Saturday, March 25, 2006

Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 26, 2006

Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 26, 2006
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Howard, South Dakota
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. (Numbers 21:4-9, ESV)
Grace and Peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ;
(Pause - 1 minute)
I am going to preach... That was only a minute...  if you think it felt like a long time to you, just imagine how long it felt to me!  Did you get impatient?  When your are waiting for something, even a short time can seem like a long... impatience sets in...  we drum our fingers, begin looking around, maybe even whistle...  We just don't like to wait.  
Waiting is almost a natural state these days.  We are always waiting for something.  We wait for traffic lights tapping on the steering wheel.  We wait in line, at the bank, the grocery store, and the dry cleaners.  We wait for the phone to ring, or wait to go on a date.  It seems like it takes forever for the order you placed on the internet to arrive.  If you are hungry waiting for supper can seem to take forever.  Waiting is a part of life that we just can't escape.
You would think that as much waiting as we do we would get good at it.  But, the fact is, we aren't.  We don't like waiting... we become impatient.  It feels like we are wasting our time.  When we have to wait our pulses race, blood pressure rises, we get hostile (even to family and friends).  We think of all the things we could be accomplishing instead of waiting.   Computers, microwave ovens, pagers, and cell phones are all designed to keep us from waiting.  They are the high speed tools for working in an impatient world.  I read an article in time magazine about how children these days can multitask, doing homework, chat rooms on the computer, and listen to music all at the same time.  They do it because they don’t like to wait.  They're supposed to help us use our time more efficiently, but we often end up impatiently waiting on them.  If you really want to see impatience first hand just take a quick trip to McDonalds, or visit a busy airport.  You won't have to be there very long and you'll se it:  someone waving their arms, red faced, and raised voice, upset because they had to wait for their food or the airplane was delayed.  People get angry at delay because of impatience.  For an impatient person delay means denial.
It wasn't always this way, waiting used to be considered a virtue.  If you couldn't afford something you saved until you could.  But it just isn't that way anymore.  American families owe an average of $7000 on each credit they hold.  This is a huge indicator of an impatient society that wants it, and wants it now.  (It comes to a total of over 1.7 Trillion dollars in credit card debt in 1997)  Where it used to be a virtue, now having to wait is  a bad thing, almost the ultimate evil.  If it can't have it now, if it can't be mine right now, if I have to wait, it is just like not getting it at all.  Delay means denial.  We have all been there, impatient customers, complaining about the wait and wanting it right now.  
In the book of numbers (and specifically our text for today) we also find some inpatient people.  Unfortunately we can certainly identify with them.  Some human attributes cover the distance of time very well.  It reads They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; They were ready to take control of the Promised Land.  Their 40 years of wandering is almost over.  They've wandered and waited.  The fastest route to their destination is through the country of Edom.  But when they ask permission to pass trough, permission is denied.  They just can't strike a deal with the King of Edom, and a war is not an option.  Going around means a long delay...  it means they have to go back the way they came... back toward Egypt.  They feel like they are walking in circles.  This turns out to be convenient for the complainers.  They emphasize the people's impatience.  "This trip is going to take forever!!  We had it good in Egypt," they say.  "Good water, Good food... better than this old manna!"  What they conveniently forget is the bad stuff that came along with Egypt.  Like whips and chains.  Working hard for the food they ate.  While they are wandering in the desert all they had to do was collect the Manna off the ground.  It was given freely and abundantly. But, they are tired of it.  They've been eating manna every way possible for nearly 40 years.  They make Manna soup, manna stew, manna with gravy... manna burgers, manna waffles, manna bagels...  ba-manna-bread.  And now they are turned away, no short cuts, they have to go the long way.   They blame Moses... they blame God...  "...another delay, another time they can't get what God has promised.  How many more delays will there be?  Maybe God is really not going to give them what he promised.  Maybe this delay is just another one in a never-ending line of delays.  If we can't have it now, If it can't be ours right now, if we have to wait, again, its just like not getting it at all."
God is not amused.  After forty years of wandering in the fiery desert they still doubt his promises.  They still don't trust his word.  They are still an impatient people...  he sends another reminder.  The Hebrew bible calls them "fire serpents."  Poisonous snakes with a burning bite...  they bit the people and many Israelites died.  Immediately the people repent... "Moses, we've sinned!  Get God to take away the snakes!"  God has his own plan and the bronze serpent is raised on a pole, so that anyone who looks at it will survive the bites.  God's plan is that they are to pay attention to him and his solutions, they are to look to the pole for salvation.  Don't watch the ground where your enemies are look to the pole.  I've provided a way out.  A way for you to be saved.  ... and it works.   The Israelites would wander a little more...  they would fight a little more... they would complain a little more...  but, the promised land was theirs, that was God's promise.  It was theirs when God gave it to them.  God's delay is not his denial.  
So... do you feel like looking under pews for poisonous "fire serpents?"  Do you see yourself in the impatience of the Children of Israel?  Well, the text isn’t here to tell us that we are impatient so God is going to punish us with snakes.  What it is saying is that God's promises are true, even when we experience delay after delay... but we are impatient.  We want his promises now.  
We pray for healing...  "God heal me I can't bear the pain any longer.  I don't understand why you don't answer me."  we grow impatient... “Why do I have to struggle with money?  God why don’t you just make me win the lottery?”  discouragement sets in... “I’ll never be married.  No one would want to live their whole life with me?”  We focus on ourselves...  “I am a worthless person.  Everything I do fails.” questioning...  “Doesn’t God love me?  Is God really there?”  
God's delay becomes God's denial.  “If I can't have it now...  then it’s just not worth it.”  Our troubles become the center of our thoughts.
Sometimes we even miss the ways that God does work.  And when we are focused on the problem we can miss God’s purpose.  Maybe God’s answer is found with the Christian next door who is allowed to serve and practice their faith by helping you.  When we are patient waiting for God’s resolution to our problems our children see faith in practice... an example of turning to God and accepting his will in spite of discomfort.  God might even intend to for other Christian friends and family to be inspired to go to their Lord more often in prayer.  In these ways, and many others, God strengthens is people.  His delay is not a denial but a gracious act; a faith strengthening act, for someone... maybe even you.  
God's delays are a part of his perfect will for the world.  He delays because it isn't the right time to act.  God always acts at just the right time, the perfect time, the only time necessary.  Just as he acted when he sent Jesus to be our Savior.  He chose the perfect time and the perfect place...  You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die.  But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5:6-8 NIV)  Right when we needed it most... when we were lost in our sin with no hope of escape.  God sent Jesus for us.  His death saves us.  His crucifixion gives us the life we were created to have by removing the curse that sin has over us.  We get impatient with God because we don’t trust that He has our best interest at heart when He delays.  Instead of punishment God forgives us for Jesus sake.  In light of our faithless impatience we need to look to Jesus.  Just like the snake on the pole we look up to him, on the cross and see the way that God has provided ...the way for us to be saved... and it came at just the right time, for us.  Knowing about God’s forgiveness for our impatience allows us to begin again and wait for God’s perfect timing.
I'm an impatient person.  Everyday I struggle with it.  My foot gets a little heavy on the gas pedal.  I watch the clock for supper to come around.  ...  I know you struggle with your own impatience.  It's hard to wait especially when what you are waiting for seems to be so much in God's will.  But, God delays...  and we wait...  We don't always know his will, we don't always see what the waiting accomplishes, and sometimes we may never see it until we go to be with Him.  St. Peter wrote that... The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9 NIV)  God delays because he is gracious.  When the Israelites repented in the desert, he didn't remove the snakes right away.  He provided a way of salvation that pointed to him.  He provided a way that showed faith in his promises.  He provided a way that points us to his Son.  When we were dead in our sins, God sent our Savior Jesus at just the right time.  He is the one who saves us and he does it in his own time.
Delay... it isn't always clear to us why God delays.  We get impatient... we are impatient people... we want to see results and we want to see them now... if we don't we think that God is denying us.... But God's delays are not denial.  What he promises is true whether it happens now... a week from now... a year from now or in the next millennium...  He gives us strength through his word and sacraments to believe in his promises and to stand in faith ... patiently.  Amen.
The peace of God, keep your hearts and minds in the promises of Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Families Under the Cross - Devoted to One Another

Families Under the Cross: Devoted to One Another from a series by Rev. David Johnson.
