Listening for Advent’s Promises – Hope

This season before Christmas we’re focusing on the theme Listening for the Promise. Each week, we’ll explore different promises associated with Advent. Our readings this week speak of God’s promise of hope, and of what it means to live with hope in a world that seems to lack it.

hookeroak1940I’d like to tell you a story about a tree. This is a true story; perhaps some of you know it. A friend of mine was born and raised in Chico, California. He told me once about how the central landmark in the city was a gigantic oak tree — the “Hooker Oak,” named after English botanist Sir Joseph Hooker. It was said to be the biggest and oldest oak tree in the world. Tree experts said it was perhaps 400 years old, and the trunk was so thick it took seven or eight adults holding hands to get all the way around it. The beauty of that tree is deeply engraved in the psyche of anyone who ever lived in Chico. It was a symbol of stability, of strength. The closest parallel I can think of in our area would be the giant redwood trees at Sequoia or Yosemite.

Well, one day in 1977, in the middle of a rainstorm, Hooker Oak collapsed. Apparently its roots had been dead for some time, and in the pressure of a small storm, the tree just fell over. This was a severe shock to the community. The newspapers spoke of crowds going out to the park to see, of people openly weeping to see that centuries-old tree, which once reached its lofty branches to the heavens, now lying in the dirt.

What happened was natural, of course. Trees cut off from their roots die. They may look all right for quite a long time, but in the end they collapse. We see it each year with our Christmas trees, don’t we — trees that are so fragrant and green when we bring them into the house soon grow dry and brittle. We enjoy them for a while, and then they are cut up and tossed into the fire. And like Hooker Oak, they die because they have no roots. No matter how diligently we keep water in the stand, the truth of the matter is that the tree is already dead when we bring it inside.

The prophet Isaiah used the image of a tree to say something about the Messiah. His image was a powerful one, so powerful that it was used by John the Baptist, by Jesus himself, and then by the church. I suppose we don’t often think of trees as a major Biblical image, but there are two kinds of trees mentioned fairly often. One is the cedar, a tree that was bountiful in Israel, in the mountainous area of Lebanon. These majestic “cedars of Lebanon” were used to build Solomon’s temple — the best wood available in the ancient world.

The other kind of tree mentioned often is the oak. This grew primarily in the southern kingdom, Judah. Under an oak tree Abraham first built an altar to God. And the people of Judah were every bit as proud of their majestic oaks as were the people of Israel of their “cedars of Lebanon.”

These two trees symbolized the greatness these two nations — much as we sing about our “purple mountain majesties” in this land “from sea to shining sea.”

In the time of Isaiah, Israel and Judah had just passed through a time of great prosperity, but were entering a time of turmoil and distress. The powerful Assyrian Empire was arising in the north; and according to the prophets, God was using Assyria as an instrument to punish Israel and Judah for their sins.

Isaiah pulls no punches in describing those sins: the people are haughty and proud, they spend lots of time and money on armaments and weapons, they refuse to trust God. They worship God with noisy ceremonies, but their hearts are not clean.

Because of all this, Isaiah says, God will punish these two kingdoms. Isaiah makes his point by speaking of those beautiful trees:

The Lord of hosts, has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up and high, against all the cedars of Lebanon, lofty and lifted up; and against all the oaks of Bashan. (2:12-13)

The Lord of hosts will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the tallest trees will be cut down, and the lofty will be brought low. He will hack down the thickets of the forest with an axe, and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall. (10.33-34)

And the haughtiness of people shall be humbled, and the pride of everyone shall be brought low, and the Lord alone will be exalted on that day. (2.17)

Well, you can imagine that Isaiah’s words didn’t go over very well with the people, but that didn’t stop John the Baptist from using the same images. When he began preaching, he warned that all the splendor of Israel was about to come crashing down. “Repent,” he cried. “Change your hearts and minds.” “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Both Isaiah and John were making the same point. As a tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and destroyed, so will God cut down his people if their fruit is not good. The fruit God requires is justice and mercy, not pride and haughtiness; it is love and kindness, not arrogance and power.

That is a message that we, too, need to hear in this season. We need to hear it always, but especially in this season. We so often get carried away by our celebration. We spend more, and party more, and go on a binge of extravagance as we buy gifts for those who really need very little. But those who really need our love and our gifts — well, we plunk a quarter in the Salvation Army pot and hope they’ll buy a turkey with it for some family.

Others will huddle in the cold, and have peanut butter for Christmas; we will be warm and cozy with our families and gather with joy around our beautiful Christmas tree.

In a way, I suppose, that tree is an apt symbol for us. That tree, which we make so beautiful, is dead. It is still green, and we make it beautiful to look at, but it is dead. How often we are like that — outwardly beautiful, but inwardly dead. How often we are filled with Christmas spirit that feasts on Santa and sleighbells, but neglects a poor and hungry child, born in a manger because there was no room in the inn.

Isaiah’s message, John’s message — they are difficult! I don’t imagine they’d qualify as a “Hallmark moment.” Can you imagine sending out a card like this

During this Christmas season, the Schoonover family wishes you and yours the very best wishes captured by John the Baptist: “REPENT!! Bear fruit worthy of repentance!”

I can’t imagine Thomas Kinkade has painted very many paintings featuring John the Baptist in the wilderness. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m guessing he focuses on other subjects.

The message from Isaiah and John say that God has definite ideas about how we should live, and his ideas call for justice, mercy, love, kindness, humility, faith. If our lives don’t include those things, they say, God cuts us down — cuts down everything that is high and lifted up, everything that is proud and haughty. “Even now,” John cries, “the axe is laid to the root of the tree.”

So where is the hope? After all, that’s what I promised a few minutes ago when I said:

Our readings this week speak of the promise of hope; of what it means to live with hope in a world that seems to lack it.

These harsh words of Isaiah’s and John’s contain a promise. I told you about mighty Hooker Oak, but I didn’t tell you the best part. Passersby who went later to see where the tree had fallen, found that right in the middle of the rubble was a little sprout, reaching up from the ground. That’s the way oak trees are. When one dies, one or more new saplings grow in its place.

And that is what Isaiah said.

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him. . . . With righteousness he shall judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek of the earth. (11.1,4)

Out of the dead stump, a shoot. Out of seemingly dead roots, new life! From death comes resurrection! That’s what Isaiah promised. That’s what God delivered in Bethlehem: the righteous branch. Our friend St. Paul picks up the theme:

The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the nations, and in him shall the nations hope. (Romans 15.12)

For in Christ, we find our hope.

When we look to the world for signs of hope, we come away disappointed. For the world is too full of despair, like mall shootings, to provide the hope we need.

When we look to our own feelings for signs of hope, we come away disappointed. For our feelings are fickle. They change depending on the dinner we had last night, or the circumstances in which we find ourselves, or the experiences we had growing up. None of these are a very stable foundation for our hope.

When we look to others to be a sign of hope, we come away disappointed. For no matter how well others behave, at some point we’ll be let down. No matter how consistently I’ll try to behave as a parent, one of the first phrases I’ve had to teach my children is “Daddy goofed.” Human consistency or dependability is a poor foundation on which to rest our hopes.

That’s why scripture proclaims a consistent message that God is the source and ground of our hope.

