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Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Stories of Our Lives

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, December 30, 2012.  The Bible verses are Luke 2:21-40.

We’ve been looking at the Christmas story in our sermons this month. We’ve talked about John the Baptist and Joseph and Mary. We even talked a little bit about the shepherds and the wise men.

Most of the time, that’s where we leave the Christmas story. But the story does not end there. It goes on with the verses we read this morning.

Look at what happens here. Joseph and Mary take the eight-day-old Jesus to the temple to be circumcised, in accordance with Jewish law. They make a sacrifice, also in accordance with Jewish law. Nothing unusual about that. That’s what Jewish parents were supposed to do.

Then, we hear about two elderly people. One was a priest, Simeon, and the other was a prophet, Anna.

Each of them was in the temple the day Jesus was circumcised. Simeon was the priest who was going to do the circumcision. Anna was just there, as she apparently always was.

Somehow, both of them knew exactly who Jesus was. Both of them told Mary and Joseph about it. Anna is not quoted, but Simeon is. Let’s listen again to Simeon’s words:
This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul, too.Now, Joseph and Mary already had talked with angels. They knew Jesus was going to be special and was blessed by God. Still, these words must have been a little uncomfortable to hear. Their child was going to cause the falling of many in Israel? He was to be a sign that would be spoken against? A sword would pierce their own souls, too? What could all that mean?

I suspect they thought long and hard about all this stuff. We’ve already been told that Mary "pondered these things in her heart," but I suspect Joseph did, too. These were some strange goings-on. They’d been told some things, but in some ways, everything was being said in riddles. The things they were told seem to have raised more questions than answers.

Maybe that’s why we tend to drop the Christmas story after the shepherds and wise men go home. We tend to like stories that have nice, neat, happy endings. We don’t like stories that are kind of disturbing and raise more questions than answers.
That’s how life usually works, though, is it? Look at your own life. Look at the stories that have taken place in your life. How many of them came to a nice, neat ending? Probably not very many. A lot of the stories that take place in our lives have endings that are kind of messy. Some of them never really do come to an end, they just sort of stop. Sometimes we have stories that we think have ended—and in fact, may very much hope have ended—only to find out that there’s more to the story yet.

A lot of the stories in our lives are kind of disturbing, and they raise questions. And one of the big questions they raise is "why?" Why do things happen the way they do?

We tend to ask that the most in cases of sadness and tragedy. Why did our loved one die in an accident? Why did I or my loved one get cancer? Why did I lose my job? Why did a relationship fall apart? Why are we having so many problems within our family? Why, why, why? That question keeps coming up as we look at our lives.

We wish there was an easy answer for it. If there was, maybe we’d be able to finish some of these stories and bring them to a happy ending. If not, then at least we’d be better able to deal with the fact that they’re not finished. If only we knew why things are the way they are, maybe we could handle the fact that they are that way.

Mary and Joseph must have asked why many times. I mean, I’m sure they thought it was a great honor to be parents of the Messiah and all that, but there were probably also times when they asked, "Why us? Why are we the ones who have to do this? Why could we not just have normal kids and live a normal life like everyone else? And God, if you had to choose us, why could you not have given us more help? Why did you not give us more money, so we could raise Jesus better? Why do you not give us some guidance, so we could feel like we know what we’re doing? And this stuff Simeon and Anna told us, about Jesus being a sign to be spoken against, and about a sword piercing our souls, why don’t you tell us what that means? We thought the coming of the Savior was going to be a good thing. Why do they make it sound like something so terrible? Why, God? Why?"

"Why" is the great question of the Bible. It pops up over and over again. The whole story of Job is about Job asking why such bad things have happened to him. Much of the story of the book of Ecclesiastes is about asking why we’re here, what the meaning of life is. Even Jesus, in the crucifixion when he was on the cross, asked God why: why have you forsaken me?

The thing is that "why" is the one question we never seem to get an answer to. Sometimes we get hints. Sometimes we may be able to look back at something that happened and say, "Oh, I see now. I see why that happened the way it did." But sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we never get to know why.

We don’t know if Mary and Joseph ever found out why, at least while they were on earth. Joseph pretty much drops out of the story after this scene. There’s one more bit in Luke where he’s referenced, the time when Jesus was twelve and stayed behind at the temple and his parents looked for him, but that’s it. Mary shows up every once in a while, but only in passing.

I wonder if anything ever happened where they said, "Oh, okay. We get it now. Now our story makes sense. That’s why God chose us. That’s why we’re the ones who are supposed to raise the Savior." I wonder if there was ever a time where they saw what Jesus was doing in his ministry and said, "Oh, so that’s what Simeon meant when he said Jesus was a sign to be spoken against." We don’t know, of course. We never will, while we’re on this earth.

I suspect not, though. Again, there may have been hints. There may have been times when they had an inkling, when the story of their lives started to make sense to them. But I doubt if the "why" questions they had were ever answered to their satisfaction.

I doubt if they’ll ever be answered to our satisfaction, either, while we’re on earth. We’ve had a lot of tough stories in this parish this year. I don’t know why we’ve had so many people from this parish pass away in 2012. I don’t know why we’ve had so many people from this parish hospitalized. I don’t know why we’ve had so many people in this parish have to go through the things they’ve gone through this past year. I wish I could tell you. I wish I had a nice, easy answer to give you. But I don’t. I just don’t know.

But you know, there’s another way to look at these "why" questions. I also don’t know why any of us was born in the first place. I don’t know why we’re allowed to live in this great country. I don’t know why we’re allowed to live in this beautiful area of the country. I don’t know why we’re able to live in buildings with lights and heat and running water when many people in the world don’t. Those are positive aspects of the stories of our lives, and I don’t have answers for them, either.

As we live the stories of our lives, "why" is a natural question to ask. I don’t think God holds it against anyone when we ask God why. I don’t think God held it against Mary and Joseph. I don’t think God held it against Job or the author of Ecclesiastes. I don’t think God holds it against us, either. But that does not mean God will give us an answer.

So maybe what we need to do is refocus the question. Instead of asking why, maybe we should ask a different question: what? As in, what can we do about it?

Maybe we don’t understand why the people around us lose loved ones, or get sick, or go into the hospital, but what can we do about it? What can we do to console them, or to make them feel better, or to take care of things for them? Maybe we don’t understand why someone lost their job or is having financial trouble, but what can we do about it? How can we help them get through this tough time and still get their bills paid and have enough to eat? Maybe we don’t understand why a relationship fell apart, but what can we do about it? How can we restore those relationships, whether between families or between friends and neighbors?

I don’t mean to suggest that this is an easy question, either. Figuring out what to do about it can be hard. But it is a question that has answers. And we can find those answers, if we’re determined to find them, we work together to find them, and we ask God for help in finding them.

I doubt that Mary and Joseph ever really understood why they were chosen to be Jesus’ parents. But they did something about it. They followed the Jewish laws as best they could, and they raised Jesus in the best way they knew how. As our reading says, Jesus grew, he became strong, and he was filled with wisdom. I think we’d all agree that Mary and Joseph must have done a pretty good job.

It’s okay to ask "why". God understands. The stories of our lives take lots of twists and turns, and sometimes asking why is the only way we can come to terms with what’s happened. After we’ve asked "why", though, we need to go on and ask "What can we do about it?" Because that’s the only way we can bring our stories to a happy ending.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Celebrating Christmas

The message given in the Christmas Eve services in the Wheatland Parish December 24, 2012.

