the eternal I AM, who incarnated among his creation, and who still comes to us.

SERMON

         Today we start a new church year.  We will look at the Christian faith story through the eyes of Matthew. Matthew opens the New Testament and starts his account of the Christian faith with a genealogy. Advent 1 focuses on a theme of Prophecy and Hope.  Life is not random. We do not despair as we look at our world. We know God has prophesized wars, illness, poverty, injustice, and false prophets who will try to convince us that God is not able or is not wanting to make our lives happy. But prophecy assures us God is leading us into an eternal reality, unlike the problems of this life. God cannot be defeated.  The New Testament and Matthew start by tracking God’s faithfulness.

         The beloved Christmas story, It’s a Wonderful Life, is a favorite Christmas movie Frank Copra produced and that came out in 1946, along with us Baby Boomers!!!  Viewers follow the life of George Bailey who dreamed of traveling the world and escaping small town America.  We long to escape the problems that plague our lives and so we identify with George.  The death of George’s father forces him to choose between his dream of running around the world or running the loan business his father owned.  He sacrifices his personal dream.  George marries a hometown girl, Mary, and raises a family.  So far, his story is ordinary. Enter the villain, Mr. Potter, the bank owner, whose greed tries to defeat George. George despairs and decides to commit suicide.  He figures he would be “better dead than alive.”  A chorus of prayers ascend to heaven and in response to the prayers for George, Clarence Oddbody, Angel 2nd class who has not earned his wings is sent to help George.

         We are not at the movies. We are at church.  This movie, though, helps bring the Matthew Christmas story into the reality of our lives.  The Matthew account of Christmas is unlike Mark and Luke’s account. I hope by relating Matthew’s perspective on Christmas to this beloved movie, we will bring the ancient story into Baby Boomer reality.  In the Biblical story we find hope, peace, joy and love – our Christmas banners.  Lord, open our hearts to hear your story that impacts our story with hope today.

The Backstory: Prophecy: Hope

 Matthew opens with a long genealogy that we usually skim past because the names are hard to pronounce.  But genealogies give us the backstory putting the present story in context.  We gain perspective for what is to unfold.  The movie It’s a Wonderful Life opens on Christmas Eve.  Clarence Oddbody, Angel 2nd class is chosen to go and help George.  He has “the IQ of a rabbit” and the “faith of a child, simple.”  He has an hour to prepare and so is told to sit down, listen, and he is asked,

“If you’re going to help a man,

you want to know something about him,

don’t you?”

I might rephrase this quote for us today, to challenge us:

If you’re going to believe in Jesus Christ

You want to know something about him,

Don’t you?

Genealogies give texture to names.  We might say we come from a long line of farmers or that we are just like our ancestor who was artistic.  Of course there are those skeletons in the closet we don’t talk about much.  Then there are the shadows of people who died of cancer, Alzheimer’s or some other disease that plague us with fear.  Differently abled relatives are hard to put in context.  Pride, shame, and fears will be met in thee tonight, O Bethlehem, as a new child is born. 

            The Matthew genealogy opens, tracing from Abraham to Joseph who is the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus, “who is called the Messiah.” Similarly, the movie starts with an overview of George Bailey’s life.  Clarence Oddbody, Angel 2nd class sees George Bailey as a kid who saved his little brother Harry’s life when Harry slid into a hole in the ice.  George lost hearing in one ear so as a teenager did not hear Mary profess her love at the soda fountain.  George also had to choose whether to deliver the wrong prescription to a family or correct his boss, Mr. Gower, the pharmacist.  We meet Mr. Potter bullying George’s father as George ran to his father for advice.  Fast forward, George’s father died and George must decide between his desire to travel the world or assume the responsibility of his deceased father’s business so his brother can go to college.  It is those choices that bring George to the present point of crisis.  Likewise Matthew shows us the choices Abraham’s descendants made that brought the Jewish people to this moment that is about to unfold in Bethlehem.  It is the events of our life that have brought us here today and impact the decisions we will be making as we go forward into our future.

         Let us look a little closer at the genealogy of Jesus.  We see that the problems that are brewing and affecting life in Israel are not a God problem but a human problem.  Matthew starts with Abraham, the father of the Jews, to first trace human frailty that requires a Messiah. Jesus must be TRUE MAN to deal with a problem that is rooted in humanity.  Likewise, if the United States bombs Russia to save Ukraine, it will be called aggression and so we hear about all the help sent to Ukraine so they can fight their war.  The genealogy shows God’s help to us to fight our human war with sin.

         The first 14 generations start with Abraham.  God steps into the life of Abraham and makes a promise, a covenant, Genesis 12:2

          “I will make you into a great nation and will bless you.  I will make your name great and you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you and whoever curse you I will curse and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” 

God is making a promise about what will take place in the future.  It is prophetic.  But why Abraham?  Let me ask again, why Abraham?  God chose a stiff-necked and stubborn man to work with and to form and be the bearer of his promise.  God also chooses us to work out his promises.  Why us?  Grace.  Amazing.  God gets the glory.

