First Lesson: Jeremiah 31: 7-14
Responsive Reading: Psalm 147: 12-20
Second Lesson: Ephesians 1: 3-14
Gospel Lesson: John 1: 1-18
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”- John 1:1
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
When I was at Luther Seminary, I took a class where the goal was to help us articulate our beliefs about Jesus. The professor of this course proceeded to announce that he didn’t believe the story of the Virgin Birth. He continued to try to explain the Virgin Birth story a few different ways. He believed that the scriptures possess this story merely to indicate that Jesus’ birth was unique. He believed that one didn’t have to believe in the Virgin Birth as a matter of salvation. He believed that we can’t minimize Joseph’s role in Jesus’ life as a Jesus’ father.
My radar immediately went off after he said these words. I can’t explain my visceral reaction. Someone questioning the Virgin Birth was not the first time during college or seminary that I heard the teachings of the historic Church questioned. I honestly believe that was set me off was an innate understanding that we can't separate the Virgin Birth from the uniqueness of Jesus’ being. How Jesus was not merely a man, how in the words of our Gospel lesson for today the Word became flesh and dwelt among us1. The Virgin Birth is the means by which the one who was present at the creation of the world assumes human form.
So I proceeded to write a paper trying to set out why I needed to prove my professor wrong. Any student going for a grade knows this is a terrible idea.
I get the paper back; this is a long paper (longer than any sermon). As I read the paper, the Professor’s response was unusual. The Professor would respond to every point of argument that I made on this paper in depth in red ink. The side margins of the paper contain hundreds of words of red ink. The back of the pages possess nothing but red ink. My essay produced other essays in response.
I get my professor’s angle. He attended Harvard. He wanted to be taken seriously as an intellectual when he attended cocktail parties. Serious thinkers don’t hold to such impossible events as the Virgin Birth.
What I say about the topic this morning is the Virgin Birth is that we must always defend it. Apart from the Resurrection there is arguably no more critical belief in the entire Christian faith. One can quibble with how we can interpret certain Bible verses? One can debate the relationship between religion and science? The discussion over the Virgin Birth touches on the question of whether “Jesus is really God?”
So how would I respond to my Professor’s arguments about the Virgin Birth?
Argument A: The Virgin Birth merely meant to show that Jesus was special.
Special in what way, I don’t get. If Jesus comes into the world like every other human being born before and after him, then he is really not special in any unique way. The specialness of Jesus comes from the Virgin Birth. Jesus could have come to Earth as a fully formed adult, but then he would not be one of us, if he lived a life without diapers. Jesus could have been born as billions of people before or after him as a byproduct of the normal birds and bees, yet this doesn’t make him God.
Argument B: Belief in the Virgin Birth is not necessary for salvation.
The Professor was right, yet wrong at the same time. The Professor was right that because of sin, none of us is ever able to believe rightly. We don’t want to claim that we are the only true church or pure church. I will freely admit that there are beliefs I hold that might be proven wrong at the gates of Heaven. Saying something is unnecessary for salvation shouldn’t cause us to just casually dismiss it.
Grace says that we will not always believe rightly; grace does not give us carte blanche permission to dismiss Biblical ideas that do not mesh with our “world views”. We must also state that the Virgin Birth has been a part of the faith of the church since its earliest days.
A while back, the Jehovah Witnesses stop by me house. They proceed to tell me for 20 minutes how all Christian churches have been led astray over the years. My response to all this ranting was to ask them about the Holy Spirit? What I said is “Why would the Holy Spirit abandon his church to damnation?” The Jehovah Witnesses were not arguing with me on this day; they were rather arguing against the Holy Spirit when they denounce all Christian churches as holding false beliefs. Since the Church does not belong to us, we will never have permission to assume ownership casually over it.
Argument C: We can’t minimize the importance of a Father within Jesus’ life.
A number of years ago, Basketball player Shaquille O’ Neal made rap music on the side. Shaquille O’ Neal never knew his father. Shaq’s dad had been imprisoned for drug possession when Shaq was an infant. Shaq’s mom marries a guy named Phil. Phil raises Shaq. The biological father wants no role in Shaq’s life until seeing him dominate in a high school all star game. Shaq gets mad; Shaq eventually writes a rap about how Phil is his father, because his biological didn’t bother2.
We should not assume fatherhood in such black and white terms. Joseph had a significant role in Jesus’ life because he was placed in such a role. Joseph’s role is no different then the important role that Phil enters into in Shaq’s life despite providing nothing to Shaq’s conception. Joseph was not a typical father, as there are plenty of non-typical fathers out there. Fatherhood is not merely about a father’s role in conception. Fatherhood is rather about the role that a father plays in influencing their children, no matter how fathers enter into these lives. Understanding Joseph in this way seems to be a much more meaningful understanding of the role of Joseph than purely thinking about it in terms of his role in the conception.
Blogger Nadia Bolz-Weber made a good point in regards to this whole Virgin Birth that “Christians must admit that our faith is going to sound preposterous to those who don’t believe3?” This guy rose from the dead after three days seriously? We will always fight a losing battle when we engage with people who try to make the Virgin Birth a matter of biological probability. Yes, we know that children do not get made without sperm. We admit that science questions only lead to science answers4.
Instead, what we believe is that the Virgin Birth is a unique act of God coming into our world. The thing about the Virgin Birth is that we cannot separate it from the mystery of how God could ever come into our world; we cannot and will not ever be able to explain this. We merely say how a Virgin Birth happens is God’s doing, and not for us to know ultimately.
Our Gospel lesson today is the beginning of the Gospel of John5. John’s Gospel doesn’t begin with the tale of the Virgin Birth. Instead what John’s Gospel communicates in its beginning is that Jesus’ birth was not his beginning. Jesus has been here since the beginning of time itself.
Our lesson ties in the Virgin Birth with the story of creation. To understand our lesson for today from John 1 think in terms of what we do know about Adam, Eve, and the Garden of Eden, how they fell into sin, eating some rotten fruit. The whole of creation falls apart after that.
One of the most popular Christian funerals hymns that we all know is “In the Garden”. People like this romantic image of the Kingdom of Heaven being compared to a garden.
What you maybe don’t know is the whole meaning behind the famous scene from Luke 23 where Jesus talks to the Thief on the Cross to mouth his famous words ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise6”.
Paradise comes from the Persian word for “garden”. If you think of what Jesus is saying as ‘Today you shall be with me in the “garden’, what Jesus is saying “the Thief” shall be with him on the day of humanity’s restoration. Jesus is referring to the day that sin and death shall be wiped from the face of the earth forever.
How this ties into the Virgin Birth is the Virgin Birth’s purpose is God saying that although sin came into this world, I am going to reverse it by bringing forth forgiveness. The Virgin Birth is God taking a do-over for the sake of a fallen world7.
As we talk about the Virgin Birth, I should also make brief mention of the Immaculate Conception. The Immaculate Conception is the idea that Mary’s birth comes as a result of a virgin mother. The Immaculate Conception says that Mary’s birth came without sin. I think the problem with Mary being born of a virgin is that it probably requires her mother Saint Anne also experience birth from a virgin, and so and so on until the beginning of time.
My intention is not to bad-mouth Catholic devotion to Mary. I believe that we should honor Mary as we do all other mothers. Mary was called forth by God with a particular, unique purpose. The issue with the Immaculate Conception is that it makes Mary almost more God-like than human. Mary’s unique from all women because of her role in Jesus’ life; Mary is not unique from all women because she possesses any additional super-powers in child-bearing that other women do not own8.
During the Virgin Birth debate period that took place during my second year of Seminary. There was a lawyer in this class named Roger. Roger wasn’t just a run of the mill lawyer though. Roger would frequently appear on the Twin Cities “best lawyers” lists. Roger knew how to frame an argument and also how to respond to an argument. Roger would take the opportunity to denigrate the Virgin Birth at every chance he got.
I remember asking Roger the lawyer one day the following question “If you believe that there is a God up there who created the Heavens and the Earth? Why don’t you believe that this God is capable of intervening in his creation as he sees necessary even in the form of a Virgin Birth?”
Roger sits there for a couple moments thinking; when Roger finally admits that he had no counterpoint to the argument?
This breaks down the whole question of the Virgin Birth of whether our faith possess a God worth following that can resolve the problems of sin in our daily life? The Virgin Birth is a debate over whether our God is a worthless being?
The reason that the Virgin Birth is so essential to defining the Christian religion is because Christianity centers on the issues of life and death or death and resurrection. If we believe that Jesus couldn’t have come into this life in miraculous fashion then why should we possess any confidence that Jesus could overcome death in extraordinary fashion?
A God that cannot intervene in Life and Death we should abandon. Take miracles away from Christianity then Christianity is merely a system of moral beliefs from people who might know or not know about what they are talking. Christianity then is just one of many options claiming to have discovered the truth on Oprah Winfrey’s couch.
The Virgin Birth illustrates that Christianity centers upon God coming down to Earth for the sake of our own salvation. God doesn’t do his part, and then we do ours. God did it all for our sake upon a cross. We are merely mortal, we march towards death like the sheep before the slaughter9, yet the Lamb of God came forth to this earth to die and rise again. The Virgin Birth shows that there is a way forward for even if it might seem to be biologically impossible. Christianity is a religion of miracles; it’s a religion that claims that this life is not always going to be how we see it today. Amen
1 John 1:14
2 “Biological Didn’t Bother” rapped by Shaq in 1994 can be found on You Tube.
3 Bolz-Weber, Nadia. “The Virgin Birth: Fact, Fiction, or Truth?”. Sarcastic Lutheran: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner&Saint. Patheos. 17.Dec.2014. Web. Dec.24.2014
4 M. James Sawyer.“The Virgin Birth: Why It is Important”. Parchment and Pen: Credo House Blog. 12. Dec.2011. Web. Dec.24.2014
5 John 1:1-18
6 Luke 23:43
7 M. James Sawyer.“The Virgin Birth: Why It is Important”.
8 Bolz-Weber’s article provides excellent commentary also on the Immaculate Conception.
9 Romans 8:36
First Lesson: Isaiah 9: 2-7
Responsive Reading: Psalm 96
Second Lesson: Titus 2: 11-14
Gospel Lesson: Luke 2: 1-20
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
Author Barbara Robinson tells the tale of the Herdman children1. We all know kids like the Herdmans. The Herdmans were the type of kids that Mom didn’t want you to play with growing up. The Herdmans were unsupervised children who traveled all over town creating mischief. You think of something that a kid would do to get in trouble then the Herdmans probably did it. The Herdmans lied; they stole, they swore, and they even set fire to their neighbor’s’ tool shed. Teachers kept passing the Herdmans along in school, because no teacher would ever want to put up with two Herdmans at the same time.