This is, of course, Christmas Eve. Tomorrow will be Christmas Day. So which are you, a Christmas Eve person or a Christmas Day person?

It’s funny the way these traditions evolve. Wanda’s family is a Christmas Eve family. That was their big deal, when they’d open all the presents and everything. My family is a Christmas Day family. We’d open the presents on Christmas morning because, after all, Santa didn’t come until we were all in bed on Christmas Eve.

What’s interesting to think about, at least to me, is that in the early Christian church, there were neither Christmas Eve families nor Christmas Day families. Christmas was not celebrated at all in the early church.

It’s hard for us to imagine the Christian church without Christmas. It was a long time, though, before we recognized Christmas as a holiday. The big deal in the early Christian church was Easter, the day when Jesus was raised from the dead.

It’s easy to see why. After all, the resurrection was the ultimate proof of who Jesus was. Without that, Jesus would just be a man—a good man, perhaps, a wise man, maybe, but still just a man. As for Jesus’ birth, well, everybody knew he had to have been born somewhere, sometime, so it was not considered that important.

In fact, only two of the gospels even tell the story of Jesus’ birth, and they don’t tell it the same way. In Matthew, the focus is on the angel, Joseph, the wise men, and King Herod. In Luke, the focus is on the angel Gabriel, Mary, and the shepherds. The traditional Christmas story we tell is a combination of those two gospels. In the gospels of Mark and John we don’t see Jesus until he’s an adult and starting his ministry.

Eventually, though, people started to feel like something was being left out of Christian celebrations. It seemed like, if they were going to celebrate the end of Jesus’ earthly life, they should also celebrate the beginning of his earthly life. The resurrection was an incredible gift, proof of our chance for salvation, but Jesus’ life on earth was also an incredible gift. They thought there should be a celebration for that, too.

And so, in the fourth century we started celebrating Christmas. It was a matter of some controversy. The Bible really does not give any significant clues as to when the actual date of Jesus’ birth might be. It was a fourth century pope who decided Christmas was be celebrated on December 25. The date was chosen because there was a pagan festival called Saturnalia that took place at about that time.

Choosing that day had a couple of effects. It made it easier for the holiday to gain popular acceptance, because it was piggy-backing on an existing holiday. On the other hand, it made it hard to get people to stop thinking of Christmas as a secular holiday and instead emphasize the religious aspects. Eventually, there got to be lots of partying and not much worship.

Because of that, by the 1600s a lot of religious leaders actually opposed celebrating Christmas. The first Puritans in the United States actually passed a law banning the celebration of Christmas. Then, after the American Revolution, most English traditions fell out of favor, including Christmas. In fact, Christmas was not recognized as a national holiday until 1870,

The point is that, from the time it started, Christmas was both a religious holiday and a secular holiday. It still is. We celebrate the birth of Jesus, but most of us still tell our kids about Santa Claus. We have nativity scenes with sheep and camels and donkeys, but we also hear about Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer. We talk about the birth of Jesus as the greatest Christmas gift, but we also love to go to the Christmas sales and buy gifts for others.

And maybe that’s okay. In fact, maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be. I mean, think of Jesus’ life. Jesus did not set himself apart from the world. Jesus was part of the world. Jesus did not get mad at people for having parties. In fact, Jesus sometimes went to the dinner parties and the wedding parties and the other parties people had.

Now, that does not mean that Jesus did not care what people did. He certainly did care. He said it pretty simply. He said we should love God and love other people.

What does that mean? It means we should reach out to others. It means we should not take advantage of anyone, but instead treat people honestly and fairly. It means we should go the extra mile to help each other. It means we should give as much as we can to help others.

It also means, though, that we should enjoy our lives on earth. God wants us to enjoy our lives on earth. That’s why God created the world with all the beauty it has. That’s why God created the world with all the wonderful things it has. God wants us to enjoy our lives on earth. It’s just that God wants us to enjoy our lives in ways that will help others enjoy their lives, too. God wants us to enjoy our lives in ways that will benefit everyone else. God wants us to enjoy helping others, to feel the joy that comes from making others’ lives easier and better.

See, what’s most important is not what we do to celebrate Christmas. What’s important is what’s in our hearts and how that shows in our lives. What’s important is not that we celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25. What’s important is that we have God’s Holy Spirit in our hearts and in our lives the other three hundred sixty-four days of the year.

So, if you celebrate some of the secular Christmas traditions, that’s okay. It’s okay if you like to watch Frosty or the Grinch on TV. It’s okay if you want to see the Hallmark Channel save Christmas for the thirtieth time. It’s okay to have a party and give gifts to celebrate Christmas. None of those things hurt anybody. They add enjoyment to our lives and the lives of others.

Just make sure that you also take some time to do what we’re doing here tonight. Make sure you remember that we don’t worship Frosty and no one ever got their salvation from believing in Santa Claus. We worship God, and we get our salvation from believing in Jesus Christ. If we love God and love others, and if our lives show that we do, then we will be able to enjoy our lives on earth. And then Christmas truly will be a day to celebrate.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Defending Christmas

This blog post is a tradition, having appeared every year at about this time since all the way back in 2009 at my prior blog.

            We are just over a week away from Christmas Day.  Among other things, that means it’s the time of year for pastors to complain about the secularization of Christmas.

            There are secular aspects to Christmas, of course.  There always have been.  Some of them are fine.  There’s nothing particularly wrong with giving and receiving presents, as long as you don’t go overboard about it.  There’s nothing wrong with decorating trees and putting up Christmas lights.  In fact, I enjoy looking at them.   

The reason we celebrate Christmas on December 25 is not because Jesus was actually born on that date—we don’t know the actual day on which Jesus was born, although there are various theories.  The reason we celebrate Christmas on December 25 is that it was a time when there were already secular celebrations at that time, centering on the winter solstice.  It might be more accurate, then, to say that followers of Jesus have been trying to Christianize a secular holiday rather than the other way around.

            Therefore, I don’t think Christians need to feel like they’re trying to defend Jesus in some sort of war on Christmas.  In fact, the idea of Christians fighting a war over the birth of the Prince of Peace seems like a contradiction in terms.  All we need to do, as Christians, is make clear what it is that we are celebrating, regardless of what anyone else is doing.

            Let others wish us a “happy holiday”; we can still wish them a merry Christmas.  If some don’t want a nativity scene at the courthouse, we can still put one in our front yard.  More than three-fourths of Americans claim to be Christians.  If three-fourths of the houses in this country had nativity scenes in their yards, there’d be no need for one on public property.  In fact, we’d probably make more of an impact that way.

            We don’t need to get mad at people who want to secularize Christmas.  What we need to do is calmly, persistently, and lovingly make sure people know that, as Christians, we are celebrating the birth of Christ.  Then, in that same way, we need to make sure people know who Jesus is, why we worship him, and why others should worship him, too.  If we do that, our Lord and Savior will do the rest.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Get Up and Go

This is the sermon given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, December 23, 2012.  The Bible verses used are Matthew 1:28-2:23.

            When we think of the story of the birth of Jesus, who do we think of?  Who’s represented in your standard nativity scene?  Well, you have your shepherds and your wise men.  You probably have a camel, maybe a donkey, maybe a few sheep.  You have Mary and the baby Jesus.  And you have one other person.  Who is it?

            That’s right.  Joseph.  It would be unthinkable to have a nativity scene without Joseph.  He’s one of the most famous characters in the Bible, especially this time of year.

