Invite Jesus

If You Are Going to Have a Wedding, Make Sure You Invite Jesus!

John 2:1-11

An old priest was driving down the road sipping wine that he had put into his water bottle.  He had sipped a bit too much and his car was weaving a bit as he drove.  A local policeman noticed the erratic driving and pulled the priest over.  Noticing the water bottle that the man was holding the policeman asked what was in the bottle, “what are you drinking?”  

The old priest answered, “water.  This is my water bottle.”  

The officer asked to examine the bottle. The priest obliged and gave it to him.  Opening the bottle and smelling the contents the officer confronted the priest, “this is not water.  It is wine!”  

The old man exhibited a shocked look and exclaimed, “He did it again!”

There is a legend which states that in the late middle ages, the Russian Czar had come to the conclusion that in order to unite his country, there would have to be one state religion to which everyone should belong.

He considered carefully all of his options. Finally, he settled on a short list of three, Islam, Buddhism or Christianity. He called representatives from each of the three religions to his court in Russia, and asked them each to state the case for their religion before himself and his advisors.

The Muslim representative spoke first. He spoke of the humaneness of Islam, of its tolerance for others, its respect for science and culture, and how it came with a complete legal system that had been refined and perfected through the centuries. When he had finished his pitch, he asked the Czar if there were anything else he would like to know. “One thing,” the Czar told him, “Does Allah look favorably upon Vodka?”

The Muslim emissary shook his head and told him no, that alcohol was an abomination to Allah, and was not permitted.

So the Czar, commanded that the Buddhist missionary be ushered in. The Buddhist monk explained the basic teachings of the Buddha, how all of life was suffering and how the Buddha showed the way to end suffering. Finally the King was getting bored and said, “I’ll tell you how I stop suffering. Vodka! What does your Buddha have to say about that?”

The Buddhist monk told him that intoxicants were a hindrance to enlightenment, and were not permitted in Buddhism.

“Next!” cried the Czar, and a Christian Orthodox monk was ushered in. But before he could even begin teaching his elementary catechism, the Czar stopped him short. “Just tell me one thing, does your Jesus allow vodka?”

“Are you kidding?” the monk said, “We will give you wine and bread at every service of worship.”

The Czar knew his choice was clear!

Turning water to wine.  

(cf. Don McLeans’s American Pie lyrics… “the day the music died…” & the wine ran out.)

Jesus is invited to a wedding feast. Mary, His mother also attends the wedding.  Jesus’ disciples come too.  This is a typical Jewish wedding that lasts over the course of a week with a lot of food, dancing, laughter and wine.  All is good until the wine runs out.  Mary tells her Son, “the wine has run out.” She must know what Jesus is capable of doing.  And maybe wants to set the stage for Him to show Himself.  Jesus doesn’t seem to like the idea, but when Mary tells the servants, “do whatever He tells you,” He takes charge.

Close at hand are six large mason jars that are used for Jewish purification rites.  Each holds between twenty to thirty gallons.  They are huge.  And, they are empty.  Jesus tells the servants to fill the empty jars with water.  They do.  Then Jesus simply tells them to take some of the water—now turned to wine—to the host of the wedding.  A very simple, yet stunning miracle.  It is not magic.  It is Jesus’ first public display of miraculous power.  

The servants do as instructed. The host or chief steward, who is like the head butler, is amazed.  He calls the bridegroom and compliments him.  “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the cheaper more inferior wine after people have become drunk.  You have saved the good wine until now.”

Mary knew what happened.  The servants who served the wine knew.  Jesus’ disciples also knew, but no one else knew about the miracle.  This is Jesus’ first public miracle.  What did it mean?  What is its significance?  Is it fable, fiction or fact?  What do we make of it today?  Why did Jesus choose this setting and this miracle as His first?

Some thoughts.  

  • Maybe Jesus wants us to see possibilities and abundance instead of problems and shortages.  We can be overwhelmed with problems and negative “stuff.”  What do you think?  
  • Maybe Jesus wants us to know He cares about the little things of life, not just the life and death crises we find ourselves in.  He even intervenes in a simple wedding feast for an unknown couple and their families and friends.  We matter.  We are important to God.  And even the insignificant details of our lives are important.  That should help us know God cares even when everything seems to crash and burn around us.
  • I believe in miracles.  Don’t you? I believe that the God who created heaven and earth—no matter how we believe that creation took place—has power over the natural world that is creation.  To be sure, it is a miracle for grape vines to draw water and nutrients from the soil, draw it up into the stem and plant above ground and produce grapes.  It is also a miracle for grapes that have been harvested and turned to juice to go through a fermentation process to become wine.  Maybe our call is to pay attention and have our eyes open!

Jesus’ miracle sped up the process.  More than that, He instantly made good quality wine from simple water.  Better than Boons-berry Farm wine.  This is top shelf wine.  Maybe Jesus turned water to wine as His first miracle to show the extravagant abundance of God.  One hundred and eighty gallons of wine when the wedding party was running out of wine.  God’s love is extravagant.  It is beyond measure.  It is past our ability to comprehend.  God’s love also gives us joy and pleasure in life.  Joy beyond our human comprehension.  Joy that can transform our bored and dehydrated human relationships where we have become tired and weary of each other.  We need Jesus in our lives!

Years ago when Johnny Carson was the host of The Tonight Show he interviewed an eight year old boy. The young man was asked to appear because he had rescued two friends in a coal mine outside his hometown in West Virginia. As Johnny questioned the boy, it became apparent to him and the audience that the young man was a Christian. So Johnny asked him if he attended Sunday school. When the boy said he did Johnny inquired, “What are you learning in Sunday school?” “Last week,” came his reply, “our lesson was about when Jesus went to a wedding and turned water into wine.” The audience roared, but Johnny tried to keep a straight face. Then he said, “And what did you learn from that story?” The boy squirmed in his chair. It was apparent he hadn’t thought about this. But then he lifted up his face and said, “If you’re going to have a wedding, make sure you invite Jesus!” 

