Those Weird, Wacky Wise Men

Epiphany, Year B, January 7, 2018

Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Have you ever noticed just how weird the story of the Three Wise Men is?  It is seriously strange.  Let’s start with the so-called ‘wise men’ themselves.  There’s a lot of folklore about them, but the Bible actually tells us very little.  It doesn’t even tell us how many there were.  We assume there were three because they brought three gifts, but there could have been two or ten or a hundred.  And they weren’t kings, they were magi—a word which could describe anything from street magicians to court entertainers to astrologers.  And it’s worth noting that every other time someone is described as “magi” in the Bible, it’s not a compliment.  Magi are hucksters, manipulators, people who use unearthly powers—or claims of unearthly powers—to manipulate people and cheat them out of money.  They don’t tend to respond well to the power of God in Christ Jesus, which they usually regard either as a threat or a way to prop up their own act.  That’s the case every time magi show up in the Bible—except for here, when they come seeking Jesus, and worship him.

These guys were probably astrologers, not street magicians, because no street magician could have afforded the gifts they brought, and because they were watching the stars.  Somehow, they have figured out from watching the skies that a new Jewish king has been born, and they come to Jerusalem figuring that the palace of the king is the right place to find him.  Except King Herod hasn’t had a child or grandchild born recently.  So Herod is both surprised and dismayed.  (Also, I would point out that while we tend to assume that the magi were following a single extraordinarily bright star, if that were the case, surely SOMEONE else in all of Judea would have noticed it and Herod wouldn’t have been caught by surprise, which is why I tend to think they saw a conjunction of stars or a comet or something that they interpreted to have symbolic meaning.  But it doesn’t really matter, in the end.  They saw something, and it brought them to Herod, and, eventually, to the young Jesus and his family.)

Anyway, when the magi appear, Herod calls up the Temple and asks them where the promised king given by God was supposed to show up—not because he wants to worship him or give up his throne but because he wants to kill his rival.  The magi take the information, and that plus the star leads them right to the house where the baby Jesus and his mother Mary and stepfather Joseph are living.  (If you’re wondering what happened to the inn, the magi didn’t show up the night of Jesus birth, but some time later, possibly not until Jesus was around two years old.)  They were living in a house by this point, but it couldn’t have been a very nice house because they were fairly poor.  And on finding this small, poor house, inhabited by peasants, completely the opposite of what they thought they were seeking, the magi are overjoyed!  (Which may be the strangest part of the whole story.  Think about it: how often are you overjoyed to find out you’re completely wrong?)  They come in and paid homage to Jesus—they may have worshipped him, or they may knelt and kissed his feet as some countries required when people met their king, the Bible is unclear.  They open their treasure chests and bring out fine, costly gifts worth a king’s ransom.  And then they leave.  And nobody ever hears anything about them ever again.

Imagine you are Mary and Joseph.  While Jesus’ birth was kind of wild—in a stable, with shepherds and angels coming to see the baby—you’ve had some time to get into your new routine.  You have a house, presumably a job, you’re getting used to being parents.  Then, one day, out of the blue, a group of weird foreigners show up with gifts worth a king’s ransom.  They don’t speak your language, they don’t look like you or dress like you, and they are pagans who worship other gods and practice magic.  They say they got here by following a star.  Now, God has never used astrology.  Sometimes the stars respond to things God does, but God doesn’t use stars to communicate with humans, and the actions of the stars don’t control human destiny.  Astrology is something humans make up, just like every idol in the world.  Yet somehow God has used the stars to draw these foreign weirdos to his son—your son.  They kneel before the baby, like a person would kneel before their king, and then they give you the gifts, and then they leave as suddenly as they arrived and you never hear from them again.  Bet they told that story around the dinner table a lot.

I wonder why the magi came.  They weren’t looking for a religious revelation; if they were, they would have asked for Jesus in the Temple, not in a palace.  They were looking for a new political leader, which is why they went to Herod in the first place.  But Judea was a backwater.  An insignificant territory of the great Roman Empire, which maintained its own king only so long as that king spent enough time and money sucking up to the Roman Emperor.  To most of the world, which person was King of Israel was pretty irrelevant.  The neighboring kingdoms and provinces might send a small gift and congratulations on hearing a new prince was born, but nobody else would bother.  And the magi probably weren’t sent by one of the neighboring kingdoms, because they would have said so.  Given the mercenary nature of most magi in the Bible, I wonder if they intended their journey as a sort of job hunt.  “Hey, see how good we are at astrology, we learned that you had an heir born through the stars!”  And then they show up and the king hasn’t had a child or grandchild born after all—how embarrassing to be wrong.  There’s no way to know why they went to find the new king whose birth they saw heralded in the stars, but come they did.  And they didn’t let getting things wrong the first time discourage them, either; they went on to Bethlehem where Jesus actually was.

They get to Bethlehem and what they find is nothing like they were expecting.  Instead of riches, they find poverty.  Instead of power, they find weakness.  And instead of politics, they find the son of God, who will bring light to the whole world.  What they found was the opposite of what they thought they were looking for … and yet they were overjoyed.  Think about your own life.  I’m sure there have been times when you have gone looking for one thing and found something completely different instead.  I’m sure there have been times when you realized that you were absolutely, completely, and totally wrong about something big.  It happens to all of us sooner or later.  But very few of us react with joy to learning that we’re wrong.  Even if we learn something better, even if it’s a positive change, we find some reason to be upset about it.  Shame of being wrong, or fear of the unknown, or resentment at looking foolish—we find some reason to be mad.  But when the magi found out they were wrong—when they found out God had been leading them somewhere stranger and better than they had imagined—they were overjoyed.  They kept following even when they weren’t sure where they were going, and they rejoiced when God led them someplace new.

