How Far Is It To Bethlehem?

Tuesday, December 24, 2019
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Luke 2:1-20

 

How far is it to Bethlehem? This question, the title of the song the children sang at our pageant on Sunday and tonight, has lingered on my heart. I’m sure it was the question the young expectant mother Mary, asked Joseph many times as they traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem for that unplanned trip. If you’ve ever traveled by airplane, train, bus, or any other mode of transportation you know that schedules can often be delayed without any notice due to a number of circumstances. Your plans can quickly change leaving you worried and filled with anxiety on arriving to your destination. Instead of arriving on time you’re now delayed. The journey is out of your hands.

The story of the first Christmas was a similar journey. It was an unexpected and difficult one. Joseph and Mary who were engaged and waiting to be married all of a sudden found all their plans changed. Mary, the young teenage bride-to-be was pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit. Both Joseph and Mary were caught off guard by this strange and unbelievable news. Yet they listened to God. They said yes to God. And they trusted in God though the direction of their lives drastically changed.

While they prepared for the coming of this special child, the government made them leave the safety and security of their home in Nazareth to register in another city for a census for tax purposes.  This was another unexpected and unwanted change of plans. By that time Mary was doing the usual nesting and making their home ready for the arrival of the baby. She didn’t want to travel, especially on foot, to a city far away – over 90 miles away to be more exact. This was not an easy journey, especially for a pregnant woman ready to give birth. As much as they wanted to stay home, they were forced to leave. It’s estimated that it took them between 7- 10 days walking depending on whether they walked 10 or 20 miles per day.

The most direct route would have been directly south across the Jezreel Valley and through the hills of Samaria. But that was a physically demanding route with many hills. Most likely Mary and Joseph traveled southeast across the Jezreel Valley, through the Jordan Valley, all the way to Jericho, up through the Judean desert to Jerusalem and then south to Bethlehem. The last part of the journey was the worst. The walk from Jericho’s desert, which is below sea level to Bethlehem is an uphill hike of 3500 feet! It’s exhausting just thinking about this and let’s not forget…Mary was pregnant! Their plans for staying at home and preparing for the birth were long gone. They weren’t even sure where Jesus was going to be born. Can you hear Mary say to Joseph, “How far is it to Bethlehem?”

In the midst of the Roman occupation of Israel over 2000 years ago, despite the hard and dangerous journey of Mary and Joseph, God arrived. The armies couldn’t stop God’s arrival. The government authorities couldn’t stop God’s arrival. The treacherous roads didn’t stop God’s arrival. The people who didn’t make room for Mary and Joseph at any of their houses couldn’t stop God’s arrival. God showed up in an unexpected and surprising way – as a tiny baby in a stable. Despite all the unbelievable obstacles, nothing could stop God from showing up that first Christmas, and nothing will stop God from showing up today.

God arrives, God comes to us even when things don’t go as we planned. Even when we find ourselves in situations we’d rather not be in, even when the news we receive seems bleak and hopeless, even when we feel lost and along, even when what we’re up against seems insurmountable, God’s comes to us. It may not be the estimated arrival time according to our schedule, but God arrives. It may be in the form of angels or messengers from God. It may be the words they speak to us, or the kindness they show to us that points to God right in our midst.  We just need to keep walking the journey of faith, and trust in God who always shows up.

And we don’t have to travel to Bethlehem to be counted in a census. God comes to us because we count – we matter – to God. You are important to God. God travelled all the way from the glories of heaven to earth and became human just for you in order to save you. God arrives and comes to us in unexpected ways, in unexpected places, and sometimes through unexpected people. God is hidden in the faces and the hands of the people you see every day. You count to God, and God will never leave you.

Be not afraid; for see I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people, to you is born this day in the city of David, A Savior who is the Messiah, the Lord.” These words spoken by the angel are for each and every one of us tonight. To us is born a Savior. The sign for us is the child – the Savior -wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger hidden in a stable. The sign for us is the Savior who came to show us how to live and gave his life for us. The sign for us is the Savior hidden in the bread and the wine of the Holy Meal we are fed by tonight. Bethlehem, which means house of bread, was the birthplace of the One who is bread for the world.