Ruth 1:1-17, Ephesians 5:22-6:3, John 19:25-30
From a Sermon by Rev. David Johnson.
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Well now, tonight we are getting into some interesting territory.  We’re going to ask the question:  What does it mean for Families Under the Cross to be devoted to one another?  
Let’s start by asking what the word “devoted” means?  Webster’s dictionary gives this definition: Devote: 1: Commit by a solemn act.  2: to give over.  Synonyms Dedicate, Consecrate, Hallow mean to set apart for a special and often higher end.  Devote is likely to imply compelling motives and often attachment to an objective.  
It’s interesting, I think, to have a definition that says something about a “solemn act.”  Because indeed a family is created by a solemn act.  
I,    name of bridegroom   ,  take you,    name of bride   ,  to be my wedded wife,  to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God's holy will; | and I pledge you my faithfulness.
The solemn act of marriage creates a family.  That’s how God set it up way back in the beginning.  Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. (Genesis 2:24, ESV)  A family’s devotion to one another begins with the promises of a man and woman to be “devoted” to each other “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer…”  And so God creates one family out of two different people.
A study of some 3,000 couples found that the lifetime commitment of a husband and wife was the number one indicator for satisfaction in family life.  The study found five other factors, 2, Spending time together; 3, Listening and expressing thoughts and feelings together; 4, Complementing each other; 5, Working together as a team during a crisis; 6, A high level of religious commitment.
These things give us a good picture of what it means to be families “devoted” to each other.  And this is the kind devotion we see in our readings for tonight.  When Ruth says, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” (Ruth 1:16-17, ESV)  And Paul tells husbands and wives to submit and love each other and children and parents obey and care for each other he’s talking about devoted families, too.
Now that’s a big charge these days, isn’t it?  You know how difficult it is for families to be devoted to each other.  You know how hard it is because you know about the times you’ve failed.  You know about the pressure that is put on you from outside of your family.  You know the pressure that comes from your own sinful heart, too.  
There is no doubt we live in a society that wants us to believe that “stuff” is what makes a family happy.  Dad overworks to the point of neglect.  Mom is told that taking care of children is a demeaning job and she’ll find more contentment working outside the home.  Recently a well known feminist said that women who stay home and take care of their children are a “treat” to civilization.  All to get bigger and newer stuff that they don’t have time to enjoy anyway.  Self fulfillment at the expense of family conflicts with the promises made when the two became one.
Fortunately this trend seems to be decreasing.  More moms are choosing to stay home because their children are a higher priority.  More baby-boomer fathers are cutting their work schedules to spend more time with the kids.  And a quarter of baby-boomer moms are planning to leave the workforce to be at home.  Even though these folks are at the top of their professional careers they see family as more important.  It’s difficult to make these kinds of decisions.  But maybe we too should be thinking about what’s important instead of what we are told is important by commercials.
Families spending time together is important.  And yet, there just doesn’t seem to enough time to go around.  Life is so busy sometimes we just want to scream, “Stop the world, I want to get off!”  How many of you parents actually thought that having a baby was going to bring you closer?  The truth is with mom so focused on the newborn’s needs, there’s little left for her husband.  And it doesn’t get better as the kids get older either.  Pre-school, grade school and junior high have their own pressures for kids and their parents.  Parents are pushed and pulled in every different direction, and rarely ever toward each other.  Teens want to be independent and they often drive a wedge between the other members of their families as a way to express their desires.  And how hard it is to let go, and oh how much regret effects a family when the first child happily runs away to college.  And grandparents wonder what happened to their family when distance makes family gatherings few and far between.  Keeping the family together and devoted to each other takes work, hard work.
And all this pressure plays right into our own sinful nature.  We are constantly bombarded by ideas like freedom and choice.  While these can be good things we can see human sin at work when even marriage becomes expendable.  Only a generation ago couples believed in staying together “for the sake of the kids.”  But these days we are told that they are resilient, and bounce back quickly.  Divorce is seen as a right of passage for a woman and man to be set free.  I was told of a Hallmark card that illustrates the idea very well.  
"Think of your former marriage as a record album.  It was full of music -- both happy and sad. But what's important now is...YOU! the recently released HOT, NEW, SINGLE!  You're going to be at the TOP OF THE CHARTS."
It says it all. This is the opposite of what God tells us in His Word.  Not to mention the growing body of evidence that shows children do not bounce back from divorce.  They often carry the scars into adult hood and often their own marriages end in divorce.  It’s no wonder that God says he hates divorce. (Mal 2:16)
What we all struggle with in trying to be devoted to our families is selfishness.  It’s easy to put self-happiness and self-fulfillment over our family members.  We have lots of excuses.  We really think that “quality” is better than “quantity” when it comes to time with our kids.  We tell ourselves that it’s better to be a work-a-holic and provide those little extras for our families, then to have a little less and be at home more.  As teenagers we think it’s ok to live as if we don’t have parents at all, as if the family home were a bed and breakfast, because that’s what everyone else is doing.  As younger children we believe that mom and dad should give us whatever we want when we want it.  All of us have these kinds of problems.  That’s because the problem inside our hearts is catered to by the voices we hear on the outside.
So it’s tough to be devoted to each other in the world today.  But when we live as Families Under the Cross and realize that Jesus died there for these very sins, our lives can be different.  Living Under the Cross means that the forgiveness of Jesus makes our lives different.  Just look at His devotion to us.  It isn’t a coincidence that the relationship between Jesus and the church (that’s you and me) is described as a Bride and Bridegroom.  When we describe what we want our marriages to be in the promises we make at the altar, we are describing exactly what Jesus is to us.  Jesus lived out a selfless life for our sake.  He was devoted to you and me.  He carried the burden of our sin to the cross.  He poured out his life blood so that we could be His bride.  He is devoted to us by giving to us freely the forgiveness of sins that we so desperately need.
Talk about devotion, as Jesus himself said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13, ESV)  You’ve maybe heard the saying that even though Jesus was nailed to the cross, the nails didn’t hold him there, it was love that did.  It was His devotion.  You were his compelling motive attached to an objective.  He selflessly stayed on the cross to take away your sin of selfishness.  His blood washes you from the stain of selfish neglect.  His blood makes you clean again and acceptable to God the Father.  Living Under the Cross means living in that forgiveness given to us by faith in Jesus.  That forgiveness empowers us to work at being devoted to each other, just as Jesus is devoted to us.
And how does it look in our families?  It shows up because Under the Cross we have been made new creatures.  That means that a saint resides in there with that sinner.  Our devotion is a reflection of Jesus who promises to be with us through the Holy Spirit.  Doing the right thing happens, because that’s what “saints” of God do.  
Christ’s love and forgiveness can even help families after a divorce build new lives together.  Christ’s love and forgiveness can help a husband and wife lay aside the hurt caused by being pushed apart and find time to be together.  I love the quote from Luther, “Let a wife make his husband be glad to come home, and let the husband make her sorry he must leave again.”  Christ’s love and forgiveness helps us to deal with our children with their best interests at heart.  Finding time, in quantity, to make happy memories that are carried into how they will deal with their children.  Christ’s love and forgiveness helps us to make the sacrifices we need to make to care for each other, weather that’s caring for children or caring for aging parents. Christ’s love and forgiveness helps us to be devoted to each other even when time is against us, when it’s inconvenient.  
That’s life for Families Under the Cross.  We can be devoted to each other because Jesus is devoted to us.  It’s hard work, we are still trouble by sin.  But, Jesus takes care of our sin on the cross.  So we are able to be devoted to each other as Families Under the Cross.  Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Third Sunday in Lent, February 19, 2006

John2v13-22, Lent 3
Third Sunday in Lent, February 19, 2006
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Howard, South Dakota
The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. (John 2:13-22, ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Well it’s spring time again.  Well, at least spring is trying to regain control of the weather.  Right now it seems to be a fight between snow and sunshine.  Isn’t if funny how this mild winter wants to go out with a shout?  Soon it will be time to get outside and enjoy the weather fully.  Soon, the fields will be turning black.  Soon it will be time to open up the house and let some of that fresh spring air in.  Soon, although we might hate to think about it, it’ll be time to start thinking about cleaning house for spring; It’ll be time for spring cleaning.  
