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Monday, December 30, 2013

It Don't Come Easy

This is the message given at Oahe Manor Sunday, December 29, 2013.  The Bible verses used are Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23.


We’ve been celebrating Christmas, and when we do that in the church we always talk about the birth of Jesus, with Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus and the shepherds and the wise men.  For us, a lot of times, that’s where the story ends.  But for Mary and Joseph and Jesus, the story did not end there at all.  The story was just beginning.  And what we just read tells us the next chapter of that story, with Mary and Joseph taking Jesus and going to Egypt, literally running for their lives.
And every time I read this story, I’m struck by how matter-of-factly Matthew tells it.  An angel appears to Joseph and tells him to take Jesus and Mary and escape to Egypt to get away from King Herod.  Joseph does it.  Then, after a while, we’re not told how long, maybe up to three years, the angel appears to Joseph again and tells them that King Herod is dead and they can come back.  And they do.  No big deal.
No big deal if you’re just reading the story, anyway.  If you actually had to live the story, the way Joseph and Mary and Jesus had to do, it was a pretty big deal.  Think about it.  They were in Bethlehem.  They’d gone there thinking they’d be gone a few days, maybe a week.  That was all they’d packed for.  They’d left everything else--their home, their furniture, their animals, Joseph’s carpentry tools, anything else they might have had--they’d left all that at home, just like you or I would.
Now, they’re being told they cannot go back and get it.  They have to go now.  Immediately.  They cannot even wait until morning.  They quickly pack up everything they can, get Jesus situated, and take off, in the middle of the night, headed for Egypt.  Depending on where they went in Egypt, they traveled about three hundred to three hundred fifty miles.  On foot.  Maybe they had a donkey for Mary and Jesus to ride, or maybe they did not, but Joseph certainly walked it, and Mary may have.  Three hundred miles or more, on foot, carrying a baby.  And always keeping an eye out for Herod’s soldiers, who they’ve been told are looking for them to kill their son.
And after they got to Egypt, what?  We don’t know if they could even speak the language.  Whatever money and provisions they had were almost certainly used up on the trip.  They had no place to stay.  They had nothing to buy or rent a place with.  Maybe they found someone they could stay with, or maybe they stayed in a cave or something.  Maybe they simply slept out in the open.
Somehow they survived in Egypt.  Maybe Joseph was able to use his carpentry skills to find work.  After all, it seems like someone who can work with their hands is always in demand.  Maybe Mary was able to do something to bring in a little money.  We don’t know what they did.  But somehow, they survived.  And then, they were told it was time to leave Egypt and head to Nazareth.
At least this time they were able to pack.  But again, they probably walked the whole distance.  And to go to Nazareth was even farther, about four hundred miles.  And this time, they had a toddler.  Jesus might’ve been old enough to walk on his own part of the way, but I’ll bet they had to carry him a lot of the way, too.  And he’d have been a lot heavier at age two or so than he was when he was a baby.  Again, it’s possible that they might’ve had a donkey, but we don’t know that.  It was a long and hard trip.
The point is that God did not make Joseph and Mary’s lives easy in the first few years of Jesus’ life.  You would think that if God was going to make life easy for anybody, it would be for the earthly parents of the divine Son, Jesus Christ.  But that was not what happened.  God protected them.  God made sure they survived.  But it was never easy for them.  In fact, most of the time, it was really hard.  We should not let the matter-of-fact way Matthew summarizes those first years of Jesus’ life keep us from realizing how very hard it was for them.
And a lot of times, that’s how it is for you and me, too.  There are a lot of times when God does not make our lives easy.  Sometimes God does.  I’ve had a lot of good things happen to me over the course of my life.  But a lot of times, God does not.  God will help us.  God will help us survive.  But God often does not make it easy for us.  In fact, a lot of the time, it can be really hard.
But through all their hardships, Joseph and Mary kept trusting God.  We’re not told about their reaction to the things the angel said.  Maybe they were upset, maybe they were disappointed, maybe they were scared, maybe all that and more.  We don’t know how they felt.  The Bible does not say.
But we do know what they did.  They did what the angel said.  They obeyed God.  They trusted God.  They had no idea what they’d find in Egypt.  They had no idea how long they’d be there--after all, they did not know how long King Herod would live.  They had no idea what they’d find in Nazareth, either--after all, they’d been gone for years.  But every step of the way, they did what they were told.  They trusted that God would protect them and take care of them.  And of course, God did exactly that.

And God will do that for us, too.  There are times when we have no idea what will happen if we do what God wants us to do.  But if we can trust that God will take care of us, God will do exactly that.  It won’t always be easy.  But in the end, things will work out for us, just as they did for Joseph and Mary.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Making It Work