I think there’s something to be learned from that.  God does new things.  God does things we’re not expecting, things we could never have imagined.  God has plans for us and for the world that we’re not aware of.  And sometimes, while we’re headed off to do our own thing, God radically redirects us to someplace new.  Even when we think we know what’s going on, and even when we think we’re going where God wants us to go, we may be wrong.  We may be clueless.  We may be headed somewhere else entirely.  And when God shows up in our lives to put us on a new path or reveal things to us that we don’t expect, we should respond to it with joy, and adjust our plans accordingly, instead of trying to force things back to the way we think they should be going.  Even if it means admitting we were wrong.  And that light they followed is here, with us; even on the darkest night, even when shadows creep in, that light continues to guide.  Even when we it takes us places we wouldn’t have imagined.

And the other thing to remember about this story is that all people are God’s people.  The magi were foreigners.  We don’t know who they were or where they were from, but we do know they were from someplace far away.  Throughout the Old Testament, in many places such as our first reading today, God promises that his light will shine for all people, and all people will come.  Not just those who already know him, not just the people already gathered around his table, but all people of every tribe and race and nation.  The magi were the first example of that promise being fulfilled in Christ Jesus, but they weren’t the last.  We are here today because that light they followed kept spreading throughout not just Judea, but throughout all lands, just as it keeps spreading today.  Mary and Joseph were probably surprised by those weird foreigners, but they accepted them as people sent by God.  May we also follow the light of God as the magi did, and accept those whom God’s light brings to us, as Mary and Joseph did.

Amen.

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What Kind of Savior?

Christmas Eve, 2017

Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-20

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

I have a confession to make.  This year, I have not found it easy to get into the Christmas spirit.  I have spent a lot of time wondering what difference it makes that Jesus was born, in this world in which so many terrible things have happened.  This year, I have not enjoyed the candle-light that comes with Advent and Christmas.  The light in the darkness imagery, which I usually find powerful, has been corrupted by current events.  Specifically, Charlottesville, and the Nazis who paraded down its streets one night, carrying torches and calling for the murder of anyone they didn’t like.  Those torches brought light, but only so that they could cast deeper shadows.  Which then begs the question: what kind of light are we waiting for?  What is the light that shines in the darkness, bringing good news?  Which brings up another question: what kind of savior are we waiting for?  What kind of savior is this baby Jesus, born in a manger two thousand years ago?  Which leads to the final question: what difference does it all make?  What does it matter, to you or to me or to anyone, that two thousand years ago a poor Jewish baby named Jesus was born in a backwater village, grew up, lived for about thirty years, before being executed for treason and blasphemy?

There’s all kinds of light, and there’s all kinds of saviors.  If you had asked most Roman citizens in the year that Jesus was born if they needed a savior, they would have said they already had one.  Emperor Augustus was the ‘savior’ of the Roman Empire.  That was his official title.  They put it on all the money.  He saved them from disorder by seizing control and turning the Republic into a dictatorship.  He saved them from war by brutally putting down Rome’s enemies so that none of them would dare oppose him again.  He was the biggest, the best, the most powerful, and so he won control of everything, and ‘right’ and ‘good’ and ‘truth’ were whatever he said they were.  If you were one of his supporters, life was pretty good.  If you weren’t, however, or if you just happened to be one of the masses of people he didn’t care about one way or another, life got worse.  Emperor Augustus brought light to some people by making the world darker for others.  He saved some people by hurting others.

All too often, that’s what the world thinks light and salvation are supposed to look like.  And when you are scared, or upset, or hurting, or angry, or proud and someone promises you that they will fix all your problems for you, it’s very easy to go along with it.  To say that if a good life for me and my people means that other people have to get clobbered and hurt, well, it’s worth it.  To say that the power to hurt and control others is what makes a person or a nation great.  To go through life with your fists up, expecting the worst, assuming that anybody who isn’t your family or tribe is out to get you and you’ve got to get them first.  To look for the kind of light that you can control and use as a weapon, the kind of safety that’s rooted in hurting others before they can hurt you.  And it seems like a lot of people are looking for that kind of light and salvation.  We’ve all seen it, in the rhetoric of politicians, in rants on facebook, in the torches and online mobs of white supremacists.

But the light that God gives is not a weapon, and it’s not something we can control, and God did not create us to treat the rest of God’s creation like enemies, and God’s salvation is not based on hurting others before they get a chance to do it to you.  God’s salvation is not about temporary safety from people we hate or fear.  God’s salvation is about creating a world where hate and fear are gone, permanently, a world where all people—even those we believe are our enemies—have a good and safe and happy place.

God’s light is Jesus Christ, who lived and died without a scrap of earthly power to his name.  He was born a poor child in the middle of nowhere, member of a race that’s spent most of its existence getting pushed around by just about everybody.  He was born in a stable, and while angels heralded his birth, the only humans who took any note were poor shepherds and weird foreigners called magi.  And that baby, that savior grew up, but he didn’t grow up with power to rival the self-professed savior of the world, Emperor Augustus.  Jesus the savior grew up with quite a different power, a different salvation.  A power that’s about healing and justice for all people, not just those on top of the heap.

Listen to the words of Isaiah: all the boots of the tramping warriors, all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.  All the trappings of violence and hate, all the weapons of oppression, will be destroyed.  There will simply be no place for them in God’s kingdom.  All people will be free, from whatever holds them captive: freed from unjust laws and bullies and abusers, but also freed from fear and greed and hate.  That’s the salvation that Jesus brings.  A world where nobody walks around with their fists up to fight with, but with their arms open to embrace with.  And the light he brings is a light for all people who live in darkness.  It’s a light that obliterates the shadows, instead of making them loom larger.  It’s a light that brings joy for all people—not just the chosen few, but for all of creation, all humans and animals and rocks and plants and stars.

That’s the kind of light and salvation that Jesus brings.  It’s not just for a few people, it’s for everybody.  And while the fullness of that light will not be seen until Christ comes again to judge the living and the dead, we as Christians live in response to it.  We can’t control the world, but we are called to let Christ shape our response to it.  We are called to live in the light of that future reality, to live as people who walk in light and not in darkness, people who have seen the salvation of God.  We are called to live as people who know that the baby Jesus, born in a manger, has made and is making a real difference in the world and will continue to do so.