Trust in the Lord forever, for in the Lord God you have an everlasting rock. (Isaiah 26:4)

And

The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, my God, my rock in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. (Psalm 18:2)

And

Lord, you are Israel’s hope; all who abandon you will be put to shame. They will disappear like names written in the dust, because they have abandoned you,the Lord, the spring of fresh water. (Jeremiah 17:13)

The gospel message this Advent is one of judgment, a declaration that God will cut down the proud and arrogant, those who care only for themselves and not for the needy, and that God will do some serious pruning in our lives.

But it is also a message of hope, a message about a righteous branch, the sprout that comes from dead roots. We know God can, in this marvelous season, cut from us that which is not pleasing to him, and in its place put new life, a new branch, a branch of righteousness and love. We know that God can, and we know that God will, as God has promised.

May it be so for us as well. Amen

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Listening for Advent’s Promises – Jesus is Coming!

Someone-Is-Watching-560x374This season before Christmas we’re focusing on the theme Listening for the Promises. Each week, we’ll explore a different aspect of the promises God gives us surrounding the birth of Jesus. Our readings this week speak of a promise, and they tell of how we who follow Jesus are to live as we await the fulfillment of this promise.

The picture Isaiah paints of this promise is grand:

 In the days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains. (2.1)

This is no mere sanctuary renovation project of reorienting altars and rearranging pews. By no means; this is major earth moving! The mountain of the Lord’s house is the Temple Mount, not a very high hill in Jerusalem. But the promise is that God will do a marvelous, miraculous thing:  God will make this Temple Mount the highest mountain in the area.

But there’s more:

All the nations shall stream to it. Many 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.” (2.2-3)

God established Israel to be a light to the nations. God blessed Abraham and Sarah and their children so that they could be a blessing in the world (Gen 12.2ff). And the promise from Isaiah is that, finally, they will accomplish this purpose. All the nations will come to Jerusalem, to learn about God and to follow God’s teachings.

But there’s even more:

[God] 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. (2.4)

What a grand vision!

God, not human rulers, will judge between the nations, and as a result, true peace will come between peoples. The image for this will be that implements of war will be recycled into farm implements, and the nations will take a page from our Mennonite sisters and brothers and learn peacemaking.

What a grand vision!

And based on the newspaper headlines, oh how far we are from seeing that grand vision realized!! Sure, we had an agreement with Iran last week over reported limits on their nuclear program, but I don’t hear any swords – or uranium centrifuges – being beaten into plowshares. While it’s true that we are drawing down our forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, I don’t think that qualifies as nations not lifting up sword against other nations or not learning how to prosecute war any more.

Matthew reveals another aspect of this promise in our Gospel reading this morning. Jesus is speaking to his followers on the Mount of Olives, that place where Jewish tradition said Messiah would come in glory to rid Jerusalem of its oppressors. There, Jesus tells his friends that he, the Son of Man, would return ‘at an unexpected hour’ (v. 44). In fact, he’ll return at a time only God knows.

The spiritual challenge, of course, is that we might miss Jesus’ return. Jesus tells his followers that his return will be like the days of Noah. The people will be focusing on their every day lives – nothing inherently wrong or evil about that. But we’ll be distracted by our everyday cares and we’ll miss Jesus’ return.

How do we stay awake? How do we keep alert?

After all, the first disciples believed Jesus would return before very long at all; certainly before they died. But he didn’t. It’s been nearly 2000 years, and he’s still not back yet.

How do we keep alert for his coming as we wait?

It’s not a matter of figuring out what day he’ll return; Jesus is clear that no one knows that date. It can’t be discerned by reading tea leaves or decoding parts of the Bible. The promise we have this Advent season shows us another way, a gospel way:

First, it’s not really helpful to become anxious about any of these questions. You do not know on what day your Lord is coming, says Jesus, and for Christians that’s the watchword for thinking about all these things. We do not know, cannot know. We face a good deal of life with that attitude, don’t we? There’s an old prayer, said to be of Scottish origin, which expresses this well:

We know not what a day may bring forth, but only that the hour for serving Thee is always nigh.

Second, the gospel way of approaching life is based on trust. It keeps coming back to this, doesn’t it? In all the mysteries of life, all the joys and sorrows, the challenges and rewards, the life of faith is a life of trust. I don’t know who said it originally, but you’ve no doubt heard it:

I know not what the future holds, but I know Who holds the future.

The Christian lives in trust, knowing that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

And third, the gospel way of approaching life settles for living the challenge of this moment. Paul’s advice is just right here:

Let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom 13.13-14)

There is enough to think about in living for Christ this day. There are enough challenges here and now. We take one step at a time, and that’s how we meet the future.

There’s a funny little thing going around on the Internet, and while it is part urban legend, it actually is based on something true. Back in 1976 an English graduate student named Graham Rawlinson demonstrated a remarkable thing about reading. He showed that as long as the first two and the last two letters of a word are correct, the letters in the middle can be scrambled just about any way and a reader will still be able quite easily to interpret the word.

It’s an interesting linguistic phenomenon, but it has a great symbolic meaning as well. For Christians, life is like this. We know the beginning that God loved the world so much he sent his Son; and we know the end that the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. The stuff in between may be jumbled and confused; it may appear to be utterly random and unintelligible. But when we know the beginning and the end, we really have all we need to know. We can read it, understand it. It somehow makes sense, in spite of the confusion. In the darkness of the world, there is a light, and the light is Christ. This is the light that is coming; may it come unto us as well. Amen

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How Do We Live with Dying?

Do you have a “bucket list?”
What’s on your bucket list?
Country singer Tim McGraw sings about one such a list
	in his song, Live Like You Were Dying.
It’s full of fun things like skydiving and bull riding
	and Rocky Mountain climbing.
But it also includes some more serious aspects like
	loving more deeply and speaking more sweetly,
	extending forgiveness more freely, 
	and being a better friend and husband.
I know I’d want to spend more time with my family
	and maybe do some traveling.
What would be on your bucket list?