Below is the message given in the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, December 29, 2013.  The Bible verses are Matthew 2:13-15.
            On Christmas Eve, we talked about how a lot of times, we’d like to just leave the Christmas story where our Nativity scenes leave it, with the baby Jesus in the manger with Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and the wise men.  The thing is that the people who were actually involved in the story, including Jesus and Mary and Joseph, did not have the option of leaving the story there.  They had to go on living their lives.  And today we heard what came next for them.  They had to leave their native country and escape to Egypt, so King Herod would not kill Jesus.
            In telling us about this, Matthew does not seem to make a big deal out of it.  He tells us that an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream to tell him to take his family to Egypt, and so they went.  A little later, in verses we did not read, we’re told that after Herod died the angel appeared one more time and said it was safe for them to go back to Israel.  And we’re told that all this happened to fulfill the words of the prophet Hosea, who said, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
            That’s all well and good, but it kind of minimizes the reality of it, don’t you think?  I mean, imagine you’re Joseph or Mary.  You’re already a long way from home in Bethlehem.  Now, you’re told you cannot go back home.  You have to go to a foreign country.  You have nothing but whatever you brought with you when you came to Bethlehem.  You have no idea whether you’ll be welcome there.  You don’t even know how many people will speak your language.  But like parents today, you’d do almost anything to protect your baby.  So, if that means you have to go to Egypt, then you go to Egypt.  And you hope to figure out what you’ll do when you get there.
            But the thing is, you don’t really get to know why.  I mean, yes, we’re told this is to fulfill the words of the prophet, but that’s an explanation that really does not explain.  The prophecy was the word of God, spoken through Hosea, but there was nothing that said God had to tell Hosea that the son would be called out of Egypt.  God could’ve said “the son will be called out of Bethlehem.”  God could’ve said “the son will be called out of Nazareth”.  We assume God had a reason for telling Hosea “Egypt”, but we have no idea what that reason was.  And neither did Joseph or Mary.  All they could do was trust that, if God was behind it, then God must know what God was doing and that there was a reason for it.  Maybe some day they’d find out what it was, or maybe they never would.  But for now, all they could do was to do what God was telling them to do, go where God was leading them to go, and trust that it would all work out somehow.
            And it seems to me that this is how it works for us in our lives, too.  We don’t have an angel come and tell us what to do, of course.  And our lives are not lived to fulfill the words of any Old Testament prophets.  But even so, I think it happens this way for us an awful lot of the time.  Things happen, and we have no idea why they’ve happened.  Sometimes they seem to happen for the good.  Sometimes they seem to happen for the bad.  But either way, they happen.  And maybe there’s a reason for it, but we don’t know what that reason is.  All we can do is trust that, if God is behind it, then God know must know what God is doing and that there must be a reason for it.  Maybe some day we’ll find out what that reason is, or maybe we never will.  But for now, all we can do is to do what God is telling us to do, go where God is leading us to go, and trust that it will all work out somehow.
            And that’s really hard to do.  I’m sure it was hard for Mary and Joseph to do, too.  Even with the angel saying what it did, there must have been a part of them that said, “You know, maybe we could just go back to Nazareth and hide out for a while.  Nobody’d have to know we were there.  If any Roman soldiers came, we could always just hide Jesus somewhere.  We have lots of friends there.  We know lots of hiding places.  They’d never find us.  It’d be okay.  It’d sure be a lot easier than going to Egypt.”  They had to be tempted to take what must’ve seemed to them to be the easy way out.
            And we’re tempted to do that, too.  We can tell that God is leading us in a certain direction, but we don’t really want to go in that direction, just as I’m sure Mary and Joseph really did not want to go to Egypt.  And we’re tempted to think, “You know, maybe we could just go in this other direction instead.  It’d probably be all right.  It’d be a lot more comfortable.  It’d be a lot more familiar.  It’d be okay.  It’d sure be a lot easier than going in the direction God seems to want us to go.”  And sometimes we do just that.
            Could Mary and Joseph have chosen to stay in Bethlehem, or to go back to Nazareth, rather than going to Egypt?  Well, yeah, I suppose they could have.  I mean, they had free will, just like we do.  But God did not choose Joseph and Mary by accident.  God chose them precisely because God knew they had it in them to do what God had told them to do.  Not because they had no choice, but because they had faith.  God knew they had enough faith in God to go where God told them to go, even if it was to a foreign country, and trust that God would make it all work out for the best.
            And God does not choose you and me by accident, either.  God chooses us because God knows we have it in us to do what God tells us to do.  God gives us the choice, but God asks us to have faith.  God asks us to have enough faith in God to go where God tells us to go, and to do what God tells us to do, and to trust that God will make it all work out for the best.
            God knows we’d like to know why, but most of the time, God does not tell us.  Not only does God usually not tell us why, God usually does not tell us why God is not telling us why.  Maybe it’s because we would not understand it anyway, because God’s purposes can be so far beyond our understanding.  Maybe it’s because if we knew why, we would not have the courage to obey.  Maybe it’s because if we knew why, we’d start arguing about it with God.  I don’t know why we don’t get to know why.  But most of the time we don’t, and even if we do, it’s usually a long time after the fact, when we can look back and see the reasons for what happened.  At the time, all we can do is what Joseph and Mary did:  go where God is leading us to go, do what God is leading us to do, and trust God that it will all work out.
            It cannot have been easy for Joseph and Mary in Egypt.  We’re not told anything about their life there, but we know they went there with very little, and without any real plan for what they were going to do when they got there.  But with God’s help, they figured it out.  We assume Joseph must have used his skills as a carpenter to provide for the family.  Maybe he got a job, maybe he went into business for himself.  Somehow, they made it.  They did what they had to do.  And God saw them through all their hard times.  They made it through, and things did work out for them.
            It’s not easy for us sometimes, either.  Sometimes we don’t have any real plan for what we’re going to do.  But with God’s help, we figure it out.  Somehow, we make it.  We do what we have to do.  God will see us through all our hard times.  We’ll make it through, and things will work out for us.
           We’d like to leave the story of Christmas with the baby Jesus in the safety of the manger.  And we’d like to leave our lives in places where we’re safe, too.  But we don’t have that option, any more than Joseph and Mary and Jesus did.  We have to go on with our lives, just as they did.  But if we can trust God the way they did, if we can go where God is leading us to do and do what God is leading us to do and trust God, God will see us through.  We won’t always be safe.  But we can trust that somehow, God will make things work out for us.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Best Christmas Ever

This is the Christmas Eve message given in the United Methodist Churches of the Wheatland Parish.  The Bible verses used are Matthew 2:13-18.
            That last scripture we read is one that gets left out a lot when we tell the Christmas story.  We like to leave the story with the baby lying in the manger surrounded by shepherds.  Maybe we include the wise men, too.  That’s kind of a neat story, after all, the way they followed the star to the manger and gave Jesus gifts.  And then we kind of like the part about how they tricked mean old Herod, too, and went home another way so they would not have to tell Herod where Jesus was.
            But that’s about as far as we want to go with the story.  We don’t want to go on and hear about how Mary and Joseph had to go on the run for their lives, and Jesus’ life too, of course.  We don’t want to hear about how they had to go live in Egypt to escape Herod.  And we certainly don’t want to hear the part about all those male babies and toddlers, up to two years old, being killed in Herod’s attempt to kill the one baby who was to become the king and savior of the world.
            And quite honestly, I don’t like to hear about it, either.  I mean, it’s one thing to read those words, but it’s another thing entirely to actually think about the reality of it.  Some of you have children, or grandchildren, or great-grandchildren, who are two years old or younger.  Think about what that would be like.  You’re at home one day, minding your own business, and there’s a knock on the door.  You answer it, and there are soldiers standing there.  They walk into the house and start searching for little boys.  They probably don’t even tell you why.  They find your son, or your grandson, or your great-grandson.  And they kill him.  And then they leave and go on to the next house.  No explanation.  No expression of regret.  No nothing.
            You’re stunned.  You cannot believe what just happened.  Then the reality of it hits you.  And you mourn.  And you grieve.  And most of all, you ask “Why?”  Why did this happen?  Why would anyone do this?
            That’s not the message we want to hear at Christmas.  And again, I don’t want to hear it, either.  We want to hear the warm, sentimental story about the baby being born in the manger.  We don’t want to think about what came next.
            Now, there’s nothing wrong with feeling warm and sentimental at Christmas.  But the thing is, Jesus did not come to earth to give us a warm, sentimental story.  Jesus came to earth to change us.  Each and every one of us.
            And throughout Jesus’ life, everyone who came in to contact with Jesus was changed.  That’s certainly true of everyone in the Christmas story.  Mary and Joseph’s lives were changed forever.  The shepherds who saw the angel and came to worship the baby had their lives changed.  The wise men, too, who traveled so far to worship the baby and give him gifts, had their lives changed.  I suspect even the innkeeper had his life changed when he found out what had happened and heard about these shepherds coming and about an angel and all that.
            And that’s still true today.  Everyone who comes into contact with Jesus has his or her life changed in some way.  We cannot help it.  If we come to believe in Jesus, and if we take that belief seriously, and if we decide to follow Jesus to the best of our ability, then obviously that is going to change our lives. 
Even if we don’t, though, even if we say we believe in Jesus but just kind of compartmentalize our belief and think we’re not going to let it change our lives, it will.  It’ll be that nagging voice in the back of our minds that says we’re not who we should be.  It’ll be that feeling that something’s not quite right about our lives, that even if things are going okay, they’re not going as well as they could be.  We can try to ignore that voice, we can try to ignore that feeling, but it’s still there.  It keeps after us.  We can decide not to listen to it, but it never goes away.  And it affects us.  It changes us, whether we realize it or not.
Even people who don’t come to believe in Jesus at all, if they’ve truly come into contact with him, will have their lives changed in some way.  They’ll look at Christians a little differently.  They’ll look at life a little differently.  If we, as Christians, truly live our Christian faith, so that when people who don’t believe come into contact with us, they can see it, that will affect them in some way.  Maybe, at some point, they’ll want to learn more about our faith.  Maybe they won’t.  But they’ll still be changed, they’ll still be affected in some way by having come into contact with Jesus Christ.
Now, again, the change Jesus makes in us may not be a warm, sentimental, happy one.  Sometimes, as we heard in our last reading, coming into contact with Jesus can cause sorrow and grief and pain.  Not because that’s what Jesus wants, but because of the way some people react to him.  We’re never promised that coming into contact with Jesus would make our lives easy and carefree.  Ask the people who right now are being persecuted for their faith if coming into contact with Jesus has made their lives easy.
Jesus did not come just to give us a warm, sentimental story.  Jesus came to change us.  And the only way we can truly celebrate Christmas is to open our hearts and open our souls.  The only way we can truly celebrate Christmas is to allow the Holy Spirit to come into our lives.  If we do that, we will be changed.  And if we allow Jesus to truly change us, we will have the happiest and most blessed Christmas ever.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Not the Savior We're Looking For

This is the message given Sunday, December 22, 2013 in the United Methodist Churches of the Wheatland Parish.  The Bible verses used are Isaiah 9:2-7.

