Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Sermon for the first mid-week Advent service - Lk 1:5-25

                                                                                            Mid-Advent 1
                                                                                            Lk 1:5-25

Nobody plans on having fertility problems. It’s just not something you expect. After all, a Christian has spent all of the years leading up to marriage in the effort to avoid having sex before marriage. The Sixth Commandment describes God’s ordering of creation. It describes how God set things up to work. And therefore it also describes the best way to do things.
If two people reserve sex for marriage alone, they greatly increase the probability that their marriage will be a lasting one. If two people reserve sex for marriage alone, we can say with certainty that they will not get sexually transmitted diseases. If two people reserve sex for marriage alone, we can say with certainty that there will not be a pregnancy before marriage.  

Now led by the Spirit, Christians seek to live in accordance with God’s will. The problem is that the new man, led by the Spirit and cooperating with the Spirit, is not the only side at work. There is still the old man, the remnants of the fallen, sinful nature that clings to us. It’s the Law that smacks that guy down so that the new man can direct a person’s behavior. The fact that sex outside of marriage can lead to a baby provides a powerful disincentive to fornication. In the struggle against temptation it can be the final factor that prompts a couple to stop before things go too far.  

Getting married changes everything. Entering into marriage which God instituted in the creation of Adam and Eve means that when it comes to sex, “Thou shalt not” becomes “Thou shalt.” God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply” has not changed. The one flesh union of man and woman before God is established in sexual intercourse and continues to be enacted each time the couple unites. Being fruitful and multiplying becomes a goal as a couple seeks to start a family.  

And so it comes as a great shock when that one flesh union is not fruitful. The thing that a couple sought to avoid, now becomes the very thing they can’t have. In the age of modern medicine we have a great understanding of the physiological issues that cause infertility. In the ancient world they could not explain why it happened. But knowing the why doesn’t mean that we can always solve the problem. And in that case, the knowledge simply adds to the frustration. 

In our text we meet Zechariah and Elizabeth. Luke describes them as wonderful, faithful people of God when he writes, “And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.” Yet theirs was a heartbreaking story, because this aged couple had not been able to have any children. The Old Testament taught Jews to view children as a blessing – a gift from the Lord. And because of this, the common view was to look down on those women who were unable to have children. As we hear at the end of the text, Elizabeth says that through this pregnancy God had taken away her reproach among people.

Because Zechariah and Elizabeth were faithful people of God, they prayed to God as they asked for a child. Yet after all of these years God had not given the answer for which they hoped. He had not, until one day when it was Zachariah’s turn to offer the incense in the temple. 

Suddenly the angel Gabriel appeared at the right side of the altar. Zechariah was troubled and fearful, and in response the angel announced some amazing good news: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord.”

This son would bring joy and gladness to Zechariah and Elizabeth. But the news Gabriel had come to bring was about more than the gift of a child for an aged couple. He went to add that other people would also rejoice in their son John. And the reason went beyond happiness for this nice couple. They would rejoice because John would be “great before the Lord.” 

They would rejoice because of who John was and what he would do. Gabriel told Zechariah, “…he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

Gabriel told Zechariah that he and Elizabeth would have a son. And then he told him that this son John would play a special role like that of the prophet Elijah as he turned the children of Israel to their God and prepared the people for the Lord. This was good news upon good news!

In response, Zechariah said, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” The first sentence is exactly what Abraham said when he learned that his aged wife Sarah was going to have a son. The second sentence is really not all that different in character from what Mary will say to Gabriel later in this chapter. 

But Zechariah received a very different outcome than these other two. The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” Zechariah’s response is described as one of unbelief. Gabriel had brought good news: good news for Zachariah and Elizabeth, and good news for the people of Israel. But Zachariah had not received this news in faith.

The news for Zechariah was the beginning of the story of Jesus the Christ. John the Baptist was announced first to Zechariah, and then Jesus birth was announced to Mary. John the Baptist began his ministry first, and then Jesus began his as he was baptized by John. John’s job was one of preparing the way for Jesus. Filled with the Spirit and able to speak once again, Zechariah would prophesy at John’s naming, ““Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old.” Zechariah declared that in the coming One God was remembering and keeping the promise that he had made to Israel.