Our focus today is pretty straightforward:
How do we live with dying? Death is a difficult subject for us to deal with. There was a time in this country when most people died at home, surrounded by loved ones. More often these days we have shut ourselves off from death by having people die in hospitals or nursing homes, by having funeral homes be in charge of the dead body, by having the dead person look like they are alive, so that death no longer seems real, nor part of the human experience of life. Death is a subject we reserve for funerals, but not for everyday living. And yet . . . we don’t have to look very far to see death and dying all around us. Veteran’s Day – a time to remember and celebrate the sacrifice members of our armed services have made for us. Death stares us right in the face, although our focus may be more on the freedom they’ve defended or the country in which we live. Members our church who have died this year. Their funeral services remind us how fleeting life is for us. And yet our focus may be more on the family members left behind. Afghanistan . . . the Middle East . . . and most recently
the incredible destruction of the typhoon in the Philippines;
even our own family relationships.
Whether near or far,
death stares us right in the face, but we can do a pretty good job denying and avoiding this reality. How do we live with dying? It may be that we don’t. Maybe we avoid it in ways symbolized by the phrase Life is short, so eat dessert first! In other words, eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. We often deny death by our lifestyle and choices. We live as if can do anything we want because in the end, we all die, and it really doesn’t matter anyhow. Or perhaps, we live with dying in ways symbolized by Eeyore, the donkey in Winnie the Pooh. I think Eeyore is perpetually clinically depressed. Everything is always doom and gloom. There’s never any joy or spontaneity in his life. Even when things are going well, he’s always on the lookout for when it’s going to get bad again. How do we live with dying? I think our ancestor in faith Martin Luther shows us another way. When asked what he’d do if he knew the world would end the next day, Luther is reported to have said, “Plant an apple tree.” In other words, don’t let tomorrow’s possibility paralyze us into inactivity. There is ministry for us to do that needs to be done today, no matter what else might happen tomorrow. How do we live with dying? We live in the shadow of a resurrection promise. Jesus’ encounter with the Sadducees gives us some direction.
The Sadducees came to Jesus in order to trick him –
at this late stage of Jesus’ ministry, the leaders are trying to come up with enough evidence to have Jesus killed. The Sadducees were a group of religious leaders who didn’t believe in the resurrection at all. They only read the first five books of the Old Testament and they only believed the teachings they could find there. In Jesus’ day, teachings about the resurrection came from later books in the like Daniel and from teachings imported into Judaism during the exile in Babylon in the 6th century BC. Socially, there were also members of the upper class, so they had a vested interest to believe in the here and now, where God blessed the faithful and punished the wicked. Notions of an afterlife where there might be a reversal of fortune like the one Jesus taught didn’t sit very well. And so the Sadducees ask an absurd question about an absurd family situation involving 7 brothers and one wife. The Sadducees already knew what their answer was – since there is no resurrection, it really doesn’t matter which husband is hers because they won’t be together any way. As he so often does, though, Jesus takes a question from left field,tweaks it and then throws it back in the faces of the questioner to point out the more important issue. Jesus did this in his encounter with the lawyer
and the parable of the Good Samaritan.
The Lawyer asked: "Who is my neighbor?"
as a way of trying to limit the definition,
to make clear who was inside and who was outside
the lawyers sphere of care and compassion.
Jesus answered: "Who acted neighborly?"
clarifying that it wasn't important who you cared for,
what was important was how you behaved.
That was the more important question. Here, Jesus responds to the absurd question about marriage in the resurrection and tells them the big deal isn’t about family values in heaven. The big deal is look what kind of God we have – a God of the living, who raises to new life those who believe in Jesus. How do we live with dying? Well, no matter what our circumstances, we live in the shadow of this resurrection promise. As a result, we believe that this world’s priorities are not our priorities. We live lives that are focused differently. Money has new meaning. How we spend our time has new meaning. We live with a purpose that God has given us, not our bosses or the world or media advertisers. Our goals and concerns are not necessarily the world’s goals and concerns. The trivia of this life looses its importance, but the values, the important things take on added meaning. I am assured of heaven, and because of that assurance, I live differently, I live for God, I respond to God with my entire being. I rejoice in life as a celebration to the new life for eternity. We also believe that the seven last words of this church are NOT We’ve never done it that way before. One church leader, Bill Easum, spoke once of the three greatest sins of the church. One of them is that

We’re more in love with our traditions
than we are with our missions. If we are intent on preserving the patterns of church life
with which we’ve grown comfortable, we’ll soon discover
that God has moved on and left us behind. God is always out there ahead of us, leading us into the future, and if we want to be working hand in hand with God, we have to be willing to ask the right questions. Not, What can we do to preserve what we find comfortable?” but “What can we do to be partners with God in mission?” The first question leads to a church that is dead and declining; the second to a church that is alive and dynamic. The same is true in our personal lives as well. How often we settle for what’s comfortable instead of what is true and life-giving. It takes no effort, demands no sacrifice,
involves no risk t
o simply go along with what the world says is important at any moment. It takes no courage, no commitment, no faith to just go on doing what we’ve always been doing. To go on working 60- and 70-hour weeks to provide for our family’s material comfort, but watch our families go down the drain because we’re too busy working to be present for them.
How crazy is that?!?
It’s easier even to live with our addictions and compulsions than it is to confront and overcome them. Healing is hard work, and frequently, it is very painful work. Yet without the willingness to get out of the comfort zone, healing cannot come.
The poet T. S. Eliot in his poem “The Wasteland,” calls April the “cruelest month,” because the showers of April stir up the dull and dormant roots of trees and flowers to begin bursting forth with new life instead of allowing them to remain comfortably asleep in the frozen ground of winter. Yet the sleep of tree roots and flower bulbs is the sleep of hibernation, not of rest. Trees were meant to put out green leaves; tulips were meant to push up through the soil and produce beautiful blossoms. You and I are also meant to grow, to mature, to blossom, not to hibernate in the frozen sleep of habit or tradition or familiarity. Paul says that we were meant to grow until we attain to the full height of the stature of Christ (Eph 4.13). And that’s often the point of our fear. We’re more afraid of change, of growth, than we are of becoming stuck in our present level of spiritual development. Better a comfortable rut than the risks of the journey. Yet our God is a God of the living, not of the dead. God is always there nudging us to get out of our ruts, to leave false comfort and security behind, and to take the risks of faith by following him into the future. The future is only frightening if God is not there ahead of us. If God is there, then what do we have to fear? What looks from our angle like a risky business – growing, moving on, living by faith rather than by sight – from another angle is the safest of all possible places to be: in God’s company. Amen
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God of Refuge, God of Strength

Choosing a “Base”

hide and seekI enjoy watching my younger daughter, Amy, on the playground at the park or in our backyard. She loves to play chase and hide and go seek with her cousins or with new friends she makes at the park. Often, though she needs to create a “base” — a refuge / place of safety when the game gets too intense. Base might be a bench, or a post, or a picnic table; and the best base is usually one that is close to where we are sitting. There’s something comforting about being able to see and touch Mom or Dad.

harley-bar-with-harleyEven as adults, we seek such a place of refuge. Often, our homes – or a room in our house – serve this purpose. Walking in the neighborhood I see men in their “man caves” – their finished garages – watching TV and drinking a favorite cold beverage. Such a perfect refuge from the busyness and uncertainty of daily life!

There’s no doubt about it – we live in tumultuous times:

  • economic woes associated with slow recovery from the recession (and more recently, from the government shutdown);
  • school shootings earlier this week in Sparks, NV, and Danvers, MA;
  • on Wednesday, pirates captured two Americans off the coast of Nigeria;
  • on Thursday, an earthquake (7.3 Richter scale) rocked Japan;
  • more car bombs in Bagdad and Mosul; and
  • dealing with a pastoral transition here, all the natural uncertainty.

Closer to home, we know what it’s like to get a sudden word from the doctor (“The test results indicate something’s not right.”), or the boss (“We are downsizing the department; today’s your last day.”), or our spouse (“I love you, but I’m not in love with you any more.”), or the pastor (“I don’t like how things are going, so I’m leaving.”), and suddenly, the foundation of our life has given way, and it feels like we’re in a free-fall, with nothing to hang onto.

Few of us like to live with uncertainty, but that’s the condition in which we find ourselves right now. Given that, there’s something very appealing and life-giving about God being our refuge and strength. But what might this mean for us today?

A God of Refuge

Hear again the words of the psalmist:

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. (46.1)

Perhaps you caught it, but just when, exactly, is God our “refuge and strength”? Only when things are going well and we are happy? Only when our faith life is humming along and we are feeling close to God? No, God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. There are two encouraging words to me – and perhaps to you as well – in this statement:

First, our faith doesn’t magically protect us from experiencing trouble. Perhaps you’ve heard others suggest – or even claim outright – that since becoming a Christian, life should be filled with nothing but sunshine and roses. Now, maybe that’s been your experience, but it’s not been mine. Individually and as a family, we’ve had wonderful seasons of joy, and we’ve had painful seasons of loss and disappointment, and even times when we’ve simply scratched our heads and wondered what in the world is going to happen next. The words of the psalmist suggest to me that our faith gives us no guarantee that sadness or disappointment or grief or persecution or challenges of some kind won’t cross our threshold.  The words of the psalmist suggest to me that we will face one or more of these things at some point in our life.

