Christ's State of the Universe Address



Inspired by Matthew 5:1-12

Our Bible story for today comes from the beginning of what has come to be known as the Sermon on the Mount. It’s three chapters long and over the next three Sundays we will read the first of those three chapters, saving portions of the rest for later in the year. This comes very early in the Gospel of Matthew and it’s actually the first public act of Jesus in this Gospel, which tells us something about the kind of role that Matthew saw Jesus playing in the lives of his disciples. The passage begins with, Jesus “went up a mountain…sat down” and “he taught them.” So, one of the major roles that Matthew saw Jesus playing in the life of his disciples was that of teacher.

I really like that. As someone who loves to learn, in spite of how scary that can be at times, I really like seeing Jesus as our teacher. Especially because I have had some wonderful people in my life who have taken on that role for me—whether they be actual teachers from grade school, college or grad school, or the many people in my life like my parents, wife, children, and even our dog, who have taught me valuable lessons and have made me into the person I am today. No matter how you slice it, the role of teacher in someone’s life is a holy endeavor, whether you’re teaching math or how to wake up and face tomorrow, in spite of how today turned out.

So keep this role in mind as we explore the Gospel of Matthew this year, and especially over these four weeks as we dive into the sermon on the mount. Those of you who know this passage well will have certainly noticed a major change that this translation provides us. Usually each of these phrases of Jesus in this passage, which have come to be known as the Beatitudes, begin with the word blessed. “Blessed are the poor…blessed are the meek” etc. But this translation uses the word happy. Well, as much as we may not like it, happy is a better translation of the Greek word makarios. In fact, that’s why they’re known as the Beatitudes. The word beatitude comes from the Latin word meaning happiness.

So, why is that important? Well, because in biblical usage, to be blessed implied that you earned it. In other words, you were blessed by God because of your good behavior, because you made good decisions, because you followed God’s laws. And that is not the idea that Jesus is trying to get across here in the beatitudes, these are not nine ways to earn God’s blessings. In fact, I’m going to argue that the Beatitudes may not even be for us! I know, scandalous right? But you know as well as I do that we are human and tend to make everything about us. But take a look at the simple grammar in this passage and you soon realize that Jesus is not talking about disciples in most of these, he’s not talking about us.

Matthew writes, “He sat down and his disciples came to him. He taught them saying, ‘Happy are people who are hopeless, humble, hungry’” etc. He doesn’t say to his disciples, “happy are you” until the very end. He says “happy are people.” What if Jesus, with these Beatitudes, is not only describing his own ministry, but also the ministry that his followers are called to as well. So if that’s the case, what if we heard them this way, “Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs” and we are going to bring them that kingdom! “Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad” and we are going to make them glad! “Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth” and we will deliver it!

“Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full” and we are going to feed them! “Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy” and we will be merciful to them! “Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God” and we will show them God! “Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children” and we will be the ones calling them God’s children! “Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs” and we will show them that kingdom!

Maybe this is less what the Church is going to get out of this deal, or the benefits of discipleship, and more about the work that we are called to do with Christ if we are going to call ourselves his disciples, his followers. Maybe this was more like Christ’s State of the Universe address—Christ’s way of saying this is how I see the world, and this is how I want you to see the world, and this is what we are going to promise people. And unlike a president giving a state of the union address or a governor giving a state of the state address, when Christ gives a state of the universe address and makes promises to the world, Christ can deliver on those promises! Can I get an amen?

And we have the honor and privilege and responsibility to be coworkers with Christ in these holy promises that Christ has made:
As we seek out the hopeless and bring them the kingdom!
As we seek out the grieving and bring them gladness!
As we seek out the humble and deliver their inheritance!
As we seek out those hungry and thirsty for righteousness and feed them til their bellies are full!
As we seek out the merciful and give them a much needed dose of mercy.  
As we seek out those with pure hearts and show them what God looks like!
As we seek out the peacemakers and give them the holy title Children of God!
As we seek out the harassed and show them the kingdom!
Can I get an amen?

Sometimes my friends, the good news of the gospel is not for us, but for us to deliver. In my annual report, which I know you all poured over every word, I shared with you a few guiding scripture passages. I could have just as easily shared this one. This is the vision that Christ had for this holy work we call ministry, that each and every one of us are called to. It is the vision that we have been called to make clear to the world.

