First Lesson: Genesis 15: 1-12, 17-18
Responsive Reading: Psalm 27
Second Lesson: Philippians 3: 17 - 4:1
Gospel Lesson: Luke 13: 31-35
The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid? –Psalm 27:1
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
King David was at the lowest point of his existence. David’s son had died. David had been rebuked by the prophet Nathan for his great sin. David had indeed committed adultery with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. David had sent Uriah to die on the front lines of battle. Now word had begun to leak out to the people of Israel. David was unsure of what the next step forward in his life could be. David dreaded facing the public because of all the shame over what had happened. David couldn’t help but think: What will they say? Can I ever recover from my mistakes? From where might grace and mercy come?
We might not be King David, but we can probably relate to his shame. You were maybe picked on as a child and dreaded going to school. Perhaps as an adult, you regret certain decisions that you made and how your life could have turned out differently. As you get into your elder years, you worry about the next steps as you gradually lose control of your independence. There’s truth in the saying that seeing and hearing one word of criticism consumes our mind way more than hearing ten words of praise.
Last Sunday night, I received a phone call from a friend of mine that I’ll call Ed. Ed would seem to have an excellent life. Ed’s a doctor making a fine living. Ed’s personable and in-shape. Ed was struggling with life. Ed was struggling with not having his dad around anymore to give him advice. Ed was struggling with always having to meet other’s expectations. Ed was struggling with always having to escape the judgments of others. Ed was struggling with what might be the next step for his soul. Ed was afraid to fail, even though he seemed to be having all sorts of success.
King David’s story, our story, and Ed’s story are all unique. The common theme within them all is trying to find a word of light in the midst of darkness.
Today we reflect on one of King David’s psalms that seek to engage us in the midst of this human struggle. The Psalm on which we reflect through takes a slightly different course than the 23rd Psalm leading us through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. The 27th Psalm instead deals with the day to day hardships of this life as faced by King David and my friend Ed.
The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid-Psalm 27:1
Whom shall I fear? Of whom shall I be afraid? People ask how David can speak words of praise if his life is down in the dumps as we can imagine. The truth is that we often get praise wrong as people.
Occasionally, when watching football on TV, you will see a player get down on his knees and point his finger at the sky upon scoring a touchdown. We intrinsically think these are the times that we need to give God thanks. Let me suggest something that might seem counter-intuitive. The times that we need to give praise are when life is the darkest. Moments like David was probably going through as he was wondering how might he ever recover from the loss of a child and exposure of his sin.
The truth is that praise centers are not of what’s taking place at the present, so much as praise centers on “what will happen in the future?” The problem with how we often view the world is that we often only see crosses, failing to remember that a cross needs to come before one’s resurrection. Perhaps, David needed to fall before everyone around him before God could ultimately build him back up.
Many people in these days almost speak of sin as a swear word that we cannot mention. The thing is though that confession of sin is rather an admission of imperfection. Confession is what we need in life before moving forward.
My friend Ed who I was talking about earlier, he decided to attend church last Sunday for the first time since college nearly fifteen years ago. Ed needed the opportunity to stand before God and his neighbor to speak the harsh truth that my life isn’t together. Ed needed to proclaim his need for forgiveness and resurrection and see others stand alongside him while he does so.
When we admit the imperfection of the world and ourselves; it is only then that we may begin to point to the unconditional nature of God’s love poured out upon us.
Whereas David begins the Psalm with a word of praise for what is to come. The second part of the Psalm takes a different tact. David speaks of the realities of the present. David begins to speak to the depth of his struggle. David talks about being lost in the wilderness. David talks about relating to God, who seems distant to his concerns at the present moment of his life. David talks about the need to turn his whole life over to prayer. Prayer for David is his means of connecting to God as a means of trust no matter what additional trials that the future should bring.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways submit to him and he will make your paths straight- Proverbs 3:5-6.
Brene Brown says it best for too many people “Religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery to certainty. “I’m right, you’re wrong, shut up. That’s it.”
Brown’s critique serves a purpose to remind us that the greatest of spiritual truths is to be thankful that we are not God. God’s grace and mercy goes way beyond, what we would ever provide to those around us. We need to leave ourselves room to let God provide for us the answers that we might not necessarily provide for ourselves.
I almost don’t wonder if we often get what the Church is supposed to be wrong. We often go through life only viewing the words regarding extremes success or failure, Democrat or Republican, Saint or Sinner. When in reality it is the times when the world breaks us in nearly every single direction that the Gospel comes to us with a way forward. The truth for today is that our way forward in this life goes through a cross.
I was reading a fascinating reflection this week by a guy named Brian Zahnd. Brian Zanhd seemed to have all this Jesus stuff figured out. Zahnd was the pastor of one of the fastest growing churches in the country. Zahnd soon realized that something was missing from his life. Zanhd came to realize that his faith lacked a serious contemplation about the meaning of life itself. Too often when we pray, it’s all about us. I want to win the lottery. I want a new wife. I want a different job. I want some grand, spiritual purpose. The reality is that these are merely just our thoughts being confused with God’s will. When in reality what prayer should ultimately do is break down that the universe doesn’t run itself according to our reality.
What if we were to propose a new way of thinking about prayer as a faith community today? What if people above all else knew us whenever they see the cross that hangs outside our building as a sign of grace and humility in a broken world. Let Sychar be the place for people trying to be a sense of an embarrassing, uncomfortable, or even weird happening in their life. Let it be a place where people can dance without being embarrassed, where people can sing their hearts out with their non-angelic voices and a place that finds human connection in the midst of our imperfection. Let Sychar be the place that is always asking God for direction in prayer to respond to the world around us.
David’s Psalm closes with a final word of praise. A word that hopefully gives hope heading into David’s future. A word of conviction that the Lord will never leave him nor forsake him. David wanted to say now is not the time to give up, surely hope will soon come on the horizon. This word of praise reminds us that we don’t need to be anybody other than the person that Jesus sees to receive God’s grace and mercy.
Let me close with the words of Pastor Jane Strohl today. “In his description of Eden, Luther emphasized that it was a place where there was no fear, no fear of dying, no fear of other living beings, no fear of nature. It is a wonderful vision, for we live in a world fraught with fear. However, there is a bold word to throw in its face again and again and in God’s “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Then we wait.”
Perhaps today we can merely see a flicker of light. For some this flicker might burn brighter than for others. But rest assured this flicker is there. It is there this morning when we here the declaration that “we are indeed worthy” as our sins are forgiven with the preaching of the Gospel. The flicker is there as we soon partake in the foretaste of the feast to come. The flicker is present when a friend or a neighbor builds you up in your faith even when those around you might be tearing you down. This flicker will soon be a flash. The flash will blind you so that you may be able to see again. See a world filled with hope. See a world filled with Resurrection. Amen
 2 Samuel 2:18
 2 Samuel 12
 2 Samuel 11
 McLarty, Phillip. “Psalm 27:1-14”. Lectionary.org. 2007. Web. Feb.16.2016.
 Brown, Brene. “The Power of Vulernability”. TED: Ideas Worth Spreading. June 2010. Web. Feb.16.2016.
 Guyton, Morgan. “Water To Wine: the salvation of a megachurch pastor”. Patheos: Mercy Not Sacrifice. 5. Feb.2016. Web. Feb.16.2016.
 Guyton, Morgan. “Water To Wine: the salvation of a megachurch pastor”.
 Tanner, Beth. “Commentary on Psalm 27.” Working Preacher. Luther Seminary. Saint Paul, MN. 21.Feb.2016.Web. Feb.16.2016.
 Strohl, Jane. “Psalm 27 Commentary”. Working Preacher. Luther Seminary. Saint Paul, MN. 28.Feb.2010. Web. Feb.16.2016.
First Lesson: Deuteronomy 26: 1-11
Responsive Reading: Psalm 91: 1-2, 9-16
Second Lesson: Romans 10: 8b-13
Gospel Lesson: Luke 4: 1-13
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
One day, when I was a sophomore in high school, I was in my parent’s driveway shooting hoops. I was going to shoot on this day till my arms fell off. I was in a foul mood for a sixteen-year-old boy. My high school JV basketball team had played the night before and I didn’t receive as much playing time as I felt that I was entitled. What was the most frustrating thing about this effort was all the struggle that I had put in the previous summer?
I was indeed trying hard enough; coaches would constantly comment how I gave it my all when defending. There was a harsh truth though that I wasn’t wise enough to face at sixteen years old. Physically I was never going to be much of a basketball player 5’8 in high tops, flat-footed, and I was carrying a bit of a stomach during my high school years.
As I’m shooting that day, I’m probably knocking down my fair share of looks. I could shoot well without someone taller or quicker than me guarding me. My Dad having to be subject to my whining about the Basketball team sums up the reality of the situation when he says “You’re a decent player, you’re just not going to play in the Big Ten Conference.” It didn’t matter how many hours that I spent in my parent’s driveway, the chances were zero of ever suiting up at Williams Arena for the Gophers. This story makes me think about how much having unrealistic expectations ultimately hurts our lives.
Today’s Gospel lesson is a story that we know. It’s the tale from Luke 4 where Jesus goes out into the wilderness for forty days and is tempted by the devil. The temptations placed upon Jesus were harsh: food when he had been starving for weeks and all the pleasure and power that this world had to offer as life would soon lead to a cross. Jesus is challenging all the prevailing wisdom of the world as he resists these temptations. Jesus uses power much differently than we would use power. We want to use our power as a means of comparison to the weak and less powerful whereas Jesus was willing to surrender every bit of his power even to the point of death. What Jesus resisting the Devil for forty days ultimately reminds me is that we are not God. We are an imperfect people trying to make sense out of the devil’s playground.
Last Sunday evening, Super Bowl 50 was played. The Denver Broncos beat the Carolina Panthers. Carolina Panthers star QB and NFL MVP Cam Newton did not have a good game. Newton’s fumble led to the first Broncos touch down, and he fumbled again in the fourth quarter putting the game out of reach. So Newton after the game has to face the media to answer questions. Newton didn’t feel like answering the questions after seeing something that he had worked for most of his life crumble before his very eyes. All Newton could hear in the background of his press conference was his Bronco opponents celebrating. Newton just didn’t feel like talking anymore, so he walked out of the press conference. Criticism was swift. People called Cam Newton’s attitude and sportsman into question by all sorts of voices both young and old alike throughout this nation.
I want to defend Cam Newton though a bit this morning. Losing crushed Cam Newton, no different than we would be if we lost our job, our bride, or our fortune. I think how much we would want to have TV cameras flashing in our face some mere moments later.
Cam Newton was sad, disappointed, and frustrated. Cam Newton was having one of those moments of existence that he wanted to be left alone. Let those who haven’t sulked with huge disappointment, be the ones and only ones that can cast stones. Sure plenty of people can clamor about how they expected better from the NFL MVP just like plenty of people expected better from King David before he committed adultery with Bathsheba.