            So in our December messages we’ve been talking about all these Old Testament prophecies about the coming of Jesus.  We talked about how the Savior was going to be born of a virgin, we talked about how he would be born in Bethlehem, and we talked about how he would be a descendant of King David.  And, of course, we talked about how each one of those prophecies came true.
            But if we think about it, none of those prophecies, in and of themselves, is all that important.  I mean, yes, it was helpful to know where the Savior would be born, and it was important to people that he be a descendant of King David, the greatest king ever.  And this deal about the virgin birth, well, that was certainly cool.  That’d be a pretty sure sign that God had to be involved here.
            But the thing about all that is that all of it, even added together, only tells us so much.  It tells us that someone is going to be born, and that it’s going to be someone special.  But none of it tells us anything about the person himself.  Who is this Savior going to be?  What’s this Savior going to do?  Well, save us, I suppose, that’s why he’s called a savior, but how?  How are we going to be saved?  What does it even mean to say we’re going to be saved?  Saved from what?
            And so today, that’s what we’re going to talk about.  We’re going to talk about the prophecy of how the Savior actually is the Savior.
Our reading from Isaiah today tells us.  The Savior is going to lead us out of the darkness and into the light.  The Savior is going to take away our burdens, shatter them.  The Savior will govern over everyone and bring peace.  And there will be no end to his governing or to the peace he’s going to bring.  He will reign with justice and righteousness forever.
            And the people heard of Israel heard that, and no one had a clue what it really meant.  You cannot blame them, really.  After all, the only frame of reference they had for interpreting this was human rulers and human governments.  They heard about a person who was going to reign on David’s throne, a person who would govern and bring justice and peace, and they naturally assumed this was someone who was going to take over on earth.  They assumed this would be an earthly king who would take over, wipe out the bad guys, put Israel back in control of the Promised Land, and make everything the way it should be on earth.
            But there’s more to that assumption than a mistake because of their frame of reference.  An earthly Savior was not just the kind of Savior they expected, it was the kind of Savior they wanted.  And again, it’s hard to blame them.  We talked last week about how all these prophecies of Jesus came when the Nation of Israel was in trouble, about to be taken over by a foreign country or to be sent into exile or something.  When you’re in that kind of trouble, what do you want?  What do you look for?  You look for some kind of a leader who can save you, someone who can take care of you.  You look for someone who can defeat the enemy, put things right, and solve all your problems, someone who will usher in a new Golden Age of prosperity and peace and justice.  That’s what the people of Israel wanted the Savior to be.
            And sometimes, that’s still what we want the Savior to be.  We look at our Nation, and it seems like it’s in trouble, too.  I don’t mean this as a partisan political statement.  I have lots of friends on both the left and the right, and it seems like the one thing they all agree on is that the nation is in trouble.  They may disagree about what the trouble is or what the solutions are, but they all agree that we’re in trouble.
            And a lot of times, what we really want is a Savior to come along and take care of the trouble.  We want a Savior, either from the left or from the right, who will come along and defeat the enemy, whoever we think the enemy happens to be.  We want someone who can make everything right, someone who can solve all the problems and user in a new Golden Age of prosperity and peace and justice for our country.  Sometimes that’s who we want our Savior to be, too.
            But that’s not who the Savior is.  At least not now.  The Bible tells us that Jesus is going to come again, and at that point there will be a day of judgment.  There will, eventually, be the coming of the new earth and the new Jerusalem and everything will be as it should be.  The Savior will do that, someday.  But not now.  For right now, that’s not who the Savior is.
            When Jesus came, he was not who the people of Israel assumed he would be.  And he was not who the people of Israel wanted him to be.  And so, when he came, a lot of the people of Israel missed it.  They looked somewhere else for the Savior, not even noticing that the Savior they had been looking for all these centuries was right there with them.  That’s a really sad thing, when you think about it.
            But you know, even the people who were there with Jesus, and recognized him as the Savior, missed it in a way, too.  Because even though they believed in Jesus as the Savior, they still were trying to make Jesus into the Savior they wanted him to be, rather than the Savior he was.  They kept trying to make him fight, to make him take power.  James and John asked Jesus to seat them at his right and left when he took control.  When Jesus told his disciples that he was about to be arrested, the disciples looked around for swords to fight back with.  Some people think one of the reasons Judas betrayed Jesus was to try to force Jesus to use his power to defeat their enemies and take power on earth.  They kept trying to make Jesus into the Savior they wanted him to be, rather than the Savior he came to be, the Savior he was.
            And we still, too often, try to make Jesus into the Savior we want him to be, rather than the Savior he came to be.  We want Jesus to take power on earth, to make everything the way we think it’s supposed to be.  But that’s not who Jesus is.  That’s who Satan wanted him to be.  Remember, that was the biggest temptation Jesus faced in the wilderness, the temptation to take power on earth.  And Jesus refused.
Jesus could’ve taken power that way.  Jesus could’ve raised an army, taken power, and ruled on earth.  Or, really, Jesus would not have needed to raise an army.  He probably could’ve just commanded and everyone would’ve had no choice but to obey.  But if he had done that, Jesus would’ve taken power by brute force.  And that’s not the kind of Savior Jesus is.
            I think one of reasons why that’s not the kind of Savior Jesus is, is that the most important thing to Jesus is love.  Jesus came to earth and lived among us out of love.  Jesus said the most important commandments are to love God and love others.  Jesus died for the forgiveness out of sins.  Jesus is a Savior of love.
            And brute force cannot result in love.  It can result in fear.  It can result in obedience.  But it cannot result in love.  In fact, it results in the exact opposite.  We cannot love someone we fear.  And when we’re forced to do things against our will and without choice, we usually will come to resent whoever it is that’s forcing us to do it.  And the first chance we get, we rebel.  Brute force can require obedience, but it cannot result in love.
            Jesus is the Prince of Peace.  That’s what Isaiah called him, and that’s what he was and what he is.  And brute force cannot result in peace.  Only love can. 
So that’s how Jesus takes power—through love.  Jesus takes power through loving us.  Jesus takes power by loving us so much that he died so our sins would be forgiven.  And Jesus takes power when we open our hearts to him.  Jesus takes power when the Holy Spirit fills our hearts.  Jesus takes power when we feel his love and return his love and share his love with others.
The Savior who came was not the Savior the people of Israel wanted.  And sometimes he’s not the Savior we want, either.  He’s better.  He’s not a Savior through the power of force.  He’s a Savior through the power of love.  And there will never be anything stronger than the power of love.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A New Hope

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, December 15, 2013.  The Bible verses are Jeremiah 23:1-8 and Matthew 2:1-7.