Invite Jesus!

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

The Gospel in Isaiah

A mother looked out a window and saw Johnny playing church with their three kittens.  He had them lined up and was preaching to them. The mother turned around to do some work.

A while later she heard meowing and scratching on the door. She went to the window and saw Johnny baptizing the kittens. She opened the window and said, “Johnny, stop that! You’ll drown those kittens.”

Johnny looked at her and said with much conviction in his voice: “They should a’ had thought about that before they joined MY church.”

Isaiah 43:1-3, 7—The Gospel in Isaiah

1   But now thus says the Lord, 

He who created you, O Jacob, 

He who formed you, O Israel: 

“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; 

I have called you by name, you are Mine. 

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; 

and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; 

when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, 

and the flame shall not consume you. 

For I am the Lord your God, 

the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. 

Fear not, for I am with you; 

I will bring your offspring from the east, 

and from the west I will gather you…

everyone who is called by My name

whom I created for My glory, 

whom I formed and made.

  “But now” in verse 1 marks a change from the previous chapter where the consequences of sin and God’s anger catch up with us.

  “created” the same verb used in Genesis 1:1 where God creates something out of nothing—something NEW.

  “formed” continues that thought…God has formed and shaped us to be who we are.

  “redeemed” God is our protector and defender and brings us back (saves) us from that which has harmed and hurt us.

  “called you by name” God knows us intimately and personally.  We matter.  We are significant and important.  Note in verse 7 God even calls us by His name, reminding us that we are created—shaped and formed—for His glory. In baptism we are marked as God’s children and called by His name!

  For that reason…God twice says “Do not fear” and even describes circumstances that we get caught in that terrify us, reminding us even then we are in God’s hands.  

  • getting caught in the flood, being swept away by a strong current… “you will not be drowned/overwhelmed”
  • walking through fire…remember Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3).  They were protected from the flames and did not even have the smell of smoke on them.  

 What overwhelms you today?  What circumstances seem to be burning you up?  Recognize—even now—God’s presence in, with and for you. No matter what!  

Girl Against a Blizzard

In Stephen Covey’s book, Everyday Greatness, there is a story by Helen Rezatto titled “Girl Against A Blizzard.” It is the harrowing story of fifteen‑year‑old Hazel Miner who lived on a farm near Center, North Dakota. In March, 1920, Hazel, her brother, Emmet, eleven, and her sister Myrdith, while returning home from school, were trapped in a monster snow storm ”A spring norther!” her mother called it. A massive search was soon underway, but the weather was far too severe for the searchers to go about their business with much success.

The powerful storm blew drifts above the fence posts obscuring all sense of direction and also making progress impossible for the children and their horse. Suddenly the sleigh tipped over on its side. In the howling darkness, fifteen‑year‑old Hazel realized it was up to her, the oldest to figure a way out.

In the dark of the capsized sled, Hazel found blankets and a robe. Despite her now crippled hands, she placed two blankets on the floor. Following her instructions, Emmet and Myrdith lay down and curled together tightly. The wind snarled through an opening in the sled’s canvas top, so Hazel tried to improvise a curtain. The snow fell incessantly. Hazel roused herself. “Emmet! Myrdith!” she shouted. “You mustn’t close your eyes. Punch each other! I’ll count to a hundred. Make your legs go up and down as though you’re running. Begin-one, two, three-” She could feel the small limbs moving underneath her. She tried to move her own; her brain instructed her legs, but she wasn’t sure what they did. Next Hazel ordered, “Open and close your fingers one hundred times inside your mittens.” Then they tried singing, “For purple mountains majesties above the fruited plain.” They sang all four verses.

“Let’s pray to God to help us,” suggested Myrdith. “Now I lay me down to sleep,” she began. Hazel interrupted, “No, not that one. Let’s say `Our Father’ instead.” Solemnly they chanted the prayer. On into the timeless night Hazel directed them in exercises, stories, songs, prayers. She said to the two children over and over that they mustn’t go to sleep. Meanwhile the wind became a sixty‑mile‑an‑hour gale, the temperature dropped to zero, the gray became utter blackness. And the maddening snow kept falling. The searchers had to give up until daylight.

“At two o’clock on Tuesday afternoon, twenty‑five hours from the time the Miner children had disappeared, searchers spotted something in a pasture two miles south of the school. It was an overturned sleigh . . .” The searchers found the dead, frozen body of a fifteen-year-old girl outstretched covering her younger brother and sister. They were dazed and partially frozen, but alive.

Today, on the courthouse grounds in the town of Center, these words are engraved on a granite monument: “In Memory of Hazel Miner . . . April 11, 1904-March 16, 1920 . . . To the dead a tribute . . . To the living a memory . . . To posterity an inspiration . . . The story of her life and of her tragic death is recorded in the Archives of Oliver County . . .”

Trusting God in all of life is not always easy.  However, trusting God even in difficulties helps us to seize the day, take the initiative, to do the right thing and care past ourselves.  Hazel did that.  God give us the grace, strength, and courage to live without fear, and with courage to live for God’s glory and the good of others.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Leap for Joy!

Luke 1:39-55 (Micah 5:2-5a & Psalm 80:1-7)

What makes you leap for joy?  What makes you happy—dance on the table?

Sometimes our vision is too shortsighted.  We see only what is in front of us.  I suppose in a sense that is being realistic.  Like Sergeant Friday on Dragnet we say, “just give me the facts.”  

And, sometimes, the facts are not positive or encouraging at all.  Sometimes however, the facts blind us to the higher reality that is hidden just out of sight.  And…it is the higher reality that we need to see, to focus on, to base our faith on.  Discovering that can make us leap for joy!

The movie Matrix is about war, conflict between humans and computers.  Artificial Intelligence (AI) has taken over the world and is using humans as an energy supply. 

“The Matrix is the world that has been pulled over your eyes,” says a character named Morpheus, “to blind you from the truth.”