I almost wonder if our expectations for others often don’t come from a place, where we almost want to see others fall. We often want to always maintain stern standards for others, so we can puff out our chests in comparison. Sure, Cam Newton wouldn’t and shouldn’t win a sportsmanship award, the reality of this though is it makes him more authentic of the normal human experience rather than less.
The thing about the temptation story for today is it does indeed showcase the contrast between Jesus and us. When something goes wrong in our life, for many of us it has to be someone else’s fault because otherwise we might have to face the fact that we all know what it feels like to be on the losing end of the spectrum.
We are an imperfect church, made for imperfect people.
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”-Matthew 5:48
We often think this is what Christian living is supposed to look. We often tend to think of Christianity as we believe of much of the rest of life regarding how much we should weigh, how much hair we should have, how much sportsmanship we should exhibit.
The truth is as we reflect upon the 40 days of temptation in the wilderness is that we, are not God. Our actual spiritual identity can often frustrate because as soon as we admit that we are not God then we accept that there are areas of life that we cannot control that will always contain degrees of mystery and ambiguity.
Social Worker Brene Brown comments “Perfectionism is not about striving to be our best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth; it’s a shield”. Perfectionism will ultimately not protect us from the realities of life such as grief, pain, blame, and judgment. What perfectionism rather does is turn all of one’s focus inward, when it rather should be focused outward.
Perfectionism leads one’s soul to all sorts of horrible anxiety. Perfectionism will ultimately destroy us because it is impossible leading to either pride or despair.
Let me tell a story this one involves my Grandma. Grandma would always give unwanted Christmas presents. One time when I was in 7th grade, Grandma bought me some Barney the Purple Dinosaur slippers. No 7th grader could own such a thing was what I thought. I was going to be the laughingstock of the whole school if the other kids found out that I had such an uncool thing in my wardrobe. I had to make a big show of throwing these in a waste-basket that was in the living room of her house. Grandma to her credit at my temper tantrum merely laughed off this incident. My outburst highlighted the problem with how a lot of us ultimately deep down view our God. We think we need some of the chart “spiritual cool” factor like we’ve never left middle school. We can never get out of our head that we’re not quite enough and can never quite come to grasp that God’s grace and mercy for actual people like Cam Newton and us.
I think the problem with so much religious thinking is an obsession regarding what God might think about us if he truly knew our secrets and our pain. The great spiritual hope that we encounter on this day is that God declared us to be worthy through his temptation, God has said that imperfect people are worthy of grace and mercy. We may feel helpless, we may struggle to admit our powerlessness, we might struggle to come to terms with our woundedness, yet as Jesus rejects and overcomes the devil’s power on this day, he is ultimately pointing the way to our eventual healing.
At the root or the center of the imperfect church is confession. Lent, which we began on Wednesday, is a season of saying to God “This is who I am.” Lent brings to my mind the famous Prayer of the Tax Collector, who like Cam Newton was so distraught about himself that he could barely speak as he began to mouth the words “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Looking back, we all have regrets in life. I didn’t play Basketball my junior or senior year of high school. I figured that it wasn’t worth the time or effort that I previously put into it. Whether I played or not wasn’t going to make too much of a difference to the final win total. A few weeks ago, Michael Fisher joined the 1,000 point club for the Mariners got written up in the North Shore Journal and Chronicle. I might have been able to make the 100 point club.
The regret that I have is I stopped doing something that I enjoyed that I will never have the opportunity again because I was too consumed with how success should look. For me, it wasn’t just enough to stay in shape and enjoy being part of the team, to be a part of something bigger than myself. We cannot limit ourselves on this day to how God might be pointing us to his Gospel even in the midst of our imperfection.
Our Gospel reminds us on this day is you will not be judged for the rest of your life because of whatever mistakes that you might have made in the past. We remember above all else that we continually gather not as a museum for saints, but rather as a hospital for sinners.
There is something that we can say in closing about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Jesus could have figured it’s not worth it; they are not worth it. Jesus’ ministry though was about grace, not judgment. Jesus was seeking to claim people for who they are faults and all. We are members of an imperfect church, made for imperfect people, who will soon be declared to be “worthy” through God’s perfect grace. Amen
 Luke 4:1-13
 Lewis, Karoline. “Filled With the Holy Spirit”. Working Preacher. Luther Seminary. Saint Paul, MN. 7.Feb.2016. Web. Feb.9.2016.
 Espenshed, Howie. “Cam Newton: Show Me a Good Loser and I’ll Show You a Loser-An Ash Wednesday Reflection”. MBird. 10.Feb.2016. Web. Feb.11.2016.
 Really powerful reflection that I came across written by Trish Rohr entitled “Cam Newton. Still a Role Model?” posted on Feb.8.2016 on Trish Rohr.com
 Espenshed, Howie. “Cam Newton: Show Me a Good Loser and I’ll Show You a Loser-An Ash Wednesday Reflection.”
 Brown, Brene. “Want to be happy? Stop trying to be perfect.”CNN.Com. Atlanta. 29.Nov.2010. Web. Feb.9.2016 taken from Zahl, David “The 20-Ton Shield of Perfectionism”. Mockingbird Online
 Brown, Brene. “Want to be happy? Stop trying to be perfect.”
 This is a correlation of perfectionism and spiritual growth as laid out by my mentor Meg Madsen.
The ideas of perfectionism and worthiness are influenced by Brene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are.
 Luke 18:9-14
First Lesson: Exodus 34: 29-35
Responsive Reading: Psalm 99
Second Lesson: 2 Corinthians 3: 12- 4:2
Gospel Lesson: Luke 9: 28-36, (37-43a)
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
The big news story this week was the Iowa Presidential Caucus and the official start of the 2016 Presidential race. One thing that I’ll notice about candidates in the race is that they are always invoking the past. Presidential candidates want people to believe they will revive some image of past greatness. We need another Reagan or Roosevelt they say to lead us out of the times that we’re currently in. Great things happened in the past.
This year on Christmas Eve, I was talking to a couple of congregation members who were reflecting upon the hardship of going home with a spouse no longer around. In instances like this, you can’t blame people for wanting to recreate the past. Live again in what seemed to be the happiest days of one’s existence. We all have moments from the past that if we could only recreate that we believe could shape us forever.
Today’s Gospel lesson from Luke contains an important tale of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus, Peter, James, and John go up to a mountain to pray. This seemingly ordinary occurrence quickly becomes transformed into something else. Jesus starts shining, and then Moses and Elijah appear upon the scene.
Moses and Elijah would have been any good first-century Jew’s Reagan or Roosevelt. Moses led the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery, parted the Red Sea, and received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Elijah called down fire from Heaven, raised the dead, and ascended to heaven in a whirlwind. Here were Peter, James, and John coming to terms with past glory.
When I was in high school, my Dad and I took a vacation to California to see my aunt where we attended the U.S. Men’s Senior Open golf tournament at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles. I had been to golf tournaments before in Minnesota where there would always be fifty-thousand people. Being near Hollywood though attending a golf tournament was different as for California golf fans being around celebrities was common. So there was hardly anyone at the golf course for a practice round. So we see Jack Nicklaus.
Nicklaus, who many consider being the greatest golfer of all time, casually walks over to us when we call out his name like encountering a long-lost friend at the local golf course. There’s a picture hanging in my Dad’s office in Lindstrom of Jack Nicklaus with his arm around me. Soon after seeing Jack Nicklaus, we see Arnold Palmer. We see Palmer’s legendary charisma on display as he chats us up for like five minutes. As we’re waiting for a ride out of the Riviera Country Club, Palmer drives off in his Cadillac and waves to us. My Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus story wouldn’t have even begun to describe the experience of Peter, James, and John on this day as their faith heroes who had long been dead were now standing before them. Such a sign would have been interpreted that their faith was really working. The only problem is that such signs can be misleading.
When I go around visiting with people, I’ll often hear people invoke the “glory days” of this congregation. Pews filled Sunday morning, parents making sure they register their children for “Sunday School” early, and all sorts of young people coming to coffee hour. You know the type of church that seemingly has a limitless future. We all dream of being a part of a church like this. You see the very mission of the church and we can see how it doesn’t operate quite like the world works.
The world expects only to see God through dramatic signs such as transfigurations, whereas God never works according to our standards. People say if God is actually present in my life then all sorts of excellent stuff will happen to me. I will have the perfect spouse standing alongside me, I will have the well-paying job that I love, and we would be watching the Vikings play in the Super Bowl later this afternoon. I shall never experience ill-health, loneliness, or any anxiety; if God were to work according to my standards then things will finally be right with the universe.
A few weeks ago, we had the billion dollar Powerball Jackpot. We were talking about it at the school gym and what would we do if we won all that money? People were sharing their daydreams about giving money away, what they would do for their friends or how they would finally purchase a rocket ship to keep in their backyard. Such an event touches on the great human dream of how would we respond if everything changed tomorrow. We all want that payoff to our big struggles.
My good friend Carl absolutely loved seminary. He always loved being around to people to debate new ideas. He delighted in never having to eat alone. So Carl moves to Brookston and doesn’t quite know what to make of it. Seminary can never fully prepare you for 5 AM phone calls, family squabbles, or having to grind out a sermon week after week.
My Colleague Pastor Brostrom over at Faith Lutheran always jokes about how one of his favorite reality TV shows is called Preachers of LA. These preachers are living large, and live such exciting lives that they end up on cable TV. The lives these preachers live are not the marks though of a successful Christian.
I have a friend who is a Female Pastor in the Northeast she struggled with doing weddings for the longest time, as she kept having bad date after bad date. She began to grow conflicted over how God might ultimately be working in her life. We all go through life wanting that which we do not have. We all yearn for the life-changing moment whether it be that magical first date, receiving the glamorous job offer, winning the lottery or seeing your faith come to fruition before your very eyes.
Here Peter, James, and John were having one of these big moments. The moment though could not last. The truth is there is a lot of distance in this life between the top of the mountain and entering the holy city. We can not measure this distance in mere miles. You see it is in the midst of preaching our good news, we can begin to see that the past shall not be what defines us a people. God cannot and should not be about creating our ideal world. God shall rather be about creating the world that we can not even begin to imagine.
Humorist P.J. O Rourke once said the following “If you think that, in the past, there was some golden age of pleasure and plenty to which you would, if you were able, transport yourself, let me say one single word “dentistry.”
We do not and cannot look at the past as Christian people. Jesus had to instruct Peter, James, and John that this earth-shattering moment with Moses and Elijah could not last forever because their faith was so much more.
My Dad and I were one time on a family vacation out in Banff, Alberta. We decided we were going to go for a hike to the top of a mountain with a Gondola. The only problem was what we thought was a hiking trail, wasn’t a hiking trail. We soon had to start climbing and scrambling being cautious with nearly every step. I’ve probably never been more nervous in my life until the moment we finally see another hiker and reach safety.