The world has a lot of darkness in it, and there are some people who want to make that darkness deeper, or who think that light and salvation and safety belong only to themselves.  But we are called to spread the light to all people who walk in darkness.  We are called to open our arms to embrace all of God’s children in love, as Mary and Joseph embraced their baby boy, as Jesus himself embraced all people who came to him.  We are called to live lives of joy, knowing that God has given us light and salvation.  We are called to remember that Christ is here, with us, now, this night and every moment of our lives, and that Christ is at work in us and through us even when the world seems darkest.

May we always follow the true light of Christ, and may that light shine forth for all the world.

Amen.

First Sunday of Advent, Year B, December 3, 2017

Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Ah, December.  That wonderful time of the year when churches and homes are decorated with beautiful nativities and pictures of baby Jesus … and in worship we read about the end of the world.  Like in our Gospel reading, where Jesus talks about the day when he will return in power and glory, and our first reading, when the Israelites call for God to come to earth and renew them, showing his power in earthquake and fire and storm.  It seems an odd juxtaposition, contrasting sweet baby Jesus with apocalyptic readings, but it’s actually on purpose.  You see, December is a time of waiting.  We are waiting for Christmas to come; we are waiting for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem … but we have to always remember who we are waiting for.  The beautiful baby that is the center of so many sentimental songs and Christmas cards and nativity sets is also the one who sacrificed himself on a cross for the redemption and renewal of the world, and he is also the one who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.

It’s all too easy, in this season of parties and homecomings and sentimentality, to trivialize Jesus, to sentimentalize him into a warm fuzzy “oh, wouldn’t it be nice if everyone got along over the holidays.”  Yes, it would be nice; but Jesus did not and does not come for a superficial niceness and getting along with one another.  Jesus comes for something deeper, something better.  The peace that Jesus brings requires that all the root causes of injustice and harm be ripped out and done away with.  This peace is not just a truce; this peace requires us to face the deepest, darkest parts of ourselves and our world and acknowledge all the hurt we have done to ourselves, our world, and our neighbors, because only then can true healing begin.  Jesus came to bring love; but not the kind of superficial love that pastes a smile over deep disagreements and old hurts.  Jesus came to bring the kind of love that is open and honest even about the unpleasant things, and that works to heal brokenness and bring new growth, better growth.  That’s what Jesus was born to do; that’s what the judgment that he is coming again to bring will do again, finishing what he started in his death and resurrection.

And there are a lot of things in us and in our world that just aren’t compatible with that kind of love and peace and justice.  Stony ground is going to have to get the rocks picked out.  Hard ground is going to have to be tilled up.  Weeds are going to have to be pulled.  Dead branches pruned.  Ways of life and ways of thinking and ways of doing business that add to the pain and hurt in the world are going to have to end.  The world as we know it, ourselves as we currently are … there’s just too much selfishness and greed and hate.  That’s all going to have to end.  And it will.  There will be a new heaven, and a new earth, and we shall all be changed.  We need to be ready, and waiting, for that change to come.

But the literal-end-of-this-world-and-beginning-of-the-next isn’t the only kind of world ending we need to be alert for.  Worlds end all the time, in good ways and bad ones.  When somebody’s life crumbles, they lose their job and their spouse divorces them and everything they worked for and counted on crumbles to ashes, that’s the end of their world.  When a child who’s been passed around the foster system for years gets adopted and a fresh start with a family that loves and supports them and helps them heal and grow, that’s the end of the world as that child knew it.  And sure, a better one is coming, but it’s still the end of everything they know.  Peoples’ worlds end all the time.  And there’s a lot of pain and grief involved in it.  But even in the pain and grief, God can do a new thing.

Our first reading from Isaiah comes from a people who know about the world ending.  The people of Israel and Judah had spent centuries giving lip service to God while building unjust and idolatrous societies.  They had ignored the words God sent to the prophets warning them to reform their ways.  So God had stepped aside and allowed their enemies to conquer them, and lead them off into captivity.  When that happened, their world ended.  Everything they knew or loved was gone.  After a few decades of slavery in Babylon, God allowed them to return—and coming back to their ancestors homes, they found that there were strangers living there and all the buildings and roads and cities lay in ruins.  They were free, and home, but rebuilding was a massive task.  Their parents’ world had ended when the Babylonians captured them; their world had ended when the captivity ended and they returned to a ruined homeland they had never seen before.  This reading comes from the third part of Isaiah, as the prophet comforts and guides people whose world has ended twice in as many generations.

They long for God to come.  They long for God to make God’s power known in earthquakes and fire, something that nobody can mistake.  They long for God to take all the pain and misery and transform it, to take all the broken things and make them whole.  They know that even as screwed up as things are, God can and will make all things new.

But they look for this promised day of the Lord with clear and open eyes.  They know that they themselves will have to face a reckoning, that at least some of their problems are caused by their own bad behavior, their own selfishness, their own iniquity.  They know that they will have to change; that God’s presence will change them and mold them into something better as a potter’s hands mold formless clay into beautiful and useful pottery.

They know that God was with them generations ago, before they were exiled to Babylon.  They know that God was with them while they were captives in Babylon.  And now that they are home from captivity, God is still with them.  And they know that if they turn to God, God can and will save them; God’s power will re-make them, and their world, better than they ever could on their own.  They don’t know when God is coming, but they know he is acting, and they long for his presence.  They know that even though it will require change on their part, that that change is a good thing.  They are not sitting in their sins and pretending they’re doing well.  They are open and clear-eyed.

