Thursday, December 31, 2009
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Mt 1:18-21, ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
My older brother had an interesting tradition that he and his wife followed. When they had children the name that was given to the baby wasn’t spoken until the very moment the church gathered around the baptismal font and said, “Luke Watt, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” They even held off printing the name on the birth certificate until the baby was named at baptism. I always thought it was a nice tradition. It isn’t new; it was a common practice in the old world. It was a common practice in bible times (With the noted difference that instead of Baptism the child was named at the time of his circumcision).
The Gospel lesson for New Year’s Day talks about just one such instance.
And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. (Lk 2:21, ESV)
Now you might not realize it but “Jesus” was a common name in those days. Jesus, that name that was picked by his heavenly Father, was also the name of a national hero. Jesus’ name is really the name Joshua. Joshua was the leader who took over after Moses. He led the people and conquered the land for God and his people. You probably remember the story of Joshua and the walls of Jericho, where they marched around the city and the city walls came tumbling down. The name Joshua (and also Jesus) means “God Saves.” You can understand how it fits the Joshua who God used to bring his people into the land that He promised them. And you can see how it fits Our Savior very well, too. The angel that visited Joseph made it clear: …you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.
Even though Jesus had a common name, he was very uncommon. In fact, no one like him had ever been born before, and none like him will ever be born again. Jesus name fits him like no other name. Jesus – God Saves – is God who saves. That eight day old child who was circumcised was not just a human baby but he was also God, born into the world to save us from our sins. He did it by dying on the cross.
When we consider the birth of Jesus and his circumcision we are thinking and talking about his humanity. We are thinking about what it means that God humbled himself to become a man. St. Paul writes about it for us to contemplate:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Php 2:5-8, ESV)
Jesus wasn’t just another Joshua. He wasn’t just another great leader. Jesus was God, come in human flesh to do very much more than give the people land. When Jesus was a grown man, he walked on water, healed the sick, and even raised the dead back to life. He came to free people from sin and death. People around him were slow to understand what the demons declared right away. I know who you are—the Holy One of God! (Mark 1:24 ESV), they said.
You may have seen that graffiti spray painted on some wall somewhere. “Jesus Saves.” Well, it is true. He is aptly named. “God saves through Jesus.” Jesus is “God Saves.” That’s the name that we want to think about some more today. It’s important because it’s not just God-in-the-flesh’s name. It’s the name that is also put on you.
Baptized into your name most holy,
O Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
I claim a place, though weak and lowly,
Among your seed, your chosen host.
Buried with Christ and dead to sin,
I have your Spirit now within.
That’s talking about Baptism. If you talk at all about Jesus name you eventually have to get to baptism. That’s because it’s baptism that God used to bring “God Saves” right to you. In baptism God is at work doing something. He’s performing an adoption. In an adoption a young person takes the name of his new family. That new name says which family they belong to. A person who is baptized takes a new name, too. God’s name, more specifically Jesus name, is put on us. It tells us whose we are. It tells us who we belong to. I have a niece that’s the same age as my daughter. When we go home for Christmas Grandma always seems to get them the same gifts. Right away when the presents are opened the first thing Grandma says is, “Let’s put your name on that so we can tell them apart.” The name identifies ownership. God’s name on you identifies his ownership of you, too.
Before you were baptized whose where you? God tells us that everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. (John 8:34 ESV). We think we belong to ourselves. We think that we are capable of living our lives without God. We think that if we just get our act together, we’d be able to make it on our own. But the nature of sin is that it affects everything we do. As we live our lives it is pretty obvious. It’s not just our lives are full of accidents. In our hearts we see that we really belong to sin. We are enslaved to it. There isn’t any way to change the selfishness that controls our thoughts. There was a young child who was with mom Christmas shopping. Amazingly he found gifts for his brothers and sisters in the first isle he was in. When that task was done he quickly asked, “Now can we look for my presents?” The only difference between that child and you and me is that we have learned to hide our greed. We’ve learned to cover up what’s in our hearts. We haven’t gotten rid of it at all. We are still slaves to sin.