That’s what Jesus is doing in today’s text, He’s cleaning house.  Now this isn’t the kind of house cleaning where you tie a towel around your head, pick up the broom and dust pan to chase down dust bunnies.  Jesus is getting rid of the mess in the temple.  He uses a whip and raises his voice.  People run from him.  This Jesus is dangerous.  Now this is a picture of Jesus we don’t see much. This is Jesus the man’s man.  Speaking out the truth and letting the chips fall where they may.  He’s not worried here if people’s feelings are hurt by the truth.  This is Jesus active and alive.  You can just picture Him here with the crude whip in his hand, shouting out in appropriate anger, toppling tables, and driving people away.  If you get the feeling that this picture of Jesus is out of place, you might not be thinking about Jesus with a big enough picture.  Jesus did and said things all the time that caused people to hate him.  Jesus confronted corruption, laid it on the line to liars.  He wasn’t afraid to speak about God’s anger at sin.  And, he wasn’t always well received for doing it.  In fact, all through the Gospel accounts you get phrases like, “and after that they plotted to find a way to kill him.”  That’s not Jesus, meek and mild, that we tend to think of most of the time.  That’s Jesus man of action.  And one more thought, to think about here… especially you men.  When you are tempted to think about Jesus was weak and maybe just a little bit feminine, think about this.  From the very beginning of His life, Jesus knew why He was sent.  Every step he made, every bold action He took, every word He spoke was leading Him to the cross.  He new the pain and suffering He was headed for.  He knew the sacrifice He was going to make.  It was all in His mind the whole time.  And yet, He pushed forward in self-sacrifice.  That is a picture you men can appreciate.  That is a Jesus you can follow.
The only way to describe what’s going on here is that Jesus is angry.  It’s appropriate anger.  He’s doing more than just spring-cleaning, He’s cleaning his “Father’s house.”  But just as he always does, Jesus is doing what he does to point out something very important.  Everything Jesus that recorded about Jesus, everything he does teaches us something.  And it always teaches us something about Jesus.
You may not have caught it in the reading, but it is important to notice that all this cleaning house, happens at Passover.  For us Christians, the fact that this happens on Passover doesn’t mean a whole lot.  But if we were Jewish we’d notice that John is making a very strong connection.  You see, every Passover celebration begins with a cleaning.  In fact, the whole house is cleaned.  And then a huge search is conducted, and again they are not looking for dust-bunnies, they are looking for yeast.  Yeast everywhere in the house must be removed in order for the house to be ready for the Passover meal.  Yeast is symbolic of sin so in removing it the house and everyone in it is symbolically cleansed from sin.  John is tying these two ideas up in a nice neat little bow.
Passover in Jesus day was a major festival.  Jerusalem, where the temple was, was crowded to capacity.  Every room was full; the streets were overcrowded (think of Sioux Falls on the last Saturday before Christmas).  There is tension in the air as everyone is preparing for the feast.  It’s difficult to find a place to stay and every stable slot has a donkey.  There is joy in the air, too, because people love the holiday.  Whenever large crowds gather, there is always the possibility for trouble; tempers run short; there is too much to do and too little time to get it done.  
The main preparation that had to be made was that every family that was planning a Passover meal had to sacrifice a lamb.  That lamb had to be slaughtered in the temple.  So thousands of people had to gather in that confined space, with a wiggling lamb, to hand it off to the priests and get it back and take it home.  And on top of that, all the regular sacrifices still had to be made.  Doves had to be offered for women who had just had a child, bulls and goats had to be sacrificed for whatever else the law demanded.  
So when Jesus enters the temple he finds a market place.  Now Jesus isn’t against free trade.  The market itself is even understandable.  People who have come for Passover have to change their money.  If you’ve ever traveled out of the US you know what it’s like.  They’ve come from all over the Roman world.  Every little county has its own currency.  But even more than that, the Jews who also have to pay their temple tax.  And to pay the tax you have to use the temple’s own currency.  So there are money changers there.  They started out, outside the temple grounds, but eventually moved in.  And just as you’d expect people were being taken advantage of.  Greed pops up whenever people gather together and lots of money changes hands.  
But as bad as it all is, Jesus anger isn’t only directed at the moneychangers and their greed.  After all they are providing a necessary service.  It’s required by God’s Word, by the Laws of Moses.  Jesus himself paid the temple tax.  Jesus himself ate the Passover meal with His disciples… his lamb would have been sacrificed there, too.  He is angry about other things.  
There are also the tables of people selling animals for sacrifice.  (No one from PETA was there to complain!)  They are also providing a necessary service.  It’s difficult to travel with animals.  People needed to be able to buy what was necessary for sacrifice.  And remember they had to be perfect without blemish.  Who would want to carry a lamb all the way from Egypt, a journey of several weeks, just to find that it didn’t pass inspection?  It was better to buy one that was already certified.  All in all, there’s nothing wrong with the practice of buying a sacrifice for the temple.  And again of course here were certainly abuses, and inflated pricing, because the sellers had motivated buyers.  But again Jesus anger isn’t aimed primarily at the animal sellers because of their greed.  Although He’s certainly angry at their greed.
Picture this:  Think of the property all around our church.  Imagine it all enclosed with a high wall, all the way around the perimeter; down by the swimming pool up along the street on the north side of the parsonage, right up there along Main Street, and straight along the south end of the south parking lot back to the street by the pool.  That whole area is full of tables, people, and animals.  You’ve go bulls, and sheep and goats and doves in cages.  People have come from Sioux Falls, St. Louis (MO.), Kansas City, Denver, all the way here, by the hundreds.  They’re outside the walls and inside.  There is a steady stream of animals being brought in, also by the hundreds.  People are packed together, there’s arguing, haggling, bleating, cooing, and mooing.  Imagine all that noise, and worse imagine the smell.  You know what a feedlot smells like in the spring.  It’s a huge mess.  The priests are in their special area a bit bigger than our sanctuary, killing all the sacrifices.  And here inside the temple people are tying to pray and worship.  
Jesus cleans house.  We can understand why.  But remember it’s not just that he wants to get rid of the noise, the smell and the mess.  His anger isn’t primarily pointed at the greedy buyers and sellers.  He’s angry at something more than the fact that you can’t hear yourself pray.  There is something more wrong.  With all the commerce, the buying and selling, people are getting idea that you could buy your way into God’s presence.  With all that commerce so closely tied to the temple, it seems to be a system that implies that you pay your money, get a perfect animal, have the right kind of cash, you get to see God.  “My Father’s house is not a market!”  Jesus shouted.  “You can’t buy off God!”  This is not a place where business is done—not a place to exchange money, or buy and sell lambs for sacrifice, or cashing in on the worship of God and commercializing worship with Him.  This is a house of prayer; a place where we meet God, not in a barnyard or bank.  It is not a place where money of any kind buys anything!  When we come here, God looks at your heart, not at your checkbook.  He doesn’t care how much you give, or how perfect your lamb is.  When you come here God want you to come for one reason and one reason only…  to see God and receive forgiveness that he gives without cost.
So, Jesus cleans house.  He is sweeping it all away.  He pushes it all aside and out of the temple, the moneychangers, and the pigeon sellers.  People have turned God’s house into a market where they think they can buy off God with their cash.  “If we pay enough money God will overlook our sin.”  The very thing that God gave them to show the seriousness of their sin has become the point of abuse.  Every sacrifice in the temple was to show what is going to be needed to pay for sin.  Every drop of animal blood was pointing to the fact that sin requires death.  Every little lamb and perfect pigeon whose life blood was drained is pointing to the one sacrifice that would cover it all.  And here’s the real crux of the whole ‘cleaning house.’  …he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen.  Not only did he drive out the people, he drove out the sacrifices, too.  He got rid of them all.  “You don’t need to buy any of these substitutes anymore the real thing is here.”  
That’s the point Jesus was making.  That whole complex, all the animals, all the money that changed hands, the generations and generations bloody sacrifices, all the death, and even the temple building itself were all pointing to the real sacrifice.  And He was standing there before them whip in hand.  He had come to replace them all.  Jesus is the final and complete sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.  “Destroy this temple,” Jesus said about himself, “torture me, beat me, crucify me, and kill me, and I will come alive again in three days.  Everything you see here in this temple of stone is right now replaced in the temple of my body.  If you want to see and worship God, now you have to go through me.”