So that when the world hears the name Jesus, hears the word church, hears the name Bethlehem Lutheran Church, this is what we are known for. As we plan for this coming year, as we pray over our budget, as we dream of the possibilities, think about how we can answer this call to bring these beatitudes to life. And my advice would be to identify who in our world is hopeless, grieving, humble, hungry, thirsty; who in our world is merciful, pure in heart, making peace, or is harassed, and after saying thank you, tell them that we have some good news for them directly from heaven!

But know this. There will be opposition. At the end of the beatitudes Jesus looks the disciples dead in the eye and speaks about them saying, “Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me. Be full of joy and be glad. In the same way, people harassed the prophets who came before you.” Yes, Jesus compared you to prophets in this world. The ones called to speak for God in this world; to bring justice and hope into the world; to proclaim, in words and deeds, the kingdom of heaven to a world that is watching and listening, and already making these beatitudes a reality. God bless you in this holy work, and God bless the universe. Amen.

Baggage



Inspired by Matthew 4:12-23

I’ve always loved this story from the Gospel of Matthew. It’s a favorite for many. I’ve always been struck by the response from Simon, Andrew, James, and John. I’ve always looked up to them as models for anyone answering a call from God, and I still do. I look at them in awe, knowing that my own response to God was not as dramatic and certainly not as faithful as theirs. Here we have four guys, who were just minding their own business, going about their daily work, in this case they were fishermen, and then Jesus shows up and simply says, “Come, follow me, and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” According to Matthew, that’s all he said! And bam, he’s got his first four disciples, his first four followers.

How does that even work? Wouldn’t it be awesome if ministry was that easy? We’d have members spilling out our windows every Sunday! And what makes this story all the more amazing is that they left their entire lives behind to do this, symbolized by them leaving their nets. This wasn’t a commitment to coming to synagogue once a week. This wasn’t a commitment to regularly reading the Torah, their Bible. This wasn’t a commitment to pray more, or to pledge a financial commitment! This was a commitment to drop everything, everything they’d known up until that moment, and follow Jesus, wherever he was going!

They didn’t ask Jesus for his credentials, they didn’t ask for his theology, they didn’t even ask where he was going! They dropped their nets and left with him. James and John leave their nets in their dad’s hands, and follow Jesus. Who does that? How does this make any sense? I mean, the Bible is chock full of illogical stories but this is so illogical it boggles the mind. If you had a friend or family member leave their life behind after meeting some stranger who came to their place of business, tell me wouldn’t try to get them to change their mind! Wait! Hold on! Let’s think this through! Might be a few of the things you would say.

Now, most people attribute this drastic life course change to Jesus. And that’s fair, after all, Christ is God incarnate, the Word made flesh, the light of the world, the ruler of the cosmos. So over the years, people have assumed that there must have just been something about Jesus that made these four guys make this decision to drop everything and follow Jesus. Maybe it was his appearance, maybe it was the way he spoke, maybe there was something about his face, an expression maybe. Maybe there was a glow about him! Seriously, artists have had fun with that one over the centuries. Maybe they were able tap into a sixth sense and they could just feel that there was something special, trustworthy, divine, about Jesus.

Or, maybe it was none of these things, or all of these things, I don’t know! But also something else—maybe it wasn’t all about Jesus. Maybe it was also about these four guys and the journey they had been on, and the baggage they brought to this story as well. Like most stories, there is probably more to the story than what we have before us. There was certainly something about their lives that caused them to react the way they did. And I would argue that it is unfair to both Jesus, but also to Simon, Andrew, James, and John’s journey that they had traveled up to that point, to give all the credit to Jesus here.

What had they gone through? What state of mind, body, or spirit were they in and why? Were they disillusioned about something? Were they unhappy with part, or all, of their lives? What was it about these two sets of brothers, that made them so willing, so desperate, to follow Jesus? Hold that thought for a moment, and let’s shift our focus a bit. How many of you have seen the movie Patriots Day? For those of you who haven’t, I highly recommend it. Just remember to bring some tissues! It is about an event that we all lived through, even if merely through our TV’s, the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013.

The movie follows a few different stories from different perspectives, from some of the victims, police officers, and also of the bombers themselves, another two brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev . And it was these two brothers that really caught my attention and maybe it’s because I knew I would be preaching on the brothers from our story for today. But I could not help but be fascinated by the comparison of these two brothers and the brothers from today’s Gospel reading. The differences are easy to see. But were there any similarities?