When Jesus comes to us with his name in baptism he changes who owns us. He claims us for God. Jesus, whose name is God saves, saves us from our sin.
See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. (1 Jn 3:1a, ESV)
What happens is this: When you are baptized God puts Jesus name on you, and with Jesus name comes everything that Jesus did for you. He lived a perfect life, it is given to you. He died for sin. His death is given to you, too. That’s how it happens that in his death on the cross, Jesus dies for you.
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Ga 2:19-20, ESV)
So that sin that you and I hide, that sin is sin that we were enslaved in. It isn’t our owner anymore. We have been set free from it by Jesus death, our death.
It’s a New Year. You can probably come up with at thousand things for New Year’s resolutions. So could I. But maybe this year instead of a resolution you can just remember something. Remember that you have been given Jesus name. You’ve got lots of new challenges coming this year. You’ve got lots of new troubles coming this year. But the thing that makes the difference for you and me isn’t that we make promises to ourselves about how we are going to be different. The thing that really makes a difference for us is that we have been made different already. We have died to sin, and are made alive to Jesus. The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God. We are dead to sin and alive to Christ. (Romans 6:11). The thing that really makes a difference for you and me this coming year is that God has made us His and placed His name on us. The name that He gives you and me says it all. The name is Jesus, God saves. Amen.
The Peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen
Monday, December 28, 2009
4But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. Titus 3:4-7 (ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
One of the greatest joys in the world is looking at, or even holding, a baby. It doesn’t matter what kind of a mood you are in, when you get a baby in your arms you automatically go into ‘care’ mode. Anger drips away as you look into a baby’s eye. And if it smiles at you, all you can do is melt. If the baby is your own flesh and blood, if you carried it those nine months of nurture, that baby may even hold the whole future in its face. It’s impossible to fell bad or think evil thoughts as you look at a baby in your arms.
I think that’s one of the reasons why people like Christmas so much. It’s all centered on a baby. It’s what makes the holiday cross over so many boundaries. People understand Christmas, because they understand babies. And they relate to it. If you say to people, “the goodness and loving kindness of God is shown in that baby in the manger.” They’ll pretty much know what you are talking about. A baby is goodness and loving kindness personified. If someone were going to make a new designer holiday, the best kind would be one that was wrapped up in the symbolism of a baby.
Christmas isn’t a designer holiday, or even a manufactured holiday. But it is about a baby. It’s a holiday about a real live baby not a symbolic one or a pretend one. All those years ago in that stable a real live mother actually gave birth to a real live flesh and blood baby. I’m sure that Mary and Joseph had many of the same feelings, fears and joys that all parents have when a child is born. And when they held their baby in their arms, they were looking the future in the face. Right there in their presence was the goodness and loving kindness of God. They could reach out and touch it, and hold it, and caress it. It’s as if God were saying, as much as you love this baby, I love you. As much as you will be father and mother to him, I care for your. Yes, that baby, born in an animal shelter is God’s declaration of how much He loves human beings.
And it seems that love is a part of the holiday, too. You see things in people this time of year that you don’t see any other time. In some ways, we get the feeling that this time of year shows the ‘real character’ of people. They just seem to care more, help more, and love more. Red buckets are hung by ringing bells, toys for tots are stuffed in boxes all over town, people even give more blood at this time of year than any other. It’s nice that, for a few weeks at least, people show that kind of love for one another. But before we pat ourselves on the shoulders for a ‘job well done’ we should remember that even a full year full of Christmases wouldn’t be enough to make up for all the ugliness, pain and selfishness that people inflict on one another for the rest of the year. Christmas good deeds aren’t the ‘real character’ of people. The ‘real character’ of all people is sin.
Actually, we are exactly the opposite of the ‘goodness and loving kindness’ shown to us at Christmas time. How many different ways have been invented by people to cause each other pain? Christmas joy is the blip on the radar; it’s the exception not the rule. A quick perusal of the news will quickly confirm it. The top stories of most every day show the dark nature of human beings. Murder, theft, abuse, and greed top the list of evils. And worst of all, children are often the targets of those same evils.
