Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A, December 22, 2019

Isaiah 7:10-16, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25

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.

Paul’s letters are just that: letters.  Like all letters even today, they start off with a greeting, a salutation.  Something to open the letter and introduce the writer and what the letter is about.  I began my Christmas letters this year with a salutation of “Merry Christmas from the Washington Coast!”  Short, sweet, and to the point.  Everyone on my Christmas card list knows me, so I don’t have to introduce myself, and everybody knows what to expect in a Christmas letter, namely, a cheerful summary of everything the sender has done in the past year, wrapped up with best wishes for the holidays.  So a brief holiday greeting is all I need.  Paul’s letters, however, are a different story, especially his letter to the Romans.  Our entire second lesson, all seven verses of it, is the greeting portion of this letter.  It took him seven verses to say “Dear congregation of Jesus-followers in Rome, Hello, it’s Paul, I’m writing about Jesus the Messiah, God be with you.”

That’s a much simplified version, of course, but that’s basically what it’s saying.  Paul’s introducing himself and what he’s going to be talking about in the whole rest of the letter, and blessing the people he’s writing to.  So let’s dive into the details.  First, this is the longest salutation in any of Paul’s letters in the New Testament, because it was the only one where he was writing to people he didn’t know.  Every other letter we have from Paul, he was writing to a congregation he himself had founded.  He’d go to a city, live there for a while, plant a congregation, and then move on.  He kept in touch with everyone through letters, some of which were collected in the New Testament.  In those letters he would remind people of his teachings, and address issues that had cropped up since he had left.  Since everyone in the congregation knew him, he didn’t have to give any long explanations of who he was or why he was writing.  But the thing is, the congregation of Jesus followers in Rome had been planted by someone else.  Paul had never been there.  So he wrote this letter to introduce himself and his interpretation of Jesus’ teachings, in the hopes that they would welcome him when he arrived.  They didn’t know him from Adam, so he had to introduce himself and prove his bona fides as an apostle, and give kind of a summary overview of his perspective on the good news of Jesus, in the hope that they would welcome him when he arrived and help support his future missionary journeys.  Because Paul hadn’t planted the church in Rome, his letter to the Romans mostly doesn’t address specific issues the Roman church was facing; instead, the letter as a whole is a step-by-step journey through Paul’s understanding of Jesus, his teachings, and what the meaning and impact of Jesus’ death and resurrection was.

Death and resurrection?  In December?  We’re less than a week away from Christmas, the day we celebrate Jesus’ birth!  We are months away from Easter!  So why are we talking about death and resurrection?  All our attention is focused on that sweet little baby who will soon be laying in the manger, and on the shepherds and wise men and angels who surrounded him and his parents Mary and Joseph, and also on details like Christmas parties, last-minute present shopping, and everything else we need to make the holidays wonderful.  But the thing is Jesus was not born just to be a cute little baby in a manger that we can feel good about every December.  The central holy day of our faith is not Christmas, but Easter.  If Jesus had never died and been raised from the dead, it wouldn’t matter that he had been born.  We talk about Jesus being the reason for the season, and that’s true, but it’s not just that Jesus existed.  It’s that Jesus came to save us and all creation from sin and death.  Christ came to the world for a purpose, and that purpose was to break the chains of sin and death and dysfunction and despair that bind us, so that we and all creation might participate fully in the abundant life God wants for us and created us to experience.  If we celebrate Jesus’ birth while ignoring what he came to Earth to do, all that is left is sentimental fluff.  And sentimental fluff is nice, but it’s not a strong enough foundation to build our lives on.

Paul was an apostle of God.  An apostle means one who is sent.  Paul was sent to share the good news, and so are we.  And that doesn’t just mean share it with people who haven’t heard it or who have heard it but don’t care.  Paul, in this letter to the Romans, was sharing the Good News with people who already knew it.  No matter how many times we’ve heard the good news of Jesus Christ, we all need to be reminded of it sometimes, or to hear a new and refreshing perspective on it.  The message of Jesus isn’t just something to hear once, memorize, and then ignore; the message of Jesus is something we should be constantly thinking about, remembering, and exploring.

That good news of Jesus Christ that Paul preached, that we still share with one another today, it didn’t come out of nowhere.  God has been at work in the world since God created the world, working to bring life and healing to a world broken by sin and death.  God has been promising that God will save, that God will redeem, that God will set free, from the very beginning.  God has been shining a light in the darkest places in the world, and in the darkest places in the human heart, since sin and death first entered the world.  Some of those promises are recorded in the words of the Hebrew Scriptures, which we call the Old Testament.  No book could ever be long enough to record all the wonderful things God has done, but the Bible contains the stories of how God was at work in the lives of our ancestors in the faith, even thousands of years before Jesus’ birth.

Jesus’ birth didn’t come out of nowhere.  The message Jesus came to preach is consistent with the messages God had been giving God’s people since the very beginning.  Although Jews and Christians have come to interpret the Hebrew Scriptures very differently, Jesus and Paul and the rest of the apostles and the entire early Christian Church constantly and consistently looked to the Hebrew Scriptures for guidance and support.  In fact, any time in the New Testament where someone talks about scripture, they’re talking about the Hebrew Scriptures, because the New Testament was in the process of being written and didn’t exist yet as a finished book.  Paul and the rest of the early Christians looked back at Scripture and saw all the ways in which Jesus’ birth, life, ministry, teachings, miracles, death, and resurrection, fit within the story the Scriptures were telling.  Among other things, Jesus had been raised and adopted by a man of the house of David, the lineage the Messiah was going to come from.  You sometimes hear Joseph described as Jesus’ stepfather, because of course we know that Jesus was God’s Son.  But the thing is, Joseph claimed Jesus and named him and raised him as his own, and in the ancient world that was at least as important as a modern adoption.  Joseph wasn’t “just” anything.  Joseph was Jesus’ dad, and in that way Jesus became part of the great covenant with David and David’s heirs.

But the covenant was only the beginning.  Jesus came to bring life, and to bring it abundantly.  Through his teachings, through his healings, through his miracles, and most especially through his death and resurrection, Jesus proclaimed the coming kingdom of God.  Jesus called all things and all people to himself, and through our baptisms we are tied to that death and resurrection.  The renewal of the world is coming.  The re-birth and re-creation of all the cosmos and all people in it, is coming.  Abundant life free from sin and death is coming.  And it is coming through Jesus Christ, our Lord.

And while we wait for that great and glorious day, we are called to belong to Jesus Christ, and to put that allegiance higher than any other.  We are called to be faithful, to be obedient to God’s will, and are sent out to share that good news with one another and with all the world.  To all God’s beloved in Rome and Chinook and Naselle and across the world, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Amen.

The Frog and the Crab

First Sunday of Advent, Year A, December 1, 2019

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

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.

I read an article about Russian online trolls and how they work to interfere in and steer US public opinion and make things more dysfunctional—and thus easier to manipulate.  The interesting thing was, how little the trolls look like what most people (including me) expect them to look.  On the surface, they look ordinary.  They’re designed to make people think they are interesting and have important things to say.  They don’t generally spread lies, or at least, not big ones.  They take the cares and concerns and legitimate issues facing each target demographic, and then they spin like crazy.

Their goal is to make their followers disgusted with the world and with other demographics.  They don’t want to make people angry; angry people take action.  They want people to roll their eyes at people who aren’t like them.  They want people to assume that anyone outside their own group is stupid and selfish.  They want liberals to think all conservatives are bigots, and they want conservatives to think all liberals are hypocritical elitists.  They want centrists to think people left or right of them are fringe nutcases, and they want people on the left and right to think that centrists are panderers with no principles.  They want Black people to think all White people are actively and consciously racist, and they want White people to think that any Black people who point out racial injustice are exaggerating or just like to be victims.  They want young people to think all old people are irrelevant and incapable of understanding the modern world, and they want old people to think all young people are selfish egotists who don’t understand how the world actually works.  They want urban and suburban people to think rural people are ignorant hicks, and they want rural people to think urban and suburban people are snobbish elitists.  They want to ensure that the last thing anybody ever thinks, when faced with someone different than they are, is “maybe we can find common ground or any kind of understanding.”

No.  Trolls want us to be isolated into every little clique, and they also want us to be apathetic.  They want us to look at the world around us and say, “well, yeah, things suck, but there’s no point in trying to fix anything because nothing’s ever going to get better, and so we might as well just sit here sniping at one another and patting ourselves on the back for being right.”  They want us to accept dysfunction and cruelty and indifference and greed and violence as normal.  Something to complain about on social media, but not something anything can do anything about.

And as I was reading this article, it reminded me of two things: first, some analogies I recently learned for how dysfunctional societies work, and second, this week’s Scripture theme of keeping awake.  The analogies are the frog in the pot, and the crab bucket.

If you put one crab in a bucket, it will climb out.  If you put several crabs in a bucket, then each time one of them tries to climb out, the others will pull it down and then none of them will escape.  Each of them are individually capable of escaping, and certainly if they worked together they could all escape, but instead they actively work to bring each other down.  You find crab buckets in online communities and offline face-to-face communities.  You find them in major organizations and in small groups.  Russian trolls encourage such crab-bucket groups, but they also form just fine without any Russian help at all.  And they are toxic.  Crab buckets prevent healing, they prevent growth, they prevent love, they prevent every good thing.  And they are the absolute opposite of God’s kingdom.

Our reading from Isaiah talks about God’s coming kingdom.  And the thing this passage emphasizes is how people will come together.  All different types of people, every nation and tribe, will come together in peace and harmony.  We will all learn the ways of the Lord; we will all learn to do things that nurture and help things grow.  We will turn all the weapons we use to hurt people into things to help nurture growth.  And obviously that’s talking about physical weapons, but the thing is, it’s also talking about spiritual weapons, all the words and attitudes and social tactics and attitudes we use to hurt and demean one another will be changed into ways to heal and respect one another.  Instead of being a bucket full of crabs trying to tear each other down, we will be actively using our God-given gifts to help build one another up.

And while we can’t make God’s kingdom come any faster than it will, and we can’t know when it will come, if we’re alert we can look around and see the places where we can make this world a little more like God’s kingdom to come, even if only small ways.  We can look for ways to help and heal, instead of hurt; we can look for ways to connect, instead of drive people apart.  Very few people end up in metaphorical crab buckets because they actively want to be in that kind of environment, just like few people end up following and sharing the posts of Russian trolls on purpose.  But it’s so easy to slip into.  It’s easier to judge people than to understand them, especially when they’re people we don’t know.  It’s easier to argue about whose fault things are than it is to fix them.  And once you get into the habit of focusing on the negative, it’s really hard to stop.

That’s why we have to pay attention.  We have to pay attention to God, who is working for the salvation of the world, and who will come with a judgment far more just—and far more merciful—than any judgment we could make.  And we have to pay attention to the things we are doing and saying.  Do our words and actions show Christ’s redeeming love to the world?  Do we give witness to the kingdom which is to come?  And no, we aren’t perfect and we mess up and we fail, and sometimes we find ourselves creating crab buckets, and we cling to Jesus’ promise of forgiveness when that happens.  But the thing is, the fact that Jesus forgives us doesn’t mean we can just shrug and give up.  Even when we can’t make things better—even when we can’t heal the broken and terrible places in ourselves and in the world—we at least need to acknowledge the reality of that brokenness.  Once you’re in a crab bucket, you may not be able to climb out.  But at least you can be aware that it’s not a good place to be, and that God desires a better life for you and everyone else in that crab bucket, and that the day will come when Christ will come to destroy the crab bucket and put something better in its place.

Here we come to the second metaphor, of the frog in boiling water.  See, if you put a frog in boiling water, it will jump out again.  But if you put it in cold water and turn the heat up slowly, it won’t notice that things are getting hot and will stay there until it’s boiled to death.  It thinks things are normal until it’s boiled to death.  Just the same way, it’s so easy for us to look out at the world and think that the way things are is normal.  That all the terrible things that people do to one another are just the way things are, and hey, it could be worse.  And that’s just not true.  God did not create the world to be this way.  God did not create human beings to treat one another like this.  God’s desire is that all God’s children might have life, and have it abundantly.  God’s desire is that all God’s children should have lives overflowing with love and every good thing.  And God was born in human flesh in order to make that happen.  God came to earth in the form of Jesus to show us that way, to call us to God, to wake us up so that we can see both the problems in the world and in ourselves, and so that we can see what God is doing to make things better.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem, lived, taught, died, and rose from the grave, and he is coming back some day.  And when he comes back, all the seeds that he planted will burst into flower.  All the wounds we create in ourselves and in one another will be healed.  The dead will be raised, and all the living and the dead will be judged, and all people will flock to God, and the world will be made new.  And our job, as we wait for that to happen, is to keep awake.  To keep alert.  To see the crab buckets and the trolls for what they are: dangers to be dealt with.  Our job is to notice when things are bad, when the water is heating up around us.  And if we can do something, if we can put God’s love into action, we should; but even when there is nothing we can do to change things, we can at least bear witness to the fact that a better world is possible, and Christ Jesus is bringing it.

Amen.

 

Advent 4C, 2018, December 23, 2018

Micah 5:2-5a, Luke 1:46-55, Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-45

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.

There is a Christmas song that is very popular these days.  I’m sure that you’ve all heard it, and enjoyed it, because it is beautiful and, (unlike most modern Christmas songs) actually talks about Christ and what he means.

