Words to Treasure

Sunday, December 30, 2018
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Luke 2:41-52

Six days ago we celebrated the birth of Jesus, our Savior. On this sixth day of Christmas, have we, like Mary at the birth of Jesus, continued to treasure the angels’ words of God’s glory in our hearts?  The manger is empty. Jesus is Emmanuel – God with us – and we take him home with us wherever we go. Our gospel reading from Luke today does not follow the logical pattern. We expect after reading the story of Jesus’ birth, to read about the three wise men or magi that journeyed from far away to see the new born king. But that reading will take place next week from the gospel of Matthew when we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany. This week, Luke quickly moves from Jesus’ birth, to his growing and maturing in strength and wisdom. We jump ahead to when Jesus is twelve years old, and he and his family are once again traveling. Only this time they are not traveling from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem, but they are on their way to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival of the Passover. And while they are on their journey Mary and Joseph cannot find Jesus. For a time he is lost to them. They are filled with fear and anxiety as anyone would be if they lost their child for even a moment. But on finding Jesus in the temple teaching they are relieved, yet at the same time not fully understanding what all of his words meant. The original Greek translation is unclear as Jesus said it was necessary for him to be about his father’s things vs. his house. What is certain is that he was supposed to be where God was calling him to be, and do what God was calling him to do. Once again, Mary “treasured all these things in her heart.”

Mary did that a lot. From the time the angel Gabriel announced she would bear a son who would be the Savior, hearing the angels’ glorious news at the birth of Jesus, and hearing Jesus’ own words not just when he was in the temple at age 12, but throughout his life. Jesus was on a mission from God, a journey that began at his birth, continued throughout his life, and death, and resurrection. The work that God called Jesus to do was one amazing journey, that continues through us today.

We are all called by God to carry out specific things. Each one of us is unique, and God speaks through our unique voices, and works through our individual gifts. It is a journey that begins at our baptism and continues throughout our lives. Today, Mason Christopher Kenyon begins his journey of faith as he joins this journey of the Christian faith in the waters of Holy Baptism. He too, will do things and say things that will surprise his parents, but his Godparents, this community of faith, and Almighty God will be with him every step of the way. Through the waters of baptism, he has the assurance that he is forever joined with Christ who came as one of us at Christmas, but through his life, death, and resurrection remains with us always. This is a most wonderful gift to be treasured and pondered always in our hearts.

Today, Betty Suarez, Megan, Simon, and Virginia Applewhite will affirm their baptisms as they officially join our congregation. They have pondered the gifts they received at baptism, and throughout their journey of faith so far, and publicly join their voices with ours as they continue that journey of faith. Every time we affirm our baptism, every time we ponder the words of the angels, and the words of Jesus, we grow in wisdom. Every time we listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit and do God’s will we grow in wisdom. Every time we take time to show compassion, and mercy, kindness and love, we grow in wisdom. And this holy wisdom guides us on our faith journey.

Paul’s letter to the Colossians read this morning is a reminder not just to the church in Corinth long ago when he wrote that letter, but to us today. He tells us “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility meekness, and patience.” He tells us to forgive just as God has forgiven us. He reminds us that part of love is to admonish one another in all wisdom. And finally, to sing and give thanks to God in whatever we do.

On this sixth day of Christmas when the rest of our culture has already started putting away all signs of Christmas, our Christmas celebration continues. Like Mary, let us take time to ponder all these wonders of Christmas in our hearts. We can contemplate on the words of Jesus who asked Mary and Joseph and asks us today, “Why are you searching for me?” He is Emmanuel, God with us. We don’t have to search for him. He is with us. In the waters of baptism, in the real presence of Holy Communion, in the love we share, and the peace he brings. Ponder these things in your heart, and give thanks. Amen.

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Taking Jesus Home

Monday, December 24, 2018 – Christmas Eve
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Luke 2:1-20

Where is the baby Jesus? If you look in the manger he’s not here. Where is he? That’s what millions of people ask every year as dozens of baby Jesus statues are stolen. A recent conversation about stolen Nativity Scenes prompted my search, and I was shocked when I Googled, “Stolen Baby Jesus” on my computer to find out just how often this happens. In fact just the other day the Times Union posted an article on a stolen baby Jesus in Bethlehem, PA. It was entitled “How to Keep Baby Jesus in the Manger? Bolts, Cameras, and Tethers.” Some places are even using GPS devices and “Jesus Cams” to keep track of the statues in case they are stolen.  Stealing baby Jesus seems to be a real problem. In fact, Netflix came out with a new animated movie last month entitled, Angela’s Christmas, where Angela herself steals the baby Jesus from the church to keep him warm, and I won’t give out any more information to spoil this great animated short movie.

