First Lesson: 1 Samuel 3: 1-10 (11-20)
Responsive Reading: Psalm 139: 1-6, 13-18
Second Lesson: 1 Corinthians 6: 12-20
Gospel Lesson: John 1: 43-51
I want to tell you the story of your Baptism. Your Baptism took place on January 18th, 2015. It was an atypical North Shore winter with hardly any snow on the ground. You were surrounded by people that you know well: Mom, Dad, Uncle Joe, Grandma, and Grandpa.
You were also surrounded by people that you didn’t know very well before this day in the people of Sychar Lutheran Church. You see these people played a huge role in your Baptism.
They made a promise to walk alongside you, and support your Mom and Dad as you grew in years and your faith.
Many of the people that were at your Baptism are no longer with us. Don’t feel sad for them though! For they have undergone a different type of Baptism. In the words of the Apostle Paul, they were baptized into the death of Christ Jesus (Romans 6:4). In this Baptism, they received all the benefits of Christ’s resurrection unto themselves (Romans 6:5). In this Baptism, they received eternal life.
I am writing you this letter, Kinley, because many Christians misunderstand Baptism. Many Christians tend to view Baptism as a public exhibition as to your faith’s effectiveness. Baptism's effectiveness never centers though on anything that we do. You see your Baptism doesn’t promise you, a life without problems. Instead, what your Baptism promises you is that God will remain your God, and you will remain his child even in the midst of these problems. These promises are what we call “grace.”
Kinley, I don’t know what direction life will take you. I do know of a story that tells of your Baptism’s meaning. On the day of your Baptism, we read a passage from the scriptures about a child who we know from the time that he was just an infant like you in Samuel. On the day of your Baptism, we read from the story of Samuel and Eli.
The story starts out with Eli being a sad, sad man. Eli had a couple of sons named Phineas and Hopni, who were naughty kids. Eli’s sons’ bad behavior was so extreme that the Lord issued a curse that neither of Eli’s sons is around for his old age. Eli didn’t want the story to end this way.
Around this time, there lived a woman named Hannah. Hannah believed that it would be impossible for her to have any children. Hannah was desperate, so she went to see Eli. Eli, in spite of his sons was held in high regard. Eli was a judge, a ruler in one of Israel’s twelve tribes like Samson or Gideon, who you learned about in Sunday school. Hannah is so desperate for a child that she promises to dedicate her child to God if the Lord provides. After Eli gives Hannah a blessing; baby Samuel would be born. Hannah chooses to honor God by entrusting Samuel to Eli’s care.
You see Eli had been watching over Samuel’s life from before he was even born. No, differently than how God was watching over the people of Sychar as they formed as a community of faith in the years before your Mom and Dad even met. Samuel was left in Eli’s care; just like how the whole congregation assumed responsibility for your care on the day of your baptism.
Samuel’s life certainly took its twists and turns. Samuel saw his homeland enslaved by the Philistines; then Samuel rose up to lead Israel to victory against the most insurmountable of odds. Samuel shed plenty of tears in his life, Samuel experienced plenty of disappointment, and Samuel saw both wealth and poverty. Samuel saw bloodshed and peace. Samuel’s most famous life achievement was appointing a man named Saul to be the first King of Israel. Like you will, Samuel saw plenty of events where he couldn’t quite understand God’s role in it all.
This brings us back to the story of your Baptism and how people often get it wrong. You see too many people associate Baptism’s effectiveness with our response to it. Baptism is not a test given, but rather a promise extended. The best way, to understand Baptism, is to think of it as a “gift”. For what God does in Baptism is declare “You” Kinley to be his child. You don’t remember the day of your salvation, because you participated about as in it as the day you were “born”. This is why Jesus tells Nicodemus that one must be “born-again” of both water and spirit.
We often can’t make sense of this. I’ve heard people claim that “Baptism” is too generous an event, that Baptism is too easy for “sinners.” The thing about Baptism is you can never be too generous with grace. Baptism works just like when you were an infant, you would lay in your crib all day, dependent on Mom and Dad meeting all your external needs from food to sanitation. This is just like how God acts within Baptism. We have no reason to have to protect the Lord from his own generosity. We merely give thanks for God’s goodness.
Kinley, as you go through life my wish, is that you remember the promises given unto you on the day of your baptism. The day that your sins were washed away (Acts 22:16, Titus 3:5-7), the day that you were incorporated into the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:13), and the day that you were given a new garment to wear to remind you that from this day forth you will be clothed in Christ’s righteousness (Gal 3:26-27). What makes this such good news to hear is all these things that the Scriptures associate with Baptism are God’s doing never our own.
