The True Prince of Peace

Christmas Eve, December 24th, 2016

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

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


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

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

Two thousand years ago, there was a man who was called the Savior.  He rescued his people from the doubts, fears, and wars that consumed them, and so they called him the Prince of Peace.  He was worshiped as a god.  His face was put on the money.  He brought a new peace and prosperity that was supposed to last forever.  And his name was Caesar Augustus, Emperor of Rome.  He did some great things, but within a century the peace he created had crumbled, replaced by civil war and corruption.  No empire lasts forever; no merely human peace can prevent hostilities.  And the only salvation a human can bring is temporary, limited, and finite.  The good news that Emperor Augustus brought did not long outlast him.

But during his reign, something else happened.  A baby was born.  Not in a palace, not in the center of power, but in a stable in a backwater town in a backwater region of a remote region of his empire.  A baby born to a poor, ordinary couple, completely unremarkable in every way except one: God had chosen them to raise his son, Jesus, born on a cold winter’s night, in poverty and obscurity.

While the man the world called the prince of peace was feasting in his palace, attended to by slaves and courtiers, the true prince of peace was being laid in a manger.  While Emperor Augustus was sending out messengers with his laws and decrees, God was sending angels to shepherds and wise men with an invitation.  God’s instructions were simple: don’t be afraid, for something wonderful has just happened.  Go see the baby in the manger, and rejoice, for there is good news for all people!

And they went, and they saw, and they told everyone, and everyone who heard it was amazed.  But you know, the Bible didn’t say what they were amazed at.  Did they believe? Was it that kind of amazement?  Or was it the kind of amazement where they were surprised and perplexed at the things the shepherds and wise men told them?  Because then, as now, they were used to saviors and princes of peace like Emperor Augustus.  So what did they think when they were told that their savior, the one to bring peace, was an ordinary-looking baby born in the middle of nowhere in a stable?  Could they imagine the kind of peace and joy and hope that the baby was born to bring, or were they imagining the kind of peace and joy and hope that they were used to?  Could they really believe that it was for all people?  Can we?

Emperor Augustus brought peace through the sword.  He was a great military leader who crushed his enemies, and then used politics to benefit his supporters.  He made sure that his supporters prospered and his enemies suffered.  It was great news if you were one of his people, but bad news if you were one of his enemies.  And so the enemies became bitter, and just waited for the chance to strike back, and others just coveted Augustus’ power and sought to take it from his successors, and the peace that Augustus brought could not last.  That’s the way the world works, so often.  We make peace by suppressing violence, rather than by building relationships.  We treat life like a zero-sum game where no-one can benefit unless someone else suffers.  And so what’s good news for one group is bad news for another.  And so conflict flourishes, jealousy and hate prevail, and peace is more of a temporary ceasefire than a lasting reality.

That is not the kind of peace that Jesus came to bring.  That is not the Good News that Jesus is for all people.  Jesus didn’t make those kinds of distinctions.  Jesus came for everyone: rich and poor alike, men and women, old and young, sinners and saints, of all races and tribes and nations.  For those who were sick or hurting, Jesus brought healing.  For those who were lonely or outcast, Jesus brought community.  For those who were hungry, Jesus brought food.  For those who were oppressed, Jesus brought the promise of justice.  For those who were rich, Jesus brought the promise of a deeper love and joy and purpose than is found in mere possessions.  For the sinners, Jesus brought forgiveness.  For those who were imprisoned, Jesus brought the promise of freedom.  For all people, Jesus brought new life.  For everyone, good news and hope.  The kind of good news and hope that endure in good times and bad.

That is the kind of Good News Jesus came to bring 2,000 years ago, and that is the Good News that Jesus continues to bring to all who open their hearts and minds to him.  Not the good news brought by politicians or military leaders.  Not the good news that benefits only some and hurts others.  But good news for all people, good news that endures no matter what, that brings a peace the world cannot understand.  Thanks be to God.


Through the Gate

Fourth Sunday of Easter, (Year A), May 11, 2014

 Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 23
1 Peter 2:19-25
John 10:1-10

 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.

Jesus sure used a lot of metaphors and figures of speech to describe himself. In today’s Gospel lesson, he uses two: he calls himself the gate and the shepherd. We’ve all heard about Jesus the Good Shepherd many times, and seen beautiful pictures of Jesus as a shepherd, so I’m going to talk for a little bit about what it means for Jesus to be a gate.