One has to wonder why all this obsession with the baby Jesus? People steal him for all the wrong reasons to be sure, but one thing is certain – this Holy Child is important. He is the reason we gather here this evening. We gather to worship, to sing, to give thanks because God has broken into this world, not to steal, but to release us  – the whole world – from the chains that keep us from being free. That is the message of Christmas – that God loved the world so much – that God sent Jesus to bring us back from the grips of sin and death. We all have things that keep us chained down – grief, anxiety, worry, fear, prejudice, willfulness…. We all need this Savior.

That’s why in a recent article about the baby Jesus being stolen from his church, Pastor Busiek, from Emmanuel Baptist Church, said, “Hey, if they steal that one, we’ll keep putting it out.” He said, “I can’t think of a better way to get the message of Christmas out than for people to keep taking Jesus home.” That’s why our manger here this evening is empty. Christ is with us for us to carry with us. Wherever we go, Jesus has come not to remain here in a church building or on a front lawn, but with us. He is Emmanuel – God with us – and that means he is with us everywhere. When we receive the sacrament of Holy Communion tonight, we receive the real presence of Jesus, and he is with us. And we take him with us wherever we go.

There are so many people who need this Good News that the angels first announced.  “Unto you a child is born, a Savior.” This Savior is for everyone all over the world – young and old, rich and poor, those who worship weekly in churches, and those who don’t even know him. This Savior is for everyone. We don’t take him home – like Angela in the movie – to keep him warm, but he comes to keep us warm. He comes to melt any coldness in our hearts. He comes to melt away our hopelessness. He comes to melt away our fears. His divine love warms us to overflowing so that we can be a source of warmth and light to others. We all reveal Christ to each other.

Every time someone reaches out in love, Christ is revealed. Every time someone acts with kindness and compassion, Christ is revealed. Every time someone stands up against oppression and injustice, Christ is revealed. Christ cannot be chained down or tethered. Where is the baby Jesus? The manger is empty because he is with us. The cross is empty because he is with us. Christ is Emmanuel – God with us – everywhere. This is the gift of Christmas. This is the miracle that continues to happen every day. Christ comes to us each and every day. We do not need to steal Jesus. We do not need to steal grace. This gift is free. It is for everyone. Go tell it on the mountain, shout it from the roof tops. Jesus, the Christ, is born. Amen!

 

What Should We Do?

Sunday, December 16, 2018
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Luke 3:7-18

Today, this third Sunday in Advent, is also known as Gaudete Sunday. It’s taken from the Latin word Gaudete, which means rejoice. Gaudete in Domino Semper – Rejoice in the Lord always- taken from our second reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians (4:7). In years past the candles on the Advent Wreath were purple to signify repentance, but now they are blue to remind us this is a season of preparation and hope. The candle lit on this third Sunday in Advent is sometimes pink to represent joy that Christ is soon coming. This Sunday certainly is one of joy for our congregation as we welcome new members among us. The scripture readings today all talk about joy. Our first reading from the prophet Zephaniah says, “Rejoice, and exult with all your heart! Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing 18 as on a day of festival.” This is encouraging and hope-filled good news. In our gospel lesson today, another prophet, John the Baptist, also preaches good news to those who are being baptized, “You brood of vipers!” Wait a minute….all the other readings today talk about joy. Who chose this reading? Where is the good news here? Where is word of joy in this message? The crowds who came to John to be baptized were not expecting those words of invitation. And to those of you who are joining today by affirming your baptism, you may be feeling a bit stunned like those early crowds at John’s words. But let’s look a little closer at what John’s words mean, then and now.

His words certainly catch our attention, but that’s what they’re intended to do. John’s prophetic words are like a detour sign that grabs our attention that we need to change direction. There are things that keep us from experiencing the joy found in God’s presence. Our sinfulness, our greed, our worry, our fear, our …..fill in the blank. So many things can pull our attention away from the fact that God is in our midst. We can literally fall into a hole or a pit of bad behavior if we aren’t careful, and bring others with us. John’s prophetic words are meant to wake us up to repent, which means to change direction, and turn back to God who is in our midst. Those who came to be baptized asked John, “What do we do?” They heard him. They realized they had been going in the wrong direction, and they wanted to know what to do. John’s response was surprising. He didn’t tell them to change careers, but to change their perceptions. He didn’t tell the rich to become poor, but to share with those who were in need. He was challenging them to look at what they really needed. He didn’t tell the tax collectors to give up their jobs, but to be fair in what they collected from people. He didn’t tell the soldiers to stop being soldiers, but to stop threatening and falsely accusing people. In other words, live out your new baptismal calling right where you are.

God calls us all to reach out to others with God’s love wherever we are. We all have different jobs and different gifts that are necessary for building up the body of Christ. John’s message to repent is good news because when we change direction and turn to God who is in our midst, we have reason to rejoice.