And John’s job was to be the unique prophetic forerunner for this coming One. Zechariah announced, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

During this season of Advent, we have begun to prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Yet Zechariah’s experience prompts us to consider how we receive this good news. It is indeed good news. By his death on the cross and resurrection form the dead Jesus has was won for us the forgiveness of our sins. He is the light of life that rescues us from the darkness of death.

Do we receive this word in faith – a faith that guides the way we think about our life and act in it? Or do we receive it in unbelief – a faithlessness that accuses God of not caring because of the circumstance we experience?

It does require faith to trust in God’s love and care in spite of illness, strained relationships and other heartache. Yet this time of year should emphasize for us that our leap of faith is smaller than it was for Zechariah. Zechariah was called to believe in something that had not happened yet. We are called to trust in God now, because of what God has already done.
At Christmas we will have joy and gladness because Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. On Good Friday we will solemnly remember that is same Jesus died on the cross to give us forgiveness. And then on Easter will again have joy and gladness because Jesus Christ rose from the dead on the third day. He has defeated death and begun the resurrection that will be ours too.

This Christian life is certainly one of faith. But it is a faith alive in the present that is based on what God has already done. In Christmas we see the reason we can continue to trust God’s love and care for us today, tomorrow and for all eternity.

Mark's thoughts: "Let me give you my testimony"

When I accepted a call to Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Marion, Illinois, I knew that I was moving to southern Illinois.  What I did not understand at the time, was that for all intents and purposes I was moving into the “Bible belt.”  If you drive about an hour northwest of Marion you encounter the leading edge of territory that is heavily Lutheran and Roman Catholic. But here in Marion, and as you continue south, Lutherans and Roman Catholics are a foreign entity.  Instead, this is the home of Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals and non-denominational churches that are largely Baptist in theology.

The move from inner suburban Chicago was quite a culture shock.  My wife encountered this in a very striking manner.  When she took our small twin children to play with other children, she visited with the moms.  They were all Christian, yet soon she reported something odd.  They asked questions about when a person had been born again or become a Christian.  Of crucial importance for them was the need to give their “testimony.”  They seemed to feel the need to return again and again to the story about their “conversion experience.”  It could not be spoken and heard too many times.

When I received my first call to an area that had a large Roman Catholic population, I read the Catechism of the Catholic Church so that I could understand what they believed as I interacted with them.  I turned now to do the same thing as I sought to understand the Arminian, Zwinglian, Calvinistic and Pentecostal underpinnings of the beliefs I was encountering.

As I read, it dawned on me that having rejected the sacraments as the means by which God creates and sustains faith, this belief system had substituted the testimony recounting conversion.  Deprived of the certainty provided by God’s action in Holy Baptism, they had created a “faux sacrament” – the recounting of the conversion experience again and again was a means to affirm that it really had happened, that their faith was real and that they were really Christians. 

It was therefore with great interest that I read this piece by G. Shane Morris.  An evangelical who has come to believe in infant baptism, he describes how the “sacrament of conversion” functions in the evangelical belief system as a replacement for the Sacrament of Holy Baptism.  Thanks to Gene Veith for calling attention to it.   

The "sacrament of conversion" is a replacement for the sacraments instituted by Christ. This move is prompted by the rejection of the sacraments as means by which God actually creates and sustains faith, and gives forgiveness. The cause for this is a hermeneutic that has been established upon a Platonic dualistic worldview.  

Feast of St. Andrew, Apostle

Today is the Feast of St. Andrew, Apostle.  St. Andrew was the brother of Simon Peter and was from the Galilean village of Bethsaida.  Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist.  After John called Jesus “the Lamb of God,” Andrew became a follower of Jesus and also brought his brother to Jesus (John 1:35-42).  Andrew and Peter were then called by Jesus to be disciples while they were engaged in their work of being fishermen (Matthew 4:18-20).  Andrew became one of the twelve apostles chosen by Christ (Matthew 10:1-4).  According to Church tradition, Andrew was martyred when he was crucified on a cross in the form of an X.  St. Andrew’s Day determines the beginning of the Western Church Year, since the First Sunday in Advent is always the Sunday nearest to the Feast of St Andrew.
Scripture reading:
The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, “What are you seeking?” And they said to him, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?”  He said to them, “Come and you will see.” So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter's brother. He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ). He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter) (John 1:35-42).