            As you know, I’ve moved around some in my life.  I’ve never lived outside of South Dakota, but I grew up in Delmont, went to school in Vermillion for seven years, lived in Pierre for six and a half years, lived in Wessington Springs for almost seventeen years, moved to North Sioux City for three years, and now have been here for about two and a half years.
            That experience is not all that unusual any more.  Lots of people move a few times in their lives.  Depending on whose figures you rely on, the average person moves anywhere from nine to sixteen times in their lives.
            But there are some people who don’t move at all.  Some people, including some of you, have lived pretty much on the same place their entire lives.  In fact, some people live in the same house all their lives.  When you do that, it has to make you feel a real connection to your past.  You must feel connected both to that certain place and to those people who’ve gone before you.
            We talked a little about the connection to a place last week, when we talked about the Savior being born in Bethlehem.  But today, we’re going to talk about the connection to the people who’ve gone before.  As we continue to look at the Old Testament prophecies about the Savior, today we’re going to look at the prophecy that the Savior would be a descendant of King David.
            The book of Jeremiah, to the best of our knowledge, was written around six hundred B. C.  In other words, it was written six hundred years before the birth of Jesus.  You may have noticed that we’re moving forward about a hundred years at a time with these prophecies.  Our reading from Isaiah, two weeks ago, was written in about eight hundred B. C., our reading from Micah last week was written in about seven hundred B. C., and today’s reading was written in about six hundred B. C. 
We are getting closer to the birth of the Savior, although obviously six hundred years is still a long time away.  And as we get closer to the birth of the Savior, the prophets are giving people more information about him.  First we learned that he would be born from a virgin.  Then we learned that he would be born in Bethlehem.  Now, we learn that the Savior will be a descendant of King David.
And you’ve probably noticed something else.  At each of the times that one of these prophecies is made, the nation of Israel is in trouble.  At the time of our reading from Isaiah, they were under threat from two armies who wanted to invade.  At the time of our reading from Micah, they were essentially in control of Assyria.  At the time of today’s reading, Israel is in even more trouble.  It is about to be taken over by Babylon and the people are going to be sent into exile, away from their home.
Think what that would be like.  To be forced away from your home.  To know that you could never go back.  I mean, yes, I’ve moved several times, but I’ve never moved that far away, and I’ve always know I could go back any time I wanted to. 
Think what it would be like to be forcibly taken to a foreign country.  Especially, those of you who’ve lived in this area all your lives, think what that would be like, to have somebody come and force you to go live in a completely different place, where nothing is going to be familiar to you.  And to know that, once you leave, you’re never going to be able to go back.  It must have been an incredibly hopeless feeling.
It’s at times like these, when things feel hopeless, that we need to find something, anything, to give us hope.  And so God, speaking through the prophets, gave the people hope.  God said yes, things look bad right now.  And sometimes, God said, you know what, things are going to get worse.  But God also said that things were not going to be that way forever.  God said that God had not abandoned them.  God said that someday, at the right time, a Savior would come.  God gave that message to the people of Israel.
And what better way to give the people that hope than to tell them that the Savior, the King, would be a descendant of King David?  After all, David had been the greatest king of all.  And God had promised David that David’s line would never die out, that David’s descendants would rule forever.  And everyone knew that.  And now, with the people about to be sent into exile, it looked like God’s promise had failed.
But it had not.  God, speaking through Jeremiah, told the people that God’s promise would be fulfilled.  David’s line had not died out.  David’s descendants would rule forever.  A King, a Savior, was going to come, and it would be someone who was a descendant of King David.  God would be faithful to God’s promises.
That’s why the gospels go to such lengths to go through Jesus’ genealogy and show that Jesus was, in fact, a descendant of David.  Both the first chapter of Matthew and the third chapter of Luke go through a lengthy list of Jesus’ ancestors.  The list in Matthew starts from Abraham and goes forward all the way to Joseph and then Jesus.  Luke goes backward, starting with Jesus, going back through Joseph, and then going back all the way to Adam.  The gospel writers wanted to make sure everyone knew that Jesus was the fulfillment of God’s promises.  They wanted to make sure everyone knew that Jesus was the Son of God.
When things seemed hopeless, God gave the people a message of hope.  And that’s what God still does.  When things seem hopeless in our lives, God gives us a message of hope, too.
It’s important for us to understand that.  Because it seems like it can be really easy for us to lose hope sometimes.  We humans, after all, can be pretty impatient people.  We want what we want when we want it.  We tend to think we deserve to get what we want when we want it.  When we don’t get it, we can get upset.  We can get discouraged.  And sometimes, we can lose hope.
And that’s especially true when we what we want seems, as far as we can tell, to be a good thing.  I mean, it would be one thing if what I wanted was ten million dollars and I was upset when God would not give it to me.  But sometimes, what we want is something simpler than that.  Sometimes, what we want is just to have enough money to buy food and pay the rent.  Sometimes, what we want is just to have a broken relationship with a loved one be repaired.  Sometimes, what we want is to not feel sick any more.  And when we pray for those things, and God does not seem to answer, it’s really easy for us to get discouraged.  It’s really easy for us to lose hope.  Because we cannot understand why a good, loving God would not give us these things.
In Isaiah’s time, in Micah’s time, in Jeremiah’s time, the people of Israel could not understand why God was making them go through what they had to go through.  And you know what?  God did not tell them why.  God, speaking through the prophets, did not tell the people why they were having to go through this.  What God said was that it’s not going to be this way forever. 
What God said was that God had not abandoned them.  God said that, eventually, things are going to change.  You’re going to have to go through some hard times first.  Things are going to be bad for a while.  And after that, things may get even worse for a while.  But eventually, things are going to change.  Things are going to get better.  Keep your faith.  Trust me.  Don’t lose hope.  I am going to send a Messiah to you.  He is going to be born of a virgin, he is going to be born in Bethlehem, and he’s going to be a descendant of David.  And he’s going to save you.
And when we don’t understand why God is making us go through what we have to go through, when we start to lose hope, that’s what God tells us.  God knows when we’re going through hard times.  And God tells us that God has not abandoned us.  God says that, yes, things are going to be bad for a while.  And in fact, things may even get worse for a while.  But eventually, things are going to change.  Things are going to get better.  God tells us to keep our faith.  God tells us to trust God.  And God tells us not to lose hope.
The reason we celebrate at Christmas is that this is when God’s promise came true.  God did send a Messiah.  He was born of a virgin.  He was born in Bethlehem.  He was a descendant of David.  And he did save the people of Israel.
So if you’re going through a hard time right now, know that God sees it.  Know that God understands it.  And know that God has not abandoned you.  Things are going to get better.  Keep your faith.  Trust God.  Don’t lose hope.  Jesus saved the people of Israel.  And Jesus will save us, too.

Friday, December 13, 2013

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.

Do Your Best

This is the message given at the communion service at Oahe Manor Thursday, December 12, 2013.  The Bible verses used are Matthew 1:18-25.

            You know, in a lot of ways, Joseph is kind of the forgotten man of the Christmas story.  I mean, we know he’s there.  We certainly would not put together a nativity scene without Joseph.  But a lot of times that’s about all we know about Joseph—that he’s there.  The Christmas story tends to be about Mary and the baby and the shepherds and the wise men.  Joseph is just kind of set to one side.

            That’s true even in the Bible verses we read today.  We’re told that an angel appeared to Joseph.  We’re told what the angel said.  We’re told that this took place to make an Old Testament prophecy come true.  But we’re not told a thing about what Joseph said.  We’re not told anything about what he thought.  We’re not told anything about how he felt.  It’s like Joseph was just kind of prop, like he’s not really all that important.

            But put yourself in Joseph’s place.  You’re about to get married.  And the woman you love, whom you’re about to marry, comes to you and tells you she’s pregnant.  And you know the child cannot possibly be yours.  And yet, she swears that she has not been unfaithful to you.  She tells you that she was visited by an angel, and that this child is, in fact, the son of God.