Mary, did you know

that your Baby Boy would one day walk on water?

Mary, did you know

that your Baby Boy would save our sons and daughters?

Did you know

that your Baby Boy has come to make you new?

This Child that you delivered will soon deliver you?

If you’ve ever heard this song and wondered if Mary knew, well, the Gospel of Luke is quite clear.  She did.  The angel spelled out for her who and what her infant son was going to be, and then she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth who was filled with the Holy Spirit and confirmed that the baby was going to be special, and Mary responded with the Magnificat, the Song of Praise, which we used as a psalm today.  And then even after Jesus was born, when they took him to the temple, two separate people, Anna and Simeon, prophesied about the baby Jesus and what he was going to grow up to do.  So, yes, Mary knew.  She might not have had everything spelled out with each individual miracle listed, but she knew the general gist of what Jesus was going to come to do.  She knew that Jesus was going to continue God’s saving actions.  She knew he was going to scatter the proud, the greedy rich who let others starve, the powerful who gained power by oppressing others, while at the same time lifting up the lowly, the downtrodden, the hungry, caring for them and making sure they had what they needed to live abundant lives.  She might not have known specifically that he was going to walk on water, but she knew that he was going to save the world by turning it upside down and doing incredible things.

But a lot of the time, simply knowing isn’t enough.  We may know the right thing to do, but that doesn’t mean we’ll do it.  We may know that something hard and difficult is going to be worth it in the end, but that doesn’t mean we’re happy about the hard and difficult bits.  How often do we put off or try to avoid something because, much as we might desire the end result, we really do NOT want to have to go through the process of getting there?  Mary knew who Jesus was going to be and what he was going to do, because the angel told her; but that doesn’t mean she was happy about it or looking forward to it.  I don’t know how she felt about it, but I imagine she was in a lot of shock.  And also, she was probably worried, considering that she wasn’t married and having a child out of wedlock was a huge deal that would change her life and probably make it measurably worse.  And, sure, she probably trusted that God would take care of her and provide what she needed to do the task he had given her … but that doesn’t mean she was happy about it, or looking forward to it.  Knowing isn’t enough.  Most of the time, we need something further to help put knowledge into action.

For Mary, that something was a visit to her cousin Elizabeth.  When the Angel told Mary what was going to happen, she accepted it, but that’s all.  The angel gave its message, Mary said okay, the angel left.  Then she went off to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who was also expecting a child under unusual circumstances.  Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah were both elderly, and they’d been unable to have children.  Now, past the age of childbearing, they had given up hope.  But an angel had come to Zechariah and told them that they would have a child, who would grow up to become a prophet—you know him as John the Baptist.  That’s who Elizabeth was pregnant with when Mary came to visit.

Elizabeth’s baby jumped for joy in her womb, and Elizabeth was blessed with knowledge of who Mary was going to be, and who her child was going to become.  And Elizabeth was thrilled.  She affirmed what the angel had said, and blessed Mary.  And here is where we get Mary’s reaction, her song of praise, in response to the news the angel brought.  Here.  Not while the angel was there, not when she received her call to become the mother of God.  Here, with her cousin.  Who had just finished showering her with love and support.

Human beings aren’t created to be alone.  God did not make us to be solitary creatures.  That’s one of the first things we learn about humans in the Bible … God creates the first human, calls it very good, and then says, “but it is not good for the human to be alone.”  And then God creates the second human being.  Because humans need companionship, and support, and love.  And we get that from God, but we also need it from our fellow human beings.

God was asking Mary to do a hard thing, by asking her to bear and raise Jesus Christ, God-become-flesh.  Partly, that was hard because pregnancy, birth, and child-rearing are hard.  But a lot of it was that people would gossip about her, and shame her, and treat her badly for bearing a child out of wedlock.  It doesn’t matter how much she told them the child was God’s Son and God’s will, they would not have believed her.  If someone told you that God was the father of their baby, would you believe them?  Probably not.  So Mary would be ostracized and alienated from her community because of this thing God was asking her to do.

But God provided her with people to support her, even so.  By giving a child to her cousin Elizabeth, and then giving Elizabeth enough insight to realize what was really going on, God ensured that Mary would not be alone.  No matter what anyone else said, she would have someone in her court, someone who would give her love and support and understanding, which are things all human beings need.  And it is at that point, when Mary knows that despite what society is going to think about her, she is going to have at least one person loving her and not judging her, that‘s when the knowledge of what was going to happen overflowed into praise.  That’s when she began to sing.

None of us are Mary or Elizabeth.  None of us are going to have mystical pregnancies that catapult us into the center of God’s work in the world and redirect our lives with one fell swoop.  But we all have callings from God; we all have a place in God’s work in the world, both individuals and as a community of faith.  Our callings may be smaller than Mary’s call, but they are still important, and still part of God’s work.  Knowing what God is calling us to do is the first step, and without an angelic messenger it usually involves a lot of prayer and study and contemplation.  But the second step is not one we can do alone.  It’s not private.  It’s about coming together as a community to support and encourage one another.  As Elizabeth encouraged Mary, so we too are called to encourage one another, to name God’s gifts when we see them and bless one another.  And that’s especially important when, as in the case of Mary, God calls us to do things that don’t necessarily fit in well with the larger society.  And sometimes what God is calling us to do isn’t necessarily to do the work ourselves, but to support those who do it.  To be there for the people who need us.  To be the arms of God wrapped in love around those who would otherwise be alone or neglected.  May we answer God’s call with joy; may we always have the love and support God desires for us; and may we always share that love and support with those who need it.

Amen

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

Preparing the Way

Advent 2C, 2018, December 19, 2018

Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 1:68-69, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6

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.

 

 

My Mom’s family is really outdoorsy, so when I was younger, the big yearly family event was a three-day backpacking trip into the woods on Labor Day weekend.  We’d all gather at the trailhead, strap on our packs, and go.  And by “all” I mean Granddad Huck, all the aunts and uncles, and all my cousins.  Down to babies in arms—one year, my aunt and uncle came along with their six month old baby, which added some unique challenges.  Everyone meant everyone … except Grandma Kitty, whose health was just not up to scrambling up and down narrow, twisty, up-and-down trails with several days worth of supplies on her back.  The rough terrain was too much of a barrier to her.  She stayed behind, at home by herself, while her husband and kids and grandkids went off together.  And it never occurred to me, at the time, to wonder how she felt about being left behind like that.  How she felt about not being able to do what everyone she loved was doing.  And it never occurred to me to ask if maybe we should change our traditional family event to something she could participate in.  When your brain and body are able to do pretty much anything you want to do, you don’t think very much about the people who have it harder.  Whose bodies and brains just don’t always work.  Who need help or accommodations to do things.  You just don’t tend to notice the barriers that keep some people out.

Now that I’m older, I notice these things more.  The more I learn about my autism, the more I realize I just can’t do some of the things other people do, or I can’t do them in the same way, or I can do them but it takes a lot more out of me than it does most people.  And I have friends with physical disabilities, chronic illness, and mental health challenges.  There are so many things I take for granted that they can’t do, and sometimes things they take for granted that I can’t do.  And our world is built for people who are able-bodied, people whose brains work on a normal model.  Even though we have the Americans with Disabilities Act, to require businesses and organizations to take the needs of disabled people into account, all too often people with disabilities are left out in the cold, on the outside looking in.  And most people don’t even notice.  And when we do notice, as a society, there are a lot of people who think things are fine the way they are.  That it’s unreasonable to expect people to do things differently so that all are welcome.

In our Gospel lesson, John the Baptist talks about the coming of the Lord.  And he quotes from the prophet Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”  Now, when the prophet Isaiah spoke those words, the Jewish people were captives in Babylon.  They had been enslaved and carried off and now lived almost a thousand miles from their homeland.  They dreamed of the day when they could return to Judea, but the road home was long, and treacherous, crossing deserts and mountains and wilderness.  It was an arduous journey in the days before modern highways and cars, one that only the young and healthy could successfully complete.  Isaiah’s words told them two things: first, that God would free them from their captivity and bring them home, and second, that God would make the journey as easy as possible, one with broad, flat roads that went straight to their destination.  A road that would be easy to travel, with as few barriers as possible.  No force on Earth in those days could have made a level, straight, flat road from Babylon to Jerusalem.  But God could.

For Isaiah, that’s what redemption looked like: a road home that anyone could travel easily.  No matter how infirm you were, no matter what you struggled with, God could and would redeem you out of the hand of the enemy and bring you safely home.  And when John the Baptist thought about what God’s kingdom coming would look like, when John the Baptist thought about God reaching into the world to redeem it, that’s what it looked like: God reaching into the world to make a path that anyone could travel.  All barriers removed.  All living things welcome.

And I wonder what barriers we face?  What are the things in our lives, in our communities, and in our world that prevent us from seeing and responding to God?  Even worse, what are the barriers we put up that prevent others from seeing and responding to God’s salvation?  Sometimes the barriers are easy to see: like churches that have steps but no elevators, so that only people who can climb stairs can attend.  But sometimes we don’t even notice the barriers.  For example, there are about 1 million deaf people in the US.  Almost none of them go to church, because churches with sign language interpreters or closed captioning are vanishingly rare, and even in churches like ours where everything is printed in the bulletin, the sermon generally isn’t.  And what about disabilities that are less visible?  Things that affect the brain, or behavior, or make people just a little bit different than what we think of as “normal”?  Our society—including all too many churches—are quick to judge.  I know a woman with a disabled child who stopped going to church because too many people disapproval of how her child behaved.  “I know Jesus loves me and my son,” she said, “but our church sure didn’t.”

Then there’s all the other barriers we put up.  Barriers based on race, on class, gender, sexuality, politics.  People like creating barriers.  We like dividing the world up into “us” and “them.”  And of course people like “us” are good, and people who are not like us can’t be trusted.  I think that’s what sin looks like, a lot of the time.  All people, every single human being who ever lived, was created by God in God’s own image.  Every single human being is beloved by God.  And Christ died to save every single human being who’s ever lived.  Yes, even the bad ones.  Yes, even the ones who reject him.  Our response doesn’t change the fact that God reached out to us, first, and continues to reach out, continues to act for the redemption and salvation of all the world.  No matter how many obstacles we create, as individuals and as a society, God is always at work to make the rough places level and the crooked straight.

We live in a world with a lot of barriers.  Physical barriers, like the ones I’ve been talking about, that keep disabled people from participating; but also barriers of prejudice, or ignorance, or just plain not caring about those who are different from us.  And sometimes we notice those barriers, but a lot of time we take them for granted.  We assume that, like the mountains and deserts and wilderness that separated the ancient captives from their homeland, they are simply facts of life that can’t be changed, only accepted.  But that’s not the way God created the world to work.  God created the world so that all people might have abundant life, so that all people might love one another and build communities together, communities in which no one is forgotten or left behind or excluded.  Communities in which all people might live in the light of God.  That’s the way God created us to be, and it is sin that has broken us apart and put barriers between us.  But you know what?  The Lord is coming.  Christ Jesus, who was born in a manger two thousand years ago, is coming again.  The Messiah, God-with-us, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Prince of Peace.  He is coming.  And we’ve put up so many obstacles, between ourselves and between us and God.  So it’s time to get ready.   “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Amen

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.

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.

Repent!

Second Sunday of Advent, December 4th, 2016

Isaiah 11:1-10, 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12

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.

It is interesting to note that only two of the Gospels—Matthew and Luke—describe Jesus’ birth at all.  That’s right, the event that is so important to modern Christians, that we celebrate with so much attention and fervor—was not even considered important enough to be mentioned in half the Gospels.  On the other hand, John the Baptist’s message of repentance is in all four.  It always makes me wonder.  Why?  What makes John the Baptist so important?  And why is Jesus’ birth so relatively unimportant?

I think it comes down to meaning.  Without Jesus being born as fully God and fully Human, he could never have died to save us from our sins.  But while it’s wonderful to celebrate the birth of a baby, just the fact that the baby is born doesn’t tell you much about what that baby is going to become, what they’re going to do with their life.  The mere fact that Jesus was born doesn’t tell us what his birth means.  And it certainly doesn’t tell us what his life and death mean!  But John the Baptist does.  John gives context.  John the Baptizer, that crazy guy out in the wilderness, is the guy telling people what’s coming.  The Baptist sets up Jesus’ ministry by shaking people out of their comfortable certainties and preparing them to receive Jesus and his message.

“Repent,” John told people, “for the kingdom of heaven is near!”  Now, when people hear the word “repent,” a lot of people dismiss it out of hand.  Some people because it’s an old-fashioned word, but mostly because people don’t think it really applies to them.  We look at our lives and go, “well, I’m not that big a sinner, I’m a good person, so I don’t need to repent.”  But while repentance can certainly mean being sorry for our sins, that’s not the only thing it means.  The Hebrew word that we translate as “repent,” for example, literally means “to turn around,” to reorient yourself towards God instead of all the things that draw you away from God.  And the Greek word used in the New Testament literally means “change your heart or mind.”  It’s not primarily about feeling sorry for your sins, it’s about seeing the world through God’s perspective.  It’s about being re-formed in God’s image, and according to God’s priorities.  When you do that, you will change your ways, but our individual sinning is only part of what changes.  Repentance is not just something that sinners need to do; this is something that all of us need to do, every single one of us, not just once, but always.  This world we live in is always trying to shape our priorities and our perspectives.  And those priorities and perspectives may not be particularly bad, in and of themselves, but they’re not God’s priorities and perspectives.  The problem is when we let them blind us to God’s priorities and perspectives.