That’s a hard thing to do.  It’s not easy to live with one eye peeled for God’s presence and coming.  It’s not easy to acknowledge the things in ourselves that need to be mended and healed, the ways in which we hurt ourselves and others.  It’s so much easier to accept everything in us and in our world as normal and just the way things are.  It’s certainly a lot more comfortable!  To just go with the flow, do what everyone else is doing.  It doesn’t take much thought, and it doesn’t take any soul-searching.  You can sit there like a bump on a log and you don’t have to think about anything hard.  Or maybe you know things should be different, but shaking your head and making disapproving noises is all that’s required to salve your conscience.  It’s simple, it’s easy.  It doesn’t require you to take any risks.  It doesn’t require you to change.

We were not created by God our father to sit there like bumps on a log.  We weren’t given eyes to see so that we could turn them away from the dark places in ourselves and in our world that need God’s light.  We weren’t given brains to think so that we could just go along with whatever the world around us wants of us.  We were created to love one another—true and deep love that acknowledges pain and hurt and works towards healing and new growth.  We were created to help one another, to work for a God’s kingdom.  And we can’t do that if we’re not paying attention, if we’re not looking for things in ourselves and in our world that need to be changed, and we certainly can’t do it if we’re not looking for the places God is working in us and the ways God’s kingdom is breaking into our midst.

We are flawed, imperfect people, who live in a world broken by sin and death.  We need God’s presence and God’s guidance to see the way the world should be.  We fall short of the good people God created us to be, which is why we wait in hope for the day Christ will come again to make all things new.  We can’t make the perfect world of God’s kingdom on our own; only God can do that.  But while we wait, we have work to do.  Work that begins with keeping awake.

Amen.

A Relational God

Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, November 12, 2017

Micah 3:5-12, Psalm 43, 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13, Matthew 23:1-12

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

In the ancient world, they had a very transactional view of God.  By which I mean, most cultures in the Ancient Near East, the cultures around the Holy Land, kind of thought of their gods as vending machines in the sky.  If you prayed the right prayers, sang the right songs, conducted the right rituals and festivals, and offered the right sacrifices, your god would be happy and would send you rain for your crops and protection from your enemies.  Perform the right rituals and you would be rewarded.  But if you neglected those rituals, your god would be angry, your crops would fail, your herds would die, and your enemies would triumph over you.  This should be fairly familiar to us, because lots of people in the modern world think of God as a vending machine in the sky, too.  Lots of Christians think that if you pray the right prayers, go to church often enough, and believe the right things, that God will reward you with material prosperity: wealth, health, whatever they want.

The problem with this idea is that God is not a transactional god, but a relational one.  That is, God does not base his actions on a kind of you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours tit-for-tat sort of calculation, but rather on relationships.  God’s focus is not on measuring whether any one person is worthy of help or punishment, but on building relationships with all of God’s people.  God’s focus is on love, on grace, on helping us grow to be the good, generous, loving people God created us to be.

And not just individual relationships, either.  Modern society is very individualistic, which leads to a sort of “me and Jesus” focus where it’s all about your personal relationship with your Lord and Savior.  But when you look at God’s Word in the Bible, God is just as concerned with community relationships.  Community relationships as in God’s relationship with the whole community, yes, but also as in how people from different parts of the community treat one another.  Which, if you take the image of God as our Father seriously, makes perfect sense.  After all, think about it: doesn’t a loving and good parent care about how their children treat one another?  If a parent has several children, and one of them is bullying another, a good and loving parent will not be happy with the bully.  If one child is cheating another, a good and loving parent is going to be upset.  If one child is going hungry and another has more than enough but doesn’t share, a good and loving parent is going to have a serious problem with the child who doesn’t share.  Well, God is our good and loving parent, and God is the good and loving parent of each and every human being on the planet.  Even those who are not Christian were created by God in God’s own image.

You can see this concern for human relationships in many places in the Bible.  It’s in the way Jesus spent so much time with the poor, sick, outcasts, sinners, people society had rejected.  It’s in the way the laws of the Old Testament consistently focus on making sure that the people on the fringes of society didn’t get left behind or shut out.  The laws of God spend a lot of time specifying that every good thing applies not only to the VIPs but also to the widows, the orphans, the foreigners, the poor.  The Biblical laws also outline quite a lot of protections for those people, so that society can’t trample over them without noticing.  And you know how sometimes when someone’s been knocked off their feet financially, it’s so hard to get your life back together?  The Biblical laws have provisions to help with that, too.  The Biblical laws spend more time specifying protections and rights for people on the margins than they do on anything else.  You cannot follow the spirit of God’s laws if you focus on ritual and ignore the plight of poor people, foreigners, widows and orphans, and anyone else who suffers.  You just can’t.

Unfortunately, human beings are really good at self-justification, and by the 8th Century BC, the time of the prophet Micah and many of the other prophets, all of this had gotten lost.  Because it’s easier to pray the right prayers than it is to care about the wellbeing of those who are different from you.  And it’s cheaper to offer the right sacrifices in worship than it is to make sure that all of God’s people receive fair treatment by the law and by those with more wealth and power than them.  And it’s certainly simpler to think of God as a vending machine in the sky than it is to take seriously what a relationship with him and all his people means.  So they changed society to favor the rich and powerful, the ones who they thought “deserved” better treatment because after all, if you can tell how much God loves someone by how rich they are, then obviously God must not care about poor people.

So, there they were.  With a society that followed some of the letter of God’s law, but completely ignored it’s spirit, and a religious community that was zealous in making sure that every worship service was done extravagantly well, but ignored pretty much everything else God ever said.  And every year the poor got poorer, and life got harder for ordinary people because the laws and customs that were supposed to protect and support them were ignored and changed.  And the people in charge of everything—religious leaders and social leaders both—thought things were going great.  They thought they had a wonderful connection with God!  They thought that the way they treated the most vulnerable people in their society didn’t matter.

