Friday, May 26, 2006

Ascension, Acts 1:1-11, May 28, 2006

Ascension, June 28, 2006
St.  John’s Lutheran Church, Howard, SD
In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.  To them he presented himself alive after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.  And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?  This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:1-11, ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  
You know, I’ve said it before,  and today I’ll have to say it again.  I hate to wait for anything.  How about you?  You’re probably like me.  You order something maybe over the telephone or on the net and you can’t wait for it to arrive.  I’m often tempted to pay extra for “express shipping” even though there’s no good reason to get the thing faster, and it practically destroys any price advantage I got by mail order.  Sitting in the doctor’s office waiting for an appointment is excruciating, I keep thinking of all the other things I could be doing.  You may chuckle at me but you know you do it too.  You wait anxiously for the Pioneer wanting to find out what’s been happening in the Miner County.  It can be especially difficult to wait when you want to know about something that happens on Friday.  Waiting for phone calls you pace around the kitchen.  The commercial during the two-minute drill is maddening, and even though it’s 30 seconds it seems like thirty hours.  The microwave is faster than the conventional oven but the timer sure seems to be getting slower all the time.
Waiting isn’t the National Pastime.  Impatience is.  There used to be a commercial for ketchup where they sang the song “Anticipation.” The message was that the ketchup was of such good quality, that it was very thick.  It was worth waiting for it to come out of the bottle.  The anticipation heightened the experience; the ketchup actually tastes better because you have to wait for it.  A few years ago they re-did the commercial.  It begins with a man waiting patiently for the ketchup to come out.  He’s got his burger ready.  You can see the anticipation in his eyes; the song is running in the background just like before.  Then his wife saunters into the room, the song comes to a scratching halt as she squeezes the bottle and out pops the condiment.  You don’t have to wait for it anymore.  Anticipation isn’t necessary.  The ketchup is just as good as it ever was but now it comes in a plastic squeeze bottle!  No more waiting!  You can have it right now.  
The commercial tells us a lot about ourselves.  We don’t want to wait for anything anymore.  Instant breakfast, instant postage, instant Internet.  What ever happened to “Good things happen for those who wait?” Now it’s more like, “Good things happen for those who never have to wait for anything!”
Even here in our church we’ve been affected.  We don’t want to anticipate any more here either.  The most prevalent example comes just before Christmas.  Advent, those four weeks before Christmas, is supposed to be a season to anticipate the coming of the Christ Child at Christmas.  But our society has Christmas beginning the day after Thanksgiving (and it seems to be moving closer to Halloween every year!).  Advent hymns are replaced by Christmas Carols.  And if the pastor doesn’t want to sing Christmas carols in church, he’s accused of being some kind of a scrooge.  Advent is all about the anticipation; it’s all about the waiting.  If we start celebrating Christmas in November, the anticipation is short-circuited.  But that’s the society we live in, and its influence on the church.  We don’t want to wait for Christmas or anticipate it anymore.  And if the culture has anything to do with it we won’t have to.  Christmas comes early every year.  
“Lord, give me patience!  And I want it now!” We laugh when we say that line, but the truth is that’s exactly what we want from God.  And we think if we push just the right buttons, say just the right prayers, God’s gotta do what I want and do it right now.  If we don’t like the way He wants things done we’ll just go to a different church.  It’s not hard to find a church that conforms to human thinking instead of what the Bible actually says.
We are hardly alone in our lack of wanting to wait.  Think of Abraham.  He is a great example of faith for us.  He believed in God’s promises.  God told him, that he would have a son, and through him the entire world would be blessed.  Isaac was born when Abraham was 100 years old.  Obviously this paragon of faith waited patiently for the blessed event, right?  Well, not exactly.  Sarah and Abraham decided that they should hurry things along.  “Take my servant Hagar to be your second wife and have a child with her.  I’m tired of waiting!  The anticipation is too much for me.  Let’s see if we can get God to move a little faster.” A short time later Ishmael was born.  But he was not the one that God promised to Abraham.  Abraham and Sarah learned the hard way.  Their not wanting to wait caused no end of problems in the family.  God’s promise would have to wait 14 more years.  
In our text for Ascension, the account of Jesus speaking to His disciples on the mountain just before He “went up into heaven” shows us that the disciples had a difficult time waiting, too.  “Lord is it now!  Are you going to restore the kingdom of Israel now?” They were impatient.  The whole time as they walked and talked and ate and laughed with Jesus, in a way, they were waiting for Him to restore the kingdom.  The Kingdom was in fact a frequent topic of Jesus teaching.  He gave examples.  He spoke to them about it in parables and stories.  They expected it to happen.  That day standing there on that mountain after hearing all they had heard, and seeing all they had seen, the miracles, the feedings, the healings, the crucifixion, and of course the resurrection, they knew that nothing impossible for Jesus.  Jesus stood there glorified, perfect, God and man.  Surely everything that had happened was leading to that very moment.  It was the perfect time for everything to come to its conclusion.  They had waited long enough, now was the time.  “Lord is it now?  It is now right?”
This is where the text gets interesting.  Jesus doesn’t tell them that they’re wrong for being impatient.  He doesn’t tell them that it’s foolish to anticipate what he’s been talking about.  He just tells them that they have to wait longer.  “It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons… You just have to wait.  But…” he says, “I’ve got something for you to do while you wait.”