First of all, a gate means there’s probably a wall or a fence. There’s no point in having a gate in the middle of nowhere, unless you’re at a sheepherding contest, and the goal is to see how well a sheepdog herds the sheep through a series of exercises. Walls and fences keep things out, and keep things in. The walls or fence of a sheepfold keep out wolves and thieves. And in Jesus’ day, both wolves and thieves were a danger to sheep every day. Walls kept them out—they keep out the dangerous things in the world. And the walls of the pen also keep the sheep in, keep them from wandering or straying into dangerous places. When a sheep is in the fold, it’s safe and secure.

But the problem is, sheep can’t stay penned up forever. It’s cruel to keep them locked up. They need to go outside of the pen to get food and exercise. You can bring food to the pen, but they’re not going to get the exercise they need unless they can go to the pasture. So the shepherd would let them out, and take them out to the pasture. The gate wasn’t just so the sheep could get into the pen where it was safe, it was also so that they could get out of it to go to the pasture they needed. It was not a one-way trip. If the sheep stayed in the pen, they would starve. If they stayed out in the pasture, they would be vulnerable to thieves and wolves. They needed both places, and the gate was how they travelled from one to the other every day.

Parents of small children know this dilemma well: sometimes kids need to be kept in a safe place, and sometimes you have to let them out to explore. Sometimes, you need to reign the children in and keep them corralled; sometimes, you need a baby gate to keep them from falling down the stairs. And other times you need to help them explore the world and learn how to climb up and down staircases, how to run and fall down and get back up again. A parent has to judge when to keep their child safe and protected, and when to let them free, because they need both. The same door that lets a child out to the yard to play also lets them back in.

But doors are more than just holes in the wall. Doors and gates don’t let just anybody in and out. If they did, you wouldn’t need a gate at all, just an opening in the wall. In Jesus’ day, there would be a gatekeeper to keep thieves out, a person keeping watch at the gate: that’s why thieves couldn’t just walk in the same as they shepherd. Today we would use a lock and key, but back then they had a watchman. They would make sure that only the shepherd could get in, and that the sheep could only get out when the shepherd was with them to guide them and protect them.

As Jesus said, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come and go in and out and find pasture.” We come through Jesus to be saved, but it’s not a matter of just going in the door once and staying in a nice happy safe place forever. We still have to go out into the world, to learn and grow, to live our lives. We come back into the safety of God’s sheltering arms, but then we go out into the world again. And no matter whether we’re coming in our going out, we come through Jesus. And when we go out into the world, we don’t go alone. Jesus is the gate through which we come to God, but Jesus is also the shepherd who leads us out to find pasture, who leads us when we are walking beside still waters and green pastures, and protects us when we walk through all the dark places in our lives. Whether we are going out or coming in, whether we are safe in the sheepfold or out in the pasture, whether we are walking beside beautiful, still waters or slogging through the valley of darkness, surrounded by enemies, Jesus is with us, our light and our salvation, guiding and protecting us.

We are connected to Jesus through our baptisms. In our baptisms, God claims us as lambs of his own fold, sinners of his own redeeming. Through the water of the Holy Spirit, we are marked by the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit. Through the water of our baptism, we learn our Shepherd’s voice, the voice that will lead us in to safe harbor in God’s fold, and out into the world to live and learn and grow. In baptism, we receive the still waters that quench our soul’s thirst. The waters of baptism give us the strength to follow Jesus even through the darkest valleys of our lives, trusting that he will lead us back to the safety of the sheepfold even when that seems impossible. Baptism—being dunked in the water, marked with the cross of Christ, and sealed by the Holy Spirit—only happens once. But a baptismal life is something that we live every day, coming to God for safe harbor and rest and then following God back out into the world. Life for a baptized child of God means doing everything through Christ, whether we’re coming in or going out.

Jesus says he is the shepherd, the one whose voice the sheep know. And because they know his voice, they will follow him and not the others who come to hurt them and steal them away. But sheep can’t decide on their own who the shepherd is and who the thief. They have to learn the shepherd’s voice. They have to grow in faith that the shepherd will take care of them, and bring them back safely home. In baptism, Jesus calls us as his own. Baptism is the beginning of life with Jesus; it’s the beginning of learning to listen for his voice.

