On the Resurrection of the Dead

Ask most people what happens after you die, and they say “you go to Heaven (or Hell).”  As in, your soul goes to either Heaven or Hell, and leaves your body behind.  Ask them about the Resurrection, and they talk about Jesus.  Christians, according to popular Christian understanding, don’t get bodily raised from the dead like Jesus did; their souls (and not their bodies) go to Heaven.

The problem is, that’s not what the Bible says.  Now, granted, the Bible never lays out a clear timeline for the end times; most of what it says about the and of the world is told through parables, metaphors, dreams, and visions instead of laying out plain and simple what’s going to happen.  But some things are pretty clear and universal throughout Biblical passages on death and what comes next and the end of the world:

1) There is no hard-and-fast separation between body and soul.  That was a pagan philosophy that got grafted in later from the Greeks in the early church.  In the Old Testament, whenever you see the word “soul,” it’s a mistranslation, because there isn’t a word for what we think of as the “soul” in Hebrew.  The Hebrew word nefesh means something closer along the lines of everything that makes you you–personality, spirit, and body, all rolled into one.  It’s your essence, your core, your being, and your physicality is included in it.  In the New Testament, well, pagan Greek philosophy separated out the physical and the spiritual, so Greek does have a word (psyche) for soul-separate-from-body.  But Jesus was a Jewish man talking (mostly) with other Jewish people, so on the rare occasions he uses that word he’s probably meaning the Hebrew concept of nefesh instead.

The word that gets translated as “Spirit” is ruach in Hebrew, or pneuma in Greek, both of which literally means breath.  (In English, it comes from the same root word as “respiration” and “inspiration.”  Spirit is life force, but it’s inherently physical.  Only living bodies breathe.

In the Biblical worldview, we are not, never have been, and never will be free-floating souls who happen to have a physical body to wear around temporarily.  We are whole, body, mind, heart, and spirit together as one.  (I will note that the more scientists learn about the body and mind, the more obvious it is that the two are connected and intertwined in all sorts of ways we hadn’t understood until now: those ancient Jewish people in the desert understood more about the human condition than Greek philosophers did.)

2) Jesus is not the only one who will be resurrected.  The sequence of events is not “Jesus died to save us from our sins, so when we die our souls will go to heaven.”  The sequence is “Jesus died to save us from our sins, and because we are tied to his death and resurrection, we, too, will one day be raised from the dead.  When Christ comes again, the graves will open, and all those who have died will rise again, and all the living and the dead shall be judged, and there will be a new heaven and a new earth and God’s kingdom will be here on earth.”  What exactly that looks like, what the exact timeline will be when Christ comes again, all the other stuff (trials and tribulations, etc., etc.,) that’s pretty hazy and contradictory.  What is perfectly clear every time the subject is discussed is the fact that the dead will be raised–not just spiritually, but physically–and then all people will be judged.

What happens to us in the between-time–the time between when we die and the general resurrection of the dead–is not so clear.  The Bible simply isn’t very concerned with it.  There are hints here and there, and mostly they seem to imply that we are asleep or unconscious in some way, waiting for the day of resurrection.  Sometimes (as in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man) they do imply that our souls are either in Heaven or Hell while we wait.  But mostly the answer is “we die and are dead until Christ comes again and raises all the dead.”

Why, then, do modern Christians focus so heavily on “soul going to Heaven/Hell” that we forget about the Resurrection of the body?  Well, first, lots of people today (even practicing Christians) haven’t spent much time studying the Bible, and so most of what they believe on the subject they get from pop culture, just assuming that movies/television/comedians/authors in the general culture know what they’re talking about and that they are accurately portraying something Biblically-based.  Second, the early church (the first few centuries after Jesus’ original followers died out) was dominated by Greeks, and they had all been raised with pagan Greek philosophy, and so they interpreted a lot of the Bible through that lens.  So, among other things, a split between body and soul was injected into Christian beliefs, even though the Bible doesn’t have such a split.  Third, during the American Civil War, there was a spiritual crisis.  It was the first time that such a high percentage of the population died so far from home, with no bodies to bury that the family could ever see.  This really changed the way Americans talked about and thought about death, and there is a really good book-turned-documentary, Death and the Civil War, that explores this.

So now that I’ve written almost 800 words explaining all of this, I can get to what I really wanted to talk about.  I was reading Richard Hays’ commentary on First Corinthians in the Interpretations Bible Commentary series, specifically the section about 1 Corinthians 15.  In that passage, Paul confronts people (Greek former-pagans, who believed in an immortal soul that was completely separate from the physical body it was housed in) who didn’t believe in the resurrection.  Well, they believed that Jesus had been raised, but didn’t believe in the general resurrection to come, i.e. that when Christ comes again he will raise all those who have died.  And Paul is vehement that this is a problem: you cannot separate out Jesus’ resurrection and our resurrection.  If resurrection is not possible for us, then Jesus could not have been raised either.  If God can raise Jesus bodily from the dead, God can raise us bodily from the dead, as well; and because God has raised Jesus from the dead, God will raise us also.  If you don’t believe God will raise us bodily from the dead, according to Paul, you are calling Jesus and all the disciples liars.

Hays brings up how the earliest Christians interpreted this passage (page 259).  In particular, he quotes the words of St. Justin Martyr, a second-century Christian and church leader who was one of the first great Christian writers after the New Testament was finished.  In one of his debates, Justin talks about “godless, impious heretics” who “are called Christians … and say that there is no resurrection of the dead, and that their souls, when they die, are taken to heaven.”  St. Justin Martyr considered this absolute heresy, and said of such people: “Do not imagine that they are Christians.”

