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

Preparing the Way of the Lord – Sermon on Matthew 3:1-12 – Advent 2, 2013

December 8, 2013 – Hanging of the Greens

 When Bruce and I moved to New Ulm, one of the first things we did was subscribe to the New Ulm Journal.  We are big believers in print news, and we knew we would learn things about this town through the local paper that might take us years to learn by other means.  We were delighted, then, to find that most of our favorite comic strips run in the Journal.  We’ve always loved “Shoe” and “Frank & Earnest,” because we love bad puns.  “Dilbert” and “For Better or For Worse” have just the right touch of real life to help us laugh at ourselves.  But we were especially glad to see that the New Ulm Journal carries “Sally Forth.”  (If you love bad puns, you have to love a comic strip with a name like “Sally Forth,” right?)

Sally is preparing for Christmas this week, and she has had to come to terms with the fact that Hilary, her daughter, has reached an age when decorating the house as a family is not nearly as important as spending time with her boyfriend.  Sally has been reminiscing about years past, when Hilary participated in the traditions of Christmas decorating with a little more enthusiasm.  Just as in real life, Sally’s cartoon memories of happier times might have suffered from too much sentimentality.  Like her memory of the year, when Hilary was five, and Sally tried to explain to her how an Advent calendar worked.  Sally remembers this as a moment of togetherness, but in reality, Hilary has pushed aside the goal of finding a piece of chocolate behind a little door every day.  What she wants to know is this: “Are any of those doors direct portals to Christmas Day?”  Hilary would skip all the decorating, all the chocolate even, if she could somehow jump directly from the Thanksgiving table into the joy of Christmas morning.

The Hanging of the Greens we have just experienced this morning might be the trigger for some of us to wish, along with Hilary Forth, that one of those little doors in the Advent calendar might be a direct portal to Christmas morning.  I mean, it looks like Christmas in here, doesn’t it?  What are we waiting for?

But we aren’t there yet.  We’d like to skip over the hard work of Advent if we could, and get right to the presents and eggnog, but here’s the reality: getting prepared for Christ to come into our lives takes more than garlands and wreaths.  Advent is, after all, the season of waiting.  We might think that seventeen more days is a long time to wait for Christmas to come, but the people of Israel had been waiting for hundreds of years, in expectation of the Messiah.  Prophets had been promising for centuries that God would send a Redeemer.  That kind of longing, that patient expectation, puts our impatience for Christmas to get here in a little different perspective, I think.

As John the Baptist began his ministry, some hoped that perhaps he was the promised Messiah.  He certainly spoke with prophetic authority.  But … he was a bit strange.  He lived out in the wilderness, for one thing, and ate whatever he could find.  His message was relentless, and he didn’t seem to care whom he offended with his preaching.  Matthew introduces John early in his gospel, knowing that the story of Jesus had to begin with a prophet preparing the way for the One who was to come.  John knew, even if the people who heard him preach did not, that he was not the Promised One.  He was eagerly waiting for the prophetic word he preached to be fulfilled.  John knew his job was to prepare the way for the Savior, and that the time was very near.  Hear the Word of the Lord, as we find it recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter three, verses 1 through 12.

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ ” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Hmm, that’s not really an encouraging message, is it?  I don’t know about you, but being called a brood of vipers doesn’t really make me want to curl up by the Christmas Tree with a cup of hot cocoa.  No wonder John had enemies.  No wonder his ministry was a short one.  He certainly doesn’t sugar-coat anything. “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near!” he shouts.  “Get ready!  The Messiah is coming, and you don’t want to mess with him!  This Messiah you’ve been waiting for is going to judge the whole world, so you’d better confess your sins and repent of them, before it’s too late!And yet, even though John’s message is harsh, people flocked out to hear him preach.  Instead of going to the center of town to stand on his soapbox where more people could hear him, John lives out in the wilderness, in the wild country, where no one wants to go.  Yet people from Jerusalem, even all of Judea, come out to hear him, and to be baptized by this prophet of God.

John’s baptism is a curious thing.  Like his camel-hair clothing and his diet of bugs and honey, John’s baptism just doesn’t fit into any idea of “normal.”  You must understand that baptism had been around for a long time.  It was a ritual cleansing practice for gentiles who wished to convert to Judaism.  Converts were baptized to signify that they had been purified, and could now enter the temple to worship.  Jews who were born Jews needed no such purification ritual; normal washing and following Kosher laws were enough.  But a gentile coming into the faith was completely immersed, to show that sin had been removed, and the new convert was now acceptable in the temple.

