What Just Happened?

Sermon – Sunday, Jan. 13, 2013
Zion Lutheran Church, Hoople, ND
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” Reading this passage in Luke, you have to stop and ask yourself, “what just happened?” Unlike the people at the time of Jesus who were not sure if John was the Messiah, we know that Jesus is the Messiah. And we profess that He was born without sin. We profess that He is the Word made Flesh. Last week we celebrated Epiphany, when Jesus was revealed to the Gentiles when the magi followed the star to worship Him. And so we ask ourselves why? Why would Jesus need to be baptized with all the other people? We know that we are sinful by nature. We know that we need baptism. But Jesus? Why would Jesus need baptism? He has done nothing wrong.
Those words echo the voice of Pontius Pilate when he asked the crowds why they wanted Jesus crucified. Why, when He has done nothing wrong? The reality is that this baptism and Jesus’ crucifixion are interwoven. You cannot separate one from the other. What happens at baptism leads to the cross. And something definitely happens at baptism.

I read a few articles this week concerning baptism that caused me to think very deeply. There were a couple of people – Lutherans in fact – who asked if anything really happens at baptism? Are we really changed? Does anything significant take place – for real? There are many people, maybe some of you here today, who may ask the same question. Does anything really happen?

Rene LeBovier in France and Edwin Kagin in the United States would answer most definitely yes, but not for the reasons you would suspect. Rene LeBovier, an atheist in France, has been trying for the past year to be de-baptized. Yes, I read in the news that he was baptized in the Christian faith – Roman Catholic specifically – as an infant and he is petitioning the courts to force the church to declare him de-baptized. He said it was done against his will. Edwin Kagin, now an atheist in the United States, is also behind a movement to declare himself de-baptized. These aren’t the only two. The movement is growing in Europe and the United States. You have to ask yourself the question, if something didn’t really happen at baptism, why would people be trying to have it reversed?

The truth is something does happen at baptism. In baptism we are “sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever” – not just for a day, or a week, but forever. For some, like those previously mentioned, this may be troubling news, for others it is nothing short of miraculous. You see in baptism, we are united with Christ. In the waters of baptism, our old sinful nature is drowned and we are buried with Christ with the promise that we will share in His resurrection. We become members of the body of Christ, the church and heirs in God’s kingdom. We receive the gift of God’s grace. We receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and the Triune God delivers us from the forces of evil, puts our sinful self to death and gives us new birth – a new identity as a follower of Christ. We are made new – reborn – into a life discipleship, a life of service for others. And all this is done not because of anything we do or believe, but as an unconditional free gift of God. That is why more often than not we baptize infants, to show how this is God’s work and not our own. No wonder Martin Luther called it God’s “most precious jewel!” And this is a gift that cannot be taken from us. The question I have is why would anyone want to have that taken away?

While baptism is a gift of grace and hope, it is also a responsibility into a life of discipleship. In our baptism we are united with Christ – united in His death and resurrection. Sin is a turning in on ourselves and baptism turns us away from ourselves and into a right relationship with God. We are forgiven and empowered to love our neighbors and bear witness to the Gospel. That is both a gift and responsibility. No longer can we live just for ourselves, but we are reminded daily to live a life of service for others. Baptism is forever. It is not just a one-time event. We are reminded daily through our baptism to live for Christ. Each time we confess our sins before God and one another, we receive forgiveness, the forgiveness first granted in baptism. The Holy Spirit given to us at baptism renews us daily on our journey of faith.

Does anything really happen at baptism? Yes! We know who we are and whose we are. We are claimed by God. Just as the voice of God spoke to Jesus at His baptism, God speaks to us as well. “You are my beloved son. You are my beloved daughter. With you I am well pleased.” Who does not need to hear they are loved, especially by God! So many people go through their lives not knowing if they are loved, and that can have serious consequences. Often people turn to addictions and lives of crime because they feel they have no one and no place to turn. Yet God repeatedly expresses to us that we are loved. We may give up on ourselves, on god, but God will never give up on us!

We heard in Psalm 29 that the voice of the Lord is powerful. It is indeed! The voice of the Lord speaks to us every day. When Martin Luther was frightened or distressed he would repeat the words “I am baptized” to himself. He would shout it out loud at times. He knew that his baptism was a powerful force against the forces of the enemy. The enemy outside and the enemy within himself. The power of the water and the Word spoken at baptism is the most powerful voice of God’s covenantal promise. We are God’s people. We belong to God.