You see this is an apt metaphor for life. Life is mostly spent fighting, clawing, surviving, and advancing. The real neat thing about our story for today isn’t Jesus appearing alongside Moses and Elijah. Nor instead is it Jesus clothes shining brighter than the sun.
Instead, something much cooler happens. Jesus goes down the mountain; he encounters a boy having epileptic seizures, who falls into a fire burning himself. This boy starts out with every sort of nasty chain that one can imagine: social ostracism mixed with psychological torment. What starts out as an awful story shows us the way of redemption. Jesus healed the boy when it was thought for years before to be impossible. The eyes of the Christian faith are never on the mountain top, but always looking downward towards Jerusalem towards the cross. We are above all else a people of Resurrection. We are a people of hope!
I came across a great quote by Timothy Keller this week which says “The opposite of joy is not sadness. It’s hopelessness”
We are a people who believe that what lies ahead in the future will outshine anything that the Disciples see on the mountain top of Transfiguration on this day. “Rise and Have No Fear” is the key verse that Jesus speaks to the Disciples within this passage. Jesus knew that the days, weeks, and years ahead were going to contain some scary moments for the Disciples. Moments of loneliness, moments of uncertainty, and moments where they might doubt God’s plan for it all.
The great struggle as Christian people is exploring the meaning of these moments. What these moments shall remind is that life shall not be whole once again going backward, life shall only become whole once again moving forward.
We don’t need another Reagan or another Roosevelt. We rather need a reminder of the hope of Resurrection that is to come. Amen
 Luke 9:28-43
 Lewis, Karoline. “Dear Working Preacher: No Ordinary Mountain Top”. Working Preacher. Luther Seminary. Saint Paul, MN. 31.Jan.2016. Web. Feb.2.2016.
 The O’Rourke quote comes from All the Trouble in the World.
 Luke 9:28-43
 Lewis, Karoline. “Dear Working Preacher: No Ordinary Mountain Top”.
 The following quote appears on Keller’s Facebook page on February 5th, 2016.
 Matthew 17:7 or the Matthew account of Transfiguration.
First Lesson: Jeremiah 1: 4-10
Responsive Reading: Psalm 71: 1-6
Second Lesson: 1 Corinthians 13: 1-13
Gospel Lesson: Luke 4: 21-30
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
The great truth of human existence is that we all want love in our lives. We want a spouse that we love, children that we love, a church that we love, and neighbors whom we love living next door. If everyone wants love why is it so hard to find?
The truth is love would be easy if everyone were patient, kind, and self-controlled. Love would be easy if people always practiced responsible lifestyle decisions. Love would be easy if people were to be considerate of other people’s feelings even when they are angry. Love would be easy if we never encountered any people in our lives without any problems. I could ask for a show of hands this morning if the people that you are called to love are always easy to love. I guess very few hands within this room would go up.
Where we as Christian people often misunderstand love is thinking of it as an emotion, rather than a way of life. Sure it’s easy to say that you “love” your bride looking radiant walking down the aisle on a wedding day. Love is much tougher though when you’ve had your fourth major argument of the week and gone storming off into your room in the seventeenth year of one’s marriage.
Today’s epistle reading is one of the most famous scripture passages in all of Christianity known as the “love” chapter from 1st Corinthians 13. I’ve told the story of the Corinthians before. The Corinthian’s were a church in conflict. The Corinthians had divisions between the “old guard” and “new guard”. The Corinthians had divisions between those who were loyal to their former preacher and congregation founder Paul and those who were loyal to their young, charismatic preacher who had grown the church by leaps and bounds in Apollos. People said that Paul was boring, whereas Apollos was considered to be more of an entertainer than a preacher. The Church in Corinth was probably not unlike a lot of other congregations in their divisions: people said nasty things about each other, people’s pride forced them to dig in their heels, and no one was going to relent until things ended up being their way in the end.
So Paul writes a letter known as 1st Corinthians as a way to helpfully bring guidance to the dispute in the midst of some many different personalities coming together. So the most famous passage from 1st Corinthians known as the “love chapter” had nothing to do with weddings, but rather everything instead to do with nasty, bloody church fights.
So how does Paul understand Love? The love chapter is worthy of further reflection this morning by looking at some of its key phrases.
Love is patient: I’ll always hear people say to my parents “Aren’t you proud to have a son who is a minister?” The truth is that is much more going on underneath the surface than what you see today. As I’ve talked about before, I do not get here without my parents’ patience. When I’m in 8th grade, there were days at Chisago Lakes Middle School that I barely made it through any classes without being kicked out on account of being disruptive. My study habits and focus were poor even for a fourteen-year-old boy. They figured that I would implode in public education, and I had close friends whose lives have ended up in some dark places. I end up at Chisago Lakes Baptist School; they were going to rightfully throw me out until I made a last-ditch plea to the Principal Bob Eiseman. I remember my Mom one morning telling me that my Dad laid in bed crying last night not knowing what might happen to you.
Even at the end of high school, the journey with trying my parent’s patience was far from over. Seminary was not easy. There were nights that I figured going into the ministry was nothing other than a terrible life decision. If it weren't for my parents’ patience encouraging me to stick with a career in the ministry, someone else would be standing before you this morning. I’m sure there were plenty of nights when they wished that I got my act together sooner.
Patience is a hard attribute to possess because it requires us to acknowledge that not everyone is going to go through life according to your expectations. The reason that patience is so important as Christian people is that God’s plans for someone’s life don’t often take place over the course of days, but rather they often take place after years of struggle and grace. Patience is important because we never know when resurrections around us might take place.
Love is kind: I want to tell you the story of Scott and Melissa. Scott and Melissa met through online dating. Scott worked in nursing home administration; Melissa was a school-teacher. Melissa was also a single mom with two young children at home. Scott and Melissa start chatting online, they develop a bit of rapport, and they agree to go on a date. Scott had a busy week, but he arranged for the chance to have dinner with Melissa a few hours away on a Friday night. The date didn’t go well! Melissa’s nerves were evident. The first twenty minutes consisted of Scott receiving nothing more than one-word answers. When Melissa finally began to open up the conversation was forced. Scott and Melissa for whatever reason just didn’t click. Scott realized something about Melissa within their conversations. Melissa had been burned by other men in the past: men that were substance abusers and men that made Melissa feel worse about herself every single day. Melissa had trust issues and justifiably so. So Scott and Melissa’s date ends with an awkward tap on the forearm. Most people would never communicate with each other, again. Scott though had different ideas. Scott decides to write Melissa the following Monday highlighting all the attractive qualities that she had as a person. Melissa was taken back as she had looked from kindness her whole life from likely sources but found it in an unlikely source of a bad date.
We often misunderstand “kindness”. One of my favorite books is Evolutionary Psychologist Robert Glover’s No More Mr. Nice Guy. Glover’s hypothesis is that the reason that people often act “nice” isn’t for good reasons but often reasons of pride. People will often merely act all “nice” to merit the approval of others when their response deep down inside is anything but nice. Nice guys are obsessed with what other people think about them, rather than living out the goodness of one’s convictions. Nice guys tend to be unhappy because people can sense their selfish motives.
One time I went to see Grandma at the nursing home. Grandma tells one of the nurses that her outfit looks good. The nurse walks away when Grandma turns to me and says “I think that outfit is ugly.” The main point of today’s sermon is what Grandma did was not kind. Grandma said something to try to get the nurse to feel a certain way about her. Kindness would have been acknowledging that the nurse had a different sense of style than you do. Kindness would have been determining the other person’s self-worth in some other way than by their wardrobe.
Here is what we don’t get about kindness. Kindness comes from a position not of weakness; kindness rather comes from a position of strength. Kindness is the ability to extend grace and mercy when the other person is down on themselves. True kindness requires a totally flipping of the script of basic human relationships. Way too many human relationships go wrong when people believe that they have to win their relationships. They have to win a friendship or win a marriage. If one adopts this need to win relationship mindset, then the only guarantee in life is that all their relationships will be dysfunctional. What we often fail to remember as people of faith is that our self-worth is not defined by our accomplishments or comparison to others, rather our self-worth is determined by how we are all byproducts of God’s grace and mercy.
Love does not dishonor: Let me reflect briefly this morning on the Bible story from which Sychar gets it name, the story of the woman at the well. Let's assume this woman at the well had grown up in a poor home. Mom had left; Dad never gave much in the way of affection. This woman as she grows up can only derive popularity from her looks. The problem is she never had good models for relationship skills. She hadn’t learned the way of love. She keeps getting married, again and again, only to see every marriage fall apart. This woman’s self-esteem keeps falling lower and lower. Finally after five husbands and a new boyfriend, she encounters Jesus. Jesus could have judged her like everyone else in the world judges her. She probably believed that she was dishonorable at this point in her life. She believes that her past would ultimately shape her present. Jesus confronted this woman with different ideas. Jesus told her that she was worthy of honor, whether she believed it or not. Jesus preached that everyone deserved grace at even the darkest points of their existence.
The thing about being a preacher in a small town is that you tend to hear a lot of things. You hear when people are estranged from children, you hear stories about people’s temper. You hear stories about people’s drinking. You hear stories about people sleeping around. In my years as a preacher, I’ve heard all these things and had to plan funeral sermon in response. What do you say at times like these?
Pastor Andy Stanley makes the following point: ‘Think of the most valuable thing you own- for confirmation kids, it could be their smart-phone, for others it could be their home or their truck. For some, it might be a piece of jewelry. Think of the item that you would protect in a fire more than anything other’.
The question needs to be asked, “Do we treat other’s emotional well-being the same way?” Do we seek to remember that even in the midst of the most heated arguments that who we are staring at is a beloved child of God? Who we might be arguing with is the biggest influence in the life of their child. The words that we speak to those around us can change lives long after we’re gone. To honor, someone is to treat them in the most charitable way possible.
Luther in his explanation to the 8th Commandment declares “We should fear and love God that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him or give him a bad name, but defend him, speak well of him, and take his words and actions in the kindest possible way.” To put the best possible on someone else’s actions is one of the toughest callings of love. The following understanding of love might take someone years to grasp.
“When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.”
What these words mean is that love finds its basis, not in childhood fantasies; the calling to love is rather based on real-world realities. One of the marks of real maturity in life is coming to accept that people out there will think different than you, they will act differently than you, and people will get on your nerves for every possible reason under the sun. These people are still worthy of love. Love cannot be a feeling that comes and go as the wind blows; love must rather be a calling or vocation that does not promise to be easy.
Love is unnatural, because those around you will disappoint you, and you inevitably will disappoint others. There is no such thing as the right person to love whether a child, spouse, neighbor or friend. Love cannot be separated from the extension of grace. Love above all us is sustained by forgiveness, understanding, and truth. The following type of love is God’s greatest gift to us as a people.