Now, let’s make it personal. It’s one thing to point to the world out there and say that it’s full of evil people, it’s quite another to turn that finger on ourselves. But that’s exactly what we have to do. We can see our own guilt very quickly by just looking at one of God’s Ten Commandments. “You shall not kill.” It says. Jesus, that lovable little baby accuses us when he says, “22But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. Matthew 5:22 (ESV)” Who among you hasn’t been angry? I know I’ve been angry with someone and recently, even during the month of December! The time when there is suppose to be ‘peace on earth,’ the peace was shattered by anger. Insults are the same and even calling someone a fool. What Jesus is really saying is that you don’t have to spill someone’s blood to violate God’s will for your life. Just like everyone else on the planet, your ‘real character’ isn’t shown at Christmas. There is blackness in your heart that you can’t erase with any amount of ‘good deeds’ at Christmas time. No matter how much ‘good’ you do, that evil will still be there and will spill out again.
You might be able to fool the people who live around you by doing good things, but God sees your heart. God sees my heart. He sees the evil, the selfishness, and the deceit that is there. And God doesn’t judge the things we do by how good they are; He judges the things we do by our hearts. When He looks into our hearts, He sees that we don’t deserve goodness and loving kindness at all. What we really deserve is punishment.
But it’s Christmas; can’t we put aside that punishment stuff for even one day? Can’t we just enjoy the “Joy” of the season without talking about sin, death and hell? Can’t we just look at the stable and revel in the goodness and the loving kindness that we see there in a newborn baby?
That is precisely the point. The text for this message says when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, that’s what the Baby is all about, the goodness and loving kindness of God appearing. It comes in a little baby wrapped in rags. It comes with poor parents and even poorer shepherds that looked on. It comes in the middle of a stable instead of a birthing room. The goodness and loving kindness of God comes in a Baby, Jesus. We look with loving kindness on this Baby not just because he is a baby, but because he came for punishment.
In goodness and loving kindness, God sent Jesus to suffer punishment for us. That’s the mercy of God. That instead of punishment for our sin, God punishes Jesus. We deserve it. Jesus takes it. Instead of turning away from you and me, God turns away from Jesus and allows Him to be nailed to the cross, to bleed and die in great pain. God looks at His Son and deals out punishment to Him, and goodness and loving kindness to you and me. That’s a different way to look at a baby. But that’s the only way to look at this Baby. If we fail to see the Baby Jesus as the one-and-the-same Jesus bleeding on the cross, the joy we have at Christmas is meaningless.
But God’s goodness and loving kindness goes way beyond the punishment of Jesus in our place. There is more to what this Baby came to do than die (although that is essential!). In a few months, we’ll put these white cloths back on the altar again and we’ll say to each other “He is Risen!” The baby in the manger grows up to die, but more importantly, He grows us to rise again from death. The loving kindness of God goes so far that God isn’t content with just paying the penalty for our sin; He wants us to live forever. That’s God’s ultimate act of kindness for us. He gives us the resurrection of Jesus. It’s the washing of regeneration and renewal that we read a few moments ago. God makes us clean; and regenerates us, that is makes us a new person, through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Our punishment is His and so is His coming back to life is ours. We inherit eternal life in Jesus.
Now let’s make this personal, too. Jesus didn’t come just for the multitudes of people living everywhere out there. He came for you. That little baby was born in the manger for you. He lived and He died for you. The punishment He suffered is the punishment you deserved. The new life that He rose from the dead to live is yours, too. You are a child of God! How do you know? Well, it’s not because of anything you’ve done. Remember he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy. You’ve been adopted. You’ve been washed and regenerated. God poured out on you all of this when He poured over your head, water together with His words of forgiveness and life. Baptism is God’s promise to you, that all that Jesus did He did for you. That’s the goodness and loving kindness of God made personal for you.
So, all of Christmas is wrapped up right here in the joy of seeing a baby. When we see a baby, we know what goodness and loving-kindness is. We know it because we feel it; it’s automatic; it comes with the territory. Babies bring it out in us. Maybe that’s part of the reason Jesus came as a baby, to show us that that’s how God looks at you and me. To show us a love so great that Jesus lived and died and rose again to give us life forever. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
Saturday, December 19, 2009
Excellent post by Rev. Paul McCain.