This is the good news the angels speak to us tonight. We don’t have to travel to Bethlehem; Bethlehem comes to us this night. Nothing stopped God from coming that first Christmas, and nothing will stop God from coming today. God shows up, time and time again, not because of who we are or what we do, but because of who God is – faithful, generous, gracious, loving, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father prince of Peace. What a gift! What a Savior! What a reason to celebrate this night and every day! How far is it to Bethlehem? Not very far! Amen!

A Night Like No Other

Sunday, December 22, 2019
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Isaiah 7:10-16 & Matthew 1:18-25

In our first reading from the prophet Isaiah, and in our Gospel reading today, we hear how Jesus, Emmanuel, means God is with us. In our second service today, the children will be putting on their traditional Christmas Pageant. They’ll be dressed up like angels, shepherds, wise men, etc. to remind us of that wonderful night – that night like no other – when Emmanuel was born. During their pageant this year, they will be putting together a nativity scene. When did nativity scenes first begin?

Almost 800 years ago in the year 1221, St. Francis of Assisi had a novel idea. To celebrate the birth of Jesus, he wanted to recreate the experience of the first Christmas. He didn’t do this with statues inside a church, but with animals in a humble hilltop grove.

Francis inspiration came after traveling to the Holy Land and seeing the exact site of Christ’s birth. It impacted him in a profound way, and inspired him to come up with a live nativity. The idea caught on quickly, and in 1291 the first Franciscan pope, Nicholas IV, commissioned statues to create the first permanent Nativity scene in the Roman Basilica of St. Mary Major.  Ever since, Nativity scenes in all shapes and sized have been created throughout the world and they are one the most popular Christmas traditions.

So I invite you to imagine the children here now, dressed in their costumes, putting together the Nativity set here in the church, as I read to you the pageant they will be performing later today entitled, “A Night Like No Other” from the book with the same title by Werner Cherie.

 

That night was like no other night,

When God sent us his Son

To show his love for all the world-

Deep love for everyone.

 

That night was like no other night.

His parents had been told

That they would have a baby Boy:

The Savior long foretold.

 

They traveled then to Bethlehem,

As they were asked to do.

And there, the Savior of the world

Was born for me and you.

 

Now when this baby Boy was born,

They didn’t have a bed.

And so they laid him gently in

A manger trough instead.

 

That night was like no other night,

A special, holy night!

Our Savior, Jesus, came to earth

To share his love and light.

 

That night was like no other night

For shepherds and their sheep.

The sky turned bright! An angel came

And woke them from their sleep.

 

“Don’t be afraid,” the angel said,

“I have good news for you!

There is a Baby born this night:

God’s promise has come true.”

 

That night was like no other night.

The shepherds ran to find

This little Boy they’d heard about,

The Savior, good and kind.

 

They found him in the manger bed

And knelt to worship him.

That Baby was the King, come down

To show God’s love for them.

 

Then three wise men from far away

Came to the manger bed.

They gave him gifts so rare and fine

But received a gift instead.

 

This special Gift that God had sent

Was meant for everyone,

For God would rescue us from sin

By sending us his Son.

 

That night was like no other night!

God still wants us to know

This Savior, born for you and me,

Because he loves us so.

 

The first Christmas night was truly “a night like no other.” It was a night of hope, of new beginnings. It was the night that God came to be one of us, came to live among us, came to die for us, came to save us. That night was like no other night!

People all over the world still celebrate this special night. Even people who don’t know what Christmas really means celebrate it. As you and your family prepare to celebrate the “night like no other,” set aside some special time together to focus on the true reason for celebrating: Baby Jesus himself, Jesus the Savior of the world, Emmanuel, God with us! Amen.

 

 

 

A Legacy of Love and Joy

Sunday, December 15, 2019
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Matthew 11:2-11 & Isaiah 35:1-10

“Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice.” This salutation from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians the focus of this third Sunday in Advent known as Gaudete Sunday, Latin for rejoice, and taken from this scripture text. Advent is a solemn time, much like Lent, where we prepare for Christ’s coming – not just celebrating his birth, but also Christ’s second coming. The color of the Advent candle this week is rose, symbolizing a break in this serious contemplative season, to celebrate the joy of Christ’s coming. In his 2014 Gaudete Sunday homily, Pope Francis said that Gaudete Sunday is known as the “Sunday of joy”, and that instead of fretting about “all they still haven’t” done to prepare for Christmas, people should “think of all the good things life has given you.”  Pope Francis is calling us to re-direct our focus from one of scarcity to one of abundance. Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel today, is calling us to do the same thing.

