Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Fourth Sunday after The Epiphany, January 31, 2006, Psa 1

Epiphany 4, January 29, 2006
St. John’s, Howard SD.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
That is the opening paragraph from what many consider to be a great classic work of literature.  The book is called “A Tale of Two Cities,” by Charles Dickens.  I don’t know if you’ve read the story or not, but its a book about contrasts.  The whole story takes place during the upheaval of the French Revolution, and is centered around two characters that look alike but are actually quite different.  One exhibits the best qualities of the time, the other the worst, one is wise, the other foolish, etc.  Dickens uses the contrast between these two men to build a story life and death, darkness and light, and good and evil.  
The psalm for today also talks about the same kind of contrasts.  It paints for us a very vivid picture of two ways of life; two ways that humans can live.  The way of wisdom, the way of the person who is blessed by God, and the way of wickedness, the way that perishes.  
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish. (Psalm 1:1-6, ESV)
The author of the Psalm paints these pictures with two strong images.  The first is the image of a strong tree flourishing by a stream.  This tree has great leafy green branches that spread into the sky.  Each leaf receives the moisture it needs from the stream, they “never wither” the poet says.  The tree is a fruit-bearing tree.  In season the fruit is heavy on the branches, a good crop at the proper time.  “And all that he does prospers,” the Psalm says, in conclusion, that is it grows and bears fruit just as a tree should do.  Oh how blessed is the tree that has been so planted that it can grow and prosper in the way that tress should grow and prosper.  
Oh how blessed is the man… The picture of the tree is a picture of a righteous person.  You can see the contrast set up again by the psalm.  A person grows and prospers by the instruction of God, not by the counsel or wisdom of the wicked.  A righteous person meditates “day and night” on the things of God not living the way that wicked people live, not by sitting with them to learn from their foolishness.  Instead the blessed person goes to God with the questions of life.  He listens to the wisdom of God and considers what it means for the way he lives.
That isn’t the way with the wicked people described by the psalm.  They are like the chaff the wind blows away.  In contrast to the planted tree, the chaff is the throw away part of the harvest.  The newly harvested stalks of grain are stacked on the threshing floor.  Oxen trample them to release the grain.  When evening comes and the gentle breeze begins to blow, the farmer tosses the mixture in the air.  The wind picks up the chaff and carries it away, but the heavy grain falls back to the ground.  The grain is collected and moved to storage.  The chaff isn’t given any further thought, the wind has disposed of it, and it has no value anymore.  The way of the wicked person is just as the chaff.  It ends in nothing, accomplishes nothing and easily disappears in the breeze.
The best of times, the worst of times, foolishness and wisdom, light and darkness, two ways of life.
It’s easy for us to think that we are the ones who are blessed ones.  Look around you at all that is here around us: A beautiful building, with beautiful windows.  There are new cars in the parking lot, and young children sitting among us.  For over a hundred years this congregation has gathered together every Sunday to sing beautiful music, and hear God’s Word proclaimed.  Children are born and bring life and hope.  We watch them grow and accomplish new things, and become responsible adults.  We have wonderful places to live and food enough.  And our community that often helps and nurtures those who are hurting.  We are truly very blessed people.  
But are our leaves always green?  Do we bear fruit when we should?  I must admit for myself, when trouble comes into my family, when I face the prospect of death and pain, I don’t feel very green.  I don’t want to think about life without my father.  I don’t want to have to pick up extra duties around the house when my wife is sick.  When something my children have done has upset me I don’t feel much like a green leaf.  I’m sure it’s the same for you.  There are struggles we all face every single day; insecurity at work, struggles with people you don’t like, questions about the future of the community.  Often what we see in the future more feels like what’s blowing away in the wind than anything else.  And our fruit always seem to be tainted.  Oh, we want to do the right thing, but the issues always seem to come down to money and time.  We don’t want to be selfish, but we’ve gotta take care of ourselves first.  At least that’s the advice you get from television, and movies.  At least that’s the word we get from self help books and our friends and family.  We do have fruit, but lots of time it seems kind of wormy and quite a bit rotten.  And that’s the problem with rotten fruit.  You can’t eat it.  It’s just no good.
It seems that Psalm 1 describes our lives pretty completely.  We are blessed and yet we do things that wicked people do.  So where does that leave our future?  Is God going to watch over us or shall we blow away like so much straw?
The truth is that the Psalm isn’t just talking about us.  We really fit in the wicked category better than with the one who meditates on God’s Word day and night.  An hour a week seems to be our limit.  A little to long on Pastor’s sermon and we’ll threaten to drop off to sleep.  No, that part of the Psalm really describes Someone else a lot better than it describes us.  It describes Someone who’s fruit is never tainted.  It describes Someone who always got that green leaf thing going on.  It describes Someone who has God’s Word as the very nature and center of His life.  He walks in God’s ways not ours.  He does whatever He sets out to do.  There’s that contrast again, it’s very strong in this Psalm.  There’s us and there’s Him… and the Him is Jesus.
Everything Jesus did was blessed.  God watched over Him and protected Him.  When King Herod wanted to kill Him, God sent Jesus family to Egypt.  After Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, angels came and helped Him.  Jesus didn’t take the counsel of wicked people; He stood up to their lies and confronted their hypocrisy.  Jesus was caring and compassionate.  Everywhere He went people walked away different.  He ended suffering from disease, and weakness.  Just remember the reading from Mark.  He cast out an unclean spirit.  He gave people hope for their future, and He even gave them food when they needed that.  Remember how He fed 5000 people in the wilderness with 5 loaves and 2 fish?  It’s easy to see Jesus as the strong tree, His arms heavy with good fruit stretched out for the people that flocked to be with Him.  He was green and growing, bearing fruit and prospering.  He was blessed and watched over by God.  He was everything we should be, and can’t be.  
And yet, there’s another part of that Psalm that describes Jesus, too.  He wasn’t a wicked person.  He lived His life perfectly in the will of God, He never sinned, but still He suffered the death of a wicked person.  Everything He did was right and yet He suffered and died, as a wicked person deserves.  What happened to God watching over Him then?  God was watching, in fact, Jesus whole life lived for that very moment.  Someone had to be punished for the wickedness of people, someone had to be punished for the evil things that you and I do.  Someone had to die for our rotten fruit.   And that’s just what Jesus did.  He bled and died for the wickedness of the whole world.  He willingly gave His perfect life to satisfy the need for punishment… to perish for wicked people.  And God was watching and approved of it and accepted the sacrifice of Jesus for you and me and all the wicked people of the whole world.  And all that He did prospered.  When the payment was paid in full, Jesus Christ rose from the dead again, in victory over all evil.
“Pastor,” you say, “I know what Jesus did, but my life still seems a lot more like the chaff in the wind.  I don’t feel like the tree by the water.”
Look right here at this font.  That’s your stream of water.  That’s the one you’ve been planted by.  It was at your baptism that God made promises to you to watch over you, and to make you a blessed person.  It was there that you were “clothed with Christ.” You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  (Galatians 3:26-27)  That means that everything Jesus Christ did He did for you.  Everything from the punishment He paid, to the good things that He did.  The green leaves and the abundant fruit that He grew are yours.  That’s what the passage means when it says, For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, (Ephesians 2:8, ESV) That gift of God is faith in the good works of Christ.  Not trusting the “good things” you’ve done to impress God, because we know that no matter how good they are they just don’t measure up.  Listen again to the familiar words of Isaiah: We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. (we could replace those words with “rotten fruit”!)  We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. (Isaiah 64:6, ESV)  Sound familiar?  Sure, that’s just like the Psalm.  Well then if all our “righteous deeds” are “rotten fruit” what are we to do?  That’s what our faith is all about we trust in the good fruit of Someone else.  The good works of Jesus are yours.  That’s as true for you as the fact that right here at the “stream of living water” your head got wet.  You have been transplanted by (by means of) streams of water, from the way of wicked people to the way of the blessed.  You don’t need any good works, to make yourself right with God.  But do you know who needs those good things you do?  Your neighbors!  Your family!  You co-workers!  Your community!  Your school!  That’s what changes everything.  Instead of trying to impress God with our good works (they don’t anyway… remember) we can do them to serve others.  We don’t need them but they do!  And that too is what the Psalm is talking about.
We are blessed people, planted by streams of living water, to bear good and abundant fruit, in season.  Serving the people God has placed right before us to serve.  The future for us isn’t like chaff in the wind.  Our future is a blessed future just as God has promised through Jesus Christ.  For us it is the best of times.  Time to grow and flourish where God has planted us.  Time to bear fruit right here in the ways God has given us to bear it.  And just as he promises, in Jesus Christ all that we do will prosper.  Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Third Sunday after The Ephiphany, January 22, 2006, Jonah 3:1-10