One day though one of the Herdmans (Leroy Herdman) hears something that changes his life forever. Leroy hears from one of his classmates that they could get all the free desserts that they ever wanted if they went to church. The Herdmans begin to show up at church every Sunday. Church didn’t initially change the Herdmans though; their behavior remained as rough as ever. The Herdmans would take from the offering plate as it was passed in front of them, they stole and drank all the wine from the Communion jug, and they even smoked cigars in the church bathroom.
The troubles between the Herdmans and the church were just beginning though; soon casting would begin for the church’s annual Christmas pageant. Most of the kids were bored by this, figuring it was the same story with the same people in the same parts every year. This year would be different though as the Herdmans wanted to take part. The Herdmans landed all the parts through the only ways they knew how in bullying and intimidation. All the characters from Joseph to the Wise Men to Angels were going to be played by Herdmans. The most interesting casting choice though was the meanest Herdman of them all in Imogene Herdman was going to be playing Mary.
The whole church gets in an uproar upon hearing this news. No one was going to dare to let their infant play Jesus so that he could be taken care of by the rough and tumble Herdmans. Everyone in the church assumes that the Christmas pageant starring the Herdmans will be a disaster.
The evening started off according to predictions as the Herdmans went off script, not knowing the Christmas story all that well. The Wise Men thought the gifts of Frankincense and Myrrh were stupid, so they decided to bring the Baby Jesus a “Ham” instead they received from the church’s welfare basket. Mary starts burping a “baby doll” just like it a real baby. The Wise Men fail to exit the stage at the proper time. The Angel gets mad at the audience so to get them to quiet down starts yelling “Unto to you a child is born.”
Something happened though over the course of the pageant, and it was the most unlikely of outcomes. The Herdmans begin to get the meaning of the Christmas story. The Herdmans begin to realize that this birth about which they knew nothing was special. Mary shocks the audience when she begins to cry on stage. Mary played by Imogene Herdman had dealt with years of feeling broken not quite right with the world. It was on stage that Imogene became overwhelmed by the depths of God’s love for her. The meanest of girls had come to realize the meaning of grace. The meaning of grace is that God forgives even when we might be unable to forgive ourselves.
The Herdmans story is a humorous portrayal of the Christmas season, the idea of the rough and tumble being at the center of God’s story has some basis in reality.
Let’s look at the main characters in our Christmas story for tonight as we see how they’re not that different from the rough and tumble Herdmans.
Let’s start with the Shepherds. Shepherds did not possess high esteem in the days that Luke wrote his gospel. Shepherds were considered to be one step above the sheep that they took care. No one desired to be a shepherd. Shepherds spent their nights lying in the field, where food was often lacking. The role of shepherd tended to fall to the youngest and weakest son. The shepherd was the son who wasn’t going to receive any land out of the father’s inheritance. Being a shepherd was a job that tended only to appeal to the anti-social. Being a shepherd only made sense if you had no desire to have children on your own. Shepherds were the type of family members that every year, you hoped would finally get their act together.
Let’s look at Joseph. Joseph was a mere common laborer, a carpenter more of a grunt than a master builder. Joseph’s bank account probably had very little in it. Joseph’s contributions to the synagogue were probably quite meager. Joseph was such a sub-standard provider for Mary that he didn’t even have a safe place for her to give birth.
Finally, we get to Mary. Mary was merely a girl about the age of thirteen. Mary didn’t stand out from the crowd in that she was no great beauty, no great talent, or didn’t even possess extraordinary piety. Mary even lacked any sort of socially acceptable explanation for her pregnancy2.
These were the people that were the cast of characters at the scene of the Lord’s birth. If you took a photo of this scene to put on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, people might have pictured this baby’s birth as evidence of all that is wrong with society.
Perhaps there is something to say for Jesus being born amongst the people who most desperately need him.
What we can take from our message tonight is that we know the Shepherds, we know Mary and Joseph, and we know the Herdmans. To all these people a savior has been born on this evening.
The thing about the Herdmans is their role had a genuine skepticism attached to it by people who had experienced them before, people who couldn’t believe that the future could be different3.
The future is different. At the center of our story tonight is a helpless baby. Tonight, we hear a story of how God became powerless, how the word became flesh to dwell among us4.
Martin Luther one time gave a sermon on Christmas and the Shepherds roles within it when he explained the Holiday quite well. I read Luther’s words on this evening.
“The Christian faith is foolishness. It says that God can do anything and yet makes himself so weak that either his Son had no power or wisdom or else the whole story is made up.”… “If I had come to Bethlehem and seen it, I would have said: ‘This does not make sense. Can this be the Messiah? This is sheer nonsense.’ I would not have let myself be found inside the stable5.”
What we hear tonight is that God came into the world amongst those living at the bottom of it. The Angel announced Christ’s birth to the very people you wouldn’t have expected to hear it.
What this background says as we gather here on this night is that some force is bringing us together here. I believe that the Lord has led you here: whether you were nagged or attended out of “family obligations”. The Lord led you here tonight so you may see that Christmas matters because The Cross and Resurrection matter. Christmas matters because “New Life” has been breathed into an old and dying world at a manager in Bethlehem. Amen
1 Robinson in 1971 wrote The Best Christmas Pageant Ever published by Harper& Row. The Best Christmas Pageant ever serves as the motivation for this evening’s sermon. H/T to my mom Joan Carlson a retired middle school English teacher from North Branch, Minnesota for giving me this sermon idea.
2 This description of the Holy Family was inspired by an article written by Matt Fitzgerald published over at The Christian Century on December 19, 2014 entitled “God among the imperfect”.
3 An excellent faith-based commentary on The Best Christmas Pageant Ever can be found at classbookworm.wordpress.com published on December 24,2012.
4 John 1:1-18
5 These quotes were found in an article published by David Zahl at mbird.com (Mockingbird) in an article entitled “Martin Luther on Christmas” published on December 14th, 2010. These Luther quotes come from a Christmas sermon on The Shepherds.
First Lesson: 2 Samuel 7: 1-11, 16
Responsive Reading: Psalm 89: 1-4, 19-26
Second Lesson: Romans 16: 25-27
Gospel Lesson: Luke 1: 26-38
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
This morning, I want to tell you the story of an ordinary Mary. We all know a girl like Mary. Mary had just turned that awkward age of thirteen. Mary’s body was changing before her very eyes.
She was just coming into the years of your life that unless you’re extraordinarily pretty or cool are some of the most difficult years of life. Mary grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. Mary had no distinguishing features. Her clothes weren’t fancy. Mary had to fight breakouts like any other kid. Mary dreaded looking into the mirror to see her own reflection. If Mary had walked down the hall of any middle school that you’ve ever been to, Mary would have blended in with the crowd. For everywhere that Mary looked she saw someone prettier, someone smarter, and someone more physically capable. Mary was at the age where her failures seem to magnify nearly every single day.
Mary didn’t have very high hopes for the future, in fact; Mary thought of the future as depressing. Her mother had been a hand-maiden, a servant. Mary figured that her life would be nothing special. Mary saw herself doing nothing different from what her mother did spending her days washing clothes.
Mary had one positive though in her life. Mary had recently met a guy named Joe. Mary and Joe’s parents had known each other. Joe was a few years older than Mary. Joe was at the age where every little bit of fuzz that sprung up on his face was a sign of pending manhood. Joe was the kid that would have loved shop classes. Joe wanted to be a carpenter like his father and his father before him.
Joe was a nice guy. Mary was at first taken back by Joe because he was the first guy that would have really showed an interest in her. Joe had made a promise to Mary. Joe told Mary that ‘he loved her’. Joe said that they were going to get married someday.
One night Mary’s life changed forever, Mary was in her room, getting ready for bed, performing rituals that she had done countless nights before. When with no prior warning appearing before Mary was an Angel of the Lord named “Gabriel”. Mary didn’t know quite what to make of this at first. Mary figured that maybe she had just eaten something bad, or this was her lack of sleep finally catching up with her.
Mary initially feared Gabriel no differently than we would fear any uninvited intruder into our bedroom.
Gabriel sought to put Mary’s fears to rest with his first words “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God.”-Luke 1:30
“You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.”-Luke 1:31
Mary was by no means a religious scholar. She would attend synagogue with her family on a weekly basis. Mary like many kids her age never followed along with the service all that well. Yet when Mary heard the name “Jesus” she knew what this name meant.
You see Jesus is from the Hebrew word meaning “savior”. The Son she was going to bare was going to be the one to save all of God’s people.
Mary still couldn’t figure out the biology involved in all this. Mary was so young that she didn’t even know that she could give birth to a child.
She heard the word “pregnant” and knew that Joe and her hadn’t been together in “this way” so it made no sense for her to be pregnant. Yet Gabriel assured her that this would be no ordinary birth. Mary would give birth as a virgin.
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.”- Luke 1: 35
Mary was at that age where she was completely unsure of herself around any adults, let alone an angel of the Lord. So Mary was timid in Gabriels presence like anyone in her situation would have been upon hearing this most shocking of the news.
Gabriel knew that Mary would need help processing what she had just heard. So before leaving Gabriel gave Mary a little bit of advice. Go visit a relative of yours named Elizabeth. Mary didn’t know Elizabeth all that well as she was an old woman, where as Mary was a young girl. Elizabeth could be a source of support for Mary though as went through her process. Elizabeth like Mary had also been visited recently by an angel. Elizabeth had been told that in her old age that she was going to give birth to a son named “John” who would later be known as “The Baptist”.
What happened after the angel Gabriel left the room? Mary stayed awake almost in a trance. Mary figured that she would break down crying uncontrollably as her world would never be the same again, only Mary didn’t do this. It was as if some higher force was going to guide Mary through this process and give her strength.
Mary’s range of thoughts was no different than any thirteen year old girl. Mary figured as soon as her parents heard this news of her pregnancy that they would scream at her till her ears bleed.
Mary wondered about her friends. Mary thought that she had friends. But Mary knew that people are fickle and will turn on you, once you downgrade their cool factor. Mary worried about her friends ignoring her and making fun of her behind her back.
Mary knew as people saw her ever expanding body that she would look like a “freak”. Mary knew that the next several months would result in Mary being an object of derision and scorn. Mary’s was the type of pregnancy that would have people telling her to get out of it, not to wreck her life by any means possible.
Mary worried about Joe. Would Joe dump her? Joe could make all sorts of assumptions that she was nothing but a no good, dirty cheat. Joe could have gone out and bragged to all his bros “about how was better off without Mary”. For the easy thing for Joe would be to dump her, and never respond to her again.
Mary wondered if anyone could ever possibly love her upon hearing this news.
Mary wondered most of all how much is this all going to hurt?
It was Gabriel’s final words to Mary that she could just not shake from her head, as she prepared to endure the next nine months of her life “For no word from God will ever fail?.”- Luke 1:37
What can we make of the story of this ordinary Mary on a Sunday such as this one?
Whereas Mary might not have been unique to the world around her, Mary was special. Mary hears that her son will be special. Mary’s son would be called “The Son of the Most High.” Mary’s son would be a King.