Isaiah 43 echoes those words. “Because you are precious in My sight, and honored, and I love you.” Listen to these words again. “You are precious in My sight, and honored, and I love you.” The Powerful, Holy, Mighty God loves you, just as you are.Let that sink in. God knows we are not perfect. God knows we are both sinners and saints, but God loves us anyway. God loves us so much that God sent Jesus to save us and bring us back to God.

That is why Jesus was baptized. Not because He needed His sins forgiven for He was born without sin, but He took on our sins and was baptized to show that He would take away our sins. Jesus became one of us and was baptized for us, and in solidarity with us.
And at His baptism the Holy Spirit descended on Him as a dove and God spoke to Him. “You are my beloved. In you I am well pleased.” Jesus needed the power of the Holy Spirit to stay on the course necessary that would lead Him to complete His mission for our salvation. We need the Holy Spirit too to renew us daily on our journey of faith. We need the Holy Spirit to speak to us when we are too weak to carry on. We need the Holy Spirit to pray for us when our words fail us.

Through our baptism, the Holy Spirit is with us, living within us and renewing us daily. And for those who are not yet baptized, this gift of grace is available at any time for you.

This week when you wake up in the morning and when you go to bed at night say out loud, I am baptized and know what this means. This week, if you find yourself troubled say out loud, I am baptized. This week, take a moment to say thank you and say out loud, I am baptized. And hear the voice of God speak, You are my beloved. In you I am well pleased.” Live and walk in the joy and peace of that promise. Amen.

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Stars, Dreams, and Kings

Sermon – Sunday, Jan. 6, 2013
Zion Lutheran Church, Hoople, ND
Matt. 2:1-12 – Epiphany

Stars, and dreams, and kings, oh my! If this sounds like a line from the Wizard of Oz you’re on to something. I couldn’t help as I was reading Mathew’s text this week to see the similarities between these two stories. In the classic movie the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy sets off on a journey toward Oz to see the wizard who has all the answers. Her companions are the lion, the scarecrow and the tin man. The journey is a perilous one filled with danger along the way, but they make this journey anyway because they need to find the truth.

In Matthew’s gospel today, our three travelers are seeking truth as well. They are commonly referred to as the three kings, but in reality we don’t know that there were three of them – probably several – and they were not kings, but more like astrologers. In ancient times these astrologers made it their vocation to study the stars and astronomical events. It was a very precise science and because of the exact position of the stars and planets they could tell that something important was about to happen. So they set out on a journey – one that would prove quite dangerous for them as well.

It was dangerous because they were seeking a new king and that was a threat to Herod, the ruling king at the time. Herod was known for his murderous and evil ways and he would stop at nothing to end any competition. He told the wise men that he wanted them to report back to him when they found the infant Jesus so he could worship him too, but in reality he wanted to use their expertise to find the baby and kill him. Jealousy and fear are common evils in all of us. These emotions may not lead us to murder, but they lead us to act in ways that are not life giving. I’m not exempt from these emotions either. At times I find myself wishing I were more like someone else who has characteristics or gifts that I think are far more valuable than mine. Maybe someone else is smarter, or richer, or more talented and we wonder why we aren’t blessed with those things. It can lead one down a dangerous path into fear and darkness. The only answer is to focus on the light of truth and that true light is Jesus.

That is the light that the magi traveled to see. And so they followed the star. Now the text says the star was ahead of them. They saw its rising and then they travelled for quite a while, studying their maps and going in the direction they first saw the star. That meant that there were most likely many days that they travelled without seeing the star. They traveled by day and by night going in the direction, but with no person to guide their way. How did they know they were going in the right direction?
How often do we ask ourselves the same question? How do we know if we are going in the right direction? We study the Scriptures, like the magi studied and interpreted their maps.

We read God’s word carefully, discussing it with others and trying to interpret exactly what it is that God is saying to us. It’s not easy to understand God’s plan for us and often we have no idea. But like the magi, we follow the light. We follow the light of Christ and trust that He knows the answers. And like the magi, when we find the Light, we are filled with joy.