The human battle with the Matrix has played out over the course of three movies, the first released in 1999 and the second and third in 2003. Now, a fourth Matrix movie is scheduled to open in theaters on December 22, 2021, with simultaneous release on HBO Max. The film industry is hoping for a Christmas blockbuster.

The Matrix is a land of illusion, as well as a place of really cool, slow-motion, science-fiction shoot-outs. “Wake up, Neo,” says Morpheus to the star of the movie, played by Keanu Reeves. “As long as the Matrix exists, the human race will never be free.”

It has an incredible amount of Christian language and imagery in it.  I have only seen the first movie.  It is not a “Christian” movie; not a valid presentation of the Good News of Jesus.  However it is fun.  And it does illustrate the conflict between what is real and not real in an entertaining way.  Maybe I will try and watch this fourth Matrix movie.

Life in early Palestine was not that much different than ours is today.  Those with money and power lorded it over to those who were vulnerable.  Injustice was common.  Inequity and conflict were everyday realities.  But, behind the scenes, in a nearly invisible silent way, God was on the move. 

“How silently , how silently the wondrous gift is given.  So God impart to human hearts the blessings of His heaven.  No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive Him still the dear Christ enters in.” (verse 3, O Little Town of Bethlehem).

Mary, the mother of our Lord, has been visited by the Arch Angel Gabriel.  She will be the mother of God’s Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.  As impossible and audacious as that sounds, she believed and yielded herself to God’s unfolding plan of salvation.  Now, she hurries to see her cousin Elizabeth who is pregnant with the baby who will be John the Baptist.  

Mary greets Elizabeth and infant John, in the womb of his mother, leaps for joy.  Elizabeth is startled and “surprised by joy” herself.  She blesses Mary and commends Mary’s faith and believe in what God is doing through her miraculous pregnancy.  

NOTE:  Not everyone believes in what we call the “virgin birth,” meaning that God the Holy Spirit conceived in Mary the seed that would become Jesus, our Savior.  That means Jesus is God’s Son, both true God and true human. I believe that God can and does work in ways that defy our human imagination and understanding.  

After Elizabeth’s response and blessing of Mary, Mary herself bursts into a song of praise that has been called the Magnificat.  In it Mary peeks behind the scene of history—and sees God at work.  I don’t know about you, but for me that takes an incredible amount of faith in God, to look past the present reality of chaos and confusion, power struggles, lies, deceit, violence, greed, arrogance, disunity and division, etc. etc.  and to see God on the move.  

God is on the move today as well as in Mary’s day.  The value of believing it is that it changes us and changes our values and attitudes, our actions and behavior.  Believing it enables and empowers us to not give in to negative thinking and despair.  It keeps us from caving in on ourselves in selfish fear.  When fear rules terror reigns.  Then no one wins.  Look down through the annals of history.  Those who experience life during wars, those who flee for refugee from tyranny and violence, they know what living in fear is like.  

Mary’s song of praise helps us to lift the veil of history to see past our human tragedy and evil.  It helps us see our loving and gracious God taking on evil and defeating it.  It is to see the invisible hand of God at work through Jesus becoming human—one of us—and taking on sin, death and the devil on our behalf and winning.  Defeating evil at its core.  

To believe that gives us strength to carry on.  It enables us to do the best that we can in loving and seeing God and one another in the meantime.  While we wait for the final act of God’s salvation work—the Second Coming of Christ—when all will be set right again.  

That, dear believer, is not a vain hope.  It is what our faith is built on.  It is what you and I cling to.  Keep believing and trusting, keep following Jesus.  Keep loving all God and all of God’s people because we are all part of God’s plan.  We are all in this together.  If we believe that, we can leap for joy—along with John, Elizabeth and Mary.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

What Then Should We Do?

Zechariah 3:14-20

Isaiah 12:2-6

Luke 3:7-18

Blessed are they who find Christmas 

in the age-old story of a babe born in Bethlehem. 

To them a little child will always mean hope and promise to a troubled world.

Blessed are they who find Christmas in the Christmas star. 

Their lives may ever reflect its beauty and light.

Blessed are they who find Christmas in the joy of giving to others. 

They shall share the gladness and joy of the shepherds and wise men of old.

Blessed are they who find Christmas in the sights, sounds and smells of the season. 

To them shall come bright memories of love and happiness.

Blessed are they who find Christmas in the festive music of Christmas time. 

They shall have a song of joy ever singing in their hearts.

Blessed are they who find Christmas in the message of the Prince of Peace. 

They will ever strive to help Him bring peace on earth, goodwill to all people.

John.  A prophet raised up by God to get God’s people ready for the coming of Messiah.

Messiah’s coming ushers in a new age, a new way of God’s relating to us.  Messiah’s coming changes how God’s people relate to God, and influences/changes how we relate to one another.  So the prophet heralding this new day had to be special.  Unique! 

John was an Elijah-like-prophet.  On purpose.  By God’s design.  Elijah was a prophet of fire.  He stood on Mount Carmel, taunting the prophets of Baal to call on their “god” and light their sacrifice.  Those prophets shouted, screamed, hollered, and cut themselves for hours.  All to no avail.  Their false god was not able to light the fire of their sacrifice.  Elijah then dug a trench around God’s altar, doused the sacrifice several times and prayed once.  Fire came down from heaven and burned the sacrifice.  

John was like Elijah—rough looking.  He dressed in a camel-hair robe with a belt around his waist,  long-hair, scraggly beard.  Leather belt around his waist. He lived out in the desert, eating what he could, sleeping where he could, out under the stars.  He was no pansy.  He was a “stand alone sort of guy” who didn’t care what others thought of him. 

Amazing.  It is amazing to me that he drew such large crowds out to him in the barren countryside.  But they did.  In huge numbers! What attracted them?  How did he get his start?

One thing he did—he told the truth.  Even when it was not pleasant to hear.  

THE CALL TO REPENTANCE

“You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruits worthy of repentance…”

Translated:  You bunch of snakes!  Judgement day is coming and you are in deep doo doo!  Not very flattering, but people knew he was right.  