Um.

Wow.

That’s, uh, that’s pretty direct and straightforward, with not much wiggle room.  And when you read Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, he, too, has no wiggle room.  According to both Paul and Justin Martyr, you cannot be a Christian if you think your soul goes to heaven without your body.  You can only be a Christian if you believe in a bodily/fleshly resurrection.

Most American Christians today do not believe in a bodily/fleshly resurrection for anyone except Jesus.  They believe that your soul goes to heaven (or hell) without your body.

I am not sure what to say, except that we obviously need more Christian education and Bible study about this.

I’d like to share some words of Hays’ own (page 277), on why this is such an important point:

Paul saw that underneath all the dismaying problems of the Corinthians lay one massive theological fallacy: they denied the resurrection of the dead.  And by doing that, they denied the importance of the world that God created.  They denied–whether they meant to or not–that these flawed bodies of ours are loved by God and will be redeemed.  And therefore–whether they meant to or not–they denied that what we do with these bodies is of ultimate significance in God’s eyes.  So they lapsed into confusion, both moral and theological.

Modern American Christians tend to focus on the “spiritual” aspects of faith and ignore much of the practical aspects, reducing discipleship to merely agreeing with certain beliefs.  And when we do talk about physical bodies and morality, we tend to focus on sex.  Which is important, but still only a small part of what we do with our bodies.

What would a Christian ethic look like if it were based on the idea that the physical–bodies, creation, all if it–matters?  If we really took seriously the idea that God’s saving work isn’t about destroying this fallen world and rescuing the souls of believers from it, but rather focused on the Biblical idea that God in Christ is reconciling the world to himself?  That the coming kingdom is based not on the destruction of the old world and the old bodies, but rather on their recreation and resurrection?  There are lots of Christian theologians and writers who have talked about these subjects over the last century or so, I’m not saying anything new … but unfortunately, none of those people have moved the needle very far on what the average Christian-in-the-pew thinks.

Much food for thought.

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All the Nations

First Sunday of Advent, November 27th, 2016

Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44

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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

This week is the first Sunday of Advent, the church season where we prepare for the coming of Christ among us.  On the most obvious level, we are preparing for Christmas, the day Jesus was born 2,000 years ago.  And so we sing Christmas carols and decorate the church and put on Christmas pageants.  But we are also preparing for Christ to come again to judge the living and the dead.  As Christians, we live between the promise made with Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and the fulfilling of that promise when Christ comes again.  Which is why our readings for this first Sunday of Advent  are about the adult Jesus telling his followers to be ready for him to come again, and the prophet Isaiah telling us what God’s kingdom to come will look like.

As I was reading and studying the texts for this Sunday, and listening to the news, I kept coming back to the first reading, and the image of the nations streaming up to the Lord’s house—all people from across the world coming to it and walking in God’s paths.  It’s such a beautiful image of what God’s kingdom will be like.  In fact, every time the Bible discusses who will be there, the various writers make the point that it will be all people, from every nation and tribe.  In other words, not just “us,” whoever “us” happens to be.  And that’s a crucial point: humans by nature like to divide people into categories and exclude those who aren’t like us.  We tell ourselves stories to justify why we’re good and they’re bad.  And then we only notice the things that fit those stories.  We are hyper-aware of differences, and those differences can’t just be differences—they are signs that we are better because there is a right way and a wrong way and obviously, we’re right and they are wrong.  This is something all humans of every continent, race, religion, and ethnicity are prone to do.  It comes and goes in waves, and right now there is a wave of racist thoughts and actions sweeping our country.  In the last few months, some North Dakotans have used the conflict over the pipeline as an excuse to harass and attack Native Americans.  In the last few months, some Americans have painted swastikas on Jewish homes and businesses.  In the last few months, the number of hate crimes against blacks and Latinos have escalated in this country have escalated.  In the last few weeks, neo-Nazis have held open rallies in American cities and an alt-right spokesman went on CNN to debate whether Jews were really people.  All of this traces back to the idea that some people matter more than others, that some people are better than others because of the group they were born into.  This is something humans do, in this broken, fallen, sinful world.  We look for reasons to hate and divide ourselves up and attack one another.

But it’s not something God does.  In fact, God spends significant time throughout the Bible combating that type of thought whenever it creeps up.  It starts out in the first chapter of Genesis when we are taught that all people—of all nations, all genders, everyone—was created in God’s image.  White, Black, Native American, Asian, Latino, everyone is a beloved child of God created in God’s own image.  And when God gave the law to Moses, God repeated many times throughout the law that outsiders should be protected, not condemned or ostracized.  And when the Israelites strayed from that teaching and discriminated against outsiders, God reacted.  For example, in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, the Israelites made laws forbidding their people from marrying non-Israelites, forcing divorces where such marriages already occurred, and throwing out any mixed-race children.  There were also laws forbidding non-Israelite participation in society.  But in that same period, two books were added to the Bible directly criticizing that.  The first, Ruth, tells the story of a foreigner—a pagan—who came to God and married an Israelite and became the grandmother of the great King David.  In the middle of prejudice and xenophobia, God sent God’s Word to tell a true story of a foreigner as an example of faithfulness, and to remind God’s people that David, their great hero of the faith, was himself of mixed-race.  The second book is Jonah, which tells the story of a prophet who was sent to proclaim God’s word Israel’s enemy, the city of Ninevah.  Jonah doesn’t want to go, but God forces him to.  The point of the story is that Israel’s enemies are just as much God’s children—just as beloved to God—as Israel was.