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And it wasn’t a suggestion that they would be witnesses to all that Jesus had seen.  It wasn’t a command either.  It was a promise!  You will be my witnesses… You will tell the story of God’s great love for people.  You will tell of my life here among you.  You will tell of my death and you will tell of my resurrection.  St.  John wrote about it this way: That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.  And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.  (1 John 1:1-4, ESV) They weren’t going to be idle in their waiting.  And thank God they were not, because somewhere between “Samaria” and the “end of the earth,” through the ministry of the Apostles, Jesus brought His message to you.
The Good News of Jesus came to you through the power of the Holy Spirit.  The things that the disciples saw weren’t just for their benefit.  They were for your benefit.  Jesus Christ didn’t walk the earth just for a handful of Jews who lived in an out of the way stretch of land around the Dead Sea.  He lived for you, too.  His whole life, from the time He was conceived in Mary’s womb, to the time He wore diapers, from His first steps, to standing before Pilate, it was for you.  All the words He spoke there and the words that He spoke hanging from the cross.  His bloody painful death, His victory march into hell and His triumph over the grave, and even when He stood on the mountain and vanished into heaven, all of it was for you.  Peter, James, John, and all the other disciples witnessed it all.  And Jesus did it all in anticipation of calling you His own child, because He wanted you to be with him forever.  He ascended to heaven and He’s waiting for just that very thing.  That’s what His promise to return is all about.  He’s coming again for you, so that you can be with Him forever.  And you know what, it’s ok to be impatient for that.
But being impatient doesn’t mean doing nothing.  The disciples weren’t idle while they waited.  Jesus gave them something to do while they were waiting.  They were to be witnesses to the whole world, beginning right where they were in Jerusalem.  And that’s right were we can start, too.  No we don’t have to get a special price on airfare, and hop an excursion flight to the Holy Land.  (That would cost you about $1,100).  Our Jerusalem is right here.  Right here in Howard, and Miner County.  While we are waiting, Jesus promises that we to will be witnesses.  Remember it wasn’t a command for the disciples it was a promise.  It’s that for us too.  The Holy Spirit that Jesus promises is here with us right now.  He comes to us in baptism and lives and works in us every day.  He turns our hearts to Jesus.  He reminds us of what Jesus did for us for our forgiveness.  He promises to make our waiting time productive.  
So how about this… Jesus promises that we will be witnesses while we wait for His return.  Maybe all the other waiting we do in life can remind us of that.  Maybe all that other waiting can be productive, too.  After all God didn’t just promise the Spirit to us part time He’s with us always.  So because of His promise, you will be productive.  You just need to be reminded ofit from time to time.  So, the text time you’re waiting for a phone call, turn your heart toward Jesus.  Remember what He did for you, and what He did for the person on the other end of the phone line.  Talk to Jesus about them.  When you’re suffering through that commercial break think about Jesus suffering and what His suffering, death and resurrection means to you.  Remember all those people who you know who are watching that very same commercial.  Ask God to show you ways to make their lives better by bringing the message of Jesus Christ to them.  When your waiting for the Pioneer, remember the Good News of Jesus Christ.  And ask Him to be faithful to His promise to make you productive while you wait.  Ask Him to show you ways to deliver the Good News of Jesus Christ to your community.  It is ok; Jesus has promised that your waiting will be productive.  He will gladly keep His promise, just as He kept His promise to live and die and rise again for you.
I hate waiting, especially when it’s for something really good, something that I really want.  I’m impatient… it’s not always bad to be impatient.  Like when we’re impatient to see Jesus when He comes again.  But Jesus promises that that waiting, even though I’m impatient, will be productive.  He promises that to you, too.  Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Sixth Sunday of Easter, John 15:9-17, May 21, 2006

Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 21, 2006
(From a sermon by Glen Neilson)
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.  Abide in my love.  If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.  These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.  “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends.  You are my friends if you do what I command you.  No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.  You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.  These things I command you, so that you will love one another.  (John 15:9-17, ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.
Jesus calls us his friends.  Right in the middle of this reading we hear him say to us, “you are my friends.” Right there in the middle of all that talk about doing what I command, obeying the Father, bearing fruit, Jesus says we are his friends.  He says that he has a relationship with us, actually being our friend.  
We all know how precious and rare a good friend is.  We all need someone to be friends with.  There are times when we need a friend to discuss the troubles in our life.  We all need someone to sit with for a cup of coffee, shop with, and even commiserate about life, kids, work and school.  We know how important is it to have a good friend to do all those kind of things with, and yet, we also know how really rare good friendships are.  
Today, friendships seem to be extra hard to build.  They take time, and time is a luxury we seem to have so little of these days.  Everyone is so busy, with school, work, family there’s little time left to develop a good friendship.  And even when there’s time we often lack the energy.  Life today is full…
There’s another problem too.  Lot’s of people really don’t know how to be a good friend.  All too often people use relationships for their own benefit, and their own purposes.  People want you around and call you a friend when you can do something for them.  They want you to be there when you can make them feel good, but as soon as a little trouble starts or as soon as you’re not useful anymore they split.  Friendship is difficult when you get used, in the process.
Friendship makes you vulnerable.  That’s just the nature of the beast.  Friends see us for who we are, with our masks removed.  We let our guard down and tell them things we don’t tell anyone else.  When the true you comes out you put yourself in a position to be hurt easily.  That’s another reason why friendship is rare.  