            How would you react to that?  I mean, you might want to believe it, but how could you?  It sounds so totally unbelievable.  Who ever heard of such a thing?  I mean, yeah, you’ve heard about the Old Testament prophecy about the virgin birth, but that was eight hundred years ago.  And now, your fiancĂ©e is trying to convince you that she, out of all the people in the world before and since, was told by an angel that she’s the virgin the prophet was talking about?  Come on.

            But, you still have feelings for Mary, so you decide to just cancel the wedding and keep things quiet.  Your family and close friends will know what’s happened, but they don’t have to know why.  Life can go on for everybody.  And then, you get visited by an angel, too.  And the angel tells you that everything Mary told you was true.

            How would you feel?  Relieved, probably.  Maybe a little ashamed for having doubted Mary.  But then what?

            I don’t know about you, but I think I’d be scared to death.  Think of the responsibility!  It’s hard enough to raise kids under normal circumstances.  But this.  I mean, is the kid going to look different, have some sort of angelic shine to him or something?  Is he going to act different?  What are you supposed to do?  How in the world do you be the Dad to the Son of God?

            I suspect a lot of stuff like this was going through Joseph’s mind.  Probably some of it went through Mary’s mind, too.  I’d be they had a lot of talks about it when they were waiting for their child to come, and probably after he was born as well.

            We’re not told about that in the Bible, though.  Again, we’re not told anything about what Joseph said or thought or felt.  He was not even asked if he agreed with all this.  It was like whether he agreed with it really did not matter.  Joseph does not appear to have been given any choice about it.  We’re just told that Joseph took Mary home with him as his wife.  In other words, Joseph accepted the situation God had given him and decided to do the best he could with it.

            And it strikes me that this is the same thing that God often asks us to do.  Because there are a lot of times in our lives when things happen, and whether we agree with them or not really does not matter.  We’re not given any choice about it.  God just asks us to accept the situation God has given us and do the best we can with it.

            Some of you—maybe all of you—are here because of situations you were not really given a whole lot of choice about.  Even if you made the decision to come here, you made that decision because of situations you did not have much control over.  If you could have everything the way you wanted, you’d feel better, you’d be able to do more things, you’d be independent, and you would be living on your own rather than be here.

            I certainly don’t blame you for feeling that way.  And I’m sure God does not blame you for feeling that way, either.  But, as you know, that’s not one of the options you have.  You are in the condition you’re in, and that condition requires you to be here.  God did not give you a choice about that condition.  And what God asks is that you accept that condition and do the best you can with it.

            What that means, exactly, is different for each of you.  Each of you has different talents and abilities.  Each of you is in a little different condition.  That’s okay.  None of us is asked to do everything.  We’re just asked to do the best we can.

            You know, when the angel talked to them, the angel did not tell them all the stuff that was going to happen.  The angel did not say, “Oh, and by the way, you’re going to have this baby when you’re traveling away from home, and it’ll be born in a stable.  And then you’re going to have to go away and live in Egypt for a couple of years before you can come back home.”  Joseph and Mary did not know any of that.  They lived their lives one day at a time, the way we all do.  They made it up as they went along.

            So, if you don’t know exactly what to do, that’s okay.  Joseph and Mary did not know what to do, either.  But if we accept the situation God has given us and resolve to do the best we can with it, God will show us what to do, just like God did with Joseph and Mary.

            We don’t always get to choose our situations.  But we do get to choose how we respond to them.  If was accept the situation God has given us and decide to do the best we can, God will take care of the rest.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Most Important Person in the World

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, December 8, 2013.  The Bible verses used are Micah 4:1-5:3 and Matthew 2:1-8.

            One thing that most people know about the birth of Jesus is that it took place in Bethlehem.  Even most people who don’t believe in Jesus know that.  You ask people on the street where Jesus was born, and most of them would be able to come up with “Bethlehem”.  We sing about it, like we just did with “O Little Town of Bethlehem”.  Jesus’ birth is Bethlehem’s big claim to fame.
            The thing is that it was not just an accident or a coincidence that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.  As we just heard, this was something that was predicted in the Old Testament.  The prophet Micah had said that the King would be born in Bethlehem.
            The book of Micah was written, to the best of our knowledge, around 700 B.C.  That would be about a hundred years after the prophecy of Isaiah that we talked about last week, but still a long time before Jesus was born.  
            It was written at a time when the nations of Israel and Judah were in big trouble.  Israel and Judah was still technically independent countries, but they was basically under the control of Assyria.  It was sort of like how countries like Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia were in the days of the Soviet Union.  They were considered independent countries, but they were only independent to the extent that they were allowed to be.  Israel and Judah could do nothing that Assyria did not allow them to do, and they had to pay Assyria to keep them from just invading and taking over.
Micah says this happened because the people of Israel and Judah had abandoned God.  But, he says, it will not always be this way.  God has a plan.  Eventually, things are going to be the way they were always supposed to be.
It’s not going to happen right away.  In fact, Micah says that for a while, things are going to get even worse.  But eventually, God is going to bring the nations of Israel and Judah back together, and they’re going to be strong again.  And God, speaking through Micah, says the one through whom this is going to happen, the ruler over Israel, is going to come from Bethlehem.  And, as we heard in our reading from Matthew, Bethlehem is where Jesus was, in fact, born.
Why Bethlehem?  Well, we don’t really know, of course.  God, speaking through Micah, says the King is to be born in Bethlehem, but God does not say why.  I’ll bet the people Micah was speaking to wondered about it, though.  Why Bethlehem?
People knew where Bethlehem was, of course.  They’d heard of it.  It was not too far from Jerusalem.  It was the hometown of King David, so people knew it for that reason.  The Savior was supposed to be a descendant of David, and we’ll talk about that later in this sermon series, but that did not mean he had to born in Bethlehem.  There was nothing special about the town.  David had never made a big deal about being born in Bethlehem.  When we read the book of Micah, we’re not told of anyone questioning Micah about it, but the question had to have occurred to them.  Why Bethlehem?  Why there?
The one thing Micah said about it, the one clue we’re given, is that Bethlehem is the home of the Ephrathites.  We’re then told that the Ephrathites are small among the clans of Judah.
Why is that important?  Well, again, we don’t know.  But we do know that one of the reasons Micah told people this was so when the Savior came, they’d know about it.  They’d be able to pick him out.  There had already been false Messiahs and false prophets, and Micah knew that was going to continue.  It was important that people be able to pick out the true Messiah when he came.  
One of the ways people would know whether someone was actually a true Messiah was if they knew whether he’d been born in Bethlehem.  And since Bethlehem was small, that’d cut down the number of people who could claim to be the Messiah.  If the Messiah had been born in a big city like Jerusalem, there might’ve been all sorts of false Messiahs who could make that claim.  But not that many people were born in Bethlehem, and the people there would know if someone had been born there or not.  It was a much more effective sign for God to have the Savior born in a little town like Bethlehem.
I think there’s more to it than that, though.  I think the fact that the Savior was born in Bethlehem fits in with the way God looks at this world.  As we’ve talked before, God does not look at the world the way we do.  God does not necessarily honor the same things we honor.  God does not see as important the same things we see as important.  God simply has different and better priorities than we do.
Who are some births that have been celebrated in recent years?  When one of Britain’s royal family has a son or daughter, that’s a big deal, right?  When Kim Kardashian and Kanye West had a baby recently, that was a huge deal.  Not to some of us, necessarily, but in the news it was.  Google it and you’ll see all kinds of stories.
On the other hand, when a baby is born to people who live in Gettysburg, or Onida, or Agar, it’s not a big deal.  I mean, it is to their family, and to their friends, but the world does not really notice.  Those of you who’ve had children, I’m guessing they did not put you on the national news when you did.  USA Today probably did not send a reporter out to talk to you and a photographer to take pictures.  The world looked at it as just another baby, just one more kid out of all the thousands and millions of kids who are born all the time.
That’s how the world looked at it when Jesus was born, too.  I mean, yeah, there were the shepherds and the wise men, but shepherds were considered pretty low-class people at the time.  Nobody paid a whole lot of attention to them.  And despite the way we show it in our nativity scenes, the wise men did not actually show up on the night of Jesus’ birth.  It was sometime later, maybe up to two years later, when they met Jesus with their gifts.  On the night of Jesus’ birth, very few people even noticed, and to most of those who did, it was just one more Jewish kid born in the world.
But of course, Jesus was not just one more Jewish kid born.  But because he was born in Bethlehem, in a stable, of all places, almost nobody knew about it at the time.  Mary and Joseph knew, of course.  The shepherds knew, and the wise men.  And eventually, everybody else would come to find out, too.  Jesus was not just one more Jewish kid born.  He was someone special.  He was someone important.  In fact, he was someone unique.  He was the Messiah.  But hardly anybody saw it at the time.
God saw it, though.  And God saw it when your children were born, too.  And God also saw it when you were born.  God never, ever sees a baby as “just another kid being born”.  God sees each one of us as special, and important, and unique.  God sees us that way when we’re born, and God continues to see us that way throughout our lives.
God could’ve had Jesus be born in a big city, in a palace, to parents who were rich and famous.  God could’ve had Jesus be born with lots of publicity and a big show.  But instead, God had Jesus born in the little town of Bethlehem, in a stable, with no fanfare except a few shepherds, to parents who were just common people, people like you and me.  And, as far as we know, Jesus grew up as just a common person, too.
God does not see things the way humans tend to see them.  God does not judge a person’s importance based on their fame.  God does not judge a person’s importance based on their money.  God does not judge a person’s importance based on their power.  To God, each one of us is important.  And we always will be, no matter what we do, no matter where we go.  Each of us will be important, and special, and unique.
Micah told the people that God had a plan to bring the nation together.  That plan involved a baby being born in Bethlehem.  The most important person in the history of the world was to be born in a small town to common, ordinary people. 
And the most important person in the history of the world is still being born to common, ordinary people.  Because to God, each one of us is the most important person in the history of the world.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Reach Out