Another thing he did—he didn’t let them rest on their laurels.  They could not bank of good looks, their education or bank accounts.  They could not trust their church attendance or good lineage.  

“‘Do not being to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor.’”

They had one hope for a good relationship with God.  One hope alone.  Repentance.  And not just the type of repentance where they could say, “sorry,”  “my bad.”  No.  They needed to have a soul deep, bonafide repentance that meant a complete change of heart, a total life style change.  

“Bear fruit worthy of repentance…even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

No Facebook, Twitter, or any social network.  No cable news network or omnipresent reporters.  But people were hungry for honesty, integrity and truth.  And they knew they were in trouble.  They felt it in their bones that they were not right with God.

ANXIOUS, HOPING FOR CHANGE

A tell tale verse is verse 15, “the people were filled with expectation…”

God was on the move.  People sensed it.  They didn’t want to miss out.  

Today is similar.  Our culture is ripe for cults and false prophets who promise answers and help and understand of the end times.  But there is only one source for truth.  John had that truth.  Today we have that truth through Jesus and God’s Word.  Don’t be duped.  Don’t let yourselves be fooled.  Be Jesus focused and Christ centered.  Don’t fall for end time hysteria and phony hype.  Jesus will come again.  But we have work to do in the mean time.  So, don’t be negligent or passive.  Put your faith into practice!  John’s advice is to be generous and kind, have integrity and purpose in your living.  

THE JOY OF GIVING

What, then, should we do?

John tells the crowds to give gifts.  That fits in with the spirit of Christmas! Have two coats? Give one away.  Have food? Don’t hog it.  Share it!  The third Advent candle is the candle of joy.  There is joy in giving good gifts.  There is joy in not giving in to fear, and in doing the next right thing. Focus on being God pleasing and caring for others.  John’s recommended gifts go past the consumerism and capitalism of our normal giving.  And he continues to give counsel and guidance on life style choices as well.

Be kind.  Be generous.  Be fair.  Be honest.  Be good.  Do good.  Don’t just talk the talk.  Walk the walk.  Let your faith be genuine and soul deep.  Live your faith out loud.  

How has your faith in Christ Jesus changed you?  How has it shaped your values?  Has Jesus changed your priorities?  Has your faith changed how you spend money?  Are you generous and kind to the poor?  

If we listen to God through our readings today, we, too, must ask “What should we do?”  We don’t want to be chaff burned in fire.  We want our faith to be more than skin deep.

God give us faith like that.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Peace Child

November 28, 2021

Jeremiah 33:14-16 & Luke 21:25-36

Jeremiah 33:14 God says, behold (take note, pay attention) the days are coming says the Lord.

God is pointing to a future time when the promise made long ago will be fulfilled.  The promise is specifically to houses of Israel and Judah.  The promise of a Savior.  The promise of Messiah.  Yet, it is important for us to know that this promise made to the children of Israel was that they would bring Messiah into the world for the sake of the world.  Chosen to be the vehicle of deliverance.  Jesus comes into our world as a Jew.  For the sake of the world He comes as human, one of us.  

Jeremiah 33:15 In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.

There are times when we cannot imagine the promises actually being fulfilled.  In church we talk about the Second Coming of Jesus.  But out in the every day life of the world such a thought is far from us.  It isn’t real.  At least it doesn’t strike us as real.  

But the Old Testament prophesies also must have felt unreal too.  Until it really happened.  Jesus came into our world fulfilling all those old prophesies.  

Jesus is called the righteous branch, and the picture is that of a branch coming out of a stump—the stump of a tree that had been cut down.  Yet, despite Israel and Judah’s unfaithfulness, despite their having been taken into captivity and being diminished…yet Jesus, the Promised Messiah, the seed foretold back in Genesis, comes into our world.  All in fulfillment of God’s long standing promise.  

God keeps God’s promises.  Always.  He comes to “execute justice and righteousness in the land.”  He comes to finally set the record straight.  Bad guys cannot escape.  Long awaited deliverance does happen.  What is amazing is we are still in waiting mode.  Jesus’ first coming was to share our humanity.  His first coming was to bear our sin and brokenness from the point of His baptism all the way to the cross, through the empty tomb.  Through Him we are made holy and righteous. 

Jeremiah 33:16 “And this is the name by which it (the branch) will be called, “The Lord is 

our righteousness.”  

And the name He is called by, “The Lord is our righteousness.”  This points to the gift of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, become human for us and His life giving death and resurrection that has opened heaven and restored our broken relationship with God.

There is a true story about a missionary family who learned to share the truth of God’s gift of Jesus to us called “Peace Child.”  

In 1962, Don and Carol Richardson moved to West Papua, Indonesia. They took their 6-month-old son Steve with them. When they met the Sawi tribe they carried Steven in their arms.  Now, mind you the Sawi tribes were headhunters and cannibals.   The Richardsons did not realizing that the very act of carrying their infant was a sign of peace to the 400 Sawi waiting to greet them.  Amazingly they were accepted and lived among the Sawi tribes.

Don began to learn their language which was complex and a real challenge.  As he learned the language and lived with the people, they became more aware of the gulf that separated his Christian worldview from the worldview of the Sawi: “In their eyes, Judas, not Jesus, was the hero of the Gospels, Jesus was just the dupe to be laughed at.”  

As the Richardsons tried to explain Jesus’ story to the tribe, they realized that the Sawi were interpreting Jesus’ betrayer Judas as the hero of the story. The Sawi idealized treachery. Sometimes they would even befriend a member of another village for the sole purpose of later betraying him to the death and having a cannibalistic feast.

Don, Carol and their son Steven grew close to people of the tribe.  Friendships bonded.  Then fighting broke out between various villages. Jealousy was at the root as they argued about who would get to be close to the Richardsons. 