Mary’s story is a story of transformation, not so much a story about Mary’s spiritual transformation or personal transformation. Mary’s story is a story of God’s transformation. Mary’s story is a reminder how God enters into the world in the most plain and ordinary form.
Surely God could have chosen someone else, yet he didn’t. God could have chosen someone different to bring his son into the world. Perhaps God could have been born into the family of a Roman aristocrat, rather than a hick country girl. God does not work according to our terms; God works in defiance of our terms. In Mary, God saw something different; God saw one that he had chosen, one whom he had favored. Where as Mary might have thought no one would ever notice her, she had been noticed from on high. God was not going to see what other people saw, or even what Mary herself saw.
Every so often you might see a beautiful looking baby with a Mom who seemingly hasn’t gained a pound. We picture the type of Mom whose eyes seem unaffected by sleepless nights. We encounter a Mom who apparently has been blinded to all the weird bodily functions and distress of child-birth. Mary was not this mother. Mary was a scared, insecure thirteen-year-old girl who had just had the weight of the whole world placed upon her shoulders. Mary came to believe that with God nothing shall be impossible.
God promises to Mary on this day a Son. God extends to us on this day, the same type of promise. Today, we will receive a Son given unto the world in words of promise “For Christ’s sake your sins are forgiven”. Do not be afraid as we go home on this day, for you have found favor with God. Just as the Gospels begin with an earth-shaking miracle of birth, they would end with another earth-transforming miracle of resurrection. Amen
First Lesson: Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11
Responsive Reading: Psalm 126
Second Lesson: 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24
Gospel Lesson: John 1: 6-8, 19-28
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
Several years back, my dad and I went to a Minnesota Timberwolves game. The Timberwolves were so bad that there were times that you were able to get two hundred dollar tickets for twenty bucks. The Timberwolves had recently traded away the best player in team history and arguably the best player in the league, Kevin Garnett, because they weren’t even able to win with him on the roster. Desperate times call for desperate measures! So what the Timberwolves in the darkest of times wanted to sell was hope, so they came up with a new slogan “Build It”.
“Build It” was meant to encourage fans on the ground level to follow the team because they believed that they would be good down the line.
The “Build It” plan didn’t work on the terms set out for it. The Timberwolves currently have the longest playoff drought in the league and are currently the worst team in their conference. This season the Timberwolves have lost games by 48, 28, 17, 26, 22, and 19. The Timberwolves have only been able to sell hope for the past several years.
What the struggle of basketball fandom reminds us is that in the midst of darkness that we yearn for nothing more than light. A sign that a new way forward is coming soon!
The story of trying to find hope in the midst of despair brings us to our Gospel lesson for today from John 1. It’s another lesson centering around the person of John the Baptist. Whereas last week, we looked at John’s background, today; we look at the specific goals of John’s ministry.
Our lesson includes the goal of John’s ministry quite clear in verse 23 which says “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.”
So how did John make straight the way for the Lord? How did John get people ready for Jesus’ coming?
I think the mistake that we make when we think of John the Baptist’s life is to think of him as Jesus’ sidekick. Sure, John the Baptist and Jesus were related by blood, but they probably had no interaction with each other growing up as children.
Elizabeth had John as an old woman. Mary had Jesus as a young virgin. Jesus grew up in Nazareth. John grew up in the wilderness. It is possible that Jesus’ baptism was the first time that they would have met each other.
Another interesting example of John’s distance from Jesus is the interaction between their followers.
Further evidence that these two men had very little interaction with each other throughout their lives comes from Luke the 7th chapter where a group of John’s disciples approach Jesus by saying “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
If those closest to John were unable to identify Jesus standing before them, this points out how the encounters between these two men were probably quite limited. What this background reminds us is how John the Baptist needed to proceed by faith in his ministry just as much as anybody else.
So where our story connects to John is in the central task of his ministry “Making straight the way for the Lord” or preparing people for the Messiah’s coming. How John built a ministry at the Jordan River is what I want to look at this morning.
The first thing that I noticed about John this morning in reading our text for this morning is John’s great humility. John knows exactly who he is and who he isn’t.
“I am not the light.”
“I am not Elijah.”
“I am not the Christ.”
John states in some of his more famous words that “the one that was coming after him; his sandal he was unworthy to untie.” John’s sense of humility guided his whole ministry. But perhaps even more importantly than this, John believed that he was a part of something much bigger than himself or his sense of earthly comfort.
Second story, a while back I came across a quote by Gopher Football Coach Jerry Kill. Kill took over a program that like the Timberwolves was in the dumps. Kill has achieved some success. Kill said something that struck me during a recent interview. Kill talked about how he didn’t think he would be a witness to the type of success that the Gophers are having. What Kill believed is that he would lay the groundwork, the administration would get frustrated; Kill would get fired, and then the next guy would turn it around.
The often lack of outward success for our work brings us back to John the Baptist. John was a part of something special when he baptized our Lord. This famous baptism is why we know John, yet John didn’t get to see the outcome for his most famous of life events. John didn’t witness any healing miracles, and John didn’t witness the resurrection. John continued to live in hardship until the day of his execution. John’s ministry centers upon fleeting encounters. John was used to this. John probably baptized all sorts of people that he never saw again. What John ultimately believed is that his Baptism would ultimately serve a greater purpose even if he never got to see its outcome.
John’s story can bring us to thinking about people within our life. Each and every person in this room can probably speak about people who have profoundly influenced our faith life without them knowing the outcome.
I’ve spoken before about how I don’t believe I’d be a pastor if it wasn’t for my great-grandpa Arvid. Arvid’s been dead nearly twenty years, he was never going to know the outcome of his influence. This never stopped him from acting! We must remember that God works in a wide variety of ways. God works not only in pastors, God works in people at work, God works in neighbors, and God works in family members.
Another story, a while back I was leading services at the Veterans Home. After the service the chaplain asks me to go visit with a guy we’ll call Bob, who had recently lost his wife. Bob was devastated as she died away from him, living in another nursing home.
As we sat down together that day, Bob recalled a lot of things about life. Bob talked about their sixty years of wonderful marriage. Bob talked about trying to make sense of it all because of his faith. Bob shared his frustration about being confined to a wheelchair. The conversation was emotionally intense as Bob broke down several times within it.
Bob finally put me on the spot in the midst of our conversation when he asked “What was God’s purpose in keeping him around?” Believe me this question seems always to be asked whenever I’m visiting with someone who is unable to live life according to their wishes. I wished I could give Bob a smooth, easy to understand answer. This question got me thinking about our purpose in this world.
The thing about a purpose is that it we often don’t easily discover it. So what I told Bob is “I don’t know why God has you here.” “God might have you here to witness to a great-grandchild or even a nursing home staff member years down the line”, no different than my Great-Grandpa influenced my life well into his nineties.
It’s helpful to remember this as we talk to our own kids and grand kids about faith and seemingly have to bang our heads against the wall. You might not see the outcome of your witness a generation before.
God might have you around for an outcome that you will be unable to observe just like John the Baptist. Remember the famous words from Philippians as we question how we can be more patient and articulate “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
John the Baptist’s greatest trait was that he was able to see the limits of his own powers. Advent is a future looking season. Today we lookout upon the congregation to ask the following questions: What might this church look like ten years from now…or twenty years from now? What might this congregation look like once we are beyond the point of being able to influence it?
I think the important thing to remember is that there will come a day when we are no longer able to change our surroundings. What we must also remember is that day is not today. We must remember that the odds for revival might seem long if not impossible. We must also remember that God builds the church on resurrection.
We are a unique body with a unique purpose and calling, no different than John the Baptist. “To make straight the paths for Our Lord.”
To prepare people for Christ’s coming. We go forth with a mission of seeking to educate people about our God. The Mission is no different than John’s purpose in seeking to instruct the Levites in today’s lesson. Our God is neither an angry God nor a vengeful God. Our God is not merely concerned with petty rules and regulations. Our God seeks to make this world whole once again.
John’s humility saved him from the error that many a pastor and many a church fall into in thinking they can do so much. The future of this church or any church does not belong to us. John didn’t evaluate the success of his baptism in the same ways that we evaluate the success of our own ministry. John wasn’t going to be around to see Jesus rise, John wasn’t going to be around to see the Christian church born, yet for John this didn’t mean that his task wasn’t an important one. John realized that the Lord brought him to a certain time and certain place for a purpose to serve out.
I’m sure as word spread around Galilee of John the Baptist’s execution, his critics felt justified. Yet what the critics could not see was what was going on beneath the surface. A community of faith was in the process of being built that was going to be present long after John was gone. John the Baptist did not fail, because God’s timeline was ultimately going to be more important than his own.
Doors were going to close, people would dream big, ideas would fizzle out, and expiration dates would expire. Within these times, many of John’s disciples would become Jesus’ disciples. These disciples would eventually get to witness a resurrection from the darkest of place. Amen
 Luke 7:20 is the exact verse quoted. The full story takes place from Luke 7:18-35
 A paraphrase of John 1:8
 John 1:21
 John 1:20
 John 1:27
 These comments took place in an interview with WCCO’s Mark Rosen which aired on November 30th, 2014.
 These comments were inspired when re-reading Ed Markquart’s Gospel analysis for John 1:6-8, 19-28 this week at sermonsforseattle.com for Advent 3B.
 Philippians 4:13
 I was reading through an essay this week by Pastor Russell Rathbun entitled “ Give Your Church an Expiration Date” for Renew 52: Ideas to Change the Church put out by Luther Seminary and edited by David Lose. Rathbun’s easy is found on page 87. Rathbun’s essay reminds me of many of the key points that I sought to make within this sermon regarding the nature of failure and success within the church.
First Lesson: Isaiah 40: 1-11
Responsive Reading: Psalm 85: 1-2, 8-13
Second Lesson: 2 Peter 3: 8-15a
Gospel Lesson: Mark 1: 1-8
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me.”- Malachi 3:1
“A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”- Isaiah 40:3
I want to begin this morning by having you picture a couple of people. The people that I describe might even sound like people that you know.
There was once a man who seemingly had it all. This man lived in a home that some might even dare call a “palace.” This man was clean-cut and good-looking. This man wore the finest clothes. His meals consisted of only the finest foods. This man was super-smooth, and he had the people skills of the most successful of politicians. This man had nearly unlimited power. This man seemingly had everything. He was so charismatic that people flocked to him figuring they were better off being seen with him. This man was the George Clooney of his day. This man had an ego, but very few with his success in life don’t have one.
This man had a rival. This man’s rival would have seemed far from his equal. These two men being considered rivals would be like a high school football team calling another team its rival having not lost to the other team for decades. If you put these two men side by side together, this would seemingly convince you that life isn’t fair.