Collect of the Day:
Almighty God, by Your grace the apostle Andrew obeyed the call of Your Son to be a disciple.  Grant us also to follow the same Lord Jesus Christ in heart and life, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Sermon for Thanksgiving Eve

                                                                             Phil 4:16-20
Several years ago, Judi Harland had a great idea about something that the congregation could start doing for congregation members who are away at college. Judi has served on the church council as Director of Outreach. She recognized the great challenge that young Christians face on college campuses today and the ways that the college years can be a time when young people drift away from church.

She decided that it would be a nice thing for the congregation to start sending care packages to the members who are away at college. It would be a small gesture that would remind the students that they have a church family that is still thinking about them and cares about them.

So each month, Judi sends a care package to youth at college. I am told that she includes both sweet and salty snacks, like homemade chocolate chip cookie bars. In the care package she also places a Portals of Prayer, and items like cards with Bible verses on them. In addition there is a handwritten note expressing how she prays for the students – a note that reminds the students that Good Shepherd cares about them.

Now I thought this was a great idea and have appreciated Judi’s faithfulness in continuing to do this each month during the school year. But the thing that has really struck me has been the fact that so many of the Good Shepherd college students have responded with thank you notes.

We live in an age when civility and basic manners are certainly in decline. The uncouth is celebrated in our culture – people act in rude ways in order to get attention, or just because in the selfish spirit of the age they don’t bother to think about others.

It has been so refreshing to see the thank you cards and notes that have regularly been posted on the bulletin board at the back of the nave. It has been very nice to see that we have some youth whose parents have taught them good manners, and that these young people are putting those manners into practice.

Our text for Thanksgiving is found in Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. It is very appropriate to use a text from Philippians for Thanksgiving, because Philippians is largely a letter of thanksgiving. While also addressing other issues, one of the main reasons Paul writes from prison is to thank the Philippians for a recent gift that they had given for his support.

As our text makes clear, Paul had a very warm relationship with the Philippians. They had been early and regular supporters of his Gospel mission in Greece. He writes, “You yourselves know, Philippians, that at the first preaching of the Gospel, after I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving but you alone; for even in Thessalonica you sent a gift more than once for my needs.”

In our text, Paul begins to bring his letter to a close. As he does so, he shares words with us that are very appropriate for today. He says, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made know to God. And the peace of God that surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

On this Thanksgiving Eve, Paul tells us not to worry, and instead to turn to God in prayer – prayer that is filled with thanksgiving – as we make our requests known to God. Paul tells us that even as we ask God, we are to give thanks to God. This thanksgiving will encompass many of the things that the holiday Thanksgiving Day brings to mind – but it also goes far beyond them. Ultimately – as the next verse makes clear – this thanksgiving focuses on what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. The thanksgiving that goes forth to God revolves around the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for us.

This sacrificial action by Christ has brought us peace. It has brought us peace with God, just as Paul told the Romans, “Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” It also brings us inner peace, because we know that in Jesus Christ our present and future are secure.

Paul tell us that as our thanksgiving returns again and again to Christ’s cross and resurrection for us, the peace of God will play an important role in our lives. He says, “And the peace of God which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” God protects our hearts and minds from worry and unbelief by keeping us “in Christ Jesus” – by keeping our lives connected to our Lord. As Paul said to the Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ. No longer do I live, but Christ lives in me. And the life which I know live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me.”

On this Thanksgiving Eve, Paul reminds us that it is the experience of focusing on Jesus Christ; the experience of our life in Christ – our life joined with Christ – that yields true contentment. Paul speaks out of his own experience as he writes, “Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstances I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need.”

Paul says he knows the secret of content living – contentment that transcends the vicissitudes of abundance and need. In the face of the many circumstances life can throw at us, the apostles says, “I have strength for all circumstances by union with the One who strengthens me.” It is our union with Christ – our participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus – that provides the strength for all circumstances. Secure in this knowledge of our union with Christ – the union that was established in the waters of Holy Baptism – we can face all of life’s challenges.

Tonight we give thanks to God for his many blessings. Paul reminds us that chief among those blessings is the salvation God has given us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for us. The salvation that has become ours by being “in Christ” – by being united with Christ – is the constant that runs through all the other changes of life. It is true today. It will be true next Thursday. It will be true the Thursday six months after that.

As we focus continually on this reality we will find ourselves giving thanks to God. We will give thanks to him on the day when we gather with family and friends and eat a sumptuous meal. We will also give thanks on every other occasion – including those times when circumstances make worldly thanksgiving difficult. We will give thanks and be content, because as we focus on our union with Christ, “the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”