SafeExitAnd that leads me to the second encouraging word: God doesn’t hesitate, but rather, God enters into our trouble, joining us in the challenging, dangerous and lonely places life takes us. For God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. The words of the psalmist suggest to me that  God doesn’t use challenging or painful times to punish us. God is our very present help in trouble, not a prosecuting attorney or a superior court judge. Through Jesus, God is “Immanuel” – “God with us” (Mt 1:23). In the waters of baptism and the bread and wine of communion, God enters into our lives in a touchable and tangible way creating a base for us that grounds us in faith and connects us to each other and to God in a bond of love that nothing in this life can ever break. Isn’t that what the apostle Paul tells the believers in Rome:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 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.    (Rom 8:38–39)

What does this mean for us? The psalmist points the way here:

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. (46:2–3)

For those of us who are children of the Reformation, you see, the ups and downs of life, the world events that seem threatening, the personal troubles that shake us to our foundation – ­none of these things can make us afraid because God is our refuge and strength . . .The Lord of hosts is with us.

A God of Strength

Ours is a God of refuge; but also, a God of strength.

Arnold-SchwarzeneggerPerhaps this conjures up for you an image of God who is like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his earlier days: someone with huge, bulging biceps, legs as thick as tree trunks and chiseled, six-pack abs. (Me, I don’t have six-pack abs, I have beer-keg abs!) Well, to be sure, God’s strength is sometimes demonstrated in larger than life miracles: the creation of the world (Gen 1-2); the Exodus – 10 plagues and the parting of the Red Sea (Ex 4-15); the prophet Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel (1 Ki 18); and the blessing of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2), to name just a few.

But ironically, God’s strength is known as often in weakness as it is in miraculous powers. God’s saving power was revealed first, in Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross. Yes, Jesus was later vindicated through God’s power revealed in his resurrection. But God’s strength is revealed through both weakness and power. This paradox continues with God’s disciples even to this day. Hear the apostle Paul, again; this time, in his first letter to the Corinthians:

26 Consider 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. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God. (1:26–29)

Throughout God’s entire relationship with humans, God has consistently chosen to work through people on the fringes of society, the nobodies, the have-nots; average, ordinary people like you and me. God does this so that the fruits of our work cannot be traced back to us, to our smarts or our energy or our proficiency, but rather, to the Holy Spirit at work in us and working through us.

God’s strength reminds us that we are dependent on God. That God is the “just justifier” (according to our reading from Romans) of those who have faith in Jesus. In our reading from Romans, God’s strength reminds us that God is the actor, making us right through Jesus’ atoning sacrifice, not through anything you or I could ever do. Our only response is to be thankful and to live out our gratitude in lives of loving service and witness. We are freed from the power of sin, death and the devil as a gift from our living and loving God. We are freed for a life of ministry that demonstrates God’s loving and forgiving presence in the world.  This freedom means we do not need to be afraid. The Lord of hosts is with us. Our God of refuge, our God of strength. Amen

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A Surprising Faith

JackInTheBoxWhen you’re a child, a wind up jack in the box
can provide a marvelous surprise. Turn the crank around and around, and pretty soon the top pops open and good ole Jack jumps up. Giggles and laughter abound! Surprise!!

As we get older the surprises may not come quite as easily. For instance, it doesn’t take too long to become a pretty good Christmas or birthday gift guesser. A little shake, a gentle squeeze, and you can tell whether that gift from Aunt Myrtle is a book or a sweater or a package of boxers. With a little more practice, you can even tell whether the small box from your boyfriend is a diamond ring . . . or a Target gift card.

As we get older, it may take more to surprise us. Maybe the congregational president announcing the pastor’s retirement, or the somber news of a doctor bearing test results, or a spouse telling you they want a divorce, or a visit from the boss telling you your position has been eliminated.

Surprise?!

To be sure, surprises can come in all different shapes and sizes.

Near the end of the nineteenth century, Dr. Charles Eliot was the president of Harvard University. In the spring of 1885, a humble-looking couple from California showed up in his office. The only reason he agreed to see them was because the man had recently been elected to the U.S. Senate. But, after all, California wasn’t a very important state
in the late nineteenth century.

The couple told Dr. Eliot that their only son had died of typhoid fever a year earlier.
It had been his dream to attend Harvard University. They wanted to build some memorial to their son at the university. “What did you have in mind?” Dr. Eliot asked. The husband responded, “Is there a building that is needed?” Dr. Eliot sized them up as a kindly but naive couple. He said, “It costs a great deal of money to build what we need. You may want to consider endowing a chair in honor of your son. I suggest that you go and talk to our academic dean.”

The meeting was over. Dr. Eliot stood up. But before leaving the president’s office, the wife asked, “How much would it cost to duplicate this entire university in another part of the United States and endow it so that students wouldn’t have to pay tuition?” Eliot was astounded by the question. After a moment, he said, “I suppose it would take $5 million.”
The husband and wife looked at each other and said, “Well, we could manage that, couldn’t we?” Before Dr. Eliot could recover, the couple was gone.

Can you imagine how surprised Dr. Eliot was to find that a year later the couple had begun plans to start a university in that not so very important state in honor of their son?
The couple had donated their entire estate and another $20 million to endow
Leland Stanford Junior University. Surprise!!

Perhaps our past experiences — our ability to guess at the contents of holiday packages
and our ever higher threshold for being surprised — causes us to hear our readings from scripture today without pausing a beat. After all, what could really be surprising from the Bible?!

Our readings today remind us of something very important:

Faith in God through Jesus Christ
causes some surprising things to happen.

This surprising faith drives us to our knees in worship and praise. This surprising faith compels us to share what God so freely and generously gives us first.

Our reading from 2 Timothy has something to say about the nature of this surprising faith.
In the middle of this reading, we have what scholars believe is a quote from an early Christian hymn. Listen again to what Paul writes,

If we have died with Christ, we will also live with him;
If we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful –
for he cannot deny himself.    2 Tim 2.11-13

Did the ending of that surprise you? The rhythm of the first three stanzas would expect us to hear the hymn to say in its final stanza:

If we are faithless, God will reject our faithlessness.

But instead, it contains an astonishing reversal:

If we are faithless, he remains faithful —
for he cannot deny himself. (v.13)

Surprise!

In the economy of this world, we understand the notion of getting what we deserve. We tend to like those who like us, and to not hang out with those we don’t like. It would make sense to think that God works the same way. And yet, our surprising faith says something different:

If we are faithless, God remains faithful — for he cannot deny himself.

God continues to offer forgiveness and salvation even when you and I are unfaithful. Why? Because God cannot be untrue to his divine word or unfaithful to him own character. Paul reminds us of this in his letter to the Romans:

What if some were unfaithful?
Will their faithlessness nullify
the faithfulness of God? By no means!
Romans 3:3-4a

It is God’s nature to love. This passage from 2 Timothy reminds us that God cannot deny his own nature as holy love. For this reason he sent his Son as a ransom for all. Even if we disbelieve, God still keeps on offering to us this grace. If we pretend that God is not, it isn’t possible for God to go along with our pretense. When we are faithless to God, the only effect that can have is to once again underscore God’s own faithfulness.