I hope you’re having an awesome day today.  In fact, I hope this awesome day is just one part of an awesome week for you!

That's a pretty optimistic statement, I guess.  Well, I try to be an optimist.  I think it's the best way to be.  One of my favorite Doctor Who quotes is when the Doctor says, “I am and always will be the optimist.  The hoper of far-flung hopes.  The dreamer of improbable dreams.”

I think that’s a good way to go through life.  Certainly, we should not lose touch with reality, but the only way we can accomplish things is we believe they are possible in the first place.  If we think things will go right, well, maybe they will.  If we convince ourselves things can't possibly go right, well, they almost certainly won't.  That's just kind of the way life works.

Still, I know that sometimes it's hard to be optimistic.  Sometimes things go wrong, and sometimes they stay wrong for a while.  Sometimes, it’s a pretty long while.  If things stay wrong long enough, it's hard to convince ourselves that they'll eventually go right.  If things stay wrong long enough, we start to think they'll never go right again.

I understand that.  I’ve been there.  The thing is, God understands it, too.  God understands how hard that can be.  But God is always there with us.  God is there in those times when things go wrong, and eventually, God will help them start to go right again.  Just hang in there.  Don't give up.  Things will get better, if we just don't lose our trust in God.  Remember, with God, all things are possible.  Nothing is too hard for God.

But one other thing, too.  If things are going wrong, don't suffer alone.  Don't suffer in silence.  Reach out to people.  Reach out to your friends.  Reach out to your church.  Reach out to your pastor.  We may or may not be able to help, but we can at least let you know you're not alone.  We can let you know that, no matter how bad things are, there are at least people who love you and care about you and want to help.

No one is supposed to try to get through life alone.  That’s why God put us into families and into communities—so that we would not have to go through life by ourselves.  Even Jesus didn't try to get through life by himself.  He sought out people to be with him.  If Jesus needed to have people around him, you and I certainly do.

There are people who are here for you.  We are here for you.  All you need to do is let us know when you need us.  Never think it’s too much trouble.  Never think you’ll be bothering us.  We want to help you.  And there will be times when we need you to help us, too.

We all need help to stay optimistic.  So don’t be afraid to reach out.  And have an awesome week!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Don't Worry, Be Ready


This is the message given at the Oahe Manor service Sunday, December 1, 2013.  The Bible verses used are Matthew 24:36-44.

I hope you all had a wonderful and blessed Thanksgiving.  But today is December first.  So, even though we still think of this as Thanksgiving weekend, in the church we need to turn the page.  Today is the first Sunday of the season of Advent.  This is the time in the church calendar when we get ready to celebrate the coming of Christ.

In our reading from Matthew, Jesus talked about getting ready for the coming of Christ, too.  Not his birth, obviously, but the time he's going to come again.  And there are ways in which that second coming will be like the first.  In both cases, people had been told that Jesus was coming.  There are Old Testament prophecies of the coming of the Savior to earth, and Jesus himself said that he would come again.  Also, in both cases, even though people know Jesus is coming, there is no way to know when it's going to happen.  And so, in both cases, it's important for us to be ready.

Jesus says that when he comes again, it's going to be a day just like any other day.  We'll be living our lives, eating and drinking and getting married and doing all the things people do in their lives.  And suddenly, Jesus will be here.  The way it sounds, once he comes, there won't be any time to get ready any more.  So, since we don't know when Jesus is coming and we won't have time to get ready after he comes, we need to be ready now, so we're ready whenever he comes.

That sounds like kind of a hard thing.  It's really not.  We don't have to do a lot of special stuff to get ready for Jesus to come.  In fact, we don't really have to do anything.  Salvation is not about doing stuff.  Salvation is about faith.  If we believe in God, if we've accepted Jesus Christ as our Savior, if we've asked God for forgiveness of our sins, then we are ready.

If you went to the inspiration service last Tuesday morning, you heard Norma talk about the Boy Scout motto, “Be prepared”.  That's what we're talking about here.  And when I think about that, I think about something else Jesus said.  This is in Matthew, too, but it comes earlier, in Chapter Six.  Jesus says, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.  Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

See, to me, worrying and being prepared always seem like exact opposites.  I don't know about you, but the times I do the most worrying are when I'm not prepared.  That's when I start thinking about all the things that could happen or might happen and start wondering what I'll do if they do happen.  If I'm not prepared for stuff, I do a lot of worrying about it.

But I don't worry if I'm prepared.  Because why should I?  When we're prepared, we don't need to worry.  If those things that could happen or might happen actually do happen, it's okay.  We're ready. We know what we're going to do.  There's nothing to worry about, because no matter what happens, we'll be able to handle it.

And that includes the time when we meet Jesus, too.  If we've asked God for forgiveness of our sins and accepted Jesus as our Savior, we don't have to worry about what happens when the time comes.  We're ready for it.  There's nothing to worry about, because when Jesus comes, we'll be able to handle it.

That's true regardless of whether we meet Jesus because Jesus came to earth again or whether we meet Jesus because we've left this earth.  If we've asked God for forgiveness of our sins and accepted Jesus as our Savior, we don't have to worry even about death.  When the time comes, we'll be ready for it.  When the time comes, we'll be able to handle it.