            And yet, when we read the stories of the birth of Jesus in the Bible, we learn almost nothing about Joseph.  There’s really only one passage of scripture that’s about Joseph, and it’s the passage we read today.

            And yet, it’s not really accurate to say that passage is about Joseph, is it?  What did we read today?  The first bit was about the angel talking to Joseph, but it’s pretty much a monologue by the angel.  We’re not told anything Joseph said.  We’re not told anything Joseph thought.  We’re not told anything Joseph felt.  All we’re told is that Joseph got up and did what the angel told him to do.

            The next bit is about King Herod and the wise men.  Joseph isn’t even in the scene.  Then we go to an angel talking to Joseph, and it’s another monologue.  Again, we’re not told anything Joseph might have said, or thought, or felt.  Again, all we’re told is that Joseph got up and did what the angel told him to do.

            Then we go back to Herod.  Then, we get the angel doing another monologue to Joseph.  Again, what Joseph said, or thought, or felt is not reported.  Again, all we’re told is that Joseph got up and did what the angel told him to do.

            It’s kind of amazing when you think about it.  This man is so crucial to the story of Jesus that we’d never dream of leaving him out of it, and yet we know almost nothing about him.  We don’t know how old he was.  We don’t know from this story what he did for a living.  We only know Joseph was a carpenter because later on, when Jesus started his ministry, some skeptics are quoted as saying, “isn’t he the carpenter’s son?”  We don’t know if he was rich or poor.  We don’t know if he was well-respected or looked down on.  There are traditions about some of those things, but we don’t know any of them from what the Bible tells us.

            There is really only one thing we know about Joseph.  We know Joseph was a righteous man.  We know that because the passage we read explicitly told us so.  And we also know it because of what Joseph did.

            Think about it.  Time after time, an angel visited Joseph in a dream.  Each time the angel told Joseph to do something, and each time Joseph got up and did it.  If he asked questions, they’re not reported.  If he had doubts, we’re not told about them.  If he was afraid, he overcame his fears.  Each time, he got up and did everything he was told to do.

            Think of the faith that took.  After all, these were not easy things.  First, he’s told to go ahead and marry this woman who is going to have a baby that is not his.  Even if Joseph believed what the angel told him about the baby, this was not going to be easy.  It’s like what we said last week about Mary:  how do you raise the Savior?  How do you act as a dad to a child conceived by the Holy Spirit?

            But, as far as we know, Joseph did not complain about it.  Joseph did not try to avoid it.  Joseph just got up and did what he was supposed to do.  He took Mary as his wife.

            Then, after Jesus was born, the angel comes to Joseph again and tells them that they cannot go home because Herod wants to kill Jesus.  Instead, they had to go to Egypt.

            Think about that.  Joseph had to take his family to a foreign country.  They could not even go home to pack.  All they had was what they’d taken with them to go to Bethlehem for the census.  They had thought they were taking a trip that might last a week or two.  Almost all their belongings were back in Nazareth, and they could not go home to get them.  Probably all of Joseph’s carpenter’s tools were back there, too.  They went to a foreign country, where they knew no one, maybe could not even speak the language, with nothing but a few provisions.

            But, again, if Joseph ever complained, we’re not told about it.  As far as we know, Joseph did not feel sorry for himself.  He did not argue or gripe about the unfairness of it all.  He just got up and did what he was supposed to do.  He took Mary and Jesus and went to Egypt.

            They were there, as far as we can tell, for a couple of years.  Then, the angel appears to Joseph once more.  And when that happened, Joseph must have thought, “Oh, no.  Not you again!  Now what?”

            This time, though, the angel told him that they were safe.  They could go back home.  That was good news, I suppose, but it was probably hard, too, in a way.  They’d probably started to establish themselves in Egypt.  They’d probably started to feel like that was their home.  And now it was time to leave again.  But again, as far as we know, Joseph never complained.  He just got up and did what he was supposed to do.  Joseph took Mary and Jesus and went to Nazareth.

            The Bible describes Joseph as a righteous man.  We hear that, and we think it means that Joseph was somebody special.  We think it means Joseph was a great and wonderful man, someone beyond the rest of us.

            It’s not true.  The Bible does not describe Joseph as somebody special.  The Bible does not describe Joseph as a great and wonderful man.  Joseph was just an ordinary man who loved God.  Because Joseph loved God, he got up and did what he was supposed to do.

            Most of the time, that’s what righteousness is.  Yes, sometimes it can involve doing great and wonderful things, but most of the time it does not.  Most of the time, what righteousness involves is simply loving God and then getting up and doing what we’re supposed to do.

            That means you and I can be righteous people.  We can be every bit as righteous as Joseph was.  Most of the time, of course, we don’t have an angel to tell us what we’re supposed to do.  Most of the time, though, we don’t need one.  All we need to do is open our hearts to God and open our eyes to the world around us.

            There are hurting people all around us, if we’ll only take the time to see them.  There are lonely people crying out to us, if we’ll only take the time to hear them.  There are all kinds of people around us who need God’s love, if we’ll only take the time to show it to them.

            I’ve said before that we’re not supposed to go through life alone.  That’s why God put us in communities, so we would not have to.  Think, though, about what a community really is.  It’s not just a collection of people who happen to live near each other.  When Wanda and I lived in North Sioux City, we had all kinds of people who lived near us, but they were not a community.  There was a community within the church, but there was not a community among the people who lived in our area.

You see, a community is people who care about each other.  A community is people who are there for each other.  A community is people who rejoice with each other and mourn with each other, laugh with each other and cry with each other.  A community is not defined by location.  A community is defined by love.
In theory, then, a community for a Christian should be everybody, because we’re told by Jesus that we should love everybody.  In practice, though, we can’t really love everybody, because we cannot get to know everybody.  What we can do, though, is show God’s love to everybody we do know.  We can bring them into our community.  We can keep them from having to go through life alone, and instead let them go through life as part of a group of caring, loving Christians.
When we do that, we are doing exactly what Joseph did.  We are showing our love of God, and we are getting up and doing what we’re supposed to do.  We are being righteous people, just like Joseph was.
Joseph was an ordinary man.  He was so ordinary that we know almost nothing about him.  But because he loved God, and because he got up and did what he was supposed to do, this ordinary man did extraordinary things.  He is still remembered two thousand years later, and will be remembered forever.
You and I are ordinary people, too.  But it we love God, and if we get up and do what we’re supposed to do, we can do extraordinary things, too.  We may not be remembered two thousand years from now, but we’ll always be remembered by God.

Thursday, December 20, 2012


Everyone has heard about the tragic events of last week at a school in Connecticut. In the wake of those events, many pastors I know re-wrote their sermons to address the issue.

I did not. It’s not that I did not think I should. It’s just that I had no idea what I could say that would be useful. It was a terrible thing, of course, but everybody knows that. We should pray for the families of the victims, and we have and will continue to do so, but everybody knows that, too.

As for why these things happen, well, they happen because God has given us free will and allows us to make choices. That includes bad choices, even terrible choices. Those choices, obviously, have consequences, sometimes tragic ones. We’ve talked about that before, though, and I really can’t think of anything of significance I can add to what I’ve said about it before.

At our Wednesday Bible studies in Gettysburg, though, we hit on the topic of forgiveness, and that’s the aspect of this I’d like to talk about. Can we reach a point where we can forgive the shooter in Connecticut for what he did?