         In that first set of the Matthew genealogy we see a list of ordinary, flaky people with questionable lives.  They come from multiple ethnicities that form the family line of Jesus.  God speaks to these people, making promises, molding and guiding them as they make moral decisions, into a future they cannot see. 

         Abraham lies about Sarah and allows her to be put in a haram in Egypt.  God protects her and in their old age son Isaac is born.  God promises that people more than the number of stars will be blessed.  More than our children are blessed by our life as we trust God for our inadequacies.  Isaac follows father Abraham and lies about wife Rebecca but then has twins.  Younger twin, Jacob, steals his brother’s birthright and deceives his father to get the family blessing but then is deceived by his uncle Laban.  He marries two sisters because he is so drunk he does not realize he has married the wrong sister!  Talk about a dysfunctional family!  God can work with us.  Jacob’s son, Joseph marries the daughter of an Egyptian priest. Meanwhile Jacob’s fourth son, Judah, has relations with Tamar, a Canaanite, who was Judah’s daughter-in-law. We are deep into human frailty now.

         The story continues though.  Ruth, a Moabitess, has a son by Boaz who is the son of Rehab the harlot.  Oh my, why do we think our little problems are too hard for a God who promises over and over to bless Abraham’s descendants?  The genealogy clearly shows us that the New Testament that is about to unfold is not about our wonderfulness but about God’s faithfulness.  We are human and flawed. Jesus is born into our mess.  Unless we understand that Jesus is under the same sentence of death as we are, the hope of the resurrection that comes with Christmas is hollow.  We serve a God who incarnated into a line of ordinary sinners and will bring salvation.  We must acknowledge our past, our sinfulness, to truly appreciate the blessings of Christ now and for the future to be.  Angel Clarence Oddbody learned about George to understand his dilemma.

         The second 14 generations start with King David.  If we look at the second group of people, we see a list of kings. The genealogical focus has shifted.  The people of God refuse a theocracy where God is our social leader and they demand a king.  People want a leader they can see rather than trust a God they cannot see.  Saul, the first king is flawed but God is not defeated and has David anointed, “a man after God’s own heart.”  David is just as fallible with blood on his hands plus he sleeps with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah (and God does not cover that up!).

          But this genealogy is not about David. It is about God building a kingdom of people, a priesthood of believers.  It is about community life.  Through this second set of genealogy we see kings, flawed leaders living out the responsibility in the positions God has put them in.  Some make good choices and some make bad.  Even we make good and bad choices.  God speaks into these kings’ lives and watches over the kingdom He is forming.  Prophecy is not just about my salvation.  Prophecy is not just about Jesus dying on the cross for my sins. The story goes on to the resurrection and the formation of the church with leaders just as flakey as the kings. God is still working, forming us, his kingdom and promising the return of Jesus. Hope! George Bailey has life events that explain him but at the same time George is creating a story of community.  Our lives impact the community forming around us.

         So why the third set of names in the genealogy?  The focus changes again.  The third 14 generations starts, “after the deportation to Babylon…  Matthew is writing his Gospel to a people who know their cultural heroes, who know the Jewish national history of glory under kings like David and Solomon, but who also live in a reality of oppression by a foreign power, in a struggling economy, persecuted and out of favor.  Something has gone wrong!  The names in this third set are for the most part, little known to us. Mostly it is those books of the Bible that we call the minor prophets and often ignore. 

         My thought is that Matthew is telling us that in the face of fantastic prophecies of a promising future that will start to come about with the birth of the Christ child, everyday life is hard. Most of us live life after having gone through messes like the exile.  Matthew is setting up for the cross that comes between the prophecy and the fulfillment. George Bailey represents every person who has a history of choices made that brings the person to their present crisis.  Something has gone wrong in George’s story and something is wrong in ours.  We need God’s help.

         We can only have hope today if we know we are sinners and will die.  We have not loved God with are whole heart, soul, and mind.  We can only have hope if we understand that Jesus incarnated, suffered with us, and now stands in the Godhead for us.  Suffering is not God abandoning us nor necessarily punishing us. During hard times and defeats, we do not need to loose hope because God is faithful to his promises and is working in ways we do not understand. 

         God was not defeated by all those faulty guys in the first fourteen generations.  God covenanted with real humans. God was not defeated in forming a kingdom by all those very human kings in the second fourteen generations.  God is not defeated by the twists and turns of history, the sufferings and hardships, nor the momentary triumph of evil.  There is hope for George Bailey for there is a God hearing the prayers of George’s friends and watching George’s life unfold.  Like Joseph, “the husband of Mary of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ,” we are an important part of the Christmas story.  We can be people of HOPE as we look at how God has been faithful to work with us to bring about his promises.  Many generations were blessed through Abraham.  All people were blessed through Jesus.  May we share God’s blessing during this Advent season and live as people of Hope.

Let the people of God say, “Amen!”


23rd Sunday after Pentecost

November 13, 2022

First Reading: Malachi 4:1-2a

1See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. 2aBut for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.