Friendship is so rare that maybe it makes Jesus’ offer of friendship a little difficult to accept.  We do what him to be with us, after all we gather together here Sunday after Sunday to come into contact with him.  We want him to listen to our problems and he promises to do just that.  He promises that nothing is to small a matter for him, and we can confide in him anytime.  He always has time for us.  He always treats us right.  He promises to give us whatever we ask in his name.  He actually was the friend who gave his very life for his friends.  Jesus loves us, in spite of who we are.  He promises to fill us with joy.  He knows us for who we are and never turns us away.  Jesus is the kind of friend we really want.  What a precious gift it is to be chosen as a friend of Jesus.  “You are my friends” Jesus says.  
Unfortunately we aren’t good friends in return.  We don’t spend the time and energy necessary for this friendship.  We know what the pressures are.  It’s difficult to get everyone up and around in the morning, just in time to catch the school bus, or off to work.  Who has time for adding an extra half hour, or even fifteen min.  for devotions? Sunday is a day to rest and catch up.  It’s a day to relax and do nothing.  No wonder our minds wander from the task at hand in worship.  There’s so much to do today, especially with Memorial Day weekend approaching.  Dinner’s in the oven, or being prepared at Papa J’s.  And with meals are all too often around the TV instead of the table.  Family devotions don’t fit very well during commercials.  With al this busyness, with all this eating on the run, it is our friendship with Jesus that suffers.  No time.  No energy.  No will to do it.
Maybe his friendship with us isn’t all it’s cracked up to be? Does he really treat me right? Does he really hear my prayers? All of them? Being chosen as a friend of Jesus hasn’t made my life any easier.  Where’s that joy that he promises anyway? I’ve got pain in my life, and lots of it.  And Jesus, “my friend” seems a long way away.  My friendship with Jesus is filled with doubt.
Jesus, our friend, shows us all our weaknesses.  It’s painful when we compare ourselves with him.  The bible tells us that He is perfect.  We know that we are not perfect.  He does everything right.  We constantly fail.  He loves perfectly.  We give our love with conditions.  He is a good friend.  We are simply friendly.  Who wants to hang around someone who is always opening those wounds? Who wants a friendship with someone who’s better than we are?  It’s easier to avoid Jesus, and let that friendship with Jesus die.
And we’d let it die.  But Jesus is too good a friend for that.  Jesus considers His friendship with us so precious that He won’t let it die.  He didn’t choose for us friends so that we’d wither up and die, like dead branches on the vine.  He wants us to bear fruit.  He promises joy and that’s what He gives with His friendship.  
Jesus is a true friend.  He gives his time to us fully.  As a matter of fact he lived his whole life only for us, His friends.  Jesus is no earthly or worldly friend.  You don’t have any friends that are anything like Him.  He did what was best for us even when it meant his own death, even when it meant sacrificing himself.  He has that “greater love” that he was talking about.  That’s true friendship, to lay down your life for your friends.  He offers Himself, His very life for you.  That’s why He took on human flesh.  You and I are lousy friends.  That’s because sin lives in our hearts and makes us selfish instead of selfless.  The sinful nature that lives in our hearts doesn’t even want anything to do with God.  That selfishness, that rejection of God, that lack of friendship, deserves punishment.  God’s only punishment for rejecting Him is death.  I know it seams harsh.  We don’t run around killing people who don’t want to be friends with us, but God is different.  He is perfect and holy.  Rejection of God means rejection of everything that He is and stands for.  There is only one place for people who reject God and His holiness.  That place is hell.  Because of that sin that’s in here, without friendship with God we are hell bound.  But, that’s not acceptable to God, so in steps Jesus, our friend.  He leaves His Father and is born as a human being.  He’s a perfect friend of God.  He’s a perfect friend to the people all around Him.  And He’s a perfect friend to you and me.  You see, He gives his very life for us, even when it meant death and execution.  Jesus laid down His life for you, His friends, on the cross.  His friendship takes him to the darkness and pain of death.  His friendship causes Him to suffer the punishment of hell for us that is the eternal separation our sinful nature really wants.  So, you and I don’t have to face hell and its punishment.  Jesus our friend has paid the price in full for us.  But His friendship doesn’t stop in death.  He takes His life up again.  That’s where the joy is.  It’s Easter joy!  Jesus friendship for us didn’t die in the tomb.  He rose again, and came alive.  He isn’t a dead friend who gave up everything for us.  He is alive.  A dead friend isn’t a good friend at all.  Jesus is our friend forever.  He’s a friend that is able to do whatever we need.  He proves it by dying and rising again.  That’s how He shows us that He will never leave us or forsake us.  He knows who we truly are and He is still our friend.  He knew us before he died.  He knew us on the cross, and He still died for us.  He knows us now and still calls us his friends.  
What a friend we have in Jesus!  Do we need a friend to talk to?  Take it to the lord in prayer.  Do we need a friend to walk with?  He comes to us in His Word, right here.  All we have to do is open your ears and listen to Him.  Do you need to be close to your friend, Jesus?  He comes to us in His very Body and Blood at this altar in the meal He gave us to eat.  All we have to do is open our mouths and eat.  That’s the personal touch of friendship that only Jesus gives.