Now it’s time that we cleaned house, too.  We have lots of reasons for being here.  Like those people in the temple, we like the idea of paying God off.  It is the natural way we want to deal with God.  We do it with our attendance.  As if just putting our butt on the pew pad makes God think better of us.  We do it when that plate passes by and we make a show of dropping in the envelope, hoping Aunt Nelly sees us do it.  But God isn’t interested in your money.  He doesn’t need it.  Now I know the church financial folks are having heart failure now because the church institution does need it.  We give to this church because we have made a commitment to supporting the work that God does through it.  So when the budget runs short the members of this church need to step up and take care of it.  But, God want’s you to give to the church because of what Jesus has done for you, not to try to make Him happy about you.  God wants you here with your heart focused on what He has done for you.  God wants you to see Jesus, bloody sacrifice for the forgiveness of your sins.  He wants you to set aside all the things that you naturally want to do to try to pay God off, and instead see the cross.
And now here’s the best part of it all…  Jesus even cleans house right here and now.  He’s not standing here with whip, he’s not turning over the ushers table, and he’s not throwing the collection plate on the floor.  He’s cleaning house through His Word.  Instead He comes here in His Word and places faith right in our hearts through our ear holes.  Jesus swept all the sacrifices away and stepped into their place.  And He gives you the benefit of that sacrifice by pouring His Holy and Precious Blood down your throat to forgive your sin.  That’s why we are here.  Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Families Under the Cross - Building Up One Another

Families Under the Cross: Building Up One Another as Lenten Series by Rev. David Johnson.
Psalm 139:13-18, Ephesians 4:29-32, John 16:17-33
From a Sermon by Rev. David Johnson
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
“Hey Johnny, that was great!  Way to go!  Good job!”  (Spoken with encouragement and enthusiasm)
“Hey Johnny, that was great!  Way to go!  Good job!”  (Spoken with sarcasm and ridicule)
Those are the same words.  What’s the difference?  One is spoken to build up, the other spoken to tear down.  The first makes the person who hears them feel good.  The second makes the person feel down and inferior.   The way we speak to each other has a great effect on the people in our families.  Words can heal and words can destroy.  Words can tear down and words can build up.  We do well to listen to St. Paul’s words:
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Ephesians 4:29-32 (ESV)
He has lots to say to us, as Families Under the Cross.  Let’s see how, as we live under the cross of Jesus Christ and in the forgiveness he brings, this Word of God can be true for our families.
Each week we’ve talked about the challenge of living in our families.  Just as it is a challenge to forgive; a challenge to serve, it is also a challenge to build each other up.  That’s just not the way our minds work.  Usually our first reaction to a situation is sarcasm.  That “corrupt talk” that St. Paul warns us against comes out before we even have a chance to think about it.  One translation calls it “unwholesome talk.”  And so it is.  Just think about how often we ridicule our family members.  Just think about how so often our teasing is beyond the pale of “all in good fun.”  Again all you have to do to see this played out is visit any playground.  You won’t have to listen long and you’ll hear a put down.  What happens there happens in our families.  And as far as put downs are concerned kids are king.  
Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family says that some 80% of teenagers experience feelings of inadequacy and inferiority because of the way they look.  Put downs at this stage of life can be especially devastating for a young person trying to find a place in life, trying to fit in to the crowd.  It can even push them to do things they would never consider otherwise.  Teenagers often use drugs and alcohol, and have sex as a means to relieve the pressure inflicted by negative statements at school or even at home.  Do you see why the Apostle calls it “corrupting” talk?
We often push our family members to be what they are not, too.  “Why can’t you be like your older brother?”  “You just can’t do anything right can you!”  Words spoken like these and even words that remain unspoken leave our family members wondering if they’ll ever live up to our expectations.  Very often our family members have the feeling they’ll never measure up to the perfection we demand.  
All this tearing down, all these “corrupt” words spoken, all these unhelpful actions against the members of our family bring about a deep and abiding sense of shame.  What is shame?  It’s different than guilt.  Guilt is getting caught doing something wrong and knowing you’ve been caught.  Whey you get a speeding ticket because you were speeding, you might rationalize it to yourself, you might try to find a way to not have to pay the fine, but when you’ve been caught actually speeding you know you are guilty.  That’s not shame.  Shame is a feeling you feel about yourself.  Dr. Lewis Smedes says that shame is the feeling of “not-good-enough-ness.”  Shame is that feeling you have about yourself that says you’ll never get it right.  Shame is the feeling you feel about yourself when you fell like you are the most stupid person you know, because you keep making the same mistake again and again.  Shame is that feeling when you just what to put that great big “L” for loser on your forehead.  Kids feel it when other kids tease them about how they look.  Parents feel it when they make a mistake with their kids and say to themselves, “I’m a lousy parent.”  Nothing intensifies shame more than “corrupt / unwholesome” words spoken to us by people we love or admire.  
"At at very early age, children begin to believe the judgments about them that their caregivers express in words and deeds.  They easily pick up the message that they are in the way or a pain to care for.  Worse, they may get the message that they are no good, slow or deficient because they aren't smart enough, pretty enough, aggressive enough. Deep down children begin to believe that these judgments are true.  With such shaming experiences, children can easily develop a shame-based identity."
Those are the words of Dr. Robert Albers in an article called Naming Our Shame.  Shame destroys the goodness of living by making us feel inadequate and worthless.
One direct result of shame, the feeling of not being worth anything, is that people wonder how God could love a person like us.  When we are overwhelmed by shame we think that we’ve got get our lives straightened out, we’ve got to a better person to be worthy of God’s love.  We might know that God sent Jesus to die for our sins, we might even know that Jesus died for us, but we still think that we have to do something to make ourselves worth God’s love.  This plays itself out in lots of ways, but mostly, in the church, it comes in our comparison to other people.  We see someone sitting in church and we know some of their problems.  “At least I’m better than that person.”  “I may be bad, but I’m not that bad.”  or even “I’ve got my problems but at least I’m in church!”  What’s really going on inside is quite different.  We are trying to lift ourselves out of our worthless feelings by standing on the weakness of others.
I think most of the time we know how to deal with our guilt.  We confess our sins to God and he forgives because of Jesus.  Usually we know how to let the guilt go (but not always).  Shame is a different animal.  Shame sticks to your ribs.  It’s harder to scrape it off and let it go.  But the truth of the matter is that God deals with guilt and shame in the same way.  As Families Under the Cross we live in the forgiveness won for us by Jesus.  That forgiveness frees us from our guilt and shame.  And even more importantly, Living Under the Cross, that is receiving forgiveness for our own guilt and shame helps us to do what God has specially called us to do in our families.  
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)
Those are words of building each other up.
We can do that because of Jesus.  On the cross Jesus died for our guild and our shame.  Jesus not only experienced the suffering for our sins, he also experienced great shame.  It was one of the purposes of crucifixion.  Public shame was the goal.  Every part of the punishment was meant to bring shame to the criminal, his family and the community.  A person nailed to a cross was exposed arms out stretched, legs bunched up in cruel spread eagle fashion.  The pictures of Jesus wearing a loin cloth are just to appease sensibilities.  Jesus was crucified stark naked.  A crucified person hung for hours and sometimes days before they died.  They couldn’t defend themselves against anything.  Birds attacked them.  Passers by mocked them.  The sun burned them by day and the cold froze them at night.  It was brutal, public, humiliation and shame.  
The book of Hebrews says it like this:
who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12:2 (ESV)
Jesus knew shame and guilt on the cross.  He suffered there for your shame and your guilt.  There is nothing in the world like knowing that God thought you were so worth it, that he himself went through that humiliation for you.
I think about a movie, where the new fiancé has to convert to Greek Orthodox to be able to marry his bride.  While he’s being baptized, half naked, in a rubber swimming pool, she says to her brother… “I’m just sure at any moment he’s going to turn and say, ‘You are so not worth this!”  After a short pause her brother says, “Yes, you are!”  In God’s eyes you are worth it… “even death on a cross.”
That’s another great thing we have as Families Under the Cross.  We hear from our Savior not only the words, “You are forgiven!”  But also “You are accepted.”  That’s the way that God deals with us in Christ.  He accepts us, sins and all, guilt and all, shame and all.  He loves us anyway.  I thought about using the old words for the hymn we just sang, “Alas and did my Savior bleed.”  We sang:
Alas! And did my Savior bleed, And did my sovereign die?Would he devote that sacred headFor sinners such as I?