Like the Pharisees did.  We Christians tend to think the Pharisees must have been horrible people because Jesus was always clashing with them, but the reality is that they were good, God-fearing people who worshiped every Sabbath, gave generously to their houses of worship and to charity, taught people about the Bible, and were good solid middle-class family people.  In the entire Bible, there is no group of people as much like modern Christians as the Pharisees were.  The problem was not that the Pharisees were bad people, because they weren’t.  And the problem wasn’t that they didn’t try to be faithful—they did try.  (If they hadn’t spent so much time trying to be faithful, Jesus would have had fewer problems with him because they wouldn’t have cared so much.)  No, the problem was that they thought they didn’t need to repent.  They assumed that because they were good, God-fearing people, because they were leaders in their congregations and communities, that God must agree with them.  They assumed that because they read the Scripture, their hearts and minds were already formed around God’s Word, and so they didn’t need to change.  They assumed that because they were children of Abraham, they were naturally in the right.  “We are God’s people, therefore we already know what God wants—the same things we do.”  They thought they already had the right answers and did the right things, and so they didn’t need to repent.

And that’s why, when Jesus showed up, they gave him such a hard time.  Because for all that they agreed with him on most things, where there was a difference they never even asked themselves if he might have a point: if he disagreed with them, he was wrong.  Period.  End of story.  They never asked if there was anything in their perspective, anything in their interpretation of scripture, anything in their lifestyle, that might not line up with what God desired of them.  They assumed they did not need to repent, and so they didn’t.  And so when God Incarnate walked among them, they dismissed him out of hand, because he didn’t look like what they expected him to look like.

You can see why a call to repentance is so central to the beginning of each of the four Gospels.  Because without repentance—without re-orienting ourselves to God, and allowing God to re-form our hearts and minds so that we see from his perspective—it doesn’t matter whether we tell the story of God becoming flesh and living among us.  Without repentance, it’s just another story to be slotted in to our lives to confirm that we’re good people who already know what God wants because he wants the same thing we do because we’re good people who go to church.  The crucial measure of faithfulness isn’t worship attendance, or good deeds, or Bible study; those can all help deepen our faith, but they’re not the center of what it means to be faithful to God.  To be faithful, we have to repent.  We have to let God open our hearts and minds, take them out, shake them up, and turn them around so that they’re focused on God’s priorities and not the world’s priorities.  Only then do all our pious deeds have any meaning beyond ego-stroking.  When paired with repentance, reading the Bible and worshiping and doing good deeds become far, far more meaningful.

This is how John the Baptist prepares for the coming of Christ: by reminding us that repentance is necessary, because the world’s priorities—our priorities—are not God’s priorities.  Our eyes are not God’s eyes, and our understanding is not God’s understanding.  John was the voice in the wilderness telling us to prepare the way in the wilderness, to make a straight road for God.  That’s a quote from Isaiah 40, by the way, which talks about valleys being lifted up and mountains and hills levelled and the grass withering and the nations being worth nothing.  In other words, we’re not just talking about small changes here, little adjustments.  We’re talking about the very foundation of our lives—the ground beneath our feet and the powers of the world we respect—being completely and utterly reshaped by God.  To prepare for Christ, we have to repent.  We have to get ready for the fact that God’s coming means that the entire world is going to be re-shaped.  And the more tightly we cling to our own priorities and prejudices and ideas about how the world works, the more painful it is going to be.

Human beings don’t like change, on a fundamental level. Things have to be pretty bad before we want something new, and even then, the “new thing” that we want is often just an old thing in a shinier package.  We look with nostalgia and rosy-tinted glasses at the past, and think that if we could just make things like they used to be, then everything would be great.  This is especially seductive for Christians, because we can look back on a time when our religion dominated the country and the laws were weighted in our favor, and everyone went to church even if they didn’t really believe because it was just what everyone did on Sunday morning.  The problem is, when God does something “new” it isn’t just an old thing in a shiny package, it is genuinely new, different.  Jesus didn’t come to kick the Romans out, and he didn’t come to turn back the clock to the 1950s, and he isn’t coming back to keep the world as it is except for the parts we find inconvenient.  Jesus comes to break down the gates and set people free and raise up the valleys and mow down the mountains and rearrange the world according to God’s vision, not ours.  If we’re going to be faithful to Jesus, we can’t just read the Bible to hear what we want to hear.  We can’t just assume we’re always right, or that God always agrees with us, because like the Pharisees, we may occasionally find that we are wrong.  To be faithful, we have to repent.  We have to turn towards God; we have to open our hearts and minds and let God change us into the people he created us to be.  And that’s not easy; in fact, it can be very scary.  But

Amen.

Don’t Panic!

Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B, December 21, 2014

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16, Romans 16:25-27, Luke 1:26-28, 46b-55

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.

On the cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the words DON’T PANIC are inscribed in large friendly letters. I have often thought that if the angels in the Bible were turned into books, they, too, would have “DON’T PANIC” written on their covers. It is, after all, the first thing most of them say when they greet someone. Gabriel was no exception to this trend. He greeted Mary, and said, “Do not be afraid!” Or, in the slightly more poetic words of the King James Version, “Fear not!” But “Don’t Panic!” is actually also not a bad translation.

Which begs the question, why do angels have to go around telling people this, right off the bat? Part of the reason, I think, is that angels are awesome beings in the old meaning of the term: awe-inspiring and terrible and the sort of thing that makes a person realize just how small they are in the grand scheme of things, and how great the angel is. But the other part of the reason, is that anybody who’s read their Bibles and paid much attention to God’s work around them should be afraid whenever God’s messenger shows up with a mission for them. At the very least, we should be nervous. Because think about it: if God wants us to do something we already want to do or are interested in doing, he wouldn’t need to send an angel or a dream or anything like that. We’d already be doing it! And if it’s something mildly inconvenient, a nudge in the right direction can usually get us pointed in the right direction. We only need angels when we God wants something we would never in a million years choose to do on our own. Something hard, and messy, something that will upset our neighbors or make us look bad, something that will take us in directions we don’t want to go.

Take Mary, for example. We know, looking back on things, just what an important part of God’s work she was. We can see the whole sweep of history. We can see what God was doing in and through her, how God had chosen her to be his mother, to bear the Christ child in her womb and bring him into the world, to raise him and care for him until he was old enough to start his ministry, and set himself on the path to be killed so that the world might live. We know, looking back, that God’s salvation is going to come through her in a very literal way. And we know that she will be honored and admired for two thousand years for her faith and her willingness to follow God’s commands.

And all that can blind us to what she was being asked to do. She was being asked to bear a child out of wedlock. And you all know what life in a small town is like. Even if she told people her baby was God’s child, who would have believed her? No, everyone would gossip about what she did. And that gossip wouldn’t just last for a little while and die down. It would last for years. Decades. Even if she later became a respectable wife and mother, you know that people would still talk about her behind her back. Any time her future children did anything wrong people would shrug and say, “well, you know what their mother did.” And that assumes that any man would have been willing to marry her, a known adultress.

That’s the other thing. Mary was engaged, which in those days was a far more solemn and meaningful thing than it is today. The word ‘betrothed’ captures it much better. There was a legal contract between her and Joseph, and to break that contract—that agreement to marry—they would have needed a divorce. Once she and Joseph became betrothed, for either of them to have sex with someone else was considered adultery. Joseph could have divorced her for it, and then she would have been on her own, trying to support and raise a child by herself in a world that was a lot harder on women than our world today is. Not only that, but if Joseph wanted, he could have charged her with a crime: adultery was punishable by stoning. That is, adulterers who were caught were taken to the center of town and people threw rocks at them until they were killed. Now, Joseph was a nice guy, and Mary had to know that he wouldn’t do it—the Gospel of Matthew tells us that he had already decided to divorce her quietly instead of having her stoned, before God told him what to do—but Joseph could have. He would have been well within his rights.

All this pain and heartache, all this trouble and danger, and for what? A special baby. But how special? Sure, we know that salvation for the world would come through that baby; we know that he would be God made flesh. But did Mary? When the angel told her, “hey, this is really important!” could she have imagined just how important it was going to be? I don’t think so. Nobody at the time understood just what Jesus meant; you can see them, all through the Gospels and the Epistles, figuring things out and missing the point half the time before finally getting it right. Think about the disciples—Jesus told them all about his mission, about why he was doing what he was doing, and he told them about his own death and resurrection, but it wasn’t until after his resurrection that they were able to look back at everything he’d told them and go, “Oh, I get it!” And Mary had even less to go on than the disciples did. A few lines from an angel, that’s all, telling her that God is going to use her to do something big and important that will cost her dearly. How could she possibly have understood it all?

So God was going to do something big through her, that’s great. But the consequences were dire. I mean, if I were her, I would have been saying, “No offense God, I’m really honored that you’ve chosen me to do this, but the timing isn’t very good. How about we put it off a year until after the wedding?” How often does God call us to do something, and we say, “Gee, God, the timing isn’t right—it can’t possibly work that way—how about we do something different instead?” Because Mary isn’t the only person who’s ever gotten a tough job from God. A job they didn’t want. Mary questioned it, but in the end she agreed to do it. She would take the consequences; she would do something the world just wouldn’t understand. Something even she doesn’t really understand. But she trusts God to know what he’s doing. She wants the salvation the angel promises. She wants God’s kingdom to come. So she takes the leap of faith even knowing that it’s going to be hard.

When the angel comes to her Mary starts off confused and afraid: first, what God’s talking about seems impossible. After all, babies don’t spontaneously happen. The angel responds by saying God will take care of the details; God’s power will do what God has said. Okay, fine. She accepts that. I think that may be the most surprising thing of all, because even devout Christians doubt God’s power. They feel God calling them to do something, but instead they listen to the little voice in the back of their head that says “well, that would take a miracle—I just don’t think it’s possible,” and so they don’t do anything. Mary had that voice, that doubt, but she didn’t let it drown out her faith.

Then the angel, who has given her this huge mission that’s going to be pretty rough on her, tells her about Elizabeth, her cousin. Elizabeth, who was also going through an unexpected God-given pregnancy. Elizabeth, who could support Mary and give her love and help that the rest of the community wouldn’t. Mary had a special role, Mary had a hard road ahead of her, but she didn’t have to walk it alone. God gave her helpers along the way. Her cousin Elizabeth, her husband Joseph—both got instructions to help Mary, and both would heed that call from God. They would stand by her even when the rest of the world didn’t. God rarely gives us solitary missions. When God calls us to action, when God gives us a task to do, God often provides helpers, confidants, support systems. They may not be the ones we’d choose on our own, but they’re there.

And that’s when Mary says yes. She’s been given her mission, assured that it’s really important and that God will do the heavy lifting, and that she won’t be alone. She may be ostracized in the community but she’ll still have someone with her who believes her and cares for her. And that’s when Mary says yes. Her doubts and fears may still be there—she still doesn’t understand why this is necessary and what it’s going to mean for the world—but she trusts that God will take care of the details. And you know what? He did!

Like Mary, we, too, are called by God, as individuals and as groups. We are given tasks, missions, things to do—it’s part of being a disciple. Sometimes those tasks are small—giving a hug when someone needs it, for example. Sometimes they’re pretty big. Sometimes, we do them without realizing we’re doing God’s work, and sometimes God has to nudge or poke us to get us moving. Sometimes, when it’s really big and really hard, people get angels like Mary did. (And sometimes we don’t recognize those angels for what they really are.) But we are all called by God to be his hands and feet in the world. When you realize God is calling you, take a page from Mary’s book. First, don’t panic. Don’t be afraid. It may be hard, but God will not let you do it alone, and God will help. Second, it’s okay to have doubts and questions. It’s okay to wonder how in the world it’s ever going to happen. Mary did, after all. Third, look for the people God has given you to help support you. Then take a deep breath, and say yes.

Amen.

The Holy Spirit and the Kingdom

Third Sunday of Advent, Year B, December 14, 2014

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, Psalm 126, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, John 1:6-8, 19-28

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.

John the Baptist was one of the rock stars of his day. People came from all over to see him, to hear him talk, to watch him do his thing and to be baptized by him. If anybody had an excuse to be arrogant, to be confident of his own abilities, it was John. Yet when the chief priests in Jerusalem sent people to ask him about himself, John was quite clear: he wasn’t the Messiah, nor any great leader in his own right. John the Baptist’s job was to point to Jesus, to get people ready for him. That was his mission, and he never strayed from it. When others might have gotten a swelled head, John did not. He kept pointing to Jesus, even when it would have been easier not to. His job was to see God and point him out. Now, for John, this was easy; Jesus was his cousin, right there physically near him. It’s a little harder for us, two thousand years later, because Jesus isn’t physically present with us. So how do we point to Jesus?

The prophet Isaiah writes: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners … to comfort all who mourn.” Now, if this sounds familiar to you, it should. This, after all, is the passage Jesus quotes in the Gospel of Luke at the beginning of his ministry, saying “today this has been fulfilled in your sight.” And Mary’s song when she heard she was going to bear the messiah was very similar: the lowly are lifted up, the hungry are filled with good things. And most of the depictions of the kingdom of God in the Bible contain these same elements: the oppressed are set free, those who mourn are comforted, the hungry are fed, true justice is given to those who have been abused and who have suffered. If you recall, about a month ago we had the parable of the sheep and the goats, and the sheep—the ones who were welcomed into heaven—were the ones who had fed the hungry, nursed the sick, clothed the naked, comforted the mourners, visited the prisoners, and in general acted to bring good news to the oppressed, just as Isaiah says here.