Psalm: Psalm 98

1Sing a new song to the Lord, who has done marvelous things,
  whose right hand and holy arm have won the victory.
2O Lord, you have made known your victory,
  you have revealed your righteousness in the sight of the nations.
3You remember your steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel; all the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.
4Shout with joy to the Lord, all you lands;
  lift up your voice, rejoice, and sing.
5Sing to the Lord with the harp,
  with the harp and the voice of song.
6With trumpets and the sound of the horn
  shout with joy before the king, the Lord.
7Let the sea roar, and all that fills it,
  the world and those who dwell therein.
8Let the rivers clap their hands,
  and let the hills ring out with joy before the Lord, who comes to judge the earth.
9The Lord will judge the world with righteousness
  and the peoples with equity.

Second Reading: 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

6Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. 7For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, 8and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. 9This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. 10For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. 11For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. 12Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 13Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.

Gospel: Luke 21:5-19

5When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, [Jesus] said, 6“As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
7They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.
9“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” 10Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
12“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

CHILDREN’S SERMON:  How is preparing for Christmas different from preparing for surgery or senior years?  Share with a neighbor some of your thoughts.  

Let us pray.  Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, my Rock and my Redeemer.

SERMON:  So…

So here we are almost to the end of Pentecost. It’s the Sunday after All Saints Sunday and the Sunday before Christ the King Sunday that signals the start of Advent.  We are coming to the climax.  Today our text talks about End Times and next Sunday we hear about Christ’s victory over Death.  That Thursday we will celebrate Thanksgiving, welcome the Advent season and gear up for Christmas.  Whew!!!  Pre-Black Friday sales are already being announced.  Let’s take a deep breath today before all the intensity begins and reflect on our Pentecost journey.

So…we live in two kingdoms that are very different.

Jesus and the disciples have reached Jerusalem putting the text as part of Passion week. Jesus is preparing for the cross.  In the presence of the beauty of the Temple that the disciples admire, Jesus warns them not to be deceived.  The symbols of faith that belong to this world will all disappear but not faith that opens the way to the Kingdom of God.  It is so easy to forget that we have one foot in the kingdom of this world and one foot in the kingdom of God. 

         The Temple is so glorious and beautiful, our God so wonderful that somehow we forget that faith does not release us from the trials of life and the inevitability of death.  The Temple is so beautiful that surely if we had enough faith, God would move mountains and help us miss the landmines of life.  Sometimes he does but often I hear that little voice spreading doubt.  Do you hear the little voice whispering in your ear that “if only God would answer a prayer” we could be healed, get a job, not loose a husband, beat cancer…just pray and believe.  “Keep the faith, baby!”  It is so tempting to believe the beautiful Temple, a structure of faith, can be equated with a wonderful life in this world.

         As the disciples admire the Temple and all it represented to them, Jesus shatters their revelry with the announcement that in the not too distant future, the Temple would be destroyed.  In 90 AD in fact, Jerusalem would be destroyed.  The disciples believe and don’t doubt.  They don’t ask “why” or “how” but just ask “when will this happen.”  Jesus gives them some signs.

         People claiming to represent God will try to lead us astray.  They  will deceive themselves and possibly us into thinking they speak for God.  The truth of any preacher is not the charisma, the popularity, or the education.  We are responsible to know the Scriptures so we can differentiate between the fake and the real. We can read the signs of the time.  There are two kingdoms and the Holy Spirit, God, through Scripture and prayer guides us to truth, not health, wealth and prosperity.  False preachers will try to focus our eyes on this world and try to manipulate us spiritually.

         Global chaos politically and environmentally will be another sign.  Of course the problem is that there seems to be political power struggles in all ages and each age thinks it is end times. It is easy to become numb to these warnings and sleep during sermons that speak to the end of the kingdom of this world.

         False preachers, confusing political and environmental signs and persecution mark the end. Jesus tells us there will be persecution for our faith.  Many of us in the West are shielded from these predictions by our wealth but for many in our world persecution is a reality of faith.  I doubt we are not tempted, but often the temptation is so subtle we don’t recognize it.  The temptation to compromise just a little is always with us.  Our culture shifts our focus to a God of love and we forget that God is just also.  We confuse God with Santa Claus.  My wants may not be God’s will.  

         Human wants often lead to wars and rumors of wars that plague every generation.  Mass communication makes us more informed now but does not seem to eliminate wars, rumors of wars, political misunderstanding and power struggles that have marked every generation.  The kingdom of this world is fraught with problems, conflict and tensions.  When we have problems, it is not because God is busy in Ukraine or has forgotten us.  It because we still live in the kingdom of this world.  The Temple will be destroyed but faith, not the Temple, will mark the kingdom of God.

So…how do we prepare?

         The Pentecost readings have led to the inevitable conclusion.  The two kingdoms will one day give way to the Kingdom of God.  Meanwhile, Jesus tells us not to be terrified because all these trials do not mean that God is out of control but neither will he manipulate us into following him.  We are not drones.  He knows the time and the hour and so we are not to be terrified for his hand is protecting us and mediating the evil that would seek to destroy us.  The end of Hebrews 11, the faith chapter, ends with the list of horrible deaths believers faced in the name of faith.  “The world was not worthy of them. (v38)”  Hebrews confirms the two kingdoms when the author continues,

         “39 Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, 

4 0 since God had provided something better so that they would not, without us, be made perfect.”