God had a much, much different perspective.  God thought things were going horribly.  God was like a parent who sees one of their children hurting another of their children and then expecting that their parent won’t care.  That’s why God sent a bunch of prophets—Micah, Amos, Isaiah, and Hosea—to try and change the hearts and minds of the people so that they would go back to the fair and good ways God intended for them.  And that’s where our first lesson for today comes in.  First, God condemns the religious leaders who say things are awesome because they’re comfortable, but attack and hurt people who are struggling to survive.  “Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets who lead my people astray, who cry “Peace” when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths.”  They’re all going to be disgraced.  They are all going to be publicly humiliated, and everyone is going to know that they’re hypocrites who are perverting God’s Word.

Then God turns the prophet Micah’s attention to the rest of society, and specifically to the leaders who keep changing the laws to tilt the playing field ever more in their own favor.  Because they are creating a society in which more and more people suffer, they are guilty of creating all that suffering.  When people starve to death, it’s their fault.  The blood of all those who died because of poverty and injustice are on their hands, and God is keeping track.  “9Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob and chiefs of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity, 10who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong!  …  12Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins.”  They have hurt other members of God’s family; they have consistently and repeatedly caused others to suffer and be trampled on for their own selfish gain.  And they’re going to pay for it.  God is not going to protect them from their enemies.  God is not going to be placated by offerings and sacrifices and prayers and any of the other things they offer God, because on a fundamental level what God wants most are good and life-giving relationships not just between God and humanity, but between God’s children.  And you cannot build a good relationship with people if you’re cheating them, abusing them, causing them to suffer, or even just ignoring their suffering.  You just can’t.

We keep forgetting this, though.  We keep thinking of God as a vending machine in the sky, who will give us what we want if we just pray the right prayers, believe the right things, or worship in a ‘spiritual’ enough way, or read our Bibles enough.  But if we believe, study, pray, and worship the right way and ignore the suffering of others, we’re hypocrites.  If we do all the religious stuff right but don’t work for a society that treats even the lowliest people fairly and well, we’re fulfilling the letter of the law but not the spirit of it.  And if we work on our personal relationship with God but neglect our relationships with the rest of God’s people, we’re missing half of what God calls us to be and do.  May we seek to be all that God created us to be, and work for a society where all God’s people receive the justice and mercy they need to flourish and grow.

Amen.

In Times of Trouble

All Saints Sunday, November 5, 2017

Revelation 7:9-17, Psalm 34:1-10, 22, 1 John 3:1-3, Matthew 5:1-12

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Revelation is quite possibly the most misunderstood book of the Bible.  It was the last book of the Bible to be written, and it was written during the time of the worst persecution of Christians.  And when I say persecution, I don’t mean the kind of thing a lot of modern American Christians think is persecution, being asked to say “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas” or things like that.  The persecution of the early church was of quite a different nature.  People were killed for being Christian, if they happened to be in the wrong time or place.  If they were really unlucky, they might get tortured to death, or thrown into arenas filled with wild animals for the entertainment of their pagan neighbors.  And in this time of trial, when everything was as bad as it could possibly be, a mystic named John of Patmos wrote the book of Revelation as a comfort for his people who were suffering and in grave danger.

Yes, comfort.  The book is violent, weird, gory, and pretty freaky, but it’s also a book dedicated to reminding all who read that God will win in the end.  Revelation does not sugar-coat anything.  It doesn’t try and sweep evil under the rug or downplay it or ignore it.  Revelation confronts evil head-on and shows it for what it is, but Revelation also insists that evil is only part of reality.  No matter how bad things get, no matter how much evil there is in the world, no matter how much it looks like the devil is winning, we know how the story ends.  And it ends with the devil being cast down, the resurrection of the dead and the judgment of all people, and heaven coming down to earth as all things are made new.  It ends with the water of life, and the healing of the nations.  It ends with peace, and joy, and love.  And yes, our world can be violent, gory, and freaky, and there is evil here even in our own hearts, but we know how everything ends.  God wins.  Love wins.  Evil is destroyed forever.  That’s the end of the story.

The other thing that gets misunderstood about the book is that it’s not a road map.  It’s not a history of the future.  It is a vision, a dream, full of symbolism that doesn’t correspond to nice, neat, timeline that we can pin down and understand logically.  It’s kind of like an impressionist painting, which shows the emotion and essence of a scene but would be absolutely useless for identifying the people in it.  God didn’t give John of Patmos this vision to share as a textbook or map applying to only one series of events, but as a comfort in all times of trial, big and small.

Our first reading, today, is not from the end of the story, where the final victory and healing is.  It’s from the middle.  Specifically, it’s from the middle of the seals, a period full of earthquakes, pestilence, and death on a pale horse.  But before the seventh seal is opened and more earthquakes and blood and fire spring forth, God takes time to show us where the great multitude from every nation are, the faithful good people of every time and place, the ones who have died in the Lord.  And the thing is, even in the midst of all this violence and war and pestilence, they are safe.  They are with God.  Everything is literally going to hell around them, and yet they are with God.  Nothing can hurt them now, and nothing can grieve them, because God supplies everything they need and protects them from all the evil around them.  They are not safe because of any particular merit or strength on their own, but because God has claimed and sealed them as his own.

It’s kind of like the Beatitudes, in our Gospel reading.  Because the people Jesus says are blessed—they aren’t really the sort of people we tend to think are blessed.  Jesus has just been healing and teaching the most wretched people in that part of the world, the sick and injured and lame and poor and sinners and outcasts.  And now he’s telling his disciples that they are blessed.  The poor in spirit, the ones whose faith is small and who are plagued by doubt and pain and grief and depression?  God’s going to give them God’s kingdom.  The people who mourn, who have lost so much?  God will comfort them.  The meek, the ones who get pushed around and abused and trampled on and society doesn’t even notice they’re hurting?  They’re going to inherit the earth.  Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who see all the hypocrisy and self-serving callousness and all the evil in the world that we just take for granted as normal and ache for a day when things will change?  They’ll get the justice and mercy and righteousness they so desperately crave.  And on, and on.