Don told them they needed to make peace or they would leave.  That is when one of the villagers brought his baby son to another tribe and presented the little boy as a gift to be raised by the other tribe. The Richardsons learned in the Sawi community, when one village wanted to make peace, they presented one of their children to another village. For as long as that “peace child” lived, there would be peace between the enemies.  It became a real breakthrough in their efforts to share the Good News of Jesus.  

Carol saw the incredible connection this has to the Gospel message.  Together the Richardson’s were able to share the story of Jesus as God’s “peace child” to us.  More than half the Sawi tribe became Christians as a result.  

The “peace child” became the secret to unlocking a value system that had existed through generations. This analogy became a stepping-stone by which the gospel came into the Sawi culture and started both a spiritual and a social revolution from within. Many became followers of Jesus and began to share His peace with other tribes that they had formerly been at war with. Jesus is God’s peace child—“the Lord our is our righteousness.”

Their book, Peace Child, telling their unforgettable story.  That was in the early 60’s in West Papua, Indonesia.  Today you can find numerous books and even a movie that tells their story.

In Jesus’ name.  Amen!

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Seasoned with Gratitude

Thanksgiving Sunday, November 21, 2021

Focused.  He was very focused.  The problem was his focus was about a half-a-mile down the road.  He did not realize he had lost focus on what was around him.  The result?  He didn’t see the traffic light turn red.  He didn’t see the cross traffic.  Only at the last second did he realize his mistake, slam on his brakes and avoid hitting other cars! 

Focus.  What we are seeing—what we are looking at and paying attention to matters.  A lot!  

Jesus, in Matthew, chapter six, is helping us to focus.  This section is from the Sermon on the Mount, and contains a core piece of Jesus’ teachings.  Some may reduce Jesus’ teachings here to mere moralism—Do the right thing then you will be good and life will be good.  Jesus is more than a great teacher.  He is our Savior, our Lord, our Redeemer—Jesus the Son of God, Second Person of the Trinity, true-God-in-human-flesh.  Jesus is the One who reclaims us.  Through Him our relationship with God is restored and empowered so that we can make a difference in our world.  What Jesus has to say to us in our Gospel reading is important to hear and read again and again; to let it sink into our souls, change our values and how we live.  

“Don’t worry…” (Matthew 6:25)  

That is one of the key phrases in this part of Matthew.   He says it repeatedly in this passage.  “Don’t worry.  Be happy.”  Remember that song?  Jesus is not being simplistic here, but is challenging us to be aware of where our focus is.  

Are you focusing on what is wrong with your life?  Do you only see what you are missing? What is wrong? What you need that you don’t have?  Are you focused on how vulnerable you feel?  Most of us do not have to worry about food, clothing, or housing; the things Jesus mentions in our Gospel reading.  But we do worry, don’t we!  

A definition of worry might be, “assuming responsibility for something that we have no control over.”  What do we worry about?  Finances?  Politics?  Justice—or the glaring absence of it?  Relationships with children/parents/partners/neighbors/friends?  We worry about health concerns, whether we are okay—meaning how do others view us?  Do they like or despise us, respect us or think we are incompetent and “stupid?”  Am I good enough?  Is God okay with me?  

Worry  distorts our focus.  It robs us of peace.  It destroys our inner wellbeing.  And, like the driver in our opening illustration, worry sets us up for disaster because it clouds our vision to what is going on around us.

Your Father in heaven knows that you need all these things.”  (Matthew 6:32)

Jesus tells us that God is aware of us, and knows what we need better than we do.  We don’t have to draw a picture for God to see what is going on and to understand our plight!  Rather than worry Jesus tells us to open our eyes to what God is going and to make the Kingdom of God our first priority.  Seek, strive for, make your top priority—the kingdom of God.  

“Seek/strive first for the kingdom of God and His righteousness…” (Matthew 6:33)

So what is the kingdom of God that we should be looking for it with all our focus?  God’s presence in us, with us, through us, for us.  God’s being in control even when life is out of control, and learning how to rest in that knowledge!  

Thanksgiving is a great time to refocus—to “wipe our lens,” to see more clearly.  A great way to do that is to practice the discipline of gratitude.  

Gratitude is life changing. Gratitude is life giving. It is more than just having good manners and saying thank you. It is more than just being naive or “pollyanna” happy.    Gratitude is a vital force in the world.  Genuine gratitude fosters and strengthens relationships, communities, and healthy hearts.

When we develop the discipline of gratitude we tend to have stronger relationships, we sleep better, our blood pressure is lower, we have fewer trips to the doctor and ER, we are less depressed, more patient, kinder, etc. Gratitude helps us to the world from a better, healthier vantage point.  It helps us to have a more positive, happier, healthier disposition. Gratitude fosters better health.

Jesus is doing more than teaching us how to be healthier emotionally.  Jesus teaches us to seek, strive, strain forward to discover what God is doing in us and in our world—to be aware of God’s presence, power and love at work—God sightings.  

There are some things we can do to build the discipline of gratitude in your life,

  1. Count your blessings.  In short, see the good.  Don’t see, focus, concentrate on what is wrong.  List them.  Say them out loud.  Write them down in a journal.  Give them back to God in prayer.  Say thank you.  Out loud and often. 
  1. Tell a friend, family member, acquaintance or maybe even a stranger you are grateful.  Write them a note.  Give them a quick call.  It doesn’t have to be a long conversation or a long letter.  Just a quick note, a quick call.  
  2. Invite a friend or family member out to coffee.  Don’t drink coffee, have tea or a soda, or ice cream.  As you converse tell them what you are grateful and thankful for in life.  It doesn’t have to be about them.  It can just simply be your saying what you love about life, what gives you joy, what fills you up.  
  1. Make you closing thoughts before you drift off to sleep thoughts of gratitude and thanksgiving.  Go through as many things as you can—people you are thankful for, gifts you are thankful for, anything you are thankful for as you look over your day, your week, your life.  And just say, “thank you” as you fall asleep.

Colossians 3:15-17

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts

Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly

teach others (use your influence for good)

admonish (encourage others to do good)

be seasoned with gratitude

doing all that you do in Jesus (in His name) with thankful hearts

Matthew 6:25-33

Don’t worry.