I can’t think of a more foolish attitude I harbor at times than when I look back on previous generations and assume they were ignorant, unenlightened, unaware and totally outside of what I’m thinking and experiencing today. I was reminded of something the British writer G.K. Chesterton wrote in his book Orthodoxy (Chapter 4):
“Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.”
Monday, December 14, 2009
14Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! 15The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. 16On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: “Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. 17The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing. Zephaniah 3:14-17 (ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Rejoice! Actually today is called “Rejoice Sunday!” That’s why today we light the pink candle in the advent wreath. Today is a day of rejoicing. But, Pastor we’ve been rejoicing already. We’ve been Christmas shopping. We’ve been attending parties. We’ve been setting up the Christmas tree. After all ‘tis the season to be jolly! We are happy that Christmas is coming! And so we are… and so we should be.
That’s what this text is talking about. Sing aloud! It says, shout, rejoice and exult. (I’m not sure the last time I ‘exulted’ but I’m sure it was fun! It actually means ‘leap for joy’). Finally, we’re getting to the part of the season before Christmas we really enjoy. But what is there really to be happy about. All told, the season is really a stressful time. On top of all of our regular problems, paying bills, meeting work obligations, taking care of our families, running here and there for the kids, and on and on… we’ve got all those extra Christmas things to deal with. Extra cooking, extra cleaning, extra traveling, extra cards and letters to write, extra shopping, and even more… It’s easy to say we should be rejoicing in the Christmas spirit but everyone really knows how hard it is.
Actually, the Prophet Zephaniah knew what you are going through. Well, not precisely you, but he knew about people just like you. When he was preaching to the Jews, things were beginning to look very bad. The political situation was becoming increasingly dangerous; one of Israel’s favorite kings had been killed in battle. It was becoming very clear that they were minor pawns on the world stage of nations. More and more, there was less and less to rejoice about. Added on to the regular problems of living in their day and age, there were all these extra things to worry about. They were loaded down with the things of life, overwhelmed with trouble.
And most of Zephaniah’s message really didn’t help. The first part of his book didn’t leave much doubt as to what was going to happen. God’s judgment was coming. There was going to be lots more trouble. There was going to be foreign armies at the gates and their cities were going to burn. There was going to be punishment from God for forgetting the special relationship they had with the God who rescued them from slavery in Egypt. There wasn’t much to rejoice about. And still Zephaniah says rejoice. And there was reason to rejoice. It’s because of something that’s repeated in Zephaniah’s message; one phrase that makes all the difference for God’s people. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst. And The Lord your God, is in your midst. You see, no matter how bad it was going to be, Zephaniah gave God’s promise that God would be with His people, right there in the middle of them, right there while they were bearing the worst of it, God was going to be there. And that… was really a reason for joy… a reason for rejoicing. It is in fact such a strong promise that Zephaniah gives them the words that they will be saying. He says, “Look it’s going to be so good when all this is over your going to want to start rejoicing right now!”
A father knocks on his daughter door. She is crying on her bed because she has received punishment for disobeying. “Can I come in honey?” he says. Quietly he enters and sits beside her on the bed. He folds her into his arms. “It’s ok, your mother and I still love you. It won’t be long and your grounding will be over. You can start rejoicing right now!”
But in Zephaniah’s case its even more than that. The Lord has taken away the judgments against you. And he is not just talking about small claims court here, or the end of a period of grounding. He’s actually talking about the death sentence. He is saying that you deserve death but God is going to set aside the verdict. He is going to take care of you so you will not be punished. It is going to happen for you. And it is so sure that you may as well begin the celebration right now!