What was it that caused the Tsarnaev  brothers to react in such a way? What was the baggage that they carried with them on their faith journeys? What life experiences had they gone through that caused them to misinterpret their own religion the way they did? What was it about these two brothers, that made them so willing, so desperate, to follow such a drastic path, to make such a life-changing choice? Maybe the Tsarnaev  brothers had more in common with the brothers from our story than we think. However, the outcome, was starkly different.

Whereas the Tsarnaev  brothers brought darkness, death, and destruction—Simon, Andrew, James and John were followers of the one who brings light, life, and creation. All three sets of brothers were called by their faith, carrying their own life’s baggage, and answered the call. Ok, so where am I going with this. Well, it got me thinking about our own calls, calls that emerge with us up out of our baptismal waters. The call to bring Christ’s light into the world, Christ’s life into the world, Christ’s creative power into the world—a world that is at times very dark, full of death and destruction. A heavy responsibility I know.

And it also got me thinking about the baggage that we bring to that call and what we do with it. I think we can all agree that each of us brings baggage to our call as baptized children of God. Yes? And I think we do that corporately too don’t we? Our 75th anniversary has certainly conjured up a certain amount of baggage. Maybe even some that we thought we had gotten rid of. But whether we are talking about our individual baggage or our collective baggage, what do we do with it. My advice—don’t ignore it. That may be the most dangerous thing we can do with it. Our life’s baggage that we accumulate has a way of rearing its head whether we like it or not. Why not get ahead of it, acknowledge it, and exercise some power over it.

Especially because God can use it! Remember, Christ is God incarnate, the Word made flesh, the light of the world, the ruler of the cosmos! Is there anything Christ can’t do? And Jesus did not call Simon, Andrew, James, and John because they were perfect, because they had their life together and all their ducks in a row. Far from, as we will soon see as we read the rest of Matthew’s Gospel! These guys have a long road ahead of them before anyone will consider them worthy of the title disciple! Which brings me to one last thing. This also has me thinking about how we welcome newcomers into our midst.

Newcomers have an equal amount of baggage of their own right? How do we know that? Because we have our own baggage that we carry with us everywhere! And newcomers, as well as those that you encounter outside these four walls when you represent Christ and the Church to them, need to know that! They need to hear those stories of your baggage, of your imperfections, of your struggles, and even of your pain, when you are ready. This is not the time or the place for our egos to get in the way and keep us from being vulnerable to those who are seeking, whether they come through these doors or not.

This is not the time nor the place to put on a front and hide who we really are—imperfect beings, in need of a savior, just trying to make it through this world, together—and hopefully leaving it better than when we found it. That is who we are and we should not be ashamed of it. I cringe a little at the end of every funeral, when I stand at the remains of the deceased, and put my hand on them in blessing, and say these words, “Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive your servant into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.”

It always seems unfair, a low blow, to call a person a sinner after they die. But that is the truth of our existence and that is what the world needs to hear us proclaim. That though we are all on this journey of faith, that does not mean that we have our lives together, that we have all the answers, that we’re perfect, or that we even know what in the world that we are doing half the time! But we do know, who we are doing this work with don’t we. With each other, and with Christ, God incarnate, the Word made flesh, the light of the world, the ruler of the cosmos. Thanks be to God. Amen.

The Baptism of Our Lord



Inspired by Matthew 3:13-17

Well, we made it through another Christmas and New Year with hopefully minimal scarring! It’s such a crazy time of the year December. And now we find ourselves in this little in-between time, in between Christmas and Lent, that we call Epiphany—a time when we are allowed to catch our breath, to find our bearings once again, to re-energize for the upcoming season, and to reflect on what we have experienced in the celebration of the birth of Jesus. And this year, being in the lectionary year of Matthew, we get to reflect on what it means for us that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. At the end of Advent I mentioned that Matthew will give us many examples of what that means, and today’s story does not disappoint.