Focus on serving Christ, not on the minute details of what you want and think you need.

Know that God can and will take care of you.  

That frees you tup to focus on the first priority of kingdom living—community living,  God honoring living. 

Seize the initiative.  Take the lead in seeing God, serving God, and helping others to discover God’s love, grace and power.  

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Multi-dimensional Saints

All Saints Sunday Sermon November 7, 2021

Multi-dimensional Saints

texts: Isaiah 25:6-9, Revelation 21:1-6 and John 11:32-44

Heaven.  Today we remember and celebrate the lives of all those who have died in the past year.  And because of the pandemic we also include those who have died in the past couple of years.  We remember them.  We celebrate their mark on us; their imprint in our lives.  

Part of that remembering touches on our mortality.  We are mortal.  We have birth dates, remembering the day we were born.  We also have what we might call “heaven days” — the day we die.  

Our readings for this day focus on the tension between these two events that mark our existence.  They also reflect on the tension between being mortal—temporary, transients on this planet that we visit for a few short years—and the longing or sense of immortality that is imbedded in our souls.

Ecclesiastes 3:11

“He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”

We are born and live as temporary residents in this fallen world, yet we somehow have a sense and longing within our beings that we were made for something more.  Almost like a soul memory, a residual memory of God’s original plan for us.  We were created for life.  Not death.  Mortality and all that goes along with it was never part of God’s plan.  God is not the author life death, nor of the pain, misery and suffering that happens on this side of heaven.  We can not blame God for children dying.  We cannot accuse God of taking a loved one from us.  Suffering, pain, sorrow and death are consequences of our fall into sin.  The shroud of death that is cast over all people is our problem brought on by our rebellion against God and God’s goodness.  It has marked our human existence ever since our exit from the Garden of Eden.  But our souls, our inner being remember and long for that former reality.  Babies, we are sometimes told, have a fresher memory of that then we do as adults.  

Our readings for today focus on God’s plan of salvation in Jesus Christ our Lord.  He came into our broken world to redeem us — bring us back into living fellowship with God through His shed blood — and restore us to that Garden of Eden existence.  Life.  Eternal life in the presence of God.  

“And He (God) will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; He (God) will swallow up death forever” (Isaiah 25:7).  This amazing verse then goes on to say, “the Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of His people He will take away from all the earth…” That theme is picked up in Revelation 21, our second reading for today.  

You and I, today, are multi-dimensional saints.  We straddle two worlds.  Luther wrote about the two kingdoms of our existence.  We are part of God’s kingdom of heaven.  We have heaven in our hearts and souls.  We have God’s very presence within us through the gift of forgiveness and our restored relationship with God.  We forget that.  We often have no conscious thought of that as we go through our troubled days.  Yet it is a reality.  It is true.  Jesus lives in our hearts and souls.  We have God in us!  That is the reality of God’s kingdom.  

Yet we also live on this side of heaven.  We live in this physical world and universe.  A world governed by corruption and greed.  A world marked by power struggles, fear, doubt and suspicion of anyone or anything we don’t understand.  

And, because of the two kingdoms that we straddle, we embody tension.  A tension that we are never free form on this side of glory.  

A hymn from the Lutheran Hymnal that I grew up with has a gospel song with this phrase, “I’m but a stranger here, heaven is my home.”  It is not very popular today.  Modern believers want us to invest in this world and care for our planet and people in the here and now.  That hymn can smack of escapism and irresponsibility as citizens on this side of heaven.  Yet I love that old hymn.  It reminds me of what my soul seems to remember—that heaven is my real home.  I still invest in this world.  I still care for our planet.  I still nurture and care for the people of this world that share this existence with me.  But, and this is a significant but—we are created for something much more significant and real than what our eyes see here.  We are created for life that is so incredible it escapes our imaginations.  

And that is what we remember and celebrate today.  An old phrase from my early days of ministry comes back to me:  “We are glory bound saints with heaven in our souls.”  

Jesus came to Mary and Martha to mourn and grieve with them their loss—the death of His dear friend Lazarus.  He, the Lord of Life, the Prince of Peace; He who is the Resurrection and Life incarnate.  Jesus stood outside the grave where Lazarus’ body lay embalmed with spices and wrapped in linen clothes.  And He wept.  Why?  I believe He might have wept because death was never part of God’s plan for us.  Maybe He wept because of our brokenness and sorrow.  Maybe He wept because of the fallenness of our world and all the troubles we experience every day.  Maybe He wept because He was bringing Lazarus back into this existence for another temporary few years.  Maybe Lazarus wept too when he was brought back?  His sisters certainly didn’t.  They were astounded with joy and gratitude. 

Today we remember all those whom we love and have known who have gone before us.  We celebrate their mark and influence on us, our continued relationship with them.  And today, we remember heaven, not as some distant imaginary place of fairytale dimension, but as a present reality that surrounds us.  It is imbedded within us because God nows lives in and through us.  It surrounds us as an invisible reality just outside of our perception.  Just a breathe away.  

Today we are filled with hope an anticipation of that promise that has begun and is in the process of being fulfilled with every breath we breathe.  One day, we too, will wake up breathing celestial air.  In the meantime we invest every part of our lives, hearts, minds and souls in living loving and caring lives here on this side of the veil.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Good News for Broken People

October 31, 2021

Children’s miss-quote on the Lord’s Prayer:  

“Forgive us our trash passes as we forgive those who pass trash against us.”  