So we’ve got lots of friends.  If we rate them on a scale of 1 to 10, Jesus is 1,000,000.  He’s the best friend that you will ever have.  Do you need a friend?  I do.  You do, too.  We need Jesus as our friend.  A friend who has such great love that He lays down His life for us.  A friend who has such great love for us that He give us the forgiveness of sins that we need.  He is our true friend.  Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Fifth Sunday of Easter, John 15:1-8, May 14

Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 14, 2006
St. John’s, Howard, South Dakota
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. John 15:1-8
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
There’s a vine in here. Maybe you can’t see it but I assure you it’s here. It’s wound around the rafters, it’s clinging to the organ, and it’s hanging of the balcony rail. It’s got leaves springing out of it all over. And it snakes right down the center isle; if you would try to walk down there you’d probably trip over it. You might have guessed that it’s not necessarily your average vine. Actually you know the vine very well, ‘cause you’re attached to it. So you see this vine that’s all around us is no ordinary vine, because you are its branches.
That’s right you’re connected to the vine that’s all around here, even if you can’t see it. You might wonder how you got to be a part of this vine that we are all sticking to. Well, you were grafted onto the vine. For many of you it happened on a day that you can’t even remember, only a few days after you were born. There’s one more very important thing I forgot to tell you about the vine, it wanders all over this room, it’s attached to each of you, and even spreads out into the hallway, but I didn’t tell you where it begins. Maybe you can tell me? Yes, of course, the vine begins right here in this font. It starts here where the branches get the necessary water to grow and thrive. Here is where you became attached to this vine. Here is where you were made “clean” (καθαρός katharos) and “pruned clean” (καθαίρω kathairō ) that is made ready to bear fruit.
And guess what. You are bearing fruit. What is the fruit of this vine? Well, you can’t help it really. You see you’re a branch connected to the vine. “It is no longer I who live but ‘the vine’ who lives in me.” (Gal 2:20) You can say. Branches that are connected to the vine bear fruit because of their connection. If you look around here at the other branches around you, you know you’ve seen the fruit in them. The Fruit of this vine is things like “…joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22-23 ESV) You’ve seen these branches in action. They’ve cared for you when you were sick, they’ve given of themselves and sacrificed for others. They’ve been a support for other ‘branches’ even ones not connected to the vine. Some of the branches here are even scrawny looking, and seem to be weak. But you’ve seen fruit there, too. In fact, amazing things come from the thinnest sickliest looking ones, words of comfort, and actions that don’t seem possible. It’s funny how good things are expected from branches that look healthy and act healthy, but around here, connected to this vine, fruit doesn’t have anything to do with the branches. The fruit on these branches all comes from the vine.
But what about all those times when you look at yourself and the fruit you see doesn’t look like very good fruit at all. Like: angry words spoken to people you love; or missed opportunities to be supportive. You look at your own fruit and instead of looking good, it’s full of rotten spots that just need to be cut out, because even though you did a good thing you did it for selfish reasons. After all you have reputation to keep up. Well that is the struggle for branches of this vine. We look at the things we’ve done, and don’t seem very good. We look at the things we should have done and realize how we’ve missed a perfect opportunity to bear fruit. We can’t see the good fruit that is there, and the fruit that is, is always tainted by selfish thoughts and motives. Well, your struggle isn’t unusual for branches of this vine. One branch once said, "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate." (Romans 7:15, ESV)
The only thing worse than the fruit we seem to bear, would be not being attached to the vine at all. “Apart from me you can do nothing!” He says. If we were not attached at all nothing we could do is of any lasting value. There’s a little poem that goes something like this. “One life it will soon be past, only what’s done for ‘the vine’ will last.” The better way to put it would be, “only what’s done in ‘the vine’ will last.” It’s only in Him that our fruit amounts to anything at all.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit.” That’s what the vine says; not a “little” fruit, but “much” fruit. That’s what happens to branches attached to the vine. "…at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true)," (Ephesians 5:8-9, ESV) All that is good and right and true is fruit. Have you done anything that is good and right and true this week? Of course you have. You’ve done good things for your family, in spite of fighting with them, you’ve done good things at work, even if you didn’t want to be there, you’ve done good things here at church, by the work you’ve done to keep the building up, or even things you’ll put in the collection plate, even if your motives are sometimes selfish. You see, that’s good fruit, and you do bear it every day of your life. All these things you do every day are good fruit because you are attached to the vine. The vine enables you to do them because he through you, just like the sap that flows through the trees enables the tree branches grow leaves.
And we know what happens to branches of trees that break off the tree. We gather up the broken branches from our yard after a storm. We throw them in a pile and burn them up. Branches that are not attached to the vine have the same fate. They are thrown in the fire and burned. But that’s not what’s ahead for us, because we’ve been attached to the vine already. But what is it that makes it so that we stay attached to the vine. We certainly don’t look like healthy branches. The fruit we do grow is far from perfect. We know that when we look closely at our lives we should be cut off, like branches that don’t bear any fruit at all. When the Vinedresser looks over the vine why in the world would he choose to let us grow. We do bear fruit and lots of it, we already said. But it’s hardly perfect fruit.
We are not cut off, because of the vine. It’s not that we do enough good stuff; it’s not that we deserve to be left attached. But we are left attached for the sake of the vine. The vine is Jesus Christ.