How many of your remember the words from the old Hymnal?
… Would He devote that sacred headFor such a worm as I?
The answer is “Yes!”  Jesus wants you to know that not only did you need saving by His death on the cross, but you are “so worth it.”  You are his special loved creation, worth his death on the cross.  
You see, that’s Amazing Grace isn’t it.  Knowing how God feels about us and our families gives us the power to build one another up.  Knowing that He accepts us makes it possible for us accepts ourselves and each other.  When our children are teased on the playground we can say to them, “God created you, and God don’t make no junk!”  We said it together a few moments ago, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works.” Think of the self-esteem builder it was when Martin Luther said about his wife Katie, “There are some women more beautiful than my Katherine in this world.  But I wouldn't trade Katie for all of France or Venice.”  
That’s where we live Under the Cross.  When our children do something wrong, we say, “I hate what you did, but I love you and accept you just as Jesus does.”  That’s living Under the Cross.  That’s being Jesus to our families.  
It goes right here in our church family, too.  Because here we are also a Family Under the Cross.  It’s right there hanging over us to remind us that God love and accepts us all, through death of Jesus on the cross.  Instead of speaking to and about each other negatively and tearing each other down (and I’ve heard plenty of that since I’ve been here), we can build each other up.  Instead of looking toward what we don’t like in a person, instead of remembering forever how they’ve hurt us, we can look at them as Jesus did… next time you want to say something negative about someone here try saying to yourself what Jesus said on the cross, “You are so worth it!”
Building one another up is a great benefit to our families.  When we make it a regular practice in our families we draw closer together.  When there’s trouble we know we can depend on each other.  Children know that they don’t have to be afraid of being rejected when they come to you with a problem.  
It is living Under the Cross that makes it all possible.  In because of the cross we know that we are truly accepted and loved.  It is in the cross that God's amazing and accepting grace gives us power to build one another up in our families.  Amen
The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Second Sunday in Lent, March 12, 2006

Second Sunday in Lent, March 12, 2006
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Howard, SD
1Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. Romans 5:1-5 (ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
We have been "justified" by faith.  That's what St. Paul tells us.  Justified.  We see that word all over Paul's letters.  And it is no wonder, this word is at the very heart of our faith.  He we are not Justified by Christ, we are still in our sin, St. Paul tells us.  But, I wonder if sometimes we see it and just kind of pass it over, because it's a word that we think we should know what it means.  Do we really understand what it means?  And do we really know that we have been justified?
First let's make sure we understand what the word "justified" means.  There's a simple way of thinking about it that I find pretty easy to remember.  To be justified is to be made "just-as-if-I'd never sinned."  That's talking about what Jesus Christ has done for us.  It's His life, death and resurrection that has made us, just-as-if-I'd never sinned… justified.  That is sin set aside.  Sin removed.  Sin taken care of.  My sin taken care of.  Your sin taken care of.  
Whenever we talk about being justified it's important that we remember that we are indeed sinful people.  We are born that way.  We need to be justified.  No one who's been a parent can really believe that children are born without any sin.  The smallest child will bear this out.  Of course they need the attention they demand, but they are the most self-centered people on the planet.  As they grow older we tend to overlook the selfishness, or think that it's cute.  Go to any playground anywhere and you'll see the bald truth that children have to be taught not to hurt one another.  I know the folks who you see on TV don't agree.  But in spite of what they say, children do not have to be taught to hate, they have to be taught not to hate.  I have a teenager in the house (actually he's getting ready to go off to college).  I think the teenage years are the time when all of us struggle the most trying to balance selfishness and living in community.  That struggle between what we really want and what is best for us and the people around us is what makes those years so difficult.  Even when we get older some of us never get over the fact that we are supposed to share our toys.  We are sinful people.  Earlier in Romans Paul says it this way:
10as it is written: "None is righteous, no, not one; 11no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one." 13"Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive." "The venom of asps is under their lips." 14"Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness." 15"Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16in their paths are ruin and misery, 17and the way of peace they have not known." 18"There is no fear of God before their eyes." (Romans 3:10-18, ESV)
The lying tongue, the bitterness, the anger, the pushing God out of our lives, we all have to admit that there we are, right there in the middle of the pack.  We'd like all those "theirs" in there; "their tongues, their feet, their paths, their eyes, to be "theirs" that is someone else's.  But we know that we lie, even if it's just those little white one that pop up in conversation to make us look better to our friends.  And who hasn't been bitter about the nice things in life that other people seem to get so much easier than we do?  And talk about no peace, even in our Christians families, yelling and anger are regular features of our lives.  But worst of all, we could walk around all day and simply ignore the fact that we are sinful people.  We get into our everyday and everyday, and simply think that God will just ignore our sin because we do.  But God won’t ignore sin.  In fact, sin deserves punishment because it is an affront to God’s purity.  God is perfect and holy, we are not.  In order to be tolerated in God’s presence we have to be perfectly perfect, “without spot or blemish,” without any sin of any kind.  To stand before God in sin is to stand before the judge who will condemn.  "None is righteous, no not one" points out our need to be justified; our need to be made "just-as-if-I'd never sinned."
When we realize that the law Paul wrote is talking directly to us, then that's when those first few words "Since we have been justified…" come to us as pure Gospel, that's when it's not just Good News, it's Great News.   "Since" Paul says.  The word “since” means "in view of the fact that…."  It's true.  It's a fact.  It's yours and it's mine.  "Since we have been justified…"  Even though we are sinners we have been made "Just-as-if-I'd never sinned."  That selfishness that controls us from the time we are conceived through our adolescence and right into our adulthood, and even old age, is made as if we had never done it.  God has seen to that by sending Jesus.  From His adulthood all the way back to His conception He wasn't a sinful person; He was never selfish, He never spoke lies; He wasn't ever bitter about His place in life; and He always kept God in His mind and always thought of other people’s needs.  That law that Paul preaches to us "no one does good, not even one."  applies to everyone except Jesus.  Jesus never sinned.  
And yet, there is a way that all of it does apply to Jesus.  He does something about our sin, because we can’t do anything about it ourselves.  We are helpless to change.  We are born with sin and in order to get rid of it, it has to be killed.  Paul talked about that too in another letter he wrote.  21For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21, ESV)  And in the verse right before our text he says, 25[Jesus] was delivered up for our trespasses... (Romans 4:25, ESV)  All that sin, that deserves God’s punishment, was put on Jesus.  He became the target of God’s anger.  Jesus, God’s only and perfect Son, was killed because of it.  He became sin…  our sin… your sin… my sin…  Jesus, the world’s only perfect person is also Jesus the greatest sinner who ever lived, not for sin of His own but your sin and mine.  You know the sins that we wish weren’t ours.  The ones that we wish were only “theirs” Their lying tongues that are really ours.  Their bitterness that is really ours.  The lustful thoughts that we love to have, but then regret when they are over.  That sin that we wish was someone else’s really does become someone else’s in Jesus.  In Jesus our sins are put to death.  In Jesus they are sent to the grave.  In Jesus they are under the punishment and anger of God.  Jesus dies on the cross and takes the punishment for our sin.  And He gives to us the righteousness of God.  When Jesus takes our sin, and when he becomes sin for us, he gives us his perfect life, we become his righteousness.  All that living right, all that doing good, all that not sinning is given to us in exchange for our sin.  Jesus becomes sin, we become justified.  We become “just-as-if-I’d never sinned.”  
So that’s what it means to be justified.  And in a few weeks we are going to have a great object lesson, right here in spades!  And actually, it’s more than an object lesson, God is going to do a great and wonderful thing.  Three times in a row right here at this font I’ll say, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  When I say it I won’t be for myself, I will be speaking for God.  I’ll be doing exactly what He has commanded us to do.  And those little children, born in sin, become God’s very own children.  All the promises of God are now true for them.  God is going to justify them through the cross of Jesus Christ.  They’ll be “just-as-if-I’d never sinned.”  Now remember Paul’s word, that little word “since?”  It means “in light of the fact.”  All that is going to happen for those three little boys and all of what will happen is in fact founded on Jesus.  It’s because of what Jesus has done.  You’ll see it.  You’ll be witnesses of it.  This is the primary reason why the church should baptize publicly, during worship.  There is no better picture than being made “just-as-if-I’d-never-sinned” and not lifting a finger to make it happen.  Jesus comes and takes our sin and gives us his perfect life.  Jesus lives perfectly.  Jesus dies.  Jesus rises again.  When ever we see God working in baptism it is one of the clearest ways that we see that we have nothing at all to do with our justification.  It is given to us through the work of God accomplished by Jesus Christ.  And given to individuals given to you and me through water and God’s spoken Word and promises.  