Kinley as you go forward in life. I wish for you to cling to the promises given to you in Baptism when times get tough. I pray that you draw comfort and peace from your Baptism being a hopeful event. Baptism says that your hope in this life shall come forth from the forgiveness given by a gracious God on this day.
In the Grip of Grace,
 The reading for this Sunday was 1 Samuel 3:1-20.
 This is basically the story of the Book of 1st Samuel which tells the story of Samuel from conception to the death of King Saul.
 Romans 3:24
 Further discussion of John 3 takes place in the 3-23-2014 sermon entitled “Born Againsm” that can be found on the Sychar website.
First Lesson: Isaiah 60: 1-6
Responsive Reading: Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-14
Second Lesson: Ephesians 3: 1-12
Gospel Lesson: Matthew 2: 1-12
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
Today’s Gospel lesson tells us the story of the Wise Men. We know a little bit about the Wise Men, we know they came from the east, we know they brought three gifts, and we know they came to worship the Christ child. We don’t know much about the Wise Men beyond this. This morning, I wish to tell the Wise Men’s story.
One night some men were studying the stars like these men did every night. These men were known as “Magi”. Magi came from Persia where today Iran sits. You see several hundred years before the Birth of Christ; a man was born named Zoroaster. Zoroaster was the founder of a religion called Zoroastrianism known as the “Religion of the Stars”. Zoroaster’s followers would look to the sky every night as a way of trying to interpret the relationship between the movement of the stars and human events. We might know what these men do today as Astrologers. I don’t know what you think of horoscope readings. To understand the Magi’s story, you need to know that Astrology was a highly respected science in the days that Jesus lived. Hence, this was why people would call the Magi “The Wise Men.”
One night while gazing at the stars, the Wise Men saw something like they had never seen before. The Wise Men weren’t quite sure what to make of it at first. They didn’t know if it was an unusual alignment of the planets, whether it was a comet, or even whether it was a nova or an exploding star. This star rose, unlike anything the Wise Men had ever seen before in their lives. From where the Wise Men came, there was a significant belief about a rising star. Rising stars were thought to predict the birth of a ruler. The Wise Men witnessed the most important astrological sign of their life, so they decided to follow it for a thousand miles all the way to Jerusalem.
Once the Wise Men arrive at Jerusalem, they arrive at the palace of King Herod looking for answers. Considering these men’s esteemed role as scientists, Herod welcomes them into his presence wishing to find out details about the star they were following.
When Herod hears a child has been born who the Wise Men deem “The King of the Jews” he searches out answers. Herod had a great fright come over him upon hearing about the Messiah’s birth. Herod feared for his own throne. Herod did not think of the Messiah’s birth in religious terms.
Herod gathers together all the great religious scholars in the Chief Priests and Teachers of Jerusalem to find out where this child may have been born.
The scholars knew that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. The scholars knew the words of the Book of Micah written several hundred years before
“But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”- Micah 5:2-4
So Herod sent the Wise Men off to Bethlehem. Herod wishes for them to return to his presence, claiming to want also to worship the child. Herod's heart burns with jealously in wishing the child death.
As the Wise Men left Jerusalem, they still had no clue though how they were going to find this child within Bethlehem. Their despair quickly changes though when what appeared to be the same star they had seen months before appeared over them again. The Wise Men were “overwhelmed with joy”- Matthew 2:10. This star led the Wise Men to a house in Bethlehem where the child they were looking for laid.
Upon stepping foot, into the house, The Wise Men saw the child with his mother, Mary. The Wise Men’s reaction to this King of the Jews was interesting though. The Wise Men bowed down before him. What made this so interesting is that the Wise Men shouldn’t have cared about a King of the Jews. The Wise Men weren’t Jews themselves; this child wasn’t supposed to be born to be their king. The Wise Men become overwhelmed with reverence bowing down to this child as a sign of reverence and respect. A conviction that can't really be explained came upon the Wise Men at this moment that they were standing in the presence of a holy one of God.
The Wise Men then present Mary and Joseph with gifts. These weren’t going to be the standard gifts though of sheep and cattle. The Wise Men presented Mary and Joseph with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
I suppose I should tell you a bit about these gifts and how they figure in our story.
The first gift was gold. Gold was the gift that you gave to a King. You might wonder what ever happened to the gold since you never hear about Mary and Joseph being rich. You see Joseph shortly after the Wise Men’s visit has a dream. The dream says that he needs to take his family out of Bethlehem and fast. King Herod is going to be looking for his child to eliminate any potential threats to the throne. Joseph is going to take his family to the land of Egypt. The trip to Egypt though was going to be expensive. Imagine staying for a year in a country with no place to stay, no work, and a young child. The gold that the Wise Men gave was going to keep this child safe in the year ahead.