 1st Corinthians 13:4a
 Stanley, Andy. Love, Sex, and Dating. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing. 2014. Book. P.79
 1st Corinthians 13:4a
 Scott and Melissa aren’t a true story, but based on a true story of people I know and choose to conceal.
 Stanley, Andy. Love, Sex, and Dating.P.80
 1st Corinthians 13:5
 John 4
 Stanley, Andy. Love, Sex, and Dating.P.85-86.
 Luther, Martin. Large Catechism.
 1st Corinthians 13:11
 Stanley, Andy. Love, Sex, and Dating. P.74
 The following idea is based on Andy Stanley’s chapter “The Right Person Myth”. Stanley, Andy. Love, Sex, and Dating. P.21-33
First Lesson: Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Responsive Reading: Psalm 19
Second Lesson: 1 Corinthians 12: 12-31a
Gospel Lesson: Luke 4: 14-21
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
About a month ago, I was engaging in strategic planning for North Shore Area Partners. The presenter was a guy named Reid Zimmerman. Reid’s a former Lutheran pastor who now teaches nonprofit management at Hamline. Reid asked everyone in the room the following question “What would have to happen for North Shore Area Partners to accomplish its mission and shut its doors?” People were initially unsure how to respond to such a question. It seems obvious that there will always be senior citizens who long to stay independent and need help. For many this would be a tough question to engage.
As I thought about the following, a vision of sorts popped into my head. What if every neighborhood in Silver Bay assumed a mindset of the need to help uplift the community most senior members? We have people in town doing this already, what if everyone in town embraced this mentality. What if people didn’t think of providing assistance as an obligation rather than an opportunity? Now many will hear my words and feel them to be incredibly far-fetched, this is the right reaction! Because we want always to be dreaming big when it comes to the world around us.
So bringing Reid’s question closer to home, let me ask everyone here the following “How will our work as Sychar Lutheran Church be accomplished?” Could we ever get to a point where we feel that our mission as people is complete?
The following reflection leads to one of the most common questions that I receive in the ministry, and that relates to sharing our faith. These struggles affect people as they wonder how exactly do I talk about my faith to my children, to my grandchildren, to my friends, and my neighbors. The natural instinct is that such efforts will fail because they have failed before. How do we speak about our faith to those closest to us? This leads us into our Gospel for today from Luke 4.
Luke 4 tells the tale of Jesus giving his first sermon at the synagogue in Nazareth. Jesus on this day is preaching a sermon to those at the place where he had gathered every Sabbath day for his whole life. As the people see Jesus get up to attempt to speak, they didn’t know what to make of the scene. Here was Jesus on this day preaching to people who remember him running around as a ten-year-old-boy, preaching to his friends, and preaching to his neighbors. This was the spot where Jesus dared to give his first sermon.
There was nothing unusual about the congregation in Nazareth. The synagogue in Nazareth probably looked like any other small-town congregation in Galilee. The congregation is filled with a mix of rich and poor, Roman citizen and devout Jew, healthy and sick, happy and distraught. I’m sure the Nazareth synagogue had its share of colorful characters. There was nothing unique about Nazareth to make it a special vessel for Jesus’ message.
So as Jesus begins, let’s be honest the congregation probably wasn’t expecting much. Jesus lacked any formal religious education, and he had been working as a common carpenter. This was how the people of Nazareth previously knew him. Jesus probably didn’t look like he would be much of a preacher. Then something amazing happened as Jesus began to preach. Jesus was able to read Hebrew well. Jesus was able to speak with poise and polish. Jesus then began to preach that all the scriptures they had previously heard would be fulfilled in his presence, and the congregation was amazed. Jesus had hit upon the greatest sermon that the people in Nazareth were ever going to hear.
What was the secret of Jesus’ preaching making it so effective? Jesus was not merely quoting scripture, Jesus was proclaiming scripture which is vastly different. Jesus is connecting the scriptures to the life of his congregation.
I can hear people this morning assuming they can’t preach like Jesus. This might be true. Preaching is not the key to evangelism. The key to evangelism is instead the ability to reach out to someone when they need it. The key to evangelism is connecting the reality of grace to people’s lives.
Let me tell the following story from Huck Finn. Huck’s dad was a drunk. One night Pap went all over town drinking, cussing, and carrying out till after midnight. Pap gets thrown in jail which was a relatively common occurrence. Things were going to be different though with this jail sentence.
The new judge vowed to Pap that things were going to be different this time. So the new judge took Pap and invited him into his home where he dressed him well and fed him some nice meals. The new judge saw Pap as something entirely different than the town drunk. Pap at seeing the judge’s behavior towards him finally breaks down. Pap admits to being ashamed to what he has become. Pap hoped the judge to point him towards a new way forward from his previous messed up existence. The judge had declared in Pap’s presence a declaration that Pap never thought he would hear. Pap is worthy to receive the good news!
We all misunderstand evangelism. We misunderstand evangelism when we make it about our knowledge. Evangelism is rather about the ability to forge meaningful connections with people just like Pap, who need them.
The calling of evangelism is to not to make people into perfect members of Sychar Lutheran Church, the calling of evangelism is to give people Jesus and allow them the opportunity to be a part of our supportive community of faith.
There are people out there that have been struggling with trying to find every coping mechanism with the battlefield that we often call life. These people might not find love within their marriage; they might be estranged from their children, they might be uncertain about the future of their job. We all know these people. What these people long for is a community whose love is unconditional whether they believe it is possible or not.
“If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored all rejoice together with it.” -1st Corinthians 12:26
As Jesus is preaching on this day, his preaching goes way beyond those merely sitting in the synagogue in Nazareth; rather Jesus’ preaching extends to every single person within the community of Nazareth longing for hope.
Too often, we see the church like we see the world. We see a world divided between Democrats and Republicans, a world divided between black and white, a world divided between Silver Bay and Two Harbors. These are the distinctions that Jesus is compelling us on this day to let go. Christ is not interested in our divisions, Christ is not interested in our excuses, rather Christ is interested in setting free those living with a paralyzing bondage as they go through their days.
What people don’t need to hear today is a Jesus, who promises to make their lives easier, this is a quick fix to much a bigger issue. What people rather long to hear is that no matter what you hear in any sermon today, there is a much bigger picture of faith. The big picture of faith all centers on what is yet to come.
We are not optimistic this morning by past results, we are rather optimistic by God’s big promises.
I want to close this morning with a story. The following is a story of a mother and a daughter. Mom is currently in the hospital hooked to nothing but machines and totally unresponsive. Daughter is freaking out. The daughter would give anything at that moment for Mom to wake up and respond to her. You see the daughter needed mom in her life. The daughter needed an event such as this to admit it. The daughter as she saw her mom lying in a hospital bed came to admit how much she had failed and disappointed her mother over the years. The daughter recalled her years of teenage rebellion trying to fit into the world that didn’t know any better: drinking, smoking, piercings, and attempting to find approval in the wrong people. The daughter recalls taking every opportunity to tell her mom how awful she was. The daughter even cursed her mom for bringing her into this world. The daughter could see her mom breaking with nearly every word out of her mouth.
Her mom’s response is significant. You see we as a people often greatly misunderstand love. Many people think of love as an emotion, we want to love others and have others love us. We assume that love should be easy and natural because of this. The thing about love is that it goes way beyond fairy-tales of human relationships. Love requires patience and self-control when people disappoint you and love require selflessness to bestow grace upon those who have fallen short. So how did mom respond to her deadbeat daughter?
Mom kept preaching “love” again and again. Over and over and over. Daughter knew all the ways that she had disappointed mom, yet mom would not waver in her response. The daughter was now terrified as her one light in the midst of darkness began to flicker. The daughter needed her mom’s presence because of this more than she was ever going to admit. The story of the daughter mirrors many of our stories when it comes to things of faith. People often go through life not quite sure of what exactly it is they need without others to guide them.
We have people from our congregation and community that come from a bad place this morning. These people are struggling with hurt, rejection, and disappointment. Plenty of people’s messes will come to our door. What shall our words be at times such as these, our words shall be that we do not judge you on this day because deep down inside we are a people of the resurrection. We believe connection is possible because our scriptures promise that “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come The old has gone, the new is here!
As long as people need to hear this message, we shall have a purpose as a people. We shall not gather here because we believe that we have the power to change ourselves into problem-free people, we rather gather here because we believe that Christ can change us by one-day making alive, what was once dead! Amen
 Luke 4:14-21
 Harrisville, Roy. “Luke 4:14-21 :Commentary”. Working Preacher. Luther Seminary. Saint Paul, MN. 24.Jan.2010. Web. Jan.20.2016.
 Reese, Ruth Anne. “Luke 4:14-21 :Commentary”. Working Preacher. Luther Seminary. Saint Paul, MN. 24.Jan.2016. Web. Jan.20.2016
 Bender, Micheal. “Bridging the Empathy Gap: Pap’s New Judge and a Man from Nazareth”. Mockingbird Ministries (MBird). 19.Dec.2013. Web. Jan.20.2016
 Bender, Micheal. “Bridging the Empathy Gap: Pap’s New Judge and a Man from Nazareth
 Lewis, Karoline. “Dear Working Preacher: A Life-Changing Epiphany”. Working Preacher. Luther Seminary. Saint Paul, MN. 24.Jan.2016. Web. Jan.20.2016.
 Larkin, Lauren. R.E. “I Love You, Child, As I Have Been Loved”. Mockingbird Ministries (MBird)19.Jan.2016. Web. Jan.20.2016
 The full story comes from Fliss, Jennifer. “Blink If You Can Hear Me”. Brain, Child Magazine. 24. Nov.2015. Web. Jan.20.2016
 Merritt, Jonathan. “Andy Stanley gets surprisingly real about love, sex, and dating”. Religion News Services. 15.Jan.2015. Web. Jan.20.2016.
 Larkin, Lauren. R.E. “I Love You, Child, As I Have Been Loved”. Mockingbird Ministries (MBird)
 2 Corinthians 5:17
First Lesson: Isaiah 62: 1-5
Responsive Reading: Psalm 36: 5-10
Second Lesson: 1 Corinthians 12: 1-11
Gospel Lesson: John 2: 1-11
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
Last Sunday afternoon, I was sitting in Minneapolis in six below weather for upwards of three hours. Twenty- some seconds left in the game, and it looked like everything would soon come to fruition as Vikings kicker Blair Walsh lined up to probably win the game. Disaster soon strikes as Walsh misses a kick that kickers make 99% percent of the time. The Lord’s name was invoked last Sunday in my presence, only the words spoken were not words of praise. Leaving the stadium and walking back to the car, I heard a barrage of cuss words that will not be topped in the next year no matter where I go or who I see. Hope and celebration had quickly turned to nastiest of pessimism. This week, at confirmation, I had kids who have grown up in Minnesota tell me how they knew that he was going to miss that kick because they were the Vikings.
