Tag Archives: repentance

It All Starts Here – Sermon on Mark 1:1-8 for Advent 2B

December 10, 2017

Imagine you are in Palestine. War is everywhere. You are surrounded by violence. The military leader who just got promoted to imperial dictator happens to be the same general who was responsible for destroying your village last year. Friends and family have scattered, and you aren’t sure what you should do next.

Someone bumps into you on the street, and presses a pamphlet into your hands. For a moment, your eyes meet, and you are struck by two things: first, the intensity of this stranger’s gaze, and second, by the fact this intensity does not seem to be rooted in anger or fear, but … joy. You glance at the pamphlet in your hand, and read the title: “Good News.”

You could use some good news. Is the war over? Has the dictator been overthrown? You find a safe place to open the pages, and you begin to read…

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Continue reading

Turn Around – Sermon on Matthew 3:1-12 Advent 2A

December 4, 2016
Watch a video of this sermon here

What do you think of first when you hear the word “repentance”? What do you think it means to repent?

In today’s gospel lesson, you will hear about repenting three times. John the Baptist calls us to repent, to prepare for the coming of God’s Kingdom. We usually think about repentance in terms of what we need to repent from – turning away from our sins. But turning away from sin begs the question: What does God call us to repent toward? As you listen to John the Baptist’s words, I invite you to focus your attention on what it is you need to turn toward when you repent. Continue reading

Salvation Has Come to this House – sermon on Luke 19:1-10

October 30, 2016
Watch a video of this sermon here

Last week, we heard Jesus tell a story about a tax collector and a Pharisee. He told the story to some people who thought they were better than others, and in that story, the Really Bad Guy, the tax collector, goes home justified, while the Really Good Guy, the Pharisee, goes home no more righteous than he had been before he came to the Temple to pray.

Today’s story is about another tax collector, only this time Jesus isn’t setting up a hypothetical situation to teach a lesson. This time, the tax collector is a real person, a short man named Zacchaeus. But before we can hear this story, we have to know what has happened since last week. Because Jesus has been pretty busy in the last part of chapter 18. Continue reading

Called to Receive Mercy – Sermon on 1 Timothy 1:12-17

September 11, 2016

The books of First and Second Timothy, and Titus are called “pastoral letters.” They were written to encourage young pastors of new churches in the first century. Each letter includes some teaching about doctrine, because there was a lot of controversy early on concerning what Christians should believe, and how they should live.

It was hard to make up rules for living, without falling into the trap of becoming all about the rules, and not about faith. That had been the problem in Jewish religious practice, and the early church wanted to avoid it.

They wanted to keep the main thing the main thing: faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, crucified, risen, and ascended into glory. Living out that faith in Jewish society was difficult enough, but living out that faith in a pagan society, like Ephesus, was even more challenging.

Over the next four weeks, we will explore discipleship through the letters to Timothy. As pastor of the church at Ephesus, Timothy and his congregation faced the same questions we do today. How do I follow Jesus in a culture that does not honor him? How do I stay faithful to God and his call on my life, when others around me ignore God? How can I live out my faith within the Body of Christ, and grow deeper in faith with my brothers and sisters?

  • This week, we take a look at Paul’s experience of being called into Christ’s service. We will see how discipleship is a call to gratitude for God’s mercy.
  • Next week, we will consider how prayer develops our faith and makes us strong in the Lord.
  • On the 25th, we will skip ahead to 2nd Timothy, to see how discipleship requires aligning ourselves with sound teaching,
  • and on World Communion Sunday, as we begin our Fall pledge campaign, we will consider how stewardship is an important part of discipleship.
  • But it’s all about how to follow Jesus, once we’ve received him as our Savior. And who better than a first century apostle, writing to the early church, to help us learn how to follow Jesus?

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.
But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.
But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.
To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.  (1 Timothy 1:12-17)

To fully understand this passage, we need to remember the story of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. Saul came from Tarsus in Asia Minor (Acts 21:39), and studied under one of the leading rabbis of the day in Jerusalem, Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). Saul joined the Pharisees, and was vigorous in his defense of Jewish traditions.