He was planted in the world, and grew up bearing perfect fruit. It wasn’t just good fruit, it was perfect, the best fruit that could ever be grown. He loved everyone perfectly; he healed the sick, and gave food to the hungry, all with a perfect selfless motive. In fact, all of those things we wish we would do, Jesus actually did. All those things we wish we didn’t do, Jesus never did. He was the perfect vine with perfect branches, bearing the perfect fruit. But the God the Father, the Vinedresser, cut him off and threw him away into the grave of death anyway. Jesus Christ was cut off and cast in to the grave. But because he was perfect, because he didn’t deserve to die, God raised him to life again. He was firmly replanted, the perfect, and true, one and only vine. And you dear branches were grafted onto him, in baptism. And it’s not because the fruit made you worthy of him, not even because he knew you’d bear fruit, but simply because he loves you so much that he was willing to be cut off in your place. His life, his death and his resurrection are the perfect replacement for our rotten fruit. And now Vinedresser looks at us and sees fruit, he sees it as the fruit of the vine. "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life." (Romans 6:3-4, ESV) We said it before, the vine starts right here. It grows out of the water of baptism. You are attached to the one true vine in baptism. First, buried with Jesus Christ, cut off, as an unfruitful branch, with him, and then raised from death, grafted onto the perfect vine to live in newness of life. That is, to bear good fruit… because of the vine, through the vine, attached to the vine, Jesus Christ.
And there’s another very important part of what Jesus, the vine is saying to you right here and now. He’s giving you a wonderful invitation. That invitation comes in a single word. “Remain.” Remain in me. Jesus says. “Know who I am. Know who you are.” “I am the vine, you are the branches.” You are already attached to me. I have provided everything necessary for you to remain. “Remain!” Remember your baptism. Remember that you have been grafted to the one true vine and there is nothing that can separate you from him. “Remain!” Listen to my words, Jesus says. They are words of life. If you remain in them you will continue to bear “much” fruit. “Remain!” and take nourishment from the vine himself, “Take and eat this is my body, this is my blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of all yours sins.” Remain and grow. Remain and bear much fruit, as a branch of the one true vine. Jesus Christ.
So, we’re part of the vine. Maybe you couldn’t see it clearly before. Look again. If you can’t see the vine itself, I know you can see the branches. Strong ones, weak ones, thin ones and curly ones, they are all around us. And I know you can see the fruit. You can see it on each and every branch if you just look. The problem is that sometimes we get used to looking for only a certain kind of fruit, but remember that any branch connected to this vine, bears fruit. Look again and you’ll see it everywhere. Remain and grow, together branches of the true vine, bear much fruit. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ, Jesus. Amen.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Fourth Sunday of Easter, John 10:11-18, May 7, 2006

Fourth Sunday of Easter, 2006
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Howard, South Dakota
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” (John 10:11-18, ESV)
Grace and Peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Members of St. John’s, especially you confirmads… today I want you to get a picture firmly planted in your minds.  I want you to have it so well pictured that you can bring it up any time you need it.  It’s the picture that comes from the text.  The picture of Jesus, the Good Shepherd.  Carly, Riley, Miciah he is your Good Shepherd.  Never forget what He’s done for you and what we talk about today.  I know what pressures you are going to face in High School.  I know you think we older folk are oblivious of the stuff you go through every day, the temptations to drink, smoke, and especially to have sex, and so many more things that are dangerous for you.  We know.  We sometimes put it in the back of our minds because we can’t bear to think about it.  I want you to know that we love and care about you.  But we can’t help what you’ll face out there.  We can’t be with you everywhere you go.  We can’t protect you from it all.  The truth of the matter is you’re going to be tempted.  The truth of the matter is that it is very likely that you’ll give in at some time or another… either in the next few years or in college.  It’s difficult for us because we can tell you that it is trouble all we want but you’ll probably just have to find out yourself.  The reason I want you to put this picture in your mind is because when you fail, when you fall, I want you to remember that you have a Good Shepherd who is there to bring you back.  He’s done everything necessary for you to be with him forever, and there’s nothing you can do to change that.  But you can forget. You can walk away from him forever.  You can reject the Good Shepherd.  Frankly, that scares me more than anything else that might happen to you.  So picture in your mind the Good Shepherd, Jesus and remember he lived, died and rose again for you.
You know, I don’t know many shepherds. I did grow up in a family that was well versed in cattle and corn, alfalfa and irrigation, I’m familiar with farming, but I don’t know sheep. My grandfather raised sheep, but I don’t think you could really call him a shepherd. I just remember avoiding the mean old ram we called “Rammel.” I see sheep in pens around here, but still I don’t think you could call anyone around here a shepherd. So when Jesus says that He’s the good shepherd, I’m not sure I really understand what that means. Do you?
So, do you have a picture of the Good Shepherd in mind. Of course you do.  You’ve seen it in pictures.  You’ve seen it in stained glass.  Jesus standing on the rocky path, with sheep standing around lovingly gazing at the shepherd’s face. He’s always holding one, too. Usually a little lamb, one we imagine is too small to walk on its own, one that’s been injured by the dangers of the path, or one that’s tired and unable to go on. Jesus is carrying it because it’s lost by itself. We love that picture. That’s the Shepherd in our mind, the shepherd of Psalm 23.  How many of you have Psalm 23 as your favorite bible verse?  It’s my wife’s confirmation verse.  The Lord is my shepherd. I have everything I need.  