Was the outcome disappointing? Yes. Did I sit at my seat with my hands held on my head in silence for several minutes? Sure.
But in the midst of a mere Football game came a sign of hope. The hope came from a room of 1st graders at Northpoint Elementary in Blaine. The teacher saw a mortal man who cried after the game on Sunday struggling before the world. So she assigned her student’s letters as a way to teach about empathy and forgiveness.
One student wrote “Dear Blair Walsh, I know that it can be hard to get through things that are sad. But you have to try and try again. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes. One time I made a mistake when I was doing a cartwheel. I felt embarrassed. You can still help the Vikings win the Super Bowl next year. Your Fan, Sophia Doffin.” PS. You are the best kicker that I know.
The rest of the story is Blair Walsh this week visited that classroom of first graders, because they were will sticking by him in not only the ups, but also the downs of life. Whenever we proclaim grace whether we are in first grade or nearing one-hundred, we ultimately bring people hope. The tale of Blair Walsh and the first-graders brings us to Today’s Gospel.
Today’s Gospel lesson is another story about bringing grace and hope in a time of despair. Our lesson comes to us from the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry as he performs his first miracle at the Wedding at Cana. I want everyone this morning to reflect upon a few different things regarding this story.
Point One: Where Jesus performed his first miracle. Cana was a small village. Archaeologists even today debate Cana’s location because of its puny size. Galilee the part of Israel where the miracle was performed would have been known as a backwoods/hick outpost. There was nothing extraordinary about this wedding. The wedding probably took place at a non-extraordinary venue like the Reunion Hall. We don’t even know the names of the people getting married because they weren’t in all probability either rich or powerful. The crowd at this wedding was made up of normal people. The people gathered on this day had seen God act only a certain way in the previous generations. They assume God was doing big things somewhere other then a wedding in their rinky-dink little town of Cana. They assumed God was only going to act in a far, away glamorous place like Jerusalem. They assumed that God might only act in the lives of the rich, the young, and the powerful. God had different ideas though as he went to the wedding on this day.
The thing about weddings in Jesus’ day is that food and wine were served by a pecking order. The best guests got the best wine. And on this day, the wine ran out. The people assumed that it was time to go home. Jesus had different plans though as he asked for ordinary jars of water so that he may turn them into the finest wine that these guests were ever going to receive.
Point two: Jesus didn’t want to initially act. Jesus proclaims “My time has not yet come”. My belief is that Jesus had every intention of acting. He waited for someone to set the process in motion. Mary refuses to sit ideally by on the sidelines. The role Mary plays in this story is quite important. Mary was bold in this story. Mary stepped out. Mary risked rejection. Mary risked getting nowhere. Mary risked failure. Mary risked frustration. Mary risked banging her head against the wall. Mary realized something important about outreach though that it has the potential to change not only your life, but the lives of those around you.
I have a friend from seminary named that I’ll call Ted. People didn’t always know what to make of Ted. Ted would get a bit rowdy from time to time. Ted was no stranger to getting embarrassed. People would often talk about Ted because of it. Ted goes through life not caring what other people think about him. Ted believes that what he has was worth selling. Eventually a girl comes to Luther Seminary that I’ll call Rebecca. Every guy at Luther Seminary wanted to date Rebecca. Rebecca was the total package: pretty, smart, and personable. Ted initially asks Rebecca out and gets nowhere. People would tell Rebecca all sorts of reasons to stay away from Ted. Ted remained calm because he believed himself to be a great catch. Rebecca eventually says “yes” to Ted. They get married and are both pastors in SW Minnesota.
Think of how much Ted would have missed out on, if he embraced the defeatist attitude that everyone thought that he should embrace. Think how much we might miss out on in life if only assume things will go like they’ve gone before. Mary had never seen Jesus turn water into wine before this wedding, but this wasn’t going to stop her from asking.
How might God be acting? What can we possibly do? These are the questions that come before us on this day? I’ve been in the news a bit as of late.
Let me tell you what happened. Peggi Potter upon hearing about the idle at Northshore Mining wanted to act. The reality of mining is that it affects everyone who lives here even beyond those who work down there, it affects those who contract with the mine, it affects those who work with the city or the school, and it affects those who try to earn a living all over town. We all benefit from Taconite Tax.
Peggi wanted to put on meals for the whole community during these uncertain times. My initial reaction was to try to say “no” because the challenge seemed way too large. I then realized that we cannot embrace the mindset of God necessarily acting like he’s always acted before.
In the past few weeks, I’ve heard plenty of objections: how it’s never been done that way before, how people don’t need our help, how we much run out of food. The thing is every one of these critics might be right. The thing is the cost of inaction is often greater than the cost of action. You can go through life free of risk never saying anything to which people may object or even leaving the house. Big changes in life, only begin with big risks. Big changes only begin when we realize that God might not always act in our lives like he has before.
What the Wedding at Cana shows us is that wine doesn’t necessarily run out. How God’s grace is never going to be ordinary or occur by any sort of book.
If a congregation is not creating new ways to reach the community around it, it will soon cease to influence the community in which it serves.
Today we begin a new year of ministry as a congregation. The mindset that I want us to adopt as a congregation that we need to think of what we can possibly be, rather than what we can’t be. Each of us is getting older, many of us have longed for change that we have been unable to witness. Yet what our story reminds us is that our God will respond to the needs of his people.
As we look out to the community before us, there are all sorts of people on this day longing for connection. They are longing to hear a person say that I want to be a part of “your life”. They are longing for friendship, they are longing for grace, they are longing for forgiveness. There is not one person waking up in Silver Bay this morning that doesn’t want to see their life change for the better because they encounter the Christian Gospel. There is not one person on this day that does not yearn for resurrection. There is not one person on this day who does not desire to see God turn water into wine before their very eyes.
What our community needs to hear on this day is that you do not go through life alone. Our God shall work in ways that might not always be evident based on what you see on the nightly news. In our lesson for today, Jesus hour had not yet come. I do believe that our hour has not yet come.
There are two ways that we can look towards the future of the congregation on this day. We can look at it through our ages, we can look at it by how many of our friends have dyed off, we can look it at through decades of decline. I know my friend Ted from Seminary wouldn’t look at it this way though.
Instead we could possibly see something different. We could see a God who attends weddings. A God who creates hope in the midst of despair. It is this God who stands alongside us on this day as we receive his heavenly supper. It is this God who creates miracles every day as sinners are embraced by the power of forgiveness. It is this God who brings us hope perhaps when we least expect it like those attending that Wedding in Cana on this day. Our God is bringing about all sorts of mini-resurrections as we wait the day of final resurrection.
The great hope guiding us into the year ahead is that chances to impact lives will stand before us. Think of the one person you know who longs for people to support them as they go through life. I believe that miracles will take place among us as a people in the years ahead. We cannot even begin to imagine what these miracles might look like on this day. As long as we’re breathing, we will have the chance just like Blair Walsh to “kick it again”. Our God will keep pouring out upon us “grace” upon “grace”. Water will be turned into Wine. Amen
 Sawkar, Vinetta. “First-graders offer Vikings Kicker Blair Walsh words of encouragement”. Minneapolis Star Tribune. 13.Jan.2016. Web. Jan.14.2016
 Sawkar, Vinetta. “First-graders offer Vikings Kicker Blair Walsh words of encouragement.”
 John 2:1-11
 Perez, Alvarez, Eliseo. “Commentary on John 2:1-11”. Working Preacher. Luther Seminary. Saint Paul, MN. 17.Jan.2016. Web. Jan.13.2016.
 Lewis, Karoline. “Embodied Ephanies”. Working Preacher. Luther Seminary. Saint Paul, MN. 17.Jan.2016. Web. Jan.13.2016.
 This comes from the date of the 2016 Sychar Annual Meeting.
First Lesson: Jeremiah 31: 7-14
Responsive Reading: Psalm 147: 12-20
Second Lesson: Ephesians 1: 3-14
Gospel Lesson: John 1: 1-18
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
How did this world come into existence? Who was in the room when the button was pushed creating light from the darkness? The who pushed or helped push the button is the question that defines all religious discussion. Were there many Gods in the room as many ancient religions believe? Or was there just one God, the Father almighty who created light out of the darkness. Who was involved in the creation of the world is the question that defines all religion. Many people don’t get the Christian answer to this question. In the words of G.K. Chesterton, our God was not a “lonely” god.
This week in The Scroll, I wrote about the question of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God? Why is this question an issue?
Last week at Christmas Eve supper, I was asked my opinion about a Christian College Professor down at Wheaton in Illinois who was suspended for saying that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. This professor Larycia Hawkins defended her position by stating that Pope Francis said the same thing. The following discussion sparked a huge debate about religious tolerance, which I would like to reflect upon today.
I believe as we reflect, we can begin by acknowledging some similarities between our faiths: Christians, Muslims, and Jews all believe God to be all-powerful, all-present, and all-knowing. We believe that God, in theory, can hear the prayers of believers from within any faith tradition. These three religions draw their family trees back to Abraham. All three religions believe that God is ultimately a God of mercy, who on the last day will judge all mankind.
The Christian God is different though because he does not stand alone at the dawn of creation. The Christian God does not only live in heaven separated from his creation. The Christian God lived as an ordinary man. For Islam, the idea of God living as a person would be impossible. For Islam, the idea of God dying on a cross would be the epitome of weakness and foolishness, they would consider such a belief to be blasphemy. Islam does not believe in the Trinity of God in three (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), which is the fundamental defining belief of the entire Christian faith.
I believe the discussion of the differences between religions should not stop here. All religions and cultures contain a degree of beauty. There are positive practices that we can acknowledge from all faiths. I would never say that all religions do not contain good and kind people who make excellent neighbors. When we say Christianity is unique, we don’t’ say it because we don’t take the calling to love our neighbor seriously no matter who they are or what they ultimately believe.
One tendency that we often have in the world is to resort to a tribal mentality. We only wish to associate with those who think like us and believe like us.
As I’ve talked about before I used to be quite heavy, probably weighing nearly 100 pounds more than I did today. I knew a woman in Seminary who one time joked that “If Stew only ate with people who agreed with me, then he would be skinny.” The truth is though I’d probably also be less wise.
My fear is not that America becomes overwhelmed with followers of other religions, my fear is that we lose the conviction that our Gospel to matters to all who believe or who don’t believe.
The Gospel ultimately saves. In the words of Chad Bird, when we say all religions, worship the same thing? Such a statement that expresses the idea that we don’t care what other religions believe. When we seek to minimize or downplay our beliefs, this can be troublesome.