The day of Epiphany was on Friday, always January 6th when many of us celebrated here with a pizza party and undercoating, and some of us went out and blessed some homes of some of our members. And the first Sunday after that day is always celebrated as The Baptism of Our Lord. And it is on this Sunday every year that we pastors have to fight the temptation to make this all about our baptisms. And that can be difficult, there are some parallels to be sure but the day is not called The Baptism of Ourselves, but The Baptism of Our Lord. And the more I thought about it, this really shouldn’t be that hard. I mean, pastors, especially Lutheran pastors, are, or should be, making connections to baptism all the time in their preaching!

So today we get an intentional break from that! But like I said, it’s hard to resist, so I have a feeling I’ll be talking about our baptisms anyway at some point. If I do feel free to call the theological police. There’s solid theological grounding though for focusing more on Jesus’ baptism rather than ours. His baptism was so different than ours. In our baptisms there is an acknowledgement of sin, of our brokenness, of our need for God to be with us, and the expectation that we will work on changing our hearts and lives. And there is of course the promise of God to be with us as we do so, knowing that we are never going to achieve perfection.

Jesus’ baptism however, was more about his willingness to be salvation for us, while identifying with our humanity at the same time—something only the Christ, only Emmanuel could do, which is what Matthew wants to drive home over and over. This is who God is, and this is how God operates in this world, this is how God is with us, through Jesus. Jesus’ baptism shines a spotlight on him, it was God’s way, and/or Matthew’s way, of saying, this is the one to watch! Keep your eyes on this one! However, in addition to the spotlight, this also created a giant target on Jesus’ back. Because anyone with that much power, with that much influence, was going to make enemies, was going to be seen as a threat.

Dr. Karoline Lewis, professor at Luther Seminary, had some great insights into this bible story. She reminds us that Jesus baptism is was also not a private matter, it was not an individual matter, it was not a personal matter—it was public, it was communal, it was for the sake of the world. As Matthew writes, “When Jesus was baptized, he immediately came up out of the water. Heaven was opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God coming down like a dove and resting on him. A voice from heaven said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him.” This is a different account that what Mark and Luke provide. In their versions, only Jesus hears these words. For them it was more of a private event. But Matthew has a different message that he wants to drive home.

Remember, Matthew wants you to know, without a shred of doubt, who this Jesus is. For Matthew this is a matter of identity. For Matthew it is imperative that he communicate, to you and I, that this is Emmanuel, God with us—and that means that everything that Christ does, including his baptism, is always for the sake of the world. He did not ask to be baptized for the glory, the notoriety, or the attention. Rather, he did it so that he could fulfill the promise of God’s love for the world, a promise made in the waters of creation, a promise that only he could deliver on.

If there is any connection at all between Jesus’ baptism and ours, it is this—our baptisms are not private either—they are not about the individual, they are not for our own personal feelings or beliefs. Our baptisms are communal, and they too, are for the sake of the world. In our baptisms we are called into a community that promises to be with us as God is with us. In our baptisms we are called into a community that strives to do God’s will in this world. In our baptisms we are called to be God’s hands and feet in this world, God’s eyes and ears in this world, God’s laughter and tears in this world. And all with a built-in community to do it with.

And no we’re not always going to get this right. We are going to miss the mark, often. We are not going to attain perfection as we do God’s work in the world. But with our baptism comes a new day with new opportunities. With our baptism comes new life and possibilities. With our baptism comes forgiveness and mercy. With our baptism comes a sunrise that invites us to try again. With our baptism comes the hope of a new creation. With our baptism comes Emmanuel, God with us, every step of the way. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Love Has Come! - Christmas Day 2016



Inspired by John 1:1-14

I’ve probably mentioned this before but the Gospel of John is my least favorite of the four Gospels. At the same time it may be the most beautifully written of the four. It’s my least favorite because it is so philosophical, so heady, so very deep. Each line is just jam packed with meaning and history that births these advanced theological concepts. You practically need a manual beside you as you read it!

And maybe that comes from the special place in my heart for the unchurched, the growing population of people who have not grown up in the church, who have not had these stories read and taught and preached on throughout their lives, who hear a phrase like “the Word became flesh” and have no idea what that means. Needless to say, I would never give an unchurched person the Gospel of John to read. [whisper] Give them Mark. But I digress.