Jesus keeps picking out people who the world sees as unfortunate, and saying that they are blessed.  It’s not hyperbole.  It’s not a metaphor.  It’s not just a case of “well, if you look hard enough, you’ll see a silver lining.”  The word translated here as “blessed” could also mean “highly honored.”  It doesn’t mean material wealth, as we so often reduce it to, or reward, or something nice happening to you.  It means that you are honored, that you are seen and valued.  Specifically, that you are seen and valued by God.

And these people—these people that the world does not see, or that the world sees but disregards—these people are seen by God.  And loved by God.  And God is present with them, no matter what.  Even in the midst of death and pain and grief, God is present.  God brings healing, and consolation, and justice, and mercy, and hope.

Do you remember a few weeks ago, in my sermon series on the Reformation, when I talked about a theology of the cross, which basically means that God chooses to show up in unlikely places?  God chooses to show up in the middle of pain, and loss, and darkness, so that those who suffer are never alone.  So we should be looking for God’s presence in places where people are suffering, places where people are poor in spirit, places where people hunger and thirst for righteousness because there is nothing but selfishness and injustice to be had.  God shows up there.  God blesses people trapped in those places.  Not because they are better than anyone else, or deserve it more, but because they need it more.

Most people have times in their lives where they are poor in spirit.  Most people have times in their lives when they grieve, and grieve deeply, the loss of someone they loved.  And if you don’t hunger and thirst for righteousness right now, well, you probably haven’t been paying much attention in the last year or so to national and international news.  There are people who have it worse, true, but suffering is not a competition.  And when you are in pain, when you are grieving, when everything around you is falling apart, the good news of God is twofold:

First, God sees you.  The God who formed you in your mother’s womb sees you and knows you and loves you and will never let you know.  You are not alone.  No matter what happens, even if the very worst anyone can imagine happens to you—even if things are worse than you could have imagined before—you are not alone.  And God is working in you to bring healing and strength and hope, and God is working in those around you to bring you a supportive community.  But even when those around you fail or fall short. God will not.

And second, this is not the end of the story.  There is grief, and pain, and injustice, and evil, in the world today.  There are horrifying things in the world today.  But they will not win in the end.  We know what happens.  They will be destroyed, and all things on heaven and earth will be made new, and the dead will be raised, and all people will be judged, and God will wipe away every tear from every eye.  And there, when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, there will only be peace, and joy, and love, and faithfulness.

Those who have died in the faith, all those centuries of Christians from the earliest days after Jesus to those who died just this last week, they are safe in God’s arms.  And someday we will join them.  And the day will come when we will all awaken, when we will be resurrected and made new, and judged, and healed, and join the great cloud of witnesses around God’s throne.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Reformation Series 2: The Word of God

Reformation 2: The Word of God, October 1, 2017

Deuteronomy 6:1-9, Psalm 1, John 1:1-5, 10-14

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

When I was on internship, I had dinner with a member of the congregation.  He had a question, and he wanted to know the answer.  More specifically, he wanted to have a cut-and-dried simple answer to what was actually a very complicated question.  And he wanted to know what the Bible said about it.  But the problem was, it was a complicated issue, and the Bible said a lot of things about it, some of which contradicted or argued with other things the Bible said about it.  There was no way to give a simple, cut-and-dried answer to his question without either twisting or ignoring some of the things the Bible had to say on that particular topic.  And because of that, it was one of those issues where faithful, believing Christians can prayerfully read the Bible and come up with different answers—all of which are really and truly based in the word of God.  So, I explained, it came down to interpretation, and point of view, and what weight we give to the different parts of Scripture.  I told him how I interpreted those passages, and why, but I also told him how other Christians interpret it.

Now, I’ve had conversations like this a lot.  The world is a big, complicated, messy place, and the Bible is a big, complicated, messy collection of books, and God is bigger and greater than anything we can imagine, and that means that there are a lot of places where you just can’t boil God’s Word down into a simple slogan or a verse or two to memorize and regurgitate.  Personally, I find this comforting.  No matter what happens, some other person of faith somewhere has had something like it happen to them, and chances are their story is recorded in the Bible.  And no matter how messed-up the situation is, no matter how closely good and evil are intertwined, no matter what is at stake, we as Christians don’t have to try and force the situation into some sort of one-size-fits-all platitude that ignores a lot of the reality of the situation.

I remember this conversation in particular because by the end of it, we were going around in circles.  See, he really wanted the one-size-fits-all platitude.  More than that, he sort of assumed that the Bible was a textbook for life and faith, and that we as Christians would be graded on how well we knew it.  Just like a textbook in school, where you memorize the right answers and then regurgitate them on the test, and if you have enough right answers memorized you pass and if you don’t you fail.  Except that in this case, “passing” means going to heaven and “failing” means going to hell.  So the idea that things were more complicated than just memorizing the right Bible verse was a problem to him.  It yanked the carpet right out from under his feet.

“But how do you know?” he kept asking.  “How do you know if you’re right?”

“You trust in the grace and mercy of God,” I replied.  “You trust that the God who inspired the people who wrote the Bible, and who inspired the people who collected it and edited it and copied it and translated will still be with us today as we read it and talk about it and figure out what it means for us today.”

“But what if you’re wrong?” he asked.  “What if you get the wrong answer?”

“You trust in the grace and mercy of God,” I said.  “God isn’t standing there with a clipboard looking for reasons to send people to hell.  God is full of grace and mercy and forgiveness, and if you’re genuinely and honestly trying to be faithful, he will be faithful to you, even if you do mess up.  Everybody messes up, sometimes, and God loves us anyway.”

“But how can you be certain?” he said.

“You can’t,” I said.  “You just have to trust in the grace and mercy of God.”  And on, and on, it went.  He could not accept anything other than a simple, easy, one-size-fits-all answer to his question, because he wanted a simple, easy, one-size-fits-all view of the Bible.  And he put his trust in the Bible so deeply that he had trouble trusting in God.  He thought that if he didn’t have the right answer, if he couldn’t figure it out and know for certain what he was supposed to think and believe, he was in danger.