Well, Jesus is talking about himself in this text for today.  Let’s talk a little bit about what he is saying.  First of all he says that he is the Good Shepherd. He’s not just a good one, he is the good one. He’s the best of the best, the top of the heap. The One and Only, champion, good shepherd. But what kind of a shepherd is this Good Shepherd? What makes him a good one? What makes him the good one?
He says that the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. It’s easy to let that one go by us, and not stop and think about what He’s saying, because of course we know about Jesus dying for us on the cross, that’s what He’s talking about, right? Well, probably, but really if you think about it it’s not really very wise for the Shepherd to die? Is it? After all if He dies who will protect the sheep? Imagine the flock out there in the rocky wilderness. They are all gathered around the Good Shepherd, lazily minding their own business, eating the green grass, and drinking the still water. Then from out of nowhere the wolf appears. The sheep get nervous and start bleating. The shepherd positions himself between the sheep and the white fangs. There’s a quick struggle—but the wolf walks away and the shepherd is dead. Now what? The wolf snarls as the shepherd’s blood drips from his teeth, and is hungry eyes look over his next victim, probably that little sheep the shepherd was just carrying. If the shepherd is dead, there is no one to protect the sheep anymore. The sheep are as good as dead, too, aren’t they?
Of course the shepherd who dies is better than the hired hand shepherd, the second hand shepherd (that what the bible calls him). As soon as the wolf appears he hightails it off to the hills. All he’s worried about is his paycheck, and you can’t spend any money when you’re dead. He doesn’t care for the sheep. There are no stain glass windows dedicated to the second hand shepherd, the hired hand, no picture of the hireling carrying some poor little tired sheep. If there was one it’d probably have him kicking them to get them to move a little faster, and the sheep certainly wouldn’t be all around him. Instead they’d be just out of arms reach, with a wary eye on the shepherd and another on the dangerous trail. He just pushes them along the trail to get to where they are going. You’d think at least when he saw the wolf he protect the sheep, if for no other reason than to protect his pocketbook. But that’s not the case. The sheep are “snatched and scattered” when he runs away to save his own skin. And again the wolf has his bloody way.
So what’s the answer to the problem here? The Good Shepherd dies and leaves the sheep, the bad shepherd, runs and leaves the sheep. At first glance it doesn’t look as if there’s really much difference between the Good Shepherd and the bad one. Well, that can’t be the end of the story so let’s see what else Jesus says.
He says that the Good Shepherd knows the sheep, and the sheep know Him. That sounds pretty good. Back to the picture in your mind, the sheep are lovingly looking up at him, they know him very well; they know him because of what he does. He leads them beside still waters. He gets them to the green grass… He knows what the sheep need, and when they need it. But there’s more to knowing the sheep than just providing for what they need. Knowing the sheep means that the Shepherd knows the personalities of the sheep. He knows when certain sheep are likely to stray. He keeps an eye out for those who are getting a little too close to the edge of the flock. He knows the ones that like to slip away when he’s not looking. He knows, so they don’t get far. He knows the flock so well that he can count them without counting. He’s so familiar that just a glance will tell him when one is missing, when one is hiding, when one is trying to slip away.
That really does fit Jesus. You see he knows you and me. He knows St. Johns. In fact he knows all churches all over the world. He knows their strengths and weakness. He looks over them and knows exactly what’s going on in each one, without counting he knows where they are. It doesn’t matter that we are way up here in South Dakota. We are still part of God’s beloved flock. Jesus knows and cares for each of us and he knows what we need.
Do you want an example? Way back a few years after Jesus ascended into heaven from the mountain of transfiguration, the Apostle John had a vision on the Island of Patmos. Jesus spoke to him. We often hear about John’s visions of the “Last Things” in that book, but we don’t very often hear about Jesus personal messages to seven little churches, seven struggling churches in way out Asia. They were like seven little lambs that Jesus carrying. Each had problems that Jesus spoke directly to. Each had strengths that Jesus praised. Jesus knew each church by name. “Give these messages to each church” he told John, “to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea. (Re 1:11)” And he dictated a personal letter to each one. Jesus knows his flock. He knows his churches personally. He knows St. John’s, Howard. He cares and protects us right here, and right now. That’s what a Good Shepherd is, that’s what The Good Shepherd does.
Ok, so we know that the Good Shepherd knows His sheep. He loves and cares for them and gives them all that they need. But there’s still that troublesome problem about Him dying for the sheep. Remember we wondered what becomes of the sheep after the shepherd dies. It’s easy to see that this relationship between the Good Shepherd and His sheep isn’t the regular run of the mill shepherd—sheep relationship. He knows His sheep better than any ordinary shepherd does. He loves His sheep more than any normal shepherd, too. We know that because He dies for them. Jesus talks about dying for those he loves all the time “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:12-14) He died willingly for you. He lays down His life for you. But what good is that if it leaves the sheep with out a shepherd?