         Sufferings and persecution provide a platform for testimony to our faith.  “Platform” is a big word these days.  Women might remember platform soles on their shoes to make them just that little bit higher and more visible.  We might think of the platform at the train station where you wait for the train to pull up so you can board.  This week we might have thought of the political platforms or beliefs the different candidates represented.  But I am thinking of our young adults who might define platform as: “a group of technologies, solutions, or offerings that form an iterative basis for developing, implementing or deploying other offerings. In many ways, a platform is just like a construction foundation — many different buildings could be constructed using the same foundation.” 

         YouTube and Netflix are different platforms for presenting films.  Gmail and other carriers are different email platforms.  Sufferings are different platforms that provide us opportunities to live out our faith in a way others can see. Disease is another platform for living out our faith. The war for the Ukrainians has given voice to their faith.  Sermons are not the only platform God uses to share his glory.  Hence we cannot know and prepare in advance some speech for we do not know which platform we will be speaking from.  Jesus tells us, “14So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”  Do not be terrified.  Trust!

         False preachers, political and environmental chaos and persecutions are not about us.  God is not targeting us for some unrecognized sin but providing a platform that helps us gauge the times and clarifies the kingdom of this world that is passing, from the kingdom of God that is eternal.  There is a purpose to the events of our life that God is walking through with us.

So… endure

18But not a hair of your head will perish. 

19By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

The NIV translates that last line, “Stand firm, and you will win life.”

I like the Message that shares, “Even so, every detail of your body and soul—even the hairs of your head!—is in my care; nothing of you will be lost. Staying with it—that’s what is required. Stay with it to the end. You won’t be sorry; you’ll be saved.”  Wow, that sounds to me like “grace” and not “law” at the end of time.  Jesus tells his disciples that the Temple, the outward symbol of their faith will be destroyed but all the hairs of their heads and their lives will gain eternity by their steadfastness.

         We end Pentecost being reminded yet again that faith is not about us, perfecting ourselves through faith for an angry God, but accepting and receiving the warm embrace of a God who wants our love. 

  • Endurance of relationship means that we stand firm in that identity.  Being a Christian is not just a Sunday event. 
  • Endurance implies that we grow in relationship to God and his people.  Being a Christian is not a one-time experience at a rally or baptism.  God has provided Scripture, nature, music, and fellowship to get to know him better through his creations. 
  • Endurance is naming and claiming our truth when facing family, friends and culture that ridicule our alliance to God.  Christianity is not about the easy life but it is about a good life journeying to eternity.

 Lord, help us prepare and look forward to being with you eternally.

Let the people of God say “Amen.”


22th Sunday after Pentecost: All Saints Sunday

November 6, 2022

First Reading: Job 19:23-27a

23“O that my words were written down!
  O that they were inscribed in a book!
24O that with an iron pen and with lead
  they were engraved on a rock forever!
25For I know that my Redeemer lives,
  and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
26and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
  then in my flesh I shall see God,
27awhom I shall see on my side,
  and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”

Psalm: Psalm 17:1-9

1Hear a just cause, O Lord; give heed to my cry;
  listen to my prayer, which does not come from lying lips.
2Let my vindication come forth from your presence;
  let your eyes be fixed on justice.
3Examine my heart, visit me by night,
  melt me down; you will find no impurity in me.
4I have not regarded what others do;
  at the word of your lips I have avoided the ways of the violent.
5My footsteps hold fast to your well-worn path;
  and my feet do not slip.
6I call upon you, O God, for you will answer me;
  incline your ear to me and hear my words.
7Show me your marvelous loving-kindness,
  O Savior of those who take refuge at your right hand from those          who rise against them.
8Keep me as the apple of your eye;
  hide me under the shadow of your wings,
9from the wicked who assault me,
  from my deadly enemies who surround me.

Second Reading: 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17

1As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, 2not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. 3Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. 4He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. 5Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you?

13But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. 14For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.
16Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, 17comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.

Gospel: Luke 20:27-38

27Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to [Jesus] 28and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30then the second 31and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32Finally the woman also died. 33In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”
34Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

CHILDREN’S SERMON

Most of you know Deacon Barbara who writes many of the sermons given here at Bethany but does anyone remember Saint Barbara?  Today is All Saints Day and I thought we might look at her story.  In the Eastern Orthodox tradition she is called the “”Great Martyr Barbara.  She was born in Rome in the 200s.  She was so beautiful her father chained her in a tower where her window overlooked the beautiful countryside.  She became convinced that idols were not gods.  So her father set her free and she became a Christian though women she met in town.  Her father was building a bath-house with two windows but he went on a trip and Barbara had a third window added to represent the Trinity, confessing her faith to her father upon his return.  Furious, he beat her and tortured her to death but God struck him with lightning.  Saint Barbara not only died for her faith but was connected with lightning and explosions making her the patron saint of miners and people working with explosives.  Deacon Barbara’s maiden name was Miner!  Dec. 4 is the day Saint Barbara is remembered.  When you think of a ‘saint”, what do you think of?  Share with your neighbor briefly.