A father went to tuck his excited children in bed. They were having a hard time getting to sleep because they were so excited. You see, tomorrow they were going to the zoo. It was a trip they had been expecting for a long time. They knew how much fun they were going to have. Dad sat gently tucking in the blankets around them, recounting all they were going to do… “Will we see lions?” “Of course, a great many I suppose.” “How about tigers?” “Yes, tigers too! Now please try to go to sleep.” “But Dad, I can’t sleep, I’m just too excited.” One of the boys said, fidgeting under the covers. The older clutched his pillow and looked up at his father. “Dad,” he said, “I just want to thank you for tomorrow.” That’s what Zephaniah was talking about. Thanking God for his presence now and thanking God for what He will do tomorrow.
Well, it’s all fine and good for those folks back then. They had lots to be thankful for. They had God in their midst. I’m not really sure we want God around us all the time. I mean, so much of what we say and do isn’t really the kind of stuff we’d share with God anyway. Especially the troubles we’re having. If God were here, the season would really have to be jolly wouldn’t it? God doesn’t’ really fit here in the middle of my holiday depression. He doesn’t really fit here along with my broken family (there’s nothing like a little holiday stress to bring out the worst in us). God doesn’t really fit in the holiday hassle of shop-till-you-drop overspending, and the insecurity of knowing that the bills are going to come due next month. God doesn’t fit in my holiday were I miss my loved ones who have died this year. Add all of that on to my regular life stress and there’s not much to rejoice about, is there? God doesn’t really fit in the middle of my messy world.
But you see, that’s exactly what Christmas is. God in our midst, God with us, right in the middle of our messy lives. He is a mighty one who will save, Zephaniah says. And he’s not just talking to long dead people in the Middle East. He’s talking to you and me. Christmas is the holiday where we celebrate the fact that God did actually, physically come right into our messy world. He showed up right in our midst, in the middle of our messed up families and broken dreams. God became flesh, that is, He took on a human body and soul, a whole human life; Birth and death, sorrow and pain, joy and laughter. He was as real, as flesh-and-blood, as the person sitting next to you. He breathed the world’s air, with all its foul smells as well as its sweet smells. He experienced human life, in the same way that you do. Right in the middle of depressed people with broken families and insecurity just like yours. God in your midst. Jesus didn’t just come to be close to you. But he came to rescue you from the very thing that separates you from God in the first place. Jesus Christ, God and man, lived, died, and rose again, to save you from sin. Sin is what keeps you apart from God. That’s because sin is really humans pushing God away; people wanting God to be as far away as possible, out of sight out of mind. Sin is people rejecting the God who created them and loves for them. And the punishment that that deserves is taken up by Jesus Christ, and nailed to the cross with Him. Your punishment paid for by the living-in-your- midst Jesus Christ. And all that pain and suffering, all that sorrow and separation, comes to you because of sin was laid upon Jesus. That’s the real joy of the season. You see, God belongs right were He says He’ll be, in your midst to save you.
Ah, you say, but I still have all this suffering, my family is still broken, I’m still apart from my loved ones, and this year’s holiday depression is worse than ever. And all that’s true, the world is still a messy place, it’s still a broken place because of sin. But there’s more to Jesus in your midst than His death on the cross. His death is not the end. Jesus rose again. He lives and reigns now today. And what’s more, He lives and reigns in our midst today, right now, right here. He’s sitting with you in your dark room telling you that even though things are bad they won’t last forever. He’s right there sitting beside you telling you how great it’s going to be when all this trouble is past, because His resurrection is His sure promise to you that all of this pain and suffering are done away with. He has taken them into His grave, so that your grave isn’t the end for you but only the beginning. So you can begin your rejoicing right now.
Because right now, He hasn’t left you alone to deal with your pain. He comes in your midst, H come to you in very real ways. Not in just some invisible, intangible, un-sensible, way… but He is with you in ways that you can actually hear, and see, and taste and feel. Pick up a bible, read God’s Word and Jesus is right there in your midst. Gather in church where “two or three are gathered in His name,” and Jesus is right there in your midst. Approach His table and take His body and blood given and shed for you, and Jesus is right there in your midst; in the midst of your depression; in the midst of your pain; in the midst of your insecurity. Now that’s real reason for rejoicing. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.
Thursday, December 10, 2009
Only seven? Ok, so these are the same old reasons, but they still are relevant, aren't they?