Following the Light is a long journey for all of us. It is filled with twists and turns and dangers along the way. There are people who, like Herod, will want to lead us astray, who will try and deceive us, but we must stay true to the course no matter how difficult it gets. The magi stayed to their course with their maps and stars. We have the Scripture and prayer. And like the magi, we have each other. We have each other to keep us on the right path.

God spoke to the magi in a dream not to return the same way they came. God still speaks to us today. We need to be receptive to that. That is what Epiphany is all about. It is the manifestation of Christ. He is revealed to us every day and we – like the magi – need to be open to see Him. Christ is revealed to us when we pray. He is revealed to us when we minister to one another. And He is most especially revealed to us in the bread and wine today that we receive today.

We, like the magi, are on a journey to seek the King only we do not need to travel far. Jesus comes to us whenever and wherever we are. That is the greatest gift of all. That is reason to celebrate and give thanks! Amen.

House of Bread

Sermon – Christmas Eve. – Dec. 24, 2012
Zion Lutheran Church, Hoople, ND
The Gospel of Luke

What is it that brings us all here this evening? For many it is a time-old tradition to be here on Christmas Eve. For some perhaps this is your first time. For others, maybe you were dragged here by family members. But whatever the reason, you are here. What is it that brings us here on this pilgrimage – this journey to Bethlehem?

There is an energy in the air tonight. Excitement, anticipation,……mystery. You can’t help but feel it. Like the shepherds that night so long ago, it’s almost too much to comprehend. That’s why the angel said, “fear not.” And there are still things that bring us fear tonight, but the angels speak those words to us as well. “Fear not.! For behold, I bring you tidings of great joy that will be for all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” The energy in the air that night spoke of something extraordinary. Something great was about to happen and the shepherds out in the fields journeyed to the stable in Bethlehem to find out, just as we do.

The stable – where a young mother and her husband sang quiet lullabies. A baby born in a manger – a feed trough for animals – because there was nowhere else for them to go. But this is exactly where God wanted them. This is where the Savior came in the least expected place – a small, quiet town called Bethlehem.

Bethlehem, whose name means house of bread. It’s remarkable when you think of it! Jesus was born in the house of bread to be the Bread of Life for all the world. That baby born in a manger took His first breaths to breathe new life into us, and He took His last breaths to breathe new life into us. Every breath He took from His first to His last was for us. Don’t ever forget that.

It’s impossible to separate the manger and the cross. Jesus was born in a wooden box and died on a wooden cross and to ignore that would be to miss the whole point of this night. “God so loved the world that He sent His only Son so that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” John 3:16 That is the reason Jesus was born. There is sin and suffering and evil all around us. There is still pain even on this holy night, but Christ is born and lives among us – lives to be our hope.

Jesus was born for a special purpose. He came so that we might have new life. He came to nourish us – to renew us – to transform us. On this holy night we gather in Bethlehem, the house of bread, to celebrate Communion together and feast on the Bread of Life.
And as we receive Jesus in the bread and wine the Christ Child is born anew in each one of us. He is with us wherever we go. Nothing can separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus. In this Communion – we receive the bread and we, ourselves, become houses of bread for the Savior.

What is it that brings us here tonight? Like the holy family and the shepherds long ago, we are exactly where God wants us to be. We too have been led to Bethlehem. It is the miracle and mystery of this Bread of Life – come down from heaven – born in a manger – hung on a tree and risen, so that we may have new life. We come to Bethlehem, the house of bread, to celebrate the birth of Jesus – Feast of Love, Hope for the World, Emmanuel, King of Kings, Prince of Peace, the Great I AM! Merry Christmas!

No Ordinary Day

Sermon – Sunday, Dec. 23, 2012
Zion Lutheran Church, Hoople, ND
Luke 1:39-55

This morning we hear how Mary went out with haste to a Judean town in the hill country – a Judean town. No name is mentioned. Just some town somewhere in the hill country. Nothing significant. Why was Mary in a hurry to get there? We know from the verses previous to this one that she left Nazareth, which was about 80 miles from where she was going. In those days that would have taken her close to four days. What was so important that she had to hurry to go and see Elizabeth in some ordinary small Judean town?