Did you notice, when Jesus told the disciples to be ready, he never told them anything to do.  He did not tell them “I could come again at any time, so make sure you live a perfect, sinless life”.  He did not tell them, “I could come again at any time, so make sure you spend all day every day praying and reading the Bible”.  If you read the verses around this passage, there's really only one thing he tells the disciples to do to get ready, and that is to be faithful to God.  And again, we do that by asking god for forgiveness of our sins and accepting Jesus Christ as our Savior.

We struggle with that idea sometimes.  It seems too simple.  It seems too easy.  We think, “That cannot be all there is to it.  There must be something more that I have to do.  There must be some great and high and noble thing I have to do.  The almighty, all-powerful God would not let somebody like me into heaven.  The righteous, holy, perfect God would not want someone like me around.  I have to get better.  I have to do something to show I'm good enough.  I have to do something to earn my way into heaven.”

We're so tempted to think that, but it's just not so.  There is nothing we can do to be “good enough”.  In fact, there is no such thing as being “good enough” to go to heaven.  We don't get to go to heaven because we're good, we get to go to heaven because God is so good.  We don't get to go to heaven because we're earned it, we get to go to heaven because Jesus earned it for us.  All we need to do is believe.  Believe and accept Jesus Christ as our Savior.

If we've done that, then we're prepared.  And when we're prepared, we don't have to worry.  We can be at peace, and look forward to the day when we will go to be with Jesus in heaven.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Promise Kept


This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, December 1, 2013.  The Bible verses used are Isaiah 7:3-17 and Luke 1:26-38.

We just got done with Thanksgiving, and I hope you all had a wonderful one.  I hope you got to eat lots of turkey—at least if you like turkey—and I hope you got to watch lots of football—if you like football—and I hope you got to spend some time with family and rest and do all the things we do to celebrate Thanksgiving.  And of course, I also hope you spent some time actually giving thanks to God for all the things God has done for us.

But now, in the church, it's time for us to turn the calendar page to preparations for the coming of Christmas.  This is the first Sunday of Advent.  We lit the first candle of the Advent wreath, we're singing the Advent hymns, and we're starting to prepare for the celebration of the birth of Christ.

That's good.  We need to prepare to celebrate Jesus' birth.  They prepared for it in Old Testament times, too.  They may not have known just what they were preparing for, exactly, but they were still preparing for it.  There are lots of Old Testament passages that talk about the coming of the Messiah.  So, our sermon series for December is “Jesus Foretold”.  We're going to look at some of the Old Testament prophecies and see what they had to say about the coming of the Messiah.  And we're going to start by talking about the sign of the virgin birth, as referenced in the book of Isaiah.

The book of Isaiah, or at least the part we're dealing with today, was written in the eighth century B. C.  In other words, it was written about eight hundred years before Jesus was born.  At this time, Israel was separated from Judah, and Judah was in big trouble.  There were two kings who were sending their armies to march on Jerusalem and take it over.  The king of Judah, King Ahaz, was scared, because he did not think his army could defeat these other armies.

God sends the prophet Isaiah to King Ahaz, and tells him to tell Ahaz not to worry about it.  It'll be okay.  Just stand firm in your faith.  God will defend you.  God will defeat your enemies.  And, he says, ask God to give you a sign of how God can be trusted.  And Ahaz says no. Ahaz says, no, I don't want a sign.

Think about that.  How many times in your life have you wished God would give you a sign of some sort?  I have, sometimes.  I might ask God for a sign that I'm on the right track.  I might ask God for a sign that things are going to work out.  Sometimes, I might just ask God for a sign that God is still there and that God knows what I'm going through.  Sometimes I've thought that I've gotten a sign and sometimes I have not, but there have been several times when I've asked for one.

But Ahaz did not want a sign.  Why not?  I mean, here he is, scared that two different armies are going to defeat him and take over his country, and he does not want a sign that God will protect him?  I'd think you'd love to have a sign in a situation like that.  In fact, I think I'd be looking for a sign, desperately trying to find one, trying to find something, anything, that said God was with me and that things would be all right.  But Ahaz did not want one.  Why not?

Well, you know, as much as we might think we want a sign from God, sometimes it's a tricky thing.  You see, if we ask for a sign from God, what we're really agreeing to do is surrender to God's will.  If we say we want a sign from God on whether we should do something, and God gives us a sign that we should, then we have to do it.  Even if we really don't want to do it, if God gives us a sign to do it, we'd better.  If we say we want a sign from God on whether things are going to work out the way we want them to and we get a sign that says no, then we have to re-think everything we've been doing.  Even if we really want things to work out a certain way, if God gives us a sign that they won't, we need to adapt to that.  If we ask for a sign from God, we need to surrender our will to God's will.

And a lot of times, we really don't want to do that.  We might think we do, but when it comes right down to it, we probably don't.  Ahaz did not.  He wanted God to defeat his enemies, of course, but he wanted God to do it in a way that left Ahaz in control of the situation.  After all, that's what it means to be king—to be in control of everything.  If Ahaz asked for a sign from God, then he would be surrendering his will to God's will.  He would be acknowledging that God was in control, and not Ahaz.  Ahaz did not want to do that.

But Isaiah tells Ahaz that he's going to get a sign anyway, a sign that showed God would always protect God's people.  The sign is that a virgin is going to give birth to a son and he will be called Immanuel, which means “God with us”.

And eight centuries later, it happened.  Jesus was born to the virgin, Mary.  Jesus was “God with us”.

Eight centuries is a long time to wait for a promise to be kept.  You know, one of the things about the way we read the Bible is that we kind of compress the amount of time it took for these things to happen.  Think of it this way.  Eight centuries ago, it was the year 1213.  Think about if God made a promise to someone in 1213 and it had still not been fulfilled.  You think people would start to doubt God's promise?  You think people would start to wonder if that promise was actually true?  You think there'd be a lot of questions about a promise God supposedly made in 1213 that had not come true yet?  Of course there would be.

And there were doubts among the Jews before Jesus was born, too.  They believed in God, and they believed Isaiah was a prophet, but still.  Eight centuries.  Eight hundred years.  And nothing had happened.  For a lot of that time, they'd been under the control of some other country.  Once in a while something would happen to give them hope.  They'd even gain their freedom, momentarily.  But it would never last.  And so, even though they believed that a Savior would someday come, very few of them actually expected to see it happen in their lifetime.  They believed, in theory, but that belief did not really affect their lives in any meaningful way.

Does that make them much different from us, do you think?  We believe in God, and we believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior.  And yet, those things we read in the gospels, the story of Mary we read this morning in Luke, happened two thousand years ago.  God was with us, in the form of Jesus, two thousand years ago.  And we're told that, sometime, Jesus is coming back.  And we believe it, but still.  Two thousand years.  Two millenia.  Twenty centuries.  And, as far as we can tell, nothing has  happened.  For a lot of that time, in fact for all of that time, somewhere in the world, Christians have been persecuted.  Once in a while, something happens to give us hope, but it never lasts.  And so, even though we believe that Jesus did come, and even though we believe Jesus will come again, very few of us actually expect to see it happen in our lifetime.  We believe, in theory, but too many times, that belief does not affect our lives in any meaningful way.

And so, we doubt.  And we worry.  And we get scared of our enemies, whether those enemies are physical enemies like King Ahaz had or are enemies like illness or debt or loneliness or broken relationships or all the other things that affect us in life.