Think about what forgiveness is. Forgiveness is different from understanding. Forgiveness is different from making excuses or trying to absolve him of responsibility. Forgiveness means to give up all claims against someone for what they did. It means to no longer feel resentment toward someone for their actions.

We know that Jesus told us to love even our enemies. We know that Jesus told us that, if we want God to forgive our sins, we need to forgive those who sin against us. Jesus lived that, too. He even forgave those who crucified him. The thing is, though, that we may agree with this and believe it, but how do we actually do it?

I know that I cannot even begin to feel what those who lost loved ones in this shooting must feel. I know it has to feel terrible, but there’s no way I can even imagine what they must be going through. I don’t know that anyone can, unless you’ve actually been through something similar yourself.

I suspect, though, that pretty much everyone reading this has had a time in their life when they were hurt badly by someone. Maybe it’s happened to you several times. Think about those times. Have you reached a point where you can forgive the people who hurt you? Or do you still feel resentment toward them? Do you still wish you could somehow get back at them for what they’ve done to you, or are you able to give up those feelings?

It’s not easy. As I’ve said before, we cannot just make ourselves stop feeling the things we feel. We can just suppress our feelings or wish them away. After all, we may have every right to feel the things we feel. The families of the victims in Connecticut certainly have every right to feel resentment toward the shooter. They cannot just pretend that they don’t, nor should anyone expect them to do so.

Some of you may be thinking, "But the shooter’s dead. What good does would it do to forgive him now anyway?" The thing about forgiveness, though, is that it’s not something we do to help someone else. It may have that effect, but that’s not the primary purpose of it. Jesus did not say to offer forgiveness for the effect it will have on others. Jesus said to offer forgiveness for what it will do for us, ourselves. We are not supposed to forgive others because it will change their behavior, or even because it will make them feel better. We are supposed to forgive because that’s the only way we can move past the hurts we’ve been given. We are supposed to forgive because we will be better, happier people if we do.

It’s not easy. In fact, it can be one of the hardest things we ever do. The deeper the hurt, the harder it is. It takes time. It takes prayer. It takes talking to people. Sometimes it takes lots of time, and lots of prayer, and lots of talking to people.

And sometimes, we may never get there. I don’t know whether the people who lost loved ones in this shooting will ever be able to do it. I hope they can, but I don’t know. I don’t know if I could. I certainly don’t blame them if they can’t.

And I don’t think God will blame them, either. After all, God knows more about us that we do, because God created us. God knows how we feel. God understands it. God does not expect us to be perfect, because God knows that’s not possible for us. God just asks us to have faith and do the best we can.

To do our best, though, we have to keep trying. So, if you have an unresolved issue in your past, or if you have an issue in your life right now, for which you have been unable to grant forgiveness, keep working on it. Spend some time with God. Find someone to talk to about it. Then, maybe we’ll be able to reach that point at which we can forgive. It won’t be easy, but we’ll be better, happier people if we do.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Hopes and Dreams

This is the message given in Onida and Agar Sunday, December 16.  Scriptures used are Luke 1:26-45, Luke 2:8-20, and Matthew 2:13-15.

We’ve been talking about the people who were waiting for that first Christmas to come. Today, we’re going to look at one of the main characters in the Christmas story. We’re going to look at Mary.

At first, of course, Mary was not waiting for the first Christmas at all. She was waiting to be married to Joseph soon. She was probably thinking about their wedding. She was probably making plans for their life together, thinking about where they’d live, dreaming about what they’d do, the children they’d have, the life they would lead. Then, suddenly, the angel Gabriel shows up and tells Mary that before she’s married, she’s going to have a baby, a son. She’s not going to have just any baby, though. This baby she’s going to have will be great. He’ll be called Son of the most high. God will give him the throne of David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever. His kingdom will never end.

And all of Mary’s plans and hopes and dreams were up in smoke. This was going to change everything. And not necessarily in a good way, at least not for Mary.

Can you even imagine how Mary must have felt? We don’t know how old Mary was, but a lot of people think she probably fairly young. Many say a teenager, maybe not even in her upper teens. To see an angel would be stunning enough. Then, to have that angel tell her that she’s going to have a baby when she’s not married yet. That would’ve been pretty stunning, too. But then, all the rest of it. All this stuff about how great her son is going to be.

I wonder if Mary was really even able to comprehend what the angel was telling her. Would you? Can we even begin to understand what that would be like? What would you think if this happened to you? Would you think you were dreaming? Would you think you were seeing things? Would you think you’d gone crazy?

This was certainly not the way Mary wanted or expected things to go. It probably did not make a lot of sense to her. But, somehow, Mary accepted what had happened to her. Not only did she accept it, she agreed to it. She put her plans and hopes and dreams aside. But then came the waiting. Nine months of it, of course. Waiting, and thinking, and wondering, and praying.

She must have been scared to death. She had Joseph, of course. We’ll talk about him next week, but Joseph stayed with Mary through this. Did anyone else? Did her family accept her? Elizabeth did. We’re told about that. But what about the rest of her family: her mother, her father, any siblings she may have had? Did they believe Mary was telling the truth about what had happened? Did they support her? We don’t know.

Nine months of waiting. Nine months of worrying. Nine months of wondering. Nine months of thinking about this child, the Son of God, that she was carrying.

What do you suppose she thought about? Probably all sorts of things. I’ll bet she wanted everything to be absolutely perfect. Wouldn’t you? I mean, probably every mother wants everything to be absolutely perfect for her children anyway. Add to that the fact that you know this child is going to be the Son of God. Again, she probably had all kinds of plans, all kinds of dreams. She probably knew exactly where she wanted the birth to take place. She probably planned exactly where she and Joseph would raise Jesus. She probably planned exactly how she and Joseph were going to do it. For nine months, she planned it out, thinking of every possible detail, wanting to get everything as close to perfect as she possibly could

And then, shortly before Mary is going to give birth, Joseph tells her that they’ve got to take a trip. They’ve got to go to Bethlehem.

Bethlehem was eighty miles away. Today we think of eighty miles as not much, but they had to walk it. At least Joseph did. We’re told that Mary was able to ride on a donkey. Think about that. Nine months pregnant, and having to ride eighty miles on a donkey. Wondering when they would get there. Wondering what would happen when they did. Then, they get there, and they have no place to stay. They have to go out into the barn with the animals.

And that’s where Jesus was born. After nine months of waiting, nine months of dreaming, nine months of Mary wanting the birth of the Son of God to absolutely perfect, all of Mary’s plans and dreams were up in smoke. Again. The Son of God was born in a dirty, smelly barn with dirty, smelly animals.

Mary must have been so disappointed. I mean, she was obviously thrilled that the birth had gone well. She was glad that her baby was born healthy and that everything seemed to be okay. But still, when we’re told Mary "pondered these things", I’d bet this was one of the things she pondered. This was not the way she had wanted or expected things to go. It probably did not make a lot of sense to her. She probably wondered if she was up to raising a child at all, much less raising the Son of God.

She probably vowed to make up for it, though. She probably though, "Just wait until we get back to Nazareth. Then things will get back on track. The birth may not have gone right, but things will be all right once we get back home." Then Joseph came to talk to her again. He tells Mary they cannot go home, at least right now. They’ll have to wait. Instead, for now, they have to go to Egypt for their own safety. And one more time, Mary’s plans and hopes and dreams were shattered.