It’s a common thread, all through the Bible: the will of God is that all people should be free from the chains that bind them, whether chains of sinfulness or chains of oppression. The will of God is that no one should have to face grief or sorrow alone. The will of God is that all people should have enough to eat and shelter to live in and clothes to wear. The will of God is that all the brokenness in our lives and in the world—whether injury or illness or accident or evil—should be made whole. The will of God is that no one should suffer. And, in God’s kingdom, nobody will suffer. So when God comes into our world—when God moves among us, whether in the person of Jesus Christ or in the Holy Spirit—that’s what God is working towards. Passages like this one from Isaiah are common in the Bible because that’s what happens when God shows up.

As I look around the world this December, I see so many places where people are broken-hearted, where people are held captive by injustice and fear and hate, where people hunger and thirst and lack basic necessities, where cruelty reigns and love is nowhere to be seen. In Mexico, for example, many thousands of families mourn for loved ones who have been kidnapped by drug cartels with the collusion of local authorities. In Central America, too, gangs have killed thousands of people. But even in the midst of the violence, ordinary people work to protect their families and bring justice for those who have been killed. I think the Holy Spirit is working with them, in them, and through them. In China, pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong face police armed with tear gas. In North Korea, the leaders posture and spend huge amounts of money on weapons while their people go hungry. And yet, despite the worst their governments can do, people still continue to work for peace and freedom. I think the Holy Spirit is there.

In the Middle East, extremists and terrorists oppress their own people and build power bases to attack the rest of the world. Any who speak out against them live in danger of their own lives. Girls who want to go to school, women who want to drive or vote or go to the market, boys who don’t want to fight, ordinary people of all ages and genders who want to live in peace, all are in danger. In the midst of it all, people like Malala refuse to be cowed. Palestinians are turned out of their homes and sent to refugee camps, Israelis fear terrorist attacks. Yet there are people on all sides working for peace and reconciliation. I think the Holy Spirit is there.

People in the Central African Republic try to rebuild their homes and their lives after the civil war, while many of the leaders who ordered and committed war crimes continue to brutalize their enemies. People in Liberia and Sierra Leone continue to suffer from the devastating disease Ebola, without enough resources for the basic protections that can stop the disease from spreading. In Nigeria, most of the three hundred girls kidnapped by terrorist group Boko Haram earlier this year remain in terrorist homes, forced to marry their kidnappers. But even in the midst of all this, hospitals are built, schools are opened, and people care for one another even at the risk of their own lives. I think the Holy Spirit is there.

In cities across the US, African-American families mourn men killed by police for little or no reason. Protestors take to the streets at injustices, and policemen who try to do their jobs well resent being blamed for the failings of others, and often make things worse out of their own fear and bitterness. Black children in schools face harsher punishments than white children, causing resentment and deep emotional wounds. And yet, even in the midst of fear and anger, people of all races are working together to try and bring justice and healing. I think the Holy Spirit is here.

Here in North Dakota, drug use is on the rise, ruining lives and tearing apart families. Children and teens, particularly girls, are forced into sex slavery and trafficked across the state, not just in the oil fields but even in places like Bismark and Jamestown. Rising costs of food and housing have pushed hard-working families into poverty, yet social assistance programs have been cut back. Domestic violence, abuse, neglect, and rape can be found in all corners of our own communities, and all too often we protect the abusers and blame the victims. And yet, there is a growing group of people working to stop the abusers and help the victims. I think the Holy Spirit is here. I look at all these places and I see so much evil … but I also see God at work.

Sometimes I wish God would come and put all these things right. Where is God when human beings hurt one another? We know that when God’s kingdom comes, there will be justice and mercy for all—so why can’t the kingdom come now, soon? The Spirit moves among us, helping us to see the wrongs in our society, and even in ourselves, and it inspires us to work for God’s peace and justice and healing, but surely it would be better if the problems never happened in the first place? Healing is wonderful, but wouldn’t it be better if nobody needed it in the first place? I thank God for the gifts of the Spirit, but I yearn for the day God’s Kingdom will come. Come, Holy Spirit. Come, Lord Jesus. Break into our world, break into our lives, and make us new. Whenever there is healing, whenever there is light in the darkness, whenever there is comfort for those who mourn, we have a foretaste of the feast to come. The Spirit that inspires such things is a gift from God, to help us until the day the kingdom comes. But there are times that taste seems awfully small, not enough to go around. I want the banquet. I know it will come, one day, but I want it now.

The question is, what do we do while we wait? We know that God’s kingdom is coming. The job of a Christian is to live the kind of life that anticipates the Kingdom. The job of a Christian is to point to the things God is doing in us and among us. The job of a Christian is to open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit’s work in us and in our midst. Healing, hope, justice, growth, love—these are all the things God wants us to have, the things Jesus Christ was born and died to give us, the things the Spirit inspires in us while we wait for Christ to come again.

None of these are easy things. It’s hard to bring justice in the midst of fear and oppression. It’s hard to stand up to the evils of this world. It’s hard to love when there is hate. It’s hard to heal and grow when there is danger. It means getting outside our comfort zone. It means taking risks. It means being willing to stand up to the powers of this world. That’s why we need the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to do it. But when we open ourselves up to the Spirit—when we let God open our eyes to the problems around us, when we let God guide us in truth and love—amazing things become possible. Not because we ourselves are great, but because God can use us to accomplish great things.

Amen.

Waiting for the Baby’s Birth

First Sunday of Advent, Year B, November 30, 2014

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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

If you’ve been coming to church regularly the last month or so, you may have noticed a focus on the Kingdom of God. We’ve had parable after parable about the coming of the Kingdom—about staying awake, and how to prepare, and who is invited. If you were hoping that to change now that we’re in Advent—the season of preparing for Christ’s birth—you’re going to be disappointed. Because preparing for the coming of Christ doesn’t just mean getting the tree and presents ready, and lighting an advent wreath and admiring crèche scenes about the beautiful baby in Bethlehem. Preparing for the coming of Christ also means preparing for his coming in glory at the end of the age. The baby’s birth gets the ball rolling. The king coming again in glory is where it finishes.

And here’s the thing: for all that people—both Christians and people of other faiths—have spent thousands of years trying to predict when the end times come, nobody’s been right yet. We spend all this time and effort trying to figure out how to tell, when in our Gospel lesson Jesus says that even he doesn’t know when it’s going to happen—nobody knows but the Father.

When you think about it, it’s kind of like pregnancy. I mean, when a woman is pregnant, you know that baby is going to come out eventually. And, it will probably be roughly nine months from the time of conception. But exact dates, times? Nope. That baby comes in its own time. The best we can do is guess—and sometimes, our guesses are pretty wrong. My baby brother was due around June 12, 1998. Now, my middle brother and I were both in choirs that were going to be going on tour that summer. My choir was going to England, and Nels’ choir was going to Canada. And both of us were flying out with our choirs on June 22nd.   We might miss our baby brother’s birth, which we both wanted to be there for. There was only about ten days between his due date and the day we were scheduled to leave the country. So you can imagine how nervous we all were. Would we be there? What if the baby was later than we expected? We prayed for him to be early. As the day we hoped he’d be born came and went, we prayed each day that he would be born soon.

By June 20th, two days before Nels and I flew out of the country, we were all on tenterhooks waiting. We were looking for the signs. The baby had rotated head down, just like he was supposed to—that was great! That was a sign he would come soon! But not a definite clue as to when. Was mom getting backaches, which sometimes come just before contractions? Was anything happening? Was the baby ever going to come? And as we were waiting, we had stuff to do. So much stuff! We had to help Mom pack for the hospital—things she and dad and the baby would need, and also snacks and games and stuff to keep Nels and I occupied and out of the way. (Nels, by the way, kept drooling over the snacks—we rarely got chips and cookies and things, and so having a whole basket full them right by the front door for a couple of weeks was torture for him. All that good stuff that he could see but not enjoy, yet.) But, since we also were going on tour, we had to do all our packing for that. We needed to be packed before the baby was born, because what if he came the day we were supposed to leave? We’d be too busy then. So we packed early. While Nels and I were practicing music for the tour and making sure everything was packed, Mom and Dad were doing last-minute preparations, gathering supplies, practicing childbirth techniques, staying in touch with the doctor, and doing all the other things to keep ready. And we waited. And waited. And waited.

That’s kind of like what the life of a Christian is. We’re waiting for a baby to come, and we’ve got a lot to do to prepare for it. There’s the normal everyday stuff that still has to get done. But there’s also the stuff that needs to get ready specifically for the baby. What kinds of things do we need to do to be ready for the coming of Jesus? When a baby’s coming, you prepare the house. For the coming of Christ, shouldn’t we prepare our world? Our hearts? Ask yourselves this question: what do you think needs to be prepared in your life for the coming of Christ?

We spent a lot of time preparing for my baby brother to come. We waited, and waited. And then, just when we were starting to think that it was going to be too late, that Nels and I would have to miss it, Mom went into labor. And off we went to the hospital. It was quite a process: Dad driving and taking care of Mom, Nels and I handling the baggage and trying to help with Mom as much as we could. Then we got to the hospital, and things really got hectic. If you’ve ever had a baby or been present for a birth, you know what I mean. Doctors and nurses in and out, Mom yelling in pain, Dad taking care of her, me trying to keep Nels and I out of the way, blood and other bodily fluids … about as far from the serene and pretty picture that you see on Christmas cards as possible. But, eventually, it was over. The baby was out, cleaned, and nursing. And we were all so happy. Our baby brother Lars was born on June 20th. He was only two days old when he came with Mom and Dad to drop Nels and I off at the Portland Airport. We thought he would be too late—we thought his timing was bad—but it turned out, he was coming in his own time, not ours.

The thing was, we knew what the signs of labor were. I only knew from books and things because I didn’t remember Nels’ birth that clearly. But Mom and Dad, this was their third kid. They’d done this twice before. They knew the signs to look out for. But that didn’t mean they knew when he was coming. And that didn’t mean they couldn’t get fooled by false contractions or other symptoms. “Is this it?” Dad would ask Mom. “Well, maybe,” she would say. Until the labor was well and truly started, we didn’t know whether or not it was going to be just another false alarm.

That’s what the coming of a baby is like, but it’s also a little bit like the coming of the kingdom. Jesus lists signs and symbols of what will happen beforehand. The sun will be darkened, stars falling from heaven, powers shaken … Our reading from Isaiah mentions some more symptoms. Earthquakes, nations trembling. And Jesus says that we should be able to look at the signs and tell when the coming of God’s kingdom is near, just like you can look at a fruit tree budding out and tell that the seasons are changing. But the thing is, as anyone who lives in cold climates knows, the trees beginning to bud out is not necessarily a sure-fire sign that the season has changed—you can still get killer frosts after that point. In the same way, all those other signs Jesus and Isaiah point to—celestial events, natural disasters, political events—people have spent thousands of years looking at those signs and saying “see—this meteor shower means God is coming soon!” or, “That earthquake is a sign of the kingdom!” or, “This political catastrophe means the end of the world is coming!” But each time, the signs they were pointing to weren’t the real thing: they were like Braxton-Hicks contractions, false labor, that got people all excited and yet weren’t the big event. Christ is coming—he came to Bethlehem two thousand years ago, and he’s coming again—but we don’t know when.

The point isn’t to know for certain exactly when it’s going to happen. If you bet on an exact date, you’ll probably be just as wrong as people generally are at predicting the date of a baby’s birth. We can’t know, because even Jesus doesn’t know. The point is to be ready and waiting, to be paying attention and asking the question: is this it? Because, as sure as a baby can’t stay in the womb forever, sooner or later God’s kingdom will come. And if you’re not paying attention, if you’re not looking for it, you may miss the signs—just like pregnant women sometimes dismiss or ignore the signs of labor. My mom did that when my middle brother Nels was born. She assumed it would be a long labor, like she had with me, and so when she felt the first stirring she ignored it. Well, Nels came out a lot faster—and by the time she realized that, well, we almost didn’t make it to the hospital in time. It made his birth a lot more stressful and hard than it would have been if we’d been paying attention.

Then there’s the matter of preparation. Because once labor starts, you don’t have time to pack your bags. The time of getting ready is over and done with. If you’re not ready, well, you’re going to have to go as you are. You won’t have clothes to change into, or a toothbrush, or a camera, or anything else you might need. And that, too, will make the birth a lot more stressful than it needs to be.

We know how to get ready for an ordinary baby, but we’re not always sure how to get ready for the Holy Baby.  I mean, really, we know about Christmas trees and lights and things, but how much attention do we give to preparing our hearts and minds?  Preparing our world?  May we learn to watch and wait for the coming of Christ.

Amen.

What do you hear?

Third Sunday after Advent, (Year A), December 15, 2013

Isaiah 35:1-10, Psalm 146:5-10, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11

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.

Last week, we heard all about John the Baptist at the height of his ministry.  And what a figure he was!  He knew that the Messiah was coming, that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand.  He knew the time had come to prepare the way.  Certain of his mission, John the Baptist preached repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and he was not afraid to call out and challenge people who did not heed his call.  He wasn’t afraid to challenge the powerful, and point out their sins.  That, of course, was why he was put in prison and would later be executed: he offended too many powerful people, particularly the king, Herod Antipas, and his wife Herodias.