So, when I remembered that today’s Gospel reading was from John, which it always is on Christmas Day, I rolled my eyes and thought, ugh, what am I going to do with this! Christmas is supposed to be light and fun and celebratory! Not deep and serious and theological. Not to mention the fact that there is just so much in this, every line could make a great sermon! So, whenever I come across a passage like this I have to calm myself down and realize, I can’t address it all, and that’s ok. I’ll just pick a few things from this and go from there. And then I saw Owen’s musical choices for today, which are like a weekly Christmas gift all year long, and I particularly noticed the hymn of the day, which we will be singing as soon as I’m done here, entitled, Love Has Come.

This has become one of my favorite Christmas hymns. It’s relatively new, though the music comes from a 16th century French song, the text was written in 1996, so this is its first appearance in a Lutheran hymnal. When I reread the words as I prepared for this Sunday, I realized that so much of our Gospel reading has been unpacked by this hymn. So I thought, why not just use the words of this hymn to help us draw out some of what John had in mind as he began to write his Gospel. The first of the three stanzas reads: “Love has come—a light in the darkness! Love shines forth in the Bethlehem skies. See, all heaven has come to proclaim it; hear how their song of joy arises: Love! Love! Born unto you, a Savior! Love! Love! Glory to God on high.”

John writes, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.” I cannot think of a better time to think of God coming into the world, in sweet little baby Jesus, as light shining in the darkness. We live in dark times, war runs rampant across the world, hate spreads like a plague, inequality based on race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and whatever else, just doesn’t want to die no matter how hard we try to stamp it out.

But, it is in the darkness that Christ shines all the brighter, it is in the darkness that we yearn for Christ all the more, it is in the darkness that we are challenged to reflect God’s light in this world. Because if you don’t see the world as this dark place that John and I describe, then I am so very happy for you, but please know this, many people around you do, and that only means that you are called to be their light.

The 2nd of the three stanzas reads: “Love is born! Come, share in the wonder. Love is God now asleep in the hay. See the glow in the eyes of his mother; what is the name her heart is saying? Love! Love! Love is the name she whispers; Love! Love! Jesus, Immanuel.” John writes, “The Word became flesh and made his home among us.” There is this earthy awesomeness in the way that John describes God for us in the event of Christ’s birth. There is a sense of wonder as he describes the way in which the almighty God on high, breaks into the reality of our existence, in the flesh and bone of a baby boy laying in a bed of hay, looked upon by a his mother the way that most of our mothers did. It was John’s way of allowing us to both glorify and relate to this awesome scene.

And the 3rd and final stanza of this beautiful hymn begins, “Love has come and never will leave us! Love is life everlasting and free.” And John begins his Gospel with, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Jesus being the Word that John is referring to, here he expresses the timelessness of the Christ. Earthy and fleshy to be sure, but also everlasting and eternal at the same time. And if you’re like me, you need both. Both a Christ that can relate to our human existence, but also a Christ that can transcend that, rise above it, and even conquer it, especially when we cannot.

As I said, there is so much packed into this Gospel reading, we just can’t get to it all in one sermon, or maybe even in a lifetime of sermons. But at the very least, I hope that we can allow this next hymn to flesh out, pun intended, some of what John beautifully expressed to us in this passage—like the light of Christ, the earthiness of Christ, and the timelessness of Christ. My hope for us this Christmas and always, is that we can take these truths, plant them in our hearts, so that we can sing these final words of this hymn with boldness and confidence,  “Love is Jesus within and among us. Love is the peace our hearts are seeking. Love! Love! Love is the gift of Christmas; Love! Love! Praise to you, God on high!” Amen.

Ready or Not! - Christmas Eve 2016



Inspired by Luke 2:1-20

Ready or not, here I come! I remember yelling that phrase as a child, and as a dad, when I’d play hide and seek with my friends or with my kids. It was the signal to everyone that I was on my way to find them, whether they thought they’d have enough time to hide or not, I was on my way. As the person hiding, you did not want to hear those words and not be in your hiding place! You did not want to hear those words and not be ready. Because then you had to hurry and rush to find a hiding place that you knew wasn’t going to be good enough anyway so you might as well just give up now. My anxiety is rising just thinking about it!

Well, thanks be to God that we don’t have to have this same anxiety producing reaction when Jesus enters our world with a great big “Ready or not, here I come!” Because that’s basically what he did two thousand years ago. For the past four weeks of Advent we have heard a lot about getting ready for Jesus, or how we should prepare for his arrival, whether that mean his birthday or the second coming. “Prepare the way for the Lord” has been a common refrain of ours this past month. But you know, the reality is, if we’re really honest with ourselves, we are never really ready for Jesus.