So why were all these Jews going out to the wild lands by the Jordan river – not the cleanest river in the area, by all accounts – to be baptized by this strange man?  They were already practicing Jews.  In fact, Matthew tells us that even the Sadducees and Pharisees, the most influential and faithful groups of Jewish leaders, were coming out to hear John and be baptized.

But John’s baptism wasn’t a standard ritual.  John’s baptism was a symbol of repentance, of turning away from sin.  The people who came to John to be baptized wanted to be ready when the Messiah came.  Like their ancestors, they had fallen into complacency; taking for granted their status as the chosen people of God, going through the motions of ritual worship, without experiencing the presence of God in their lives.  John’s preaching had awakened in them a memory of what it meant to be God’s people, holy and set apart.  John’s preaching also awakened in them a hope for the future, and the expectation that the future was nearer than they’d thought.

The Sadducees and Pharisees, as the most religious Jewish leaders, thought their very Jewishness would be enough to save them.  John says, “Not so – you need to repent, too.”  What’s more, John tells us, we need to bear fruit that is worthy of repentance.  Our lives need to show evidence that we have turned away from sin, and have turned toward God.

So what does that look like?  How do we prepare the way of the Lord?

According to theologian Alyce McKenzie, “The way not to prepare is to rely on our spiritual credentials.” “We have Abraham as our ancestor” the Sadducees and Pharisees proudly argued.[1]  But John tells them that isn’t enough.  McKenzie continues, “Presumably, relying on any other assurance or past accomplishment than God is not the way to prepare.  Inaction is not the way to prepare.  Making excuses is not the way to prepare.  Being distracted from Jesus’ coming kingdom by possessions, prestige, and power is not the way to prepare.  Not then and not now.”  You can read her entire essay here.

Preparing our hearts for Jesus looks a little different than preparing the Sanctuary, as we have just done.  The season of Advent is a time for us to prepare, not by putting up more greenery or strings of lights, beautiful as they may be.  Decorations can help us remember the deep truths they represent, but they can also sometimes be the way we cover up the messiness of our lives, the dark places in our hearts.

The season of Advent is a time to reflect, to ponder, preparing ourselves for Christ to enter into us, and transform our lives into something new, something holy.  This season is an opportunity for each of us to allow God to work in us.  Just as we prepare the sanctuary for Christmas with garlands and wreaths, we prepare our hearts for Christ through repentance.  Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near!  Repent and believe the Good News: In Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven.

Prepare the way of the Lord.  It doesn’t take much, really.  Just a turning away from our own desires, as we turn toward God’s deep desire for us.  That’s what repentance is, after all. Turning away from our sinful selves, as we turn toward God’s love for us.  It doesn’t take much space to turn around, but we have to do the turning.

Last year, Mary Luti wrote an Advent hymn that might give us a clue to preparing the way of the Lord, in the world, and in our own hearts.  You can find it here.

Our lives need to show evidence that we have turned away from sin, and have turned toward God. But we can’t manufacture that evidence. It just shows. As you find the “little room” God needs in your heart this Advent season, don’t worry too much about making sure your “fruit worthy of repentance” is showing.  Trust that it will.  Trust that God can change you, if you just give him a little room.  Amen.

[1] Matthew 3:9

Getting Found – Sermon on Luke 15:1-10

It’s a common practice for schools to encourage parents to check the Lost and Found collection during Parent/Teacher conferences. One year, to attract parents to the area where the Lost and Found items were displayed, an administrator posted a sign at a school’s entrance that caught everyone’s attention. A simple stick figure had been made from scraps of wood. The mannequin was propped in a pair of snow boots that had been stuffed with Lost and Found gym socks. It wore a pair of Lost and Found sweatpants, a Lost and Found jacket, a hat and scarf and gloves – all from the Lost and Found. Hanging from one “arm” was a lunch box. The other carried a backpack. A sign was pinned to the front of the scarecrow that read “Are you missing something? Do I belong to you?”