Today we hear of John the Baptist near the end of his life, after his ministry is over, not long before he would be executed by the king.  And now, he is not nearly so confident.  Before, he thundered and proclaimed the Word.  Now, humbled by his experiences, he seeks and asks of Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  Are you the Messiah, the one I was sent to prepare the way for?  Are you the fulfilling of our hopes and dreams?  Will I see God’s promises fulfilled before I die?

How many of us have been in John’s shoes?  I know I have.  There have been times in my life when I was so sure of myself, of my calling, of my role in life.  I thought I knew what God wanted and I felt secure in my knowledge.  In seminary, my first internship went bad and I had to resign half-way through the year.  Some of it was my fault, but other parts of it were things beyond my control.  A mid-year evaluation said I was failing in all but two categories.  And then I had six months to wait before I could continue with my training.  Six months to sit and stew over what went wrong.  Six months to pray, and cry, and wrestle with my thoughts and dreams.  Six months to wonder—was God really calling me to ministry?  It had seemed so clear.  Was that just arrogance on my part?  Self-delusion?  What happens next?  I never lost faith in God, but for a while I lost faith in myself, and in my ability to know God’s will.  Have you ever felt like that?  Have you ever felt like you had no idea what God was doing, when it seemed like God was doing something completely the opposite of what you expected?

I have a lot of sympathy for John the Baptist, stuck in prison, his life in ruins at his feet, wondering if Jesus really was the Messiah.  John had been expecting someone a bit more powerful and forceful, I think.  Like most people of his day, John probably thought the Messiah would be a king like David, who would drive out the Roman invaders and their puppets the Herod family, and establish a just and righteous kingdom that would last forever more.  Sins would be judged, righteousness and repentance rewarded.  Remember John speaking of the fire and winnowing that the Messiah would bring?  A new order based on God’s law, rather than human law; God would take a far more active hand in the world than he had up to that point.  Such a coming reign of God would require armies, and political and military might as well as religious purity and piety.  And such a coming reign of God would certainly not allow prophets such as John to languish in prison for the “crime” of preaching God’s word.

Jesus’ ministry didn’t look like that.  Jesus’ ministry was about preaching and teaching, about healing and forgiveness.  Jesus worked miracles, yes; he had great power … but he never once used that power to raise an army or act like one would expect a king to act.  Jesus taught people about God, and about God’s love for all people and all of creation; Jesus taught about forgiveness; Jesus taught about righteousness; Jesus taught about a kingdom of God that wasn’t like any earthly kingdom had ever been or ever would be.  But Jesus’ ministry wasn’t much like John had pictured it.  And so John asked: “Are you the Messiah sent from God?”

We know that Jesus was the Messiah, of course; but Jesus didn’t give John a direct answer.  And when Jesus’ own disciples asked who he was, Jesus turned the question around on them.  “Who do you say that I am?”  Jesus could have told John, “Yes, of course I’m the Messiah!  You knew that when you baptized me, and you believed; don’t doubt now!”  I’m sure that would have been comforting to John, and to those who followed Jesus.  Simple, black-and-white, no ambiguity.  A clear confirmation of who Jesus was and what he was doing.  But that wasn’t what Jesus did.

Instead, Jesus summarizes his ministry: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.  What do you see when you look at Jesus?  What do you hear him say?  All these things Jesus was saying and doing—are those the actions of the Messiah?  And if so, what kind of a Messiah is he?  The prophets had predicted the Messiah would do many things that  Jesus did—healing the sick, the blind, the lame, the deaf, and bringing good news to the poor—but there had been other healers and miracle workers before Jesus.  Not quite on the same scale as Jesus, of course, but the prophet Elijah had multiplied a small amount of grain and oil into a supply that fed a family for years, healed a man of leprosy, and even brought a boy back from the dead.  There had been teachers before Jesus, too.

Jesus was far greater than those who came before him, and he fulfilled the prophecies, but he didn’t act like people expected the Messiah to act.  He was a king whose kingdom was not of this earth, a Messiah whose message was of peace and reconciliation, a lord who cared for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow instead of the powerful people, a judge who came not to condemn but to save.  In the course of his ministry, Jesus offended many powerful people, just like John—and just like John, he ended up dying for it.  Yes, Jesus was the Messiah—but his ministry, his reign, don’t fit into the nice neat categories we humans like to put things in.  We like success stories.  We like stories about underdogs who beat their powerful opponents.  We like happy endings.  We like clear answers.

Jesus seldom gave clear answers.  He spoke in riddles, metaphors, parables, and symbolism.  His response to John was actually a lot clearer than many of the things he told those who came to hear him.  We tend to forget that—we’ve had two thousand years to interpret his words; it was a lot different for the first people to hear him.  And even for us, Jesus’ words aren’t exactly straightforward.

Why did Jesus do that, I wonder?  Why not make things simple, clear, and direct?  Surely, that would be an easier and better way to get people to listen to his words and follow him!  No doubt, no ambiguity.  Surely, if God is leading his people, God could give us a clearer road map to what God wants us to do!  Why are there times of doubt in our lives?  Times of uncertainty?

“Go and tell what you hear and see,” Jesus said.  “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the poor have good news brought to them.”  Jesus didn’t give an easy, simple answer.  Instead, Jesus told John to look around him.  To see the signs of God’s kingdom even in the middle of a broken, sinful world.  Jesus’ answer requires John—and us—to think and to watch, to keep alert and to trust.  God’s kingdom is coming.  Indeed, it is close at hand.  That kingdom where the oppressed find justice, the hungry are fed, the eyes of the blind opened, that kingdom is near.  It comes through Jesus, the son of God, the Messiah, the king of kings and lord of Lords, who will come to judge the living and the dead, and to bring hope and healing through the Resurrection.  The kingdom is not here yet, but it is coming.

The thing about Jesus’ answer, here, is that you have to pay attention.  You have to stay awake, watching for signs of the kingdom.  You can’t just confirm that you’re right and go about your business; you can’t just memorize the right answers and forget about it.  You have to watch, and listen; you have to wrestle with what you see and hear.  We are not called to hearing the story of Jesus’ birth once a year, we are called to watch for Jesus’ coming every day, everywhere we go.  And then we’re called to tell people about it.  To spread the good news that the kingdom of God is near.  May we always be watching for the signs of God’s kingdom.

Amen.

Preparations of the Heart

Advent 2A, December 8, 2013

Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12

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.

Advent, the season of waiting.  We have been waiting almost two thousand years for Christ to come again.  But we were not the first to wait.  By the time Jesus was born in Bethlehem, God’s people had been waiting for centuries for the Messiah to come.  There had been prophecies and stories, speculation and wondering.  Our first lesson today, from the book of Isaiah, is one of the passages where God tells them what the Messiah will be like and what God’s kingdom will be like when the Messiah comes.  It’s a beautiful picture with words that have resonated through the centuries—a vision of peace and security, justice and righteousness, of people and all of creation living in harmony together.  God’s people had been waiting for a long time for that vision to come true by the time Jesus began his ministry.

We, too, are waiting; we are waiting for Christmas and the celebration of the Messiah’s birth, but we are also waiting for the Messiah to come again in glory and establish the kingdom that Isaiah foretold.  We are waiting for that kingdom of new growth; we are waiting for the glory of Jesus to shine forth throughout the world.  We yearn for peace and justice; we tell stories of generosity and the “spirit of Christmas” filling hearts across the world.  We gather together with loved ones, and try to get along better.  We try to be nicer.

And then we hear today’s Gospel reading, about John the Baptist preaching fire and damnation.  “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? … Even now, the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”  Merry Christmas!  Not.

John the Baptist was Jesus’ cousin.  He was only a few months older than Jesus, but he was already a well-established religious leader by the time Jesus started his public ministry.  He was a bit of a spectacle; he dressed like a wild man, or like the prophets of old.  Many people came to see him; they came to hear his message, but I wonder if some came just for the spectacle.  To stare at the weird crazy person.  But whether they came to gawk or to listen, John had a message for them.  John the Baptist’s whole mission was to get people ready for the Messiah to come.  Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!  Get ready for the Lord’s coming!  Don’t just ready your homes, prepare your hearts and minds and lives!  John the Baptist did not care if people liked him.  He wasn’t in it for popularity or riches or anything else.

In my experience, people don’t like to be told that they are sinners who need to repent.  In fact, it’s one of the fastest ways to get people to shut you out.  Particularly religious people—religious people are often quick to see the ways other people are sinners, but have all kinds of justifications for why their own sins aren’t really sins at all.  But at the same time … we all know that the world is a sinful, broken place.  We’ve all seen it, experienced it.  And if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that we are sinful, and sometimes broken, too.  There’s a relief that comes with admitting it; there’s a relief that comes with the honesty of saying “I have sinned, forgive me.”  There’s a relief that comes from turning away from the sinkholes of our guilt and shame and fear, and towards a new way, a better way of living and thinking.

That’s what repentance means, you know.  Literally, “to repent” means “to turn around.”  Turn away from the darkness; turn towards the light.  Turn away from your fear; turn towards hope.  Turn away from your anger and hate; turn towards love.  Turn away from your sin; turn towards God.  Change is possible; a better way of life is possible.  But only if you turn from the way of sin and death and brokenness, and turn toward the healing and life that only God can bring.

Yes, the kingdom of God is near, John the Baptist said.  That kingdom where the wolf lives with the lamb, and children are safe even in the midst of wild animals and poisonous snakes, that kingdom is near.  The kingdom where the poor and the meek get a fair and right chance, where God’s spirit of wisdom and understanding comes with the Messiah, that kingdom is near.

But that kingdom can’t come while things stay the way they are.  The sin and brokenness of this world has no place in God’s kingdom.  And much as we’d rather not admit it, a lot of the brokenness of the world comes from our own hearts and actions and words, things we do and things we fail to do.  Sin isn’t just something bad people do; everyone sins.  All of the hurt we cause ourselves and one another through our sin, that just isn’t compatible with God’s kingdom.  When the Messiah comes, the sins will be sorted out and excluded from the kingdom.  If you choose to stay with your sins, if you aren’t willing to turn away from them towards the Messiah who is coming … you’re going be in trouble.  Getting ready for the coming of the Messiah doesn’t just mean making things look nice for a party; you have to be willing to confess the ways you have hurt yourself and others.  You have to be willing to turn away from your sins to the only thing that will save you, the only thing that will heal your brokenness: the Messiah, God’s only Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

That sounds like a big thing to ask, and it is.  We can’t heal our own brokenness, and sin has its claws deep into our souls.  We can’t save ourselves; and all too often our repentance is short lived.  We fall back into bad habits.  We sin again.  We hurt ourselves and others over and over again.  We repent, but we do not bear fruit worthy of repentance.

The good news is, it’s not up to us and our efforts.  Christ came so that we might be saved; God’s only Son, the Messiah, died so that we might live.  In baptism we are tied to Christ’s death and resurrection; in baptism, we are washed clean; in baptism, our sins are forgiven and our brokenness is healed.  We sin, and sin again, and we and all of creation will remain broken and sinful until that day when Christ comes again.  But through it all, Christ reaches out to us, again and again, calling us to turn towards him.  All we have to do is respond.  All we have to do is turn to him and take his hand.  And when we stumble and fall again—as we will—Christ is there to help us up again, if we let him.  If we turn to him.  If we repent.  If we open our hearts and our minds to his coming, and welcome him in.

In this season of waiting for Christmas, we do a lot to prepare our homes.  We clean, we decorate, we plan parties and dinners.  We think a lot about Christmas coming, do we think enough about Christ’s coming?  How well do we prepare ourselves?  We talk about the “spirit of Christmas” and loving one another; we toss money in Salvation Army kettles and watch heart-warming movies.  We spend a lot of time trying to be nice.  Being nice can be a good thing, and being generous and loving is certainly something we as Christians should be doing all year round.  But are we going deep enough?

John the Baptist reminds us that Christ’s coming is not just a matter of a cute baby in a manger with angel choirs singing familiar carols.  Christ’s coming means the coming of the kingdom of God.  Christ’s coming means that things will change—that we will be changed—and that we are called to turn away from our sin and turn towards Christ.  May we be ready for the coming of the kingdom.

Amen.

Keep awake!

Advent 1A, December 1, 2013

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.

Today is the first Sunday in Advent, the first day of the new church year.  It seems hard to talk about new beginnings this time of year; the days are still getting shorter, the landscape is cold and dead and covered in snow.  Nights are longer.  I don’t know about you, but I find it a lot harder to get up in the morning when it’s still dark outside.  And things are only going to get colder and darker from here.  It will be months before the world around us starts to look new, before days lengthen and snow melts and new plants push up from the ground.  It seems a funny time to begin, and to look to the future.