In spite of John the Baptist’s great work, as a prophet in the desert, preparing the way for the Lord, the world was not ready for baby Jesus when he showed up on the scene. One thing that I love about our Gospel text for this evening from Luke, is that it’s full of all these ordinary things happening around the birth of Jesus. It begins with tax season! I’m sorry if that produced some anxiety in some of you just then! It’s right around the corner for us too!

It begins with a decree from Caesar Augustus to have everyone enrolled or registered so they could pay their taxes. I mean, how ordinary is that? Then there’s a poor engaged couple expecting their first born. Very ordinary. There’s a crowded city with no vacancies. Very ordinary. And to round out the ordinariness of it all Luke throws in some shepherds and sheep.

And then Bam! Baby Jesus shows up! In the midst of all these ordinary things going on, the extraordinary shows up. Ready or not, here Jesus comes. Thankfully, God waits for no one to be ready, otherwise we’d still be waiting for the first coming of Christ, let alone the second coming! To begin our service this evening, our always amazing Owen chanted what is known as The Proclamation of the Birth of Christ. This has been used for centuries around the world on Christmas Eve and is being sung countless times somewhere in the world right now. One thing that I love about it is the ordinary human events that it mentions: rainbows and dancing, the founding of a city, the reign of an emperor, even the Olympics were mentioned!

All of which to simply say, that Christ shows up in our lives, not when we are ready, not when we have all our ducks in a row, not when we have properly prepared, not any of these things. Christ shows up in our lives when Christ is ready, and Christ has been ready since the foundation of the world. Christ was born ready: ready to care for us, to feel with us, to journey with us, to laugh with us, to cry with us—Christ has been and always will be ready to love us. So in the midst of this busy holiday season, when you hear Christ say, “Ready or not, here I come!” Relax, rest easy, and let Christ come to be with you. All is ready, because Christ is ready for you. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Jesus Emmanuel, God Saves by Being With Us



Owen Myers and the band sing Mother of God by The Brilliance at end of audio!

Inspired by Matthew 1:18-25

Advent marks the beginning of a new year in our three year lectionary cycle of readings. On Christ the King Sunday we finished year C, and on the first Sunday of Advent, we began year A. Each year has its own selection of readings, and therefore has its own emphases, its own flavor if you will. Each year also focuses on a different gospel. In year B and C, most of the gospel readings will come from Mark and Luke respectively, and in year A we focus on the Gospel of Matthew. John is sprinkled in here and there throughout all three years because, well, he’s an oddball. He just doesn’t fit in anywhere very nicely. So, we’re already four Sunday’s into year A, the year of Matthew, and you’d think that we’d just start at the beginning of the Gospel and read right through but that would be too easy.

The lectionary also has to follow each season and holiday and their respective foci, so we end up jumping back and forth in the Gospel and other readings, which can be a little disorienting at times but hopefully the sermons and hymns can help us navigate our way through. So now we find ourselves at the beginning of the book of Matthew, even though this is the fourth Sunday of the year of Matthew but believe it or not there was wisdom in waiting four Sundays to get to the beginning. We are now on the cusp of celebrating the birth of Christ, the advent of Christ, the coming of Christ, and throughout Matthew’s Gospel, he wants to make sure you know who Jesus is.

Matthew believes whole heartedly that this Jesus was more than just a prophet, more than just a wise teacher, more than a great Jewish rabbi. Matthew believed whole heartedly that this Jesus that he is about tell you about, is the Christ, the anointed one, the savior foretold in Hebrew scripture, what we call the Old Testament. And even more than that, Jesus, the Christ, was God with us. You don’t really find this in Mark’s gospel, the first one written and my personal favorite. Mark presents Christ in a very human way, kind of a what you see is what you get, and then let’s you decide who and what this Jesus is for yourself. Maybe that’s why I like Mark so much, I don’t like people telling me what I should believe!

Matthew on the other hand, doesn’t leave anything to chance, doesn’t leave it in our hands to decide who Jesus is. This is too important for Matthew. Matthew wants you to finish reading his Gospel and know, without a shred of doubt, who and what this Jesus is. And he does this in some very masterful and beautiful ways, one of which I’d like to share with you now, just in case you don’t already know this.