In the previous verses we heard about an ordinary day. We don’t know what Mary was doing that day when she heard the news. Maybe she was cleaning her room, or reading a book. Perhaps she was resting or even praying. But that day Mary wasn’t expecting anything unusual to happen, especially to her. She was just an ordinary Hebrew young girl between the age of 13 – 16. She held no status in society. She wasn’t part of the elite group in town. But she was a kind girl, loving and compassionate and ….in love. Yes, Mary was in love with a man named Joseph- a carpenter by trade – and they were engaged to be married. That was pretty special. Certainly nothing greater than that was going to happen. Joseph was a good, kind man and with him Mary would be well taken care of and they would build a home together. God would provide for them and eventually their children if God so chose to bless them. Mary had a lot to be thankful for, mostly for the blessedness in ordinary days.

Little did she know that this was no ordinary day. On that day while Mary was going about her routine life, her whole life would be turned upside down. The angel Gabriel, appeared to Mary and spoke God’s prophetic words that she had found favor with God and was going to be the bearer of God’s Son and would name Him Jesus, The Lord saves. And if that didn’t seem unbelievable enough, her relative Elizabeth – who was quite old – was also going to have a baby – one who would pave the way for Mary’s Son. I don’t know about you, but I think I would have passed right out!

But Mary didn’t pass out and she didn’t protest. Instead, through faith she believed this good news and agreed to be God’s servant. And the first thing she did was to go to her relative Elizabeth. I doubt she went to see Elizabeth to see if what the angel said was true. Eighty miles is a long way to go just to check a story like that out. Elizabeth was quite old and I am sure Mary went to congratulate her and to see what she could do to help her. And…while this was amazing news it was also, cause for alarm. Mary was engaged to Joseph, but they were not yet married. And now she heard she was pregnant. In those days that kind of news could not only ruin a young girl, but cause her to be stoned to death. And what was Joseph going to say? I’m sure she headed out to see Elizabeth for someone to share this unordinary burden with.

Yet when Elizabeth heard Mary’s news the child within her leapt for joy – in recognition that this was going to be the mother of God. Only the Holy Spirit could reveal such knowledge and only the Holy Spirit could cause such a powerful reaction not only in the lives of these two women, but in the unborn life within Elizabeth. When the Holy Spirit is present a great power is at work. A power that turns the common into something extraordinary, into something blessed.

Elizabeth was right when she called Mary blessed, but as Mary explained in her beautiful song, she is blessed not because of who she was, but because “the Mighty One has done great things for me.” Mary realized that it was God – not her – who was going to do a great thing. She sang a song of hope –a hope that through faith saw what God had done throughout the history of her people and how God would be faithful to the promises made generations ago. She knew that God had promised a Savior and believed that that Savior was on His way through her. Mary was an example of what it meant to be a great disciple – to serve in faith. She is an example for us all.

We, like Mary, wait in hopeful expectation too. We wait for the celebration of the birth of the Christ child, but also for the coming of our Savior. And while we wait God wants to do great things through us too. The Holy Spirit wants to take over us too – to move within us and through us to bring about the kingdom of God. Mary’s life was potentially in danger by accepting this news, but she was willing to do whatever God asked. It was not going to be easy, but she trusted in God’s eternal promises. God is faithful and will not leave us in our time of need either.

When we were baptized, we were sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever – not just when our days are going great, but when the pain and struggles of this life seem too hard to bear. And when they do, God will be with us through each one of us. Elizabeth and Mary were there for each other. They supported one another in their times of need and we are called to support one another as well. That is what it means to be a church, to be the people of God.

Every time we reach out to others we are doing the work of God. Our WELCA Christmas gifts; our hat, glove and scarf tree; our Youth Group service projects, and all the other outreach projects we do here are ways the church is empowered to reveal Jesus in the lives of people. Every time we show love toward someone even in what we may think is some insignificant small way, we are revealing Jesus to them. Some of who think they are too ordinary and that like Elizabeth, “who are they that God should come to them?” But God is here for us all.

Because we have been touched by God we are blessed and we as a church are called to be a blessing to others. That is why people become members of a church body, to encourage one another, to witness with one another, to build one another up to bring that Good News out from this building and into the lives of people who need to hear it, to see, and to experience the Living God. Yes, there is darkness and evil in the world, but there is a light much greater than any darkness.

We are called to witness to each other and to all people, to help one another see the blessedness in the ordinary. For when God touches the ordinary it is no longer the same. It is changed, transformed, into something holy and sacred. As we wait in hope, let us rejoice that God’s power is at work through us, transforming even the most ordinary of days. Amen.