Now, we may hear these words of Paul’s and think,

Hey, that’s cool; I can do anything I want and
God’s still gotta love me and be faithful to me!

If we would think to take advantage of God this way, it shows that this surprising faith hasn’t captured our heart or made a difference in our lives. A better response from us would be the example of the healed leper in Luke’s Gospel.

In Luke 17, Jesus meets 10 lepers as he entered a village along the boundary between Samaria and Galilee. That Jesus encountered sick people who wanted healing is not so surprising. That Jesus healed the sick lepers who came to him is not so surprising. That one came back to say thank you – now that’s a little surprising, since Jesus had instructed them to present themselves to the priests.

That the one who came back was a Samaritan, a “foreigner” – now there’s a bigger surprise. That a non-Jew would recognize in Jesus something that would cause him to prostrate himself; really, to worship Jesus as God; that’s amazing! And yet, this whole section of Luke’s Gospel (17.11-19.27) is full of such surprising faith examples:

Here, we have a leper, a Samaritan, and a foreigner who recognizes Jesus as divine.

In 18.1-8 Jesus tells a story of a widow whose persistence is a model of surprising faith.

In 18.9-14 Jesus tells the story of a tax collector who, because of his repentance and humility, is a model of surprising faith compared to the example of the so-called
‘religious’ elders of the community.

In 18.15-17 infants and little children are examples of this surprising faith, as Jesus bids his followers to let them come to him.

In 18.35ff a blind beggar has better spiritual sight than those around Jesus, for his surprising faith helps him trust that Jesus will heal him of his blindness.

In 19.1-10 another tax collector named Zachaeus, demonstrates a surprising faith by promising Jesus he would restore the fortunes of those he’d defrauded by donating half of his wealth and paying back four-fold those he’s ripped off. Amazing!

So what are we to make of all of this? What impact on our lives can we expect this surprising faith to have for us?

Clearly, this surprising faith changes us. The lives of the people Jesus touched
didn’t remain the same. Jesus met them where they were; he didn’t expect the lepers to do anything before he healed them. In fact, they weren’t healed until they had already begun
to go to show themselves to the priests. But neither was their healing conditional
on what they did later; the nine who didn’t return to give thanks to Jesus didn’t come down with leprosy again. They were still healed.

But once their lives were touched by Jesus, nothing was the same again. Do we see that in our own lives as well?

Rabbi Harold Kushner writes in his book, Who Needs God:

Religion is not primarily a set of beliefs,
a collection of prayers or a series of rituals.
Religion is first and foremost a way of seeing.
It can’t change the facts about the world we live in,
but it can change the way we see those facts,
and that in itself can often make a difference.

Through the eyes of surprising faith, we see that God acts first. We also discover that our proper response to God’s actions is praise and thanksgiving.

God didn’t tell the Israelites in Egypt, “If you only had enough faith, I would lead you to the promised land.” God led them out of slavery to Canaan. And the people praised God on the banks of the Reed Sea. God didn’t tell us, “If you only had enough faith, I would send Jesus to suffer and die for your sins.” It was because our faith wasn’t enough that God sent us Jesus. As Paul tells the church in Rome:

God proves his love for us in that while we
still were sinners Christ died for us.
Romans 5:8

Luther’s explanation of the first Article of the Apostles’ Creed captures the essence of this surprising faith and our proper response. Luther writes,

I believe that God has created me and all that exists.
God has given me and still preserves
my body and soul with all their powers.
God provides me with food and clothing,
home and family, daily work,
and all I need from day to day.
God also protects me in time of danger
and guards me from every evil.
All this God does out of fatherly and divine
goodness and mercy, though I do not deserve it.
Therefore I surely ought to thank and praise,
serve and obey God.

God has created everyone, and many (and most Americans) have food and clothing, home and family, daily work, and all that they need from day to day. God protects believers and non-believers alike in times of danger and guards them from evil. None of us deserves this, yet God’s “fatherly and divine goodness and mercy” touches each of us. How are believers different from the rest of humanity? We are like the one leper. We recognize God’s hand in the good that we have. We respond with thanks and praise to God through Jesus. We respond by serving and obeying God through Jesus.

God doesn’t wait for us to have enough faith. God acts first. God’s actions are to lead us to a faithful response. And even when our initial response isn’t one of faith, God remains faithful, because that is God’s nature.

The rest of the world may be like the nine lepers. They have been graced by God in many ways, but they don’t recognize the source of such blessings. They don’t offer the proper thanks and praise through Jesus.

Perhaps we might think about it this way: It happened one day that a farmer from the country was in town to do some business. He stopped at a drive-in restaurant to get a bit to eat. As was his custom, before he ate, he bowed his head and gave a word of thanks to God.

There were some others in the restaurant whose manners weren’t quite so refined. They saw him praying, so in jest they asked him, “Does everybody where you’re from pray before eating?” The farmer looked up and said, “Nope. There are some who don’t. We call them pigs and they just dig right in.”

At the end of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan ex-leper, Jesus told him,

Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.
Luke 17.19

“Made you well” is a rather weak translation; better it seems to me is your faith has saved you. Salvation for the Samaritan meant that his life was changed. It was not something he did for himself, but it was a miracle that came from God. His focus, his seeing, his perspective was forever changed. Salvation for us means that our lives are changed. It is not something that we do for ourselves, but it is a miracle that comes from God. Our focus, our seeing, our perspective is forever changed. You and I care called to live out that change with lives of service and obedience to God.

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Back from Sabbatical

ImageI’m baaaaaaack!

I spent the past four months on sabbatical finishing my Doctor of Ministry dissertation in the Leadership and Spiritual Formation program at George Fox Seminary. It was an exhausting, exhilarating, challenging, growthful experience that I enjoyed deeply – and am glad to have behind me!

Finishing this project, however, left me little brain bandwidth to maintain this site. But now I’m back, and I will start posting twice weekly reflections on some of the leadership and ministry themes from my DMin work, as well as sermon thoughts for those weeks I’m in the pulpit. I’ve got lots of thoughts about being a missional Lutheran rumbling around in my head, and I’m interested to know what is percolating in your spirit as well.

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Our Response to the Gospel – Acts 2.22-41; John 8.48-59

Slide1When the Gospel message of God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ touches our hearts, it creates a response in us. The two arrows on the picture on the right represent this choice: one arrow going up toward God, the other arrow moving us sideways, away from God.

Do you remember the first time you heard about Jesus?

I first heard about Jesus when I was a junior in High School. I played clarinet in the Band and Orchestra during high school; my friend Jan played piano and bassoon, and she was my piano accompanist at various solo and ensemble contests. She suggested that we play special music at her church, and I thought that was a great idea. Any chance I could get to hang out with Jan, and to play music, was a “win-win” situation!

Youth group took place after evening service where we often played, and I started going with her. I remember one night during the winter of that Junior year, sitting on the floor of the church basement, listening to the youth pastor, Dennis, describe simply and clearly the brokenness that sin creates in each of us, and the wholeness that comes through the forgiveness Jesus offers us in his life, death and resurrection.

Now, I was raised in a great family; I was blessed with good parents that passed on to me their values and morals. I didn’t lack for anything that was important. But I understood from what Dennis said that night that something was still missing in my life, and that God would provide that missing piece for me if I wanted it. It wasn’t at all hard to respond with “I want that” at the end of Dennis’ talk.