A few years ago, I was on vacation in Las Vegas. I had some time to kill on a Friday, so I decided to drive up to Utah a state where I had never been. I go to Saint George, Utah. I figure being in Utah I should go to some Mormon sites just because that’s what you’re supposed to in Utah. So I visit the summer home of Brigham Young, who brought the Mormon people out to Utah. So I show up at this house and begin talking to the guide who asks me what faith that I am. To which I told her “Lutheran”, and she described us as “Brothers and Sisters in the faith.” So we start the tour, I was the only non-Mormon on the tour of about ten people. The sales job then begins to start. Pretty soon everyone else on the tour gets involved in the sales job. You might figure I would be annoyed by this; only I wasn’t. If the friendly Mormons believe that they have a spiritual truth that I need to hear as a way of fixing the problems in my life, I admire them for trying to share it with me.
As we consider how we as Christians should respond to other religions all around us. We want to declare the uniqueness of our beliefs as an example of how far we are willing to go to preach the grace of a radical God.
Perhaps the central question in distinguishing between religions has to do with the direction of God. In all other world religions, people seek to bring forth their best efforts as a way of ascending into God’s presence. Muslims have very strict rules about eating pork or drinking alcohol. Following these observances would be mandatory for all believers. Whether one should eat pork or drink alcohol as a matter of health is not the issue, the issue is rather what we believe about the nature of God.
The way the Christian interacts with the world is going to look different than the way that Islam interacts with the world. The reasons and motivations for a Christian interacting with the world around them are very different. As Christian people, we are called to action. The reason for this calling is very particular. In Christianity, we begin with the premise of freedom. Within Christianity you’re calling to be a banker, bus-driver, or beautician belongs to you and you alone. We are not required to do anything because it’s the way that we’ve done it before. Your path to God’s presence might not necessarily be Charlie’s path. There is no such thing as the uniquely Christian life. In Christianity, we act because we believe that Jesus’ words on the cross “It is finished” to be real and effecting every moment of our existence. We are an imperfect faith made for imperfect people.
Our Good Friend and my frequent supply preacher Dan Tabor works as a claim adjuster for State Farm Insurance. Dan says whenever he’s talking to people there’s always a certain phrase that makes him a bit nervous that phrase is “I’m a Christian”. The only scarier phrase according to Dan is “But I’m a pastor.” Dan’s point is people will often play the religion card as a way to run from all responsibilities for their actions. Mainly since Joe never goes to Church, but Bill does go to church then Bill must always be right. Being a Christian does not prevent Bill being wrong. Bill being wrong doesn’t make him a hypocrite though it makes him an imperfect Christian who is probably stubborn. I’m sure there are people here that know stubborn Christians. I’m sure there are even stubborn Christians within this church. The type of Christians who need to keep hearing about God’s grace and mercy again and again and again.
The central Christian belief is the idea that Jesus Christ has come down from heaven to save the whole world from those in bondage to sin. “I have not come to condemn the world but rather save the world.”-John 3:17
Too often we get distracted by debates of which no certain resolution can come. Our energies should rather be focused out God’s grace and mercy upon a world that longs for it.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”- John 1:1
Everything that we believe as Christian people brings us back to the beginning itself. Today’s Gospel lesson comes to us from the start of the Gospel of John. John’s Gospel doesn’t begin with a claim of a virgin birth. John’s Gospel rather begins with a more dramatic claim! Jesus was there at the beginning. Jesus was present at the creation of the world itself. Our whole salvation story centers on what we believe about creation. Creation is essential to the world. Creation is essential to God’s plan to make the world whole once again.
This Sunday morning, we are “In the beginning” of 2016. A few of you have probably set goals or resolutions for the year ahead. Chances are the best of intentions to lose 20 pounds will quickly fall by the wayside. Our motivation to exercise will probably wane as it gets windier and colder outside. As I begin my 37th year on Earth, I’m getting ready to abandon the resolution of growing taller.
The problem with all New Year’s resolutions is the people will often lack the will to carry them out because of what we cannot escape. The one prediction that I can make for the upcoming year ahead is that we will stumble an fall as people.
The truth is that we will never be able to escape the events of the past year. For some of these events, might be relationships that didn’t develop quite as hoped for or even came to end. For others, you face a time of uncertainty because of the mines. Many of us live in fear at the threat of terrorism. As we enter the Presidential year of 2016, there are probably very few politicians that people actually trust.
The birth of 2016 does not change the reality of the previous year just as the Birth of Jesus was not going to change the realities of sin and death. Adam’s curse still reigns supreme.
What every person in this room longs for on some level is a new beginning. Every person here probably has their hopes that they have for 2016. Our hope lies with Jesus being at the beginning with God. Jesus’ presence within our world will create new life within the year ahead.
The good news of the Virgin Birth is that just as Christ Jesus came from heaven to earth, we too shall ascend from the grave to heaven. Our proof of this is the Resurrection. To realize how amazing the Resurrection that is to come will be, we need to go back to the beginning.
We leave this place this morning with a promise. God is remaking our world. God’s work is not determined by the journey from January 1st to December 31st though. Our hope instead centers about being born again in the waters of baptism and reborn as inheritors of eternal life. Our rebirth is taking what is dead in sin and making it alive, once again. The story we are in the process of living out on this day, all comes back to who is in control of the button. Our God has not stepped away from it. Our Lord remains present in this place as we receive his body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins on this day. Our Lord was there at the beginning, our Lord was there on the cross, and our Lord shall be present on the day of our resurrection that is to come. Amen
 John 1:1
 Genesis 1:4
 Aglialoro, Todd. “Christians, Muslims, and the ‘One God’. Catholic Answers. 25. Mar.2013. Web. Dec.30.2015.
 Aglialoro, Todd. “Christians, Muslims, and the ‘One God’.
 Bird, Chad. “Most Religions Do Lead to the Same God”. Chad Bird. 28.Dec.2015. Web. Dec.29.2015.
 Rivera, Juan. “Christianity and the other religions.” The Christian Nation.org 8. Dec.2015. Web. Dec.29.2015.
 John 19:30
 Lewis, Karoline. “A New Genesis”. Working Preacher. Luther Seminary. Saint Paul, MN, 27.Dec.2015. Web. Dec.30.2015
 Lewis, Karoline. “A New Genesis”.
 Lewis, Karoline. “A New Genesis”.
First Lesson: Isaiah 9: 2-7
Second Lesson: Titus 2: 11-14
Gospel Lesson: Luke 2: 1-20
Grace and Peace from Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
In the last nine months, everything in Mary and Joseph’s life had changed. First of all, Mary, a young girl of no more than fourteen, learns from the angel Gabriel that she will bear a child that she is to name “Jesus.” As soon as Joseph heard this news, he didn’t believe it to be so for Joseph thought Mary’s claims of virginity were nothing more than lies or excuses. Joseph took this news of a birth as an unpleasant shock. Joseph’s original wish was to divorce Mary. Joseph only ceases his initial plan once an angel appears to him in a dream.
Now Mary and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem. Bethlehem was a mere 90 miles away from Nazareth where they lived. The trip was not going to be an easy journey. Whereas typical travelers could go 20 miles a day, this trip was going to be difficult 90 miles going uphill and downhill probably taking twice as long as average. The journey would take them along the flatlands of the Jordan River, into the woods where they dreaded encountering lions, bears, and boars. Even major roads ran the threat of encountering bandits and robbers. For Mary and Joseph, this was not going to be a safe nor comfortable journey to Bethlehem.
There is no good reason that a pregnant Mary would want to travel to Bethlehem. In fact, they probably dreaded the journey. Mary and Joseph had no choice in the matter. The Roman government was forcing everyone to go back to their “official residence” to be counted. The Romans did this as a means of forcing every maximum dollar of tax revenue while also making sure that they had no shortage of troops on hand for the next battle. The Romans counted everything they could from the trees in the grove to the number of cattle owned. Here were Mary and Joseph being forced to travel to pay for the right to be oppressed by the most unfriendly of governments. The announcement of the Roman Census would have been taken as anything but good news! Think of the feeling of the Doctor calling you into his office with the need to talk. The census would have seemed to have been the definition of an event out of which no good could come. The census would serve as a reminder of a conquered people seemingly powerless to change their surroundings. Mary and Joseph’s life had flipped in the past nine months and had no clue what the next nine months might bring.
Christmas 2015 is a time of uncertainty for many within our community. Due to a crisis within the U.S. Mining industry, many do not know where or if paychecks might come some months from now. We face uncertain times as a community as we can easily say that the downside is much higher than the upside. This uncertainty lies over all of us.
Uncertainty was what faced Mary and Joseph on this night. The night of Jesus’ birth was not going to be an easy night. The night was anything but warm or comfortable. Here was Joseph forced to take his pregnant wife to a cave to give birth on a ground surrounded by smelly, farm animals. The night stood in sharp contrast to a Christmas Eve with nice clothes and pleasant aromas. The night was desperate people being suffocated to misery by the census of an oppressive government. There was little that one could say was good about a day such as this one. The truth is Mary and Joseph’s story of trying to find purpose in the midst of turmoil is more like ours then we might imagine.
I want to tell you a story today of one of the most miserable days of my life on January 17th, 1999. The day began in Minneapolis watching the Vikings play the Atlanta Falcons with a trip to go to the Super Bowl on the line. Any Vikings fan knows this story all too well, Gary Anderson misses the kick, the Vikings lost the game in the overtime.
I’ve walked out of wakes louder then walking out of the Metrodome with 60,000 plus people on that day.
I then began the 3 ½ hour drive up I-94 to Moorhead where I went to college. Things looked pretty good until Alexandria when the snow started to fall. Snow kept falling and falling. I still had miles and miles to go. Visibility kept getting worse and worse. Nowadays I would have pulled over and gotten a motel room at the first sign of unpleasant weather. Back then, as a college kid with no money I kept driving. Pretty soon, I had no ability to see the road that lied ahead of me. All I could hope for was to see other cars along the road to guide me. I figured all I could do was follow lights.
What is the meaning of Christmas, as I ponder this night? I think of the journey of the Magi to Bethlehem guided by nothing by light. I think of the famous words from the Gospel of John reflecting on Jesus birth that proclaim “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Somehow I made it to Moorhead that night almost as if I was being guided whose presence that I could not see. My Dad had trained me to drive a few years prior, but nothing could prepare you for driving on a day such as this. How do we respond to the unexpected of life as we ponder the birth of our Savior on this night. There’s something interesting about the birth of Jesus.
Jesus’ birth reminds us how God works in some of the most unexpected ways imaginable. Jesus was born in a manger because the inns in Bethlehem were full because of a census. Mary and Joseph were so low on the social totem pole they ended up out there in spite of the size of Mary’s belly. At the manger that night were shepherds. Shepherds were basically the first century equivalent of transients or bums. The whole story centers around an unwed mother. Our story centers around the types of people seemingly shunned by the religious folk and even God himself.