And God comes to us, just like Isaiah came to Ahaz.  And God tells us not to worry about it.  It'll be okay.  We just need to stand firm in our faith.  God will defend us.  God will defeat our enemies.   All we need to do is trust God.  All we need to do is surrender our will to God's will.

God gave Ahaz a sign.  That sign was a promise.  Eventually, that promise was kept.  It took a long time, but eventually, the virgin did conceive and give birth to a son, and the son was Immanuel, God with us.

God will keep God's promises to us, too.  It may take a while, but eventually, it will happen.  The question is, do we believe that?  Do we believe it enough to let it truly affect our lives?  In other words, do we believe it enough to do what King Ahaz could not do?  Do we believe it enough to trust God and surrender our will to God's will?

On this first Sunday of Advent, as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ, those are questions we need to answer.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Honor Roll

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, November 24, 2013.  The Bible verses used are Mark 14:12-26 and Psalm 139.

This Thursday is Thanksgiving, so it seemed like the perfect time to end our sermon series called “Thank God”.  So far, we've talked about how thanking God helps us feel joy and feel like we are one with God.  We've also talked about how, even though we know, as the Apostle Paul says, that we should be thankful in all circumstances, it can be a really hard thing to do, and how God understands if sometimes we just cannot do it.

The thing is, though, that even though God understands when we simply cannot feel thankful, that should still be our goal.  Not in the sense of feeling guilty if we don't feel thankful, but in the sense of knowing that we'll feel better if we do.  It's okay for us to feel whatever we feel, but we also need to try to find ways to not feel it any more, to start feeling the thankfulness that really will help us once again feel joy and feel that we are one with God.

And that's why we read the story from the gospel of Mark about the Last Supper.  Some of you might have wondered about that, because we usually read that story when it's getting close to Easter, not at Thanksgiving.  But it seems to me, when I read that story, that one of the things Jesus does there is give us an example of being thankful in all circumstances.

Let's look at what's going on here.  Jesus is about to take the Passover meal with his disciples.  This is the last time he's going to be with them before he gets arrested—that, of course, is why we call it the Last Supper.  The arrangements are made.  The meal is prepared.  Jesus comes, and the way it's written, the first thing he tells the disciples is that one of them is going to betray him.

The disciples—other than Judas—are shocked.  Judas himself might be shocked, at least shocked that Jesus knows what he's going to do, anyway.  But Jesus tells them it really is going to happen, and that it really is one of them.

Then, it's time to eat.  What happens then?  Here's what it says:

"Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it, this is my body.”  Then he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it."

Think about that.  Jesus knows exactly what's going to happen.  He knows that later on that night, he's going to be arrested.  Then he's going to be beaten, he's going to be tortured, and he's going to be killed in a very hard way.  And he knows that the person responsible for turning him over to the authorities and making all this happen is sitting right there with him.  And yet, Jesus gives thanks.  He gives thanks twice, once before giving his disciples the bread and once before giving his disciples the cup.  Knowing everything that's going to happen, Jesus still gives thanks to God the Father.

I wonder what Jesus actually said.  There's no way to know, of course.  None of the gospels quote Jesus there.  They just say he gave thanks.  It may have just been a ritualistic Jewish prayer, just a formula prayer that Jews always said before taking a meal, especially the Passover meal.  That would explain why we don't have Jesus' words.  On the other hand, all the gospels that talk about this specifically point out that Jesus gave thanks twice.  If it was just a ritual, there'd have been no need to say it at all.

What would Jesus have had to be thankful for, at that point?  The food?  What good was that going to do him?  This was the last meal he would have on earth.  His friends?  One of them was going to betray him, and all of them were going to abandon him.  The coming day?  Jesus knew what that was going to bring for him.  Yes, he knew he would eventually triumph over death and would later go to be with God the Father in heaven, but he was going to have to travel a long, hard road to get there.  And as we learn from Jesus' time in the Garden of Gethsemane, it's not a road he particularly wanted to travel, any more than anyone else would.  If you were Jesus, what would you be thankful for right then?  Anything?

Again, there's no way to know what Jesus was thankful for.  The only thing I can think of, though, is that Jesus was thankful for the chance to serve God the Father.  Jesus was thankful for the honor of being the one who would bring salvation to the world.  Jesus was thankful that, as the Divine Son, he had the privilege of being the one who would suffer, die, and then conquer death so that our sins would be forgiven.

Maybe some of us would look at that and think, “Oh, yeah, that was some honor, all right.”  But if we think about it, it really was an honor.  After all, who else could've done it?  Who else could have been fully divine and fully human at the same time?  Who else could've been sent from heaven to do what Jesus did?  Who else could have left the presence of God the Father, abandoning the power that comes from God the Father, leaving the joy and beauty and peace and love that comes from being in the presence of God the Father, in order to bring salvation to us?  No human could've done it, obviously.  No angel could've done it, either.  None of the cherubim or seraphim or any other heavenly beings could have done it.  Out of all the earthly beings and all he heavenly beings, there was only one who could do it.  The only one who could be sent from heaven, the only being capable of doing what Jesus did, was Jesus himself, the divine Son of God.

Only the divine Son was uniquely qualified to suffer, die, and then conquer death so our sins would be forgiven.  And we're told that Jesus was honored for it.  If you wonder why we're told that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God the Father, well, that's one of the reasons why.  To be seated at the right hand of the king was the place of greatest honor.  And Jesus was given that honor because he accepted the chance to serve God the Father in a way that only he could do.

You and I are asked to serve God the Father, too.  We are asked to serve God in a way that no one else can.  Each of us is.  There is some way in which you are uniquely qualified to serve God, just like Jesus was.  And I can just hear some of you thinking, “Oh, yeah, right.  I'll just bet there is.  I'm no better than anyone else.  There's nothing I can do that lots of other people cannot do.  In fact, they can all do those things a lot better than I can.  There's nothing special about me.”

I understand why you think that, but it's not true.  Each of us is special and unique.  Our psalm today talked about how God knows everything about us.  God knows when we get up and when we go to bed.  God knows when we go out and when we come back.  God has known us since before we were born.

What that means is that there is something about you that is different from everyone else on earth.  There is something about me that is different from everyone else on earth.  If I was exactly like someone else, there'd have been no need for God to put me here.  If you were exactly like someone else, there'd have been no need for God to put you here.  The fact that you are here, and the fact that I'm here, shows that there is something we are supposed to do, something that no other being on earth or in heaven can do.

That's part of what it means to be one of God's children.  Those of you who have children, think about it.  Are any two of them alike?  Even if you have twins, are they exactly alike?  Of course not.  Even if they're identical twins, they're still not exactly alike.  Each of us is different.  Each of us is unique.  Each of us is special.  And each of us has something God wants us to do that no one else can do.  Each of us is asked to serve God in some special and unique way.

Think of the honor that is.  Out of all the billions of people on this earth, out of all the heavenly beings, there is something you, and only you, have been chosen by God to do.  It may be easy.  It may be hard.  It may be enjoyable.  It may not be.  It may be something you do with a group of people.  It may be something you do alone.  It may not be the same thing all your life.  In fact, it probably won't be.  But God has chosen you, and only you, to do something.  Out of all the billions of people on earth, God has selected you.

So if you have a hard time thinking of something to be thankful for, be thankful for that.  Be thankful that, out of all the billions of people on earth, out of all the billions of people who are and who have been and who will be, God knows your name.  God knows everything about you.  God has known you since before you were born.  There is no one else on earth like you.  And there is something God wants you to do that no one else can do.

Think about what an honor that is.  And be thankful for the honor of serving the almighty, all-loving, eternal God in your own special, unique way.