As Jesus continues on his journey toward Jerusalem, followed by those crowds that include people of every description, his teaching is becoming more and more intense. Last week, we heard him insist that no one could follow him who had not renounced everything else – family, wealth, or reputation – for the sake of being a disciple of Jesus. Scribes and Pharisees had challenged Jesus, but they were still part of the crowd. At first they had come out of curiosity. Later, they came to discredit this new, unauthorized teaching. Now they were following Jesus with the intent of catching him in some heresy. Whatever their reason for being there, people came and listened. As they listened, they asked questions about the things Jesus said that didn’t make sense to them. And there were plenty of questions!

Over the past few weeks, we have already seen how Luke’s gospel is filled with examples of the many ways Jesus challenged the status quo. The theme of reversal threads its way throughout Luke’s story, and by now, it should come as no surprise that Jesus is going to flip things topsy-turvy whenever he opens his mouth. As the scribes and Pharisees listened to Jesus, they wondered where did he get authority to say such things? Were they missing something? Did Jesus belong to God? And if he did, did they? Hear the Word of the Lord, as found in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 15, verses 1-10:

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’  Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

The three parables that make up chapter fifteen all focus on the central theme of the lost getting found, and the joy that is shared in the finding. Many scholars believe they were told as a single unit from the beginning of the Christian era, passed along through the oral tradition that Luke used to compile his gospel account. Today’s reading focuses on the first two of these parables, saving the parable of the prodigal son for the season of Lent. As I read these stories again and again, I am struck by the realization that, in order for the lost to be found, it had to belong to someone first. The lost sheep was not a wild sheep that the shepherd happened upon and added to his flock. That sheep had belonged to the shepherd from the beginning, and had strayed away. The coin that the woman lost had been part of her life savings. It belonged to her. When she found it, she rejoiced with her neighbors that something of her very own had been restored to her. When Jesus told these stories, he was describing things that had once been where they belonged, but had somehow gone missing.

As you ponder that thought, you might be thinking of things that have gone missing from your life over the years. Maybe you have lost touch with people who were once dear to you. Perhaps you have allowed a broken relationship to remain broken, and you have lost the sense of freedom that comes with forgiving and being forgiven.

Maybe you have lost the habit of reading God’s Word on a daily basis, or the diligent practice of prayer. Maybe you have lost faith in God, wondering how God could allow evil to persist in the world. Perhaps you’ve lost purpose, or joy, or the assurance that you belong to a loving God who cares for you. Whatever you’ve lost, Jesus tells these stories to you, just as surely as he told them to his disciples and the crowds around him as he traveled to Jerusalem.

Remember that Jesus was responding to the grumbling he heard from the scribes and Pharisees, as they complained about the company he was keeping. In last week’s passage, Jesus ate with a respectable Pharisee, but this week, he has accepted hospitality from the opposite end of the social spectrum. Those Pharisees who entertained Jesus a few verses ago are now upset because he also eats with sinners and tax collectors. (Apparently, tax collectors were in their own class of sinfulness, apart from regular sinners such as liars, adulterers, murderers, and thieves.)

Yet, while these righteous teachers and leaders are criticizing Jesus for hanging out with the wrong crowd, Jesus is trying to teach them a short lesson in how the Kingdom of God really works. He isn’t too worried about the people who already believe in God and worship God.  Jesus is concerned about the ones who have been excluded, the ones who are lost.

So he tells two stories, and the main character in each of them is someone from the bottom of the social ladder. Shepherds were notoriously despised in Jewish society. They could not be called upon as witnesses, because they weren’t trusted to tell the truth. They were considered no better than robbers, partly because they sometimes tended to let their sheep wander onto land that belonged to someone else. In the parable of the lost coin, it’s a woman who searches diligently for her silver drachma. Women had no social standing at all in first century Palestine, and were completely dependent on their fathers or husbands. They too could not serve as witnesses, not because they were considered dishonest and untrustworthy like shepherds, but because they were not considered at all. Yet, here Jesus uses these two outcast figures to demonstrate how carefully God searches for his own, how diligently he pursues his children, how joyfully God celebrates whenever one of his lost ones repents, and returns to be loved and embraced.

It’s easy, sometimes, to get lost in the details of one of Jesus’ stories. We can get caught up in trying to assign specific meaning to each element. What does the coin stand for? Who does the shepherd or the woman represent? What is the significance of sheep, instead of, say, cattle? Jesus wasn’t too concerned about these issues. When Jesus told these two parables, and the one that follows about the prodigal son, his focus was on the certainty of searching, and the celebration at finding what was lost.