Isaiah must have felt the same way when he received the vision that is recorded in today’s first lesson.  Judah, his nation, was under direct threat.  The Northern Kingdom, Israel, had been destroyed by the Assyrians, and Judah had survived only because it was small and poor and out of the way of the major roads through the area. They used what wealth they had to bribe Assyria so they would go away.  But Isaiah knew that Judah’s survival was only temporary.  Judah was a small nation caught between huge empires, and could only exist as long as God protected them.  Judah, like their brothers and sisters in Israel, had sinned.  The rich exploited the poor and vulnerable, religion was given mere lip service, and the whole nation had fallen short of what God intended them to be.  God had called them to be a light to the nations, an example of the kind of righteousness and mercy that God brings.  Instead, the people of Judah were neither righteous nor merciful.  God had been speaking to the people of Judah through priests and prophets, calling them to turn back to God’s ways, and they had not listened.  And Isaiah knew that sooner or later, God’s patience would wear out and he would stop protecting them from their more powerful neighbors.  If Judah had chosen to live by the sword, by violence and corruption, well, Judah would fall by the sword.  Isaiah knew there were some pretty dark days ahead.

And yet, amid all the darkness of knowing just how far astray God’s people were, in the middle of watching his nation crumble, God gave Isaiah a vision of hope.  A vision of the future.  A vision of what Judah would be like when they returned to God’s ways to participate in God’s reign of peace and justice, righteousness and mercy.  “In days to come … many peoples and nations shall stream to the LORD’s house,” to learn God’s ways and walk in God’s path.    In days to come, God will be judge and arbiter between nations and peoples, helping them to treat one another with justice and mercy.  In days to come, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.”  Swords and spears won’t be necessary any longer, for there will be peace on earth.

Now, we don’t quite get what a big thing it was for swords to be beaten into plowshares.  We live in a resource-rich nation with modern mining techniques.  Metal is cheap and easy to get and make into things.  Judah, however, was small and poor, and there isn’t a lot of metal in the Holy Land.  And this was back when mining metal and forming it into useful things was a lot more difficult than it is today.  Swords were expensive.  So were plowshares!  Every spear a family bought to defend itself, that was money that couldn’t be spent on farm equipment, homes, and all the other things people need to feed their families.  Every sword a ruler bought to defend the nation, that was money that had to be taken in taxes and couldn’t be used for roads and all the other things governments do to help their people prosper.  Imagine it in the modern equivalent: they shall turn their tanks into combines.  If we didn’t have to be afraid of war, if nobody on earth had to be afraid of war, and all the money that currently gets spent on defense and the military could be spent instead on things that help people feed themselves, imagine what that would be like.  But even more than that, imagine what life would be like if nobody ever had to be afraid.

In a time of darkness, in the middle of a war-torn land, with enemies at every side, among people who gave only lip service to God’s Word, God gave Isaiah a vision of a better world.  A world of peace, a world where justice and peace, righteousness and mercy ruled.  A world where all people truly hear and listen to God’s Word.  A world where God’s light shines in all the places that used to be dark.  You can hear the prophet’s longing for that world.  “O house of Jacob,” Isaiah cries, “come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!”

We, too, long for that world.  We, too, walk in darkness but crave the light.  We, too, long for a world in which all people walk in the light of the LORD, where no one needs to be afraid of violence, and where people can take things meant for destruction and use them to build and grow.  We know that it will come, for we God has promised it to us.  Isaiah’s vision and visions from other prophets have been given to us.  But the problem is, we don’t know when.

Jesus was quite clear in today’s Gospel when he said that even he didn’t know when that day will come.  For all that we try to read the sign of the times, for all we try to make predictions, we don’t and can’t know.  All we know is that we need to keep awake, keep watch.  “Keep awake, therefore,” Jesus said, “for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming…. The Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”  It’s not just that we don’t know when; the only thing we can know is that that day will come when we least expect it.

What does it mean to keep watch?  Some people have sold all their possessions when they thought the Kingdom was near.  It’s been 2,500 years since Isaiah’s vision, and 2,000 since Jesus told his disciples to keep awake.  Predictions have come and gone.  There have been times when Christ’s coming in glory was all people could think of, and times when Christians have largely forgotten about it.  How do we keep watch, for something that could come today or could come two millennia in the future?  How do we prepare?

Notice what Jesus says people will be doing when the day comes: they’re going about their ordinary lives, doing their daily work.  You couldn’t tell from the outside which of the workers in the field was going to be swept away like a flood and which was going to remain as Noah did.  And the same goes for the two women doing their household chores.  Looking at them from the outside, both were pretty ordinary.  The ones who remained, as Noah did, hadn’t sold everything and gone to sit on a mountaintop and wait.  They kept on keeping on, doing their daily work like normal.

So what was the difference?  How did they keep awake?  They put on the armor of light; they put on Christ.  They knew they were living in a dark time, in a time when there was sin and brokenness and evil and fear and hate and injustice.  But they trusted in Christ even in the midst of the darkness.  They strove for the light, they listened to God’s Word.  They tried to live lives of righteousness and mercy even when it would have been easier not to.  I’m sure they failed, sometimes; I’m sure they fell short of the life God was calling them to, sometimes.  In this broken, dark world, no one is perfect.  Putting on Christ doesn’t mean that we become perfect.  It means that we allow Christ to be our guide, to lead us through dark places and pick us up and forgive us when we fall.

Keep awake.  It may be easier to bury your head in the sand and forget the promise of a world full of light and peace.  It may be easier to go along with the way the world does things, and forget the promise of a future filled with righteousness and mercy.  But we know the promise is coming.  We know the light of Christ.  We know that Christ is coming, even if we don’t know when.  So keep awake!

Amen.

The Hard Work of Waiting

Advent 1, Year C, Sunday, December 2nd, 2012

Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25:1-10, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, John 18:33-38a

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Salem, OR

 

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

 

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

 

Stores are decked out for Christmas, radio stations are playing Christmas carols, people are putting up Christmas trees, there’s a crèche out in the narthex … and in church we’re reading about the end of the world again.  Somehow, it doesn’t really seem to fit into the season.  Today is the beginning of Advent, the season of preparing for Christmas, and yet you wouldn’t know it from today’s Gospel lesson.  We’ve been talking for weeks about the end times, and while that may be appropriate for the end of the church year, it seems somehow odd for the beginning of it.  Particularly when we’re getting ready to welcome a new baby into our midst—Jesus, born in a stable in Bethlehem.

Yet Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is not the only coming of Christ we need to worry about.  In Advent we prepare not only for Christ’s coming at Christmas, but also Christ’s coming again.  We welcome not only the baby Jesus in Bethlehem who was born two millennia ago, but also the Christ who will come again in glory.

Advent is a time of waiting.  It is a time of preparation.  Advent is a time to remind ourselves that we as Christians live caught between the already and the not yet.  Already, because Jesus Christ was born two thousand years ago, taught, died, and rose again.  Not yet, because Christ’s promise of the Kingdom will not be fulfilled until he comes again.  And so all of the Christian life is, in that sense, a time of waiting; Advent is the time of year that reminds us what we are waiting for.

And that’s why today’s lesson is assigned for the first Sunday in Advent.  If I asked you what Jesus said in today’s Gospel reading, I bet I know what you would say.  For most people, what sticks out in their mind is the negative stuff: fear and trembling, distress among the nations, the need to escape, etc.  We hear about the Son of Man coming in a cloud and our mind goes right to thinking about judgment, hell, and damnation.  Some people hear and are afraid that they will be among those judged harshly.  Some people hear and think how unbelievable and out of touch Christianity is.  And some people hear and seem to get positively gleeful about all the sinners in the world who are going to be judged harshly, who are finally getting their comeuppance.

And yet, that’s not what Jesus was talking about at all.  Listen closely: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”  And again: “The kingdom of God is near.”  And again: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”  And again: “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down.”  And again: “Be alert at all times.”  Jesus is not focusing on what’s going to happen, or when, or to whom.  Instead, Jesus focuses on the waiting itself.  How are we going to wait for what we know is coming?

What’s our response going to be?  Will we cower in fear, seeing the troubles around us?  Will we let the bad things in our lives and in our world weigh us down so much that they’re all we can see?  Will we hunker down with a bunker mentality, shutting out all the world’s problems out of fear?  Will we ignore the troubles around us and be caught off guard when Jesus comes, surprised that Jesus actually did what he said he was going to?  Will we distract ourselves with the minutia of life?  Will we accept that the way things are is the way they will always be, and forget the promise of the Kingdom of God?

Waiting isn’t easy.  Any child on Christmas Eve, waiting for Santa Claus, could tell you that.  I don’t think anyone in the history of the world has ever been happy when told they have to wait.  Waiting is boring.  And our society doesn’t make it any easier.  Our culture is increasingly based on speed, on response times, on getting things immediately.  If you want it, buy it, even if you can’t afford it, and pay it off later.  Stores start putting out Christmas displays earlier each year, so no one has to wait for Christmas fun.  If you have free time, find something to do: a TV show to watch, a website to surf, music to listen to, a text to send.  We spend incredible amounts of time, money, and energy to avoid having to wait for anything.  Last night I went to see A Christmas Carol in Garrison, and I had ten minutes between when I got seated and the beginning of the program.  A whole ten minutes to wait?  I got out my smart phone and checked FaceBook, and then played a game.  When they flickered the lights because the show was starting, for a second or so I was annoyed because I had to stop the game.  For that second, the thing I had used to distract myself from waiting was more important to me than the thing I was waiting for.  Here’s another example:  I have a friend who will drive blocks out of her way to avoid hitting red lights.  She’ll take a longer route to avoid having to sit and wait.  In the end, she’ll spend more time avoiding the wait than she would have spent actually waiting.  She’s not alone—I bet a few of you here have done that sometimes.

The thing is, sometimes waiting is good for us.  The anticipation can heighten our desire for the thing to come.  And waiting can help to focus on the goal, the end point, The time in between can give us an opportunity to get ready.  When a couple finds out they’re expecting a child, the nine months a pregnancy lasts gives them time to arrange things—get supplies, make space for the baby, figure out how to rearrange their lives without the baby actually there to demand their attention.  Can you imagine what it would be like for a baby to be born at the same time its mother figures out she’s pregnant?  How hard it would be to do everything at the same time!

But even when it’s necessary, even when it’s good for us, waiting is hard.  The longer the wait, the easier it is to lose focus, to wander off in search of something new, to decide we didn’t really need it, anyway.  So it’s no wonder that Jesus took pains to tell his disciples how they should wait for him to come again.  First, we should remember that there is something to wait for.  Christ will come.  Second, don’t be afraid.  When Christ comes, he comes for the redemption of the world.  Jesus Christ comes to save.  So stand up and hold your head high, even though the world around you may be trembling in fear.  Trust in God’s Word; no matter what else changes (and things will change), God’s Word will remain.  Don’t get dragged down by the cares of the world.  No matter how bad it gets it’s not the end of the story, because something new is coming.  And always, always, remember to pay attention, and look for the signs of God’s kingdom which is close at hand.

Advent is a season of waiting, of preparing, not just our homes and our trees but our lives as well.  Advent is a time to remember that we don’t just celebrate the birth of a baby two thousand years ago in Bethlehem; we celebrate the Son of Man whose work is not done yet.  Advent is a time to remember that we have our feet in two worlds, the world around us and the kingdom to come.  Advent is a time to remember that we are always waiting, and a time to focus on the one we are waiting for, who comes to save.  May we wait with hope for the coming redemption.

Amen.

Are we listening?

Advent 4B, Sunday, December 18, 2011

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Luke 1:46b-55
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Trinity Lutheran Church, Somerset, PA

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

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

When I read the lesson from Second Samuel on Tuesday, I was struck by something kind of odd in the first three verses.  David makes a plan.  He tells the prophet Nathan about it.  Neither of them pray.  And Nathan, without praying to God for guidance, tells David to go ahead with his plan because it’s what God wants.  They both assumed they knew what God wanted.  But as it happened, they were wrong.

Here’s some background.  David, with God’s help and guidance, had just finished a civil war against Saul’s son.  David was newly crowned king and was no doubt looking to establish his prestige and position, and what better way to prove his piety and his riches than to build God a temple, a place for God’s people to worship him?  A temple building would help all the day-to-day work of the priests and people in God’s name.  Building a temple would be good for the religious establishment, and it would be good for David’s political career.  Everyone benefits!  So David talks to Nathan, who was the most powerful prophet in Israel, and (without actually asking God if this is what God wants) Nathan gives him the green light to build a temple.

Just about anyone living today would agree.  After all, of course God needs a house!  Building or purchasing a church building is one of the first things new congregations do, once they’re stable and self-supporting.  It’s the expected thing to do, the normal thing to do.  Buildings are very useful things—just look at all the ways Trinity’s building contributes to God’s mission!  It’s a place for worship and study, a place for Christian fellowship, a place to host the Food Pantry and the Toy Drive, a place to care for children and teach them about God.  It’s a tangible symbol that the LORD is with us, a place where we know we can encounter God.  We come here Sunday morning and we hear God’s word, we are taught and inspired, we are strengthened by God’s holy supper and we are sent out into the world.  This building, this house of God, helps us do all that.

So why didn’t God want David to build him a temple, a house of cedar?  It can’t be that God doesn’t like temples in general; a generation later, God told David’s son Solomon to build a temple.  I think it has to do with Nathan and David’s attitude.  They don’t think they need to ask God what God wants them to do; they don’t think they need to pray; they think they already know.  They think that God’s priorities are the same as theirs.  God has given David the kingship, and thus the king’s great and expensive house to live in; now David plans to return the favor.  He’s going to take care of God and build God a big expensive house to live in.  They are so focused on the expected thing, the normal thing, that they can’t see what God actually wants them to be doing.

God points out the error of that attitude.  “Are you the one to build me a house to live in?”  God doesn’t need David or anyone else to take care of him; God can take care of God’s own self, thank you very much.  In fact, things are the exact opposite.  God is the one who takes care of us.  God is the one who guides us.

