Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Joseph Had A Dream

“Joseph Had a Dream”
(sung to the tune of “Your Table I Approach”)

The angel Gabriel/ appeared to Mary mild
With overwhelming news to tell; that she was now with child.

Her husband Joseph grieved/ young Mary’s newfound state,
To spare her life, Joseph believed/ they had to separate.

Then Joseph had a dream: the angel said to him,
“As difficult as it may seem, you must take Mary in.”

“The baby that now grows, the Spirit worked within
His name is Jesus for he goes/ to save you from your sin.”

Encouraged by this Word, he welcomed home his wife;
Immanuel was given birth/ to bring eternal life.

These things have taken place; the prophet’s words are true:
The virgin’s son has God’s own face, and he is God with you.

I wrote this hymn for our third service of Advent Evening Prayer.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Wir Sind Alle Pettler

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. Romans 3: 23—24

Well over a decade ago I received the book “Luther the Reformer” by James Kittleson. It was an excellent read, however, I remember being fairly disturbed by a detail mentioned with regards to Luther’s final days. A scrap of paper was found in Luther’s pocket that read: Hoc est verum. Wir sind alle Pettler.” “This is true. We are all beggars.”
At that time in my life, those words troubled me. They seemed defeatist and depressing. “We are all beggars” did not square with my ideas about the man Martin Luther, his accomplishments, and even my own ideas about Christian faithfulness. Then I graduated, went on to the seminary, and gradually began to see the profound truth: we are all beggars before a righteous holy God. In the words on the hymnist: "Nothing in my hand I bring." In the words of Paul: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
Could anything enrage the old Adam more than this? You mean to tell me, preacher, that I have no capital with which to bargain with God? You mean to tell me that who I am; what I have; what I’ve learned; and what I’ve done gives me no leverage with God whatsoever? Even in a minister of Word and sacrament, the impotent old man whispers, “You mean to tell me that my office is no insurance policy against personal tragedy? Don’t I have some pull? All have sinned; We are all beggars, so, no, we deserve no good thing; in fact, were we to get what we deserve for sins dreamed of; conceived and actually committed, we would earn hellish eternal torture. So beggars, beg. All who have sinned and fallen short—which is to say, all—beg for that which we could never earn or purchase. Repent. Our cups are empty. We are at the mercy of the Almighty Almsgiver, who would be justified in passing us by as if we didn’t exist. He would even be justified in treating us contemptuously, offended that we would even ask for help after all that we’ve done to soil ourselves.
Standing as a beggar before with Lord, with our absolute poverty on display, we properly expect the blow of punishment to fall at any moment. We wince in anticipation of it landing. And the blow lands, to be sure, but not upon us. Instead, the blow of death lands squarely upon the Son of the Most High. From his side flows the telltale sign of blood and water. Blood and water for the beggars. Eternal riches for the beggars. The Almsgiver fills our cups to overflowing with these riches. Freely justified by His grace. Incorporated by water and the divine Name into Christ’s death, and raised with His resurrection. Raised to life. Nurtured in faith. Delivered to the heavenly presence of God at this life’s end. All as gift. All by God’s choice. All purely out of fatherly, divine good ness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me. “This is true. We are all beggars.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Change Your Mind!