In this very first story of Jesus in this Gospel, we hear about a dream that Joseph had where he gets told to name the baby Jesus, which means God saves. And then we have Matthew quoting scripture, something he will do constantly, this time it’s from Isaiah, “Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they will call him, Emmanuel.” And then there’s this little editorial comment, either by Matthew himself but probably by a later scribe, “Emmanuel means God with us.”

So, Joseph is told to name the baby Jesus, so that it will fulfill the prophecy to call him Emmanuel. Wait, huh? And here’s the strange part. You never hear the name Emmanuel again! Well, sort of, but we’ll get to that in a second. So we have the name Jesus, God saves. And then the name Emmanuel, God with us. Hmmmm. Put them together and you have God saves, by being with us. Now you may be thinking, wait a second pastor, I thought Jesus saved by dying on the cross and rising from the dead. Well, that can depend on your theology but when we talk of the cross and the empty tomb we are talking big picture salvation, the salvation of the cosmos at the end of all things.

Which is great and amazing and so very needed! But I don’t know about you but I need salvation now. I need saving in the here and now. I need saving in the midst of all of life’s struggles, hardships, defeats, disappointments as we talked about last week, I need saving in all the ups and downs of everyday life! And that’s where Matthew’s Jesus Emmanuel comes in. Matthew knew that it wasn’t going to be enough to say God will save you but wanted his readers to know how and when that was going to be accomplished—which is why it was so important for us to know who and what Jesus was.

Because no prophet could both declare and deliver salvation by being with us through life’s ups and downs. No wise teacher could both declare and deliver salvation by being with us. No ordinary Jewish rabbi could both declare and deliver salvation by being with us. Only Emmanuel could do that, only the one whom we could look to and say with confidence that was God with us—and more than that, this is God still with us. Now, I mentioned that the name Emmanuel never appears again but that wasn’t the whole truth. To get to the whole truth we have break that most holy and unwritten literary rule and skip to the end of the book of Matthew.

I know, who does that? Well, I am. Twenty-eight chapters later, at the end of this gospel, at the end of that last chapter, in fact, the very last sentences of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you.” And then, last sentence of the Gospel of Matthew Jesus says, wait for it, “I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.” There it is, Emmanuel. Only it transforms from God with us at the beginning of this Gospel, to I myself will be with you, every day, until the end of this present age.

Are those not two beautiful bookends to the Gospel of Matthew? And who else can make a promise like that and keep it? Matthew would say no one but Emmanuel, God with us. In this year of Matthew, I want you to explore with me, what this means for us, what does it look like for God to be with us. Our author Matthew will give us many examples, but I want you to add your own. What has it looked like in your life for God to be with you? How has that taken shape? And in doing so, may we be every thankful for a God who promises to be with us, no matter what. Amen.

Owen Myers and the band sing Mother of God by The Brilliance at end of audio!

The Saddest Passage



Inspired by Matthew 11:2-11

This is probably one of the saddest passages in scripture for me. I mentioned last week how much I look up to John the Baptist, how he has this superhero status in my life. Well, like all superheroes, he wasn’t perfect. He had flaws and weaknesses like anyone else. Last week he was presented as this fearless prophet in the desert calling out the leaders of society for their godless ways. But today we see a very different picture of John the Baptist. Eight chapters later in the Gospel of Matthew and now he is wasting away in a prison cell. What was possibly his biggest fear has happened. His message to change your hearts and lives, his exposing of the religious and political leaders wrongdoings, was too controversial, too much of a threat, and they finally caught up with him.

So there he sits, in prison, with lots of time on his hands, and many, many thoughts to ponder. And we find him in what seems to be a very dark place in his life—a place that is a bit unexpected for the strong prophet in the desert from last week—because it’s a place of doubt, and maybe even worse than that, a place of disillusionment. All that time in the desert, wearing animal skins, eating bugs, living under an unforgiving desert sun, telling people to change their hearts and lives, and for what? For this? To rot away in a prison cell? And these weren’t his darkest struggles. He was also pondering whether Jesus was really the one. Now, just take a moment to let that sink in. Imagine if you can, going through all he had and then wondering if it was ALL for nothing.