This man’s rival was unkept. If you saw him walking down the street, you’d think he looked like a homeless person. This man lived off the grid, far away from civilization. Whenever people would see him, he always dresses in a funny costume. People would snicker behind his back that he looked like a “fool”. The rival ate bugs, locusts to be in fact. When this man opened his mouth, he was super-awkward. He made people uncomfortable whenever he talked. He was the like the type of guy; people wished would leave them alone at the lunch table. People would call him all sorts of names “nerd” “spas” “geek” “freak”.
These two men played life out like a high school movie with the popular jock versus the anti-social weirdo.
Who are these two men? The first man, the cool dude, is Herod Antipas (Ruler of Galilee). The second man is the loner preacher and baptizer John the Baptist. Herod had everything; John had nothing.
These two men are the key figures in our Gospel lesson for today from Mark the 1st Chapter.
As soon as we hear these two men’s names, we instantly recognize something. We don’t know all that much about Herod Antipas. Herod Antipas was merely a cookie-cutter big shot. Herod Antipas was successful don’t get me wrong, just like the guy who drives the nice car with a nice home and above average wife is successful. Herod’s dad had been a real big shot. Herod’s Dad was so power hungry that he ordered all boys born in the vicinity of the town of Bethlehem under the age of 2 to be put to death fearing a move on his throne. His dad even went by the name “Herod the Great”.
Herod Antipas gave people nothing they hadn’t encountered before. Herod Antipas was merely a ruler that no one cared enough in the end to die.
What we know about John the Baptist is as odd as he may have been; he got people ready for the Messiah (the Son of God) in Christ Jesus. Why did John the Baptist’s message catch on whereas Herod’s didn’t’?
I think there’s something worth noting as you consider John the Baptist’s story. Consider the place where John the Baptist lived in the wilderness. John the Baptist was a preacher on the farthest reaches of Herod’s territory. Think of the type of place in Lake County where there are more moose than people. When you get way to the middle of nowhere, this was the type of remote place where John the Baptist preached.
The wilderness was where people were actually going to encounter God, not inside Herod’s palace. The wilderness causes people to think about the important things in life: sin, forgiveness, heaven, and hell.
Funny thing about John, people traveled in droves to hear John’s message. People traveled from as far away from Jerusalem to receive John’s baptism. There was no fancy music bringing them to hear John. John wasn’t one of those preachers who was a great natural story teller. John wasn’t very good with jokes, nor did he have a popular brand of humor. John’s preaching didn’t sell “unlocking your inner potential”. John could have cared less about applause or compliments within the receiving line.
John was just going to deal with the meat and potato issues of life. John was going to speak the truth of God as it was revealed to him.
John wasn’t going to need any elaborate lighting. It was almost as if some unexplainable spirit was pulling people in John’s direction. John’s Baptism was the means to get people ready for Christ’s coming.
There might be truth to the saying that only when we go where John is, do we see that the Messiah is on his way. God’s intention is to come into the muck of life of his people.
John lived at the Jordan River famous throughout the Old Testament as being the boundary to enter into the Promised Land. When God’s people crossed the Jordan River after forty years in the desert, it served as a reminder to them that God’s promises were about to be fulfilled. The coming of John the Baptist spoke to this spiritual truth more than anything else.
John the Baptist’s tale isn’t necessarily an inspirational story; John didn’t pick himself up by the both straps then achieve all sorts of great success. The story doesn’t end well for John.
Herod eventually wins the rivalry by executing John the Baptist. John the Baptist’s big mouth did him in. He had enough of Herod’s shenanigans. John the Baptist was sickened by Herod’s behavior. Herod had it all his whole life, so now he wanted a much younger wife who had impressed him merely by putting her body on display at his raucous birthday party.
See in the end, Herod Antipas was nothing really but an insecure guy, willing to put a guy like John to death, all for the sake of impressing some woman.
In John the Baptist’s execution something funny made itself known. John went forward to death with confidence because he truly believed that God comes to us when we are at our lowest and our weakest. God had come into the world as a little, baby boy. “I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” -Mark 1:8
Whereas the big, strong, pretty boy Herod faced death differently, Herod as he goes by in years becomes consumed with a crippling unconfidence. After John the Baptist is put to death, Herod becomes convinced that John the Baptist had been raised from the dead in the form of Jesus from Nazareth. Herod got the story wrong at first, but eventually he would get it right.
Luke’s Gospel has Herod involved in the plot to take Jesus’ life. Jesus merely laughed Herod off. Jesus called Herod a “fox”.
An old washed- up ladies' man. Herod’s hair didn’t look quite like it once did. Herod by this time probably had a gut. His clothes were beginning to fade of color. No one was running to be by Herod’s side as he was at his boldest.
Jesus merely responded to Herod’s threats by proclaiming “"Go tell that fox, 'I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.”- Luke 13:32
When Jesus finally appears before Herod’s presence, Herod put up his own arrogance as a shield. Herod clamored for Jesus to do a “magic trick” to entertain him like so many others before. Herod had salvation standing before him, yet Herod’s mind could only be consumed with earthly things.
Jesus merely responded to Herod’s last desperate grasp for attention, with the same silence and grace that he displayed marching to his own cross hours later.
Herod’s story ends like many a high school jock where glory eventually fades. Everybody’s eventually not as good as they once was.
Herod eventually does fall. Past jealousies rear their ugly head over his past quarreling with his younger, even more ambitious nephew Agrippa. Someone younger and wiser came to knock the former king off the throne, where as history marched on, rest assured that there will never be another John the Baptist.
Why does Mark’s Gospel begin with the tale of John the Baptist? The author wanted to make an important point.
God is here in this day. One day, God will be victorious. God will reign in the halls of the never-ending high-school that is life.
God will reign in the lives of the uncool; God will reign in the lives of the poor, the lame, the crippled, and the blind. God will reign in the lives of the drunkard, the divorcee, and the screw-up. God will reign in the lives of the broke and the lonely. God is in places like Ferguson; God is seeking to reach people like Eric Garner’s family as they mourn his death.
God will reign even in situations where people cannot even begin to fathom his presence.
God doesn’t come to us in high society; God comes to us around the margins of society. God doesn’t come to us at awards banquets; God comes to us at 2 AM when we have nowhere else to turn. What John the Baptist’s story reminds us is that there is no place or no person to whom God will not go to or go through to reach others.
I leave you this morning with perhaps John the Baptist’s most famous words. These were the words that he spoke to many a people who traveled out to the wilderness to get baptized by him. “Repent and Believe the Good News!”- Mark 1:5.
The call to repentance speaks to something important. God is going to do new things in a new way. God’s intention is to come into the lives of his people. God himself is going to The Cross and coming back again. Believe that Jesus is coming soon! Amen
 Think the Gophers vs Wisconsin in College Football.
 Mark 1:6
 Mark 1:6
 Mark 1:1-8
 Matthew 2:16
 This point is well made by Karoline Lewis at her commentary on Mark 1:1-8 written at workingpreacher.com and published on December 4th, 2011.
 The tale of John the Baptist’s execution takes place in Matthew 14: 1-12 and Mark 6:14-29
 Matthew 14:1-2
 Luke 13:31
 The encounter between Jesus and Herod Antipas takes place in Luke 23:7-12.
 This wording is inspired by lyrics to the Toby Keith song “As Good As I Once Was”.
 This section is inspired by Rachel Held Evans who wrote a blog post entitled “Blessed are the un-cool” in 2010 over at rachelheldevans.com
First Lesson: Isaiah 64: 1-9
Responsive Reading: Psalm 80: 1-7, 17-19
Second Lesson: 1 Corinthians 1: 3-9
Gospel Lesson: Mark 13: 24-37
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
Let me begin this morning by asking a hypothetical question “What would you do if you heard that the world was going to end in 24 hours?” How would you spend your last twenty-four hours on Earth?
Let me give you a second to think about it.
We could answer this question several different ways. Many of you would spend your last twenty-four hours eating all the foods that your doctors and wives have been telling you not to eat for the sake of your health.
Many of you would spend your last hours saying goodbye to family and friends, saying all that you’ve wanted to say, but never actually said before. Others would spend their last hours trying to get things right with God. The last twenty-four might be time to attempt a dramatic last hour conversion to be sure you’re truly saved. The final twenty-four might be time to confess every sin a person may have ever committed. Your last hours might be time to promise to be the best Christian that you can be.
How would you spend your last hours on Earth?
There is a great quote attributed to Martin Luther regarding what he would have done if he found out that he only had hours before the world was going to end. Luther was alleged to have said “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”
For if Luther did mouth these words they serve as a powerful statement to how Christians often get the end of the world wrong.
Many people look toward the end of the world serves as an opportunity to promote fear, paranoia, and false religions. Luther looked to the End of the World by looking towards the promises of his baptism. Luther grasped the promise that there is a God out there who promises to love us and be with us through even the End of the World itself.
Luther looked to the threat of the world’s ending as fundamentally changing nothing regarding his relationship with the Almighty. The same God bringing forth the End of the World is the same God that died on the Cross for the forgiveness of his sin. It is because of the Cross that the “when” and “how” questions regarding the End of the World should be of relative unimportance for Christians.
Today’s Gospel lesson comes to us from Mark the 13th Chapter. In this passage, Jesus gives details of the Second Coming. This passage points to highlight how one of the oldest rituals within the Christian church is thinking that the End is near. In fact, the first book written in the New Testament in 1st Thessalonians is written to a community of faith that Christ would return before any of their members experienced death.
Our Gospel lesson for today is important because it describes in detail what exactly the Second Coming of Christ will look.
Verses 24-27 read
24 “But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”- Mark 13:24-27
So within this passage the Second Coming of Christ is described as a visible, clear event easily recognized by all people. There will be no rumors or reports about the End of the World; the End will come as subtlety as a massive hurricane. The scriptures in other places describe trumpets as heralding The End. We will know The End loudly and clearly.
Why is this passage important?
Whenever we talk about the End Times, you need to respond to various ideas that people have heard. People talk about the End in some very scary ways such as people vanishing from the face of the Earth without cause. People talk about Satan causing all sorts of special mischief. I think what always needs to be stated is that for the first 1800 years of Church history, Christians whether Catholic or Lutheran or Presbyterian or Methodist were in fairly unanimous agreement about what they believed about the End of the World. We say it simply in the creed that “Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end”. We say these words in the creed because we believe that the End is ultimately a very good thing.
Recent decades have seen a rise in an end-times speculation movement called “date-setting”. Date-setting is where people look for hidden clues within the pages of scripture to try to discern when the End is going to come upon us. Churches like the Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah Witnesses came into being on the basis of their belief that other churches weren’t serious enough about studying the scriptures to prepare for The End.