Nothing about these events went the way Mary wanted it to. She had waited, and she had planned, and nothing went the way she had planned it. Nothing went the way Mary thought it should go. And yet, somehow, it all went the way God had planned it. It all went the way God wanted it to go. In fact, at this point, we really cannot imagine these things going any other way.

In our lives, you and I make lots of plans, too. We have lots of hopes and dreams about our futures. We have lots of hopes and dreams about the futures of our children and our grandchildren, too. Those of us who don’t have children, have hopes and dreams for our nieces and nephews, or our grand-nieces and grand-nephews. We wait, and we plan, and we hope. We know exactly how we want things to go.

There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s natural. At the same time, though, we need to be ready for God to come along and change it all, just like God did with Mary. We need to be ready to accept the fact that God’s plans for our lives may not be the same as our plans for our lives. God’s plans for the lives of our children and grandchildren, our nieces and nephews, our grand-nieces and grand-nephews, may not be the same as our plans, either.

You and I make lots of plans, and then we wait, and sometimes our plans come true, but a lot times they don’t. Our plans don’t come true for lots of reasons. Sometimes it’s because our plans were not very good to begin with. Sometimes it’s because life just got in the way. But sometimes it’s because, while our plans may have been all well and good, they just were not the same as God’s plans. God has another plan for us, one that we did not want or expect. Maybe one that does not make a lot of sense to us.

That’s when we have to make a choice. There are various things we could do, just as there are various things Mary could have done. We can refuse to go along with God’s plan, just as Mary could’ve refused. After all, I doubt that God would’ve wanted Jesus to be born to someone who did not want to accept him. In fact, God probably would not have chosen Mary in the first place if she was the kind to do that. Mary could have refused to go along with what God wanted, just as we can refuse to go along with what God wants for us. God always gives us that choice.

We can try to force things to go our way, just as Mary could’ve tried to force things to go her way. She could’ve refused to go to Bethlehem. She could’ve refused to go to Egypt. She could’ve insisted on following her plans for Jesus and given birth in Nazareth. The thing is, though, that would’ve had pretty bad consequences. That could’ve gotten them arrested. It could’ve gotten Jesus killed.

When we try to force things to go our way, there usually are bad consequences, too. Still, God always gives us that choice, too. God encourages us to follow, but God never forces us. We can go our own way if that’s what we choose to do.

Or, we can go along with God’s plan. We can say, as Mary did, "I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me according to your word." We can forget about our own plans, and instead follow God’s plans for our lives and for the lives of our children. We can say, "God, this is not what I expected. This is not what I wanted. This does not make any sense to me. But God, I am your servant. I’ll trust you. May it be to me according to your word."

It’s a tough choice. I’m not pretending it’s not. It was a tough choice for Mary, and it’s a tough choice for us. It’s a choice that takes a lot of courage. It’s a choice that takes a lot of faith. It’s a choice that takes a lot of trust.

Mary was able to make that choice. She was able to trust God even when she did not understand and even when things did not make sense. And God made things work out. They did not work out the way Mary wanted them to go, but they went the way God wanted them to go.

God will do that for us, too. If we can trust God even when we don’t understand and even when things don’t make sense, God will make things work out. They may not go the way we want them to go, but they will go the way God wants them to go.

Friday, December 14, 2012

It's Not the End of the World

            By now, you’ve heard about this Mayan calendar thing.  Supposedly, the ancient Mayans put together a calendar that says the world is going to end next Friday, December 21st.

            Well, if it does, I going to be really bummed out.  My birthday is December 22nd.  I don’t want to miss out on the presents and the cake and such.  Maybe I should celebrate on December 20th, just to make sure.

            Seriously, I don’t for a minute believe that the world is going to end next Friday.  I suppose it could.  After all, Jesus told us know one would know the day or the hour, so I guess there’s no reason to think the world can’t end next Friday, or any other day, for that matter.  Still, I don’t think the ancient Mayans had any special pipeline to God that gave them this knowledge, and I don’t think you probably think they did, either.

            It got me thinking, though.  Suppose you did believe the world was going to end next Friday.  What would you do?  Would you pray?  Would you go see family and friends?  Would you go see a place you’d always dreamed of seeing, or do something you’d always dreamed of doing?  Would you start partying and living it up, figuring it was your last chance?

            A lot of things we consider important in our lives would suddenly seem unimportant, that’s for sure.  Those reports that are due before the end of the year wouldn’t matter much.  Students probably wouldn’t spend much time studying for finals. We wouldn’t be concerned with who’s going to win the Super Bowl.  A lot of the things we spend a lot of time on would suddenly seem pretty small and inconsequential if we thought the world was going to end next Friday.

            Now, I do not mean to suggest that we should all start living our lives as if there was no tomorrow.  That’s not practical.  The chances are that there will be a tomorrow, and we need to be ready for it.  At least some of those reports that are due before the end of the year do matter for next year and the year after.  Students who don’t study for their finals could seriously damage their future prospects.  And even though the Super Bowl does not have any real impact on the lives of anyone other than those involved, it’s okay if we spend a some time on things that are just fun, too.

            At some point, though, even if we don’t see the world end, our time on earth will come to a close.  We only get so much time here and we never know when that time will end.  The older I get, the more I realize how short that time we’re given is.

            It would probably help all of us, then, to spend a little time thinking about how we spend our time.  Are we making good use of the time God has given us?  If not, what do we need to change in our lives?
            The world probably won’t end next Friday, but the time we’re given on it could end at any moment.  Let’s try to make better use of the precious time God has given us.


This is the message given at Oahe Manor on Thursday, December 13.  The Scripture used is Philippians 4:4-7.

Those are beautiful verses, you know. It’s something we’d love to be able to do. Rejoice always.  Be gentle with everyone. Trust God and be thankful. Have the peace of God in our hearts and in our minds always.

We’d like to be able to do that. And sometimes we resolve that we’re going to. But then, life gets in the way. You wake up,and something hurts. It might be the same something or it might be a different something, but something hurts. You struggle to get out of bed. Maybe you can’t get out of bed without help. You struggle to get dressed, or maybe you need help with that, too. You come to breakfast and see the same things you see every day. The same people you see every day, too. 

Sometimes, it seems like life is just one darn thing after another. And when it’s not, it seems like it’s just the same old, same old.  When life seems like that, it’s pretty hard to rejoice, like our reading from Philippians told us to do.  We know we should be gentle with people, but sometimes our frustration and our pain becomes more than we can handle, and we lash out. We know we should trust God and be thankful, but sometimes it’s really hard for us to come up with anything to be thankful for. And so, we don’t feel the peace of God in our lives.

So what do we do? Well, I think part of the answer lies in four little words that I skipped over until now. Those words are “the Lord is near.”

Now, when Paul was writing this, I suspect he meant it in a literal sense. Paul really believed that Jesus would be coming back to earth soon. After all, Paul had already had an experience of the resurrected Jesus, when he was blinded on the road to Damascus. Paul, and a lot of the other apostles, thought Jesus might very well come back in their lifetimes.  I’m suspect that’s the main thing Paul meant when he wrote “the Lord is near.”

But you know, the incredible thing about the Bible is that it’s the inspired word of God. That means the words can have meaning beyond what even the human writers of the Bible may have understood when they wrote it. It seems to me there’s another meaning to the words “the Lord is near”, and that meaning is really important when we talk about having peace in our lives.