Jesus spent most of his time ministering among the Jews, but he also went to the Greeks and all the other ethnic groups in his area, and held no distinctions between them.  When his disciples tried to impose their society’s ethnic boundaries, Jesus rebuked them.  And when the Holy Spirit came to the disciples at Pentecost, the first thing it did was give them the ability to preach to all sorts of different people in their own native tongues.  Why?  Because God loves all people of every land, and they are all God’s children, and they all need to hear the good news of Jesus Christ, who became truly human, who is coming back to judge the world and to save it.

And in the early Christian church, too, people started to try to discriminate: they based worship practices on separating out rich people from poor people, Jews from Greeks, and women from men.  Paul wrote to condemn such things, because in Christ there is no distinction between ethnic groups, genders, or economic class.  All are one in Christ.  And when we try to separate people out and discriminate against some, we deny that.  We exclude and hurt people that Christ died to save.

In Revelation, there are many images of what God’s kingdom will be like, and Revelation, just like Isaiah, tells us that all people, from every tribe and nation, will be there in God’s kingdom, and that there will be no distinction between them, for all will be united in Christ.  So if you ask me “what the kingdom of God looks like,” and ask me to put together a picture from all the different images and visions of God’s kingdom in the Bible, I can tell you a few things.  1) it’s going to be a great party where there is no suffering or pain or grief, and 2) it’s going to be intensely multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-everything.  And if you think I’m exaggerating, the Greek word usually translated as “nation” is “eqhnos”, which is where the word “ethnic” comes from.  All nations—and all ethnic groups—are equally beloved of God, and all will be part of God’s kingdom.

But we human beings, we keep coming up with reasons to hate, reasons to fear, reasons to discriminate.  We tell ourselves stories about how terrible other groups are, and then we tell ourselves it’s not really bad to discriminate against them because they really are like that.  We take every bad example of other groups as the norm for them, while pretending our own bad apples don’t exist.  An example of this is the police department of Fergusson, Missouri.  That police department focused most of its attention on investigating and harassing black people.  When accused of racial bias, they said they focused on black people because black people committed more crimes.  After the protests in 2014 the Federal Government launched an investigation.  They found that the police were wrong: black people in Ferguson were no more likely to commit crimes than white people were.  But the police of Ferguson believed that blacks were criminals.  So when a black person committed a crime, they took it as evidence that black people were all prone to criminality.  When a white person committed a crime, however, they thought he was just a bad apple.  Everything they saw and experienced was twisted to fit into the story they told themselves: that black people were criminals and white people were good people.  The story wasn’t true, but they genuinely believed it.  And so they acted unjustly, harassing innocent citizens because of the color of their skin.  They broke up and separated their city, and hurt a lot of people—black and white—in the process.

We tell ourselves a lot of stories about race that aren’t true.  We tell stories about Black criminals and thugs, when black people are no more likely to commit crimes than whites are.  We tell stories about immigrants who steal American jobs, when immigrants actually are far more likely to start their own businesses and create jobs than native-born citizens are.  We tell ourselves that other races are lazy, they’re bad, they’re wrong.  And then we look for things around us that confirm those stories.  But those stories are not reality.  And, most crucially, those stories are not God’s story.  God’s story is that every person of every race was created in God’s own image.  God’s story is that each and every human being is equally valuable and beloved, regardless of race, class, gender, sexuality, age, disability, or any other category.  God’s story is that when God’s kingdom comes, all violence and conflict between groups will cease, and all people of every tribe and nation and group will come streaming to God, and all people will love one another instead of finding excuses to hate and fear and discriminate.

So when we break down ethnic or racial barriers, we are making the world a little bit more like God’s kingdom.  When we challenge ethnic or racial biases, we are making the world a little bit more like God’s kingdom.  When we make the world a little bit more equal, we are making the world a little bit more like God’s kingdom.  On the other hand, when we allow racism and bigotry to flourish, when we see it and do nothing, when we pretend it isn’t there, we are working against God’s kingdom.  When we see discrimination and prejudice and shrug and walk on by, we become complicit in a system that is directly opposed to God’s wishes.  We allow things to get less and less like the good and just kingdom that God is trying to create.  It doesn’t mean we’re horrible people—like I said, this is something all humans do—but it does mean we are not being faithful to God.  It means we are seeing through the eyes of the world, not through God’s eyes.  It’s not easy to challenge bias and racism; it’s not easy to challenge something that so many people believe.  Yet to be faithful to the vision of God’s kingdom, we have to do it.  May we have the courage and the wisdom to see the world through God’s eyes, and God’s story, and not the human stories that divide us.

Amen.

Holding Together

Ninth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 16C, July 17th, 2016

Amos 8:1-12, Psalm 52, Colossians 1:15-28, Luke 10:38-42

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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

As I was reading the texts and preparing for this week, one phrase in particular jumped out at me in our reading from Colossians.  The author of the letter is speaking about Christ, who Christ is and what his life, death, and resurrection mean.  “In him, Jesus Christ, all things hold together.”  And I thought, really?  Because I have to tell you, these last few weeks it has not felt like there was anything holding together—on the contrary, it kind of feels like the world is falling apart.  In Christ all things hold together.

God knows the world surely isn’t holding together on its own.  In the last few weeks, white cops have killed black men who were no threat to them—one victim, a peaceful citizen out for a drive with his family, was shot and killed in front of his wife and son.  In the last few days, there were bombings in France and an attempted coup in Turkey.  In the last few weeks, a black extremist sniper shot and killed good police officers just doing their job.  ISIS terrorists bombed peaceful Muslims on pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina as well as various targets in Baghdad, murdering hundreds.  A homophobe used his Muslim faith as an excuse to murder fifty people in a gay nightclub in Orlando.  In the last year, there has been so much violence, as people of all colors and faiths take out their frustrations and their fears by turning to violence.