We do that through remembering the gift of our baptism. For through those cleansing waters the guilt of our sins has been taken away. We have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. Through our baptism we have been united with Christ and the question that John the Baptist continues to ask today is, “what difference does that make in our lives? As children of God, disciples of Christ, does the life we live bear witness to Christ? Is it evident in our actions that we are followers of Christ? Do we bear fruits worthy of repentance?

That is the Good News that John reminds us of today. Our lives as Christians may not always be easy, but through our daily repentance – our daily turning back to God – they are lives that bear good fruit. What should we do? We are to turn around, turn back to God, and begin again. That is the gift of grace we received through the sacrament of baptism that we all affirm again today. Before you leave the sanctuary today I invite you to dip your hands in the baptismal font and pause and remember your baptism. Remember the promises that were made for you, that you made, and that God made. You are God’s beloved child and God loves you. Treasure those words, and carry them with confidence. When you receive God’s gift of grace in Holy Communion, treasure that gift today. Treasure Christ as you receive him.

Through these gifts of grace we receive God’s gift of forgiveness and the promise that God is with us always. We can begin anew each day. In doing this we find reason to rejoice even in the midst of troubling times. Happiness relies on our situation, but joy relies on something deeper. The joy found in God is what brings us true peace no matter what the circumstances. It is a peace that surpasses and transcends all understanding. What should we do? As we continue our Advent journey, let us journey in joy. “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice.” Amen.

 

Messengers of Grace

Sunday, December 9, 2018
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Luke 3:1-6

Last week we began our Advent journey by talking about signs, and being aware of the signs of God’s grace all around us. Jesus said, “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” This second week of Advent we draw closer to the celebration of God coming near at Christmas. Yet, Advent calls us to slow down and be ready not just for Christ’s second coming, but for his continual arrival. There are messengers all around us to point us to the signs of God’s arrival, yet it’s easy to miss them because they come in unexpected ways, in unexpected places, and through unexpected people.

Our gospel reading today is a perfect example of that. Each week as we get closer to Christmas, Luke takes us back closer to the beginning. This week we hear of the account of a very important messenger – John the Baptist – an individual that was not your typical messenger. John wore ragged clothes of fur, ate locusts, and said what people didn’t want to hear. Luke compiled a long list of important individuals who were prominent political leaders of that time –  Emperor Tiberius, Governor Pontius Pilate, Herod the ruler of Galilee, Caiaphas, the high priest. They were all high on the list of influential and powerful people at that time. They were each responsible for making important decisions. Unlike John the Baptist, they told people what they wanted to hear in order to get what they want. These individuals held a lot of power, but that doesn’t mean they used that power for good. If you listen again carefully to these names again, you will remember that these are the same individuals who gave the people what they wanted at the time – the crucifixion of Jesus.  Yes, these rulers all played an influential role in Jesus’ death. It’s not mere coincidence that Luke mentions them here before the Christmas story.

So why does he mention them? Because Luke wants to remind us of the kind of leaders God wants. While John the Baptist may have seemed crazy – he, unlike the other powerful and respected rulers of the time – spoke the truth. John was a messenger of God who always reveals the truth, a truth revealed in the most unusual of places and through the most unusual of people – like John the Baptist.

God has been sending messengers, prophets to prepare the way long before John the Baptist. In our first reading from Malachi we heard that God was “sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” God spoke through the ancient prophets like Malachi, and Jeremiah, and Jonah, and Zechariah, and Moses …..and the messages they proclaimed were not well received either. No one wanted to be a prophet because being a prophet meant you said the things God wanted you to say and not the things you wanted to say or that people wanted to hear. Yet, God sends prophets throughout the ages not to punish us, but to give us an opportunity to repent – to turn around from doing what we are currently doing that is wrong – and turn back to God who loves us. God sends prophets so we can be the people God created us to be.

The prophets and messengers through whom God speaks continue to do so today. They didn’t end with the stories we read in the Bible. They continue today through people of all walks of life. God speaks through children, and senior citizens, mentally and physically handicapped, people who are our friends and neighbors, and yes, even people who look and act a little crazy or who may look threatening to us like John the Baptist did so many centuries ago. God speaks through whomever God chooses in order to reach as many people as possible with the saving grace offered through Jesus Christ.

God still calls to us, and speaks through each and every one of us today. What a fitting day to have the baptism of Tim, Hope, and Felicity Caufield. Unlike our usual baptism that happens when we are infants, these people have heard God’s call and have answered by accepting that invitation. They have seen the signs of God coming down to us, and they have said yes to be part of God’s beloved community of believers who don’t know everything there is to know, but who through the gift of the Holy Spirit are refined in the words of the prophet Malachi and grow in faith. We are refined through God’s grace that we receive in Holy Communion, which Hope and Felicity will receive for the first time today. We are all on this journey of faith together to prepare the way of the Lord, and to make his paths straight.”