Do you know that it’s true for you?  You do if you’re pointing to Jesus.  You do if you are remembering that in your baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, God made you “just-as-if-I’d never sinned.”  Because in that baptism Jesus took your sin to death on the cross and in your Baptism he gives you his perfect life.  You’ve been justified.  Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds Christ Jesus. Amen.

First Sunday in Lent, March 5, 2006

First Sunday in Lent, March 5th, 2006.
St. John’s, Howard, SD
After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here am I, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together. When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called the name of that place, “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” (Genesis 22:1-18, ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Whenever I read this text I have just one question…  What kind of a test is this?  I mean, I thought our God, Abraham’s God, was different than all the others.  This just doesn’t seem consistent with the God we know.  What kind of a God actually asks his followers to put their sons to the knife?  This doesn’t seem like a test that I want to even know about.  Yet, here it is in black and white, written down for all humanity to see.  People looking for excuses to dislike God don’t even have to read the whole first book in the bible till they find this really juicy “problem.”
And just think about Abraham…  this hundred year old seems to have a pretty hard row to hoe.  God seems to ask a lot of him.  The writer of the book of Hebrews uses him as a great example of faith, but look what he had to go through.
Here is Abraham, the traveling man.  He has no real place to call his own.  He lives in Beersheba; it sounds to my Lutheran ears, more like a drink than a place.  And even there he is only considered a guest; he has no real place that he calls home.  He has no connection to his past, his ancestors.  God has already effectively taken that away.  Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. (Genesis 12:1, ESV) that’s what God said to him and Abraham obeyed.  God promised him he would be the father of a great nation, but he had to wait until he was over 100 years old to even have his first son.  But, Abraham waited patiently.  And just when it all seemed hopeless, Isaac was born.  100 year olds didn’t routinely have babies then just like now.  Can you imagine a 100 year old changing diapers?  No wonder they picked a name for their son that means “laughter.”  But, Abraham and his wife rejoice at the gift that had been given to them.  They just didn’t know what else God is going to ask yet.
So now God says to Abraham, take this son… this only son, this one you’ve waited for so long, and go far away, a three-day walk, about forty miles.  That’s like from here to Arlington.  Offer him as a burnt offering.  This is a real dilemma for Abraham.  All of God’s promises are wrapped up in Isaac.  God promised that his family would be as many as the stars in the sky.  He promised that Isaac was the beginning of that promise.  It can only happen if Isaac actually lives to have children of his own.  It would seem that God intends to bring Abraham to nothing at all.  He will be a hopeless man with no past and no future.  Still, in spite of what it seems, Abraham takes no time to decide; in fact, his actions seem very deliberate.  The account written for us here in the bible is very detailed.   The scene is set in at daybreak.  The donkey is saddled, the servants are gathered, wood for the sacrifice is cut, the ‘sacrifice’ is retrieved from bed, and off they go together on their three-day trek.  It must have been a very quiet journey; with Abraham going over in his mind what God was asking, and Isaac not suspecting.  Maybe the servants whisper to themselves wondering why they must go so far, couldn’t the sacrifice be made at home?
Finally, the destination is in view, the mountain of the sacrifice, the place where God has directed them.  Now Abraham says something amazing, something that should catch our attention.  “You servants stay here,” he begins, “we will go to worship, and we will return to you.”  In this statement the mind of Abraham is opened to us.  He sees God’s test, he understands what God is saying, he believes in God’s promises.  God promised that his descendents would come through Isaac, and Abraham believes that that is how it will happen.  No matter what happened on that mountain, Isaac would be returning with him.  Here is the point that we really see what this test is all about, here already see the test and we see that Abraham has passed it.  What is at stake for Abraham here is… well it’s everything.  Isaac’s life is the key to the promises God has made to Abraham.  What God is asking through this test is this  “do you believe in the promises or not.”  Abraham believes… he has pushed aside hopelessness.  The test is really already over.  Now God could have sent them home, but God has something else in mind.  There is something more that needs to be done.  In this very strange way, God is about to show just how faithful he can be.  
So, Abraham goes through the motions.  Isaac carries the wood; he carries the fire and the knife.  He builds the altar; one eye on heaven, waiting for the sign to stop.  He carefully arranges the wood, waiting for God to call it off.  He turns to Isaac, binds him…  places him on the alter…  he takes the knife… raises it in the air…  his muscles tense…  pausing one more moment… then… at that frozen moment…  
“Abraham!  Abraham!”  
“Here I stand.”  He says.  “I am right here, exactly where You’ve asked me to be, standing in faith knowing that it is not hopeless, knowing that you have not forgotten me, knowing that even if this knife takes my his son’s life Your promises are still true.“
“Do not harm the boy.”  The angel replies.  “The test is over.”  
Here at the point of death, at the very knife-edge of the sacrifice, Abraham’s faith stands firmly in God’s faithfulness.  Here Abraham stands firmly on the promises of God.  That is what it means to have faith, to trust in God’s promises no matter how hopeless it seems.  Abraham knew God would save Isaac.  When he was told to stop he looked around and found the replacement that God had provided.  But Isaac’s replacement was more than just the ram caught in the brush.  It was the seal in blood of the promises of God.
Abraham and Isaac walked down the mountain together.  God had shown himself to be faithful once again.  For both of them it was a defining moment.  Both had been drawn closer to God, closer to his promises, and closer to each other.  
I know what you are thinking… I know what you are saying to yourself… I just don’t have the kind of faith that can stand up in those situations.  I just don’t have the faith moves mountains; the faith that survives the testing of God; especially a test like that!  Others have it, but not me…  I don’t have what it takes to act in faith like Abraham did.  I have character flaws. I have issues; a past that I can’t forget. I have sins that just won’t leave me.  
Dear Christians, I’m here today to tell you that you do have that kind of faith.  You have the same faith as Abraham had.  Who was Abraham before God called him?  He was no one special, he was a man born into a family of pagans, in a land far from God.  When God called him he simply did what God asked.  He was a flawed human being, just like you, just like me.  He wasn’t selected because he was special or different.  He became special and different because God selected him.  His faith grew because God tested him.  He grew in faith because God gave him the faith and caused it to grow.  He is an example to us not because of who he was or what he did, but because of what God did in him and who God is.  Abraham had faith because God was faithful.
Every Sunday we gather here under these wooden beams.  Every Sunday we proclaim the wonderful things that God did for us.  I believe in God the Father Almighty… I believe in Jesus Christ, his only son…  I believe in the Holy Spirit…  We confess the faith of our fathers; we confess the faith of Abraham.  Just like Isaac’s replacement ram was God seal of his promises to Abraham.  We have the blood of Jesus, which is the seal of God’s promise in his own blood.  It is the seal of sins forgiven.  Our Lord carried our sins to the top of a mountain, the knife of death was raised over him, but no angel came to stop it.  He died and took the punishment for our sins as our replacement.  He is faithful to do just as he promised.  Here we are standing firmly in that promise.
Just like Abraham our faith is tested.  Our lives are filled with knife-edge events.  Death creeps in unexpectedly and we are left lonely, afraid and hurting.  A new job brings a loss of independence, and doubt.  The old way of doing things just doesn’t seem to work anymore and we can’t seem to get a hold on the new way.  At work, at home, in the shop, the hospital and the funeral home, right where we are brought face to face with hopelessness, God asks “Do you believe in My promises, or not?”  