Ironic, isn’t it?  The Bible is the Word of God!  It’s supposed to point us to God, and help our faith grow!  And yet, paradoxically, sometimes when we put our trust in the Bible, that actually prevents us from trusting in God, because what we’re trusting in is our own ability to figure out the right answer.  (Remember how last week I talked about the temptation to put things other than Jesus Christ at the heart of our faith?  This is another one of them.)

The Word of God is important.  It’s the most important thing there is … but what exactly is the Word of God?  Well, according to John 1, Jesus Christ is the living Word of God.  Jesus Christ is God’s Word become flesh, living among us, full of grace and truth.  Jesus Christ is the Word that God spoke in the beginning, separating out light from darkness and ordering the primordial chaos.  That Word is part of God, together with the Father and the Spirit.  Jesus Christ is the Word through which all things were made, and without Jesus there is neither light nor life.  (As Christians, we believe that Jesus is at the heart of everything.)

So if Jesus Christ is the Living Word of God, what does that mean for the Bible?  Well, the Bible is not the living Word of God.  The Bible is a collection of words about God.  God inspired those words when they were being told and re-told by the ancient Jewish people.  God inspired those words when they were first written down, and when they were gathered together, and when they were edited over the centuries, and when they were copied and handed down, and when they were translated.  At each step of the way, God has been inspiring them and using them to speak to people.  And every time we come together to hear these words and preach and teach using them, God is still here, inspiring us and speaking through those words.  The Bible is special because there is no other collection of writings anywhere in the world that God has spoken through as reliably and as often as God has spoken through the Bible.  But we always have to remember that we don’t worship the Bible.  We worship the God who speaks to us through the Bible, and who also speaks to us through many other ways.  We worship Jesus Christ our Lord, the Living Word of God.

In ancient times, after God rescued the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt and before leading them into the Promised Land, God gave them the first part of what would come to be the Bible—the laws, commandments, and teachings, that, along with stories of their ancestors in the faith, form the first five books of the Bible.  But while God was giving them all of these words to remember, God gave them something very simple, something that they should always remember, no matter what.  “Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”  That’s the core of all those teachings.  That’s the center.  That’s what they were to remember every minute of every day, in everything that they did.  If you remember that, then all the rest of the commandments and teachings and stories are meaningful and life-giving, and lead us to God.  If you forget that, they’re just words on a page.

Martin Luther used to put it this way: Jesus Christ is the Word of God, and the Bible is the manger in which the infant Christ is laid.  We worship God.  And where do we find stories about God?  Where do we find a record of what God has done in, with, and through God’s people?  Where do we find stories of our ancestors in the faith?  Where do we find stories about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord?  We find them in many places, but the Bible is the best.  God speaks to us through many things: through nature, through works of literature and art, through the community of believers, through many other ways—even science, sometimes.  But the Bible is the way that God has most often and consistently spoken to believers.

Jesus Christ is the Word of God that transforms our lives, saves us from sin and death and all the powers of this world, and raises us from the power of the grave.  God’s Word is the means of grace through which God transforms our lives. Jesus himself is the living Word made flesh. The Bible is the living water through which God nourishes us, so that like trees that can withstand crisis and yet bear fruit, we live lives of faithfulness and love.  Scripture itself doesn’t give life, because life can only come from God.  But scripture is a necessary part of the conditions for a life of faith to grow.  It’s like rain.  Rain is not what makes a seed alive.  But without enough of it at the right times, that seed isn’t going to amount to much.

May the living Word of God, Jesus Christ our Lord, live in our hearts and minds.  And may the

Amen.

Reformation 1: Salvation by Grace Through Faith

Reformation 1: Salvation by Grace through Faith, September 24, 2017

Galatians 2:16-21, Psalm 103, Luke 24:44-48

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Have you ever noticed that for a lot of people—even for good, deeply faithful Christians—a lot of faith ends up being more about us than about God?  I mean, we start with the question “what must I do to be saved?” and focus our attention from there.  On how we are doing things to earn our salvation.  So that then, salvation depends on our actions, and not God’s actions.  It’s about what we deserve—or don’t deserve—and not about what God is doing to break the power of sin and death.  Some people focus on the good deeds they have done, and what a moral and upright person they are.  Others focus on how strong their faith is, what a good Christian they are, or in the fact that they believe the right things and say the right prayers and other people don’t.  In either case, we end up focusing on ourselves, instead of on God.  Our faith turns into faith in our own ability to be a good person, do the right thing, and believe the right thing, rather than in God’s ability to forgive and in the saving power of the death and resurrection of our lord and savior Jesus Christ.

This is not a new problem.  This is an old, old trap that Christians have fallen into since the very first followers of Jesus gathered after his resurrection.  And it comes from very understandable places!  We don’t like being helpless.  We want to know what we can do!  And, certainly, we are supposed to respond to God’s gift of salvation by living in the light of his love.  But that’s a response to what God does, not a precondition for God to act.  The more we focus on our own actions, the less room we have to see what God has done and is doing in our lives.  The easier it is to take credit for God’s work, instead of celebrating what God has done in us and gives us the strength and will to do in the world.

On a more selfish level, focusing on our own actions and goodness gives us a lot more room to be self-righteous.  A lot more room to judge other people.  To draw lines about who’s in and who’s out, who’s good and who’s bad, instead of really accepting that every human being is a child of God whom God is working to save.  Do you remember the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector?  The Pharisee and the Tax collector both come to the house of God to pray on the same day.  And the Pharisee thanks God that he isn’t a sinner like the tax collector, and goes on and on about what a wonderful person he is.  And sure, he’s giving lip service to the fact that God made him who he is, but he’s still pretty arrogant about it.  You can tell that under everything, he believes it’s his own abilities and actions that just make him better than other people.  The tax collector, on the other hand, has no such illusions.  He knows he’s a sinner; he knows he is utterly dependent on the grace and mercy and forgiveness of God.  And he goes home forgiven and redeemed, while the Pharisee doesn’t.  Not because he’s a better person than the Pharisee—in fact, he’s a much worse person than the Pharisee—but because he put his faith in God, rather than on his own ability to be good.