Last week we heard John the Baptist urging us to “Prepare the Way of the Lord,” yet this week, John is isolated to a prison cell awaiting his death because of his preaching. We find John in a moment of human distress wondering if all of his preaching has been in vain. He asked Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” It’s a question we can all relate to at one time in our lives or another. Sometimes, when life’s struggles seem overwhelming we have moments of doubt. We wonder if our life’s work has been in vain. We may wonder when prayers go unanswered, if it even makes sense to wait for God. We may even wonder where God is in the midst of all this suffering.

I’ve been thinking a lot about John’s question this week. Yesterday, my friend Natalie who lives in New Hampshire, held a Celebration of Life service for the love of her life, Peter, who died from cancer. Sadly, I couldn’t be there, but they have been on my mind and in my prayers.  Little did I know when I met this couple so many years ago to house sit their German shepherds when they were away, how profoundly Natalie and Peter would change my life. Natalie wondered if she would ever find love again after her divorce so many years earlier, and then she met Peter. Despite disappointment, she was courageous enough to love again. She found that love in Peter. He was kind, thoughtful, brave, funny, compassionate, and filled with a million other wonderful attributes. The love these two people showed one another inspired me. And it continued to inspire me when Peter was diagnosed with cancer four years ago. You see, they didn’t live their lives focused on the life that might cut short; they focused on living their best life now. Peter did that right up to the end. He kept on loving, seeing the good, and finding joy wherever and whenever possible.

I know of so many others – some right here in this congregation – that are going through real struggles as well – illness, relationship problems, financial challenges, depression and grief. Some are homebound and confined to their beds, with justifiable reasons to be angry. Yet they look for the positives. They look for the joy, and find it.

That is what Jesus was talking about when John started breaking down, and wondering if he should put his trust in Jesus. John was tired of waiting for answers, yet Jesus told John’s friends to “go and tell John what you hear and see.” He told them to tell John about the miracles that they witnessed, and to share the good news that they witnessed. Jesus’ response to John was not to negate his pain, but to focus on the reality of God in his midst in the person of Jesus.  Jesus reminded John who was facing death that he was part of something much bigger than himself. He was part of the beginning of a movement of following Jesus – known as The Way long before it was known as Christianity. John was part of a legacy of love and joy that would continue on long after he was gone through the many people who would keep the movement going.

It’s the same for each one of us as well. When life gets tough and we are tempted to think, “Is Jesus the one, or should we wait for another” we need each other to remind us to keep waiting, to keep hoping, to keep believing in the One who has endured real pain and anguish too so that we would not endure it alone.  And God through Jesus will transform our pain and death into eternal life. Jesus is telling us to shift our focus from looking at what we don’t have to what we do; from looking at what seems impossible – like maybe getting up in the morning – to seeing the possibilities. Yes, pain and suffering are real, but so are the promises of God.

The prophet Isaiah spoke of these promises when “the wilderness and the dray land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.” He spoke of a highway called the Holy Way that will be for all God’s people.” Like John, and Natalie, Robin, and countless others that I can name there will be times when we find ourselves in a place so dark that it seems that we too, like John the Baptist, are in a prison cell. But we need to help each other remember that God’s promises are real, that there is joy to be found even in the hardest of times, and that the legacy of love – God’s love – that is within us is indestructible. That is reason to celebrate. That is how we can experience and share the good news of joy to all the world.  Amen.

I Wonder As I Wander

Sunday, December 8, 2019
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Matthew 3:1-12, Isaiah 11:1-10
Romans 15:4-13

On this second Sunday of Advent when many people’s focus is on the birth of the baby Jesus, Matthew’s gospel gives us a picture of the adult Jesus who will baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit. It almost seems out of place doesn’t it? And we may wonder why we are reading about this adult Jesus at this particular time in the church year. Yet, this is the perfect time to think about the relationship between the baby in the manger and the adult messiah. They are one in the same, and it’s easy to separate the two. The old hymn “I Wonder As I Wander” puts this in perspective.

“I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus my Savior did come for to die
For poor on’ry people like you and like I
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.”

The child in the manger is the Messiah, the Savior of the world. He is God who entered the world in the flesh. He is the one who will judge with righteousness. That too is a challenging concept, because most often we associate judgement with vengeance, but that is not what God’s judgement looks like. God’s judgement is one that will fix the crookedness that John the Baptist talks about. Through Christ, God will fix the injustices in the world. God will destroy what hurts and oppresses. God will cut down systems and habits that cause pain. God will make a straight path toward peace through Jesus, the Christ. And in order for Jesus to do this he will need to first walk through the wilderness just like us.

What does the wilderness look like? It can be a beautiful place of unspoiled beauty like Alaska or some other isolated place that evokes a sense of peace. The wilderness can also be a place – physical or emotional – where we are tested, tried, and challenged. Illness, death, fear, anxiety and stresses of many kinds are painful, and can leave people feeling isolated. We need hope in the midst of our wilderness experiences. And this hope and promise can spring forth in the most unexpected ways, like a new life springing forth out an old stump or John the Baptist appearing in the wilderness. Matthew paints a very descriptive picture of him as a very strange person indeed wearing unusual clothes and eating rather bizarre foods. And he spoke in a way that could be offensive to many, especially when he addressed them as “You brood of vipers.” Yet, he was a messenger of God helping point people to the promise of something amazing that was to come. He wanted people to be ready for this messiah. And in order to do that they had to repent – to turn around from the way they were doing things. It required a change of perception. It required people to really see who they were – sinners in need of a Savior – in order to really be ready for the Savior. That’s not an easy message to hear. It’s hard for most people to be self-aware and to see the areas in their lives that need straightening out. It difficult to see the systems that our in place in our families, congregations, communities, and society that may not be working in the best interests of all and perceive a new way of being.

John preached about a baptism that would change people’s hearts, and talked about the baptism from the messiah who would enable people to live holy lives that bear good fruit. John’s message is one for all of us to hear. It’s a message that calls us to prepare the way for God to transform us – to transform our thoughts and our actions so that we can be the peace we wish to see in the world. The prophet Isaiah spoke about the peaceable kingdom when all God’s creatures will live in harmony with one another. It’s a beautiful image, and one that may seem almost unbelievable, but through Christ, the Prince of Peace, this vision of a new world is not only possible, but it is guaranteed.

So who are the messengers like Isaiah and John the Baptist who appear in your wilderness? Maybe it’s a family member or friend who shows you unconditional love and support when times are difficult. It could be a random act of kindness that injects you with hope just when you need it the most. Perhaps, like John the Baptist, it’s someone who challenges us to think about things in a new way, to look at things from a different perspective, or to be more than we ever thought we could be. There are so many messengers of God all around us, and we ourselves are called to be God’s messengers. We are called to wonder as we wander through this season of Advent, how Jesus was born knowing he would die, yet did so willingly so that we would experience resurrection.

As we journey through this season of Advent, I invite you to take a blue message from the angel – or messenger – that is in our front entry way. Pray and contemplate on the word you receive during the week, and ask God how you can be a messenger of Good News to those around you to prepare the way of the Lord.

In the words of St. Paul, “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. May the God of Hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.

Putting on the Armor of Light

Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Matthew 24:36-44 & Romans 13:11-14

 

It’s 6:00 am the day after Thanksgiving, and men and women get ready for battle. They prepare to brave the darkness – some have even gone out in the dark on Thanksgiving night –and put on their armor of defense as they do battle with the crowds. They aren’t fighting to rescue anyone from evil. They are out to engage in finding great sales for Christmas shopping. Now I have to admit that I too have braved the crowds and done some shopping on Black Friday, and when I have, I am reminded of why I rarely engage in this activity. It often seems to bring out the worst in people as I watch individuals treat one another rudely in order to find the perfect gift, whatever that perfect gift might be. Long lines of tired people anxiously waiting in line in order to be done with their quest, get cranky and angry as time slips away. Yet this year I found that humor helps to bond people together and decrease the frustration. It helps the time go by quickly and adds some needed positivity.

Our readings from Scripture today deal with time too. Today is the first Sunday in Advent. The first Sunday of the new year in the life of the church. For many people Advent is usually a season in the church year that individuals want to get through fast so they can get right to Christmas and all that goes along with it – the Christmas trees, the decorating, the parties, the shopping, and the gifts – and of course Jesus. But often Jesus seems to be the last one focused on. Time is spent more on everything else, and we run the risk of merely wasting time.

Jesus was concerned about how we spend our time. He said no one knows when the world as we know it will end. Jesus will come again. We profess this in our creeds. The question is are we ready or are we wasting time focusing on everything else but Jesus? That’s why this season of Advent is so important. It’s the time that we slow down the rush toward Christmas, and focus on the here and now. It the time to remember what’s really important – loving God and loving one another. It’s a time we deliberately focus on the darkness –the unknown – and continue to have faith, to do good and bear good fruit, even when we don’t have answers.

The unknown can cause a lot of anxiety for people. Most of us want some kind of certainty, and security. Yet we don’t know when Jesus will come again. Because we’ve been talking about it for so long, the tendency for some is to be complacent and think that it won’t happen in our lifetime. For many it’s become a sort of legend. Yet for others, this fills them with anxiety and fear. Jesus said, even he doesn’t know when it will happen, but that we need to be ready. Time is of the essence. We need keep awake and watch. How exactly do we do this?

Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans that while we may not know the time when Jesus is coming again, we do know that it is time to be witnesses of Jesus. We need to “put on the armor of light” and “live honorably……not in quarreling and jealousy.” The armor of light – the light of Christ – is what will help us as we journey through the darkness. It is this armor of light that will guide us through the moments of fear and anxiety into faith and hope. Yet in order to put on this armor we may need to take off what we have been wearing. We need to take off jealousy and put on gratitude, take off quarreling and put on peace, take off resentment and put on forgiveness, take off our need for control and put on trust in God. In order to walk through the darkness, we need to let go of those things we have been holding on to and put on the armor of Christ’s light. This is what will help us see in those times of uncertainty.

There are times we need to brave the darkness. There are situations and circumstances that will test our very beliefs, but the light of Christ will give us strength to persevere. There may be moments when all our best efforts seem to be in vain, but the light of Christ will give us the hope to trust in God’s promises. There may be voices that try and frighten us, but the light of Christ will fill us with peace even in the middle of the storms we find ourselves in. Advent is the time to not just journey through the darkness, but to learn how to dwell in it in order to more clearly see and reflect the light of Christ who is coming again. The time for complacency is over. Jesus is coming and we must be ready, not with presents or trees or parties – although they are great things – but more importantly with open hearts, transformed hearts, hearts that love God and love one another. Hearts that do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” Amen.

Seeing the Kingdom of God

Sunday, November 24, 2019
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Luke 23:33-43, Colossians 1:11-20, Psalm 46:10

 

Rolf Jacobson, Professor at Luther Seminary, posed the following question this week in a commentary regarding this week’s scripture readings – “How many orange cars or trucks did you see on your last drive of over ten minutes. Did you see any? Think about it for a second.” I thought about that and concluded that I hadn’t really seen any orange cars recently. In fact, the only person I know who has an orange car is my friend Bob, a young 71 year old who lives in Rhode Island and drives a bright orange Volkswagon Beetle with flames on the side. Think about that image for a while! And while you’re thinking about that, you may wonder what on earth seeing orange cars has to do with Christ the King Sunday, or any of the readings today. Let me explain.

The liturgical colors after all today are white to indicate a high festival day – Christ the King Sunday – not orange. So what’s up with seeing orange cars? The focus isn’t really about orange cars, as much as it is what are we focusing on, and what do we see? Our Gospel reading from Luke today on this last Sunday of the Church year brings us back to a pivotal moment in Christianity. It brings us back to the last moments of Jesus’ life. It makes sense to reflect back on past events as this Church year comes to a close, and we prepare for Advent the beginning of a new Church year. So we think about the last moments of Jesus life. And as he lay dying on the cross his focus was not on himself, but on praying to God for forgiveness to those who persecuted him. He was praying for forgiveness for all of us. One of the thieves crucified with Jesus could have focused on joining in on mocking Jesus, yet he too was focused on forgiveness and receiving the kingdom of God. While others were looking for a different kind of king – one that certainly would not allow himself to be humiliated in this way – one thief saw Jesus for who he was -the true King, the true Messiah. Jesus’ kingdom was different than what everyone else was looking for.

St. Paul in his letter to the Colossians says that God has “rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Because of this we have been “enabled to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.” Through Jesus, our eyes have been opened to see the reality of the kingdom of God. We are no longer lost in the darkness, but have been brought to the light and can see things that we couldn’t previously see. We now see that Jesus is King because of his desire to be here on earth with us, and he has brought the kingdom of God to us. What does that kingdom look like?

Jesus showed us the kingdom of God. He revealed it to us when he chose to respond to hatred with love and forgiveness. He showed us that God’s kingdom is one based on love. It is full of kindness and mercy, compassion and forgiveness, generosity and radical hospitality. Yes, there is much suffering in our world, but God is still at work here too. Where do we see God’s kingdom at work today? I can see it in the ministry of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church. It is visible in the 589 fruit cups we collected for the Equinox program that will feed over 10,000 people on Thanksgiving. It’s visible in the volunteers who work at the Men’s Overflow Shelter and who made quilts for them. It’s visible in our weekly Game Night as we provide a safe space for people in our community to gather for fellowship. It’s visible in the Christmas Boxes for the Albany Maritime Ministry. It’s visible in our Just Breathe Wednesday Contemplative Group that meets to help people find a brief hour in the middle of the week to – as the psalmist says, “Be still and know that I am God.” It’s visible in those who spend time maintaining our building so our community has a welcoming and safe space to gather. We provide sanctuary. It’s visible through our music ministry that touches people with a language that goes deeper than words. It’s visible in our actual sanctuary space, where we offer people an opportunity to gather to worship and experience the Living God through sacrament and community. It’s visible in the Thanksgiving Prayer Vigil as individuals take time to sit in this sacred space and pray for those in our congregation, our community, and our world. I could go on all day about how the ministry of Good Shepherd reveals the kingdom of God, and it is also visible through the cards, and phone calls, and random acts of kindness that we do and witness each and every day.

Just as I’ve put the thought of seeing orange cars in your mind and you will be sure to be on the lookout for orange cars, be on the lookout for the kingdom of God. For what we look for, are aware of, and focus on becomes visible. It’s not that the orange cars or kingdom of God was not there before, we just don’t always take the time to look for them. As Mr. Rogers used to say when tragedy hits, look for the helpers. In a world that is filled with much darkness and suffering, there is a bright light, Christ the King, who shines the kingdom of God through ordinary people like you and me through his glorious power.

As we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving, we can give thanks for Christ our King, who “holds all things together,” and whose reign will never end. Look for the kingdom of God, it’s here, it’s out there, it is all around us and within us. We only have to look and we’ll see it; we only have to be aware and we’ll be it. Amen.

An Opportunity to Testify

Sunday, November 17, 2019
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Luke 21:5-19

 

Fear. We’ve all experienced it at one time or another. Fear is a natural reaction to something that threatens our security or safety like the sight of a snake in front of us as we are walking, or the sound of something moving in the bushes as we walk by, or someone actually jumping out in front of us. We may also feel fear due to natural disasters such as hurricanes, or floods, or earthquakes. Fear alerts us to potential danger. There are so many fears that we could spend the next hour naming them. And many of these fears are real and understandable. People who are bullied, or discriminated against for a variety of reasons fear for their lives. Individuals and families who are living on the edge economically are afraid.

Fear and anxiety are sweeping the nation. And when people live in a constant state of fear they do things they would not normally do. Rational people act irrationally. Fear turns one person against another, one group against another. Actions like gossip, bullying, labeling, and disrespect soon become normal. Fear not kept in check soon turns to riots and violence and death. For many it feels like the world is coming to an end. In fact, you can see and hear many who are saying just that.

Every generation at some time in history has thought its time was the end of time. Jesus’ words in the gospel of Luke today speak to these end times. Jesus says nation will rise against nation. He says that there will be great earthquakes, famines, and plagues. And worse than these, Jesus says are those who try and lead us astray and tell us things that are contrary to Jesus’ words. Not only will these things happen in our world, but personally believers will be arrested, persecuted, and brought before the legal authorities to stand trial. These words from Jesus don’t seem to comfort us, but we have to pay attention because Jesus is saying that while all these things will happen, there is a great opportunity in them. Jesus says to us today that these are opportunities to testify – to testify to the glory of God. Jesus says, “Do not be led astray.” “Do not go with those who do.” “Do not be terrified.”  You might ask, “How on earth can we testify when everything is going so wrong?” When everything is going wrong is exactly the time to testify.

It’s the time to testify to God’s power that is more powerful than anything that we may cause us to fear. God will always be God. Jesus will always be our Lord and Savior. Nothing on earth can change that fact. God will never be defeated, for Jesus Christ has already conquered the forces of evil. Evil may appear to be winning, but we have to keep our focus on Jesus who is stronger than evil. Jesus is alive. He is risen from the dead. He has saved us through the waters of baptism and he will not let God’s beloved children perish.

Yet, it is hard to get up every day when fears come at us in all different directions. And we have the example of so many great saints who have turned their fears into opportunities to testify. The early disciples were so afraid until the gift of the Holy Spirit gave them the courage to testify – to speak out about all God had done through Jesus Christ. When Martin Luther was afraid, instead of letting fear take over he reminded himself and testified out loud, “I am baptized!” Reminding himself of this gift of grace from God kept fear from taking over. Even when death threats and hate groups tried to stop Martin Luther King Jr. he did not give in to fear and testified when he spoke those powerful words, “I have a dream” and the civil rights movement marched on. When Rosa Parks was told to sit in the back of the bus she did not give in to fear and boldly took her seat in the front of the bus to show that all God’s children no matter what color or race are created equal. In 2012, Malala Yousafzai, a young 14 year old Pakistani girl was shot in the head because she was advocating for women’s education. Today, despite continued death threats she refuses to give in to fear and speaks out for human rights -particularly education, and non-violence quoting the proverb, “the pen is mightier than the sword.” There are people in this country and all over the world who are doing what Jesus commands and not giving in to fear, but using their experiences as opportunities to testify. We, as Jesus’ followers, Jesus’ disciples, are called to do the same.

Jesus did not deceive us by painting a picture that everything would be easy, but what he did promise us is that by our “endurance you will gain your souls.” What he meant was that it is easy to give up, to give in to fear, to follow those who will try and lead us astray by promising us things they cannot make good on, but by doing what is right – by following Jesus and living lives like Jesus – our souls will not be harmed. And isn’t that what is most important after all?

Paul encourages us as well in his letter to the Thessalonians, “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.” Paul, encourages the church then and today to listen to Jesus’ words and not live lives of complacency. We, the church of today, need to testify now more than ever that Jesus is the answer to our fears, that Jesus is the answer to our anxieties, that Jesus is the answer to despair. We have to be examples and testify with our words and our actions. The church is called to speak and act with faith not fear. Instead of speaking about scarcity and lack, we are called to testify to the God of abundance who provides for all our needs. We need to be people of faith who speak words of love and treat one another and everyone we encounter with the love of Jesus even if they don’t think or act or look the same as us. Jesus’ love is for all people and there are no exceptions. Jesus died for all people even those we may find it hard to like. Yet, as Christians we must treat all people with the love of Jesus. We, the church, are called to as he did and listen to each other, to really see each other, and to care for each other.  This is what we are called to do as followers of Jesus. We must be careful with our words.  Jesus’ example is one that builds people up not tears them down. Jesus’ example is one that embraces all people and draws them into unity with each other and with God, not separating them with labels or building walls that divide. Jesus’ example is one that cares for the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized and stands up for justice for everyone. Jesus’ example is one of peace and not violence or hatred or war.

Jesus prayed for unity for all people. Love is the antidote to fear. Love will bring the unity that Jesus prayed for. When you feel yourself giving in to fear and anxiety, look to Jesus who is embodiment of peace. Testify about how Jesus is risen and is still working in this world. He is working through you and me if we allow the Holy Spirit to work through us. “Do not be weary in doing what is right.” For Jesus promised that he “will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” Given this promise, every moment of fear can instead to an opportunity to testify to God’s amazing grace, God’s all-encompassing love for everyone. This news is needed now more than ever. God is still God. Jesus is still Lord. These things will never change. May we be witnesses to the love, joy, hope, and peace of Christ in the world.  Amen.