Category Archives: Faith

God With Us: Repent and Rejoice! – sermon on Zephaniah 3:14-20

Advent 3C – December 12, 2021
VIdeo

This is Gaudete Sunday! It’s the Latin word for ‘rejoice’ taken from the first word in the New Testament reading for today. Rejoice in the Lord always we just heard Paul say to the Philippians – Again I say Rejoice! And why? Because the Lord is near.

Last week we heard John the Baptist calling us to a ‘baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” as he cried out in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. And why? Because the Lord is near!

You just heard the gospel reading for today, describing John’s ministry in greater detail. As he called people to repentance, they had some questions about how, exactly, to go about that. Yes, we know repenting means turning away from one thing so we can turn toward something else, but how do we do that?

So John gives some specific examples. He encourages his listeners to look for ways to make things right and fair, to be generous with what we have, so that others who don’t have anything can be clothed and fed and cared for. He starts out calling people a brood of vipers, but ends up proclaiming the good news that … the Lord is near!

We are three fourths of the way through the season of Advent. And while we might think of these four weeks of preparation as leading up to Christmas, our focus should probably be looking forward to Christ’s coming again in glory as much as remembering his first coming in human form.

In fact, during medieval times, the four Sundays of Advent had nothing to do with Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love – the themes of Advent in the middle ages were Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell. Put that in your Christmas stocking! The truth is that Advent simply means Arrival. We look for Jesus to come among us, to be God with us – Emmanuel. So today, we hear the Old Testament prophet Zephaniah describe what that will be like, how God with us changes everything, and why God wants to be with us in the first place.

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: 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 as on a day of festival.
I will remove disaster from you so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.
(Zephaniah 3:14-20)

Rejoice! Exult! I wonder if we even know what those words mean anymore. The short definition of “exult” is to ‘feel or show triumphant elation or jubilation.’ Try explaining that to a kindergartener.

Let me give you an example: It’s the sound you make and the way you act when a player from your favorite football team intercepts a pass and runs it in for a touchdown. Especially if that touchdown puts your team in the lead.

You exult when you watch your child ride a bike unassisted for the first time. I exult every time I get a sermon written in time to preach it. It’s that “Woohoo!” feeling of gratitude that things are good – really good! – and we are filled with joy and gladness we can’t contain. So why does the prophet Zephaniah, who has spent so much breath telling the nation of Israel how bad things are going to be for them because of their disobedience, suddenly do a 180 turn and start telling us to rejoice?

Because God has taken away the judgments against you. The first two chapters of Zephaniah are all about the punishment God intends for those who have rejected God. It’s pretty dire. A lot worse than being called a brood of vipers. Then, suddenly, here in chapter three, God does an about face – God repents. Now hear me out, I’m not spouting heresy here. There are several places in scripture where God repents:

  • God repented that he had made humans, because they would only do evil, and it ‘grieved him at his heart,’ so he told Noah to build an ark before God flooded the earth (Genesis 6:6)
  • God repented from destroying Jerusalem because of King David’s sin, and stopped the angel of death at the threshing floor which eventually would become the land where Solomon would build the first Temple (Chronicles 21:15)
  • When Nineveh repented of its sin in Jonah 3:10, God repented of destroying Nineveh.

Do you notice what all this repenting has in common? God gets disgusted with humans who have rejected God’s love, and decides to destroy them – then repents, or changes direction, and shows mercy instead. You could almost say that God is the model of repentance. God shows us how to repent of our sin, by repenting of punishment and turning toward mercy and life.

Here in Zephaniah, that’s exactly what God does. Zephaniah describes the Day of the Lord as a time of doom and destruction, but God says, “On that day, you won’t be ashamed … no longer will you be haughty on my holy mountain … no one will make you afraid,” (3:11-13) because God will shower God’s people with love and forgiveness. And like everything else God does, this new message of love and joy goes over the top.

“Rejoice,” Zephaniah says, “God is in your midst, so you do not need to be afraid anymore.” Your judgment, your punishment for all the ways you have abandoned God or ignored God or rebelled against God – all that is cleared away. You have no reason to be afraid, because God is in your midst. God is with us. And that brings us to my favorite verse in the whole Bible, and the central idea of this passage. It is a five-fold blessing:

  1. The Lord your God is in your midst,
  2. a warrior who gives victory;
  3. he will rejoice over you with gladness,
  4. he will renew (or quiet) you in his love,
  5. he will exult over you with loud singing …

All that rejoicing and exulting Zephaniah tells us to do back in verse 14 is merely a reflection of God’s rejoicing and exulting. All our loud singing is simply an answer to the singing God does over us. Have you ever considered that God sings? And when God sings, it’s because of you?

Ponder that for a moment. You are so precious to God, so deeply loved, that God rejoices over you and sings your name, even as God is in your midst, right beside you, God with you. I know the first time this verse hit me, it wasn’t with the realization that God cared so much for me, it was the fact that God sings! And if God sings, and we are made in God’s image, that’s why we sing. Not for our own pleasure, but for God’s.