Pro Wrestling Legend Dusty Rhodes when one time describing the ups and downs of his life declared “I have wined and dined with kings and queens and I’ve slept in alleys and dined on pork and beans.” Here was God coming into the world surrounded by the alley-dwelling pork and beans crowd.
I think one of the most valuable lessons of our Christmas story is that confronts the innate human belief that only greatness shall win out in the end.
Social Worker Brene Brown comments, “When I look at narcissism…I see the shame-based fear of being ordinary. I see the fear of never feeling extraordinary enough to be noticed, to be lovable, to belong, or to cultivate a sense of purpose.”
Christmas reminds us that God indeed dwells within the ordinary.
The truth of Christmas is children might not become great students, superstar hockey players, or famous actors; teachers might not win awards, marriages or any human relationship will not inevitability be the things of fairy tales.
God still comes in the midst of this at Christmas to bring us hope. God does not dwell with the rich and powerful but rather God lives with the homeless shepherds, unwed mothers, laid-off miners, elderly widows, and in the midst of a crowd of ordinary, broken-down Christian people.
We will not leave tonight with our fears completely resolved. Christmas is not a magic pill. We will leave this place fearing the status of our relationships, our finances, and possibly even our health. The crowd that gathers one year from now might look very different than it does tonight. Be reminded that in the midst of our struggles, God will not abandon us.
Nine months can change everything. Nine months can bring financial windfall or financial ruin. Nine months can bring the love of your life or see that person leave never to return. Nine months can bring healing or it can bring death. Nine months can bring birth. Nine months can bring hope. Nine months can bring grace. Nine months can bring salvation. Nine months can bring light in the midst of darkness. Nine months can bring a child born in a manager. Amen
 Matthew 1:19
 Religion News Services. “A Long, Cold Road to Bethlehem: Nativity: Gospel Accounts of Mary and Joseph’s journey gloss over the arduous reality of life and travel in ancient Galilee”. Los Angeles Times. 23. Dec.1995.Web. Dec.21.2015.
 Nelson Larned, Joseph. The New Larned History for Ready Reference: Volume 2. 1924. Google Books. Dec.24.2015.
 Matthew 2:1-12.
 John 1:5.
 The following Brown quote is from Daring Greatly.
First Lesson: Micah 5: 2-5a
Responsive Reading: Luke 1: 46b-55
Second Lesson: Hebrews 10: 5-10
Gospel Lesson: Luke 1: 39-45
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
I want to tell you the story this morning of a girl who was cut-off from nearly everyone around her. I want also to tell you the story of the woman who took her in when no one else would. This morning’s Gospel lesson is the tale of Mary and Elizabeth.
As we reflect upon these ladies story, consider the emotions that Mary an unmarried woman her early teenage years was undergoing. Mary’s pregnancy for many was not a joyous occasion; no one was going to believe that she was actually a virgin. Mary probably had a hard time admitting it due to the circumstances. Mary probably had to face the shame of her pregnancy alone because those around Mary were probably going to distance themselves from her.
Elizabeth was on the different end of the social spectrum from Mary. Elizabeth lived in a culture where a woman was considered a failure if she didn’t produce children. Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah had seemingly done everything right: they said their prayers, they watched Elizabeth’s health, and they waited until it seemed to be too late. Zechariah went to the Temple nearly every day of his life praying for a child, still praying out of habit once it was thought to be no longer possible. One day the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah announcing that his wife Elizabeth would bear a son. Zechariah’s doubt that this would actually happen was so strong that he went mute until the day of the child’s birth.
So here were two women united by their pregnancies because they had no one else but each other. No one else who would believe their story! As we look around the congregation today, not many of you probably think that you are going through what Mary and Elizabeth were going through. We don’t have teenage moms or previous barren pregnant women surrounding us, yet Mary and Elizabeth’s story matters to us on this day.
We have people within our congregation on this morning that are struggling with many of the emotions underwent by Mary and Elizabeth during the holiday season. For many people within our midst, Christmas is one of the most painful times of the year. Christmas for many people will be a painful time reflecting upon loss of their loved ones; this loss occurs on either an emotional or a physical level. Christmas breaks people like no other time of the year. People’s joyous celebrations often bring pain to the lonely, and sad. Many people go through the Holiday season struggling with the question of whether “Are they worthy of love in their lives?”
Some years ago, the band Bowling for Soup wrote a song entitled “High School Never Ends” which says how we claim to be wiser and more mature as the years pass us by, but society still defines by beauty, status, and power. So even though on the surface Mary and Elizabeth were quite different in many ways they were quite similar. Their same emotional needs were why these women needed to come together.
Ultimately in the absence of connection, there is suffering. The world is full of people trying to get and keep connection.
Mary stays with Elizabeth for three months before returning home. One interesting thing about the tale of Mary and Elizabeth is that it never has Mary telling Elizabeth her big secret of a virgin birth. Elizabeth seems naturally knows her secret. Perhaps Elizabeth’s knowledge helped convince a scared, young girl in Mary that God’s plan would eventually come to fruition in her.
As we hear the story of Mary and Elizabeth, their story might seem unique. Although their story is similar to many people’s stories of going through life seemingly more and more isolated from the world around them only to be brought back by God’s promise.
Think of the Biblical story of Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was a Jew, who sold out to the Roman Government. All of Zacchaeus's former friends wanted nothing to do with him. Zacchaeus had experienced all sorts of rejection in life but made all kinds of money along the way.
Zacchaeus eventually becomes so desperate for love and affection that he dares to climb a tree to see Jesus. Zacchaeus probably looked like a fool to everyone watching him, but he just didn’t care. Jesus finally spots Zacchaeus. Jesus’ response to Zacchaeus is interesting in that Jesus never seeks to point out to Zacchaeus where his life went wrong. The truth is Zacchaeus knew better than anybody where his life went wrong. Zacchaeus knew his sin and shame better than anyone else, yet Jesus vowed not to leave his side. Jesus deemed that Zacchaeus was worthy of receiving love, no matter what anyone thought about his situation.
The need for connection in the midst of despair brings to my mind another Bible story that we all know. The story of the Woman at the well in the Samaritan village of Sychar in John 4. If anyone could go through life thinking that they are not good enough for Jesus, it would be this woman. The woman at the well had a string of failed marriages, and was now living with another man out of wedlock. Jesus still approached this woman. Jesus interacting with the woman at the well was probably going to cause people to start spreading all kinds of rumors about their relationship. For this, Jesus wasn’t going to care because his message is more powerful than a million people’s small words. Jesus doesn’t ignore her situation or dismiss it as a sign of the times. Jesus ironically enough never issues a word of judgment toward her. Jesus knew that this woman was vulnerable and hurting. Jesus merely seeks to tell her that the Gospel is for her. Jesus is reminding her that there is no confession or isolation too far from which a return is not possible.
When I was working in Lamberton, I had a congregation member that I’ll call Phil, who was in recovery. I didn’t know Phil very well since he was very rarely in the church. One day, Phil approaches me wishing to get together to complete the fifth step of his AA program. The 5th step is called the step of confession where we admit our wrongs to another human being. Opening this stuff to a complete stranger for Phil was going to be hard. As soon as we sit down, I let Phil know that I understood what he was going through. I talked to Phil about how easy it is to give into emotional pain having grown up around my Grandma’s alcoholism as a child. I didn’t believe Phil to be a worst sinner than any other sinner; I merely let Phil know that he had made different bad decisions. Phil’s decisions could not be separate from the human realities of how we all have pain! Each of us has hurt deep down inside! I remember several months after this visit Phil talking to me saying that this was probably going to be the best conversation of his life. No conversation between individuals was going to be more authentic as we dared to embrace each other’s rough edges and vulnerabilities. Phil was in church nearly every Sunday after that because his whole outlook on church and forgiveness changes after completing his 5th step.
The interesting thing about Mary and Elizabeth’s relationship is it bounded by their mutual trust that God will deliver them from their present isolation. God will one day take away their shame.
The movie Good Will Hunting tells the story of Will Hunting an orphan that grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. What made Will Hunting unique is that he is a genius. A genius that seeks to run away from his gifts at every opportunity because of his pain. When he meets a girl, he lies to her about having twelve brothers because Will didn’t want to admit to being an orphan. Will goes through life terrified that the secret of his past will be exposed opening himself up to another painful rejection. Will’s natural instinct is to run from any personal commitment. Will Hunting was caught up in a never-ending cycle of shame-isolation-loneliness. Will would always respond to this period though either cigarettes, alcohol, or fighting. The break though in the whole movie occurs when Will’s therapist one day embraces him while assuring him “It’s not your fault.” You are not to blame for how other people have made you see yourself.
Will Hunting is not unique. I remember the night before my sister Anne started at Concordia, she asks me “What if I don’t make any friends?”. Anne’s question seemed like a strange question at the time considering she was the prom queen at a relatively large high school; Anne is plenty outgoing yet even Anne struggled with these questions of “Who will accept me?”
Mary faced this question during her pregnancy. Mary knew that a higher spiritual purpose was at work within her. The words of Isaiah 61 shed insight on this question “He hath sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound”. People being set free because of the coming birth of the Messiah above all else is the reality of the Christmas season.
There is no better person to make this point then Linus of Charlie Brown fame. Everyone knows Linus for his famous security blanket. Linus would never be seen anywhere without the blue blanket. Lucy, Snoopy, and Sally try everything to get Linus to drop his security blanket. Linus’ blanket for some served as a source of his ridicule, but Linus could never let it go. The truth is Linus is more like us than we might imagine. We all have our blue blankets. We all have our ways of shielding ourselves from the truth of the world around us. For many people, this might be their spiritual pride as they to cling towards bitterness, anger, and judgment towards other people. For other people, it might be spiritual despair wishing to cut ourselves off from the world around us for fear of never getting hurt. Blue blankets take many forms.
This year has been fifty years since the Charlie Brown Christmas first came on the air. As the Christmas pageant falls apart, Linus the one who was thought to lack courage interrupts. Linus starts reading the Christmas story from Luke 2 when he starts reading something happens as Linus says the words of the angel to the shepherds “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” Linus drops his blanket in front of the entire world. Linus is exposed. Linus’ sin and shame is on the stage for the whole world to see.
This scene brings us back to our Gospel lesson for today. The thing about the Gospel of Jesus is Jesus sees us as we are, Jesus doesn’t demand that we cover ourselves in his presence. Jesus sees our shame, sees our guilt, and declares your sins to be forgiven.
Mary approaches her cousin Elizabeth today in the weakest and most vulnerable positions. Mary approaches Elizabeth as a scared, young girl with the weight of the world upon her shoulders. Mary had her secret, yet then she saw Elizabeth. When Elizabeth came into Mary’s presence, the lesson says that “She is filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Mary was not going to be alone through her ordeals. In Elizabeth, Mary was going to experience unconditional love and acceptance to heal her from the pain of the world around her. Just as we shall experience the unconditional love and acceptance of Jesus to heal us from the pain of the world around us. What Christ’s acceptance of us should allow us to find grace not only in our imperfections but the imperfections of others.