Monday, December 07, 2009
I’m not really a list keeper. Well, at least I never was before. But put a guy in a church with no secretary and you have to keep lists; prayer lists, visit lists, board agenda items, thank you notes to send, “to dos” for everything from newsletter article ideas to sermon illustrations to remember. So, what’s a forgetful pastor to do?
1In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Luke 3:1-6 (ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
We really get used to hearing about John the Baptist during Advent. After all what would Advent be without singing “On Jordan’s Bank…” I remember singing it in a dark downtown St. Louis Church when I was in Kindergarten. Mom and Dad were teachers in the Lutheran School there. I remember sitting next to my mother who said each line quickly in between breaths so I could sing along. I remember standing there singing trying hard to feel the mood of the season (which was much darker than it feels these days). As for me singing about the “Baptist” is something I expect before Christmas.
This second Sunday in Advent is dedicated every year to the message of John the Baptist. There’s something I want you to notice about this text. This little section of scripture is completely full of geography. St. Luke, the Gospel writer, is intent on having us see the geography he almost overloads us with places… He talks about the biggest geographical area occupied by anyone when he mentions Caesar (The Roman Empire), He speaks about Judea (roughly the area of modern day Israel, Galilee, Abilene and finally he references Jerusalem (if you’re a Jew, you can’t hear about the High priests and not think of Jerusalem!). Luke is making a very strong statement before he introduces The Baptist. Then he tells us that John went into all the region around the Jordan. Luke wants us to be thinking geographically.
But why? Well, let’s look at what John is saying while he preaches and baptizes. Prepare the way of the Lord, make the roads straight fill in the valleys, level the mountains, make the roads all straight, and level out the rough land. Think about what he’s saying. He’s talking about a radical change in landscape. Just think of the huge earth moving machines that would be required to do what John is talking about. Deep valleys filled in, high mountains and hills leveled, crooked roads made straight, and rough land leveled out. It’s big change that he’s calling for; it’s noticeable change, monstrous change.
Maybe we don’t really have the perspective on this that John’s hearers had. Maybe we don’t really see what a radical change John was talking about. After all most of the land around here is already pretty flat. I was talking to someone the other day and they said that one of the best things about Iowa was how beautiful it was at night, because when you look out over the land you see all those lights. If you’ve ever been to a place like Pennsylvania the first thing you’d notice is how there are no straight roads! Driving there is like driving down in a ditch because the trees come right to edge of the road. Here our roads are in that familiar grid pattern set up a long time ago. But it’s really very different in Israel. Israel is a very narrow strip of land only about 30-40 miles wide and a little more than 200 miles long. The whole area would easily fit in a box with Des Moines and Kansas City as the corners. The lowest point (also the lowest point on the globe) is –1338 ft below sea level (the Dead Sea) and the highest point is a mountain peak at 3963 ft (Mt. Hermon?). By the way only 17% of the land there can be used for farming. So as you can see talk about changing the kind of geography of Israel, is really a project of epic proportions.
But that is the kind of change that John is preaching about. It’s enormous, noticeable, radical change. Of course John isn’t really talking about geographically, is he? He’s telling the people around him that they better get their act together. Something radical is about to happen: God is coming. “Get ready!” He’s saying, “the Lord is coming. You’d better get prepared. Level the land! Tear down the mountains fill in the valleys. Do the impossible!”
This isn’t the first time God’s people have been told to make a radical change. In fact, John is using the very same words here that were spoken by Isaiah some centuries before. Isaiah was also calling for radical change. Back then God was telling the people of Israel that even though things looked pretty good right then, they weren’t. They were going to be conquered. They were going to go into exile. It was punishment for rejecting the God who had saved them from being salves in Egypt; the God who had given them the land they were living in. This punishment was going to be harsh; it was going to be radical. God was coming in judgment; it was time for a radical change of heart. That’s what John was saying, too. The Lord is coming! It’s time for a radical change of landscape, a radical change of heart.