There have been times in my life when my response to the gospel has been more reluctant or resistant. The consequence of that desire to follow Jesus has brought both joy and sorrow at times. Joys of entering into people’s lives in a meaningful way. Sorrow of having to leave when God calls me elsewhere. Joy at getting to walk with folks as they discover the gospel’s gift of new life and restored hope. Sorrow associated with leaving Fresno, first in the 80s, and again in the 90s. Challenge of leaving the ELCA in 2011 because of my own heartache with the direction that community was taking. In many respects, it would have been easier to stay where we were.

When the Gospel message of God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ touches our hearts, it creates a response in us. The prophet Isaiah speaks of the power of God’s word when he says,

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (55.10-11, ESV)

Our readings today highlight the two frequent responses we humans have to the gospel: upward, towards God; and sideways, away from God.

Peter’s sermon in Acts 2, and the work of the Holy Spirit, engender an upward response toward God.

The believers and the Jewish pilgrims to Jerusalem have just experienced God’s outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the early church. They’ve heard the disciples speaking in the different languages of the world, even though all of the disciples at this point are from Israel and shouldn’t know any of those languages. Clearly, something is up; something unusual and cosmic in scope.

Peter’s words pierced their hearts. In his sermon, Peter drew the connection between God and Jesus, showing how God worked through Jesus to heal humanity’s sin. He pointed out how the Jewish leaders had killed him, but how God had overpowered even death by raising Jesus from the tomb. Peter pointed out how even the iconic king, David, had anticipated such feat, and that his resurrection confirmed Jesus’ status as Lord and Messiah.

Peter’s words pierced their hearts. The clear gospel message drove the assembled hearers to their knees, spiritually, prompting them to ask what they needed to do to make things right. “Repent and turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Christ,” Peter said. And they did; that day more than 3,000 people were added to the Church. What a miracle!!

On the other hand, Jesus’ encounter with the religious authorities in John 8 reading uncovers increasingly strong animosity between them; shows how sideways the leaders are moving away from God, though they didn’t think so at the time. The entire chapter is a series of increasingly hostile encounters between Jesus and the leaders; the Pharisees and the Scribes.

Part of the scandal was the claim that Jesus the Nazarene, the son of Joseph and Mary, was God’s Messiah, and that this Messiah had died and been raised to new life. 

Part of the scandal involved Jesus’ claim that the Jews were slaves to sin, and that their religious system of teachings and laws and sacrifices had become part of the problem rather than the solution God meant it to be. Nowadays, the gospel message can trigger an equally strong push back from within us as it did for the Jewish leaders in Jesus’ day. The context is different, but the spiritual struggle is not very different.

Part of the scandal is that faith transforms us from sinner to saint; from being estranged from God, to being part of God’s extended family – and we like that. We want that. It’s what appealed to me as I sat on the floor of the church basement my junior year of High School, listening to my youth pastor, Dennis.

But this transformation does something else for us: it calls us to die to ourselves and our desires, and to take on God’s will for our life. That may not sit so well for us.

Part of the scandal is that faith involves forgiveness of sins (and, interestingly enough, the financial debts!) – a reordering of society that is symbolically reflected in the Christian community (Acts 2.41ff; 4.32ff.). A reordering that affects our lives and our choices as well.

It calls us from a perspective that says “my stuff belongs to me” to one that says “my stuff is God’s to use.” It calls from us a perspective of seeing the church as a place to “serve us” to one of “service.” It calls us to see church primarily as a vehicle of God’s grace in the community, and not merely a social fellowship that meets our needs.

This gospel message is not unique; it is part of God’s ongoing story in Scripture of his relationship with us. God first came to Abraham and Sarah and blessed them so they and their descendant would be instruments of that blessing. It’s something that God continues to do with us today, giving us the gift of forgiveness of sin and a new community called the church. Gifts we’re not meant to hoard for ourselves, but to share freely and unreservedly with those around us.

We cannot do that ourselves, certainly no more effectively than the Jews did throughout the OT. We need help, and God is gracious enough to give it.

Luther’s explanations of the Creed: Second article: Jesus redeems us; Jesus frees us from all sins, from death and from the power of the devil. It’s not something we can do for ourselves. And more, that salvation changes us: it frees us to live in obedience to him and to serve him in some way throughout the rest of my life.

And the third article: we cannot believe in Jesus or respond to him this way by ourselves. But the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, and unites us in this faith. This Holy Spirit continues to empower the church to be faithful as it continues to convey God’s forgiveness each day to all who seek it. Through our participation in the worship life and ministry of the congregation. Our experience of the Word and Sacraments are God’s means to shape us more and more into God’s likeness.

When the Gospel message of God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ touches our hearts, it creates a response in us: upward, towards God; or sideways, away from God. Through the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us, may we always go towards God.

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Live Mission! – Acts 2.1-21

raptorA pastor acquaintance from my online Bible study started a new church in the Denver area and, as so often happens, her church quickly became every other church’s little sister, getting all of their hand-me-downs. One year they received a beautiful set of paraments, the colored clothes that adorn many Lutheran church altars. The gift was perfectly timed because it was right before the celebration of Pentecost and they didn’t have a set of paraments for the season.

They dug through the box and, sure enough, they found a red altar cloth, red being the color of Pentecost. It had an image of a descending dove representing the Holy Spirit, but upon closer inspection they discovered that the dove had completely crazy eyes and claws that looked like talons. The Holy Spirit pretty much looked like a raptor! “Wow,” one of them said, “We can’t use this one. It makes the Holy Spirit look downright dangerous.”

To which their wise pastor replied, “Or perhaps that’s the very reason we should use it.”

Today we’re celebrating Pentecost, one of the three core holy-days – along with Christmas and Easter – in our community. Christmas describes Jesus’ birth into human form. Easter marks Jesus’ rebirth to eternal life. And Pentecost describes the birth of the Church’s mission. Last week, we heard the risen Jesus tell his disciples to stay in Jerusalem until he sent to them the promised Holy Spirit. Jesus said that, through the Holy Spirit, they would receive power to be Jesus’ witnesses throughout the world. I can’t help but wonder what they thought Jesus meant, but I’m pretty sure that what actually happened was beyond their wildest imagination.

In the first century, Pentecost was one of the three major festivals of the Jewish calendar, and an occasion for Jews from all over the region to gather in Jerusalem to thank God for the first fruits of the wheat harvest. It was during this festival that the disciples were gathered together in Jerusalem, just as Jesus has instructed.

Three years earlier, John the Baptist had said that while he came to baptize people with water, the Messiah would baptize people with the Holy Spirit and with fire. And that’s just what happens. The Holy Spirit appears as flames and fills them, and they begin to speak in the languages of the religious pilgrims who have come to Jerusalem for Pentecost, presumably languages they have never spoken before. In other words, Jesus fulfilled his promise. The Spirit does come. The disciples are filled with power, and they do become his witnesses.

This is such a great story, but we don’t read it each year because it’s a great story. We read it each year because it’s our story. It tells us something remarkably important about who we are. We are the church, called and empowered for a mission to the whole world. Let me say that again: We are the church, called and empowered for a mission to the whole world. Let me tear that sentence apart, to make sure we understand what it means for us.

First, we are the church.