Saint: an Internet definition “any of certain persons of exceptional holiness of life, formally recognized as such by the Christian Church, especially by canonization.”

Let us pray.  Lord may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, my Rock and my Redeemer.

SERMON

Today is All Saint’s Day when we remember and honor martyrs and saints.  This holiday that goes back to the 4th century, was formally adopted in the 9th century by Pope Gregory and has evolved into a collection of social traditions we now are just as likely to associate with Halloween. We think of saints as exceptionally holy people who died for their faith or the “good guys” who are living in heaven.  Catholics have a process of canonization to decide who are the official saints.   We may associate a saint with a uniquely good person like Mother Teresa who served the poorest of the poor.  We might rarely refer to someone who has been very kind to us as a saint.  Seldom do we refer to ourselves as saints…in the Lutheran tradition anyway.

         Saint Barbara was sainted for the suffering she went through by refusing to deny her faith. God affirmed her when he struck her unbelieving father with lightning, ending Barbara’s suffering.  The unnamed woman in our text today cannot compete with Saint Barbara.  In the text, Jesus is tempted by the Sadducees with a story about a woman who was handed from brother to brother, seven times, as they died and until she died.   No child was conceived. As a woman, I can imagine the humiliation she must have felt at not being able to conceive not only with one man but with seven brothers!  Surely the problem was her!  Asking the question of who she belongs to in an eternity the Sadducees did not believe in, is horrible.  She probably felt more like a curse as she was handed down.  Whether the story is true does not matter for many women today live her life, being a pawn in social relationships because of their gender.  Ultimately this woman is not canonized but used as the brunt of a cruel story to try to trip Jesus.  Today we try to find the truth that reconciles Mother Teresa and this Nameless Hand-me-down.  Jesus speaks of “People of this age” versus “People of the Resurrection and the age to come.”  Is Jesus drawing another line in the sand?

Saints: People who do good or People who are good?

“…they are like angels and are children of God,

being children of the resurrection…”

The Old Testament talks about saints is Psalm 31:23,

 “23 Love the Lord, all you his saints.
    The Lord preserves the faithful,
    but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily.’

In the New Testament Paul seems to tie the word “saint” to anyone who is a follower of Jesus as he addresses his epistles “to the saints in Rome, Ephesus, Corinth, Galatia, or Philippi. Biblically saints are not necessarily exceptionally good people nor necessarily people who have performed miracles. One of the foundational beliefs of the Reformation that we celebrated last week was that we are saved by faith alone, as a gift of grace alone, as declared in scripture alone, and through Christ alone.  Saints are not exceptionally good people who share their merit with us ordinary sinners condemned to purgatory but are people who are declared in this passage by Jesus to be like the angels, sinless. 

         Please marinate in that truth for a moment.  You are, and will be, like an angel in the eyes of God because you have forgiveness now through Christ and you will live eternally.  Our Hand-Me-Down woman in the text by the standards of the kingdom of this world is nothing but useless. By the standards of God and in the heavenly kingdom, she is of eternal value, a saint not because of anything she did or did not do but because of what Christ is about to do for her.

         I note that the text talks not only about “those who marry” but also about “those who are given in marriage.”  This sermon is not just about women.  Men also face the value criteria of our world and often of the church.  It is easy to feel that a man who is not the pastor, is not Augustine, is not a martyr, that he is somehow less a saint than those whom the church honors today.  In God’s eyes the faithful mailman is just as valuable as the faithful preacher and will in eternity be like the angels.

         Let us take a moment for “popcorn prayers” where we thank God for people from our past or present or who are living now who have blessed us and for whom we are glad that they will be or are like angels in “the age to come.”  Thank you Lord for….

“35but those who are considered worthy of a place

 in that age and in the resurrection from the dead

 neither marry nor are given in marriage”

         Jesus tackles a second stumbling block in this example, marriage.  Not only do we think of saints as exceptionally good people but often we associate them with people who do not marry but devote their lives entirely to their faith. Saint Barbara refused marriage, Mother Teresa never married whereas the Hand-Me-Down woman not only married but was handed down to seven brothers like property.  I joke with my husband about whether I will find him in the men’s dorm in heaven and if I’ll be in the women’s dorm.  Then for those of us who are the second wife or the rejected first wife, we ponder how that will all work out.  We don’t much deal with “blended families” and all those complications in sermons. So why is marriage in this description of a saint? 

         Jesus says the Sadducees are mistaken, there will be no giving and taking in marriage in the age to come.  Again we are talking to men and women.  My thoughts on this go back to creation.  “It is not good for people to be alone” and so God created a “helpmate”, Eve for Adam.  There is this underlying idea that we, in ourselves, are not complete without a spouse and certainly without a relationship with God.  As people of this age, we are incomplete but as children of God we will be whole – not just physically and spiritually but perhaps also socially.  We will not need to come to faith to be whole for we will be living with God.  We will not need to marry to be people of value in the eyes of heaven.  We will not have to produce children, especially male children, to be honored.  The angels do not identify themselves as the mother of … or the father of … or the wife of …. Or the husband of …..  There will be a wholeness and completeness that is hard for us to understand now, so Jesus refers us to the angels.