In the last several months, American political life has seemed to fracture even more, with party lines between liberals and conservatives hardening.  We have a culture that favors the hot-headed response, a culture that favors attacking people personally when we disagree with them.  And the election season has only made it worse, further dividing an already split nation.  I know I’m not blameless in that regard.  People feel betrayed by political leaders, and are desperate for something different, something new; so desperate, they’ll grab hold of anything.  And Britain, too, is melting down politically over the Brexit referendum and its consequences; the whole European Union is shaken.  Meanwhile, the usual parade of natural disasters marches through, and the 24-hour news cycle brings a constant stream of hatred and horrors before our eyes.

Things seem to be falling apart.  And yet, in Christ, all things hold together.  The people of Colossae, too, lived in a world full of violence, strife, and dissension.  The Roman Empire was the most powerful nation of its day, and Colossae was a Roman city.  Rom prided itself on maintaining peace throughout the world, which they called a Pax Romanae.  Of course, the Roman Empire maintained that peace through conquest and destruction and brutality.  They literally crucified anyone they thought was a threat—that’s what happened to Jesus.  And in the middle of that world, in which killing was glorified and brutality was the order of the day, a small group of people gathered in Colossae to worship Jesus, and wonder what it meant that the son of God had become human, died, and rose again from the grave.

What does it mean?  In a world where there is hatred and injustice and brutality?  What does it mean that Jesus came and died for us?  Jesus, who was no ordinary human being, remember; Jesus was truly God and truly human at the same time.  And so Jesus was there at creation, the word God breathed over the primordial chaos to call forth order, light, and life.  Christ was the firstborn of all creation, and everything that now exists came into being through him.  No matter how much death and darkness surrounds us, we worship a God who gives light and life, who creates and creates and creates no matter how much destruction we humans wreak on each other.

And do you remember, from Genesis, what God said every time he created something?  “It is good.”  And when humanity was created God saw that we were very good.  That is what we were created to be.  That is the true reality of every human being, everywhere: God created us in God’s own image, and God created us to be good.  We are broken by sin and death, and so we hurt others and we hurt ourselves.  Instead of the good, just, and merciful society God calls us to, we create societies where injustice flourishes in ignored corners, where factionalism and oppression work to undermine God’s good will.  God created us for a good and godly society, and yet we tear ourselves apart.  And some of us turn to violence as the solution to our problems, or just as a way to take our frustrations out on other people, or because we’re scared of what they might do to us.  And some people get some kind of sick pleasure out of hurting others.  And so, because of human sin, things fall apart.

But you know what?  God is in the midst of this world, in the midst of all the bad things as well as the good things, working for the redemption of the world.  Because God loves this world, and God loves each and every one of us, and there is absolutely nothing in all of creation that can make God give up on us.  Not even our own actions.  And that’s where the Christ, the Son of God, who danced over the waters of creation, came to earth and became flesh and blood in a woman’s womb.  He lived and taught peace and love and a better way of thinking and living.  And then he died and rose again, and in the process he destroyed the power of the devil and reconciled all of creation to himself.  We know that, no matter what, evil will not win in the end.  God has already won; evil will not win in the end.  God’s kingdom will come to earth, and everything broken will be healed and recreated better than before.  Sin and death will be no more, pain and mourning will be no more, and Christ will be there.  This is the promise of the gospel, and it has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.

But the Gospel promise is more than the hope of some far-distant future, because God is presently at work in the world through Jesus Christ.  God’s promise is not merely a matter of pie in the sky by and by.  God’s promise is for us and all of creation, here, now, today.  The first fruits of God’s kingdom are sprouting even now.  And that’s the part that the news media won’t show you, because it doesn’t make them money: there is good in the world.  Christ is at work in the world.  For every act of evil there are so many acts of good.  And no matter how dark things get, no matter how much things seem to be falling apart, the world is holding together in Christ Jesus our Lord.

A Muslim man killed 50 people in a gay nightclub, and throughout the world hundreds of thousands of Muslims gathered to pray and support the victims.  You probably didn’t see that on the news, but Christ was there.  And every day there are so many angry men and women across the globe who think about picking up a gun, but choose not to, and Christ is there.  And every year across America, some cities choose to train their police officers and officials in peaceful conflict resolution skills, and in how to be fair to all races.  Fewer people die, justice is done in greater measure, and Christ is there.  And every day there are people who get riled up about something, but choose to discuss it in good faith instead of lashing out at people who disagree with them, and Christ is there.  And every day people teach their children about justice and love, and every day people stop bullies from hurting people, and Christ is there.  Refugees flee the tyrannical and terroristic regimes that oppress them, and Christ is there with them, giving them strength and hope.  Some people and some countries reach out to support those refugees until they can return home and rebuild, and Christ is there.

Every day, there are a thousand evil things that could happen but do not, because Christ is there, helping to bring justice and love and peace.  Even when we work against that—even when we buy into the world’s story that things are going to hell and everything is terrible—Christ is there, giving hope in the midst of hopelessness and helping us to repent of our sins and step into the light of Christ.  That’s who we are as Christians—the people who have seen the light, who are sent out into the world to do God’s work of spreading justice and love and the promise that God has made to every living thing.