The second gift given was frankincense. Frankincense was what burned during temple worship as they were offering prayers up to the Lord.
The final gift was the gift of myrrh. Myrrh was an embalming oil used for funerals and cremations till about the 15th century. The Wise Men give this child myrrh to point to how his kingship would not be made known in life, but rather in death. The King was going to die, and then three days later rise again.
What else can we say about the Wise Men? We often assume that there were only three of them because of the three gifts. We really don’t know how many Wise Men were present; the traditions of their homeland often believe that there may have been up to twelve Wise Men that journeyed to see the Christ child.
We also often talk about the Wise Men as Kings as sang in a famous song. The reason people believe this is because the pages of the Old Testament speak of “all kings fall down before him”-Psalm 72:11. Magi within Persia weren’t kings, but more so advisors to kings.
We also don’t know quite how long after Jesus’ birth that the Wise Men’s visit took place. Scholars debate this from being anywhere from a few months to a few years. King Herod would soon instruct that all boys under the age of two be put to death in Bethlehem. Herod though with his unchecked power probably wasn’t the most likely to show great restraint in whom he killed.
So what happens after the Wise Men leave Bethlehem? Christians from all over Asia began to claim the Wise Men as their own. Pakistan, Mongolia, China, Russia, Arabia all had their Christian communities claim to be descendants of the Wise Men. When famous benevolent kings rose up within these lands; they were thought to be descendants of the Wise Men. Rumors like this can only lead one to conclude that as the Wise Men journeyed back home on a different route from which they came, they reached people with the birth of the Christ-child. The Wise Men became some of the church’s first evangelists. In the year 1270, the explorer Marco Polo claimed to have seen the Wise Men’s bodies lying in the grave, uncorrupted on a visit to their homeland to the city of Tehran.
Other parts of the Christian Church though forgot the story about the Magi. Christians and Astrologists became bitter enemies from the Church’s earliest days. As Christianity spread throughout the empire, Astrologists like the Magi became increasingly denounced as quacks. Perhaps that is why in decades after their visit they were no longer known as “Magi” but rather “Wise Men” or “Kings”.
The Magi were strange men, with strange beliefs, with a strange way of life. The Christ child brought them into his presence. This child was going to bring in all sorts of people no matter how others may have regarded it.
When Matthew wrote his gospel telling the Wise Men’s story, it would be deemed “The Jewish Gospel”. Matthew wrote his Gospel to hardline Jews whose whole way of being in the Roman Empire was their adherence to tradition. The Wise Men stood far outside this tradition. Matthew tells this story to illustrate how the Wise Men would usher in a new age of religion, a religion that would be open to all comers regardless of background or levels of brokenness.
The thing about the story of the Wise Men is we often get it wrong by making it about how they went forth to Bethlehem to show praise for the Christ-child. Instead the story is really about God bringing forth these unique men to see the picture of their salvation.
This is the story of the Wise Men. Amen
 This section of the story was inspired by Markquart, Edward. “The Wise Men: Gospel Analysis”. Life of Christ Course. Sermons from Seattle. Web. Jan.5.2015
 This bit of knowledge was discovered by researcher Anders Hultgard in his 1998 writing “The Magi and the Star: the Persian background in texts and iconography”. This was discovered on the Wikipedia article on the Biblical Magi. “Biblical Magi”. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 4. Jan.2015. Web. Jan.4.2015.
 Matthew 2:1-2
 Matthew 2:3
 Matthew 2:4
 Matthew 2:8
 Matthew 2:10
 Matthew 2:13-18
 This is one of several traditions as to what happened with the Wise Men receiving the gift of gold. I use this story because it makes the most sense.
 This tradition has rose up in Syraic Churches which tend to actually bestow upon the Wise Men “Persian Names”.
 There is no such thing as a uniform tradition about the Wise Men. It’s worth nothing that the Wise Men play a prominent role in several different Asian Christian Traditions. “Biblical Magi”. Wikipedia
 Matthew 2:12
 This account from the journals of Marco Polo is also found in the Wikipedia article on the Magi.
 This background on the Wise Men’s origins in connection to Matthew’s Gospel was inspired by Bowen, Dr. Gilbert W. “Transcending the Tribe”. Lectionary.Org. Web. Jan.5.2015
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.
Pastor Stew Carlson
These are all Sunday sermon's written by Pastor Stew.