This Advent as we continue to be aware of the signs of God’s grace all around us, we too are the signs of God’s grace. Through our baptism, God has reached down and united us through Christ with God forever. This is a powerful, holy, and miraculous story to be told and we are the messengers that God has chosen to tell the story. We are messengers of God’s grace. Let us prepare the way and announce that Christ is near. Amen!

 

 

Are We There Yet?

Sunday, December 2, 2018
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Luke 21:25-36

You’re embarking on a trip. Maybe it’s a family vacation, or your visiting relatives, or you’re going someplace you’ve been waiting to go for a while. You’re excited and so are the children in the back seat. Maybe they’re your children, or your grandchildren, or maybe the children of friends, but after a while the familiar chant begins….”Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” At first it seems like an innocent enough question. Then it gets a little funny. But after a while, “Are we there yet?” is a source of increasing anxiety. And the longer the trip goes, the higher the tensions rise. We all want to get to where we’re going and we don’t want to wait.

When we’re young we can’t wait to grow up. As adults we can’t wait to land our first job. Then we find ourselves rushing around just to get there. Rushing around to get home. Rushing, rushing, rushing. It seems we are always in a hurry. The childhood mantra, “Are we there yet?” continues even into our adult lives whether we say it out loud or not. Waiting is not something that comes naturally to people.

That’s why this season of Advent – the beginning of the church year – is often overlooked. The word advent means coming or arrival, and for most people we focus on the destination and not the journey. We want to skip ahead to our destination of Christmas. We want to get there quickly, no lingering. “Are we there yet?” is still in our minds. “Why can’t we just skip ahead to Christmas?”

But this season of advent is meant to slow us down and remind us to savor the journey. And that’s hard to do when we are smack dab in a society that is going full speed ahead toward Christmas. The signs are all around us. Christmas trees and decorations have been up in stores now since before Halloween. We’re flooded with ads about spending more and more money and trying to get that “perfect” gift whatever it may be.  We’re told our final destination is what lies under the tree. We’re racing toward filling those lists, those things that will bring us security and happiness. At least that is what we are being told. And the race toward that final destination adds to our tension.

And there’s already a lot of tension in our lives. News of violence, war, earthquakes, floods, fires, and other disturbing stories are plentiful. Jesus’ words in Luke’s gospel today add to those disturbing images when he says, “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” His words are as relevant today as they were when they were first spoken centuries ago. Many see these signs in the news as prophecies of doom, and it causes us to ask if the end is near.

That’s how the early church felt when this gospel was written. The Jerusalem temple was destroyed and the disciples were surrounded by turmoil both physically and emotionally. They were facing wars and persecution by rulers. They had to flee their homelands like refugees today. The early Christians saw all these signs around them and they were afraid.  How do you keep on believing when your place of worship is destroyed, when it seems like you’ve lost everything, and when you have to begin again? How do you do that? You question and wonder where in the God is in the midst of all these foreboding signs. When it seems like everything is crumbling around us where do we turn?

In the midst of all this turmoil and fear Jesus speaks again and tells us “when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” When we feel like things are being pulled away, Jesus assures us that God continues to come closer. When fear tries to take hold and it seems that we don’t know who to trust, we are reminded that “the LORD is our righteousness.” When we doubt that anything will work out Jesus reminds us that “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Jesus’ words are words not of prophetic doom, but of eternal hope. This is God’s commitment to us.

And our commitment – like those of the early Christians – lies in raising our heads to see the signs of God’s grace around us. Our commitment is to wait in hope, to be faithful in prayer and song, for that keeps us focused and connected to God. Prayer is our anchor in the storms of life. It slows us down from asking “are we there yet?” to savoring the present moment and enjoying the journey.

That is what the season of Advent is all about. It’s allowing the Holy Spirit to slow us down so that we can prepare for the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ. We prepare not only for his coming in the manger – for that event has already happened 2000 years ago – but for Christ’s second coming or Advent. We prepare for that coming by preparing our hearts through prayer that opens a place for him to abide in and with us.

As we journey through this season of Advent, let us commit ourselves to being alert at all times for the signs of God in our midst. Running at full speed will cause us to miss random encounters with God. We don’t know where and when they may happen, so we must “be alert at all times.” It may be in the eyes of a stranger, the hands of someone to whom we reach out to in forgiveness, the voice of a child’s song, or the echo of laughter. Signs of God’s grace are all around us if we open our hearts to see that God continues to come to us each and every day.

Are we there yet? No, but our joy is not in the destination, but the journey along the way. On this Commitment Sunday, let us pledge our whole lives to God and wait for Christ’s coming by filling our hours in prayer, hope, gratitude, compassion, and love. Amen.