It has only been with time and deeper understanding that I have come to realize it isn’t the singing that’s important here. It’s the love. Sometimes that love actually prohibits us from indulging in the pleasure of singing – as it has over these past months of pandemic restrictions. But if love is more important that anything else in this passage, surely we can express that love for God and for one another in other expressions of joy, at least for now.

And that brings us to the final part of this passage, this message of hope, peace, and joy for the third Sunday in Advent. Finally, we come to God’s promises, God’s pledge to do what God says he will do.

In the Day of the Lord, the day of rejoicing and exultation, God says “I will…”

I will remove disaster.
I will deal with your oppressors.
I will save the lame.
I will gather the outcast.
I will change your shame into your fame.

And best of all, because God is with us,
“I will bring you home.”

Isn’t that exactly where we want to be? At home with God, as God is at home with us? This is what matters. This is what Advent is preparing us for – the time when time is no more, when all the promises of the ages have been fulfilled, and God brings us home.

Identity Crisis: Turning Point – Sermon on Matthew 16:21-28

August 30, 2020  – Pentecost + 13A

Note: this is the final sermon in the “Identity Crisis” series. The previous two weeks were preached by others, while I spent time with my family at my mother’s deathbed.  Watch this sermon on Vimeo.

We’ve been exploring the idea of an identity crisis in Matthew’s gospel these past few weeks. We’ve learned that the crisis isn’t just about how we identify ourselves as followers of Jesus. The crisis also stems from how we identify Christ at work in our lives and in the world. Sometimes it isn’t so easy to recognize Jesus, even when he stands right in front of us. Sometimes we doubt who he is, as Peter did when he tried to walk on water. But when we can name Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God – also as Peter did – we find our own identity as well.

Today’s passage from Matthew marks a turning point in the story. Continue reading

A Sending Word – Sermon on Matthew 9:35-10:8 for Pentecost A+2

June 14, 2020
My final Sunday with First United Methodist Church, New Ulm, Minnesota

How do disciples become apostles? When does following turn into being sent?

Over the past few weeks, we’ve watched those first disciples of Jesus gather in fear after the crucifixion, be amazed at Christ’s resurrection and ascension into heaven, and receive the Great Commission to make disciples. We’ve seen them return to Jerusalem with joy, praising God, and we’ve looked on as they gathered once more in a room together, praying to receive what Jesus had promised them, power from on high. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit blows them out into the city to share the Good News, and the church is born.

Somewhere in there, they’ve been transformed from frightened followers to bold announcers of the gospel. Somewhere in there, they’ve changed from apprentice craftsmen to master builders in God’s kingdom here on earth. Continue reading

But Some Doubted – sermon for Trinity Sunday on Matthew 28:16-20

June 7, 2020

It’s Trinity Sunday, so that means we hear the only verse in the Bible where Jesus refers to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – Maybe instead of getting caught up in trying to explain the Trinity, we should call this Great Commission Sunday! I mean, last week was Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit arrived with a whoosh and with fire, and gave birth to the church. It makes sense that a week later, the church would get its marching orders.

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16-20)

We often do focus on the Great Commission instead of the inter-relational mystery of the Triune God on Trinity Sunday. These are Jesus’ last words on earth, after all. And these words form the mission statement of the church: Go into all the world. Make disciples of all the people. Baptize all of them, and teach them all the things I’ve taught you. It’s a pretty inclusive commandment. Just because the church has struggled for centuries to actually fulfill the all-encompassing nature of this mission doesn’t mean we should ignore it.

Sometimes we focus on the “Go” part of Christ’s words. Get off your duff, get moving, get out there and introduce people to Jesus! You might be surprised to learn that “Go” isn’t the main verb in the Great Commission. Make disciples is the imperative Jesus uses. The going, baptizing, and teaching are all elements of disciple-making, but making disciples is the primary task Christ gives the church.

Making disciples does not mean coercing people or forcing them into ‘right belief’. It means engaging in God’s creative work, and that’s one of the reasons hearing the creation story makes sense for Trinity Sunday. Did you hear how the spirit – or the winds of God – hovered over the waters at creation? Did you notice how God says, “Let’s make humankind in our image?” God in Three Persons, Blessed Trinity.

This is what Jesus means when he says, “all authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.” God the Creator and Christ the Redeemer are one and the same being. He holds heavenly authority. But he also holds earthly authority.

See, authority has two aspects – we hear about this in an encounter Jesus has with a centurion in Matthew 8. Maybe you remember the story. The centurion comes to Jesus asking for help. His servant is sick, and he asks Jesus to heal him. Jesus offers to come to the centurion’s house, but the centurion says, “I don’t deserve to have you come under my roof, but just say the word and I know he will be well.”

And then the centurion explains why he thinks Jesus can heal the servant by simply speaking. he says, “For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” (Matthew 8:9)

The centurion understood that authority is handed down from a higher authority, but it is also ‘handed up’ from below. We give authority to those we choose to have over us. So when Jesus says, “all authority has been given to me in heaven and earth,” he’s talking about the authority that comes from his heavenly Father, but also the authority vested in him by us, his followers.

And I think heavenly and earthly authority is the key to the Great Commission’s power. Because it answers a question all of us ask, maybe every day: Whom can you trust?
Who will tell you the truth without spinning it?
Who will lead you in a way that is just and merciful at the same time?
Who will have your best interests at heart?
Who will stand for you when no one else will?
Who will keep you safe from harm, do you good; who will love you?
Whom can you trust?

If we go back to the beginning of this passage, Matthew gives us a really important piece of information we might have missed as we hurried over familiar words on our way to going, making, baptizing, and teaching new disciples. In verse 17, Matthew tells us, “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”

Some doubted, or maybe all doubted to some extent. The Greek isn’t really clear. Either way, worship and doubt are inextricably linked here. They worshiped. And at least some of them doubted. They weren’t sure if they could trust the one they were worshipping, but they worshiped anyway. And they doubted.

Why do you think Matthew puts that in there? Maybe he mentions the doubt as a way to encourage us when our own faith is too small to live out the gospel. We aren’t alone when it comes to doubt, when it comes to wondering whom we can trust. Even the closest followers of Jesus had their moments when they just weren’t sure.

But I also think Matthew is reminding us that doubt is an integral part of faith. Someone once said that the opposite of faith isn’t doubt or fear; it’s certainty. You see, when we are certain of something, we don’t really need faith. When we are sure in our own minds, we don’t really need to trust anyone else.

Doubt makes us vulnerable to grace. Doubt opens us up to the possibility that there is someone we can trust, and trusting in the face of our doubt is what faith really means. Trusting in the face of our doubt is what following Jesus really means. Helping others learn to trust Jesus in the face of their own doubt – that’s making disciples.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the
name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching
them to obey everything that I have commanded you,”
Jesus says.

Then he makes a promise, and it’s a promise reminding us how none of this is possible if we try to do it in our own strength. “Remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Jesus is with you. Making disciples of Jesus Christ is not something you do under your own authority; you do it under his. And he promises to be with you in every circumstance. Even in your doubt. When you aren’t sure where to place your trust, you can trust in Christ, who, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, will be with you.

Death Stinks – Sermon on John 11:1-45 for Lent 5A

March 29, 2020

Death really stinks, doesn’t it? I can remember the first time I smelled that smell. A mouse – or some animal – had died in the wall of the apartment where I was living. After a few days the stench was unbearable. I called the landlord, and he just laughed at me. “It’ll go away in a while,” he said. “Just live with it.” Continue reading

God With Us – Sermon on Psalm 23 for Lent 4Ai

March 22, 2020
Psalm 23

Good sermons are supposed to start out by identifying a problem or a fear we face, then show us how scripture helps us deal with that problem or fear.
This week, that’s a no-brainer. Continue reading

Above and Beyond – Sermon for Epiphany 6A on Matthew 5:21-37

February 16 2020

Last week, we heard Jesus preaching about being Salt and Light, as part of his Sermon on the Mount. Those Beatitudes we heard two weeks ago sounded sweet, and being the salt and light that shows Jesus to the world around us sounds encouraging, doesn’t it? And if you missed last week’s message, here’s the short version: Continue reading

Salt and Light – Sermon on Matthew 5:13-20 for Epiphany 5A

February 9, 2020

He was caught between two worlds. Memories of home brought some comfort, but there was sadness, too. He knew there was no going back. Everything had changed, and he knew that the place he had once called “home” no longer existed. It had been destroyed, and all his friends and family had been scattered. He’d managed to get out alive, but the life of a refugee was full of challenges. So here he was, in Syria, speaking a new language, trying to live out his faith in a culture that was different from anything he’d ever known. Continue reading

Identity Crisis – Sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:10-18 for Epiphany 3A

January 26, 2020

What does the cross mean to you? We wear beautiful crosses around our necks, and we have a simple cross with clean lines hanging over our altar. This isn’t the kind of cross Jesus was thinking about when he said, ‘take up your cross and follow me’ (Matthew 16:34). Continue reading

Making Room – Sermon on Matthew 3:1-12 for Advent 2A

December 8, 2019

Blessings on your Advent journey! You know, some folks aren’t even aware there is a season called ‘Advent.’ For them, this season leading up to Christmas is Christmas. We get that message loud and clear everywhere we go, in every store where we shop.

Last week, we celebrated the first Sunday in Advent with the 34th annual Hanging of the Greens. I mean, it looks like Christmas in here, doesn’t it? What are we waiting for? Let’s cut to the chase and start singing “Silent Night” and get that Baby Jesus into the manger where he belongs!

But we aren’t there yet. Continue reading