Like David and Nathan, it’s very easy to assume that we know what God wants us to do, the plans God has for us.  After all, we are God’s people.  We are doing God’s work.  We study God’s word.  Surely, if anyone can figure out God’s plans, it should be us.  And yet, the Bible is filled with stories of faithful people who didn’t understand what God was doing until after it was already done, and explained to them.  Take David, for example: God promised David that his house and his kingdom would be “made sure forever before [God]; [his] throne established forever.”  Do you think David, hearing that, understood that God wasn’t just talking about an earthly kingship over one nation?  God was telling David that the salvation of all the world from the sin and brokenness would come from one of David’s descendants.

God was telling David about a heavenly kingship that is better and greater than any mortal country could hope to be.  And yet David probably only considered God’s words in relation to his and his descendants’ reign over the kingdom of Israel.  He could understand part of God’s plan, that God had claimed Israel as God’s people, and David and his children to play a special role.  But he probably didn’t understand just how special.  How could he?  Even centuries later, after many prophets had spoken, when Jesus came people still didn’t understand his ministry.  Not until after Jesus’ death and resurrection did people look back at all that had been said by the prophets and by Jesus and realize what they had meant.

David and Nathan’s plan to build God a temple wasn’t necessarily a bad plan, it just wasn’t God’s plan.  But they didn’t know that because they didn’t ask.  They didn’t pray.  They just went on about their business as usual, doing the expected thing, the normal thing.  But God wasn’t doing the normal, expected thing.  God was doing something extraordinary, and God wanted David and Nathan to help with God’s work.  As followers of God, we should take note of this lesson: we should never just assume we know what God wants us to do.  Instead, we should be open to what God is calling us to do, even if we don’t exactly know how it’s going to turn out in the end.  Instead of being like David, we should be more like Mary.

God does surprising things all the time.  God does things we wouldn’t expect.  We’re so used to the story of Jesus that we don’t often realize just how strange it would have seemed to the people living it.  They didn’t know how it was going to turn out.  They didn’t understand what God was in the process of doing.  Mary certainly didn’t expect what God called her to do!  And yet, despite not knowing what was going to happen, she followed God’s will for her.

Just imagine being Mary: nobody special, from a backwater region.  Getting ready to live a very ordinary, mundane, predictable life.  And then an angel visited her.  Can you imagine an angel coming to visit you and telling you that the Lord is with you?  It’s no wonder she was afraid and perplexed.  Who wouldn’t be?  Yes, God is with us, we know that … but there’s a difference between knowing God is with us and having divine confirmation of it in the form of an angel telling you directly.

And what God was asking her to do wasn’t something anyone would expect God to do.  After all, in that time and place an unmarried woman found to be pregnant, or any woman found pregnant by someone other than her husband could legally be put to death by stoning, which is a pretty brutal way to go.  At the very least she and her entire family would be shamed, humiliated, in the eyes of their friends and neighbors.  Any plans she had for her life would pretty much be out the window.  After all, how many people would believe that God was the father of her child?  If this happened in our community, would you believe it?  It doesn’t fit into our nice, neat categories.  It doesn’t fit into our expectations.  What God called Mary to do wasn’t easy.  Mary had no way of knowing, then, what this thing God was asking her would lead to.  But the one thing she knew was that life would never be normal again.  Her life would never follow the safe, ordinary, normal pattern she had expected.  But God would be with her, and God would guide her.

Mary chose to listen.  She chose to follow God’s call, even though it would be hard, even though God was calling her to do something out of the ordinary.  Mary trusted God to guide her, even though it would disrupt the plans she had for her own life.  And God used her to bless the whole world through the coming of Jesus Christ our savior.

It’s not always easy to hear God’s call.  Few of us get angelic messengers, and the cares of the world—our own fears and desires—can easily distract us from listening to God.  And yet, God is still speaking to us, calling us to do God’s work in the world.  The question is, are we listening?  Are we praying for guidance?  Are we open to God’s call, even if it’s not easy, or safe, or expected?  Are we willing to let God use us to do extraordinary things?  I hope and pray that we will follow Mary’s example.  Let it be with us according to God’s Word.

Amen.

Prepare the Way of the Lord

Pentecost 22A, Sunday, December 4, 2011

Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Trinity Lutheran Church, Somerset, PA

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

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

“With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.”

Time is very important to us as modern Americans.  Our lives are ruled by clocks and calendars.  Time is measured, weighed, accounted for.  Time is money.  Time is saved and filled and well-spent.  We kill time.  We waste time.  There’s no time like the present.  As children, time seems to drag on.  As adults, time flies.  Whether old or young, time is something we think we can understand, predict, and manipulate.  But as St. Peter points out, God’s understanding of time is not like our understanding of time.  It’s not about hours or minutes or days or years.  God’s time is about what God is doing, and God’s time is about relationships.

Our understanding of time is tied to our understanding of the world.  It’s hard to understand God’s time because we are so caught up in our daily cares and concerns.  We’re particularly aware of time now, in winter, when the days are short and the holidays are close.  The end of the calendar year is coming soon, and Christmas will be here even sooner.  There are, after all, only twenty more shopping days until Christmas.  And there’s a lot to do in those twenty days!  Parties, presents, cleaning, travel—it’s a lot to pack in to a month!  Yes, we want the day of the LORD to come, we want God to make all things new … but we’ve got other things to worry about.

Today is the second Sunday of Advent.  That in itself is a reminder of how different God’s time is from the world’s time.  As the calendar year is fast drawing to a close, the church year—which begins on the first Sunday of Advent—has only just begun.  While the world prepares for presents and parties, we are preparing for the coming of God.  And when the world turns off the Christmas music and packs up the tinsel on the 26th, we will still be celebrating Christmas, and the presence of God with us.

We live now in the between-times.  Two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ was born as a child in Bethlehem, in Judea.  And Christ will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, creating a new heaven and a new earth.  Advent is a time of preparation both for celebrating Christ’s coming, both as a child and at the end of the ages.  This is not just a time for remembering and singing beloved favorite songs.  This is a time for looking forward and preparing for the day of the LORD.  As Isaiah and John the Baptist thundered, “Prepare the way of the LORD, make his paths straight!”

Being a Christian is not easy.  We live in the in-between times.  The first Christians expected Jesus to return soon, within months or years of his resurrection and ascension.  And yet, here we are, two thousand years later, still waiting, still caught between the already and the not yet.  Our salvation has been accomplished through the death and resurrection of Christ, and yet the fullness of that salvation will not be known until Christ comes again.  “In accordance with Christ’s promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.”  The first Christians that St. Peter wrote to needed to know how to live in the in-between times, and so do we.  The question is not what must we do to be saved.  We are saved.  The question Peter wants us to ask is this: now that we have been saved, how should we live?

And that’s the question we face today.  We are saved by the grace of God in Christ Jesus.  So how should we live?  Should we retreat into our homes and our churches to wait?  Should we go with the flow of what the world around us does, forgetting that Christ will come again when we least expect him?

No, says Peter.  No, say John the Baptist and Isaiah.  Now that we are saved, we are called to action!  We are called to live in the knowledge that Christ will come.  We are called to let God guide us in doing his will. Comfort my people!  Prepare the way of the LORD!  Make a highway for our God!  Straighten the things that are crooked and level the obstacles, within ourselves and throughout the world.  Open up to the possibility that God wants to use us.  We are called to be God’s hands in the world.  We are called to be Christ’s body, working together for the building up of God’s kingdom.  We wait, but we know the glory of the LORD is coming, and that we are God’s people.

So how do we open ourselves up to God so that he can use us to prepare his way?  Anyone who’s driven the turnpike through the Alleghenies knows that making a straight and level path is no easy task.  There was a lot of rock moved, filled in, and tunneled through to make that road.  It didn’t happen by accident, it took a lot of work and a lot of people working together.  Making a straight road isn’t any easier on a spiritual level.  Physical roads are made with bulldozers, jackhammers, dump trucks, rollers, and a whole host of other tools.  And the crew has a map that tells them where to go and what to do.  If a road crew came out to work with no tools and no map, they wouldn’t get very far and would almost certainly end up in the wrong place.  So what tools and maps has God given us for our spiritual road-building?

You probably know what most of them are already.  And yet, particularly in today’s busy world we so often choose to fill our time and our attention with other things that distract us from the work God has called us to do.  The tools of the Christian trade—the foundations of Christian life—are sometimes called spiritual disciplines, because they’re not always the easiest or most entertaining thing to do.  They are a habit or regular pattern in your life that repeatedly brings you back to God and opens you up to what God is saying to you so that you can follow God’s call.  Spiritual disciplines take time and attention, which is hard to find in today’s busy world.  But without them, we’re like a road crew standing empty-handed on the side of the road.

Prayer is the first of the tools God has given us.  Regular prayer, every day, in good times and in bad.  St. Paul tells us to pray without ceasing.  And scientists tell us that regular prayer can reshape our brain and the way we think.  Through regular prayer we lift our concerns to God and receive God’s inspiration and guidance.  What are the obstacles in our lives?  What are the things in the world around us that we should be aware of?  Who around us needs prayer?  Where does God want us to build his road?  Who does God want us to comfort?  Prayer can be closely linked to meditation, a focused attention on communing with God.  Without regular prayer, any roads we build will only be of our own making.

Study is another important spiritual discipline, and a foundation of many others.  God gave us our brains for a reason.  God gave us the Scriptures for a reason.  I know this may come as a shock to quite a number of people in America today, but God did not give us the Scriptures so that they could sit on a shelf and look important.  The Bible is the story of God’s work in the world and in his people from the creation of this world to the beginning of the next.  When we read the Bible, together in groups and on our own, God uses the stories of our ancestors to speak to us today.

Worship is our response to who God is.  Worship is how we come together to respond to God’s blessings.  Worship is coming together to remember who we are, and whose we are.  In worship we come together as a community, and remember that we aren’t alone, that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.  Then we hear God’s word preached, and are fed with Christ’s body and blood and strengthened for the work to which we have been called.  Then we are sent out into the world again, renewed and refreshed for the new week.  Through worship, God helps us to hear what he calls us to do and equips us to go out and do it.

Fasting is probably the least practiced spiritual discipline in America.  It doesn’t mean punishing yourself or deprivation.  Fasting is about simplicity.  What in your life is adding to the clutter and minutia that fills your days?  What in your life do you take for granted?  What in your life is distracting you from God?  It seems we are so hungry these days, for money, for attractiveness, for the latest gadget and gizmo. Fasting is about renewing our hunger for God.  When we fast, whether from food or television or cell phones or watches, we take a break from the normal everyday world.  When we fast, we take time to go back to the essentials, filling time and money we would waste with time for building our relationship with God and one another.

Service is another important spiritual discipline.  Americans volunteer a lot, more than most people in the world.  And yet, as Christians we are called to a special kind of volunteering.  We are called to be Christ’s body in the world.  In fact, the ELCA motto is “God’s work, our hands.”  Service is faith in action.  Christian service is about connecting the Gospel with our actions, and letting God use us to do God’s will.

We are waiting for the day of the LORD, for the coming of Christ.  We have been saved, and yet we are still waiting.  But while we wait God has called us to live lives that show that salvation to the world.  We are called to comfort God’s children.  We are called to prepare God’s way, to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ in our words and in our actions.  We don’t do this on our own, but with the tools and guidance God gives us.  May we hear and follow God’s Word.

Amen.

The Righteousness of Joseph

I just realized that I never posted the last sermon I gave–Advent 4, back on December 19.  Here it is, just a little late.

Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year A)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

 

Isaiah 7:10-16

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Saint Luke Lutheran Church, Bloomsburg, PA

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

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

Have you ever wondered why there are four Gospels?  Why does the Bible include four different accounts of Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection?  Why didn’t the early church fathers who collected the writings of the New Testament choose just one?  Couldn’t they make up their minds?  Or, if they liked things about all four, why not edit them together into one book?  Somebody actually did that early on, you know, took all four Gospels and mashed them together into one and proposed that that should be the authoritative version.  Obviously, that was rejected.  But why?

I think it’s because each of the four Gospels offers a unique perspective on Jesus and his life and death, and the community around him.  Each Gospel writer had something about Jesus he wanted future generations to remember, a certain aspect of him and his ministry to emphasize.  So each Gospel writer chose to tell the story in ways that highlighted the message he wanted to tell and addressed the theological needs of his own community, picking and choosing which details, which events to include, and how to tell them.  Some things, of course, are shared throughout all four, but some things are very different.  By reading the four Gospels, we get four different views of Jesus.  It’s like looking at pictures of something from four different sides—the subject is the same, but the view is different.  The lessons we read in church each Sunday were organized to reflect these different views.  We read through the Gospels in church on a three-year rotation: the first year Matthew, then Mark, and then Luke, with pieces of John’s gospel tucked in various places.

Last year, St. Luke’s did an ongoing Bible study on the Gospel of Luke.  Partly this was because we are named after St. Luke, but the reason it was last year in particular is that last year we read through the Gospel of Luke.  This year, from now until next Advent, is the year we read through the Gospel of Matthew.  And so here we are with the Nativity story as told by Matthew.