It is at the knife-edge where faith grows the most.  Where human effort and reason fails…  where there is no holding on to the past and nothing to look for in the future… where there is nowhere else to stand, we stand in faith, depending on God’s faithfulness.  Just like Abraham we say, “Here I stand, right where you want me to be.  Trusting in your promises.”  Faith like that doesn’t come to us because of who we are or what we have done; just like Abraham, it comes to us because of what God has done and who he is.  Faith like that isn’t something we dredge up from our sinful hearts, it’s given freely to us by the Holy Spirit.  Faith like that doesn’t grow because we work hard to make it grow, but because God promises that through Word and Sacrament, He will make it grow.  It grows because we hear about the forgiveness of ours sins through the death and resurrection of Christ.  It grows because The Holy Spirit nourishes it with the Body and Blood of Jesus, in, with and under the bread and wine.  All these things show us that when trouble comes we can depend on Jesus, in fact we are pushed toward him and his promises.
When we come down from the mountain, when the testing is over, on the drive home from the funeral, walking away from the hospital bed, remembering the words of comfort and healing, when there is no threatening knife, we realize that our faith has grown.  We see that we have come even closer to God than we thought possible.  He has shown himself to be faithful once again, and more than ever before we believe in his promises.
Amen. The Peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Families Under the Cross - Serving One Another

Families Under the Cross, a Lenten Series by Rev. David Johnson.
Families Under the Cross: Families Serving One Another.
This sermon from an outline by Pastor Johnson.
Philippians 2:1-11, John 13:1-7
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 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. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Php 2:1-11, ESV)
Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” (Jn 13:1-7, ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Did you know that you have a calling by God to serve?  You do.  God has placed you in a family to serve your neighbor.  The command to love and serve your neighbor starts with your closest neighbors, the members of your family, the people who you rub elbows with every day.  All too often we think that God’s call for us to serve is most closely connected to what happens here in this building, as if the work that goes on here is closer to God than the stuff that goes on in our families.  
Families Under the Cross, are called to serve one another but it’s not always an easy thing to do, is it?  In fact, serving each other in our families is a challenge every single day.  Think about the husband who comes home after a full day at work, ready for a relaxing evening of reading the paper and catching up on some TV.  “Honey,” a voice says, “I could really use some help getting the house ready for our company.”
“Mommy will you play with me?”  comes a small voice right in the middle of finally getting to the week’s laundry.  
“Mom, I really need you to watch the kids today.  We’ve an important meeting to go to tonight?”
“Son, you haven’t called me in ages.  It’s been very hard for me to be alone since your father died.”
These voices in our families are God, tapping us on the shoulder, asking us to serve, asking us to take care of our nearest neighbors.  Just think of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan.  Jesus tells about this man who cared for his neighbor in need.  Jesus told the story in response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?”  The Samaritan helps the Jew who’s been robbed and beaten in the ditch.  The parable isn’t more that a morality tale, it’s a definition.  Our neighbor is anyone who has a need.  No one knows better than you the needs of the people in your family.  Your husband, you wife, your kids, your parents, your grandparents and even the dog!  God’s call to serve your neighbor begins with your closest neighbors.  The ones you are most able to serve.  
But even for Christian families, it is a challenge to serve.  Sin causes us to be more self-centered than we should be.  Sin wants us to practice quid-pro-quo (that is you do for me then I’ll do for you).  Sin wants us to hold service against our family members.  And even Christians have to deal with sin, the sin that lives right here in our hearts.  Serving our Families Under the Cross is difficult because there are many ways that sin shows up in our service to our closest neighbors.  
You know very well the worn out feeling that comes with our community responsibilities.  Work is challenging and difficult it often takes extra time we don’t have.  School activities fill every single night.  We want our children to be active, but often that means giving up every other family activity.  And other well meaning people in the community demand your presence as a sign that the things around here are not going south.  These pressures add up and there are many times when we just don’t have the energy to serve anyone.  It’s easier to just veg, to think about ourselves, to complain, and to find excuses, and to avoid helping others altogether.  
We want our precious free time to be about what we want.  The fishing pole or shotgun seem much more important than our families.  That good book we’ve been wanting to read, the dinner out with a friend rate higher than the needs of our children and husband.  I heard that some parents who have a day off will still drop their kids of a day-care so they can have free time not bothered by their children.  A couple who do that need to rethink their priorities.  All of us have a tendency to put our own goals and desires ahead of others.  And most often those who are closest to us are the most likely recipient to our neglect and selfishness.
On the other hand, we all do have the need for some “me” time.  The real challenge is keeping the two needs in balance.  That’s what St. Paul is talking about in our text.  Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.  He’s talking about both.  Taking care of your own needs and taking care of others.  We often misunderstand God’s will on this point.  It’s just as bad to neglect the interests of others, as it is to completely ignore our own.  There’s a deep ditch of sin on either side.  We cannot live as God would have us live by completely ignoring others needs or completely ignoring our own.  
We can get “burned out” in serving.  How many examples of that have you seen.  Grandparents taking care of their grandchildren full-time, when they should be doing retirement stuff.  Single parents who haven’t the time or resources to do anything else.  Or children who are struggling with the needs of their aging parents and their dependant children.  People in those situations can feel resentment, and rightly so.  Especially when their lives are stuck in continual give mode.
We are wrong when we think that the godly thing to do is forget all about our needs in favor of the needs of others.  Some folks overdose on responsibility.  They have a very difficult time letting other people lend a hand.  For example, recruiting someone in church to do a job, and then telling them exactly how it must be done.  And there are those among us that take on other people’s problems as if they were their own.  Some folks are dependant on other people’s need.
When we talk about Serving Each Other as Families Under the Cross, we are talking about a proper distinction between Servant hood and Servitude.  
Servitude allows others to take advantage.  Servant hood serves with the heart toward the best interests of the person you are serving.  Including the interest of not allowing the person to manipulate.  A parent who gives into every whim of their whining child is not serving their child. A parent who demands their grown child drop everything every day to get a few items at the store isn’t being rightly served.  Servitude is bondage to the will of others, without regard to your own.   Real servant hood is doing what is in the best interest of the one you are serving.  “You’ll not get anything while you are whining.  If you are quiet I’ll consider it.”  “Mom, I’ll be glad to do your shopping for you.  You know I love you, but I can’t go to the store every day, you’ll have to make a list so I can do it just once a week.”  That’s a healthy balance.  When servant hood turns to servitude, both the person served and the person serving are demeaned.
That’s the challenge for families under the cross isn’t it.  We hear from God’s word that we are to be servants.  He tells us what true servant hood is.  He tells us how to serve without falling off the road on either side.  Of course there are times when we need to and should ignore our own needs for the sake of others.  But that doesn’t mean it has to be always.
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.
Jesus shows us what it means to serve each other humbly.  He shows us what it means to be Families Under the Cross, serving one another.  He became a humble servant.  He took on human flesh to restore us to God’s family.  
Now there’s always a danger in using Jesus as an example, because of course, we can’t do it as well has he did.  In fact, we’ll always fall very well short.  Jesus did it perfectly, we never will.  Jesus served all that he was able, and yet never neglected his own need.  He didn’t’ heal everyone.  He often had to get away by himself to pray.  He got tired and needed sleep and rest.  And he even let others serve him, like the woman who washed his feet with her hair.  And when it was time to suffer and die for our sins, he did what we needed most.  He had us at the heart of the matter.  He had our best interest in mind.  
He did what you and I can’t do, he did what no human being could ever do.  He accepted the total responsibility for our sin.  He did it willingly.  I lay down my life for the sheep...No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.  He’s talking about his death on the cross.  There he rescues us from God’s anger and punishment.  He stands in our place bearing it all.  Even the punishment we deserve for being self serving instead of serving others.  He bears it all, even our over serving at our own expense.  He bears it all, even when we serve out of only selfish motives.  He bears it all, even when we fail to live up to the special calling we have to serve especially those in our own families.  And for Jesus sake, because of his taking our punishment, God forgives it all.  
That’s the thing about Families Under the Cross.  We serve, however imperfectly, knowing that God forgives our sins and failures.  That makes all the difference.  When we serve with God’s forgiveness in mind we can serve out of selflessness.  We can allow others to serve us when we are in need.  With the Holy Spirit working in our hearts through Word and Sacraments we can and do, do the things that our families need us to do for them, and the things we need to do for ourselves.  And we can give forgiveness to each other when we fall short of serving our families the way we should.  