Those words also speak to us. Here we are in advent looking forward to celebrating Christmas. Remembering that Jesus has come and more importantly that He is coming again. And He is coming “to judge the living and the dead” as the creed says. It won’t take us too long to see that we need that same radical change of heart that John is talking about. The way of our lives is full of valleys and mountains; full of crooked roads and rough ground. But we are to make our way straight if we are to be ready. We need to live in the way of the Lord.
So what does it take to live in the way of the Lord? Have you ever tried? I mean really, really tried to stop sinning? Have you ever tried to stop lying, for instance? What does it take to completely get rid of lies in your life? Well, first of all, you have to hold your tongue. You have to not say things that are untrue. Especially things that are untrue about yourself. Oh but how hard that is when you really need to boost your standing among people you want to impress. How hard it is when you really need to show people your position is well founded. And maybe you can do that; maybe you can stop them some of the time. But don’t they somehow come creeping back when your defenses are down? They are there deep inside you holding it in just makes it worse.
So that one’s too hard to get rid of: What about gossip? That one should be easier, right? So you try to stop saying things about people. But that telephone is always ringing with some more news. You tell yourself that people need to be informed; people really do need to know what’s going on. And you know that even the truth can hurt people when it’s spread around. But some things are just too hard to keep to yourself.
Well again let’s try something easier: What about treating all people the same? Ok, you start by vowing to make it work, and then you are confronted by that person who you’ve never trusted. So you skip them and try to do it for everyone else. But you see a dirty, unkempt person walking toward you on the street and all you just want to crawl under a rock, or run the other way. You can’t help thinking about how spend the assistance they receive on cigarettes or liquor, when they should be spending it on new shoes for their kids. No matter how hard you try you can’t treat everyone the same because your feelings about them bubble up from your heart, and the only way to get rid of those feelings is to be dead.
Well there is always trying to do good things to make up for the bad things you do. So you try that. You find a worthy cause; build a mountain of Christmas presents for under-privileged kids; volunteer time to stalk the food bank shelves; help your elderly neighbor scoop snow; dig deeper into your pockets and give more money to the church. Those are all great things to do. And you feel good doing them. Maybe that’s the answer to the radical change. If you just do enough good things you won’t have time to do the bad. But if you think about it, your heart might be in the right place but you know that your mind wanders. Pretty soon you find yourself saying to yourself, “I hope so-and-so sees me doing this.” Or “at least I’m doing better than that person who never does anything!” or “God sure must be proud of me for all I’ve done for Him.”
Well so much for radical change. That fact is, and you know it as well as I do, that kind of change is impossible. Maybe you know it because you’ve tried and failed. You seem to make progress and when you turn your attention to the next thing the other returns. And maybe you know the things you do are wrong but you just plain don’t want to stop. You know your heart and you know that sin lives there. You know that the kind of radical change that John is talking about is impossible. It is impossible because the problem is just too deep. The valleys are too low and the mountains are too high. The roads we really want to go down are not the straight one but the crooked ones. I guess John wants us to do the impossible. We may as well try to level mountains and fill in valleys. The preparation he wants is just as impossible.
If that’s what you’re thinking I have to say that you are exactly right. In order to prepare ourselves for the Lord we’d have to be perfect in every way, no bumps, turns or lumps. Just perfect.
But Luke and John do leave us there. They tell us exactly what to do to prepare. They’re not really saying to get out the monster machines and start digging. And they’re not saying to quit smoking, lying, and cheating. They don’t even say do your best and the rest will follow. They tell us what John’s message is really all about. John’s message is more radical than that. John went all over the geographic area of the Jordan proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He’s saying to take your sins to God and He’ll forgive them.
That’s what the coming of Jesus is all about. It’s about a radical change of landscape. It’s about receiving forgiveness for your sins. It’s about a radical change of heart. It’s about repentance, it’s about turning to God saying, “Lord, I am a sinful person, forgive me!”
We look at the little baby Jesus in the manger, we think about Him sleeping quietly in His mother’s arms. It’s a sweet picture but what that little baby really is really the radical thing that God is doing. That little baby is God’s way of making the rough things smooth. In fact, that little baby isn’t just God’s messenger; He is God coming to do what is impossible for you and me. He comes to live the way of the Lord.