Then there’s the social aspects of salvation.  By which I mean, the ways we Christians tend to use the threat of hell and the lure of heaven to try and motivate people to be nice and moral.  The idea is, people won’t do the right thing unless they’re either afraid of punishment or looking for a reward, and so you can use heaven and hell to motivate people.  You literally try to scare the hell out of them, and then dangle the carrot of heaven in front of their nose if they shape up.  It can, in some circumstances, be effective in shaping behavior, although not in others.  Use it too often, and some people get turned into neurotic wrecks angsting over whether they’ve done enough to be saved, while other people start rolling their eyes and tuning out.  And even where this use of heaven and hell are done well and people do listen … you’re still putting the emphasis on humans, what we’re doing, and not on what God is doing.

All of this is true today, it was true in the time of Jesus and the Apostles, and it was most certainly true in the time of Martin Luther.    See, in those days, Christianity was all about earning your salvation.  They had a motto: Do your best, and God will do the rest.  Basically, if you are as good as you possibly can be, go to church every Sunday and every holy day and pray a lot and do lots of good deeds, you will mostly be good enough to go to heaven, and then God will just sort of fill in the gap between your own effort and what’s necessary to get into heaven.

Of course there are several problems with this idea.  One of them is that we’re putting humans at the center and not God, but the other problem with that is, if we’re mostly good enough to earn our own salvation … what in the name of all that’s holy did Jesus die for?  If all we’re talking about is a small gap between what we can do and where we need to be, then why couldn’t God have found some way of filling that gap that was less dramatic, less painful, less gory and gruesome than dying on a cross?  And of course, if humans were capable of earning salvation, Jesus would never have had to die in the first place.  The whole reason for Jesus’ death is that human beings are too broken by sin and death to earn our way into God’s good books by our own merit.  Not just human beings, either.  The whole cosmos is broken by sin and death.  And God loves us and all the world despite the fact that we are so broken, and is willing to do anything—literally anything—to save us and heal us and re-create us and all the cosmos as we were meant to be.  And that anything includes coming to earth and dying on a cross.

This is what Paul is talking about in our reading from Galatians.  “Justification,” is, in this context, a fancy way of saying “made right with God.”  Or “forgiven.”  Or being acquitted, like in a trial.  And the law isn’t just the formal legal rules, but also the traditions and customs and teachings.  If we can make ourselves right with God, if we can justify ourselves, through being “good enough” and following the right teachings and rules, then Christ died for nothing.  That’s the problem with putting ourselves and our abilities at the center.  When the truth is, it was necessary for Jesus Christ to die for us.  He wouldn’t have done it if it weren’t!  We can’t earn our salvation.  We can’t justify ourselves.  We can’t do and say and believe the right things hard enough to make up for all the brokenness inside us.  We can’t make ourselves, through our own efforts, worthy of salvation.  We depend on God’s grace and mercy.

And thank God that grace and mercy are at the core of God’s very being!  The most common description of God in the Bible is that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”  Grace, in this context, means all the love God gives us that we don’t deserve.  The gifts that God gives that we can never pay back.  Grace is joy, delight, happiness, good fortune—all undeserved.  Grace is light in dark places, and grace is a lifeline to people who are drowning.  Grace is the boundless generosity of God, which gives without limit.  Grace is like winning the lottery when we didn’t even buy a ticket.  It’s something God does that transforms us, saves us, gives us all the love and mercy and hope and joy that can only come from God.

This is the Good News of God: that no matter how broken we are, no matter how far we fall, God loves us.  We don’t have to make ourselves right—and we can’t justify ourselves, no matter how hard we try.  God’s grace is as vast as the universe, and it is given through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus.  When we say “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son,” we are saying that Jesus Christ “has purchased and freed me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver but with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death.”  God loves us so much that he will never let us go, stop at nothing to save and redeem us, to justify us, to mend our broken relationships with him and with each other.  That’s what Jesus died for.  That’s what all of scripture is trying to point us to.  That great truth—that God’s salvation comes through Christ Jesus, freely given for all people—is the heart of the Gospel.  That’s the good news.

And from that good news flows faith.  Faith is something that God plants in us with his word, that he waters and weeds and is always working to help grow.  Faithfulness is how we respond to God’s wonderful gift.  But there’s more.  When Paul says in Galatians that we are justified by faith, he means two things.  In Greek, he’s saying two distinct things at the same time; there’s no way to do that in English, so translators pick one or the other.  The NRSV and NIV and most modern translations choose to say we are justified by faith in Christ, that is, by our belief in Jesus.  The Common English Bible chooses the other translation, that we are saved through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, that is, through Christ’s faithfulness to us.  Paul meant both of those.  We are justified both by our faith and by Christ’s faithfulness.  We can’t be so focused on our faith in Jesus that we forget Jesus’ faithfulness to us.  His absolute dedication to our salvation.

That’s the truth on which the church stands or falls.  When we remember that God’s grace and mercy are at the center of everything, we stand firm and our faith blossoms.  When we forget—when we try to put our own efforts and abilities in the center—when we trust in our own righteousness or hard work or faithfulness—we start to lose our way, and our faith becomes dry and legalistic.  Even when all the rest of our beliefs are perfectly right, if our core is wrong, we’re going to be going in the wrong direction.  God’s grace and saving actions are the compass that guides our path.

The fancy Reformation theological slogan to describe this is “Justification by grace through faith.”  We are made right with God by God’s free gift of salvation in Jesus Christ, in which our faith is rooted.  Our faith is a response to that salvation, planted in us by God, who is always faithful to us.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.