We need, as we go through our lives, to feel that the Lord is near to us. We need to feel God’s presence with us. We need to feel that God is guiding us and encouraging us. That’s when we feel the peace of God in our lives. When we don’t feel God’s presence, when we don’t feel that the Lord is near, that’s when things start to get us down.That’s when life becomes one darn thing after another. That’s when life feels like the same old same old.  And that’s when we don’t feel the peace of God in our lives.

So what do we do?  How do we keep feeling that the Lord is near us?  Understand, the Lord is near us always.  It’s just that sometimes we cannot feel God’s presence.  How do we get that feeling back?  Or, if we have it, how do we keep from losing it?

Well, Paul says one more thing in these verses.  He says “in every situation, by prayer and petition…present your requests to God.”

I think that’s how we get the feeling that the Lord is near.  I also think that’s how we keep from losing the feeling that the Lord is near.  I think the way to feel God’s presence is to spend some time with God.  In other words, the way to feel God’s presence is to pray.

Now, I’m not claiming prayer is some sort of magic spell.  It’s not like we’ll pray once and “poof”, we’ll have the peace of God in our lives.  It could happen like that, of course, but a lot of times it does not.  A lot of times, it takes time.  A lot of times we have to pray repeatedly, over and over again.

And sometimes, we have to change the way we pray.  Paul says we should present our requests to God, and we should.  But there’s something else we need to pray, too. Four words.  You’ve said them many times.  You say them at least once a week if you come to services out here, probably more.  The words are “thy will be done.”

Sometimes, when we don’t feel God’s presence, when we don’t feel the peace of God in our lives, it’s because we’re focused on our own will, rather than God’s will. That’s not necessarily because our will is evil or bad or anything.  The things we want, in our will, may be good and reasonable things.  They’re just not what God wants for us. And so we have to step back.  We can still present our requests to God, but once we’ve done so, we need to say, “Thy will be done.”

If we can say that, and truly mean it, then we’ll be able to accept what happens. We’ll be able to accept the pains and struggles of life.  Life won’t seem like the same old same old, because we’ll be looking for the beauty in life.  We’ll be able to be gentle with others, because we’ll know they’re going through the same struggles we are.  Once we accept God’s will, we can be thankful, because we will feel God’s presence in our lives. And then, we will be able to rejoice.

In less than two weeks it’ll be Christmas.  We’ll celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace. Let’s use that celebration as a chance for us to go to God humbly and accept God’s will. Then, we will truly be able to rejoice at the birth of our Savior.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Getting in God's Way

Below is the message given at Oahe Manor Sunday, December 9.  The scripture used is Luke 3:1-6.

Think about what that Scripture said we’re supposed to do.  “Prepare the way for the Lord.  Make straight paths for him.”  We’re supposed to fill in the valleys, knock down the hills, straighten out the crooked roads, and make the rough places smooth.  In other words, we’re supposed to clear the path for Jesus.  We’re supposed to make sure nothing is in the Lord’s way, so the people will see God’s salvation.

What are the things that get in the Lord’s way?  What could get in the Lord’s way?  I mean, this is God we’re talking about here.  God is all-powerful.  God could clear the path without our help, right?  So why are we told that we should do it?

Well, I don’t know that I have the whole answer, but here’s what I think.  I think that at least one of the reasons we’re told to clear the path for God is that one of the things that’s in that path is us, ourselves.  You and I get in God’s way.  We keep God from doing the things God wants to do and reaching the people God wants to reach.

Now, how can we do that?  After all, if God is all-powerful, then by definition God is a lot more powerful than we are.  How could you and I stop God from doing things God wants to do?

Well, God is more powerful than you and I are, but God also chooses to give us free will.  God allows us to do the things we choose to do, even when those things are different from what God wants us to do.  God may not approve of our choices, but God does not take away our ability to make those choices.  That means that you and I, by the choices we make, can get in God’s way.  That does not just apply to God’s ability to reach us, ourselves, but it applies to God’s ability to reach others.  You and I can get in God’s way and stop God from reaching other people.

We do that in a lot of ways.  Most of the time, we don’t even realize we’re doing it.  We think we’re just living our lives, doing what we do.  A lot of times, we’re not even particularly thinking about God, much less thinking about getting in God’s way.

Here’s the thing, though.  As Christians, you and I are God’s representatives on earth.  We’re especially God’s representatives to people who are not particularly Christians.  If someone does not feel any particular connection to God or to a church, and they know that we say we do, then the things we do and say are going to be what that person thinks a Christian is.

That can be kind of scary.  Most of us probably don’t feel that we’re qualified to be God’s representatives.  We know we’re not perfect.  In fact, when we’re honest with ourselves, most of us know exactly how not perfect we are.  It’s kind of scary to think that people will get their impression of what a Christian is from us.

But they do.  So, if we say something mean or critical, some people will think that’s the sort of thing a Christian says.  If we’re appear to be sour or in a bad mood, some people will think that’s the attitude a Christian has.  If we act like we’re only concerned with ourselves and don’t care about others, some people will think that’s how a Christian acts.

That’s when we’re getting in God’s way.  Because none of those things will be particularly attractive to people.  None of those things would make people think well of Christians.  In fact, if that’s what people see me or you doing as Christians, they’re likely to say, “If that’s what a Christian is, I don’t want any part of it.”

Being God’s representative can be kind of scary.  On the other hand, think of the opportunity we have!  If we go out of our way to say positive things and praise others, some people will think that’s the sort of thing a Christian says.  If we appear to be happy and in a good mood, some people will think that’s the attitude a Christian have.  If we go out of our way to care for and show concern for others, some people will think that’s how a Christian acts.

And that will be attractive to people.  Those things do make people think well of Christians.  In fact, if that’s what people see me or you doing as Christians, they may say, “You know, I’d like to be like that.  Maybe I should find out more about why those people are that way.”

When we let people know we’re Christians, we’re holding ourselves out as God’s representatives.  That can be scary, but it’s also a tremendous opportunity.  Let’s do everything we can to take advantage of that opportunity.  Let’s make straight paths for God.

Good Faith

This is the message given in Gettysburg yesterday.  The scriptures used are Luke 1:5-25, 39-45, 57-66; Luke 3:7-16; and Matthew 3:13-17.

So, are you ready for Christmas yet?
You know, we do so much now to “get ready” for Christmas—the gifts, the cooking, the getting ready for trips, the Christmas programs, all that stuff that we do—that it might be good for us to remember that there was very little “getting ready” for the first Christmas.  For one thing, very few people even knew about it.  Mary and Joseph did, of course, but they were not really “ready” for Jesus to be born.  They were on the road, and had to scramble just to find a place out of the cold.  The shepherds did not “get ready” at all.  They just went where they were told.  The wise men kind of got ready, in a sense.  They studied the sky, saw the star, and then set out to find the one who had been born to be a king.
But that’s about all the people who knew about the first Christmas.  Everyone else had to wait.  But they were given a chance to get ready.  That was the job of John the Baptizer, also called John the Baptist, whose story we read today.  His job was to get people ready for when Jesus actually started his ministry.
Now, understand, this John is not the same as the John who became one of Jesus’ disciples.  This is not the John who wrote the gospel of John or the letters of John.  Still, this John was obviously very important in story of the first Christmas.
We read some of the story of John this morning.  He was obviously special from the beginning.  He was born to a couple everyone thought was too old to have children.  His coming was told to John’s father, Zechariah, by the angel Gabriel.  Gabriel told Zechariah that John would be great in the sight of God.  Gabriel said John would be filled with the Holy Spirit.  Gabriel said John would have the spirit and power of Elijah, one of the greatest prophets in history.  Gabriel said that John would make everyone ready for the coming of the Lord.  When Zechariah was skeptical, he was not allowed to talk until John was born.  We’re told that “Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, ‘What then is this child going to be?’  Because the Lord’s hand was with him.”
We’re not told anything about John’s childhood or upbringing.  The next time we see him, John is doing exactly the job what Gabriel said he would do.  He’s getting people ready for Jesus and Jesus’ ministry.
It was a tough job.  It took a lot of sacrifices on John’s part.  We did not read the description of John from the gospel of Mark, but it says that John wore clothing of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.  That’s a tough situation.  It’s not one most of us would volunteer for.