The absurdity of this all was captured beautifully on an episode of the Simpsons several years ago. The episode centers on Homer Simpson the oafish Father after seeing a parody of the Left Behind movie fears that he won’t be spared in the end. Homer makes a dramatic conversion into a Bible scholar trying to warn his hometown of Springfield that the End of the Earth is coming next week because of an elaborate series of numbers that he finds within the Bible. Homer convinces the whole town of Springfield that he is correct and The End was coming the next week. Springfield and even Homer’s family abandon him when he turns out to be wrong. Homer then finally recalculates the formula, and is right the second time being raptured into God’s presence. Homer is sad though as his family is left behind because they didn’t believe his predictions after having previously been wrong. God eventually relents of the Rapture, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Homer Simpson manages to highlight a bigger issue regarding Churches that tend to obsess about the End Times. End Times speculation finds its basis in the belief that if one can correctly predict The End then they have a “secret” in with God. People believe that if they are in control of their future, then only then are their salvation secure. What I wish to point out today is that End Times obsession is an extremely dangerous foundation for one’s faith due to so many false and contradictory promises that have defined church history. Instead, we are much better off looking towards the clear promises of scripture in Baptism, and in Communion in the forgiveness of sins of which they scriptures point.
The 2nd part of our Gospel lesson deals with the Parable of the Fig Tree. This parable contains an interesting statement by Jesus in verse 32, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the son, but only the Father.”
This passage is noteworthy for a few different reasons. The first reason is that you’ve had countless people claim to know when the world is going to end. What this passage reminds us is that the date for the end is so unknown that Jesus himself claims not to know it.
This statement raises an even deeper question and it goes back to some of our favorite confirmation questions “Could Jesus have a found a rock so big that he couldn’t lift it?” or “Could Jesus see someone walking down the streets and not know the person’s name?”
The answer to all questions like this is “yes” but I need to attach an explanation. When Jesus came to Earth, there were limits that he assumed on the basis of being human. Jesus got thirsty, Jesus got hungry, Jesus would have had to go to the bathroom, Jesus would have gotten cold, he could have gotten sick, Jesus could undergo actual temptation for forty days in the desert, Jesus could draw blood, and Jesus could actually die. If Jesus had never left Heaven then, none of these things would be the case. All these things that Jesus could endure go along with being human.
So Jesus wasn’t so strong that he would have been able to life a house above his head and spin it around three times apart from invoking the power of God to perform miracles.
Alongside this whereas Jesus came with perfect insight into religion on account of being from heaven itself, Jesus didn’t have the type of mind that would have been able to predict the future actions of every person in every place while he was on Earth. So the reason that Jesus wouldn’t have known the exact date of his Second Coming was on the basis of the limits placed upon him upon assuming humanity.
So the best way to understand all this in relation to the Trinity is that Jesus is only a lesser entity to God the Father when he assumes human flesh. When Jesus sits at the right-hand of God then, he is co-equal in power, knowledge, and authority to him.
So it’s important in seeking to understand the End Times the words that Mark gives us on this day. So whenever anyone from a popular book to some random radio preacher to Homer Simpson predicts knowing when the world is going to end, I would be skeptical of their claims as Jesus here on Earth didn’t even know the answer to this question.
Our lesson for today comes to conclusion in verses 33-37 with a warning for us to be alert and watchful before the Second Coming occurs. We do not know when the Master of the house will come whether in the evening, or at midnight; at the cockcrow, or at dawn. Our passage warns us against falling asleep as we ready for The End.
What this passage means essentially sums up the Christian religion. We are a religion of promise. We believe that Jesus Christ is coming again for the sake of our salvation. We believe that Christ will bring the dead back to life.
The closing passages ties the rest of the passage together in how there are two basic approaches to the End Times. The first approach is one of fear/fright. The first approach is highly legalistic seeking to get believers to fear the end so that they are not “left behind”. The second approach to the End is one of comfort and assurance in God’s promises. What Martin Luther would have described as the tree-planting approach to the End.
The reason that we should always be on the look out for the End Times is because it is precisely at the moment of Jesus’ return when the sky is darkened and the heavens shake that we are reminded that when Jesus was nailed to the Cross that God’s love changed all of creation. We look towards the End today by remembering how the End of the World cannot be separated from the reality of the Cross and Resurrection. We look together towards the day when Sin, Death, and the Devil will be destroyed once and for all, so that the final victory will be won for all believers. We should always be on the look out for the End of the World as a source of comfort and assurance to reinforce the other promises of God’s grace continually made known throughout the scriptures.
We come back to our question for today?
What if there were twenty-four hours left to save the world? How would you spend these hours? Would you set out to try to fix the messes of your life, of your relationships, and of your faith? Or would take comfort in the promises of God’s grace? Would you look towards the promise of forgiveness, the promise of Resurrection, and the hope that lies ahead? Would you plant an apple tree? Would you plant this tree as a reminder that there is nothing to fear in regard to what lies ahead because of the love of a God who promises to see us through not just the End of the World but beyond it? Amen
 The following statement of Luther’s is apocryphal. This is similar to another famous statement of Luther’s “It is better to be ruled by a wise Turk, rather than a foolish Christian”. Whether Luther said these things is debatable, but these quotes do express Luther’s approach to the End-Times and politics.
 Matthew 24:31, 1 Thessalonians 4:16
 This episode of The Simpsons “Thank God, It’s Doomsday” is the nineteenth episode of The Simpsons sixteenth season. The episode originally aired on May 8, 2005.
First Lesson: Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24
Responsive Reading: Psalm 100
Second Lesson: Ephesians 1: 15-23
Gospel Lesson: Matthew 25: 31-46
Sheep, Goats and Shorty
By Kent Shamblin
Peace and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
The text for today’s sermon is the gospel reading for this Sunday: Matthew 25:31-46.
You just heard the parable of the sheep and the goats. This was the third of three parables in this section of Matthew in which Jesus spoke of His Second Coming. In the last two Sundays, Pastor Stew preached on the first and second parables. The first parable was about the foolish virgins, the second parable was that of the talents—the servants awaiting the return of their master, and now, today, the parable of the sheep and goats.
All three illustrate the vigilant and expectant attitude of faith.
But first, I want to tell you about Shorty.
I’ve spoken to you before about the small western Oklahoma town where I grew up—Erick--a windy, dusty farming community with an abundance of Protestant churches. In Erick when I was a lad we had one Republican. Yes--my home state has since become the reddest state in the country--but back then Shorty was a rarity.
Shorty had never married. Shorty had almost no friends. But my dad liked to debate politics with Shorty--mainly because dad’s political enthusiasm had worn out his welcome with everyone else--most especially my mother. Since I went along with my dad whenever he went to the main—actually the only—coffee shop in town—where he’d sit with Shorty if he was there--and because grown up talk did not yet bore me, I soon knew Shorty pretty well.
One day my dad and Shorty got to talking religion. Shorty was a true believer. Assembly of God, I think. And he believed in salvation through faith alone. Which dad did as well, however, Shorty also rejected good works. He didn’t need any favors—fortunately, since few if any people were inclined to give him any—and he had zero interest in helping others. Wasn’t necessary for salvation so why put yourself out?
Today’s gospel lesson—the parable of the sheep and goats—could mistakenly be taken to not just contradict Shorty’s view—but to put faith second to good works.
Jesus is addressing the good sheep--saying that whatever they did for one of the least of his people, they’d done for Him. And then he addresses the cursed goats—condemning them to eternal fire—because what they did not do for one of the least of His people, they did not do for Him. And the goats go away to eternal punishment but the righteous sheep to eternal life.
A casual reading of this text could suggest that salvation is the result of good works. The “sheep” acted charitably, giving food, drink, and clothing to the needy. The “goats” showed no charity. This seems to result in salvation for the sheep and damnation for the goats.
However, Scripture does not contradict itself, and the Bible clearly and repeatedly teaches that salvation is by faith through the grace of God and not by good works. In fact, Jesus makes it clear in this parable that the salvation of the “sheep” is not based on their works—their inheritance was theirs “since the creation of the world” (Matthew 25:34), long before they could ever do any good works!
Actually this parable deals not with serving the poor but in receiving the gospel’s messengers. So there is damnation of people who did not actively embrace the messengers of the gospel and were oblivious to how they offended God.
In the context of the surrounding parables, welcoming Christ's messengers probably involves more than only initially embracing the message of the kingdom: it means treating one's fellow servants properly. Unless we "receive" one another in God's household, we in some way reject Christ whose representatives our fellow disciples are.
As Christians we are called to become like Christ unto our neighbors. Good works are a necessity if we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. Good works are not about us. Good works are about those around us.
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. Good works in a Christian’s life are the direct overflow of these traits, and are only acceptable to God because of the relationship that exists between servant and Master, the saved and their Savior, the sheep and their Shepherd.
The core message of the Parable of the Sheep and Goats is that God’s people will love others. Good works will result from our relationship to the Shepherd. Followers of Christ will treat others with kindness, serving them as if they were serving Christ Himself. The ungodly live in the opposite manner. While “goats” can indeed perform acts of kindness and charity, their hearts are not right with God, and their actions are not for the right purpose – to honor and worship God.
Justification is the doctrine that God pardons, accepts, and declares a sinner to be "just" on the basis of Christ's righteousness which results in God's peace, and salvation. Justification is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ apart from all works and merit of the sinner. We do not earn this justification. It is God’s free gift. Justification is a divine act whereby pardon is bestowed on the undeserving.
Lutherans believe that trust in Jesus is necessary for salvation. We understand that such trust is the work of God the Holy Spirit working through the Scriptures and the Sacraments to create such faith. We understand that simple trust in the promises of God, in Jesus Christ, are sufficient to secure an individual's salvation. This gives rise to the Lutheran phrase of "Faith Alone."
Martin Luther struggled with the Gospel as the revelation of the justice of God. He had been taught in the Roman Catholic church that this refers to the punishment of sinners. He knew he was a sinner. He despaired that he could never be right with God. He tried in many ways to get right with God. He slept on hard floors, fasted, went to a monastery, and tried good works. Nothing worked. Luther could not find peace with God.
But after much study of the gospels, he came to the realization that the righteousness or justice of God is given freely by God to those who live by faith.
This is not a punitive justice that condemns sinners. And righteousness is not given because we are righteous or because we fulfill some standard of divine justice. It is given simply because God wants to give it to us. Thus Luther’s justification—the forgiveness of sin—our salvation by faith alone--does not mean that what God demands of us is faith--as if this is something we have to do or achieve--and which God then rewards. It rather means that faith and justification are the work of God—a free gift to we sinners.
Justification by faith—God’s forgiveness—does not mean that God is indifferent to sin. God is holy. Sin is repugnant to holiness. But God forgives. So a Christian is at one and the same time both sinful and justified—saved.
But that’s not all of it. What about Shorty’s belief that good works don’t matter?
The answer, I think, can be found in James, 2nd chapter:
What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, writes James, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Unless faith produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.
I think there is a Godly urge in us to help others. We read about the heroic---such as the health workers volunteering for Ebola care in Africa—and we read about the wealthy givers like Bill Gates helping millions of people and we may think what we can do is pretty puny.