If Jesus wasn’t the one, then he just threw his life away. That’s where his thoughts were in our Gospel story. That’s a dark place, and why this is one of the saddest Bible stories for me. So why was he in this dark place of doubt and disillusionment? Well, he must have been getting word of how Jesus ministry was going, and was surprised, and maybe even disappointed in the news he was getting. Even for a guy like John the Baptist, I mean, it’s hard to get further outside the box than John the Baptist, but even for him, Jesus wasn’t lining up with his expectations.

We can only speculate why. Maybe he expected Jesus to be more presentable to the elite of society that were the recipients of much of John’s attacks. Maybe he expected Jesus to take his ministry from the desert to the cities. Maybe he expected Jesus to raise an army and take down Rome once and for all. Maybe it was Jesus’ theology that he had issue with. We can only guess. Whatever it was, it was causing him to question, to doubt, whether Jesus was really the one.

I think many of us have found ourselves at one time or another, sitting in that dark prison cell with John the Baptist—questioning whether or not this is all worth it, whether the sacrifice is worth it, the sacrifice of our time, our talents, our money is really worth it. Especially when, things don’t turn out the way we had thought they would. Maybe it’s when people in the church behave in ways that seem so out of line with Christ. Maybe when the church leadership make decisions that are questionable. Maybe when your pastor says something questionable in his sermon. Maybe when you realize that so many around you, in the same church, believe very differently than you. What do we do when we find ourselves disappointed, disillusioned, and doubting whether any of this is really worth it.

I find Jesus reaction to John very comforting. He does not scold John. He does not judge him for doubting, for questioning who Jesus is. He sends his disciples to John to tell him what has been happening. He does not send him a sermon, or a wise Proverb, or a comforting Psalm, he sends him this report: the blind can see, the crippled can walk, the sick are healed, the deaf can hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news. In other words, lives are being changed John. John’s preaching to change hearts and lives was already happening through Christ. Lives were being changed.

The question that Jesus repeats three times really struck me to my core, “What did you go out to see?” “What did you go out to see?” And of course, in a very human self-centered perspective I thought the question was directed at me. But as I was writing this sermon I realized that perspective was the wrong one, which led me to ask, when the people of this world are led to find Christ, and they are led to Bethlehem, what will they see? When your friends, acquaintances, or even strangers, ask you, in the various ways that they do, what will I see at Bethlehem Lutheran Church, is Christ there, how will I know? How will you answer? What will you say? My prayer is that you will have a good answer for them.

But I hope it is not that we have great potlucks, though we do. Or that we have an amazing staff, though we do. Or that the sermons are good, though I hope they are. Or that the music is great, though it is! My prayer for you, is that you can answer with the boldness of Christ in our story, that yes, Christ is here, because lives are being changed, by the work of Bethlehem Lutheran Church. And just in case you aren’t sure, ask Lisa King, our Children’s ministry director of how lives are changed through that ministry. I bet she will have a story or two. Ask the Jaspers, the Johnsons, the Brentsons, or the many others who work with our youth about how lives are changed through that ministry. I bet they will have a story or two.

Ask Randi how lives are changed through our visitation ministry. I bet she will have a story or two to share with you. Ask Jerry, our treasurer, where your offerings go, how they’re used, and how lives are changed by them. I bet he’ll have a story or two to share. Ask the quilters, the prayer shawl makers, the Gathering Inn volunteers, I bet they will have a story or two to share about lives being changed. If you asked me this week, about my ministry, I’d tell you a story about visiting a couple last week, one of whom was dying, and having the honor of communing both of them for the last time as a couple, and then being invited back the following week, to be present while the mortuary took her body. I can tell that at least my life was changed by that experience, I pray theirs was too.

My hope for you, when you find this crazy thing we call faith, to be a struggle, to be disheartening, to be disappointing, to be harder than you think it should be, when you find yourself in a state of disillusionment, sitting in the dark with John the Baptist—hear Christ’s words, and let them sink deep, deep into your hearts. Lives have been changed. Lives are being changed. Lives will continue to be changed, through the work of Christ, by the ministry of Bethlehem Lutheran Church, in spite of our imperfections, flaws and weaknesses. And that kind of hope, than kind of encouragement isn’t going to come from a pamphlet about our church, it’s not going to come from a favorite Bible passage, it’s not going to come from a sermon. It will come from the stories that we share, of lives being changed. Thanks be to God. Amen.