John preached a message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  He baptized lots of people, of course.  That’s why he’s called John the Baptizer or John the Baptist.  He traveled all around the area of the Jordan river, preaching and baptizing.
I wonder, did John know how long he was going to be out there?  Did he know when the Savior was actually going to begin his ministry?
Maybe.  We’re told that Jesus’ mother, Mary, visited John’s mother, Elizabeth, when both were pregnant.  We’re told that Elizabeth referred to Mary as “the mother of my Lord”.  If Elizabeth knew what that meant, we assume that she surely would’ve told John.  Still, now it was years later.  John was an adult.  And there was no sign that Jesus was doing anything yet. 

            Did they keep in touch?  Did John know when Jesus was going to start his ministry?  Had John even met Jesus?  In Matthew’s version of this story, John knows who Jesus is, but we don’t know if that knowledge comes from a prior relationship or if it was knowledge from the Holy Spirit.  In any event, it appears, from that version of the story, that John did not expect Jesus to come and be baptized and did not think it was appropriate.

As far as the Bible tells us, the only thing John knew was that the Savior was coming.  He may have known who the Savior was, but he did not know when the Savior would start his ministry.  He did not even know if it would be in his lifetime.  All John could do was do the job God had sent him to do, and wait to see what happened next.

And he did.  John did the job that God had put him on earth to do.  He did what he could to get people ready for the Savior.  He told them to give and to share.  He told them to treat people fairly.  He told them to be honest.  He told them not to be greedy or selfish.  He told them to repent of their sins and to be baptized, so that their sins could and would be forgiven.

We don’t know how long he was out there doing that.  It was long enough that he attracted quite a following.  We’re told there were crowds that came out there to see him and be baptized.  In fact, some of them were so fired up about John that the wondered if he might actually be the Savior that they’d been waiting for.

It must have been hard.  It must have been hard for him to keep doing it, to keep going.  He must have gotten discouraged sometimes.  There must have been times when he thought, “How long is this going to go on?  How long am I going to have to wait?  Am I really accomplishing anything?  Is anyone even paying attention to me?  Yeah, I’m getting crowds, but is anyone really changing their life?  Is anyone really repenting?  Or are they just here for the show?”

All these things must have gone through John’s mind at some point.  But he kept at it.  John kept preaching, and kept baptizing, and kept trying to get people ready for the coming of the Savior, just as God wanted him to.  Then, the Savior came.  And he came first to John, and was baptized.  John baptized Jesus, and the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus, and a voice came from heaven and said that Jesus was the Son of God.  The Savior John had been getting people ready for was now here.

            Imagine how John must have felt.  In a sense, his entire life had been building toward this moment.  He had been working for it.  He had been dreaming of it.  He had been put on this earth by God to get ready for it.  And now, after all his work, all his dreams had come true.  The Savior, the divine Son of God, was finally here.  He must have been overwhelmed.  He must have been overcome with an incredible sense of joy.  He had kept at it, he had stayed faithful despite his doubt and despite the times when he was discouraged, and in the end, it was all worth it.

            So, maybe you’re thinking “Okay, that’s a good story, and it kind of relates to Christmas, I guess, but what’s the point?”  Well, here’s the point.  Remember how I said that John was special from the beginning?  Well, so are you.  And so am I.  Remember how God had a specific job for John to do?  Well, God has a specific job for you to do, and for me to, too.  Remember how John went through some tough times?  Well, so will we, if we do what God wants us to do.  Remember how John did not know how long he would have to wait, how long he might have to go through what he went through and do the job God wanted him to do?  Well, neither do we.  Remember how John must have gotten discouraged, and wondered whether what he was doing was making any difference?  Well, you and I have those times, too.

            But remember something else.  The angel, Gabriel, said that John would be filled with the Holy Spirit.  You and I can be filled with the Holy Spirit, too.  All we need to do is open our hearts to God.  Then we will be able to stay faithful to God, the way John did.

            Despite how long he waited, despite the tough times he went through, and despite his uncertainty, and despite his doubts and fears, John stayed faithful to God.  John did what God had put him on earth to do.  And when John did that, in the end, it all turned out to be worth it.  Because John eventually came face to face with his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

            And so can we.  When we open our hearts to God, we can stay faithful to God.  When we stay faithful to God, we can do what God has put us on earth to do.  When we do what God has put us on earth to do, we will be ready to come face to face with our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  That means that we will be ready for Christmas.  And we will know that all the waiting, all the tough times, all the uncertainty, and all the doubts and fears we had to go through were worth it.  Because we will feel the incredible joy that comes from being in the presence of Christ.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

That's Beautiful

            We read Psalm 27 in church last week.  As we were reading it, one phrase caught my attention.  It’s from verse four, which says

            One thing I ask from the Lord,
                        this only do I seek:
            that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
                        all the days of my life,
            to gaze on the beauty of the Lord
                        and to seek him in his temple

            The phrase that caught my attention was “the beauty of the Lord”.  Have you ever thought of God as beautiful?  If you have, I’ll bet it’s not very often.  We talk about lots of other things about God.  We talk about the power of God.  We talk about the wisdom of God.  We talk about the glory of God.  We talk about the love of God.  We talk about the righteousness of God.  We almost never talk about the beauty of God.

            When we think about it, though, God must be beautiful.  After all, God, by definition, is perfect.  How could something perfect not be beautiful?

            We are not able, in this life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord.  We see God’s beauty all around us, though.  Don’t get me wrong—the beauty of nature is not the same as the beauty of God.  I do think, however, that the beauty of nature, the beauty of the things God created, gives us a glimpse of God’s beauty.  The beauty of the sunrise shows the beauty of God.  So does the beauty of a rainbow.  So does the beauty of a field of sunflowers in full bloom.  So does the beauty of the mountains, or the ocean, or of deer, or of pheasants, or of anything else that’s beautiful.

            That includes you and me.  We were created to be beautiful, too.  And we are.  You’re beautiful.  So am I.

            Some people might not think it, to look at us.  I know they wouldn’t think it of me.  I’m not saying I think I’m ugly, but I certainly wouldn’t win any male beauty pageants.  Maybe you think the same of yourself.  Maybe you think even worse of yourself.  You’ve heard the old phrase, “beauty is only skin deep”, but maybe you don’t think of yourself as beautiful on the inside, either.  Maybe you don’t see how anyone, if they really knew you, could consider you beautiful.

            Well, God knows you.  And God says you’re beautiful.  God says that everything God created is good and lovely and beautiful.  That includes you.  That includes me, too.