I don’t think so. I believe that the best each of us can manage to do with our particular time—talent—and treasure—is significant. The widow’s mite is just as important as Bill Gates’ billions.
Look at what goes on here at Sychar. This is a caring congregation. We care about each other. We care about people in our community outside Sychar. We care about a church in Belize and a school mission in China.
No matter how short any one of us is in time—in talent—in treasure—we each have something we can give; an encouraging word to someone in despair, help to a neighbor, volunteer work in our communities.
Maybe many of us worry too much about the quality of our faith. That it is not strong enough—not truly faithful enough. We tend to forget that it is Jesus Christ who saves by gracing us with faith alone.
There’s a passage in the 13th chapter of Hebrews, verse eight, that says this well. You’ll recognize the words from a hymn we sing often:
My hope is built on nothing less,
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
On Christ the solid rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand.
First Lesson: Judges 4: 1-7
Responsive Reading: Psalm 123
Second Lesson: 1 Thessalonians 5: 1-11
Gospel Lesson: Matthew 25: 14-30
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
In 1996, a movie called Tin Cup was released. Tin Cup tells the story of Roy “Tin Cup” McAvoy a West Texas driving range Golf pro. Tin Cup had all the golfing ability in the world, yet he could never bring it all together. Tin Cup tried to qualify for the Pro Tour a number of years before, but he fell apart in the end after trying to hit some foolishly risky shots. Tin Cup grows bitter over the years as he watches his biggest rival as a youth rise to the top of Tour by always playing the percentages like a good golfer should do. Tin Cup believes his failure to achieve greatness has nothing to do with himself, but only external forces so as a way to prove this he sets out to the win the US Open. Tin Cup is playing the Golf of his life during US Open week.
There was only one problem the 18th hole; a par-five with a sloped green that trickled balls into the lake that guarded the front of the green. Golfers who played the percentages would lay up, not Tin Cup. He handed landed in the water the previous three days of the tournament. Now Tin Cup comes to the 72nd hole tied for the lead. Tin Cup believes that the previous three days had been a fluke; he believes that he is capable of hitting the most difficult of shots to win the tournament. Final round on the last hole, Tin Cup hits a beautiful ball that looks like it is going to be the shot of a golfer’s dreams. This would be the type of shot that would make Tin Cup’s rags to riches turnaround complete by winning the US Open. The only problem was a slight gust of wind began to blow at the last second causing the ball to roll off the green and down into the water. A different golfer would have taken a drop and played the percentages believing they still had a chance to win, but not Tin Cup.
Tin Cup was going to hit the same shot again from the exact same spot until he got it right. 4th shot, 6th shot, 8th, 10th shot all end up splashing into the water. Tin Cup had been blinded to reality in the emotions of the moment as he was throwing away tens of thousands of dollars with every ball that went into the water. Tin Cup gets down to the final ball in his bag, if he hits one more shot into the water, Tin Cup is disqualified and out thousands of dollars. Tin Cup being as stubborn as ever believes that he is going to get his shot finally right. So being a movie, you can guess what happens next the 12th shot goes into the hole as the crowd goes wild. Tin Cup after the fact realizes that he just blew perhaps the greatest opportunity in his life in spectacular fashion.
What consoles him is that someone points out to him that “No one in five years will remember the winner of this tournament, but people will always remember your “12”. The story of Tin Cup reminds us that the line between success and failure is often very different than we imagine it to be.
Today’s Gospel lesson comes to us from Matthew the 25th Chapter. It’s the second of three parables of judgment from Holy Week. Last week’s parable in the Parable of the Ten Virgins dealt with being ready for the Bride Groom’s arrival at an unexpected hour.
This week’s parable has to do with how one should spend their time while waiting for the Second Coming of Christ. The reason for this parable is the earliest Christians to who Matthew wrote often believed that The End was just around the corner, so, therefore, engaging with the wider world around them wasn’t a priority.
As Jesus tells Today’s parable he reminds people in verse 19 that the Second Coming might not come for a long time, so here is some direction for the short-term.
To illustrate the meaning of the Parable of the Talents, let me begin by providing a brief overview of the story. There will be a Lord/Master going away on a journey (hence it beginnings with a reference to its context being between Christ’s death and Second Coming). On this journey, the man entrusts to three servants his property to take care off and watch over (This would be a reference to the Era of the Church).
One of these three men received five talents, another man received two talents, and the other man received one talent. A talent was the equivalent of three years of a laborer’s wages. Even the man who received one talent would have been given the equivalent of one hundred thousand dollars plus in today’s financial terms to invest.
As people hear the detail of the differing amounts of money given to the three servants, they might wonder why one man receives five times as many talents. I think this detail matters very little to the overall story. In fact, when the first two servants eventually double their initial investments, the Lord gives them precisely the same words of thanks “Well done, good and faithful servant”.
So finally out comes the third servant to whom the Master gave only one talent. The third servant approaches the Master with all sorts of excuses for why he didn’t do anything with his one talent. He expresses his fear of the Master’s judgment so therefore he did nothing but bury his one talent into the ground. The Master is disgusted by his inaction so therefore he banishes him from his presence.
It seems the one problem with the conservative investor had nothing to do with his lack of profits, but rather everything to do with how he saw God. The Master was not as unreasonable as it might seem. The Master merely wonder why Mr. One Talent was so afraid of risk that he didn’t invest his money with bankers at low-risk rather than bury it into the ground.
The big problem is Mr. One Talent couldn’t understand the nature or the character of the Land Owner. The Land Owner wanted to be gracious, yet Mr. One Talent couldn’t shake the image of an ungracious Lord from his head. “I knew you to be a hard man.” The Man with One Talent couldn’t quite understand the nature of his Lord would soon be made known upon the Cross.
Last Sunday after church, I traveled to McGrath, Minnesota between McGregor and Mora on Highway 65, a friend of mine named Elliott was moving to a new call in Southeast Minnesota. Elliott’s last day is today, so Elliott will give his last sermon on this parable. McGrath faces the same challenges as plenty of other rural churches: population is declining, membership is again, and it’s becoming a struggle increasingly to keep doors open. People in McGrath or Silver Bay or anywhere could grieve plenty of things about seemingly having one talent before them, when others have two or even five talents. The problem with just mourning your current situation is that it gets you nowhere. We sometimes fail to consider that we can do just as much good for God’s Kingdom with one talent as with five.
Our parable for today doesn’t deal with the profits of the investors, but rather their faithfulness to God’s process. It seems the key question to reflect upon is the following “what if the first two investors had failed spectacularly?”
What if the first two servants had lost everything that the Master gave to them? Would the master’s response to them have been different? So is this parable concerned with process or results? I would say that the money earned has very little to do with the Parable’s meaning. What the first two servants could grasp is that their Master would take them in, even if they failed. How the worst thing in life is not losing, but rather being afraid to win.
Today’s parable has to deal with the risks that we take and the risks that we ultimately fail to take. Tim Zingale tells the following story. There once was a housing developer in Oklahoma who thought of a new feature for his homes. For an extra $2,500, new buyers would be offered the chance to purchase a tornado-safe room within these new homes. As you can imagine, people were extremely fearful of pending tornados, so he sold ten homes and nine wanted the tornado proof room.
The tenth couple thought of things just a bit different. The tenth couple decided that they would rather spend $2,500 hundred dollars on a hot tub than invest in a tornado proof room. Now you probably have an image in your head of the couple who wanted the hot tub. You probably picture them as young, reckless, and foolish. You would be wrong in this assumption; the couple who wanted the hot tub was well into their seventies. This couple figured they would rather embrace risk than safety when it came to planning every day for the rest of their life.
Perhaps this couple understood the meaning of grace that it everything went horribly wrong, they would still have a God forgiving and embracing them in the midst of their mistakes.
One of Martin Luther’s most famous works On the Freedom of a Christian this was Luther’s treatise on the Christian’s life. Everything you want to know about Christian living from Luther’s perspective takes place within in its pages. What Luther wrote about is that Christian living is not following a series of rules or regulations trying to appease the taskmaster God that the man with one talent feared. The Christian life instead centers on the reality that God is gracious that God is risky in taking sinners into his presence. The Christian life is defined by not a straight line for all to follow, but a series of callings that invite and embrace risk.
In the words of French Theologian Pierre De Chardin, “God obviously has no need of the products of your busy activity since he could give himself everything without you”. So we are not called to risk for the sake of our salvation, we are rather called to risk to build up the Kingdom of God around us.
What does this odd story have to do with our future as a community of faith? Quite a bit actually, it’s a parable that draws upon what type of Church, God wants us to be. It serves as a reminder that we are not supposed to try to copy another Church as a way of emulating its success. Sychar Lutheran Church rather has its unique calling to the broader community and world. The point of our parable is to find own unique ways to bring our talents forth to every person we shall encounter. Like Tin Cup on the 72nd hole, this involves a whole lot of risk.
My Dad’s best friend in College has a daughter named Allison. Allison went to Concordia where she sang in the Concert Choir, she then went to the University of Minnesota where she earned a Masters in Vocal Performance. Allison is a wonderful singer. Allison set out with the dream of trying to make it as a singer. This is a hard nut to crack. She’s had to spend time waiting tables, when it was far from anything close to her dream. Plenty of people could easily tell her that the time, effort, and energy isn’t worth it. The chance to fail is too high, these people might be right on some level. They will inevitability sound like the Man with One Talent only thinking in terms of potential consequences.
The type of people needed to build the Kingdom of God are risk-takers, the Tin Cups, those who dream big, those who throw caution to the wind. The type of people who invite others to church realizing that nothing ventured ultimately leads to nothing gained. The Parable of the Talents is not a tale about money. The parable is rather a tale about our unique callings, gifts, and abilities being used to reach the world. It’s a parable about how these callings might inevitability bring failure and disappointment. This is OK! Because we have a God who forgives failure! This is the Parable of the Talents. Amen!
 Matthew 25:21, 23
 Matthew 25:30
 Matthew 25:27
 Matthew 25:24
 The best commentary on this passage that I found comes from Mockingbird over at mbird.com in a post entitled “Hopelessly Devoted: Matthew Chapter Twenty-Five Verses Fourteen through Thirty”. This was published on July 7th, 2014.
 Mockingbird. “Hopelessly Devoted: Matthew Chapter Twenty-Five Verses Fourteen through Thirty”.
 Zingale, Tim. “Risk?”. Sermon Central.com. November 2005. Web. 10. Nov.2014.
 Zingale, Tim. “Risk?”
 This quote comes from a sermon written by Father Charless Hoffracker entitled “Trust, Not Fear” that is published on Lectionary.com and linked to by Text Week.