Christ’s birth is the event with the most differences between the Gospels.  Mark doesn’t even include it; Mark’s Gospel starts with Jesus being baptized in the Jordan by John the Baptist.  John starts with poetry about the Word (by which he means Jesus) and then goes into John the Baptist as well.  Luke has the birth story we’re most familiar with: Mary and Gabriel, Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, the stable, and the shepherds—but no wise men.  In Matthew’s version, there are wise men instead of shepherds, and Mary is scarcely mentioned.  For Matthew, Joseph is the important parent.

If I had to sum up the Gospel of Matthew in just one word, that word would be “righteous.”  Now, righteous is a loaded word, a word with a lot of baggage, a word that can be used and misused.  It’s only a small step, after all, from “righteous” to “self-righteous.”  That was just as true in Matthew’s day as it is in ours.  The true meaning of “righteous” is “being in a right relationship with God,” and this is the sense in which Matthew means it.  And for Matthew, it’s not enough to just talk the talk.  You can’t just say you believe; for Matthew, righteousness means putting your money where your mouth is.  Righteousness means living out your faith, responding to God’s call by doing what God has called you to do.  Just like today, there were a lot of people in Matthew’s day who believed they were righteous, that their knowledge of scripture, of religious ritual and practice made them more righteous than others, and showed that through a holier-than-thou attitude.  But true righteousness is about following the spirit of God’s will, not the letter of the law.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph is the first person to be called righteous.  Joseph was a good man who found himself in an uncomfortable position.  He was engaged to a woman who was pregnant with someone else’s baby.  Now, you know and I know that this is no ordinary case of infidelity, but at this point Joseph didn’t know that.  Put yourself in his shoes, and imagine how hurt he must have felt, how angry and betrayed and humiliated.  Did other people know the baby wasn’t his?  Was there gossip about him and Mary flying through town?  Were people talking about what Mary “deserved” for being pregnant out of wedlock?  What were people were urging Joseph to do?  And in the ancient world your reputation, your honor was the most important thing you had, more valuable than money, and as necessary to life as food and water.  Shame was worse than poverty, worse than injury, almost a kind of death.  And a fiancée who committed adultery brought shame not only on herself and her family, but on her husband-to-be.

It would have been so easy for Joseph to lash out against Mary, to let her feel the full brunt of the town’s scorn.  After all, as far as he knew she was the one in the wrong.  She was the one who had betrayed him, betrayed promises made in the sight of God and the community.  How easy it is to return hurt for hurt, particularly when (as in this case) the law is on your side!

But Joseph didn’t do that.  Joseph was a righteous man, and understood that God desires both justice and mercy.  To satisfy justice, he would divorce her, but to satisfy mercy he would do it quietly, to protect Mary as much as possible from the consequences of infidelity, which for a woman could include being put to death.

And then an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.  People think about angels as blessings and guardians and helpers, and perhaps that’s true, but it seems to me that most times when an angel shows up in the Bible it’s because God wants something very difficult that we would normally never do, that God is working in ways we wouldn’t expect.  Angels are always a disruption in peoples’ lives, because let’s face it: if what God wanted was something they were going to do anyway, they wouldn’t need an angel to tell them, right?

For Joseph, the word of the Lord was that he should take Mary as his wife—Mary who was pregnant by someone else, whom he’d already decided to divorce—and raise her child as his own.  Yes, she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit; she hadn’t been unfaithful in the way he’d originally assumed.  But that doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to live with the consequences.  Mary and Joseph probably lived in a small community where everyone knew everyone else’s business.  No one likes to have people talk about them behind their back, and in Joseph and Mary’s day it would have been even worse.  Joseph had already been publically shamed by this, and now God wanted him to compound the shame in the eyes of the community?  To expose himself to even more scorn, and sign up for a lifetime of it?  Not to mention, anyone who’s heard many Bible stories knows that the people God chooses rarely have peaceful, quiet lives, and Joseph had to know that raising a child conceived by the Holy Spirit pretty much guaranteed that there would be more difficulties and problems to be overcome in the future.

Joseph was a righteous man, and did as the Lord said.  The world would almost certainly not understand, would ridicule him as sentimental or a fool.  There would be difficult and troubling times ahead.  But he did what God wanted him to.

I have never seen an angel of the Lord, and I don’t know anyone who has.  Things are rarely as cut-and-dried for us as they were for Joseph.  It’s a lot harder for us to know what God wants, and sometimes we get it wrong even when we think we know.  And yet righteousness is, at its heart, the same now as it was in Joseph’s day: living life with justice and mercy, and doing what God calls us to do.  The prophet Micah put it this way: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness,    and to walk humbly with your God?”

It sounds so simple when you put it that way.  I wish it were that easy.  As individuals and as a society, we are tempted to choose vengeance instead of justice, and permissiveness instead of mercy.  We are tempted to choose the easy path of pride in our own vision instead of walking with God.  We are tempted to go along with the expectations of our friends, family, and community instead of following God’s call.

May God grant us the righteousness of Joseph: to know true justice and true mercy, to hear God’s call and follow it even when it leads us places we would not otherwise choose to go, even if it contradicts what society expects.

Amen.

Preparing

First Sunday of Advent (Year A)

Sunday, November 28, 2010

 

Isaiah 2:1-5

Psalm 122

Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44

Preached by Anna C. Haugen

Saint Luke Lutheran Church, Bloomsburg, PA

 

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

Happy New Year!  Did you know that today is the first day of the church’s year?  That’s right, the church year starts with Advent, the season that leads up to Christmas.  Today is the first Sunday of Advent, so today is the first day of the new year.  There’s an irony in the readings assigned for Advent: it’s the beginning of the year, and yet most of the things we read in church are apocalypse texts, dealing with the end times, the time when Christ the Son of Man will come again.  And here’s why: Advent is a time for preparing for the coming of Christ.  Both Christ’s coming 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem, but also his coming again.  Advent isn’t just a historical remembrance, it’s also a time of preparation for what is to come.  And what is to come is Christ.  So it is that here, at the beginning, we celebrate the end.

There’s another irony in today’s Gospel lesson.  The irony lies in how this particular reading is sometimes used.  How many of you are familiar with the idea of the Rapture?  The Rapture is one particular interpretation of the apocalyptic texts of the Bible that has become very popular over the last couple of decades.  Today’s Gospel reading from the 24th chapter of Matthew, speaking as it does of people disappearing at the end times, is one of the central texts lifted up to support it.  A belief in the Rapture is also often connected with a belief that the Rapture is coming soon—that we are living on the eve of the end times, that Christ will come again within this very generation.  That’s the whole premise of the popular Left Behind series of books.  It’s easy to point out all the trials and tribulations the world is going through right now, from the hunger crisis to climate change, to war in the Holy Land.  Surely, these must be the birth pangs of which Christ spoke.  Surely, Christ must be coming soon, because we need him.  Rapture—where the chosen people of God pass directly to Heaven without having to live through the final struggles—sounds really appealing when things seem to be going wrong.

And then I go back to today’s Gospel reading, and am struck with irony.  Did you hear it?  Jesus said, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”  And then he tells us we need to be ready (including the bit about people being taken).  This portion of the Gospel concludes with Jesus telling us, again, that the end times will come “at an unexpected hour.”  This piece of scripture that we use to figure out what the end times will be like and when they will happen is sandwiched between Jesus telling us—twice!—that we don’t and can’t know what’s going to happen and we particularly can’t know when it’s going to happen.

Wait a minute, here.  Wait a minute!  Jesus is saying that even he doesn’t know when he’ll be coming again?  Surely, that can’t be what he means.  He is God, after all, just as the Father and the Holy Spirit are God.  How can one person of the Triune God know something that another person doesn’t?  How can there be anything that Jesus doesn’t know?  And yet, that seems to be what Jesus is saying.  And how can he tell us to be ready when we don’t know what we’re getting ready for or when we need to be ready by?  What the heck is up with that?  I want to follow Jesus’ commands, but in this case, it’s kind of difficult to know what that means.  So why is Jesus being so cryptic?  It’s not just here, it’s everywhere Jesus talks about the end times.  He was a lot clearer when he talked about his crucifixion, for example.

Let’s back up a bit, get some background.  Jesus is part of a larger tradition.  He wasn’t the first to speak of the end times; the prophets of the Old Testament did as well, including Isaiah as in today’s first lesson and (particularly) Daniel.  When things seemed to be falling apart, when God’s chosen people had fallen short of God’s calling for them, and when they were under attack or held captives, prophets used their visions of God’s heavenly kingdom to encourage their people.  Visions of the future that God would bring reminded them that hope was not lost, because true hope rested in God, not in the actions of humans, and that peace and justice were possible with God’s help.  Then came John the Baptist, and Jesus himself, preaching that people should turn to God, for God’s reign was coming and it was going to break the chains of the old ways of life.  Paul spent most of his time writing about how Christians were to believe and behave in the current world, but he was also convinced (as we read in today’s second lesson) that Christ would come again within the lifetime of his generation.  For Paul, doing God’s work and acting as God’s people here-and-now was intimately connected with Christ’s return.  And then there’s the book of Revelation, a whole book about an apocalyptic vision, written partly in code and partly in insider references to the current events of that time.  Revelation was written to encourage a people being persecuted, to remind them that ultimate power was in God’s hands, not the hands of the society that was turning against them.

Personally, I like the idea of knowing what’s coming: I don’t like surprises or uncertainty.  Having things neatly laid out is comforting, particularly when I’m stressed out.  Having a clear road map of the future—that would be awesome.  But that’s not what these texts are really about.  All these different visions and situations have a common message: that God is in charge, no matter what it looks like now, and God will come and establish a better world than the one we now live in.  The point of apocalyptic visions is not to give us a road map or calendar of the end times.  Instead, these visions of what is to come are meant to give us heart, and encourage us in faith, so that no matter what happens we know that God is with us and that this life is not the end, nor is this life the goal of Christian life.

Living with that uncertainty isn’t easy, particularly when so much else seems shaky.  Almost every generation that has been through times of trouble or uncertainty has believed that the end times are coming soon, and that they could predict exactly what that would mean and what will happen.  Sometimes people used the Biblical texts, piecing together the fragments and myriad of references in a manner that makes sense to them.  Sometimes people go to other sources, such as Nostradamus or the Mayan calendar.  Almost everyone throughout history who has been fascinated by the Second Coming has tried to calculate and figure out when their vision of the apocalypse would be fulfilled.  And so far, everyone has been wrong, about the timing if nothing else.  (After all, we’re still here, and it hasn’t happened yet.)  As Jesus said, we do not know on what day our Lord is coming.  And yet, we keep trying to figure out how to figure out exactly when Christ will come again.

It’s not just the timing that we don’t know, either.  What, exactly, will happen?  What will God’s reign look like?  There are several competing theories of interpretation that are Biblically and theologically sound, of which the popular idea of the Rapture is only one.  There are too many different apocalyptic visions in the Bible to narrow things down to one right interpretation of exactly what will happen.  A friend of mine from seminary made a flow chart, recently, that started with a few of the more common mindsets people use when they read the Bible, and how each point of view results in a different understanding of what’s going to happen when Christ comes again.  Which one is right?  Are any of our interpretations right?  Or will God do something beyond our petty human imagining?  As Jesus said, there’s just no way to know.

But Jesus also said we are to keep ready.  If we don’t know what’s going to happen or when it’s going to happen, how can we possibly be ready for it?  That’s the paradox of Advent.  We know that Christ has come already, on that first Christmas so long ago.  We know that Christ is coming again, and that when Christ comes again all things will be made new, including us.  We know that this whole world, including us, desperately needs Christ’s redeeming power.  We know that we need to get ready.  And yet we also know that we don’t know when or how Christ’s reign on earth will come.

And that’s another reason for putting these texts at the beginning of the year.  A new year is a time of new beginnings, of looking back at the old and forward to the new.  We make resolutions to do better, to be better in the coming year, some of which will fail and some of which will succeed.  We walk forward always into an uncertain future.  And yet, we walk forward knowing that Christ is our guide, and that the Holy Spirit is ever with us.  We walk forward knowing that we are the beloved children of God, and that he will never forsake us.  We walk forward knowing that no matter how hard things get, no matter how lost we feel, no matter what happens to us, in the end we will be with God, and Christ will come again, and we know that when Christ comes again everything will change.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the cares of life that we forget about God.  Every Youth Group meeting, I ask the youth for “God moments” they’ve had, times when they’ve seen God’s presence in their life and the lives of the people around them.  As we begin a new church year, I challenge you to do the same: at the end of each day, when you say your prayers, take a few minutes and think about where you’ve seen God around you that day.  It could be something big, something extraordinary, or it could be something as small as a smile from a stranger when you were feeling down, or a call from a friend when you needed to talk to someone.

This is how we prepare, when we don’t know what exactly we’re preparing for or when it will happen: we put our trust in God.  We trust God to know what’s going on and what we need even when we don’t.  We trust God to guide our interpretation of Scripture, and to forgive us when we get it wrong.  We put aside works of darkness, and walk as children of the light.  We look for the signs of Christ’s coming, and the Holy Spirit’s presence with us even now.  We look for the kingdom to come, when all peoples will walk in God’s paths, when the peace of Christ shall reign, even knowing that it will come when and how we least expect it.  We remember what God has done for us and what God will do for us.  We remember that we are in this world, but we are also citizens of God’s holy kingdom.  We acknowledge that we are captives to sin, and that we can’t free ourselves but must depend on God’s mercy and grace.  We look for Christ to come again.

Amen, come Lord Jesus.