It wasn’t until I was in High School and started going to Youth Group that I learned the song, This is the church, and this is the steeple. Open the doors and see all the people. Maybe you learned that little ditty, too, when you were a child. It’s cute and it’s fun. But it’s not entirely true, and the subtle implications are damaging

This building is not the church. Heaven forbid, if a fire broke out later this afternoon and destroyed our entire campus, Immanuel Lutheran Church would still exist. We are the church, all of us together, washed by grace, united by faith and the Holy Spirit. When we talk about the church we’re talking about us – all of us –along with all believers around the globe. We are the church.

Second, we’re called and empowered for a mission.

In our baptism we were called “to know Jesus fully and to make him known to those who don’t know him yet.” Like those first disciples at Pentecost, we have been filled with the promised Holy Spirit. We’ve been called to a mission. By how we live and by what we say, we proclaim that the Kingdom of God is at hand, and that God is working in this world, right here and right now, to bring restoration and reconciliation to all people.

We do that by speaking the truth in love about the reality of sin. We do that through acts of love and mercy. We do that by fighting injustice. We do that through generosity of heart, time, prayer and financial resources. We do that by giving our lives away for the sake of others, living like Jesus as the Spirit grants us grace.

And finally, our mission is to the entire world.

Sometimes our sinful nature wants to make the church something outside of us that is supposed to serve us, as if Immanuel’s primary focus is to serve our members. There are lots of important ways in which we care for one another in this body of believers. But our care for each other is a means to an end – how we “know Jesus fully and make him known.” We care for each other so we can care for those not yet a part of this community.

And our mission is to the whole world. Just as those first disciples were empowered by the Holy Spirit to proclaim the good news in ways that all people could hear, we’re called to proclaim that same good news of God’s saving love in ways that all people can hear, see and understand.

You see, we are a resurrected people in Christ. We are the church, called and empowered for a mission to the whole world. That’s who we are, and that’s what we’re doing here at Immanuel. On this Pentecost weekend I celebrate the many ways in which we are in mission together:

    • Serving food at FCA luncheons in our social hall
    • Supporting the ministry of the Fresno Rescue Mission with our food booth at the Caruther’s Fair
    • Worshiping and serving together as part of the Churches of Easton ecumenical partnership
    • Thursday men’s Bible Study that draws from the community
    • October car show that brings a bunch of community folks onto our campus
    • Breaking Grounds ministry to HS students on Wednesday mornings
    • Supporting our missionaries: first, Jan Kersgaard (Pakistan) and now Taylor Ewing (Zambia)

As Immanuel prepares to call a new pastor this summer, there’s no telling what directions the Holy Spirit is going to blow, or what the future holds. What an exciting time to be the church!

I don’t know if the Holy Spirit has crazy eyes and claws, but I do know that the Holy Spirit isn’t safe. The Spirit will not let us dwell in comfort and complacency as long as God’s mission needs to be accomplished. We live to do God’s work with our hands.

You and I are the church. You and I are called and empowered for a mission to the whole world. We are called to live mission. So, what mission in this world might God be calling you to this week?

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Live Witness! – Acts 1.1-14; John 17.20-26

ImageWould you expect that someone’s last words to you might be pretty important? Yeah, I would think so, too. I think of a family gathered at a loved one’s bedside, keeping vigil while their love one passes from this life into eternity. His last words spoken might be pretty meaningful. Or how about a family gathered at an airport, sending into harm’s way a son or a daughter in the military. A final hug; a final “I love you.” or “Take care of yourself.” or “Be safe.” Even if the worst that happens is a 9-12 month separation during their deployment, that last word would still be a meaningful moment.

Today is Mother’s Day, and although my mom died three years ago, I will always remember what turned out to be our final exchange. The content of the conversation wasn’t earthshattering. But the emotional meaning, of saying a final goodbye, that will live in my heart the rest of my life.

In our reading from Acts, Jesus mission is complete. He has experienced the passion, the crucifixion and the resurrection. He’s spent 40 days after Easter encouraging the disciples and calling to their minds all that he had taught them. Now, the time has come for Jesus to ascend into heaven, and he shares some parting words with his friends,

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere — in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Acts 1:8 (NLT)

This Easter season we’ve been exploring what it means to live out the resurrection in our daily lives. To show that Jesus’ resurrection makes a difference in how we live out our faith even today, more than 2000 years after Jesus’ death. This morning, Jesus’ final words to his disciples, to us, is that living the resurrection is to Live Witness!

Jesus’ last words to us give us clear insight into what this means:

And you will be my witnesses

As soon as we mention the “W” word, we may find all sorts of reactions and resistance begin to well up inside of us. Traditionally, the Lutheran community has a bit of a reputation of being shy and quiet about our faith. This classic joke expresses it well:

What do you get when you mix a Jehovah’s Witness with a Lutheran? Someone who knocks on doors but doesn’t know what to say.

Now a witness is someone who can give a firsthand account  of something seen, heard, or experienced. Interestingly, the Greek word here is “martyr” which has,  of course, taken on a very specific meaning in history of someone who sacrifices their life for the sake of the Gospel. Our witnessing, our martyrdom may not go to that extreme. But let the notion of being a witness, of being a martyr, do something else for us. Let it call to mind Jesus’ teachings throughout the gospels that disciples, witnesses like you and I, do have to die to ourselves.

The journey of being a disciple is to allow Jesus to put to death our human nature to be in control, in order to be freed to live the life that God has for us. As the Holy Spirit does this work of faith in us, we will find ourselves better able to “give a firsthand account of something seen or heard or experienced.”

telling people about me everywhere

We’re often more comfortable expressing our faith in deeds of service and compassion rather than words. Nothing wrong with expressing our faith by how we treat one another. But the example of both our Lord and the early Church is to be a community that “talks the talk” and “walks the walk.”

It may be we only touch one life, but that little touch may have a large impact.

Edward Kimball was a shoe store assistant and a Sunday school teacher in Chicago, who spent hours of his free time visiting the young street children in Chicago’s inner city, trying to win them for Christ. Through him, a young boy named Dwight came to faith in 1858.

Dwight grew up to be a preacher. In 1879, he led Frederick to the Lord.

Frederick became a preacher and brought John to Christ.

John became a preacher and brought the message of Christ to a baseball player named Billy.

Years later, Billy held a revival in Charlotte, North Carolina, which was so successful that a teenager named Billy gave his life to Jesus.

If not for the simple effort of Edward, then our world would have been poorer without the faith and ministry of men like Dwight L. Moody, Frederick Meyer, John Chapman, Billy Sunday and Billy Graham.[i]

It’s an intentional tension: Doing acts of compassion are very important, but acts done without being grounded in the saving message of Jesus Christ make us no different than a social service agency. Nothing wrong with social service agencies, to be sure. But we have those, and that’s not the church. But sharing the word of God’s love revealed through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection without addressing the hurts and needs of the community is a mis-interpretation as well. James shows us the way when he writes,

Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well” — but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless. James 2:15–17 (NLT)

The early church in Acts: comprised of Peter and the community boldly speaking the message, and of the community sharing its resources with one another. To be the church, we need to be witnesses who speak the word of how God has saved us from our sins and reunited us with one another through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and demonstrate that love through acts of compassion and service.

Notice something else that Jesus says,

telling people about me everywhere — in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

 Our being witnesses is to different communities, if you will.