Epiphany 3, 2006
St. John's Lutheran Church, Howard, SD

Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you." So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord.  Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days' journey in breadth.  Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's journey.  And he called out, "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" And the people of Nineveh believed God.  They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.  The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.  And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, "By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything.  Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God.  Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.  Who knows?  God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish." When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.  (Jonah 3:1-10, ESV)

Grace and Peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Get ready to hear the shortest sermon on record… don't get your hopes up; it's not the one I'm preaching right now.  It's the one found here in the book of Jonah.  It's right in the middle of Chapter three, which is our Old Testament lesson for today.  And it must be an important reading because it's the only time that the book of Jonah is read during the whole church year. 

You all know the story of Jonah the reluctant prophet.  The guy who ran away from God and got swallowed by a big fish for his efforts.  "The word of the Lord came to Jonah," is how the story starts.  Jonah was a prophet; his job was to take the Word of God to the people God told him to go to.  And God gave him the task of taking that Word to Nineveh.  Now Jonah didn't want to go to Nineveh.  It wasn't a very nice town; in fact it was very evil.  The Bible doesn't tell us exactly what they were doing that was so bad; it just says that their "wickedness" had come up before God.  But there's more to it than that.  You see Nineveh was the enemy.  They had threatened the people of Israel before.  They had a reputation of going around and sacking cities and killing all the people that lived in them.  Jonah didn't want to go to Nineveh because they were the enemy.  In the old days Nebraska Cornhusker fans would understand this like going to Norman and preaching about the Big Red.  Jonah didn't want to go and he was willing to do just about anything to avoid it.  So he went to the coast and chartered a boat for the farthest place he could think of "Tarshish." We don't really know where Tarshish is but there is good reason to believe it's Spain, which as far as the Jonah was concerned was the end of the world.  The most important part of Tarshish's location for Jonah was that it was in the opposite direction of Nineveh.  So that's where he headed.  But, God of course, was determined in his plan for Nineveh so he sent a storm and a fish.  Jonah gets thrown overboard and into the fish's belly, where he spends three very long days.

Finally, after he should have died, Jonah got spit up on the shore.  And God said to Jonah a second time, "Go to Nineveh and proclaim to it what I asked you to proclaim." And Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord.  You've gotta love the bible here for it's understatement.  After being chased down by a storm and spending days in the fish; Of course he went to Nineveh.  He knew he couldn't run again.  Who knew what God had in mind if he decided to run again?  So Jonah went to Nineveh, but he was still the reluctant prophet.  And this is where that short sermon comes in.  Jonah preached as little as he could preach.  Apparently just enough to satisfy what God told him to say.  "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned." At first you might be tempted to think that that's just the content of his message.  But if you look you'll see that those are very the words he used.  It was eight simple words (actually only five in Hebrew, עוֹד אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם וְנִינְוֵה נֶהְפָּכֶת ), but a complete sermon.  Jonah, it seems, still wasn't very anxious to do what God had asked him to do.  Kinda like the child who's supposed to go up and clean his room, and shoves everything under the bed.  The room looks clean but it isn't.  Jonah delivers the message, but only in the most minimal way he can deliver it.  But, God's Word always has its way.  In spite of Jonah, the people of Nineveh believe what he says.  The Ninevites believed God.  It's important to notice that they believe God, not Jonah.  They take the message they hear as if it to be from God.  They believe in God, and repent of their sin.  You see, repentance always follows faith.  And not only do they believe, they put their money where their mouth is. Everyone, even the sheep and cattle, fast and sit in sackcloth and ashes as a way to show God that they are truly repentant.  And God changes his course of action against them.  God's threat was taken seriously the people of Nineveh have faith in God to forgive them,  and he doesn't have to carry it out His threat, because the people had changed.

And Jonah, well he gets mad.  "I knew it!" He said.  "That's why I didn't want to come here.  I knew you'd wimp out and not destroy the city.  And if any city needs to be destroyed it's this one.  These people are not your people, they're Gentiles, they're Ninevites!  Aren't they outside you plan?  No!  You, God, are 'gracious and compassionate.'  You let them off too easy."  Jonah, it seems had a lot yet to learn, and the book leaves us hanging and never tells us if he did.

And so what about that short sermon?  "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned."  Well, I don't think I can ever use it here, but it is good message.  You see, it has law and gospel in it.  Nineveh is going to be "overturned."  Jonah says.  Well, what he means is that Nineveh is on the fire and brimstone schedule, just like Sodom and Gomorrah.  "Annihilate" is probably a word that better describes what God had in mind than just "overturn."  It fit pretty well in Jonah's way of thinking, too.  God was planning the total destruction of Nineveh because of her "wickedness."

You do know that we all fit into that category.  Our wickedness comes up before God on a daily basis.  No, we aren't out there destroying cities and killing the inhabitants.  We aren't out there committing great big huge sins.  But the truth is that we too are wicked in God's eyes.  We can't even keep any one of God's laws perfectly let alone all ten.  Jesus clearly tells us that it's not just a matter of doing and not doing what the commandments say.  It's a matter of the heart.  He said that you don't have to kill someone to be guilty of murder.  All you have to do is call them a 'fool' or think bad things about them.  He says that you don't have to have an affair to commit adultery.  It happens when your eyes wander.  And in case you think that that's not the wickedness that Jesus is talking, about he says that people who break the least of the commandments aren't worthy of the kingdom of God.  Sin begins in the heart.  The bible says, "the wages of sin is death." The wages of sin is overturning, annihilation. 

We could easily be found standing in Jonah's shoes saying, "I'm not as bad as they are.  After all I'm a member of a church and there are lots of people who don't belong anywhere.  Surely God looks at them differently than he does me.  And what about the members of our church who never come?  They've got to be further down on the favor scale that I am.  Maybe they deserve punishment, but not me.  I've always got my checkbook out whenever the church needs money."  Jonah too, expected God to be gracious to him.  He was thankful when God saved him from the fish; it didn't bite him in half.  It didn't swim to the bottom of the sea and stay there.  Let's face it that's what Jonah deserved.  He had been given as specific task to do; there was no doubt about it.  He was running away from God.  God could have struck him dead.  But God was gracious to him and let him live.  Jonah's problem isn't a lack of thankfulness for what God had done; it was a failure to see that God's grace is for other people too.  The people in Nineveh needed God's word.  They needed to hear God's plans for them, but Jonah didn't want them to have it.  He wanted to keep it for himself, and the people who he saw as the people of God.  That simply wasn't God's plan.

There was Gospel in Jonah's message, in spite of Jonah's wish.  "Forty more days…" he said.  There was yet a chance for the people of Nineveh to repent.  There was time before the destruction to get things right with God again.  Just the fact that God sent Jonah in the first place was an act of God's grace.  He could have destroyed them with out any warning at all.  God's plan for the Ninevites wasn't destruction but restoration.  God is 'gracious and compassionate' as Jonah said.  He didn't kill Jonah.  He didn't destroy Nineveh when they repented, either.

Well so, what's this text really all about?  It's not about Jonah getting swallowed and spit up by a big fish.  It's not about how wicked the people Nineveh were.  And it's not even about us and our sin.  It's really about God, His grace, His forgiveness, and His Word.  He is gracious and compassionate.  St.  Peter wrote: He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.  2 Peter 3:9  God doesn't want people to live in sin and guilt, He takes care of it by sending Jesus to be our Savior, to bring us forgiveness of sins, just like He forgave the people of Nineveh.

That message about God's grace is the message of Jesus Christ.  Jesus came to us in our Nineveh, even though we were the enemies of God and deserved punishment, overturning and annihilation.  Jesus wasn't reluctant, like Jonah, to come to us; he did it of his own free will, because it was part of God's plan to save the whole world.  Jesus preached an equally simple message.  "Repent the Kingdom of God is here!" Now is the time to act.  Now is the time to repent and set things right with God.  God could have just destroyed the world without warning, but instead he sent Jesus to save you and me.  That punishment that we deserved, that overturning and annihilation, Jesus Christ took it on himself on the cross.  He was overturned and killed instead of us.  He died and spent his three days, not in the belly of a fish, but in the darkness of death.  And God changed his planned action against us.  Jesus died instead.  Just like the fish spit Jonah on the shore, Jesus broke free from death.  And we are free from the punishment of our sin.

God's Word had its effect on the people of Nineveh.  They repented of their sins.  They turned from their evil.  God was gracious to them.  God is gracious to us.  He has forgiven us, because of Jesus.  We hear God's Word that tells us to turn to Him for forgiveness.  And so we do and so He forgives.  The power for the people of Nineveh was in the Word of God, that great little sermon from the reluctant prophet.  The power us today is also in the Word of God.  It says confess because I forgive.

Think about what it means to have the Word of God in this place.  You can come here Sunday after Sunday and hear about the forgiveness won for you by Jesus.  You can come here and see that forgiveness given to God's people in Baptism, and Holy Communion.  And remember that that Word of forgiveness isn't just for you, it's for the whole world, even the Ninevites. 

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Rev. Jonathan C. Watt
St. John's Lutheran Church
Howard, South Dakota

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Second Sunday After Epiphany, January 15, 2006, John 1:43-51

Second Sunday After Epiphany, January 15, 2006
St. John’s, Howard, SD
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (John 1:43-51, ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
“I doubt it!” Bobby wasn’t convinced. He heard the story but just couldn’t fit the account into his way of thinking. “No, Bobby it’s really true. I saw it yesterday. She’s back in town and asking for you!”
“I doubt it.” Bob replied, even though he’d been waiting to hear just that for a very long time. “It just isn’t possible. She’s not due back for a month yet. And Besides, why would she ask for me?”
“Well, maybe she changed her mind?” answered his friend. “Women always say that they’re allowed, you know.”
It was all that Bob could do to suppress the hope that was trying to surface. “She’s not going to change her mind! She already told me ‘No.’ and anyway, I’ve already taken the ring back.” It wasn’t exactly the truth; he only quit carrying the ring in his pocket. It had found a new place among the clutter on his dresser. “She knows where I am. If she wants me she can find me.”
“I’m telling you, she wants to talk to you.”
“I doubt it!”
We all have doubts. Not only the kind of doubts Bob has either. We have doubt about our families, weather we are doing our best with our kids. We have doubts about our work, will our job be there tomorrow? We even have doubts about ourselves. “Can I really handle all this pressure?” It’s perfectly natural and human to have doubts.
There is one place though we often don’t admit to having doubts. For some reason when it comes to our faith, we think that we shouldn’t have any doubts at all, when it comes to the things of God. That can be a real problem for us when we think that way, because the truth of the matter is this: everyone in this room has had doubts about their faith. And we are not alone. Our parents had doubts, those German Lutherans who huddled together on the banks of the Mississippi River and founded the churches that became he Missouri Synod had doubts. Martin Luther himself, had doubts about his faith too. You see the people of God have never been with out their doubts, even Jesus disciples. And just look at Nathaniel Jesus would-be-disciple. He has doubts. Philip tells him about Jesus and he says, “I doubt it.” When we have doubt, especially about our faith, we stand in good company.
So what are some of the things that you have doubts about? In regard to your faith? Sometimes doubt comes up in our lives, not because we don’t believe what the bible says, but because people all around tell us we should have doubts. We are educated people. Education is a great thing. It’s a wonderful gift that God has given us. You may even feel that a good education is essential for the world today. A good education can teach us to think logically about things, and even to be a little bit skeptical. It’s good to question the status quo and established norms. It’s one way in which we grow.
Sometimes our education can be the reason for doubt. Miracles, we are told, don’t really happen. Everything has a natural and logical explanation. Educated people believe in the scientific method. Did Jesus really feed five thousand people by a miracle? Did he really multiply five loaves and two fish to a meal for multitude? Isn’t it more logical to think, and believe that his charisma moved the people into sharing the food that they had all already brought? It’s a more logical solution to the miracle problem, after all. Well, the bible says it quite simply. They had five loaves and two fish, and Jesus fed them all with what he had. The bible doesn’t call upon us to believe only the most logical solution, but only to believe what it says. We just don’t see miracles like that around here, and science can’t explain it. So, sometimes, in spite of what we believe, we have our doubts about miracles.
And science has an impact on other teachings of the bible, too. You see, according to most people today, educated people don’t believe in creation, either. They say that the facts point to evolution instead. There’s a prof. at Texas Tech who won’t write recommendations for medical school for students who believe in creation. His criterion for a recommendation letter is simple. Get at least one a in you major class, get to know him, and don’t believe in creation. If you reject evolution you are unfit to practice medicine and you are sure to make ‘bad clinical decisions.’ Pressure like that can make us all wonder what’s going on. It can cause us to doubt the simple Word of God that says He created the world in six days. And even though creation is very well supported by science we still have our doubts.
We have other doubts about God, too. Does he really care about me? If he does why does he allow such bad things to happen to me? Why are there things in my life that hurt so much? Did God really do all those things written in his word? Did Jesus Christ really die on the cross, and did he really do it for me? These and many other questions have crossed all our minds, but we have difficulty admitting our doubts about God. We think that it will show that we have a weak faith. Instead we take Jesus own words to heart. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” Mark 10:15 Doesn’t that say that we must be like children, totally believing and without any doubt? Well again, the truth is that we doubt, it can’t be denied or avoided. You have doubt. I have doubt. The only way to deal with it is to go to Jesus and see what he says about it.
Well, first we need to see that Jesus accepts doubt. Look again at our text for today. Here we see that Jesus finds Philip and says to him, “follow me!” Philip reacts to the call of Jesus and runs of to recruit Nathaniel. Nathaniel isn’t so quick to act and believe though.
Philip says, “Nathaniel, we’ve found the Christ, the Messiah!”
“I doubt it.”
From what we know about Nathaniel, he was probably an educated man. He knew about the promises of the Messiah. Jesus saw him “under the fig tree.” In those days “under the fig tree” meant that you were studying God’s word. The teachers of the day said that every man should “study the law under their own vine and fig tree.” So there Nathaniel was reading the bible and Philip comes and says he found the Christ. Nathaniel probably knew what he was talking about. “Can anything good come from Titonka?” It was like that any way. He knew the prophecy; they didn’t say anything about Nazareth. It was a question of doubt from an educated man.
And there we are. We too are educated people, sitting under our own fig tree. We know the stories of the bible, the wonderful things God did for his people. We know about the destruction of the evil of the world with the flood. … the way God lead his people out of slavery in Egypt and saved them at the Red Sea. We know about how Jesus healed sick people everywhere he went, and how he tenderly cared for children. We are educated people. But when our lives get difficult and sticky, and God doesn’t act as we expect… we begin to doubt. When the evil of the world seems to triumph time and time again, it seems as if the God we’ve read about isn’t acting as a good God should act. And so we once again have doubts.
But Jesus didn’t scold Nathaniel for his doubts. The conversation didn’t begin like this: “Well, doubter, if you had more faith you’d not have trouble with that doubt.” Jesus didn’t accuse Nathaniel of depending too much on reason. Instead Jesus surprises us all. Nathaniel is given a complement. “Here is an Israelite in whom there is no guile.” (Guile is deceit or lying) Nathaniel didn’t keep his doubts hidden, when he had a problem with what was told to him he said, “I doubt it!” It was healthy skepticism. Nathaniel knew what he was looking for, the true Messiah, no imitation would do. He wanted to be sure that what he was hearing was right before he was going to believe. There are times when doubt has a way of bringing out the truth. “Is it really true?” doubt asks. Jesus sees the usefulness of Nathaniel’s question and his doubt. He knew it was a part of Nathaniel’s growing faith.
Nathaniel didn’t have to remain in his doubt. His question would really be answered. Jesus offered him proof. He took Nathaniel’s doubt and turned it around for his benefit (and he often does the same with you and me!) Notice what Jesus doesn’t say to Nathaniel. It’s not “Look deep into your heart, that’s where you’ll find the truth about me.” He told him that he had miraculously seen him sitting under the fig tree (probably reading about the Messiah!) The proof of our faith doesn’t come from deep in our hearts. It doesn’t come from our feelings. Our feelings and thoughts are often wrong, and very misleading. The proof of the things of God come from outside of us. We find it in His Word. We find it in this room whenever we gather to hear his words of forgiveness for us. We see it, and touch it, and taste it in the very body and blood of Jesus, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.
Nathaniel was impressed that Jesus could see him under the fig tree, even though Jesus wasn’t there. But Jesus says there’s more to be seen, proof of a different kind. “There’s more here than you think.” He says to Nathaniel. “You believe that I am the Messiah, but do you really know what that means? You will see heaven opened!” Nathaniel’s educated ideas about the Messiah were going to be put to the test. “Heaven is going to be opened. Sinners are going to have a right relationship with God once again. Are you ready to see that kind of proof Nathaniel?” I’m sure it’s not the last time Nathaniel had doubts as he walked, and talked with Jesus.
Do we believe in Jesus because he offers us proof? No. Rather we believe in Jesus because of his great love for us. That’s the real proof of who his is. We see his love in the joy of the Christmas child, warm and protected in Mary’s arms. We see his love as he walks dusty roads and calls doubting disciples. We see his love as he tenderly takes helpless people by the hand and heals them. We see his love as he hangs on the cross, bloody and bruised, suffering and dying. If there is doubt about his love for you, just look there, because he died in your place. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13 Jesus Christ laid down his life for you. No matter how much doubt you have in your life, no matter how much sin plagues you, no matter what you’ve done in the past, none of it matters to Jesus. His love for you is so great that he chose to die for you. And even more than that, he rose again to life, and he promises that you too will conquer death.
Doubt isn’t something that you’ll ever be able to totally get rid of. But just like you go to the people who love you when you need help, remember how much Jesus loves you, and go to him when you have doubts.
We don’t trust him for answers because he answers all our questions or even because he helps sort out of faith question in our mind. Sometimes we never get some questions answered. We trust him because of what he has done for us. We trust him because he loves us so much that he died for us and rose again. That is love that banishes all doubt. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Second Sunday after Epiphany, 1 Sam 3:1-10, Jan 15, 2006

2nd Sunday after Epiphany January 15, 2006
St.  John’s Lutheran Church, Howard, SD
Now the young man Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. And the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his own place. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called Samuel, and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. And the Lord called again, “Samuel!” and Samuel arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. And the Lord called Samuel again the third time. And he arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the young man. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.’ ” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. And the Lord came and stood, calling as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant hears.” (1 Samuel 3:1-10, ESV)
Grace and Peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.
Well, the timing of this text is pretty good.  Next week we are starting adult bible classes next week, and soon well have more opportunities to Study God’s Word together too.  It’s about someone who’s learning to be a servant of God.  Samuel is a boy of probably about 12 years old.  His life has been dedicated to working in the church every day and serving the aging priest, Eli.  Eli is getting old and can’t see very well.  That explains why Samuel would go running to him if he thought he needed help in the night.  Samuel is a faithful servant, and does what is necessary for Eli.  But really this story really begins before Samuel was born.  It begins years earlier with his mother, Hannah.  Hannah was one of the two wives of a faithful man of God.  His name was Elkannah.  Every year the family would travel to Shiloh to worship present their sacrifices to God.  And every year Hannah would present double as instructed by her husband, he loved her so much.  And yet, Hannah was troubled.  She had not yet had children, while her husband’s other wife Peninnah did.  The two wives didn’t get along because of it.  
Hannah was very troubled, and during her visit to God’s house she prayed that God would give her a son.  If he did, she said, she would dedicate him to service in God’s house.  The high priest at that time was Eli.  He saw her praying, and because she was moving her lips, but praying in her heart, he accused her of being drunk.  “I’ve not been drinking, but I’m very distressed.”  She said.  “Go in peace.  May the Lord do for you what you have asked.”  Eli responded.  Hannah left confident that God would do what she had asked.  God did.  And as promised, as soon as Samuel was old enough he was brought to live and work in God’s house.  Samuel grew up to be a faithful servant to God.  
Eli, the High Priest, also had children.  His sons also worked in the temple.  They were priests like their father, but unlike Samuel they weren’t good servants.  In fact they were corrupt and deceitful.  They took advantage of their positions to fill their pockets and satisfy their desires.  Eli knew all about what they were doing, but didn’t do anything to stop them.  That’s one of the reasons why, at the beginning of this text, it says that the word of the Lord was rare.  It was God’s judgment on His people for being disobedient.  
And that leads us up to what’s going on here, Samuel receiving the rare word of the Lord.  It was God’s plan to make is not so rare again, through His servant Samuel.  
It all takes place just before dawn.  The lamp of God had not yet gone out.  That’s talking about a lamp stand that was lit and burned all through the night until morning.  Samuel is sleeping in his usual place, and just before dawn, Samuel hears a voice calling to him.  “Samuel, Samuel.”  He thinks it’s his master Eli calling for help with something.  Remember Eli was nearly blind and couldn’t see very well anymore.  It was probably common for him to call for help.  But when Samuel went to him and asked what he wanted Eli says, “Go back to sleep your dreaming!” But when it happens a second and third time, Eli finally realizes that something else is going on.  “Next time say, ‘Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went back to bed and God called him again and he answered just as he was instructed.  “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.”  That is how Samuel became a prophet of God.  He was willing to listen to God’s word for him.
“Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”  That’s the word for us today.  It’s a good place to start as we start to think more about Christian education here at St. John’s.  Speak, Lord, we are listening.  But, I wonder, maybe we are really fooling ourselves.  Are we really listening?  Of course we are here today sitting patiently while God speaks to us through His Word.  But, sometimes it’s hard to pay attention.  We get to thinking about lunch in the oven at home; taking care of the lawn; the mountain of work we have on our desk; or the football game that starts in a little bit.  Oh, sure we are listening, but it’s hard to really listen, isn’t it?  After all it sounds so much like what we hear every other Sunday.
Are we really listening as a congregation?  Maybe we are fooling ourselves there, too?  After all our attendance isn’t really that good.  In fact most of the people who belong to the congregation aren’t even here.  That doesn’t really sound like we’re really listening.  
And what about our children, are they listening?  Maybe it’s not their fault.  Here at St. John’s we have great attendance at our Kids for Christ on Wednesday afternoon (20 kinds regularly show up) and that’s great, but when we look around church this morning they don’t seem to be here.  I know what most of you are thinking… well when we were kids, we weren’t given a choice about church… we just went.  Well, those days are gone.  We’ve got to start thinking about how to get the kids we have now to come, not how our parents made it work.  If they aren’t here on Sunday they don’t get the chance to listen to God’s Word where God promises to give it.  I don’t want ever to give the kids the impression that Wed afternoon is for the kids and Sunday morning is for the adults.  That’s not the way it should be.  God has His gifts of forgiveness here for all of us; that includes our children.  But, of course, we adults don’t attend bible classes very well either do we.  There’s always an excuse, beginning with the time being inconvenient.  It’s a little bit as if we say, “Speak, Lord, and I’ll listen as long as it’s convenient, and doesn’t interfere with my real life.”
And if that’s not enough St.  James tells us that if we listen and don’t act on what we’ve heard we really aren’t listening.  But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. (James 1:22-24, ESV)  When we look in the mirror we see our failings pretty clearly.  We don’t act much as if God’s Word means what it says.
So, we don’t listen very well.  We may say, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”  But when it comes right down to it we are pretty poor listeners.  If only we could be more like Samuel.  Maybe we could to him as a better example.  He was willing to listen to God.  We should willingly listen to God speaking.  But really, pointing to someone as an example isn’t going to help us much.  So what if Samuel was a good listener.  That doesn’t do us much good, really.  Really our problem isn’t really the fact that we don’t listen; our problem is that we don’t really want to listen.  The problem really runs much deeper than just what we do while we sitting here in the pew.  It’s not a matter of actions.  It’s not a matter of doing or not doing.  We confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean.  We have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.  And we could add “By how we have listened, not applying the truth to ourselves as we should, and by how we have not listened, and done what God commands.”  We could try to do better.  We could try to follow Samuel’s example.  But, when we are honest with ourselves, we know that before long we’d be right back where we started; with the necessity to confess our sin again.  Following Samuel’s example just shows us our sin again and again.  
So, what are we to do?  Aren’t we listening to this text to find out what we need to do better?  Aren’t we listening to it tell us that we need to better with attendance at Church and Bible study?  Isn’t that what church today is all about getting us all charged up and excited that we carry through with our promises and do the things we should do?
Well frankly, no.  I’d love to see better attendance.  I’d love to see so many people here that we run out of room.  And even so many children that we would sometimes have trouble hearing.  But, no amount of pointing to Samuel as an example is ever going to solve our problem.  Our problem is the sin that’s right here in our hearts, the sin that we can remove by any amount of our trying.  
We don’t need an example… We need a Savior.  It’s a little like telling a person whose drowning and shouting “I can’t swim,” to follow the example of someone who is swimming next to them.  At that moment that person doesn’t need swimming lessons; they need someone to reach out and save them.  Picture the drowning person struggling to stay above the water.  The life guard jumps in, floating quietly beside him.  “Ok, Mr. Smith, just pay attention, I’m going to teach you how to swim now.”  Meanwhile, the panicked Mr. Smith is splashing around trying to spit out the water he’s gulping down.  “Now, Mr. Smith,” the life guard continues, “you’ll never learn to swim that way.  You have to pay attention to what I’m doing.  You’ve got to follow my example.”  Well, thankfully that’s not what they train life guards to do.  At that point Mr. Smith doesn’t need an example he needs a savior.
Thank God, He knows that that’s exactly what we need, too.  So, He sends us a Savior.  He doesn’t give us the bible full of examples and say; “I’ll save you if you do what they do.  If you listen like Samuel, I’ll take care of your sin.”  Instead He gives us His Word, where we find not an example, but a Savior.  Really the person we should think about when we hear how faithful Samuel is isn’t us (that is how we should be faithful) but it’s Jesus.  Just as Samuel was willing to listen, so Jesus was willing to listen.  I didn’t tell you what God told Samuel when he listened.  It was bad news for Eli.  God was going to judge Eli and his sons for all the evil things his sons had done.  It wasn’t a pleasant task he was given.  Jesus listened to the Father, too.  Neither was His task pleasant.  When He listened to God the Father He heard a call to death.  He answered that call on the cross, where He bled and died for the sins of the whole world.  But also, when He listened to God the Father, He heard a call to life, and was raised again from death on the third day.  And He answered that call, too! It is Jesus who perfectly listened to God.  We hear about Samuel in the text, but he was an imperfect human.  But, even if he was perfect he could only save himself.  He died and stayed dead.  Jesus died and rose again.  He is the only one who can save us.  And that’s what we learn when we listen to God, here in this place.
It’s a message worth listening to.  Jesus Christ comes here to us in this place telling us again and again what He has done for us.  He tells us how He has saved us as we were drowning in our sin.  He tells us that He took the punishment for our sin, and was pinned with it to the cross.  He took our death and buried it in the grave.  He takes our live and gives it back to us by His resurrection from the dead.  That’s the Word that we hear, right here in Sunday morning worship.  That the Word we hear, in bible classes, Sunday school and our midweek program.  That’s the word that we need to hear, the Word that’s worth listening to.  
Worship is primarily about what God does for us.  It’s the place that God promises to come and give us forgiveness through His Word and Sacraments.  Nothing we do as a church is more important.  It’s important for Adults, old and young, and it’s important for all of our children.  We’ll have Adult Bible class after nearly worship every Sunday.  That class isn’t just for some people it’s for all of you.  If you haven’t been in a while, if you’ve never been, come and give it a try.  Our Children have many opportunities besides Sunday morning worship.  They have Kids for Christ.  It’s not just about getting confirmed, it’s about learning about what God has done.  
“Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”  We are listening.  Not because of the example of Samuel.  But because of our Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

The Baptism of Our Lord, Isa 24:1-4, Jan 8, 2006

Epiphany 1, 2006
St.  John’s ~ Burt, IA
Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. (Isaiah 42:1-4, ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ;
People have in mind what servants should be.  I remember the classic Disney movie Cinderella.  The prince’s messenger is at the door after trying to put the glass slipper on each of the evil step sister’s fat feet.  “Are you sure there isn’t anyone else in the house?”  “Wait!”  Comes the cry from the stair way.  Cinderella comes bounding down to deftly place here delicate foot there.  But it is the look that her step mother and step sisters have on their faces that makes the whole movie priceless.  They had become accustomed to Cinderella being a servant.  Clean up after me.  Bring me food.  In their minds she was just not princess material.  She was their servant.  And there are just certain things servants don’t do… shouldn’t do.  But that’s what makes the story a good one.  Something remarkable happens.
Isaiah is telling us a about a servant too.  “Behold my Servant,” he says, some translations say, “Here is my Servant.”  By starting that way God tells us that this Servant is a very important person, actually a ‘chosen one.’  Someone who God has specifically sent.  But as we read on, we may see some things that make us wonder.  It isn’t the kind of stuff we’d expect to see a Servant do.  Here, according to Isaiah, this Servant actually seems more like a Hero.  Children (and adults) often imagine themselves as heroes.  You’ve maybe seen them tuck a towel in their shirt and play “super hero.”  It is great fun to pretend that we are capable of ‘saving the world’.  But somehow, I don’t remember that the heroes that I pretended to be were really much of a Servant.  Being the hero means you get to be in charge.  Being the hero means you get to care of everything.  Being the hero means you get to be the boss.  But that’s not what we see here.  How can a Servant be a hero?  We don’t always see those two things as being compatible, unless, like the Cinderella story the Servant first becomes something different.
Well, to understand this better let’s look at Isaiah’s job description for God’s Servant / Hero, and maybe we’ll be able to see how they fit together here.
“He will bring forth justice to the nations” Now this justice that is being talked about here is bigger than just seeing that the law is administered evenly to everyone; that criminals are punished and innocent people are not.  It’s a much bigger picture that is in mind.  Another way to think of it might be “salvation-justice.”  What God is promising here is that His Servant is going to set the world back in order .  The whole world, “the nations,” set back to the way God intended it all to be.  People can’t do this kind of work.  It takes God’s Spirit and power.  And that’s what this servant is going to have.  
Isaiah goes on, “He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.” And here another part that clashes with our thinking.  He will establish this “justice-salvation” but he is humble and gentile.  He doesn’t shout out about his accomplishments.  He doesn’t do His work by brute force.  He’s no a bull in a china shop, changing things, doing his work by force.  His work will be so careful that he will care for even those who are already hurting, and those who are weak.  But just because we don’t see what we think of when we think of heroes, we are told that he will be successful.   We aren’t to think that because he is gentle and humble that he can’t accomplish God’s task.  We aren’t to think that he’ll be weak.  God promises that it will be done.  Apparently, this Servant can be a Hero after all!
And that brings us to the Gospel reading for today.  It’s the account of Jesus baptism in the Jordan River.  This even marks the beginning of Jesus public ministry, a kind of stepping out in the open, being shown for who He is.  Lot’s of things here point to Jesus as Our Servant / Hero.  The dove coming down from the sky, and the voice of God speaking about Him.   But mostly all you have to do is remember what Jesus did to see that He fits the bill.  He is the one who brings God’s salvation for all people.  He walks among the hurting people of the world, healing them and loving, even the unlovable.  He serves them humbly, shedding the truth of God into their darkened world.  He healed the sick and freed the captives from the prison of their sin.  He shows us that he is a Servant / Hero who could live a life without selfishness, unjust anger and sin of any kind.  But just because Jesus serves in this we shouldn’t get the idea that He is weak.  Jesus Christ, our Servant / Hero, gives his very life for the sake of others.  He serves by offering up His body and blood on the cross.  The life and work of Jesus the Servant / Hero has its greatest point when he sheds his blood for the sins of the whole world.  To all the world it looks like weakness, but in reality it is only the great strength of God that could do it.  Jesus is the true hero, who takes the sins of the whole world on himself, suffers the just punishment for all nations.  He takes the selfishness, the pride and the violence of sinful people on himself.  His innocent death set in motion the restoration of the whole world back to God’s perfect creation.
And it all starts with the removal of human sin.  It starts publicly with Jesus being baptized.  Jesus Baptism was very different from ours.  In our baptism we receive the forgiveness of God through Jesus.  But Jesus didn’t need the forgiveness of sins as we do.  We’ll sing about Him in a moment when we celebrate His Supper.  He’s the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  But just how does He do that?  We always talk about Jesus taking away our sins… just how does Jesus take away our sin?  How does serve us and carry your sins to the cross?  Well, it’s His baptism marks the beginning of just that.  In the old days the church pictured it this way.  When we are baptized our sins fill the water.  You know what I mean if you’ve cleaned a bathtub, and rubbed down the dirty ring that forms there.  Our sins are washed off of us, and out of us, in Baptism, right down into the water.  We say our sins are washed away in Baptism.  Picture in your mind all your sins, floating on the water like a huge dirty oil slick.  Think about all the times you lied, even those little white ones you use to make yourself look better.  Think about all the times you put your own needs about the needs of your family.  Think about all the times you should have spoken out about the sin you see around you and didn’t.  Think about the sexual sins that flash through your mind that you want dwell on.  Or the even the times you wanted to take matters into your own hands, instead of letting God take care of you.  Like not trusting Him that even illness and death can be used for your good.  We want to take these matters into our own hands, we want death with dignity instead of death trusting in God to know when is best for life to end.  We want every child to be a wanted child instead of letting God determine the value of human life.  You and I have been affected even by these sins.  They creep into our thinking when we aren’t paying attention.  Just like how we let the people outside the church tell us what we should believe, teach and confess, instead of clinging to God’s Word alone.  It’s not so much the things we do, but what’s happened to us because of sin.  It’s corrupted what God intended us to be.  And it comes from our very being.  The sins we do, the thoughts we have are only pictures of what’s in our nature.  That’s why no matter how hard we try we can’t change enough to get rid of all our sin.  We can’t bring God’s justice to our lives by effort.  It has to be brought to us.  That’s what Baptism does.  All those sins and every other sin of thought, word and deed, are floating in the water, dirty and oily, washed away by the Water and God’s Word in Baptism.  But they can’t just stay there.  God has to deal with sin.  He’s got to clean things up.  Sin has to have punishment.  And that’s where Jesus the Servant / Hero comes in.  In His baptism He gets down into our dirty, sin filled water and takes up all the sin that is there.  He sucks it up into His own body.  Just like the paper towel commercial, Mom starts with a perfectly clean towel and cleans up job after job around the kitchen until the towel is full of dirt.  And remember Jesus is completely God, so He can take it all, every single sin every committed, and every sin that will ever be committed.  In fact, He takes the sin that’s a very part of our human-ness, the sin that’s a part of our corrupted nature.  In baptism God drowns our sinful nature.  The sin that came to us through Adam and Eve rejecting God in the garden, the sin that wants to pushes God away.  The sin that is at the root of all the sinful things we do.  That’s what Jesus does in His baptism… He becomes our Servant / Hero the Sin-Bearer.  And He takes all of it right to the cross, and buries it His death there.  He puts to death our sin-bearing sinful nature.  All that dirt, all that sin, all that muck, He puts to death, and into the grave.  And when He rises again on Easter Sunday, they are all gone, forever.  That’s what a Hero does.  He helps us when we can’t help ourselves.  He saves us when we can’t save ourselves.  He serves when we need to be served.
So, did you know that God now calls you to be a servant / hero, too?  No, you can’t bear the sins of the world as Jesus did.  You can’t serve perfectly, live perfectly as he did.  But we can, we are God’s servant / heroes right where God has placed us.  You are God’s servant when you do simple ordinary everyday things that God has placed before you to do.  Are you a parent?  You are a servant hero to your children and you serve by doing what parents do, changing diapers, preparing meals, etc.  The most important task of a parent though, the very reason God gives children parents is to teach the faith.  He makes them servant / heroes to tell their children about Jesus.  Do you have a job?  You are a servant / hero to your employer.  You serve by being faithful to your work and doing the best job you can do.  Are you a plumber, farmer, child, teacher, you are God’s servant / hero exactly where God has placed you.  You serve by serving those who need to be served, by doing what the commandments say, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Rom 19:9)  That’s what we are talking about when we end the baptismal service with the words, “… a fellow member of the body of Christ, a child of the same Heavenly Father, to work and grow together in his kingdom.”
We continue by remembering our own baptism… LW p. 300.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

New Year's Day, Num 6:22-27, Jan 1, 2006

New Year’s Day
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Howard, SD
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them, The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. “So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” (Numbers 6:22-27, ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
What’s in a name?  Parents often agonize over what to name their children.  I remember when Joshua was born; I found it very strange that it was our responsibility to pick a name for a person.  It’s a difficult decision because it’s the way a person will be recognized from that point on.  Everyone will refer to that person with the name that’s given to him by his parents.  And of course there can be more to it than that too.  Many of you have a special story around why you were given your name.  Names mean something.  They identify the person, and they carry information about the person too.  Think of some famous name you know and what you think of the people who were named by them: Abraham, Ronald, Adolf, Osama.  A name can tell you a lot about a person.  
If you’ve ever seen one of those baby naming books, you know that they usually aren’t just lists of names, but they have the meanings of the names listed also.  So, what does your name mean?  Do you know?  Well I’ve looked up a few.  