You know all those things that you tried to fix in your life and can’t get done? He didn’t have that problem. He did everything perfectly. Jesus is the truth and the life. Lies are no part of Him. Jesus loves and cares for all people equally. He gives help when help is needed, comfort when comfort is needed. Jesus treats everyone the same, the rich and the poor, even prostitutes and tax collectors. That’s the way of the Lord. That’s the way of Jesus our Lord. Everything He does is perfect and good. His way is very different from our way. His way is something radical. His way leads to the cross. And in His way He takes the punishment for our lies, and hate, and selfishness. He bears it all in His way. And in His way His death takes our punishment away. His way is a very radical way.
So how do we prepare for His coming? How do we move mountains, the way Jesus did? We can’t. And we don’t have to. The radical thing that God is doing is the radical thing that we can’t. We can’t remove sin from our lives any more than we can make a mountain fill up a valley. But Jesus has done it already, and He does it for you every single day. It’s the same thing that John was preaching about, repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Jesus has taken your sins away. That’s His Christmas gift to you. He’s leveled the mountains and valleys. And He has made a way straight from you to Him. That’s what repentance is. Jesus way of preparing you is to say to Him, “Lord Jesus, I have sinned against you in thought word and deed, by what I have done, by lying, and gossiping, and treating people badly, I have sinned in what I have left undone and what I have done with an insincere proud heart. Forgive me Jesus!”
And Jesus says, “I forgive you, my child. I will prepare your heart. I will make the change in you that is necessary. I will make my way, your way.” And today you have the opportunity to receive those words right here at his altar. When you open your mouth God pours in the forgiveness of sins, the radical change of heart that John is talking about.
John says to us, Prepare the way of the Lord. Well, it’s not just something we do for Christmas. It’s something Jesus does for us every day of our lives when we confess our sins to Him. It’s something He does for me and something He does for you. It’s a radical change of landscape. It’s a radical change of heart. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.
Friday, December 04, 2009
Thursday, December 03, 2009
John's note on facebook is worth reading. Here's an excerpt.
What is misguided is the notion that we need a new word to focus our attention on the work of God for blessing & growing His church. We've had a perfectly fine word for quite some time that means just that--*liturgy*. But it would appear that this word does not mean what many think it means.
Some mistakenly think that liturgy is the work people do for God (as though God needs anything from us). Others associate liturgy with traditional worship style and things that are old-fashioned. Still others de-promote the use of this fine term, arguing that Lutherans more commonly speak of "rites" and "ceremonies" as their lingo.
Wednesday, December 02, 2009
Higher Things is pleased to announce that it has been granted Recognized Service Organization (RSO) status by The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. As an RSO, Higher Things is officially recognized as an organization whose mission, ministry and programs are consistent with the confessional standards of the LCMS and in harmony with the programs of the Synod while retaining its independence and self-governance. We believe that RSO status will enhance Higher Things' ability to serve the youth of our Synod with the fullness of our liturgical and confessional heritage.
We look forward to yet greater opportunities to assist parents, congregations and pastors in cultivating and promoting a Lutheran identity among youth through conferences, retreats, publications and the internet. Dare to be Lutheran!
Tuesday, December 01, 2009
by ToddPeperkorn ~ December 1st, 2009
It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I am a techno-nerd from way back. Worked at a computer store in the 1980s. Had Radio Shack Model 1 parts strewn around my room at home through high school. Bought a laptop before laptops were cool. And so forth.
One of my ongoing questions has been how to reconcile my gadgetry and general nerdiness with the Holy Ministry. How can I use these powers for good, and not evil?
Enter the new blog, Do Pastors Dream of Electric Sheep?
This blog, started by yours truly and a half dozen or so fellow pastor buddies of mine, will explore the question(s) of how technology impacts the Holy Ministry today, and is impacted by it. We’ll talk about things from the mundane to the hyper-nerdy to the more sublime. God willing, our readers will learn something and will have something to contribute along the way.
I would urge you to go over, check it out, sign up to put the RSS feed in your reader, or however you keep track of such things. I think it will be a good time!