You know, the ancient Colossians, the ones who first received this letter?  They were a lot worse off than we are today.  We are uncomfortable because Christianity is losing power in the US—they were uncomfortable because being a Christian could mean their deaths.  They lived in constant peril, and in the midst of that this letter told them to trust God, and to work for God’s kingdom, the redemption of all creation.  Imagine how much more we can do, here, now, today.  Imagine the peace, justice, and love, we can bring to the world as the body of Christ.  And you know what?  We are doing it.  Not always; sometimes we fall short.  But even in the midst of our own shortcomings, in the midst of the worst the world can do, Christ is holding all things together—and we are participating in that work through our words, our actions, and our whole lives.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

The majesty of God

Trinity, (Year A), June 15, 2014

Genesis 1:1-2:4a, Psalm 8, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, Matthew 28:16-20

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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

O Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth, the psalmist says. I recently watched a science documentary called Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. This documentary covered everything from the smallest part of an atom to the vastness of a universe filled with millions of galaxies, and throughout it all as Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson explained the knowledge science gives us, I was struck with a sense of wonder at the world God has made. Although told from a scientific point of view and not a religious one, the show has a sense of awe at the beauty and majesty of all creation, from the tiniest bit if it to the farthest reaches of the universe. As Christians, we know that God our Father is the creator of all that is, seen and unseen. And yet it is sometimes easy to forget how incredible that is, how vast God’s creation truly is, and how small a part of it we are.

“O Lord, how majestic is your name in all the vastness of the universe! When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” We know more about God’s creation than the psalmist did three thousand years ago when this psalm was first written. We know the universe is vaster than that long-ago poet could have imagined. Every star we see in the sky is a sun like our own, many of which have planets like our own; and there are innumerably more stars out there that we can only see from Earth with the aid of telescopes. And past that, there are other galaxies larger than our own, filled with even more stars and planets. There are all the wonders that science has discovered, all the wonders science will discover in the centuries to come, and all the wonders that science could not possibly understand. God guided creation from the beginning of time, creating the stars and planets and galaxies, and then on our own planet life: first plants, and then creatures of the sea, and then creatures on land, and then, finally, humans. Out of all that vastness, God created us. And loves us dearly.

We humans tend to be egocentric. We tend to think the world revolves around us. But look up at the night skies, or look at one of the photographs of Earth taken from the moon, and you will see how insignificant we truly are. Compared to the universe, we are nothing. Compared to God, we are less than nothing. We are tiny. The universe is vast, and God is greater still. There are mysteries to the universe that we will never know, and it is God who created them. God, who is beyond our mortal imagining. Yet God loves us. God cares for us. God created us, but God didn’t just stop there and stand back and abandon us to our own fate. God is with us, teaching us and guiding us and loving us.

God the Father created us, but we went astray. We fell into sin. And when we did, we dragged all of creation with us. God created the world to be good. Did you notice that, in the creation story told in the first lesson? Over and over, God creates something and says that it is good. But we humans are broken by sin and death, and that has marred the world God made.

So God the Son came to earth and was born as a human. God became flesh and dwelt among us. God became Human. The great, infinite one became finite. Jesus Christ was truly God and truly human at the same time. Because God loves us so much, God was willing to become one of us. Jesus Christ, our Savior, the Son, the Word of God made flesh and come to live among us. He broke the chains of sin and death and freed us so that we might live the kind of good, abundant lives the Father created us to live. He didn’t have to, you know. He could have said, “Well, it’s their own fault,” and let us fall. But he didn’t. He loves us, and so he came to save us and all of creation. Jesus Christ came to put right what we have made wrong, to heal all the harm we have done to ourselves and each other and to all of creation.

Once the Son had broken the chains of sin that we had made for ourselves, he went back to the Father. But God is still with us, for the Holy Spirit came and continues to breathe life into us, to empower us and inspire us in God’s way. The Spirit comes to set us on fire with God’s holy love, to give us the living water that helps us grow as God’s children. The Spirit is never still; the Spirit is always in motion, leading us and guiding us.

There’s a lot about God we don’t know or understand. We have one God, but that God comes to us in three ways: as the Father, as the Son, as the Spirit. Christians have been arguing over exactly how that works since the very first followers of Jesus worshipped him. No one has ever been able to really explain it, but that actually gives me comfort. God created the universe, in all its vastness and complexity, the wonders as great as galaxies and as tiny as atoms. Surely, God is greater than anything we could possibly comprehend. Science and human reason are valuable tools that can help us learn a lot. But if science and human reason were the only tools we had to explore the universe, we would know little about God for God is greater than human reason can understand. Yet God reveals Gods own self to us out of love.

As St. John the elder said in his first letter, God is love. In our second lesson, St. Paul said that God is a God of love and peace. That is the core of who and what God is. Father, Son, Spirit, all three together, loving one another. No one of the three is complete without the others. But in mutual love they dance together as they have throughout all time, with a love as vast as the universe. That love is extended to us. As God’s children, we are invited into that relationship, into that love. We are invited to dance with them, to join the holy community, and to give that love to everyone we meet. And in so doing, we are invited to participate in God’s work. God makes us his partners.

The psalmist puts it this way: “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet.” Out of all the greatness of God’s creation, we are given the task of helping to take care of the world God has made. We are created, saved, empowered, and sent out to be God’s hands in the world. We are brought into God’s own love, and given the task of sharing that love with the world, through our words and through our actions.

We are sent out into the world to be God’s hands and feet. We are sent out to love our neighbors, to spread peace where there is destructive conflict, to spread joy where there is despair, to spread healing where there is illness or injury, to spread hope where there is despair, to spread the story of God’s love for all of creation but most especially God’s love for us, God’s own children.

the Word made flesh

Christmas Eve, December 24, 2013

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

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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

Titus wrote: “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.”  What a poetic and beautiful way to describe the coming of Christ, the Messiah!  The grace of God, which brings salvation, coming to earth.  And in the prophet Isaiah, the Messiah is called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  In a little while, when it comes time to light the candles, we’ll read the opening of the Gospel of John, which describes Jesus as the Word of God through which all the world was created.  That’s quite a lot to put on the shoulders of one little baby, born in poverty and darkness in a stable in a tiny town in a backwater part of the world!