Remember! Jesus isn’t just any shepherd. He’s the unique one; the one and only one; the champion; the Good Shepherd. It’s not just any old kinda-good-shepherd that lays down his life. It’s The Good Shepherd that gives His life for you. It’s the Good Shepherd who is God himself, in the flesh. It’s the Good Shepherd who can lay down His life, but who can also take it up again. He the Good Shepherd that died on the cross to save human beings from sin, but rose to life again to destroy sin’s power. “Why are you troubled? He said to his disciples (and to us). “See my hands and feet, touch me and see that I am alive again!” (Luke 24:36ff) Be at peace! This Shepherd doesn’t leave His sheep alone. Not even death can separate Him from His sheep. Death cannot separate Him from you. He was dead but He is now alive again. No ordinary good shepherd can do that.
Remember that old wolf, the one whose only thought is fresh lamb chops. We left him as he was slowly approaching that little lamb, the one without a shepherd. But suddenly the shepherd is there; he was dead but not any more. He grabs the wolf and flings him away. There’s a great yelp as he crashes to the ground and runs away. What chance does a mere wolf have against a Shepherd that is stronger than death?  That’s our Jesus, that’s our Good Shepherd.  
Dear Christian friends. Members of the Flock of Jesus Christ. Are you feeling alone in the world? Are the dangers of the wilderness out there threatening you? How about that wolf, the one that keeps snarling at you, and reminding you that you death is only a step away? Is the future a scary proposition for you?  It’s easy to think and feel that we are shepherd-less. But we are not. You are not alone. Your shepherd is The Good Shepherd. No matter what the danger is: weather it’s the loss of a job, or wondering what’s ahead in the future. No matter what the fear, weather it is crop failure or fear of being left alone. All of those dangers are just plain old wolves and what chance does a mere wolf have against a Shepherd that’s stronger than death? That’s Jesus Christ risen from the dead for you.  He is your Good Shepherd. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Third Sunday of Easter, Psa 139:1-12, April 30, 2006

Third Sunday of Easter, 2006
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Howard, South Dakota
O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it. Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you. (Psalm 139:1-12, ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
I’m sure many of you have heard this story: A farmer went into his banker and said to him that he had good news and bad news. “First the bad. I can’t make the mortgage payment, and I can’t pay back my operating loan this year. We couldn’t get the crop planted because of the weather, so I won’t be making any payments on my equipment either. In fact, I’m going to pack it all in and just turn the farm over to you.” After a prolonged silence the banker asked, “What’s the good news?” The farmer smiled, “I’m still going to bank with you.”
Good News and Bad News. We get used to hearing things that are good news and bad news. Of course in real life we don’t want to hear the bad news, only the good. And here we are pew sitting only 2 weeks after Easter while the Paraments are still white. Isn’t the Easter season a season when we expected to hear about “Good News?” The purple of advent is gone, the fasting, the sorry feelings for what Jesus had to go through on our behalf. Now it’s Easter! Let’s hear some more Good News about Jesus being alive! OK!
He is Risen! He is Risen Indeed, Alleluia!
Well, that’s not just Good News that’s Best of the Best News. Jesus Christ has conquered sin, death and hell. Every time we shout it we proclaim the victory won by Jesus. The victory that is ours by faith in what He has done. It’s Good News…
O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. (Psalm 139:1-2, ESV)
My question to you today is: Is that psalm Good News or Bad News?
O Lord, you have searched me and known me! (Psalm 139:1, ESV)
Well, of course it’s not always good to have God know everything about everything about me. It almost feels like an invasion of privacy. Think about it, God searching me and knowing me! If God’s knows me, I can’t hide in the crowd. I can’t blend in to the wallflowers. He knows who I am and there’s no getting away. That’s pretty bad news, isn’t it? Or is it good news? He knows me. He knows who I am, I’m not just a number in the crowd. He knows me for me. Come to think about it that means when Jesus hung on the cross, when He died for the sins of the world, because he was God, he knew me there too! When He rose from the dead as the first fruits of those who believe, he knew me then too! In fact, I know he knows me when he did those things because he connected me to all that Jesus did by putting his name on me in Holy Baptism. He knew me in Baptism and even called me by name. Because he searches me and knows me, he knows how much I need a Savior, and when he bled and died on the cross he did it for me. And he rose again from death, and when I shout “He is Risen!” I’m shouting it for me because God knows me, through Jesus Christ. That’s very good news.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. (Psalm 139:2, ESV)
God knows when I sit and when I rise, that pretty much covers all my waking hours: At work, at play, at home, at church, as a matter of fact this sounds a lot like church, sitting and rising. Right here and now God knows my thoughts from afar. I don’t think that’s Good News at all. He looks inside here, inside my head, and knows what I’m thinking. Well, at times it’s rather empty, but at times it’s full of awful things. When I sit by people that I don’t like, God knows what I’m thinking… God knows what I’m thinking; he knows my thoughts from afar. He doesn’t have to be here and see the disgust on my face when I sit and wish that certain people would just go away. He knows how my thoughts wander from His Word. He knows how I don’t want to listen when His law pricks my soul and tells me I’m a sinner. I’d rather not have God know about that… But God knows my thoughts… He knows my struggle every day to do what’s right. I know I should be welcoming to everyone. I know that Jesus promise of forgiveness is for everyone. I know I should be attentive to the words spoken and sung here. God knows that I know what I should do and yet I don’t do it. He knows my thoughts, how much help I need, so when He promises to help for me in these situations it’s not an empty offer. He is the one who can help me make a change in my attitude, and change my thoughts, because he knows exactly what they are. He promises that His Word and Sacraments will do the trick. They’ll cause my faith to grow, and when my faith grows, so will my attitudes toward other people, even the people I don’t like… His Word will also have its effect on my heart that will to what He says to me. That is Good News, too.