Once there was a man who was a bit of a bum. Talented and successful, he neglected his wife and his children, his work and his friends, his community and his colleagues. He drank too much, lost his temper too often, was cruel too many times. Then one day he had a tremendous religious experience and was transformed totally. He became a good and loving husband, a generous and sympathetic father, a diligent and creative worker, a loyal friend, a dedicated member of his community. He was sober and kind and patient and gentle. At first everyone rejoiced in the change. They said that they had known all along that he was a good man. Then they realized that the change was for real and that, to continue their relationships with him, they would have to change too. He lost his wife and his family and his job and his friends. He went back to being a bum and got everything back.
Today, in a bit of Advent tradition, we have John the Baptist coming out of the wilderness, wearing wild animal skins—kind of an Old Testament prophet costume—looking, acting, probably smelling wild. But his message is even wilder. He’s preaching repentance. He is not genteel or polite, and he has no time for tact. If anyone is offendable, they will be offended. He cuts right to the chase, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. You have been waiting for the Messiah, pay attention – he’s coming.” He is saying to anyone who will listen: “repent, get ready, prepare the way of the Lord.” Cut through all the distractions, eliminate the nonsense in your lives. Stop turning away from God. God is searching for you so quit running after stupid stuff. Let him find you.
Surprise, surprise: There is a group of church leaders who have a problem with John. He’s not part of the “in crowd.” Plus, he’s popular; his message of radical change threatens to upset the status quo. And, they’re about to find out just how radical John is. Pedigree and lineage—values so dearly held by the religious establishment—are meaningless to this wilderness weirdo.
On the television show M*A*S*H, Dr. Charles Emerson Winchester III made it clear what separated him from everybody else: "I’m a Winchester," he was heard to say more than once. For him, it was his family name that made him superior to everyone else. Other people do it in different ways. One woman received her education at Harvard and found a way to work Harvard into every conversation. That’s what John the Baptist was dealing with here. John the Baptist was completely unimpressed with the very thing that the Pharisaic “in crowd” had built their lives upon. They were the "children of Abraham." It’s like they said, “I’m a Winchester.” That settles it. That’s all you need to know.
Then comes John the Baptist, who tells them, in so many words, “That don’t mean a thing.” Truth be told, we probably hate to hear John the Baptist because we know how he translates to our situation. We can hear him now. "Just because your name is on the membership roster, just because you give an offering, just because your parents or grandparents were in this church, just because you are a volunteer, just because you are the minister; none of those things alone are what saves you. Just saying, “I’m a Winchester," “I’m a Lutheran,” “I’m a Christian,” doesn’t make it so. What’s in your heart? What’s in your mind? That’s the question.
John shows up during this “most wonderful time of the year;” He crashes the “Winter Party” and makes a scene that we dare not ignore. “Repent!” he says. Take a look at your life, see where you have put your priorities, where your treasure really lies. To "repent" means literally to "change one's mind." When you repent of sin, you're saying, "I thought it was a good thing, but now I know it's not.”
Repentance is not a once-in-a-lifetime event, but a daily action. We need to “die daily to our sin,” as Martin Luther reminds us. Richard Jensen says it powerfully, “the repentant person comes before God saying, ‘I can’t do it myself God. Kill me and give me new life. You buried me in baptism. Bury me again today. Raise me to new life.’”
Repentance is to stop running after everything else and see that God is pursuing you. Repentance is to make decisions for God each day that show your connection to Him. Clothes, status, the right friends or address means nothing – only the fact that God has claimed you and loves you. Repentance – live like it is true.
And still there’s a Pharisee in us, which says, "What I want out of Jesus is help for this life. If He gets me out of a jam, or cures my sickness, or keeps me wealthy and prosperous and out of most trouble, well, that's the savior I'm looking for. I'm not really concerned with those abstract concepts like final judgment, resurrection of the dead, heaven or hell or eternal life. I want a savior who's going to show results." But if this is the Savior you're looking for, you'll pass right by Jesus. He sacrificed Himself to make you holy with God, not popular or successful. He warns that the world will persecute the Church. He tells you that He disciplines His children and even uses affliction and weakness to strengthen our faith. If you're looking for a savior to make this world paradise, you'll go by Jesus; He came to deliver you from this world to everlasting paradise. Better change your mind while there's time. In other words, repent.
Repent, repent, repent…there’s that side of us that just doesn't want to be righteous, that wants to hold onto sin. That sinner in us constantly tempts us with thoughts like, "Jesus is so loving that I can hold onto this sin. Maybe it makes my life easier. Maybe I'm afraid to live without it. Maybe I just like it. Maybe I'm addicted to it. At any rate, the savior that I have in mind is one who tells me that those sins are okay, that he'll save me anyway." That's a popular idea of Jesus, too; but it's not the Jesus the Scriptures proclaim.
That Jesus says, "Let you hold on to sin? I've already carried all your sins to the cross and suffered them there. The only way you can have them now is to take them back from Me. I didn't go to the cross to let you hold onto poison; I swallowed it all!" Do you see? To hold onto sin now is to say that you want a Savior who dies for most of your sins, but not all of them. It's to say that Jesus isn't quite so holy that He won't let a few sins go by. That's not the Savior Jesus Christ who promises forgiveness and eternal life. Change your mind while there's still time. In other words, repent.
We look forward to Christmas in just a couple weeks' time, and marvel that Mary holds the newborn Son of God in her arms. The King is born in Bethlehem, which is why the shepherds will gather there, too. But the King is just as near to you as He was to Mary the day of His birth. He graces you with His presence in Scripture and at His Supper table. His kingdom of forgiveness is at hand; it is within your grasp. His kingdom of life is here for you, if you want it. Stop running. Find out what it’s like when you finally surrender control to Him. Trust in Jesus and live like you mean it. Clear a path for God to come in and demolish your old self; then watch as he crafts a beautiful new person. Don’t wait. Change your mind. Amen.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Fighting the Christmas Creep

Christmas merchandise now begins to appear before Halloween in some big-box stores. A perceptive newspaper columnist has called this phenomenon the “Christmas Creep.” Judging by the number of television commercials that feature Christmas gift-giving that appeared before Thanksgiving, anyone would have to admit that the “Christmas Creep” is real. But is it good?
There’s nothing wrong with getting your Christmas shopping done ahead of time. I’m wondering how good it is that—literally for months--the message is sent that Christmas is all about buying and getting “stuff.” If you are a thoughtful Christian, you know the tension I’m talking about. Impressing upon a child that Jesus really is the reason for the season can seem like an uphill battle.
What are your actions communicating to your children? Are they communicating that Christmas is basically a source of stress and joyless busy-ness? Or are they communicating that Christmas is a time for purposeful service and moments of quiet contemplation? Are you consciously including Christ in you family’s Christmas? If not, wouldn’t this be a great year to start?