Reformation Sermon on Romans 3:19-28 & John 8:31-36

One of my jobs growing up on a farm was to clean barns.  Cattle, chickens and hogs eat a lot.  They also poop a lot, filling barns fill with straw and manure.  Sometimes after a long winter the floor can be covered with half a foot or so of this lovely aromatic stuff.  The smelly job of cleaning the barns consisted of throwing pitch forks full of the manure into a spreader.  A manure spreader is a trailer hooked to a tractor with a mechanism that moves the load back towards the rear teeth which grabs and throws the contents out in a wide methodical fashion.  Once the spreader is full I would drive the tractor with the spreader hooked to it out to a pasture, activate the spreader mechanism that would throw the manure and straw out. I would then drive around the field until the spreader was empty again.  This process was repeated until the layers of manure were gone and the barns were clean.  By the end of the day I reeked with the odor.  In those days we showered every Saturday night—once week.  After this job I showered ahead of schedule and washed my smelly clothes.  

Sometimes people can be like manure spreaders.  They have had bad things happen to them. And they in turn spread the stink around to others.  “Hurt people hurt people.”  “Victims often victimize others.” And the cycle continues.  Those who are injured and hurt in life run the risk of passing the pain and damage along to others.   It is not right, but it happens.  

Here is another story I cam across some years ago called “The Law of the Garbage Truck.”  

“One day I hopped in a taxi and we took off for the airport. We were driving in the right lane when suddenly a black car jumped out of a parking space right in front of us.

My taxi driver slammed on his brakes, skidded, and missed the other car by just inches! The driver of the other car whipped his head around and started yelling at us. My taxi driver just smiled and waved at the guy. And I mean, he was really friendly.

So I asked, “Why did you just do that? That guy almost ruined your car and sent us to the hospital!”

This is when my taxi driver taught me what I now call, “The Law of the Garbage Truck.”

He explained that many people are like garbage trucks. They run around full of garbage — frustration, anger, disappointment. As their garbage piles up, they need a place to dump it and sometimes they’ll dump it on you.

Don’t take their garbage and spread it to other people at work, at home, or on the streets.

Do not let garbage trucks take over your day. Love the people who treat you right. Pray for the ones who don’t.”

Our readings today for Reformation Sunday are important.  We cannot go back in time and change history.  But we can change how it impacts us.  We can rise above  the stuff.  We can reframe how it defines and shapes us as individuals.  Shame, mistakes, failures, rotten things done to us, rotten things we have done (or keep on doing) do not have to determine who or what we are.  God’s grace in Jesus changes everything.  

Today we remember and celebrate the “Reformation” which rocked the world and church over five hundred years ago when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Thesis to the Wittenburg Chapel Door.  Today we reflect on God’s amazing and incredible life-changing-grace in Jesus.  We cannot earn it.  We certainly do not deserve it.  We even have a hard time getting our hearts and minds around it.  We struggle to simply accept it.  

But it is reality.  God, in Christ, has set us free.  Because of Jesus all the regrets and shames that have marked us and shaped our lives up to this present point no longer have to be part of our identity.

True freedom from the chains and bondage that have convinced us that we are no-names, worthless, without value or importance is the freeing fact of what it means to be born again in Christ Jesus.  We are marked with the cross and sealed with the Holy Spirit.  We are forgiven and set free to be the people God intends us to be.  Free to be the persons we long to be. 

“But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed and is attested to by the Law and Prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe…” (Romans 3:21-22)

No matter who you are, no matter who you love, no matter what your mistakes or failures are, no matter what has been done to you or how unloved and unlovable you think you are—God’s love for you and me in Jesus cleanses and empowers us to have a fresh start.  Again.  Today.  Tomorrow.  Everyday.  

If we continue in Jesus’ word and let that grace grab us and hold us firm in love, than we are true disciples and followers of the Lamb.  Then we will know the truth and the truth will free us each day, every hour, all life long.

This is Reformation Faith.  Let it soak your soul and change how you think and feel about yourself.  May it empower us to love and accept ourselves and to love all those for whom Christ died.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

As Sparks Fly Upward II

Faith — October 10, 2021

A man walking on a tightrope stretched out between two tall buildings shouts down to the crowd gathering below.  Their were shouting words of encouragement to him.  He crossed over from one side to the next and back again.  Then to add to the challenge he grabbs a wheelbarrow and  shouts to the crowd, “Do you believe I can make it across with my wheelbarrow?”  

“Yes,” shouted the crowd. 

“Do you really believe I can do it?”  

The crowd exuberantly shouts back, “We believe! Do it!”

So he shouts “Great!  I need a volunteer!” (to ride in the wheelbarrow).

The crowd is silent!

Faith.  

We all say we have faith.  And, yet, we all consider our own faith as weak and inadequate.  Do we have enough faith?  We pray, Lord, strengthen our faith!

The book of Job is about suffering, but more importantly it is about faith in the midst of suffering.   How strong is our faith in hard times?  Can we trust God even in the dark?  What if our health fails?  What if our loved ones die?  What if justice fails and the bad guys seems to win without any accountability?  The book of Job challenges our thinking about fairness.

The prologue of the book gives us as readers an a view behind the curtain when the main character, Job, and his would-be-counselors, do not hear the conversation between God and Satan.  Job never sees behind the scenes.  We are given that perspective and witness the struggle of Job as he looses everything, including his family and health.  We read the conversations between Job and his would-be-friends as they accuse him of getting what he deserves—punishment for wrong doing.  We read how Job holds on to his innocence and pleads with God who remains silent and never explains what  why all this is happening.

But, back to the prologue.  God calls a heavenly council meeting, with Satan in attendance.  God draws our attention to Job and the quality of his life and faith.  Satan wants to throw doubt on Job’s faith.  “Of course he is so good and faithful!  You protect him and bless him.  Withdraw your protection and blessing and he will curse you to your face!”  God’s desire is not to test and torment Job, but to give Job the opportunity to prove the genuineness of his faith.  

This is not a story about a spiritual chess game between God and Satan.  It is not a dual between equals.  God is Creator and Lord.  Satan is a fallen angel who is accountable to God.  It is about God’s confidence in our faith as humans even in the midst of darkness.  We live in a broken world.  We know that, but at times our idealism and romanticism of life cloud our thinking—and we forget.

Maybe you have watched “Fiddler on the Roof,” and remember Tevye’s cry to God, “why don’t You bless someone else?!” Down through the ages Jewish believers have echoed that cry, as if to say, “If that is how you bless your chosen people, chose someone else.”

Can Job trust God even in darkness?  What if God withholds His blessings and protection?  How does our faith fair when God seems silent?  or distant? or unconcerned about our welfare?  What if it seems that God has turned against us?  Will Job still trust God?  What about us?  Put ourselves in Job’s place.  That is easy to do.  How do we respond when things go south?

When things go wrong, when our health fails, when the darkness seems to crush the light can we still hold on to the idea that God is holding on to us?  When the world seems to be against us and we feel alone and abandoned, can we still trust the goodness of God?  

Job’s experience and story is not about a brutal test of faith where God and the devil play games with human lives.  It is about the genuine faith that clings to God even in the midst of this broken world.  It is about God’s confidence in us and in our faith even when we feel so weak, frail and vulnerable.

The closing chapter of the book show Job is healed and his fortunes and family are restored.  He had not sinned and was not being punished by God as his would-be-friends accused him of.  Satan was wrong.  God was right.  Job struggled and was in intense anguish.  Job questioned God and wanted God to explain Himself.  But Job never stopped believing.  Neither should we!

Maybe this little book in the Old Testament was written to help you and me see that we are not alone in our struggles of faith.  To help us see that God values our faith and believes in us!  

“I will never leave you, nor forsake you!”  (Hebrews 13:5)  

God’s promises are still trustworthy.  God will continue to hold us and keep us safe even in the midst of the darkness and night. 

“And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”  (Hebrews 11:6)

“And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.”  (1 John 5:4)

Faith is our Spirit-enabled response to God’s grace—the God-given, Spirit-enabled ability to trust God’s goodness and love in the midst of life.  Claim it.  Live it.

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Salt

September 26, 2021

Aron Ralston was doing a solo descent of Bluejohn Canyon in southeastern Utah.  He was wearing shorts and a T-shirt. He was working his way down when he dislodged a 1,000 pound boulder that pinned his right wrist to the side of the canyon wall. He could not move the boulder.  He couldn’t free his arm.  He was trapped.  He waited and hoped to be rescued.  No rescue came.  After five days, with his water supply gone, he psyched himself up to do what he needed to do in order to survive.  He broke his forearm as the first step.  Then with his dull jackknife he cut himself free from his trapped arm.   Next he made a rough tourniquet to control his bleeding and then began his journey out.  He made his way through the rest of the canyon.  He rappelled down a 65-foot drop, and hiked 7 miles to safety.  Dehydrated, bloody and in pretty rough condition he was found walking in Canyonlands National Park.  He was lifeflighted from there to a hospital in Grand Junction, Colorado.  You might remember that story.  It in April of 2003.  

The incident is documented in Ralston’s autobiography Between a Rock and a Hard Place and is the subject of the 2010 film 127 Hours where he is portrayed by James Franco

In our Gospel reading today Jesus uses some pretty rough language.  He tells us to cut off a hand or foot, or rip out an eye if they offend us. He says this in the context of the danger of offending a little one, and the high price to be paid for doing so.  “it would be better to have a great millstone hung around your neck and be cast into the sea.”  

Imagine arriving in heaven and seeing someone who is maimed with two hands missing, a missing foot and both eyes gauged out.  And he saying, yes, but at least I made it to heaven!  Is it that hard to get to heaven? If that were true, what type of God would demand what we cannot do and then condemn us for our failure?  

Jesus is speaking in hyperbole—a form of literary exaggeration—in order to make a point.  His point?  Your soul and inner being are much more valuable than your physical being.

Mark 9:38-41

What do we do about someone doing good who is not part of us?  Let them continue to do good.  Don’t stop acts of goodness and kindness.  They are allies in life—on the same team—team Jesus!  No matter who does the acts of kindness and mercy all such deeds will be rewarded.

Mark 9:42-50

Offenses will happen.  Don’t let yourself be the cause of them happening.  Care for the weak and vulnerable.  The context of this reading tells us to include ourselves in the category of the weak and vulnerable.  How do we care for ourselves spiritually and emotionally?  Be disciplined and brutal in defending and taking care of your soul.  Your character and heart are worth protecting.  The type of offense Jesus seems to be referring to jealousy, bitterness or grudges that cause us to act and behave in offensive ways, besides poisoning our souls, pitting us against each other.

Jesus knows we are incredibly human and imperfect.  He is not demanding we perfectly earn our way to heaven.  Jesus is our ticket to heaven.  Grace is our only way of being forgiven and having eternal life.  But we should not just make excuses and get comfortable in failing.  Don’t let jealousy or bitterness destroy you.

So what does it mean to be salty, to have salt in ourselves?  Salt not only flavors food, it kills germs.  Salt serves as a preservative because it kills germs.  It keeps things from spoiling.  The type of spiritual salt Jesus wants us to have?  Know we are forgiven. Through Jesus life and the ability to start new every day.  We are empowered to live under the law of life and love.  We are not governed by the brokenness of our world.  Jesus is telling us to not let jealousy, grudges or bitterness cause us to loose our way to hurt ourselves or others in our lives.  Learn to be kind, tender-hearted and forgiving.  Be salty!  Live at peace!  

You have the ability to do better and change how you live and treat yourself and others because of Jesus.  Claim it!  Live it!  Be salty!  Live at peace!

James 5:13-20 Body-life and prayer in the Church

13-15 Pray when you suffer.  Praise when you are happy and things are good.  When you are sick let the body of Christ pray for and care for you.  

16-18 Don’t underestimate the power of prayer.  Elijah’s experience is a great example.  He prayed for draught and then rain.  Both happened as a result of his prayer.

19-20 Don’t abuse prayer or try to use it as a magic wand to get your own way.  You are connected to the body of Christ.  Let the truth of Jesus’ life in you anchor you with other believers.  Hold each other close.  Care for each other and so save yourselves from spiritual death and being overtaken and overwhelmed  by sin.  

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.