     As a woman I am also caught by the word “given in marriage.”  Our Hand-Me-Down Woman was owned by her birth family and by the family of her first husband. She was part of her birth family’s decision to marry her to him, possibly without voice.  We don’t know the reasons behind the marriage.  It may have been for prestige, for wealth, or for political power.  She is a bit of a pawn in social relationships.  The story, while an exaggeration to trip Jesus, still shares a truth about the nature of marriage for many people. Some enchanted evening they look across the dance floor and are enchanted with some beautiful other.  Men can feel trapped by family expectations to marry a certain person or to follow the family business.  They face social expectations that pressure their lives too.  “Ownership” of one person by another will not be in the age to come, only identity in Christ.  We will be known as “children of the resurrection.”  It is yet to be revealed what that means.  But, we will be complete in Christ.

38Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living;

for to him all of them are alive.”

         Saints are not just people who have died as martyrs, are not just the exceptionally good people, but are people like you and me.  And so we come to the third point.  The kingdom of this age offers us glory in our death for a good cause.  The heavenly kingdom offers us life eternal with people from all ages and with an eternal God.  Here is a mouthful.  It is hard to get our minds around being a good person like Mother Teresa or Saint Barbara.  It is hard to get our minds around living like angels and not being married to someone in eternal bliss of intimate relationship.  If those are hard to grasp, it is hard to imagine eternity.  Will we be sitting on a cloud, singing?  People in the choir may like that image.  Will we be like Clarence Oddbody trying to earn our wings as portrayed in It’s a Wonderful Life?  Perhaps it will be like the Chronicles of Narnia, “Higher up and higher in.”  We don’t know. But we do know we will be living.

         Jesus refers to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as people living in eternity and referenced by God to Moses at the burning bush.  This historical reference grounds his comments in Jewish history but also gives us a sense of historical continuity.  For many it is a comfort to think of reuniting with past family, friends, and meaningful others.  There is a hint that what we see through a glass dimly and don’t fully understand will, in the age to come, be understandable and communal.  Maybe you don’t long to meet Abraham or Moses but there is some other hero you would love to have a heavenly latte with.  That is a date I look forward to!

         Those three men also speak to saints.  Abraham is called “the father of the faith” and yet he lied and allowed his wife to be taken into the Pharaoh’s harem.  I would consider him flawed.  Isaac, the son of Abraham, was plagued with family problems.  His wife did not conceive and he lied about her.  Sibling rivalry between his twin sons, Jacob and Esau, is part of his fame.  He was flawed like us.  Then there is Jacob, the deceiver, who ran from his home having tricked his twin brother out of birthrights, only to be tricked on his wedding night by discovering the next morning the bride was the sister of his true love.  How humiliating.  His two wives and two concubines gave his 12 sons who became the tribes of Israel with colorful stories to match.  All these men were flawed.  They were not exceptionally good but exceptionally human, just like us, and had to trust God for their righteousness.

         The Kingdom of Heaven, future and present, is eternal life with people like us who are not exceptionally good but who become sinless by the work of God.  Heaven is made up of broken, incomplete people like us who need each other but who become whole because of the work of God.  Heaven is not a place and relationship God may walk out of some day and leave us feeling dead and used, but is a forever commitment to be together.  We don’t understand it but we trust and believe.

         Let us close by pondering for a moment the implications for our lives today.  We are the living saints. One of my favorite verses is Eph 2:8-9 that talks about being saved by grace but then continues to verse 10.

            8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your       own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no        one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ         Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way      of life.

We have been become children of the age to come, not because of our good works, but because God has good works prepared for us to do.  We do not do good works to earn the eternal but out of love for God who gifts us. We do good works, forgive, and go the extra mile because of God.  Today is All Saints Sunday, not only celebrating the work God did in lives of martyrs, in the lives of our beloved departed but also celebrating God’s work in our lives today.  To him be the glory.

Let the people of God say “Amen.”


20th Sunday after Pentecost: Insiders and Outsiders

October 23, 2022

First Reading: Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22

7Although our iniquities testify against us,
  act, O Lord, for your name’s sake;
 our apostasies indeed are many,
  and we have sinned against you.
8O hope of Israel,
  its savior in time of trouble,
 why should you be like a stranger in the land,
  like a traveler turning aside for the night?
9Why should you be like someone confused,
  like a mighty warrior who cannot give help?
 Yet you, O Lord, are in the midst of us,
  and we are called by your name;
  do not forsake us!

10Thus says the Lord concerning this people:
 Truly they have loved to wander,
  they have not restrained their feet;
 therefore the Lord does not accept them,
  now he will remember their iniquity
  and punish their sins.