Serving each other under the cross builds healthy relationships.  We become more committed to each other because we know that we can depend on each other.  Serving one another gives our children and grandchildren an important example.  Children learn best by seeing and doing.  It’s not easy, and we all will fail because as sinful human beings we can’t do it perfectly.  But Jesus did.  He served us by giving His life.  He gives forgiveness for all our failures, especially while we try to do what he asks as Families Under the Cross, Serving One Another.  Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Families Forgiving One Another, Ash Wed, March 1, 2006

Families Under the Cross, a Lenten Series by Rev. David Johnson.
Families Under the Cross: Families Forgiving One Another.
This sermon from an outline by Pastor Johnson.
Genesis 50:15-21, Col. 3:12-14, Luke 23:26-35
It’s tough to live the Christians life.  Even though we know that we all fall very short of God’s expectations for us.  Think of the family, that may be very much like yours, so busy there’s hardly time at home at the dinner table together.  One frustrated mother with a workaholic husband and two teenagers put it like this, "It's tough enough living the Christian life, but living it in my family is next to impossible!"  It seems the hardest place to apply the principals of Christian life is in our very own families.  Not to mention our church family!  Just think of all the hurt still hanging on around here, over the last two pastor’s departures.  If you want to see sin and Satan at work, you only have to look at how the church goes about it daily business.  
So that’s what are Lenten Series is about.  I first heard this series preached by my own pastor in Lincoln, Nebraska, even before I was contemplating becoming a pastor myself.  Our goal each week will be to think about what it means to be Christians living under the cross.  But especially how living under the Cross of Jesus Christ can make a difference in our family life, and how living under the Cross of Jesus Christ can and will make a difference for our life together as a church.  So tonight we’ll talk about how we are empowered, under the cross, to forgive one another.  
It’s a challenge, isn’t it?  Living together with people every day.  Sometimes it’d be easier to live alone.  But we’d still struggle with sin, wouldn’t we… they’d just be different sins.  What challenges do you face in your family?  What challenges do you face here in the church?  The truth is that in these families there’s always plenty of opportunities to practice forgiveness, isn’t there?  Children push you buttons and you end up blowing your top.  Maybe you even take your discipline a little bit to far.  Then you fell guilty wondering how you’ll ever make it as a parent.  “Why did I have to get so angry and take it out on them?”  
Step parents seem to have it even worse.  “You’re not my father!  You can’t tell me what to do!”  One step-parent wrote these words: "We thought we'd heal in remarriage, and instead we discovered new hurts.  We thought the children would benefit from a broader family experience, and instead we found eruption of sibling rivalry and hate...The fantasy we watched on television depicting the joys of blended-family life turned out to be a nightmare we lived each day."
Single parenthood, is extolled on television.  But those who live with it every day, know they’d rather have a partner.  And who takes the brunt of the kids anger at not having a father?  Guilt makes you lax in discipline, giving in when you should stand firm.  And you get angry at God.  Why me?
Work pressures all too often come home.  You know the pattern.  The boss yells at the worker.  The worker gets home and yells at the kids.  The kids take it out on the dog, and the dog chases the cat up the curtains.  Housework plies up, and tension with it.  There’s not enough time for that and work, and community events, and school, and…  it’s like a cask of gunpowder with a short fuse.
Don’t think that those older folks who guard the empty nest get out of the trouble loop.  You never stop worrying about them.  You can’t believe the decisions they make.  It’s not just that they don’t go to church.  You’re embarrassed by their divorce, their living together, their trouble with the law.  It’s very hard to forgive when everything in you just screams at you to give up.  
And how about here in church.  As you gaze at the heads in front of you, who’s the person, you just can’t seem to forgive?  Which family do you blame for the churches troubles?  Which issues are at the real heart of it all?  You know what I mean, when simple decisions explode into problems that should not be problems.  Very rarely are the issues that people fight about in church the real issues.  The real problems are deeper.  And we don’t want to talk about them.  We don’t want to forgive each other, because it means confronting our own sin in the matter.
It’s especially hard to forgive when the pain is extra deep.  When it deals with our families, our church.  When lots of time has passed.  Joseph in our OT reading had that kind of pain.  He had years to contemplate what his brothers did to him.  He had a right to be angry.  They hated him, sold him into slavery.  They just didn’t know that things would turn around so that when they met again he’d be in a position to give real pay-back.  "What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pay us back for all the wrongs we did to him?"
It’s hard to forgive.  In fact, we human beings just don’t want to do it.  Especially when we’ve been hurt deeply.  Especially when we’ve been treated unfairly.  We want to hold on to the bitterness.  We relish the thought of holding grudge, even to our deathbed.  It doesn’t really matter if the person whose hurt us is a loved one.  It’s even harder to forgive when someone we’ve hurt, or whose hurt us rejects or ignores our attempts to reconcile.  Or they refuse to admit they’ve done wrong.  Or we forget that no matter what the situation we have a part in it too.  Our own sin contributes to the problem.  In every situation we need to forgive but we also need to be forgiven.
Family life, church family life, clearly shows us our need for forgiveness.  We don’t live up to God’s expectations, as parents, as husband, as wife, as father, as church leader, as human being.  We need to be forgiven, not just for the things we do that hurt other people, but for our lack of willingness to deal with and forgive those who hurt us.
Families Under the Cross.  Jesus Christ on the Cross.  That’s where we see what forgiveness is all about.  Jesus was there willingly suffering and dying, willingly taking the abuse, anger, injustice and hatred of sinful men, who put him there.  Jesus bleeding and dying shows us God’s determination to forgive sinful human begins like you and me.  His commitment to forgive even those we don’t want to forgive.
Under the cross, looking up at our dying Lord is where we see just how free and unconditional, and total God’s forgiveness is.  He even forgave those who put him there.  “Father, forgive them!  Forgive them…”  The ones who beat his flesh to a bloody pulp.  The ones who drove nails into his hands and feet… and laughed about his pain.  They didn’t acknowledge their sin.  They didn’t care.  They were doing a job.  Yet, the very thing they did to him was the thing that God used to bring the forgiveness they needed.  St. Paul used these words:  “…in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:19, ESV)  What Jesus did was for the whole world, every single person.  Not a single person is excluded.  On the cross Jesus earns forgiveness for the whole human race, even those who go to hell.  Hell is the place for those who reject God’s forgiveness, believing that they don’t need it, or trying to earn it on their own.
Living as Families Under the Cross assures us that we are forgiven.  It shows us that God has forgiven our sin and remembers them no more.  One author said:
“Judgment and punishment face toward the past.  Mercy and forgiveness face toward the future.  It is a future with the cross etched into it as a reminder that we are to live with one another in mercy and forgiveness.  We are to bear in mind God’s merciful and forgiving act toward us in Christ.  Because of the Cross we can face the future and not be captured by the past, neither the past with our own sins, nor the past with the disappointment and hurts inflicted by others.  The more we are aware of God’s forgiveness in our lives, the more we are likely to forgive others.  We just cannot demand punishment for others when we have been dealt with with forgiveness.”  
The forgiveness we find under the cross really does make a difference for families.  Forgiveness given and received removes burdens.  Forgiveness given and received tears down walls of hostility.  Forgiveness given and received opens up possibilities for the future.  
When we practice forgiveness, unconditional, Jesus like, forgiveness in our families (and in our church) it sends a clear message.  It shows that we know that we know that are not perfect parents, husbands, wives, church members.  And that we need God’s forgiveness too.  It makes the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” have more meaning than just words that seem to condemn us.  It sets an example to a community that needs forgiveness.  And… dare I say it, we need to ask forgiveness from.
Sin separates, forgiveness restores.  You know how it works.  You’ve seen it in your family.  A fight makes the kids not want anything to do with each other.  A young married couple sleeps apart in the same bed.  Forgiveness brings people back together.  The kids play together, and husband and wife look each other in the eye and say, “I love you.  Will you forgive me?”
It isn’t magic.  It’s God “reconciling the world to himself” through Jesus Christ.  It’s a great challenge for all of us.  But what and adventure it is to live as God would have us live.  What a difference it makes in our families, this family here, and our families at home.  We can go forward into the future, free from guilt, knowing that even when we explode there is forgiveness for us in Christ… knowing that the power to forgive isn’t something that I have to dredge up from my sin sick soul, but something that Christ has done already on the cross.  I simply need to give it, and turn to Jesus for my own forgiveness.  That’s living life as Families Under the Cross.  Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.