“In Jerusalem” – in our immediate community (Easton, Fowler, throughout Fresno County)

“Throughout Judea” – among our own “kind” ethnically and socially. For the Jewish disciples, Judea was “home.” It was known and comfortable. But Jesus doesn’t stop there.

“In Samaria” – A different, specific geographic location in Israel. Traditional antipathy with Samaria; historical issues dating back to the exile in the eighth century. In Jewish eyes, Samaritans were second class citizens. Half-breeds who were not worthy to be considered Jews because of social intermixing that took place during the exile. No place in the temple; among God’s chosen ones. Jesus tells us that our witnessing extends beyond our comfort zone, to include people that we would naturally wish to avoid. Folks on which we might otherwise look down; those we would consider “outsiders.” What that is will be different for each community. But the challenge is still there. But Jesus doesn’t even stop there!

“To the ends of the earth” We are called to be witnesses in all three aspects of our community: to our local community, to our community around us that is different; on the fringe, and to the world community. For some, like Taylor Ewing who we sent out to Zambia last week, it means going ourselves. For most of us, it means supporting missionaries with our prayers and our funds. Immanuel has a long history of doing just that!

How are we supposed to do this, to be witnesses, martyrs, even for Jesus? Thankfully, it’s not just up to us. We don’t have to rely only on our own power or ability or natural giftedness:

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.

God empowers us through the gift of the Holy Spirit and the gifts the Spirit brings into our lives. God never calls us to do something without also providing the resources to accomplish it.

But our witnessing is never for our own sake, so we can meet our budget, or fill our church / new education building, or pay off our mortgage, or have a good reputation in the community,  or really, anything about us at all.

Yes, our witnessing deepens our faith and helps us to experience  God’s power and presence in new ways. But part of our dying to ourselves means that our motives for witnessing are always and primarily our concern for others. Our desire to have them experience the same life saving relationship we have received. In fact, all that we do here is not so much for us as it is for those who aren’t here yet.

Our ministry builds us up in faith, it nurtures a healthy sense of community so we can share that faith and that sense of community with those who don’t have any yet.


[i] Craig Brian Larson and Phyllis Ten Elshof, 1001 Illustrations That Connect (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2008), 66-67.

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Live Relationship! – Romans 12.4-18; John 14.23-39

BA15430In the Gospel lesson this week, Jesus is getting ready to say farewell to his followers. The disciples had been chosen and called, they had left everything behind to follow Jesus, and now Jesus is preparing them for his arrest, the trials, the beatings, the mockery, the long journey to the cross and the crucifixion itself. In the flow of John’s story, it is Maundy Thursday evening. Jesus has washed his disciples’ feet and shared his last supper with them. Soon, they will leave the upper room for Gethsemane, the site of Jesus’ arrest. Now, he is instructing them; preparing them for his impending death and for life without their master. For us, though, Jesus’ words also help us to understand how to live out the resurrection. In fact, Jesus and Paul show us what it means to “Live Relationship.”

I Live (adj) Relationship with God

How do we Live Relationship? It begins with having a “live” relationship with God. Jesus tells his friends,

All who love me will do what I say. My father will love them, and we will come and make our home with each of them. Jn 14.23

The words “make our home” mean much more than coming by for a visit, or bringing over some meat to grill on the barbecue. This is moving in. This is taking up residence. This is total commitment. When Jesus takes those scruffy followers, looks them square in the eyes and says, “Look, those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them,” Jesus is talking about a new hope for a new life for every one of them. And it is that kind of home that causes every last one of the eleven faithful disciples to go to the wall for Christ.

As we explore this sort of “Live” relationship with God, we have some questions to consider. What kind of home do we have? Now, I’m not asking for square feet. I’m asking about solid footing in Christ. What’s your spiritual home like? Do you love Christ? Really, do you love Christ?

Are you keeping the Word? Is what God has to say to you feeding your life every day?

Do you know that God loves you? Really, not in some button-slogan, cheesy, mile-long-and-inch-thick kind of way, but do you know that God sacrificed his son Jesus for your sake so that you could live with hope and assurance of new life?

Do you know that? If we do, then we have a live relationship with God! This “Live” relationship is grounded in an awareness of God and Jesus making their home in us. A “Live” relationship is one that is regularly being nurtured and fed and stretched; one that is growing and changing over time.

This contrasts sharply with a “dead” spiritual relationship. Jesus saved some of his harshest criticism for the religious leaders whose faith was like whitewashed tombs (Mt 23.27) pretty on the outside, but full of rot and decay on the inside. Dead relationship is one that is based only on the past: baptized and went to Sunday School as a kid, but haven’t been to a class or worked in ministry since.

III Live (vb) Relationship with Each Other

How do we Live Relationship? It starts by having a “live” relationship with God. It continues as we Live Relationship with each other.

One of the greatest spiritual challenges nowadays is being isolated from one another. We live in a world and culture where people are more technologically connected than ever before, but we seem to still be lonely. Email, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Pinterest all have their purposes, but we aren’t pulled out of the isolation by electronic means.

You can see this another way by looking at the drivers on the road during rush hour. Thousands of people, going in the same direction on the same road at the same time, but each trapped in his or her own little compartment, not speaking, not smiling, not relating to another human being. And no, gesturing to another driver as they cut you off doesn’t count. Neither does talking to someone on your cell phone!

A sociologist named Phillip Koon did an experiment in which he picked 600 names at random from phone directories around the country, and sent all 600 of them Christmas cards. These were all perfect strangers, people he had never met before. In response, he received 117 Christmas cards, most with letters telling all about children and pets and events of the past year. One person wrote, “It was so good to hear from you because we see so little of you any more.” Others proposed getting together during their vacation next summer.

It’s a funny story, but tragic, too. Tragic that so many people are so incredibly lonely that they respond so eagerly to a greeting from a total stranger. But it’s tragic because it reflects us!

I suspect there isn’t a person among us this morning who hasn’t known, at one time or another, the gnawing feeling of loneliness; of isolation. There are old friends who have moved away; loved ones who have died; neighbors whom we’ve never met.

Of course we are not the first people to experience loneliness! King David knew about it – the Psalms echo with his agony:

I lie awake on my bed, I am like a lonely bird on a housetop . . . Turn to me and be gracious, for I am lonely and afflicted. Ps 102.7

Jesus knew about it – he died alone, wondering if even God had forsaken him. The disciples knew about it, too. That very night they felt the pain that comes when a close friend is leaving; and after the crucifixion, they huddled in their room, lonely, empty, aching from grief. Feeling alone can be a profoundly difficult thing to experience. And this is what we may fear most.

But Jesus’ promises mean that we will not be alone.

John in our gospel reading: Jesus, gives his disciples of every age the gift of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit who would give us a quality of peace in our lives unlike anything the world can give.

Paul, in our reading from Romans: gifts of the Holy Spirit are for the building up of the community / empowerment for ministry rejoice with those who are rejoicing, and grieve with those who are grieving when God’s people are in need, be ready to help them – social service activities in Roman world were a visible witness of how the early believer’s lived the resurrection in their daily lives. food distribution to the poor (Acts 6.1-7); caring for the widows / orphans when no one else would.

We “live relationship with God” as we rest in the relationship God desires for us and establishes with us through the life, death and resurrection of his son, Jesus. We “live” relationship with each other as we discover and use the Spiritual gifts God gives us to build up our church community, and to serve our neighbors, to draw them into the same “live” relationship with God that we share.

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