19Have you completely rejected Judah?
  Does your heart loathe Zion?
 Why have you struck us down
  so that there is no healing for us?
 We look for peace, but find no good;
  for a time of healing, but there is terror instead.
20We acknowledge our wickedness, O Lord,
  the iniquity of our ancestors,
  for we have sinned against you.
21Do not spurn us, for your name’s sake;
  do not dishonor your glorious throne;
  remember and do not break your covenant with us.
22Can any idols of the nations bring rain?
  Or can the heavens give showers?
 Is it not you, O Lord our God?
  We set our hope on you,
  for it is you who do all this.

Psalm: Psalm 84:1-7

1How dear to me is your dwelling,  O Lord of hosts!
2My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the Lord;
  my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.
3Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest where she  may lay her young, by the side of your altars, O Lord of hosts, my   king and my God.
4Happy are they who dwell in your house!
  They will always be praising you. 
5Happy are the people whose strength is in you,
  whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.
6Those who go through the balsam valley will find it a place of  springs, for the early rains have covered it with |pools of water.
7They will climb from height to height,
  and the God of gods will be seen in Zion.

Second Reading: 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

6As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. 7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

16At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! 17But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. 18The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Gospel: Luke 18:9-14

9[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

CHILDREN’S SERMON

Today’s sermon tells a parable of two men, seemingly different from each other but in the Temple of God.  It made me think of the concept of yin-yang.  Share what you think yin and yang stand for with your neighbor.  Think of the picture of a circle with two tear drops of opposite colors hugging each other.

Wikipedia explains yin-yang like this, “Yin and yang (/jɪn/ and /jæŋ/) is a Chinese philosophical concept that describes opposite but interconnected forces. In Chinese cosmology, the universe creates itself out of a primary chaos of material energy, organized into the cycles of yin and yang and formed into objects and lives. Yin is the receptive and yang the active principle, seen in all forms of change and difference such as the annual cycle (winter and summer), the landscape (north-facing shade and south-facing brightness), sexual coupling (female and male), the formation of both men and women as characters and sociopolitical history (disorder and order).”

Let us pray.  Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, my Rock and my Redeemer.

SERMON

As we have traveled to Jerusalem this Pentecost we have heard parables about being invited to a banquet, people wanting the best seats, and people wanting to be excused due to home responsibilities.  We’ve looked at the rich man and Lazarus and the eternal line between heaven and hell.  Heavy stuff.  We’ve also seen ten lepers pleading for mercy and being healed and a poor widow, standing alone, seeking justice from an indifferent legal system.  Jesus assured us that the God of the universe does not deal with his chosen like that unjust judge who just wanted to silence the irritation.  We ended last Sunday saying, “Thank you, Lord!”  The kingdom of heaven is not like the kingdom of this world!  We are not objects of yin and yang to keep the cosmos balanced!

         Today Luke jumps right in to another parable as Jesus looks at his audience and realizes many are not taking his words personally and seriously.  Jesus talks about two men who have come to the Temple to seek God in prayer.  One is an “insider,” a religious man, part of the religious establishment.  This man was in the Jewish system but it could be you and I who are here today in God’s house, not visitors but members, bringing our souls into the light of God’s word.  The other man is an “outsider,” someone condemned by the system, a “sinner.”  We don’t know exactly what his sin was that weighed on his soul but he might have been a modern day IRS worker, or an ICE employee, a scared police person who shot too quickly, or maybe just a woman who had a teenage abortion and she still feels guilty.  We don’t know the specifics of these two people but we know that Jesus tells the parable to people like you and me, an audience.  On the surface, it looks like yin and yang but there is an underlying question of justification. Our text says,  

“Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”

Have you ever been tempted to think, “There but for the grace of God, go I,” as someone burdened with mishap passes you? The difference between saying that phrase and thanking God that you are not unfortunate like someone else, is dangerously close to the self righteous man in the parable. On the surface, it looks like our “insider” is praising and thanking God for all the blessings and good fortunes he has experienced.  But on closer inspection, it appears he is patting himself on the back while thanking God that he, the person, has made wise choices, invested wisely, tithed properly, raised good children and is leading a clean, respectable life. His eyes are looking at himself in comparison to others.  He is claiming self for his righteousness and not looking to God.  Maybe he is not a murderer but neither does he acknowledge his hate and envy and jealousy to another.  He has tried to do his best and love his neighbor as himself.  Still the focus is on his works, not God’s grace.  One of the pillars of the Reformation celebration next week will be “Grace Alone.”

         Like Job’s friends, it is also easy to assume that a person experiencing trouble, like the “outsider” standing on the fringes, has done something wrong or that when “the insider” experiences problems it is the “insider’s” own sin that needs to be dealt with.  Unfortunately most of us have those skeletons in our closet that we don’t want others to know about as we come to church.  I don’t know what was going on with our “insider” that drew him to the Temple but I do know that often I hold back the tears when I come to church.  Likewise it is easy for the evil one to convince me that I have offended God when life throws a curve.  God must be teaching me a lesson that I didn’t learn last round.  I beat myself up and blame myself.  When I get into this mind-set that is similar to our “insider”, I may not be praising God for how wonderful I am but I am equally looking at self for how miserable I am compared to others.