            If you don’t feel that, gaze on some of the beauty that God created.  Then remember that God created you, too.  The same God that created all this beauty created you.  That means you must be beautiful, too.  You are good and lovely and beautiful.  And you always will be.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Wait Trouble

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, December 2, 2012.  The Scriptures used are Genesis 3:1-19 and John 1:1-5, 9-14.

            How many of you are really anxious for Christmas to come?
You know, we all have different times when we start really getting into Christmas, when we feel like we just cannot wait for it to come.  For some of us, today is that day, because today is the first Sunday of Advent.  Some of us started this past week, once Thanksgiving weekend was over.  Others started a few days before that, with Black Friday and the doorbuster specials.  Still others started before that.  For some of us, as soon as Halloween was over we started getting fired up about Christmas.
It can be hard to wait for Christmas.  It’s hard for me sometimes, too.  It was especially hard for me when I was a kid.  See, my birthday is December twenty-second, so not only was I waiting for Christmas, I was waiting for my birthday, too.  And it was hard.  I had all this stuff I wanted, stuff I was waiting for and hoping for, stuff I could not get for myself, but I could not find out yet whether I was going to get it.  I wanted the time to pass quickly and for the big day to come, but time just kept moving one day at a time.  All I could do was wait.
But then, finally, the big day would come, and sometimes I would get exactly what I wanted.  And when I did, it was always worth the wait.  That’s the thing—anything that’s really good is worth waiting for.  And that’s the theme of our sermon series for Advent and Christmas:  “It’s worth the wait.”  We’re going to look at some of the people in the Bible who were waiting for that first Christmas and how they felt about having to wait.
In a sense, though, the whole world was waiting for that first Christmas.  The world had been waiting, really since the first humans walked the earth.  We read the story of Adam and Eve and the serpent this morning.  That’s the story of sin entering the world.
As soon as sin entered the world, humans became separated from God.  We tried to find our way back.  That’s what all that Old Testament law was about.  The theory was that if we could just follow all the rules, if we could just do everything the way we’re supposed to, then we’d be the people we were supposed to be, God would be happy with us, and we’d feel close to God again.
Maybe that would’ve worked.  We’ll never know, because we humans never could follow all the rules.  We could never do everything the way we’re supposed to.  The thing is, we were trying to do something by ourselves that we cannot do by ourselves.  We were trying to get back to God by our own abilities, and by our own merits, and that simply was not possible.  It was not possible because we were and are sinful people, and sinful people cannot follow all the rules perfectly and do everything we’re supposed to do, no matter how hard we try.
Eventually, people figured that out.  They knew they could not get back to God by themselves.  They knew they needed God to bring them back.  In other words, they knew they needed a Messiah.  They knew they needed a Savior.
They knew they needed a Savior, but they had no way to get one.  There was no way they could bring a Savior about.  They knew, from scripture, that they’d been promised one, but there was no way they could cause the Savior to come.  They wanted the time to pass quickly and for the Savior to come now, but time just kept moving one day at a time.  All they could do was wait.
And so, they waited.  Day after day.  Week after week.  Month after month.  Year after year.  Eventually, it became decade after decade, even century after century.  They waited, and they hoped, and they prayed.  And nothing happened.  They waited some more, and they hoped some more, and they prayed some more.  And nothing continued to happen.
Eventually, some of them got tired of waiting.  Some of them got so desperate that they started following false Saviors, false Messiahs.  Some of them got discouraged.  They decided their hopes were worthless, that there was no point in praying.  Either God did not hear their prayers and was not going to answer, or God did not exist at all.  And so, they quit waiting.  They gave up.
And so, when the Savior finally came, they missed it.  Think about that.  Can you imagine what that would be like?  They’d waited all that time, all those years, but they just could not wait long enough.  And then, what they’d waited for and hoped for and prayed for finally happened, and they missed it.  They saw it, maybe, but they could not recognize it for what it was.  As John says, “the world did not recognize him.”  That’s an incredibly sad thing, when you think about it.
We wonder, sometimes, why God waited so long.  We don’t know, of course.  We never will know.  We assume there was a reason.  There are theories people have, but we’ll only know when we get to heaven and can ask.  And at that point, it may not matter to us any more.
What we do know is that, for those who did not give up, for those who did not get tired of waiting, for those who kept waiting, and kept hoping, and kept praying, it was all worth it.  It was worth the wait.  Because, eventually, the Savior came.  The Savior came, and they no longer had to be separated from God.  They could come back to God through their belief in Jesus Christ as the Savior.
So can we.  We don’t have to miss out.  We still wait for Christmas, but we don’t have to wait the way they did thousands of years ago.  We don’t have to wait for something to happen.  We just wait to celebrate the anniversary of something that’s already happened.
We don’t have to wait for the Savior to come.  The Savior has already come.  We’re not waiting for the first Christmas.  We can have Christmas any day of the year.  Any time we make a decision for Christ, any time we dedicate our lives to following Jesus, it can be Christmas Day for us.  And any time we renew our decision for Christ, any time we re-dedicate ourselves to following Jesus, it can be Christmas Day for us, too.  We don’t have to wait.  We can do that any time.  We can do it now, today.
You know, when I was a kid, Mom and Dad would try to get me what I wanted.  They did not always succeed.  Sometimes what I wanted was not practical or was not good for me.  Sometimes they made mistakes because they’re human.  But they tried.  God, though, did not need to try.  God knew exactly what we wanted and what we needed.  God knew the one thing we could not get for ourselves.  And that’s what God gave us:  a Savior.
When we’re kids, and we get just what we want for Christmas, we don’t hesitate, do we?  We tear off the paper, we see what it is, our eyes get big, we get a big smile on our face, and we take it out of the package as fast as we can.  We cannot wait to start enjoying the incredible gift we’ve been given.
And yet, too many times, we don’t do that with the most incredible gift of all, the gift of salvation.  God has given us this incredible gift, but so often, just like people did two thousand years ago, we’re not sure about it.  We see it, but we don’t always recognize it for what it is.  We wait, as if we’re deciding whether to accept it.  And so, sometimes, we miss out.
So, sometimes, it’s God’s turn to wait.  We’re no longer waiting for the Savior to come to us.  Instead, now the Savior is waiting for us to come to him.
God will never get tired of waiting.  God will never give up on us.  God will never quit on us.  God does not want to wait, of course.  God wishes we would make the decision now, today, to dedicate or re-dedicate our lives to God.  But God is willing to wait.  God is willing to wait because, to God, you and I are worth waiting for.
Really, that’s the most amazing thing of all.  We understand why it’s important for us to be close to God.  What’s hard to understand is why it seems to be important for God to be close to us.  We understand why it’s worth waiting for God.  What’s hard to understand is why God would decide it’s worth waiting for us.
Yet, God does that.  For reasons that we cannot understand, reasons that don’t really make any sense to us, God does want to be close to us.  God does think that you and I, the sinful people that we still are, are worth waiting for.
When you think about how strong and powerful God is, and how small and weak we are in comparison, there really can be only one reason for that.  God loves us.  We’re God’s children, and God loves us, and God thinks we’re worth waiting for.
When you think about it, that’s the real message of Christmas.  God gave us the greatest Christmas gift of all.  God gave us just what we’d been waiting for:  a Savior.  It was exactly what we wanted and exactly what we needed.
The world waited for a Savior for thousands of years, but we don’t have to wait any longer.  Let’s not make God wait any longer, either.  Let’s make the decision today to dedicate or re-dedicate ourselves to God.  Let’s accept the incredible gift of the Savior that God has given us.