In his zeal, Saul persecuted the early church (Galatians 1:13, 23; Philippians 3:6). On his way to Damascus, determined to arrest any who “belonged to the Way,” as the early church movement was called, he had a vision of the Lord Jesus Christ that changed his life, and Christ called him to be an apostle to the Gentiles (Romans 1:5; 1 Corinthians 9:1).[1]

Paul’s story gives us a dramatic example of what repentance looks like – turning away from sin, and going in a new direction as a follower of Jesus. We need to remember that Paul wasn’t turning away from one religion to follow a new one. In fact, Judaism and Christianity were not yet separate religions. Paul’s conversion was within his understanding of what it meant to be a faithful Jew. He repented of being a Pharisee, and began to live out his Jewish faith in God in a new way, as a disciple of Jesus.

Before this experience, Saul was “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence” (1 Timothy 1:13) who had even assisted in, and approved of, the execution of Stephen (Acts 7:57-8:1). Afterward, Paul became someone who rejected violence, and also the impressive rhetoric prized by the culture of the day.

Instead, Paul sought Christ to empower his speaking and strengthen his ministry (1 Timothy 1:12; 2 Corinthians 10:1-6; 12:8-10). Paul repented from persecuting Christians and turned toward leading them; from promoting violence, to peace.

Paul saw clearly that what had happened to him was not his own doing. It was by the grace of God that Jesus had appeared to him on the road, and called him to become someone new. The only right response, in the face of such undeserved mercy, is gratitude. And Paul pours out his thanks to God for this amazing gift of love, mercy, and faith.

Paul recognizes that he doesn’t deserve this gift. After all, he had been operating against God’s purposes when he persecuted the church. Paul says he “acted ignorantly in unbelief.” He knew who Jesus was, certainly. But he didn’t know Jesus personally. His ignorant unbelief was grounded in the assumption that he was acting in God’s will, when in fact, he was acting in opposition to God’s purpose. Yes, he thought he was serving God and taking a stand for what he believed to be right. But he was wrong.

How often we do this! We think we have a strong sense of what is right and what is wrong, and we stand up to what we think is evil, when we are really opposing God – because we are acting out of our own assumptions instead of God’s mercy! Yet God’s grace overflowed in faith and love for Paul, and God’s grace overflows in faith and love for us, too.

If you analyze these few verses, you will find that there are really only two sentence subjects: Paul, and Jesus. It’s personal, and it’s relational, this mercy and grace that Paul has experienced. For Paul, experience is more important than doctrine. The reality of knowing Jesus is more important than anything you might believe about Jesus.

There’s a phrase that identifies the core teaching of this passage: “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance.” It occurs throughout the pastoral letters, and it may have even been part of the developing liturgy of the early church. It identifies key elements of belief, things we can all agree are the important tenets of our faith. “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” Paul tells Timothy. This is the main thing that needs to always be the main thing.

Christ came to save sinners. The missio Dei – or mission of God – has always been clear: To seek and to save those who are lost (Luke 19:10), as we heard earlier in the gospel parables about the lost sheep and the lost coin (Luke 15:1-10).

Last week, I mentioned that we can get stuck here, so eager to see sinners saved that we focus all our attention on conversion. But that’s God’s job. Our mission is also clear.

In the Great Commission Jesus says: “Go make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all the things I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20) It doesn’t say, “Go convince people to believe in me, and then leave them on their own to figure out how to follow me.”

Jesus came to save sinners, to redeem us for the Kingdom of God. Jesus came to save sinners, and that salvation transforms us into something new, something that continues to grow deeper in faith as we follow Jesus by his grace and mercy. Jesus came to save sinners, who then become disciples, following him day by day, moment by moment, growing ever closer to him, becoming more and more like him.

Paul adds his own personal testimony to this statement of faith:
“—of whom I am the foremost.”
This is the gospel: Jesus came to save sinners – and I’m the worst one.

And that brings us right back to Mercy and Grace. It’s because I am the worst sinner on earth that I can experience this amazing grace, this abundant mercy and forgiveness. Verse 16 says, “But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.

This is why God shows me mercy: so that I can be an example to anyone else who wants to come to Jesus, but thinks they aren’t worthy, or don’t qualify for such grace. None of us qualify. So all of us who have received God’s mercy can show others, “no matter how bad you think you are, if Jesus could forgive me, Jesus can forgive you.”

Just as Jesus called Paul to turn on the road to Damascus and begin a new life in Christ, he calls us to turn on our road to wherever we think we’re going, and follow him. This act of repentance has to happen over and over again, not because Jesus changes the path we are to follow, but because we keep wandering away from it. Just like Saul, we think we are doing the right thing, and in our stubbornness we fail to see that we are opposing God’s good purpose for us.

That’s why we have each other, to encourage one another along the road, to hold one another accountable for staying true to the way of Christ. Following Jesus is a relational endeavor.

God wants us to be in loving relationship with him, because that is how he created us. We are his; we belong to God. Jesus came to restore us to God, to bring us home to the one who loves us more than we can possibly imagine. When we stray, lose our way, or even run from God, he will persistently look for us, and he is always ready to welcome us back home with joy, because he loves us. To answer the call to receive mercy, you have to turn toward God, and away from everything else.

Last week, Jesus challenged us to give up everything that matters to us most, in order to put him first and be his true disciple. Receiving mercy requires admitting that we belong to God, and being willing to live our lives in a way that shows others we belong to God. And what can we say to such amazing grace, to such profound mercy?

Paul has an answer for this question. The only thing we can do is praise God for his goodness, and thank him for his mighty love. Our lives praise God. Our prayers and songs give God glory. And as we lift our voices and show our gratitude by the way we live, encouraging one another and helping each other stay true to the gospel, we become examples to those who would come to believe in Christ Jesus for eternal life.”

“To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”

[1] Christian Eberhart, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1768

Get Up and Go – sermon on Jonah 3:1-5, 10

May 1, 2016 Easter 6C

Did you ever try to run away from home when you were a kid? Do you remember why you wanted to run away? I remember the time I got so angry at my mother that I decided I just had to leave. I think I was about eight years old.

I had some vague notion in my head that people who ran away from home had to tie up all their belongings in a bundle and hang it on the end of a stick. But I didn’t have a stick, and I didn’t know how to make a bundle, so I settled for the next best thing: A plastic doll case. I couldn’t squeeze very much into it, so I took just the essentials: a favorite stuffed toy, some socks, a comb, a small box of raisins in case I got hungry … that was about all that would fit.

As I made my way across the back yard, I ran into our neighbor, Mr. Perry. “Where are you going?” he asked me.

“I’m running away.”

“Oh, well I was hoping maybe you could help me crank the ice cream.”

Mr. Perry made peach ice cream that was to die for. As I turned the crank on the ice cream freezer, we talked. To this day, I do not remember what had made me mad enough that I thought I had to run away from home, but by the time Mr. Perry took the paddle out of the ice cream and handed it to me to lick, I wasn’t mad anymore. I took my plastic doll case back up to my room and unpacked it.

My mother never even knew I’d left the house.

Like my eight year old self, Jonah got so mad, he decided to run away. I really was surprised when I realized that the story of Jonah was missing from our 31-week walk through the Bible. How can you skip Jonah? It’s a universal story. Every known religion has some version of the Jonah story in its mythology. Continue reading

Kindling Hope: Coming Home – Sermon on Haggai 1:2-9 for Lent 1C

February 14, 2016 (You can watch a video of this sermon here.)

Going home as an adult is quite an experience. Everything looks smaller than when you were a kid. Visiting my parents after I had been away for several years, the house seemed smaller, my bedroom was smaller, everything was familiar, but different. Visiting my old elementary school – everything looked smaller. It was exactly the same as I remembered it from childhood, but it was different, too.

Imagine what it would be like to leave your home as a small child, and then return to that same place when you retired. Other people would be living in your house. Businesses would have moved in and out of town. Buildings that stood tall when you were a child would be gone. Trees that had been saplings when you left would be tall and full. Everything would be the same, but it would be different. That’s what happened to the Israelites. Only now, for the first time in the Old Testament, they were called “the Jews.” (Ezra 4:23)

It had been more than 60 years since the exile into Babylon. That kingdom had been taken over by Cyrus of Persia, and Cyrus had issued a decree to allow the people of Israel to return to Jerusalem. More than 42,000 had accepted the invitation to return to their homeland. Some of those who made the trip had never seen Jerusalem, so they didn’t know what to expect. But others had been young enough to remember the glory of Solomon’s temple. They had carried that memory with them in hope of this very day.

The prophet Ezra writes that the returning exiles immediately set up the altar “because they were in dread of the neighboring peoples” (Ezra 3:3). Even though they were returning to the land that God had given them as an inheritance, they were afraid. They turned to God for protection and shelter.

We have to remember that the ‘neighboring peoples’ included that remnant of the poorest Jews, who had been left behind in the exile. They had been scratching out an existence among the rubble for more than sixty years. It isn’t hard to imagine that tensions arose between the returning exiles and those who had been left behind. There would have been questions of land ownership, who was to govern, who could be priests, and how they would share the limited resources that were available. Rebuilding the altar was not just a religious act, it had legal, political, and social implications for this newly integrated nation.[1]

Even so, the ones who returned set about the work of worshiping God, and as soon as the altar was in place and sacrifices were being offered, work began on the foundation of the Temple itself.

2015-01-12 11.43.58 dressed stone temple

Nothing is left of Solomon’s temple, or even the second temple that the returning exiles built in its place. Dressed stones from Herod’s temple, the temple that Jesus knew, give you some idea of the immensity of the project. These massive blocks are about three feet high and six feet across. When we visited the Temple mount last year, the guide told us we could tell which ones had come from Herod’s temple because of the dressed edge around each stone facing.

great shot not one stone upon anotherThese were the same stones that the disciples pointed out to Jesus. But Jesus refused to be impressed. “You think these are something?” he asked them. I have news for you. “Not one stone will be left upon another. All will be thrown down.” (Matthew 24:2; Mark 13:2; Luke 21:6)

 

2015-01-12 11.57.08Herod would cut new stones for the temple he built, but the returning exiles had only the materials at hand, and that meant the stones that had fallen when Solomon’s temple had been destroyed.

 

This wasn’t neat and tidy work, as it had been in Solomon’s day, when the stones were carefully dressed at the quarry and set together without tools. This was slap-dash, “fill in the chinks with mortar, don’t take time to make it pretty” work. Solomon had built out of strength and glory. This foundation was laid out of weakness and fear.

Ezra describes for us the noisy business of laying this foundation:

“10 When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments were stationed to praise the Lord with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, according to the directions of King David of Israel; 11 and they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.” And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. 12 But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, 13 so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.” (Ezra 3:10-13)

“For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.” This was the same song sung at the dedication of Solomon’s temple (2 Chronicles 5:13) but this song of praise was “mingled with weeping from those who had seen the temple in its former glory.”[2] Those who could remember Solomon’s great temple found it impossible to celebrate this new foundation. Instead, they wept at this puny substitute. Yes, it was time to celebrate the fulfillment of prophecy, but what a disappointment that fulfillment was to them! Instead of joy, the ones who could remember the good old days felt only loss.

When we are discouraged and we harbor disappointment, we are most vulnerable to opposition. There isn’t much room for courage and determination in the middle of a pity party. This is when attacks can do the most damage, and that’s exactly what happens next in the story of the returned exiles. Their neighbors began to challenge their right to build, even their ability to build. Their neighbors made it as difficult as possible for the work to continue, and under this pressure, the work stopped. Ezra writes,

“4 Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah, and made them afraid to build, and they bribed officials to frustrate their plan throughout the reign of King Cyrus of Persia and until the reign of King Darius of Persia.” (Ezra 4:4-5)

2015-01-12 12.00.10

The work halted when opposition came along, as opposition always will. For many years, the stones lay stacked and ready to build, but no one did the building. Instead, they focused their attention on building their own homes. Life in Israel was a struggle. Building the temple got moved to the back burner, as the people turned their attention to their own needs and desires.

Haggai rose up as a prophetic voice to call the people back to the work they had been given to do.

Thus says the Lord of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house. Then the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying: Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? Now therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider how you have fared. You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.

 Thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider how you have fared. Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored, says the Lord. You have looked for much, and, lo, it came to little; and when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? says the Lord of hosts. Because my house lies in ruins, while all of you hurry off to your own houses. (Haggai 1:2-9)

Here’s the good news: the people listened to Haggai, and they repented. They got to work building the house of the Lord. It didn’t look like much, especially when compared to the fond memory of Solomon’s temple, but it was the Lord’s. And the people prospered.

In the second chapter of Haggai, the Lord asks the people, “Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing? But now be strong, … Be strong, all you people of the land, and work. For I am with you,’ declares the Lord Almighty.  And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’” (Haggai 2:2-5)

Today is the first Sunday of the season of Lent. During these forty days, God calls us to repentance. Since the very beginning, God has been working out his great purpose in us, to redeem us to himself if we will only turn to him.

In a devotional written for Ash Wednesday, J. D. Walt urges us to “realize that Jesus was not plan B or plan C. Jesus was always plan A. For God to create human beings in his own image meant they would be made in the image of perfect love. To be made in the image of perfect love meant they would be endowed with perfect freedom. And to be endowed with perfect freedom necessarily required the possibility of choosing something other than the will of God, which is the way of love. … God is not love because he loves. God loves because he is love. In similar fashion, a person is not a sinner because he sins. Rather, a person sins because he is a sinner.”

But we don’t have to stay stuck in that identity, anymore than the returned exiles had to stay stuck in their self-pity over the loss of the great temple they remembered from long ago. They repented of living in fear instead of courage. They repented of putting themselves before God. They repented of leaving the work for someone else to do. They repented, and started building.

Here we stand at the beginning of Lent, but also at the beginning of a process called Healthy Church initiative. It’s a process that gives us the opportunity to use the stones of our past that are still good and sound, to build a foundation for the future into which God is calling us.

Now is our time to return to the call God made on this congregation 158 years ago when a German Methodist missionary named Henry Singenstreu came to New Ulm to reach people who didn’t even know they needed Jesus.

Now is our time to repent of living in fear instead of courage.

Now is our time to repent of putting our own comfort and interests ahead of God’s call on our lives.

Now is our time to repent of leaving the work for others to do.

Now is our time to repent of the grudges we’ve held and the hurts we’ve nursed, to let go of our skepticism and our pride.

It’s time to admit to Jesus what he already knows — “that [we] are tired of living from the stuck identity of sinners, which is death, and that [we] are ready to live from the unleashed identity of [beloved children of God], which is life.” As J. D. Walt puts it, “It’s time to repent and believe the Gospel, which isn’t so much trying harder to stop sinning and start loving as it is to stop seeing oneself as a sinner and start seeing oneself as a lover…. And what is the Gospel? It is this: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)[3]

The Jews who returned to Israel had to figure out what it meant to live into a future that they could not see, but they knew God was creating right in their midst. What was past was past. But God was kindling a new hope in them, and he promised that his Spirit would remain with them. They had no reason to fear or be discouraged. God didn’t need a fancy new temple of stone. God wanted to establish his temple in the hearts of his people.

God speaks through the prophet Haggai to us, more than 2500 years later.

“My Spirit remains among you. Do not fear. … The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant shalom,’ declares the Lord Almighty.”

The work that lies ahead may discourage us. We may long for the glory days of this congregation’s past. But we don’t have to stay stuck there. God calls us to repent, and to start building. What God calls us to build probably won’t look anything like what some of us remember. But God promises to be with us, and God asks us to have courage and not fear. “The glory of this present house will be greater that the glory of the former house,” says the Lord Almighty.

May it be so.

Next week – Kindling Hope: For Such a Time as This (Esther’s Story)

[1] Michael J Chan http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2570

[2] Ibid.

[3] J. D. Walt  http://dailytext.seedbed.com/2016/02/10/ash-wednesday-2/ 

Eureka! Immediate Repentance – Sermon on Mark 1:14-20

January 25, 2015

Water flows throughout today’s worship. From the story of Jonah to the Sea of Galilee, through the baptismal waters we celebrate this morning, water connects us to the immediate, and to the eternal.

A middle school science teacher once told me that all the water in the world is the very same water that was present at Creation. The cycles of evaporation and condensation that were set in motion at the beginning of time have filtered the same molecules of water that flooded the earth in Noah’s time and flow out of the kitchen tap in ours. It’s all the same water.

Water means life. We are born out of water, and we can’t live without it for very long. So it’s not hard to understand how the waters of baptism represent our spiritual birth, or why it was so important to Jesus that he be baptized by John in the Jordan River. It’s all the same water.

In the story of Jonah, it isn’t today’s reading about Nineveh’s repentance that we remember first. No, its that part about the giant fish swallowing Jonah and spitting him up on the shore after swimming around in the water for three days. We remember the water.

Yet Jonah’s story pivots on his three-day voyage in that organic submarine. Continue reading