         Our text goes on to say, though, that our “insider” holds the other in contempt.  I may distain the downtrodden or I may distain the fortunate.  I can reason that they have pulled strings, have inherited money to invest, have been blessed with talents and looks not mine or any other reasons for their success and my failure.  It doesn’t matter.  I am playing the comparison game to gage my value to God.  The “insider” is not necessarily telling a lie.  Perhaps he is seeing himself correctly.  The problem is not his actions but that he looks at his works in comparison to other’s works to measure his relationship to God and uses his works to gage the actions of others.  He lives in a yin-yang world that does not account for the presence and interaction with God.

…standing far off…

Standing on the fringes of the Temple is our second person, our second man, “the outsider”.  He does not raise his voice in praise or thanksgiving for how wonderful he is but rather cries out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  Like the lepers, like the widow, this person realizes that without God, he is lost.  He needs mercy.  He needs God’s grace.  He has humbled himself to even enter the Temple.  He too is being honest but rather than looking at the black column in the social register, he sees the red column of his life.  His eyes are on only himself.  This guy reminds us of the Prodigal Son.  He too is one of God’s sons but has the moment of truth and knows he has just done life wrong.

Amazingly, though, the man does not repent and offer to pay back the people he has offended like Zaccheus.  He does not beg to be remembered in Paradise like the thief on the cross.  He does no remarkable deed indicating an unsuspected godly character like the Good Samaritan.  This man simply turns his eyes to God and cries “help, mercy” from the back of the church.  Jesus says that the “outsider,” not the “insider” goes home justified.  This is a very shocking parable that defies our understanding and highlights our tendency to depend on our faith rather than God’s grace and mercy. On what basis could this man be justified? Our incredulity points to our expectation that justification must somehow be connected to our lives, our works.  It is easy to reason that he has believed and so is justified.  Immediately faith becomes a works.  When my eyes shift from God to myself or others, I have stepped onto a slippery slope.

“…for all who exalt themselves will be humbled,

but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

         God works outside our boxes and our expectations.  He justifies “outsiders” who do not follow our religious paradigms for how salvation works.  The man did not accept Jesus as his savior.  He did not seem to repent.  We do not know that he changed his life.  We don’t know that he was even baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan.  All we know is that he threw himself on God’s mercy, acknowledging his own sinfulness and helplessness.  Parables only give us a glimpse into a slice of truth, not the whole truth.  This parable clearly reminds us that humility is how we understand ourselves in relation to God.  We are sinners.  Like the people at the banquet who did not wait for the host to assign their seating and were warned to be humble, Jesus again warns us to be humble.  God knows our lives and the big picture and will exalt us at the proper time.  God is infinitely merciful and full of grace.  Likewise God understands the challenges that the other person is facing and is able to work in ways we totally don’t expect. God is willing to bring into his family anyone, even people whom we might consider inappropriate.  May we not have wandering eyes and gage our value by others but fall on God’s grace.

Two Men-Two Kingdoms

         Through Pentecost this year we have been seeing through Luke’s eyes how Jesus differentiated between the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of heaven.  We stand in both kingdoms as we are born into this world and the cross opens entrance into the kingdom of heaven that is unseen but present, and yet to be revealed.  Our two men in the Temple are in God’s world, I would suggest they are like the two kingdoms we stand in rather than a yin-yang sort of division which sees me as in one or the other.

         As people living in the United States, it is sooooo easy to consider ourselves blessed, chosen, not like the impoverished countries of the Third World.  We think we are protected by our faith.  It is easy to become arrogant and distaining of others who are not wonderful like us.  We can stand in the center of the Temple thinking that God is focused on us and become arrogant.  We pat ourselves that we are not like the Baptist, having to build swimming pools in our churches.  We are not like Catholics, having to go to confession and say repentant prayers.  We as Americans have the right to life, liberty and freedom of speech and faith.  We are dangerously close to holding attitudes like the “insider.”

         The kingdom of this world creates hierarchies of riches, talents, power, education and so many other things by which we feel blessed to be part of and not like those “others.”  It may be possible to see how the “insider” is the one looking at this worldly kingdom that he belongs to and at the same time to subtly despise those others not as equally blessed with this world’s stuff.

         Meanwhile the “outsiders” who are immersed in war, famine, political intrigue and environmental chaos can only cry, “Lord, have mercy, we need help!”  Perhaps they would not call themselves “sinners” but because of the woes of the present, the blessings sometimes fade.  The Gospel touches their lives in different ways and they can speak to us if we are willing to listen.  The kingdom of God is not geographical but spiritual, composed of people who realize they are helpless without the grace of God and his mercy.

         Our God is so great!  He works with those “insiders” in the system, calling them through the Gospel, through music, through fellowship into deeper relationship with him.  He reminds them that they need not compare themselves to others to be valuable.  He sent Christ to die for them even when they were sinners and “outsiders” to his grace.  But it is also true that God’s boundless grace works to justify the “outsider” who stands on the fringes, pleading for mercy.  He hears their cry and sees their plight.  We are never outside his grace. He asks nothing but that we turn to him.  As we humble ourselves, he will exalt us at the right time and in the right way. Life is not about balance but about focus…on God!  Praise to his name!

Let the people of God say, “Amen.”