First Lesson: Joshua 24: 1-3a, 14-25
Responsive Reading: Psalm 78: 1-7
Second Lesson: 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18
Gospel Lesson: Matthew 25: 1-13
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
This morning I want to tell you the story of a wedding. The wedding was the first one that I had ever done. My friend Ben was getting married. Ben and I had grown up by each other in Lindstrom. Ben was marrying a girl named Thelma. The thing worth noting about Thelma is that she came from Liberia. Ben was supposed to get married at 3 PM on Saturday. I arrive at the church at 2:30 PM only to see the Groom and Groomsmen all leaving for a fast-food run. I try to figure out “Where was Thelma to say no?” I soon find out that Thelma wasn’t in the building at 2:30 for a 3:00 PM wedding.
I’m standing around the church about 3:00 PM, when Thelma comes casually walking in the door. Thelma isn’t wearing her wedding dress, nor is she even in makeup.
I go upstairs to survey the sanctuary; this was an interesting wedding because there were two types of people in the crowd that day. You had Ben’s family and friends from Minnesota who wouldn’t have dared to be late to the 3:00 wedding.
Shortly after 3:00, Thelma’s family and friends many from the Liberian community started making their way into the church. 3:50 comes around when the wedding finally starts. What made this so interesting is that no one involved in the planning thought this to be any bit out of the ordinary.
Many of the Minnesotans expected the wedding to take place according to certain time constraints; where as others believed the wedding was ultimately going to happen when it happens.
Ben and Thelma are still happily married seven years later, and Ben works in the lab down at Saint Luke’s.
Today’s Gospel lesson comes to us from Matthew 25. It’s another story about a wedding, and a story about waiting patiently for its arrival in the story of the five Wise and five Foolish Virgins. Ten Virgins are waiting around for the Bride Groom. The Bride Groom doesn’t show up on time. The five Foolish Virgins couldn’t believe this occurrence. They had only stored enough oil for their lamps to get them through a certain hour. By the time, the Bride Groom arrived there was no oil in their lamps. There were no shopkeepers open to give them their oil. The door to their own wedding feast is shut on them because of their impatience.
What’s the point of this confounding tale regarding the Foolish Virgins impatience?
Let me tell another story with a little bit of background. My Dad was a freshman at the University of Minnesota in 1967 playing for the marching band. In 1967, the Golden Gopher Football is supposed to win the Big Ten Championship in Football. The whole marching band had already been given itineraries for a January 1st game in Pasadena, California for the Rose Bowl. The only problem was Indiana upsets Purdue; so the Gophers don’t end up going to the Rose Bowl. The Gophers have never made it back since that day.
As a family, we’ve always operated by the unwritten rule that if the Gophers make it to the Rose Bowl we’re all going to Pasadena for the game.
2000, My dad talks to a travel agent after the Gophers beat Ohio State, only to see the dream end the next week with a loss against lowly Indiana. Fast forward to 2014; The Gophers are 3-0 in the Big Ten for the first time since 1990. All the Gophers have to do was beat an Illinois team on the road that had only won once within the conference in the last two years being the Gophers though they fumble the ball and lose in the fourth quarter.
This game upset me more than it should! I got done watching it on tape about 8 PM at night. I stewed around the house until I finally could go to bed two hours later. What upset me more than anything is realizing that I have been watching games every Saturday in the fall for thirty some years, and every year is the same again and again, there is never any payoff to my beliefs that someday it will all be worth it.
Frustration in the midst of road blocks is how it often works with our faith. We read the scriptures, and still can’t discern God’s ways. We pray night after night, yet never get the answer that we seemingly desire. We reach out to friends and family with the Christian faith, only to encounter indifference. These occurrences are going to hurt us on some level.
I imagine that it might be like the hurt that the Foolish Virgins were going through as the Bride Groom kept failing to arrive for the wedding. The Foolish Virgins could not make sense of God’s absence.
The reason that Matthew’s gospel includes this parable has to do with an issue that many of the earliest Christians were experiencing. Many Christians were anticipating the Second Coming to occur within their lifetime, yet as year after year with by with seemingly no resolution, it would have been increasingly easy to wonder if their faith were any good. Waiting is difficult because we are often not content with the present. We continually struggle trying to discern God’s presence within our lives. The thing about waiting is that it can often last until deep within the night.
I remember earlier this spring, Mark Vander Tuig who is the National Service Coordinator for LCMC was speaking with our regional group of pastors down in Duluth. Mark said that he receives calls all the time from pastors complaining about what is wrong with their ministry “They’re lonely and isolated” “Money is tight” and “People aren’t coming to church”.
Mark knew this can beat people down, yet what Mark reminded us never to lose sight of is that we have Jesus; we have a Bride Groom that is promising to come! This Bride Groom will not disappoint.
What we need to remember is that waiting is a reality of living in the not yet of God’s presence. Christianity is ultimately a religion of waiting. We wait guided by the promise that our God will eventually make all things new.
What separates the Wise Virgins from the Foolish Virgins? Both groups are sought by the Bride Groom. The judgment does not take place on the basis of their own worthiness or attractiveness. The Wise Virgins have faith that the Bride Groom is indeed coming for them, no matter how long they might have to wait for his arrival. The Wise Virgins harken back to Matthew 7 when Jesus says
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”-Matthew 7:24-27
Pastor Tim Zingale tells the following story. There was a young man who applied for a job as a farm hand. The Farmer asked this man for his qualifications when he said “I can sleep when the wind blows.”
The Farmer didn’t know quite what this means, but the Young Man seemed like a good potential worker for the farm, so he hired him anyway.
A few days later, the farmer was awakened by one of the nastiest storms to pass through his parts in quite some time. The Farmer feared that everything was not taken care off. The Farmer rolls out of bed frantically. The Farmer checks the shutters only to see they were fastened in the farmhouse. He then sees the implements had been placed in the shed, safe from Mother Nature. The barn had been properly locked; even the animals were as dry as could be.
It was finally then that the Farmer grasped the young man’s words “I can sleep when the winds blows”.
The Farm Hand was like the Wise Virgins, prepared for anything that life might throw at him. So as the wind kicked up that night, as the night grew darker and darker, he had no fear. The Farm Hand was able to sleep with the peace of a newborn.
The Farm Hand didn’t know when the storm was coming, yet the Farm Hand was going to be ready. The thing that ultimately separates the Wise and Foolish Virgins boils down to their faith. The Wise Virgins kept their faith even in the midst of the Bride Groom’s absence, where as the Foolish Virgins would rather dig their own graves. The Wise Virgins understood that they did not know the day or the hour. The Wise Virgins were not going to be dismayed thinking in terms of God’s activity being either a now or never proposition.
The story of the Farm Hand is a tale of promise in the midst of adversity it harkens back to the most famous verse in the Bible in John 3:16 “For this is how God so loved the world, that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
I want to close with a story this morning. When I was working down in Lamberton, I did a funeral for a man named Arlo. I would constantly go visit Arlo during the time I was down there. What I will always remember when I asked Arlo “How he was doing?” Arlo’s response would always be the same “terrible”.
It made sense that Arlo would feel this way. He had all sorts of health problems define the last two decades of his life (Muscular Dystrophy, Strokes, Diabetes, and Toe Infections). Arlo’s ability to speak and to move grew increasingly difficult over time. Arlo’s life seemed to be a never ending journey back and forth from the nursing home to the hospital back to home again and again.
I had no doubt that Arlo was “terrible” every time I saw him. What I will always recall is sitting down to plan the funeral with his widow Shirley. Shirley asked if I could tie in Arlo’s life with the story of Job. Job the great man of faith who had lost everything in his children, his possessions, and eventually his health through no failings of his own. All Job wanted to know from God was “Why did he feel so terrible day after day? “What Job’s story indicates is that God’s presence in this world is often so confusing and so mysterious that we think that it constitutes an absence. God eventually tells Job that he couldn’t understand how everything might work together in the future especially that which he couldn’t not see.
The main point of the Book of Job is that God will do what is best, even if it doesn’t make sense to us. How there is ultimately no good answer to the problem of evil, other than to point to the Cross. God did eventually come to Job. Job’s fortunes eventually get restored, yet these events happened on a very different time line from what Job would have wished. The Bride Groom is coming. The wait will soon be worth it!
 Matthew 25:3
 Matthew 25:10
 This very wise insight is given by Karoline Lewis at Working Preacher in a commentary entitled “How to Wait” published on Sunday, November 2nd, 2014.
 Revelation 21:5
 This comes to my go to commentary on the Parables of Jesus in Robert Farar Capon’s Kingdom, Grace, and Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Eerdman’s Publishing. Grand Rapids, MI. 2002. Capon’s commentary on this passage occurs on pages 495-501.
 Zingale, Tim. “I Can sleep When the wind blows”. sermoncentral.com. November 2002. Web. Nov.3.2014
 Zingale, Tim. “I Can sleep When the wind blows”.
 Capon. Robert. Kingdom, Grace, and Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus.pg.495-501
 Matthew 25:13
First Lesson: Revelation 7: 9-17
Responsive Reading: Psalm 34: 1-10, 22
Second Lesson: 1 John 3: 1-3
Gospel Lesson: Matthew 5: 1-12
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
This morning I wish to speak about one of the most controversial issues affecting churches today in the issue of funeral eulogies. For many this seems like a simple issue, they just naturally assume that one’s funeral should be a tribute to their life.
Ultimately though such tributes miss the point with funerals, the problem with funeral eulogies is what they say and what they fail to say. I think back to one of the first funerals I ever did in my ministry. The guy had quite a reputation, he was ornery, he was impatient, he liked to drink, he would never dare to set foot in the church, and he would talk down to his salt of the earth wife. When it was time for this guy’s eulogy boy was a yarn spun. This guy was the best husband, best parent, the calmest and most patient individual; he was the hardest worker, along with having one of the strongest faiths of anyone in the whole town. Yada, yada, yada, blah, blah, blah! Now when I think of the people I’ve known the longest and those that I consider myself the closest to, I’ve never met a person with whom the following attributes are true.
When I think of the loved ones close to me that have passed, I remember my grandpa Al. The thing about Al is if they wanted to define “fiery Italian” in the dictionary, Al would have had his picture in there. The thing about Al is family members would always choose their words and watch their actions carefully around him because he was known to fly off the handle and into a rage at the drop of a hat. Al was not one who people knew for expressing his feelings in a delicate or sensitive manner.
I think back to my first encounter with death in my great-grandma Mabel who as she lay dying in a hospital bed couldn’t stop complaining about her eight-year-old Great-Grandson, who wasn’t wearing a matching pair of socks. Such behavior was in total character for her!
At their funerals, both were recipients of glowing eulogies; you would have thought these people didn’t have one problem in their life.
For I think, funeral eulogies are the byproduct of a deeper spiritual sickness. We often think we need these things to be true, if God is going to accept us.