And yet, he’s not just a baby, is he?  Jesus is more than that.  So often, when it gets close to Christmas time, we let our sentimentality take over.  Isn’t that a cute baby in that pageant?  How sweet those children sound, singing Away in a Manger.  How heart-warming to have family and friends coming together for a special meal.  How beautiful that picture of Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus looks!  The sentimentality overflows, from made-for-tv movies to Christmas pageants in churches.  We think of the “reason for the season,” and we try to be a little nicer, a little more generous, as we go about our daily life.  And that’s a good thing!  That heart-warming message of hope and love is an important part of Christmas.

But let’s remember just how great the love is; let’s remember how awesome the hope is.  Because Jesus’ birth isn’t just a reminder that babies are sweet and we should be kind to one another.  There’s a reason that all those different Bible texts we read tonight have extraordinary expectations of that little baby!  You see, that little baby is God in human flesh.  God, immortal, all-powerful, chose to come to Earth and be born as a human.  The Word became flesh, truly God and truly human at the same time.  Yes, he was a human baby, born in sweat and tears and blood in a cold stable to a poor family.  He probably cried and fussed like any other baby; he definitely needed to be fed and have his diaper changed like any other baby.  But he was also God, present and active in the creation of the universe.  He is the grace and love of God given physical form.  He is the one who breaks the chains of slavery and oppression.  He is the one who brings justice and peace.  He was and is the light that brings hope and joy to the world.  That hope is for more than just a little extra kindness at Christmastime.  That hope is for the redemption and renewal of the whole world.  God, who created the world and watched his good creation become broken and marred by sin, became human for the sake of saving the world.

Why would God chose to do that?  Why would God choose to be limited by becoming a human being—and a baby, at that, the most vulnerable and helpless that any living creature can ever be, a baby, totally dependent on others for even the most basic needs?  In Christ Jesus the greatest power in the world chose to be the most vulnerable and powerless he could possibly be.  What could God possibly think worth it?  I’ll tell you: us.  Every person who has ever lived or ever will, and all of creation around us.  God thinks we’re worth that.  God loves us so much that he was willing to do anything to save us, and he proved it when he became a human being, when he became a baby who was born in a manger, wrapped in bands of cloth and laid in a manger, because there was no room in the inn.  What extraordinary love that is!

But that’s just the beginning of the story.  You see, Jesus grew up.  And he taught people how to live better lives; how to see the kingdom of God in their midst.  He taught people how to build better relationships with one another and with God, how to forgive one another and to see God’s face in all of creation.  And then he proved his love in the most dramatic way possible: suffering and dying on the cross.  And in that ultimate act of weakness, in that death, were the seeds of the greatest victory possible.  In his resurrection, Jesus Christ shattered the gates of hell.

That’s why the angels sing at the birth of Jesus: they know what he really is.  A baby in a manger, yes, but also the light and hope of the world.  God in human flesh, God become human, coming to heal all of creation.  God came to live among us so that we might become his children, loved and cared for just as Mary cared for Jesus as a baby.  That is the great joy of Christmas, for in the dead of winter, in a lowly stable in the middle of nowhere, hope is born for the whole world.  Two thousand years after Jesus’ birth, twenty-five hundred years after Isaiah’s prophecy, we still live in a world filled with boots of tramping warriors and blood-soaked garments.  We still live in a world where there are people who have no home, and no family to care for them.  We still live in a world where there is fear.  But God’s light has come into the world; God’s hope has come into the world; God’s Word has come into the world.  That is the grace of God: that he would take on flesh and blood for our sake, to save us from our own sin and brokenness.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

We Have Seen the Empty Tomb

The Resurrection of Our Lord, Year C, March 31st, 2013

Isaiah 65:17-25, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15:19-26, Luke 24:1-12

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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

A few months ago, after a funeral, I was asked to explain death to two children.  They were confused—why had we put their great-grandmother in a box, and left her out in the snow and ice far from home?  But while children don’t understand death, adults understand it all too well.  It is one of the few facts of life that is the same no matter where you go or what time period you live in.  Everyone and everything dies, eventually.  Some die young, some die old, some die quickly and others slowly.  Every animal, every plant, every fish, every insect, every person, will eventually die.  Even stars die.  Death and decay is part of the natural order of the universe.  We don’t like to remember this, but we know it in our bones.  Benjamin Franklin put it this way: nothing in life is certain except death and taxes.

Well.  He was half right, anyway.  Because we are here today to testify to the fact that death itself has been defeated.  Death is not the end of the story.  It doesn’t get the last word, and it doesn’t get the most important word.  The “natural” order of things has been turned on its ear.  The things we think we know about life are shown to be wrong in the most dramatic way imaginable.  Because the tomb is empty.  Jesus is not dead, not any more.  He is risen!

When we hear the Easter story, it’s easy to scoff at the women and the disciples, who didn’t believe Jesus when he told them he would rise from the grave.  As the angel points out, Jesus had told them what was going to happen!  Yet there they are, three days after his death, going to his tomb to embalm his body.  They saw the empty tomb, and didn’t understand.  In fact, their first response to the angels was fear and perplexity.  They didn’t get what had happened until someone explained it to them.  But after they knew, when they realized that Jesus had risen, they were filled with joy and went to tell everyone what they’d seen.  But the other followers of Jesus didn’t believe them at first—they thought those women were crazy.  Why didn’t the disciples believe their witness?  After all, the women were long-standing followers and students of Jesus, too—they’d been there from the beginning, and stayed through the crucifixion.  They’d been there, learning at Jesus’ feet, the whole time.  These are women the disciples knew and trusted, just as they had all known Jesus.  And they had all heard him talk about what was going to happen to him.  But none of them seem to have believed his words, or understood them.  Sitting here in church, knowing the story, it’s easy to roll our eyes at how blind they were.