Albert – bright, noble
August – great
Bertha – “bright”
Brenda – sword
Connie – steadfast
Clint - settlement on the summit
Daniel – God is my judge
David - Beloved
Delmar – (Elmer) - Noble
Don – Ruler of the world
Dorothy – gift of God
Eugene – well born
Edward – Rich Guard
Eunice – Good victory
Gary – spear
Gregory – Watchful, Alert
Harold – Leader of the Army
Henry – Home Ruler
Howard – (German) Brave - (English)Heart Shepherd
Jack – John – YHWH is gracious
James (Jacob) - holder of the heel
Jonathan – YHWH has given
Julian – downy bearded
Kelly – War, strife
Kitty – Katharine – “each of the two” or “far off”
Kenneth – ?handsome – ?borne of fire
Lois – more desirable
Mark – “Mars” the god.
Max - Greatest
Mike – Michael – “Who is like God?”
Peter – Stone
Perry - Traveler
Robert – “Bright Flame”
Rolland – famous land
Roseann – “Rose of Grace”
Ruth – Friend
Shirlee – bright clearing
Stephen – Crown
Verona – unknown – named after the city in Italy
Wendell – “a wend” a place between two rivers in the Slav Republic
Walter – Ruler of the Army

There are many ways to find out what your name means.  If you want to know talk to me I can help you find it.  (You can find it on the Internet at http://www.behindthename.com/)
So, what’s in a name?  Well according to Moses and according to God a lot!  That’s what this text here is all about; it’s about a name.  It’s about the name of God.  “So they will put my name on the Israelites and I will bless them.”  It’s about God giving His name to people.  And to have God’s name is to be blessed by God.
The Israelites were given God’s name, and He rescued them from slavery.  They were hopelessly trapped in a way of life that was oppressive.  They couldn’t free themselves.  It was “hard bondage” according to the book of Exodus.  But God said to Moses at the burning bush, “I have heard the cries of my people in Egypt.  Take my name, “I am” and go to Egypt and I will rescue them.” For the people of Israel, their salvation from slavery is the most significant event in their history.  God marked that event, not only by setting up a festival to remember the day, but also by giving them His personal name to use.  God’s name, given to them is YHWH.  It means, “He is.”  He is the God who brought them out of Egypt.  He is the God who provided for them in the desert.  He is the God who gave to them the Promised Land.  He is the God who saves them.  To know and use God’s name is to be blessed by God.  “Put my name on the people.”  The text says, “and give to them my blessing.”
It is important to note that anywhere in the Old Testament that you see the word “LORD” in all upper case letters that’s where you find the name YHWH.  If you look again at the text printed in your bulletin you’ll see that that’s the case with the text for today.  The LORD spoke, the LORD bless you and keep you, the LORD make His face shine upon you and the LORD turn His face toward you and give you peace.  In this English translation we loose some of the effect that this text would have had on the Israelites.  It isn’t just a generic blessing from someone whose title is Lord.  It’s God himself, YHWH the one who rescued you from Egypt, who is promising the blessing.  YHWH will bless you and keep you… YHWH will turn His face toward you…  YHWH will give you peace…
See how the blessing is clearly from God, and not just any God but the God who has acted in His people’s history to save them.  The focus of the whole blessing is on God.  It’s based on who He is, and what He has done.  He is their God.  He is the one who rescued them.  He is the one who blesses them and puts His name on them.
The Gospel lesson for today may be one of the shortest readings in the whole year, but it is packed with meaning.  On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived.  Luke 2:21 It isn’t just a coincidence that the naming of Jesus is attached to God blessing people by giving them His name.  Remember that God chose the name that was to given to His Son born of Mary.  “You are to give him the name, Jesus.”  Why?  “Because he will save his people from their sins.”  Matthew 1:21 Did you know what the name Jesus means?  It means “YHWH Saves.”  In Hebrew it is pronounced YA-SHUA.  In Jesus name you can hear the name given to the people of Israel.  The “YA” at the beginning of the name is from “YHWH.”  “SHUA” means to save.  God made sure that Jesus’ name reflected what He was going to be doing: Jesus is God saving His people again, from slavery.  Jesus is God saving His people from the slavery of sin.
Jesus Christ, “YHWH Saves” has done that for you, by giving you His name.  Look at your life over the past year.  Is it filled with failure and broken promises?  Why is it that no matter how hard you try you can’t seem to work everything out the way you want to? Why is it that most often when you hurt someone it’s the people you love the most?  You may resolve to do better this year, you may resolve to do lots of things, but you and I both know that your resolution lacks the power to get the job done.  You know that when temptation taps you on the shoulder you don’t have the power to resist it.  And on top of all of that, Satan is relentless; telling you that God can’t possibly forgive someone like you, and constantly reminding you of your failures and sins.  You see, just like the people of Israel were in slavery to Pharaoh, you are in slavery to sin.
But, God promises differently for you.  He has given you His name, “YHWH Saves.”  The blessing that we say at the ending of our service is the reminder that you have been released from sins power over your life.  “YHWH bless you, and keep you.”  You have been given God’s name.  We saw it here again last Sunday, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  It’s like the blessings in our text.  God’s name placed on His people.  The focus is on God and what He has done.  The focus is on Jesus, “YHWH Saves.”
Jesus saves! He breaks the bands that hold us in slavery to sin.  Just like the Passover lamb whose blood saved them from death, and released them from Pharaoh’s slavery.  The blood of Jesus Christ, our Passover lamb saves us from death and releases us from our slavery to sin.  Jesus sheds His blood on the cross for us, to free us.  The blood on the doorposts marked the homes of the people of God in Egypt; the blood on the wood of the cross marks God’s people today.  Pharaoh was defeated through the blood of the lamb.  Satan is defeated through the blood of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ.  And we are given His name; we are after all called Christians.
Think again about the blessing where God puts His name on His people.  It’s not just about making people His.  Look what He promises to do in His blessing: He promises to keep you, to turn His face toward you, to be gracious to you, and to give you peace.  That’s what it means to have God name.  When we have His name, and we can call upon Him especially when we are having trouble, He promises to answer.  Think about the 2nd commandment and Luther’s explanation:
You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.  What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not curse, swear, use satanic arts, lie, or deceive by His name, but call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.
God has given to us His name.  He has put it on us in our baptism.  He comes to us right here in His word whenever we gather “in his name.”  That’s were we find strength whenever find ourselves enslaved to sin in our life.  
When you are struggling with sin and God feels a million miles away remember that He promises to keep you.  Call upon him, using the name He has given to you, YHWH Saves!  “Jesus keep me from sin!”  God promises to keep you.  When Satan’s lies cut your heart and make you doubt the love of God for you, call upon Him with the name that He has given you, YHWH Saves.  “Jesus! Turn your face toward me and remember me!”  God promises to turn His face toward you and remember you.  When your failures and shortcomings destroy any peace you hoped to find, call upon God again with the name that He has given you, YHWH Saves!  “Jesus Christ give me peace.”  God promises to give you peace.  That’s what this blessing in God’s name is all about.
What’s in a name?  A lot, if it’s God’s name.  In God’s name you find promises.  And He has put His name on you.  That means He gives those promises to you.  Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep you hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.