You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. (Psalm 139:3, ESV)
God watches over my going out and my lying down: in my house, outside of my house; in the garage, taking a nap on the couch, or late nights in front of the glow of the tube. God is familiar with all my ways. He’s familiar… does familiarity breeds contempt? My ways are not God’s ways. It’s not very Good News that God is familiar with what I do every day. Mostly because I’m not sure he’d be happy with some of the things I do. I don’t want my family to know all my ways. I have private moments that I want to be just mine, but God says he’s familiar… with my personal failures, my personal struggles with recurring sins, my personal demons, all the things that I hide from everyone. He knows them all… that’s Bad News, and yet, it’s Good News, isn’t it. If he’s familiar with it, he knows how much those things hurt me. If he’s familiar he knows how unhappy I am when I do them. The bible says that Jesus was tempted every way just as we are, that means he knows how difficult the struggle is. If he knows about them all, there’s no reason to not talk to him about them. No reason not to confess them to him. He’s familiar, he’s not going to be surprised at my confession, in fact when I say I have sinned in thought word and deed, he knows exactly what I’m talking about. In fact, He knows them better than I do. He even knows the sins and failures I don’t know about. He says, “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” That’s His promise. He is faithful. He is familiar. He is forgiving. He forgives me.
Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether. (Psalm 139:4, ESV)
There are times when I wish I knew what was on my tongue before I spoke. More often than not, my words cut into the hearts of those who hear them. More times than I care to admit my tongue is my most versatile weapon, and it works with more precision than any satellite-guided bomb. Worst of all my tongue is connected to my heart. When I say the things I wish I didn’t say, I do mean them, even if I don’t mean them later. My tongue reveals the blackness that I know is in my heart. And God knows it’s there, too. He knows what I’m going to say before I say it. And what about those words that I don’t say? Those hurtful, spiteful words that I somehow manage to keep from rolling off my tongue. If he knows the ones I say before I say them then he knows the ones that I bite off in my mouth. Even though it was good not to say them, it’s bad that I even thought them. And God knows them all. He knows them but the bad news is that he doesn’t judge the words of my mouth. God judges by the heart, and mine is full of sin. He knows the words because he knows the heart. Out of the heart comes all sort of evil, Jesus says. But, St. Paul says to let the words of Christ dwell richly in your heart. If his words are there then His words will come off your tongue. Just look at today as an example: I sang “alleluia, alleluia, alleluia” in response to God’s great gift of salvation given in Jesus. I sing those words with the angels, and all the company of heaven. And what’s more God knew I’d be singing these words before I even sang them. So, prompted by the Good News of Jesus, the tongue that hurts is also the tongue that repeats God’s praises. The tongue that cuts can also be the tongue that speaks of the forgiveness won for corrupt hearts. Jesus Christ knows. He knows what I’m going to say. He can and will cause his words to come out of me, instead of my own.
You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it. Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you. (Psalm 139:5-12, ESV)
The psalm speaks of God’s coming after me, it almost sounds like a pursuit. There’s no place to hide from Him. Everywhere I go He is there. He’s like a bloodhound on the trail. I can’t climb a tree, or into a hole. He knows me. I can’t hide from Him. He knows my thoughts, the evil that fills my brain. He knows the things I do, weather in secret or in public. The things I do that are selfish, or hateful, or for spite. He knows my heart and the evil words I will speak. For all of that He should pursue me for punishment. The wages of sin is death, He says. I deserve death, for my thoughts, words and deeds. And I can hide none of them from God. The “Bad News” is that I am guilty and God knows it.
But the Good News is: That instead of pursuing me, God pursues someone else. You see, God can’t just let sin go unpunished. He can’t just ignore it. He can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. He is holy and perfect and perfectly just. He needs to find a way to satisfy His justice. So God finds a willing substitute to pursue and punish in my place. It’s funny, in a way, because even though I am evil and deserve punishment, God punishes Him even though He is good. Jesus Christ fell under the relentless pursuit of God’s punishment. He suffered and died for my sins. AS Jesus bled and died on the cross, God heaped on him the punishment for my hidden thoughts, my evil actions, and my sinful heart. And in Jesus mind all the time was me. He knows me and cares for me so much that he was willing to bear it all. And when Jesus said, “It is finished!” the punishment for them all went away with His death. He rose again for me, to give life to me instead of the death I deserved. That is Great, Good News.
The funny thing is that if we think again of the psalm we don’t have to worry about the Bad News any more. In fact, instead of Good News / Bad News it’s just Good News / Good News. He searches me and knows me he knows all my needs and takes care of me. No intrusion on my privacy only the searching of a loving caring God. He only wants the best for me. He took care of my sin. He takes care of all my needs. Jesus knows my sitting and my rising and my thoughts from afar. He knows me so well that nothing can separate me from his love. I am always on his mind. And He knows and hears me even before I speak. Before I even know my needs myself, before I can even speak them God knows about them and has already answered taken care of them.
So the Psalm that would be Bad News / Good News is really not Bad News at all. It’s Good News about my relationship with God, because of Jesus Christ. Amen.
He is Risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia.
The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.