And yet.  Put yourself in the shoes of those women.  Yes, Jesus had done many great things … but everyone dies.  Yes, they believe in the resurrection … but they haven’t seen it yet.  And after all, Jesus was fond of using parables and metaphors and figures of speech.  He rarely said anything that was intended to be interpreted literally.  So I can see how they might have assumed he meant something metaphorical, something spiritual, something that would be easier to fit into their experience of the world.

If the general Resurrection happened today, would we be as surprised as they were?  Yes, we say we believe in the Resurrection.  But it’s been two thousand years since Jesus rose, and nobody’s risen from the grave since.  Yes, we might sincerely believe it’ll happen someday, but in a vague, general way.  We’ve never seen an empty tomb.  We’ve never seen the dead rise, except maybe in zombie movies.  But we’ve seen death.  We’ve seen friends and loved ones die.  We’ve seen pets die.  We’ve seen in the news and on TV all the horrible things that people can do to one another.  Death is very real to us.  New life, the kind that Jesus has, the kind of life that is so powerful that even death itself can’t keep it down for long, that’s harder to accept.

But all our worldly wisdom is wrong.  Our knowledge of death is wrong.  All the experience that tells us that might makes right is wrong.  All the sayings telling us that it’s a dog eat dog world are wrong.  Because the tomb is empty.  Jesus Christ is doing a new thing, and through his death and resurrection God is doing a new thing for the entire world.  Listen again to the words God spoke through the prophet: “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.  But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.  I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress…. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD– and their descendants as well.  Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.  The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox.”

Imagine that.  A world with no pain, no grief.  A world without bigotry, without fear, without hate, without jealousy, without callousness, without arrogance, without bullying, without grief, without suffering.  A world where everyone chooses to do good, instead of evil.  A world where predators, whether animal or human, don’t prey on those weaker than they are.  A world where there is enough for all.  A world where love and joy are the strongest emotions, the ones that guide people.  That’s the way God created the world to be.  That’s what life was like until sin and death broke in.  That’s the life God wants for us.  And that’s the life that Jesus died to give us, to give the whole universe.

When we were baptized, we were baptized into Christ’s death.  We share in Christ’s death so that we may also share in his life—the life of the Resurrection, the life of joy and peace and love.  In baptism our old sinful self, the self that is trapped by sin and death, is drowned.  The old self that, like Adam, chooses to disobey God, go astray, and then blame others, is killed.  What rises up out of the water is something new, something that has the seeds of God’s new heaven and new earth within it.  When we come up out of the waters of baptism, we are united with Christ in a bond that nothing can ever break.  In our baptisms, we are started on the path towards the new life, towards resurrection and joy.

We have not yet seen the fullness of that life.  Christ is the first fruit of the dead, in Paul’s words, but the harvest has not yet come.  We have not yet seen all of creation transformed into the new heaven and the new earth that God has promised is coming.  And yet we have felt it.  We have heard God’s promises.  We can see a glimmer, in Christ, of what that life will be like.  We have experienced the love of God through our baptisms, through every moment of grace and goodness in our lives.  It’s true, the forces of sin and death are fighting a desperate rear-guard action to keep us mired in darkness, but we have seen the light.  We have seen life come out of things that look dead and barren.  We have seen the empty tomb.

We have seen the empty tomb.  We stand outside it with Jesus’ first followers and hear the words of God’s messenger: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”  The old certainties of the world—that death is final, that decay is simply the way things go, that pain and grief and hate and fear and selfishness win—those old certainties are turned upside down.  Jesus is not dead; he has risen, and we will rise with him.

Yes, there is still pain in the world.  Yes, sin and death still drag people down.  But not forever.  Their power is broken.  New life is here.  Resurrection is here.  Joy is here.  Christ is here.

He is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

A world of abundance

Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year C, March 17th, 2013

Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8

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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

If you were here Wednesday night, you would have heard another story of a woman anointing Jesus with oil.  And, like the story in today’s Gospel, those watching were not happy about it.  In the story from Luke that we read on Wednesday, the Pharisees were upset because Jesus was allowing such liberties from a sinner.  In today’s story from John, Judas was upset because the money that could have been given to the poor was spent on useless luxuries.

Both objections are very common-place ones, that we have all probably thought or felt at one time or another.  As for the woman in Luke, that sinner, well, there are people in the world who are untrustworthy and just seem to be worse than anyone else.  Even if you forgive their sins, if you allow them into your fellowship, you run the risk of being hurt or injured by them again.  And you run the risk of being tarred by the same brush.  And you run the risk of other people being led astray, because surely, if what that sinner did was so bad, you wouldn’t be letting them participate.  So letting in sinners is risky business.

As for the extravagance of Mary’s perfumed oil, well, any time you talk about money in a religious context, two subjects come up: maintaining the building, and giving to those who are in need.  Because obviously, Jesus wants us to love others with deeds as well as with words.  There are so many needs in the world, so many people who need help, whose lives can be dramatically improved with a few gifts.  And there are so many passages in the Bible that talk about justice for the poor, about providing for those who are worse off than you.  If you see someone in need, you’re supposed to help.  And that perfumed oil was about a year’s salary for a day laborer—that was a serious extravagance!  What a difference that money could have made in the lives of so many people!