Let me tell a story about the former pastor at my home church in Lindstrom in Pastor Don. Pastor Don was one time speaking at a funeral for a congregation member who had struggled with alcoholism where Pastor Don dared to within the funeral sermon to acknowledge this gentleman’s disease and struggles. Pastor Don knew what he said was true, the family knew what he said was true, and everyone in the congregation knew what he said was true. The family was outraged in that they couldn’t believe that their loved one's mask could be seen before God and Man. The family took their complaints all the way to the Synod, and Pastor Don stepped into early retirement not long afterwards. All this took place because the family couldn’t believe God would accept someone if he knew the truth of their lives.
The story of Pastor Don highlights one of the biggest problems with eulogies is they often exist solely for the purpose of trying to boost Harry into Heaven.
Too often as Christian people we get the focus of a funeral service all wrong. The purpose of a funeral is not to serve as group therapy for the loved ones of those who passed. We fall into this error when we evaluate the effectiveness of a funeral on the basis of its personal touch.
Funerals are not meant to be about the deceased. Instead, a funeral is meant to be about the Christian hope in the face of the death. The Christian hope is what I want to reflect upon today.
Today is All Saints Sunday where we reflect upon the lives of those who have gone before us in the past year.
As we begin though, let us first ask the question of “What exactly is a Saint?” Many people seem to understand Saints in a similar way to how non-Christian religions such as Buddhism view Saints as super-human characters whose lives are such that they almost seem to be more God-like than human.
When we think of Saints, we think of people like Mother Theresa of Calcutta, who spent her life ministering to the sick, to the poor, and to the dying. Mother Theresa founded hospices for AIDS victims, soup kitchens, orphanages, and schools. Mother Theresa gave everyone alive reason to think of her as a paragon of virtue. Mother Theresa would seem to be the definition of a Saint.
If one were to study the history of the term “Saint” within the Christian Church a few things stand out.
In the first few centuries of the Church, you could only become a Saint by being killed for your faith. You had to either be eaten by Lions or burned at the stake within the Colosseum.
Once the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 313 AD then, the term Sainthood took on a whole new meaning. As Christianity became one of the unifying forces of the empire, Saints became those who had given some great service or contribution to the Church. Examples would include great teachers like Saint Athanasius (who helped define “The Trinity”), extremely generous people like Saint Nicholas who would later inspire a jolly, bearded, red-wearing gift-giving fat man, along with great political leaders like Saint Olaf King of Norway who oversaw the conversion to Christianity of an entire country. Prominent Biblical characters like Saint Mary (Mother of Jesus) or one of the Apostles had an in.
The middle ages saw the standard for Sainthood become quite high; it required an extraordinary contribution to the Christian faith.
Fast forward to the time of Martin Luther; where the Lutheran Reformation would see Martin Luther totally redefine the meaning of Sainthood. Luther said that the total reality of Christian’s life is one of being both fully saint and fully sinner at the same time. For Luther, Sainthood could not be separated from the realities of our temper, our personal failings, and our imperfect Christianity.
We are by nature sinful and unclean. If we say we have no sin then we deceive ourselves and the truth it is not in us. We fail the Christian life, every day and within every hour. Sainthood according to Luther was a declaration by God of the entirety of one’s sins. According to Luther, Saints are the types of people that we actually are, not the type of people that we idolize at funerals. The simplest definition of a Saint is that they are nothing more than a forgiven sinner.
An interesting thing worth noting about how the Bible describes Sainthood in that the scriptures never speak of a Saint being a specific individual.
When the term Saint occurs on 81 separate occasions throughout the scriptures, it is always in the plural form. When the Apostle Paul speaks of Saints, he is always referring to whole congregations and believers throughout all the Earth.
Paul’s clearest definition of Sainthood occurs in Romans the 1st chapter where he writes “All those who are loved by God are called to be Saints”. Paul’s understanding of Sainthood influenced Luther in showcasing that Sainthood is only about God’s action in our life never our own.
The most significant thing worth addressing today about the Biblical definition of Sainthood is when the Saints are referred to within the scriptures that nowhere are Saints describes as dead. The scriptures always describe Saints as living.
The true meaning of “Sainthood” brings us back to the problem with funerals. Today’s first lesson comes to us from Revelation the seventh chapter. Today’s text from Revelation 7 is seeking to give hope to persecuted Christians in the face of death.
Often, Christian people describe death in wrong ways. For example, sometimes people will say that someone’s time was up. People say that death is natural. People might even claim that death is all a part of God’s plan. What we should always remember though is that God never intended for death to come into the world. Death only came after sin corrupted us all. Death is in no way a Christian’s friend. The Apostle Paul describes Death as the last enemy of the Christian that must be destroyed. The only way that the terrible problem of Sin could ever get resolved was through God’s plan B for humanity overcoming sin, death, and evil on the Cross apart from our help. The power of death is why Jesus as he speaks his last words in the Gospel of John cries out “It is finished” at the exact moment-he entered death so he could conquer it.
Funerals are in no way meant to be celebrations of a person’s life. Nor are funerals meant to serve to be opportunities to convince God how wonderful that someone was. Funerals instead serve the purpose of speaking to our living hope as Christian people in the face of death. How when a Christian dies their battle is over. Their strife is no more. Their battle is won. All because through Baptism we became inheritors of all we received through Christ’s death. Only because of Christ Jesus can we speak of death as good in any way, shape, or form.
For the message of our lesson from Revelation 7 is that as terrible as the circumstances surrounding this life and especially the end might seem to be, through God’s actions we have been made clean, holy, and declared to be Saints.
Through God's actions, we have been made clean, holy, and declared to be Saints. Our robes have been washed of the blood of our sins and been made white through the blood shed by the Lamb of God in Jesus Christ.
“We will hunger no more or thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the lamb at the center of our throne will be our shepherd, and he will guide us to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes." Even in death!
For this is the message of our All Saints Sunday. We remember those who have gone before us in the last year.
Let me at this time say a few words about the departing Saints of our congregation.
Toivo Savonen- When I would go visit Bertha and Toivo, to no one’s surprise Bertha was the one that did most of the talking. As Bertha would tell story after story, you could see a twinkle of affinity in his eyes even as he didn’t speak much. The thing about Toivo is that he believed the best of God was experienced in nature. Toivo was one of the main builders of the Superior Hiking Trail along with up-keepers of the Northwoods Ski Club. Rob Stromquist and Jon Matilla are going to put a plaque on an overlook on the Ski Trails in Toivo’s honor. As I think back on Toivo’s life, I think of how many people got to enjoy the fruits of his labor and got to participate in Toivo’s love of nature without even knowing Toivo’s name. As I think of Toivo, I know he would be more than content just knowing that people had enjoyed what he did, whether he got recognition for it or not.
Mervel Hanson- Mervel’s wife Jenny considered it a great privilege to be a caregiver for Mervel in his continuous health struggles after he had been so dedicated to caring for both Lois and Luella. What always struck me about Mervel was how he wanted to put the happiness of those he loved dear above his own. The thing that I will remember most about Mervel is that shortly after Mervel’s adopted son-in-law Ed Judkins received cancer his diagnosis, I remember visiting with Mervel when he asked why he couldn’t be the one to go instead. This type of selflessness to those he held dear is what I will remember most about Mervel.
Gary Gubrud- Gary will be remembered for his relationships to his family. His grandkids would always go see him after school. His brother Curt took him in after he was unable to take care of himself on his own. Gary will be remembered for his good times meeting the guys for coffee down at the Northwoods Café.
Jim Horton- will be remembered for a life of service. Jim was a graduate of west point and a career military man, former Silver Bay City Council member and Sychar’s former president.
Ida Barnes- we will remember Ida for her own unique sense of style. We will remember Ida for her contributions to the Mission Circle for so many years. I never got to know Ida due to her Alzheimer’s. Yet as I reflect on Alzheimer’s, I take comfort in the fact that our faith is not dependent on our intellect or state of mind. The same faith is sustained in Alzheimer’s that is given in Baptism, faith that exists outside of us, in spite of us.
Mike Bromaghim- how in spite of his dedication to his children (Matt and Andi); he could not overcome the dark forces that exist in this world that we often cannot name. As we reflect on Mike’s life, we remember that even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we shall fear no evil. We are promised that even as this life takes us to some scary places, we do not walk alone, the shepherd walks right alongside side us; guiding us and ultimately seeks to usher us into his presence.
Roy Ranum- We will remember Roy Ranum for his lack of opinions! What I will remember about Roy was his good heart. When I would stop out to see him, Roy would want to give me a Root Beer nearly every ten minutes, no matter how many times I said I didn’t want it. Roy would offer to split prize-money for crosswords puzzles with me if I just gave him a little bit of help with one word.
Dorothy Midbrod- I will remember Dorothy for her laugh. I will remember Dorothy for her telling people that if she were just fifty years younger, she would be putting the moves on the Lutheran Minister in town. I recall during her service reading stories written by each of her children that contained some sort of humorous antidote about their Mom.
Nancy Mismash- when people think of Sychar they would think of Nancy. We will remember Nancy for her love of music from the hand bells to the choirs she sang in and directed to her time in the kitchen along with her service on so many boards throughout the church. Nancy will be remembered for her tremendous love of the outdoors especially for her cross-country skiing ability.
I was looking over at Nancy’s obit this week, I remember the picture that they took was for her last time cleaning up the highway. I was working on the crew that day with Fred and Nancy. What I’ll remember was Nancy at eighty some years climbing over edges trying to pick up pieces of trash. Fred would yell at her not to do it, yet Nancy was going to do things her way as long as she possibly could. Nancy would never hesitate to tell even a new minister exactly what she thought. We will remember Nancy for being blessed in love on two separate occasions from her first husband and the father of her children Don to her second husband of thirty some years Fred.
We remember them as Sheep from God’s own flock, sinners of God’s own redeeming, and Saints as inheritors of salvation won for them by Christ Jesus, Our Lord. Amen
 This sermon was heavily influenced by a mentor of mine in Dr. Meg Madson. Meg wrote an article entitled “The Trouble with Funerals” for Fall 2008 Edition of the Lutheran Hedgehog. Meg’s article can be found on the Cross Alone Website at www.crossalone.us. I’m expanding on many of Meg’s sentiments.
 This idea frequently referred to as the two simuls is a common theme within Luther’s theology. Luther perhaps most clearly defines this in his 1535 commentary on Galatians.
 1 John 1:8
 Romans 1:7
 Revelation 7:9-17
 I decided to skip a background history on Revelation but the overall point is that it is a letter written to several persecuted churches under the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian in modern day Turkey at the end of the 1st century.
 Madson, Meg. “The Trouble with Funerals”
 Genesis 3
 1st Corinthians 15:26
 The majority of this language is adopted from Madson.
 John 19:30
 Madson, Meg. “The Trouble with Funerals”.
 Romans 6:5
 Revelation 7:16
 Revelation 7:17
 I preached at Mike’s funeral on Psalm 23:4.
 This comes from a funeral prayer in The Lutheran Book of Worship.
Pastor Stew Carlson
These are all Sunday sermon's written by Pastor Stew.