We know the end of this story. Elizabeth gives birth to a son named John. John would become famous for his baptisms. Mary gives birth to a son named Jesus. The tale of these women’s pregnancies is not a story of healing or everything instantly becoming right within their lives. The tale of Mary and Elizabeth’s pregnancies is a story of the redemption of God bringing unto these women his grace and salvation.
Mary was always going to have walk around with the emotions and physical scars of her pregnancy. Elizabeth would never be able to escape the painful years of seeking to conceive a child within her youth. Mary and Elizabeth though would be made whole.
The story of Mary and Elizabeth points to many of the ways in which God is working within our world today. God is working in the lives of people that many might choose to isolate or cast out. The new reality of God’s grace is that the people that we consider to be shameful, God considers them to be holy. This new reality of God’s grace is all around us even as difficult as might be for many of us to see on this day. Amen
 Luke 1:39-45
 Jones, Judith. “Commentary on Luke 1:39-45(46-55).” Working Preacher. Luther Seminary. 20.Dec.2015. web. Dec.15.2015.
 This paragraph was influenced by a reflection by Dr. Jeannie Miller Clarkson entitled “Speaking to Christmas Pain Brings Christmas Peace” . JeannieMillerClarkson.com. 10.Dec.2015. Web. Dec.15.2015
 Bowling for Soup. “High School Never Ends.”The Great Burrito Extortion Case. Jive Recors. 2006. CD.
 Zimmerman, Aaron M.G. “Brene Brown and the End of Shame”. MBird (Mockingbird Ministries). 1.Nov.2012. Web. Dec.15.2015.
 Luke 19:1-10
 John 4:1-30
 This thought process on the difference between shame/guilt comes from Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly. Penguin Random House. 2012.
 Kozo Hattari, Makala. “What Good Will Hunting Teaches Us About Men, Shame, and Suicide. “ Good Men Project. 12. Nov.2014. Web. Dec.15.2015.
 Isaiah 61:1
 Soroski, Jason. “Just Drop the Blanket: The Moment You Never Noticed in A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Crosswalk . 14. Dec.2015. Web. Dec.15.2015.
 Luke 2:10
 Soroski, Jason. “Just Drop the Blanket: The Moment You Never Noticed in A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
 Luke 1:41
 Jones, Judith. “Commentary on Luke 1:39-45(46-55).”
First Lesson: Zephaniah 3: 14-20
Responsive Reading: Isaiah 12: 2-6
Second Lesson: Philippians 4: 4-7
Gospel Lesson: Luke 3: 7-18
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
Last Sunday, I attended church at our sister church in Stacy, Minnesota in Saint John’s Lutheran. During the sermon Pastor Ed Wheatley told the tale of a funeral for a woman named Dolores that had happened the day before. No matter how many funerals you’ve attended, I bet you’ve never attended a funeral like this one. Dolores had a grandson let’s say in his early 20’s that was going through some rough times in life. The grandson had been spending the last few weeks before his grandmother’s funeral protesting down at the fourth precinct in Minneapolis regarding the police shooting death of Jamar Clark. The grandson becomes overwhelmed by all the emotions of the past few weeks at his grandmother’s funeral. The young man pretty soon cannot be calmed or controlled by those within the church. The local police had to be called in to constrain him. Words were doing no good, so the cops had no choice but to fire rubber bullets at the young man inside the church as a way of hoping to restrain him. Pastor Wheatley commented that this was the first known shooting in the history of the church.
What this story highlights is the uncertainty of the world around us. The most common of occasions can quickly turn into the scariest of realities.
This story brings us into the frame of mind for our advent season. We might not be able to explain Advent well, but the message of Advent is the darkness that is all around us. You see this darkness when you turn on the nightly news, we encounter this darkness when you experience people’s personal pain with no good words of comfort, and we are seemingly often overwhelmed with senseless death. What we must remember is that at times such as these is that our expectations of this world are ultimately not God’s expectations.
Today’s Gospel lesson comes to us from Luke 3. It contains a story from the life of John the Baptist. In the lesson for today, some very interesting people approach John the Baptist to ask the question “What sir shall we do to inherit eternal life?”
These were not the type of men that you would expect to approach John the Baptist. These men approaching was the equivalent of members of ISIS coming near a prominent Christian minister today to inquire regarding the significant answers of life and death. The men that approached John the Baptist were tax collectors and soldiers who worked for the hated Roman government. These men made their living as reverse Robin Hoods stealing from the poor to give to the rich. These men were the Pro-Wrestling villains who everyone boo’s as soon as they walk into the arena. Here they were coming to locust-eating, wilderness living John the Baptist.
This was a definite clash of extremes when it came to how they viewed the world: power versus piety. While these men might have seemed like a strange sight in the presence of John the Baptist. These social and religious outcasts were the type of men whom John often preached. John preached to the riff-raff of society. John preached to misfits. Plenty of people probably didn’t want John the Baptist to go to the types of people that he went to. John is preaching to those who endure the struggle between judgment and hope nearly every single day of their lives. John’s aim is to break down the walls of spiritual pride that exist within so many by bringing grace to those society deemed to be the most heinous of sinners. John is saying to these people that God does not see you like everyone else may see you.
John’s whole preaching is about seeking to prepare those within the world for a stronger, better world. John is seeking to prepare people for the one who will baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist is seeking to remind people that the future is less uncertain than it may seem.
The big story of the last week was the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. The aftermath of the shooting was predictable with people’s instant reactions having to do with either redoing our gun policy or immigration policy. These responses seem to me to miss the mark as the mess in San Bernardino isn’t a problem that we can easily fix by assigning free-will to inanimate objects, nor by only allowing the right kind of people into this country versus the wrong type of people. What the San Bernardino shooting reminds us is that the world is how much of an epidemic that sin is in the world around us even as people fight their hardest to deny its existence.
In the wake of the shooting a headline in the New York Daily News blasted out “God isn’t fixing this?” The problem with headlines such as this is they assume that God is standing idly by as the world descends into darkness. The problem that too many people have is they believe Adam and Eve never fell from a tree, so they don’t know how to respond to events such as these other than blaming certain people or even God himself. What the headline failed to recognize is what our Gospel lesson for today tells us about God’s response to sin and evil.
On this day, John the Baptist was preaching to a fractured world. John the Baptist was still inviting his people’s worst enemies into his presence. John the Baptist was seeking to give them a way forward in the midst of their despair. John the Baptist was seeking to proclaim that even when times are the darkest, the savior is on the horizon. The savior who would soon be known as Jesus was coming not just to judge the world but ultimately grant unto the world forgiveness.
Today in our Gospel lesson the tax collectors and soldiers ask, “What must we do?” These are the questions that plenty of people have been asking within the last week as people debate hot-button issues such as gun control and immigration. What might John the Baptist preach to us on this day as we grapple on this day? John would tell us to repent of the spiritual pride that we cling to claiming to have all the answers. We must remember that whenever we enter into any discussion that WE ARE NOT GOD!
We must acknowledge that as broken as the world around is we do not have the power to fix it. Our limited power though does not mean that we lack hope. We do have hope! This hope is soon about to come down from heaven by way of a child. John the Baptist’s preaching on this day is to those who came to him wanting change. John’s preaching is for those who yearn for a new way of life.
How can we make sense of this Advent season? How do we make sense of a world filled with shootings and political discord? As stated by C. J. Green Advent is “a season that reminds us that there has to be death before there can be life. There has to be struggle before there is triumph.” No one in this room has survived 30, 40, 50, 60 years of marriage without our sorts of challenges coming before you together. What Advent reminds us is that no matter how much the world surrounding you, might be beating you down that there is hope that is present as we gaze unto the sky looked at by shepherds at night. Advent serves as a reminder that the time of death must occur before the day of resurrection.
I want to close this morning by telling you the story of the Mayfield family. The Mayfield family’s year was a disaster. Both parents had to quit their jobs. Mom had a really traumatic pregnancy, nearly dying at child birth having to he hospitalized for several days. They had to move across the country saying goodbye to friends and a job they loved. The newborn baby never did learn to sleep any good. Their van died for good. They were forced to move to a cramped, apartment. Dad got a new job, but debt still reigned supreme. Every month they hoped they could get off food stamps, yet it hasn’t happened yet. Mom working as a writer struggled to compose her thoughts to paper. Both Mom and Dad struggled with sleep. The Mayfield’s were so beaten down by it all that they became increasingly isolated from their family and friends. Every day became a fight for survival. Everything that could have gone wrong in the last year did go wrong. Worst of all a car had crashed into their daughter’s bedroom wall. After a few days away from the worst home life that anyone could imagine, the Mayfield’s returned to their apartment.
The Mayfield’s in the midst of disaster begin to see the signs of hope. They see hope whenever they see the baby’s dimples. They see hope whenever their daughter makes new friends. They see hope when neighbors drop by food that they’ve never tasted before. They see hope when the newborn baby begins to crawl. They see hope when their life comes together enough to show up in a church on a Sunday morning.
You see as the Mayfield’s had a year that was probably worse then your year they came to realize something about their lord and savior, Jesus never left their side. Jesus stood beside them in the arena that we call “life.” You see Advent is above all else a season of hope. Within Advent, we come to terms with the most complex of human emotions: the sadness of the forthcoming holiday season, the waiting for things to turn around; and the longing for all things to be made new.
As I reflect on our Gospel lesson for today, I reflect upon the words of the Prophet Isaiah:
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.”
Advent reminds us that as shootings take place all around us, as Politicians say all kinds of nasty things about each other, as the worst of sinners stand before us. As the world around us crumbles, something different lies just around the corner. A new birth is on the horizon. Christmas is indeed coming soon. Amen
 The story comes from Pastor Wheatley’s December 6th, 2015 sermon at Saint John’s.
 Luke 3:16
 The headline comes from the December 3rd edition of the New York Daily News
 Burk, Denny. “Christmas means that God is fixing this”. Denny Burk.com. 3.Dec.2015. Web. Dec.12.2015.
 Luke 3:10
 Green, C.J. “The Life, Death, Life Cycle”. Mockingbird. 9.Dec.2015. Web. Dec.12.2015.
 Mayfield, D.L. “The Brutally Honest Christmas Card.” DL Mayfield.com. 9.Dec.2015. Web. Dec.11.2015.
 Mayfield, D.L. “The Brutally Honest Christmas Card.”
 Mayfield, D.L. “The Brutally Honest Christmas Card.”
 Mayfield, DL. “The Brutally Honest Christmas Card.”
 Isaiah 9:2
Pastor Stew Carlson
These are all Sunday sermon's written by Pastor Stew.