So it’s hard not to be sympathetic to Judas and the Pharisees.  Yes, inviting in sinners and welcoming them is risky.  Yes, that perfume Mary used was very expensive, and think of all the good that could have been done with it!  Any half-way rational person who knows the Scriptures would have pointed it out as well.

And yet.  And yet, Jesus rebukes both the Pharisee and Judas.  They have the details correct, but they have completely missed the big picture.  They are focusing on the little stuff: how we should handle ordinary daily life.  And they are so focused on that, on keeping on with their ordinary lives, that they completely miss that things are not ordinary.  They completely miss that their handling of the details is getting in the way of the big picture.

Yes, we can’t just ignore sin, and sometimes we need to speak up about sinners.  Yes, we should love the poor, and work to bring justice and abundant life to all people.  But that must always, always be done in the light of Christ.  All of our lives as faithful followers of Jesus Christ need to focus on the big picture of who Christ is and what Christ has done for us, as part of God’s plan for us and for all of creation.

God created the world, and God created it to be good.  God created all of humankind to be good.  God created the world abundantly, a world stuffed to the gills with wonderful things.  God created a world in which there is more than enough to go around for all.  But humans sinned.  Humans sin, and that sin has broken all of creation.  Instead of love, there is oppression and hate.  Instead of abundance for all, there is scarcity and hoarding.  Instead of building one another up, we tear one another down.

We have fallen from what God wants us to be, but God has never stopped seeking us out.  God comes to us where we are and forgives our sins, and lifts us up out of the holes we dig for ourselves.  God’s goal isn’t just to patch over the holes.  God’s goal isn’t just to save the nice people and forget about the rest.  God’s goal isn’t just to put a fresh coat of paint over the decay.  God isn’t just trying to fix a few things here and there, measuring out justice like a teaspoon and mercy by the cup to people dying of thirst.

No, God is creating something new.  God is doing a new thing.  Now it springs forth, do you not see it?  God is restoring the world, recreating it through the life and death of the Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  From the cross of Christ flows forth love and mercy and forgiveness and renewal like water from a fountain in the desert.  That love and mercy and forgiveness and justice overflow all the boundaries we humans would set for them.  From the cross of Christ flows forth the kind of abundant life God wants for us and for all of creation.

That spring of life that comes from God refreshes and renews us, but it hasn’t yet filled the whole world.  The new thing God has done in Jesus Christ has begun, but it has not finished.  The new creation will not be here until Christ comes again.  Until that time, we live caught between the old, sinful, broken world, and the new creation God brings.  We live caught between our old, sinful, broken selves and the new, forgiven and whole selves God is creating in us.

The question is, what are we going to do in the mean time?  How are we going to live our lives?  Are we going to put our confidence in our old selves, in the old broken world that we see around us that we understand all too well?  Or are we going to put our confidence in the resurrection?  Are we going to seek the power of Christ’s resurrection, or are we going to stay in the muck and mire that drags us down and traps us in sin?  Are we going to remember that Christ has made us his own through our baptisms, has claimed us and redeemed us, or are we going to focus on the broken world around us?

If we are going to press on towards the goal of Christ, if we are going to live in the power of the resurrection, that means we have to change how we see the world around us.  We have to look and see the abundance of God’s mercy not just for us, but for all people.  We have to remember that our God is the god of abundance, not scarcity.

The Pharisee from Wednesday night’s lesson was offended that Jesus forgave a sinner and accepted her gift.  Yet we know that all human beings are sinners, and that Jesus came to save all of humanity.  We know that forgiveness is a gift for all, because Jesus died for all.  And yes, we are called to speak out against sin—but we must always remember that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and that God loves every single one of us, no matter how far astray we go.  Jesus didn’t come to Earth to condemn people or exclude them, but to seek out all the lost, all the sinners, all who have gone astray.  The Pharisee focused on the details of the sin, but not on the big picture of God’s mercy for all.

Judas in today’s lesson was offended that Mary’s perfume was used so extravagantly.  It could have been sold, and the money used for the poor!  We are told by the Gospel writer that Judas used to steal from the common purse, giving him an unsavory motivation for his anger.  But many good Christians who don’t steal from the offering plate would agree with him.  Hungry people could have been fed with that money!  Sick people could have gotten medicine!  But Jesus said that Mary was in the right. Now, obviously, Jesus who spent so much time feeding hungry people and healing sick people approved of giving to those in need.  The problem isn’t wanting to help people.  The problem is the mindset of scarcity.

God created a world with abundance for all.  Yet we believe, deep in our heart of hearts, that there isn’t enough.  So we hoard what we have instead of sharing it, and some people have far more than they need, and others have nothing.  Did you know that the world produces enough food every year to feed every person alive today?  Yet people die of starvation because they cannot afford food, or cannot get to it.  God created a world with enough abundance to provide for the needs of all, and we remain trapped in our belief in scarcity.  There is enough for all; there is enough to provide for the poor and to give extravagant gifts of love to God.

We see brokenness and sin around us every day.  We live in a world broken by sin and death, a world afraid of not having enough.  We know that God is doing a new thing; we know that salvation and new life comes through Christ Jesus.  We know that even death itself will be swallowed up in the power of Christ’s resurrection.  We know that we, too, will be raised, and we know that God’s kingdom of abundant life and love and mercy will come.  Yet like the Pharisee, and like Judas, too often we muddle along in our every-day concerns, instead of knowing Christ and experiencing the power of his resurrection.  May we learn to press on towards Christ, and to see the world through his eyes: sinners forgiven, justice for the oppressed, and abundant life for all.

Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus.