Good News in Unexpected Places

Advent 3C, 2018, December 16, 2018

Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

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.

This week as I was reading through the Bible passages assigned for this Sunday, I noticed a common theme running through all of them: the Good News coming in unexpected places, for unexpected people, in unexpected ways.  God’s kingdom is breaking in to the world, and it is different from the world we know, and it is good news, but not always in ways that fit with our views of the world.  There are so many little surprises and so many things that are good news from odd angles that I couldn’t choose just one.

Let’s start with the first reading, from Zephaniah.  Now, Zephaniah was a prophet, but one of the less well-known ones.  Like all the ancient prophets, Zephaniah was concerned with injustice and the way people were abusing one another and turning away from God.  And he gave people searing warnings about the destruction of all the world that would happen on the Day of the Lord, as judgment for all the evil things that people did.  But the last half chapter is different.  Yes, the world deserves destruction because of its evil, because of the way they have hurt one another.  But the destruction is not the last word.  Rejoice, the prophet says, because God forgives, because God is a strong warrior who brings victory.

Now, this is unexpected in two ways.  First, we are called to rejoice in the midst of death and destruction?  We are called to rejoice even knowing there are terrible things in the world?  Destruction isn’t good news … unless you know how bad the thing being destroyed is, and you also know that it’s going to be replaced by something better.  The destruction of your country is not good news unless your country has oppressed you and treated you terribly and the new world that will replace it will treat you with justice and mercy.  And then there’s the message of forgiveness.  Yes, being forgiven brings joy … but only if you’ve done something that needs to be forgiven.  Forgiveness only brings joy if you acknowledge what you did that was wrong.  So, yes, Zephaniah says, rejoice.  Rejoice, all you who have done things you shouldn’t; and rejoice, all you who have been abused by the world.  You will be forgiven and granted a part of the new world.  Something better is coming.  We don’t rejoice in destruction for the sake of destruction but for the sake of the better thing that God will build to replace what cannot stand before him.

The second surprising thing about our reading from Zephaniah is that when God calls Godself a mighty warrior and king, this is not the sort of mighty warrior or king we tend to see in the world.  If we look at the world around us, people who are powerful—mighty warriors, great leaders, the rich and powerful—tend not to be very nice.  They often got where they are by attacking others, or taking advantage of them, or sometimes they abuse their power.  And even if they don’t intentionally hurt or abuse those with less power, they often ignore or don’t even see how their power and might affects those around them.  Where does the elephant in the room sit?  Anywhere it wants, and if that just happens to be on top of a mouse, the elephant may not even notice.  Or decide that it’s the mouse’s fault for being below them.  Power tends to corrupt, and we see that all the time.  If God were a mighty warrior and king like the mighty leaders of our society, that would be bad news for most of us.  But God is different from the powers of this world.

God is a mighty warrior who fights for the poor and disadvantaged.  God will fight against the oppressors and bullies, God will remove the disaster especially from those most hurt by it, God will bring together and heal and serve the disabled, the outcast, the ones who are most likely to be abused.  As I read this I thought about Captain America.  If you’ve ever seen the first Captain America movie, the doctor who is developing the super-soldier serum asks sickly Steve Rogers why he wants to join the army.  “Do you want to kill Nazis?” he asks?  “No,” Steve Rogers replies.  “I don’t like bullies.  I don’t care where they’re from.”  Steve is chosen to be Captain America because he wants to protect those who cannot protect themselves.  He doesn’t do it for power or fame or wealth or revenge or hate or fear or to make America great, but to stand up for those in greatest need and danger.  God’s power as a warrior is similar.  It’s not like that of most powerful people.  God uses God’s power to protect, to heal, to save those who cannot save themselves.  It’s a different sort of power from the world we see all around us.  God’s power and might are not about gaining more power, or about might for its own sake.  God’s power and might are about protecting and healing.  It’s good news for those who have been abused, or oppressed, for those who are alone or hurting or disabled or on the outside of society looking in.  But it’s not good news for the abusers, for the powerful who use their power for their own benefit and hurt people in the process.

Let’s move on to our second reading.  And, again, the theme is joy.  Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice!  The surprising thing here is that Paul is in prison when he wrote these words.  And he was writing to a congregation that was beset by enemies trying to destroy it.  Prison is not a joyful place; it is designed to be as degrading and as punitive as possible.  And having enemies attack you is not something that generally brings happiness or good cheer.  These things are not recipes for happiness.  And yet, Paul says, rejoice!  Put your trust in God, and thank God for all the good things that are happening even in the midst of the bad.  No matter how bad things may get, we know that God is with us, and we know that God will continue to work in us and around us until the day when Christ comes again and all the living and the dead will be judged and all things and all people will be made new.  No matter how bad things get, nothing can separate us from the love of God.  And as long as we cling to that love, there will be times of joy.

And then there’s our Gospel reading.  John the Baptist is calling all people to repentance with a hell-fire and brimstone message condemning sin.  “You brood of vipers!” he calls those who have come to hear his message, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”  Like Zephaniah, John the Baptist believed there would be a day of wrath, a day of judgment, a time when all people and nations would have to account for the evil that they had done.  The surprising thing is that his listeners heard him call them snakes headed for destruction, and considered it good news.  Now, judgment might not sound like good news, but there are three kinds of good news in John the Baptist’s message.  First, for anyone who has ever experienced injustice or been sickened by the evil in the world, the good news is that injustice and evil will not last forever.  The second bit of good news, for those who have done things worthy of condemnation (which is pretty much everyone), is that while the day of the Lord is surely coming, repentance is possible.  We can choose to repent.  We can choose to turn our hearts and minds away from the ways of the world and toward God.  And the third piece of John’s good news is that those concrete acts of repentance are actually things we can do.  Be generous.  If you see someone who needs help and you can help them, do so.  Treat people fairly and with justice.  Don’t hurt, abuse, cheat, or oppress people.  These are things that you and I can do.

In the sure and certain knowledge that Christ is helping us, and that what we have received, we are also called to pass on.  As we prepare for the coming of Christ, both at Christmastime and when he comes again in glory, may we turn our hearts and lives so that we live according to the will of God, and not the will of society.

Amen

Advertisements

Facing the Truth

Advent 1C, 2018, December 2, 2018

Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25:1-10, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, Luke 21:25-36

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

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.

At last, it is December.  Christmas is less than a month away!  Cheery holiday songs are on the radio, Christmas trees are going up, presents are being bought, parties are being hosted, charitable donations are being made … even the Grinchiest person concedes that it’s finally time to start thinking Christmas.  For those of us who are Christian, it’s time to start contemplating the reason for the season, Jesus Christ, born in a manger, come to save us from our sins and bring forth the reign of God.  And, in church, it’s time to hear about the apocalypse!  Every year, regular as clockwork, on the first Sunday of Advent we read Jesus’ words about the end days.  It’s quite a contrast from the sweet, pretty

Why?  Why do we do this?  It is such a bummer!  I don’t know about you but I am ready for holiday goodies and peace on earth, goodwill among mortals.  Especially after the last couple of years.  Last year, hate crimes in America increased by twelve percent, and it was the fourth year in a row of hate crime increases.  This should not be a surprise since hate speech has increased even more than that, and just general nastiness seems to be pretty common in the world today.  So are fear and anxiety.  If there was ever a time we desperately needed peace on earth, good will among humans, it is now, because there seems to be precious little to go around.  There is enough darkness in the world; what we need is light.  So why, then do we start preparing for Christmas by hearing Jesus talk about everything being shaken and people being afraid?

I think it has to do with acknowledging reality, and facing it directly.  Because we human beings aren’t that great about acknowledging the deepest problems we face and facing them.  Either we fiddle while Rome burns, pretending things are great while they’re not, or we don’t do anything, becoming cynical and apathetic.

December is a time when we do a lot of papering over deep problems with superficial fixes.  For example.  A lot of people have long-standing problems with family members which they just sort of ignore in the spirit of Christmas for a bit.  But it’s not a genuine attempt at reconciliation.  They don’t actually heal the wounds or try to forgive, they just sweep things under the rug.  It’s like the first Christmas in World War I, when the two sides stopped fighting on Christmas Day and sang Christmas carols together, played games, and shared their food.  And then, the next day, they went right back to killing one another by the millions.  The ceasefire was a good thing, but actual peace would have been so much better.  Another example.  Charities get a boost this month!  There are so many donations to food pantries and homeless shelters and all manner of other charities that do good work.  But then most people don’t do much the rest of the year.  The need still exists—the problems those charities address are still there—but the generosity is not.  We drop that change in the Salvation Army kettles, and think warm thoughts about how generous we are, and then we go about our business and forget about it.  As a society, we do just enough to make ourselves feel nice and Christmassy, but don’t put in the hard work of dealing with our society’s deepest needs on a regular basis.

And all too often, when we actually do take a good, hard look at just how messed up the world is, how close our lives are to falling apart, how deep the wounds in our society, our community, our family, ourselves?  All too often, we let it make us cynical.  The problems are big, and we can’t fix them, so we might as well just ignore it.  Or we let our fears and anxieties control us, and we either end up paralyzed in indecision, or turning to anger to cover up our fears.  We attack the ones we blame for our problems, even if they didn’t actually do anything.  We give in to knee-jerk reactions that do more harm than good.  Or we turn back to ignorance, drowning our fears and anxieties in activities, or we blame people for their own misfortunes to try and convince ourselves it could never happen to us, or we try to numb ourselves with booze and drugs, anything to keep us from feeling so badly.  It is no coincidence that as the levels of hate and fear and fighting in our country have grown, so have the levels of addiction and mental health problems.

Jesus’ words to us today are a reminder that even in the worst the world has to offer, redemption is near.  “Look at the fig tree and all the trees,” Jesus says.  “As soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.  Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”  When there is evil in the world, God’s reign is near.  Where there is darkness, God is working to bring light.  When things are terrible, God is present, breaking in to the world to make things better.  We may think that the world—or some parts of it—are a God-forsaken mess, but there is no place or person that God is not working to heal, to save, and to bring into God’s kingdom.

I grew up watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.  Fred Rogers had a lot of really good advice.  One of them was this: Whenever there are disasters or problems in the world, look for the people who are helping.  Because there are always people who are helping.  Every time something goes wrong, even in the darkest places, some people are working to make things better and help those who need it.  In the same way, even in the darkest places, God is always present and at work.  Often through those helpers Mr. Rogers talked about.  And God is calling us to be those helpers.  Sure, we can’t fix all the world’s problems, but we can make things just a little bit better.  But in order to do that, we need to be paying attention, we need to see what the problems are, and we have to face them.

There will come a day when God’s kingdom will be made manifest in the world, when Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead, and all the world will be healed and made whole, and heaven will come to Earth.  There will come a day when there will be no pain, and no need for fear or sorrow.  There will be a day when hope will be fulfilled and love will win and all creation will be as good as God created it to be.  We don’t know when that will be because frankly we are terrible at reading the signs, and have been continually getting that wrong since before Jesus told us to be on the lookout for them.

The thing is, we don’t have to know when Christ will come again.  We just have to trust that he will.  As surely as Christ once came at Christmas, Christ will come again in glory.  And in the meantime, we have to stay alert.  Keep watch.  And not be discouraged by the world’s problems.  We know that Christ will come again, and we know that Christ is present now.  We know that God is at work in the world, and that God’s kingdom is near.  “Be on guard,” Jesus said, “so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength.”  We pray, and we wait for that day of Jesus’ return.  We pray that we may have the strength to face reality and open our hearts and minds to the light of Christ, and carry that light forth into the world, to shine that light into all the places that it needs to be.  So that all may know the love and joy of God.

Amen.

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.

Memorial Day, 2018

Memorial Day, May 27, 2018

Jonah 3:10—4:4, 11, Psalm 140, 1 Corinthians 5:20-26, John 11:17-27

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.

We are here today, brothers and sisters to give thanks to God for those who give their lives in service to their country.  Unlike Veteran’s Day, today is a day to give thanks specifically for those who have died.  Their bodies lie in the ground here, across this nation, and across the world, in Europe and in Asia, in all the places where they went to serve, to fight, and to die.  Some of the men and women we remember here today were known to us; others are strangers.  But all of them gave much for the service of their country, and it is right and proper to remember that.

Some of them joined the Armed Forces to do just that.  They felt called to serve and risk their lives for the greater good.  Others were drafted, and went because our country said they had to.  Still others joined because it was good pay, or to see the world, or because it was that or jail.  Some of them served in just and righteous wars which had to be fought to defend the world from evil.  Some of them served in conflicts which were neither noble nor necessary.  But whatever caused them to join up, and whether the war they served in was good or bad, they served on our behalf.  They served in defense of our nation, and to accomplish the political and military goals we as a people set for them.  AS we remember their service, and their sacrifices, we remember this: we, here, today, you and I, we are the ones who elected the leaders and voted for the policies which required the sacrifice of their lives.  They did not go to war because it was inevitable; they went because we sent them.  We made the decisions that led to their service and death.  That is a heavy responsibility borne by every member of a free nation.

Whether they were good people or bad, whether they served in a necessary war or a pointless one, whether they died on the battlefield or came home and died of old age, there’s one other thing we need to remember: they are in God’s hands, now, and our God is a God of resurrection.  Being a Christian means that death is not the end of the story, because Christ Jesus has destroyed the power of death.  The God who created this world, who created each one of us, who knew all those who have served and died from their mothers’ wombs to their graves, is at work still.  Their bodies lie in the ground, but when Christ comes again all the graves will open and they and all the dead will come forth from their tombs as Jesus did on Easter.  ON that day, all the living and the dead will be judged.  ON that day, death will be no more.  On that day, all that is war and violence and evil will cease.  On that day, swords will be beaten into plowshares and pruning hooks, and military service will no longer be necessary.  On that day, there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and everything will be transformed and made new, clean and whole and according to God’s will.

We don’t live yet in that good and gracious world to come, but we yearn for it.  We yearn for it because we miss our loved ones who have gone before us, and because we see the pain and misery in this life.  We see the times when it is necessary that some fight and die so that others may live in peace.  We see the times when we and others make stupid choices and send people out to fight and die senselessly.  WE see all the places where this world is not as it ought to be, all the places where hate and fear and violence and sin and death rule.  And we long for the day when the dead shall arise, and death itself will be defeated, and no one shall suffer and die.

On that day, that great day when God’s will is truly done on this earth, we may be surprised by who all we see there.  The book of Jonah reminds us that our enemies are not God’s enemies.  Nineveh was a great enemy of Israel; they had done many terrible things to Israel.  That was why Jonah wanted God to destroy them, instead of forgiving them.  But all people, no matter who they are, were created by God in God’s image.  God cares for all people—those who worship him and those who do not; those who do what is pleasing in God’s eyes and those who sin.  And God is working to call all people to repentance, to call all people away from evil and sin and death.  All people—and that includes not only us but also our enemies.  On that day when Christ comes again, and the dead are raised, and all the living and the dead are judged, there will be people of every land and nation and tribe and race.  And in that kingdom where God’s will is done, there will be peace instead of violence, love instead of hate, understanding instead of fear.

We wait for that day with hope.  We wait for the day we see our loved ones again and all evil and sin and death are destroyed forever.  We wait for the day when all those who have sacrificed for their country are given the reward they deserve.  We wait with hope, knowing that a new and better day is coming.  But while we wait, we have responsibilities here on earth.  We are called to live according to God’s will.  We are called to work for peace and justice and mercy in our own households, and across the world.  We are called to serve when there is just cause, but also to speak out when a conflict is not just.  As citizens in a democracy, we are called to use our political responsibilities thoughtfully and prayerfully, remembering that even our enemies are made in the image of God.

And always, always, we look forward to that great and glorious day, when wars will cease and Christ will come again, and we shall see him face to face.

Amen.

Covenant: Jeremiah

Lent 5, Year B, March 18, 2018

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 51:1-12, Hebrews 5:5-12, John 12:22-30

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.

This Lent, the Old Testament readings for Sunday morning take us through the covenants.  A covenant is a solemn promise, like a treaty or a marriage.  It’s code of conduct, a set of agreements about how people are going to live together or work together.  A condo association might make a covenant, or the people living on the same floor of a dorm, to establish what the expectations are for people living together.  A covenant is not a legalistic “you better follow the rules or else!” type of rulebook.  A covenant is instead a model, an agreement of how to live together, in which expectations and boundaries are clearly set.  The covenants in the Bible are all between God and humans.  They set the standard for what our relationship with God is going to be like.

God’s first covenant was with Noah and with all the earth, in which God promised that no matter how much wickedness there was in human hearts, God would never again choose to destroy everything and start again.  Then came God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah, where he called them to follow him and promised to be with them and their descendants forever.  Then came the covenant on Mount Sinai, where God re-stated his promise to the people of Israel, and gave them teachings and commandments to show them how they should live as God’s people.  Then last week we heard of God’s covenant with David, promising him that his descendants would always be king of Israel, a promise fulfilled in Christ Jesus, who is of the house and lineage of David.

This week, we heard of the new covenant God proclaimed through the prophet Jeremiah.  And, again, it’s good to remember the context, what Jeremiah was dealing with that prompted God giving this covenant.  Jeremiah was a prophet during a particularly terrible time.  God’s people had gone astray over and over again, sometimes worshipping idols and sometimes giving lip service to God’s word while creating a society filled with injustice and exploitation, in which the rich got richer by grinding the poor under their feet, and people hurt one another while claiming to be following God.  And God had warned the people again and again, that if they continued on in that way, he would stand aside and let them reap the consequences of their actions.  God wouldn’t abandon them, God would keep God’s promise to always be their God … but God wouldn’t protect them from the empires around them who wanted to conquer and enslave them.  By Jeremiah’s day, the Northern Kingdom of Israel was gone, but the Southern Kingdom of Judah was still hanging on, and the people of Judah believed that God’s covenant with David would protect them even despite their continuing bad behavior.

Jeremiah spoke the words the Lord had given him so speak, and told them that God’s love would not save them from the consequences of their actions unless they repented and turned away from their sins.  And they didn’t listen.  And so Jeremiah watched as the Babylonians conquered Judah, captured the city of Jerusalem, and took many of their people off in chains.  Jeremiah wrote two books, and the second was Lamentations, which records his grief at the destruction of his beloved country.  But even in the midst of devastation and grief, even as the holy city of Jerusalem was destroyed and the people of God enslaved and removed from the land God had given them, there was hope.  Because Jeremiah knew that God always keeps God’s promises, and God would always be with them, even as slaves in a foreign land.  And Jeremiah knew that God was going to make a new covenant with God’s people.

The covenant Jeremiah records is the only one the Bible specifically calls “new.”  But what’s new about it?  On the surface, it’s a lot like covenants of old.  God will be their God, and they will be his people.  In the covenant at Sinai, God gathered the people from slavery in Egypt; in this new covenant, God will gather the people from Israel and Judah, captured by other nations.  Just like the covenant at Sinai, God will give instructions on how to live a good and godly life.  And just like the covenant at Sinai didn’t eliminate or replace the earlier covenants with Noah, Abraham, and Sarah, this new covenant will not replace or get rid of all the other covenants God made with God’s people.

The difference, what makes this covenant new, is that it will change human nature.  Up until this point, the wickedness of the human heart that so distressed God in the days of Noah has remained.  God promises that God will always be with God’s people, and God gives instructions for how God’s people are to live, but we human beings fall continuously short.  We hurt ourselves and one another, and we twist God’s word to justify our sinful thoughts and actions.  We tell ourselves that when God commanded us to love one another, he only meant we should love people who are like us, people that we already like.  We tell ourselves that it’s okay to hate and fear people who are different, because surely they are not God’s people like we are.  We tell ourselves that if someone hurts us, it’s okay to hurt them back.  We tell ourselves that it’s okay to be selfish, and if others are impoverished or hurt because of it, that’s their problem.  We tell ourselves that we are good people, God’s people, and so whatever we think and do must be good and Godly, instead of conforming our hearts and minds to the will of God.  We keep breaking our promises to follow God.  That was true in Jeremiah’s day, and it is still unfortunately true today.

But this covenant that God promises through Jeremiah will be a new covenant.  God’s teachings and commandments won’t be empty words on a page that we try to ignore or weasel our way out of whenever they become inconvenient.  Instead, God’s word will be written on our hearts.  We won’t have to argue about what God means, because nobody will try to twist God’s words to their own gain.  We won’t have to tell each other “know the Lord,” for we shall all know the Lord, from the least of us to the greatest.  Instead of giving lip service to doing the right thing, humans will actually do it.  Instead of telling ourselves we can do everything because of our own abilities and we don’t need anyone else, we will love God and love our neighbors, and build deep and lasting and life-giving relationships with God and our neighbor.

Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?  It sounds almost too good to be true.  And yet, Jeremiah assures us that that day is coming, for God has promised it.  We get a foretaste of that day in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  We get a foretaste of God’s word in us and in our hearts by the way the Holy Spirit of God moves in us and around us, giving life to our faith and constantly bringing us back to God.  We get a foretaste of that great and wondrous day every time someone chooses love over hate, generosity over selfishness, faith over despair.  We get a foretaste of that day whenever chains are broken, oppression is ended, justice is done, and mercy is given.

Now, we see that world, that kingdom of God, only dimly and in little bits and pieces.  But when Christ comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead, that kingdom will come to earth and the human heart will be made new, washed clean from all the evil that is in it.  And God’s Spirit will dwell with us, and God’s will will be written on our hearts.  And we will do the right thing not because we have to, or because are afraid of the consequences, or grudgingly, but with joy and love.  I can’t wait for that day.  And every time I see the pain in this world, my longing for it grows stronger.  That day is coming, says the Lord.  Thanks be to God.

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.

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.