Neither the searching nor the celebration was really new to the crowds listening to Jesus. They had heard, and maybe even sung Psalm 27:

“One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple. … Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud; be gracious to me and answer me! You have said, “Seek my face.” My heart says to you, “Your face, Lord, do I seek.”[1]

And the idea of God doing the searching was also not new to them. They were intimately familiar with Psalm 139: “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.” The reading we heard from Jeremiah today describes a God who searches for any who are good, any who are righteous, but a God who finds a world lost completely to evil. Within a few years, the Apostle Paul would write to his friend Timothy of his own dependence on God to find him in his lost-ness. Time and again, we get lost, and time and again, God searches for us to bring us home.

Here’s the thing: We belong to God. When we stray, lose our way, or even run away from God, he will persistently look for us, and he is always ready to welcome us back home with joy, because he loves us. God wants us to be in loving relationship with him, because that is how he created us. We are his; we belong to God. The question each of us must answer is simply this: do we want to be lost, or do we want to be found? We can choose to stay lost and suffer the consequences of our rebellion against God’s love for us. But Jesus came to restore us to God, to bring us home to the one who loves us more than we can possibly imagine.

You don’t have to run away from God to be lost. Even if you do everything in your own power to be right, you can still be lost. To get found, 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.

Getting found 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 that means that, when we see people turning to God who might not be our idea of “good,” we welcome them into the family with open arms, just as Jesus welcomed sinners AND Pharisees; just as God welcomes us.

Jesus is saying that sinners and tax collectors, the scum of society, all belong to God, just as much as anyone, and God is eager to restore all of us to himself. Once we accept that we belong to God and choose to serve him, we can’t slam the door in other people’s faces. It’s our job to hold the door open for everyone, even those we might consider outcasts. Especially those we might consider to be outcasts. We are to rejoice with God whenever one of these outcasts ‘gets found’ because all are precious to God. And we are also to join with God in the work of finding lost ones, and pointing them toward Christ.

The parables were given to religious insiders – Pharisees and scribes. Whether or not we want to admit it, we fall into that category, too. We are the religious insiders in our society. And if we read these parables closely, we may realize that the ones who need to repent are the ones hearing the story. A coin or a sheep cannot repent. Perhaps Jesus is asking us to repent, as members of the “already found” group of insiders. Perhaps Jesus is asking us to repent of our smugness, our complacency, our failure to include sinners and tax collectors as part of “us.”

Verse one says that the sinners and tax collectors were “coming near” to Jesus – and that can be threatening to insiders. We don’t want to lose our place in the inner circle, or be shoved out of our spot at the head of the table. But Jesus says there’s room for everyone who seeks him in the Kingdom of God. And he also reminds us that the ones he seeks are already near to him. If they were going to shove you out of your spot, it would have happened by now. So, instead of fretting over keeping your place near Jesus, he invites you to rejoice with him that another has been found! The table keeps getting bigger! Quick, draw up another chair and welcome into your midst the ones Jesus welcomes!

It’s easy to focus on the redemption of the “lost” around us, and we should be joining God in the search for those he seeks to bring home. But our role in this search is different from God’s part.  Jesus says, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost.”[2] It’s God’s job to search and save. It’s our job to search and welcome. Theologian Penny Nixon writes, “Religious insiders are often more comfortable with saving the lost than welcoming those whom they perceive to be lost. Saving is about power, whereas welcoming is about intimacy.”[3]

Christ calls us to welcome the outcast, because we were once outcasts. Christ calls us to rejoice when one of the least of these discovers that this is home! Christ calls us to fully embrace each person he brings into our midst – not as a project to be worked on, but as one of us, redeemed by God’s grace alone.

Remember the Lost and Found scarecrow’s sign? “Are you missing something? Do I belong to you?”  If you feel lost, know that God wants to pull you out of the Lost and Found box, and bring you home. If you know you’ve been found, it’s time to welcome others into the family of God, into the life and community of this congregation. It’s time to rejoice over each one of us whom God has found.  Amen.

[1] Psalm 27:4, 7-8

[2] Luke 19:10

[3] Nixon, G. Penny. Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, 71.