The Christmas Creep…or the Christmas Christ? With whom you will spend the holidays is largely up to you.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Advent--Time To Wake Up

The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.” Romans 13: 11b

My son and I were sharpening our minds watching the Super Friends the other day when we were reminded of an important truth: Never wake up someone who is sleepwalking. The Wonder Twins and their space monkey Gleek made it sound like under no conditions should we ever attempt this. We would certainly cause irreparable physical and mental damage if we were to interrupt a sleepwalker’s meanderings. But after doing a little research, I discovered that although the sleepwalker might be confused and disoriented, it is not actually dangerous to wake them up.
Which is good news, because on this New Year’s Day of the Church Year, you and I are challenged by God’s Word to wake up! It turns out that it’s not dangerous to wake up a sleepwalker—and if that person is sleepwalking through their faith and life with God, it is more dangerous for them not to wake up.
Paul writes to the Roman Christians, “The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
If these words do not stir at least a little excitement within, then you might be sleepwalking in your walk with God. Paul writes that the Day is almost here, and the Day he’s talking about is not Christmas Day; he’s talking about the Day when Jesus will come back to earth in plain sight—the Day when all of the promises that He has made about the future will be fulfilled—the Day when He will return to usher in an eternal era of sinless perfection and complete joy for those who have trusted in Him. That Day is nearer now than it has ever been! So let us put on the armor of light! Let us live out an eager Advent expectation that our Lord could burst through the clouds at any moment, flanked by angels, ready to re-create all things! Is that how you’re living? Is that a daily, controlling thought in your life? Or are you, to be honest, sleepwalking?
Are you sleepwalking through your daily routine? In Thornton Wilder's play Our Town, a young woman named Emily dies at the age of 26. She asks the stage manager narrating the play if she can return for a brief visit with her family. He grants her the wish, advising her to choose the least important day in her life—which "will be important enough," he says. She chooses to return on her 12th birthday, only to find her father obsessed with his business problems and her mother preoccupied with kitchen duties. Emily exclaims, "Oh Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, 14 years have gone by. I'm dead!" Unable to rouse her parents, Emily breaks down sobbing. "We don't have time to look at one another…Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?" Are you aware of the blessings that surround you? Or are you sleepwalking right past them?
Are you sleepwalking through your daily walk with God? Do thoughts of Him occur to you as you handle your daily responsibilities? How often do you let the Word of God speak to you Monday through Friday? Do you let Christ-like compassion into your relationships? Do you let Christ-like goodness influence your actions and decisions? What does your schedule of activities say about the place that Jesus has in your daily life? If someone followed you around looking for clues, would they be able to pick up on the fact that you are a believer in Jesus?
Are you sleepwalking through your worship of God? Do you realize that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit come to be with us as we speak and sing His Words? Do you understand that the Son of God has arrived to give you his body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins? Could we really be sleepwalking as Christ tries to serve us with His Word and Bread of Life? Could we really resent giving up an hour in which the Lord of creation is trying to give us His good gifts? If we think that we can be Christian with no commitment, or if we think that we can believe in Jesus yet hold him at arm’s length and neglect spending time with him, well, then, we’re sleepwalking right towards the edge of a cliff.
In love and concern for us the apostle Paul cries, “Wake up from your slumber!” Wake up and turn around! Wake up and unplug from those things that keep you asleep! Wake up from a passive, sleepy, brain-neutral spirituality! Become active, wakeful, intentional about bringing Jesus into every corner of your life. Wake up to the reality of Jesus serving you in worship and look for ways you can serve Him in return. Wake up and strap on the armor of light, because living out this Christian faith is going to be a battle! If you think that being a follower of Jesus is kind of boring and bland, I’d be willing to bet that you’re still sleepwalking. If your faith is awake; if you are aware of Jesus’ presence; if you are putting Jesus out there, representing Him, then your life is going to be a lot of things, but boring is not one of them. Living for Jesus will take you to places you never thought you would go; will show you things you never dreamed you would see; and will cause you to give things you never thought you’d be willing to give. You will literally battle evil every day; that’s why you need the armor. Don’t forget, though, God fashioned the armor of light; He has filled it with His power to guard and protect. The Lord’s desire for you is that you would live wide awake for Him.
The time has come to set aside our selfish sins and to clothe ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus has woven the most beautiful garment for you. He paid for its life-giving fabric with his innocent suffering and death on the cross. Every stitch was made with you in mind. Woven into every seam and strand is the power to forgive sin, and to give the wearer life with eternal purpose. And here is some excellent news: if, at some point in your life, you were baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, at that moment you put this garment on. You were clothed with the Lord Jesus Christ. You may be aware of it; at some times you may have been oblivious to it as you were sleepwalking; the only thing that matters is that today, right now, you wake up and grasp the enormity of what Jesus has done for you. The only thing that matters is that you put on and proudly wear the life that Jesus has created for you. Wake up and put on these clothes and live life to the full! Amen.