Today we celebrate the baptisms of Nash and Teagan. I’m sure their parents, Ryan and Christina can tell us how hard it is to get them to listen to their parents’ voices. Children, like sheep, don’t always want to listen to the people who are trying to take care of them. It seems like there’s always something to distract them, some reason they would rather go astray. Teaching them to listen and follow takes patience. And they have to want to hear; they have to be listening for the voices of their mothers and fathers. (And sometimes children can be pretty selective on whether or not they hear their parents.) But whether or not the children are listening, the parents don’t stop calling for them, and teaching them to listen. Sheep have to be taught to listen just like children do: they aren’t born knowing their shepherd. They get to know him as they follow him, as they learn that he is taking care of them and protecting him, as they learn that he will keep coming for them, keep calling them, even when they go astray.

We’re kind of like sheep. We need to learn to hear God’s voice calling us, and it is baptism that gives us the first lesson in hearing God calling us by name. But we’re not always very good at learning that lesson. Sometimes we’re like children who can hear God perfectly well, but don’t want to admit it because something is distracting us, or it sounds like more fun to do our own thing than to listen. But the God who called us by name, who connected us to himself through our baptisms keeps calling, keeps reaching out, keeps shepherding us and guiding us.

Reformation: Freedom in new Words

Reformation,  Sunday, October 23, 2011
Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 46
Romans 3:19-28
John 8:31-36
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.

“They answered him, ‘We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.'”  Really?  They’ve never been slaves to anyone?  Are they joking?  I seem to recall—you may remember this, too—that before they came to the Promised Land, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah were slaves in Egypt who had to be liberated by God’s saving power.  And then, after they were in the promised land, the Assyrians conquered and enslaved Israel, and then the Babylonians conquered the Assyrian Empire and enslaved both Israel and Judah.  After the Babylonians, they were independent for a while before the Greeks conquered them; and after the Greeks came the Romans, who were oppressive foreign overlords at the very time today’s reading took place.  While the Romans didn’t technically enslave the Jews, they certainly weren’t what anyone would have considered “free.”  And yet, despite a long history of slavery and oppression, when Jesus tells them they will be freed, they indignantly insist that they have never been slaves to anyone!  Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt.

One of my favorite authors is Terry Pratchett.  He writes fantasies that are satires of modern life.  In a book called Feet of Clay, Pratchett tells the story of Dorfl, a golem.  Golems are people made out of clay, brought to life by written words stuck into their heads.  The words make them alive and tell them what to do—and the words tell them to be slaves.  A golem works twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, at the most degrading and dangerous jobs there are.  If you order a golem to do something, the golem will do it, because the words in their head make them obey.  Towards the end of the book, Dorfl is freed—his head is opened up and new words are put into him, words that say he belongs to himself.  Dorfl is transformed by this gift, something he couldn’t have imagined on his own.  He goes out and tries to free others—golems, humans, animals, everyone.  He opens the doors to the sweatshops and the slaughterhouses, breaks the machinery the golems use, and yet despite all the chaos he causes the humans and golems just try to fix it and go on exactly as they did before.  This puzzles Dorfl—his freedom was such a wonderful thing, literally giving him new life, so why are people trying to go back to the things that hold them captive?

He says to Sam Vimes, the head of the City Watch, ‘You Say To People “Throw Off Your Chains” And They Make New Chains For Themselves?’

‘Seems to be a major human activity, yes,’ Vimes said.

Dorfl rumbled as he thought about this. ‘Yes,’ he said eventually. ‘I Can See Why. Freedom Is Like Having The Top Of Your Head Opened Up.’

Freedom is like having the top of your head opened up.  Christian freedom means trusting God to take care of us, trusting God’s love and care and guidance even when the world keeps telling us it’s foolish to depend on anyone besides yourself.  Christian freedom means listening to God’s call to lives of justice and mercy, and love, even when it would be safer and easier to be self-centered.  Christian freedom means letting Christ open up our hearts and minds and replace our words that enslave us to sin with God’s Word that frees us and makes us whole.  That sounds dangerous.  That sounds scary.  When you’re a slave, you don’t have any control over your life, but if something bad happens it’s not your fault.  You don’t have to think, you don’t have to take risks, and however bad things get at least they’re predictable.  Remember the newly freed people of Israel wandering in the desert and grumbling how they wanted to go back to slavery in Egypt because at least there they had food to eat?  Nobody really wants to be a slave, but at the same time—sometimes it seems safer and a whole lot easier.

People make chains for themselves all the time.  Some chains are easier to spot than others.  Addictions—to alcohol, drugs, gambling, hoarding, whatever—those can be easy to spot, at least from the outside.  People who are addicted find their lives controlled by their need.  Yet most people who are addicted try to claim, at some point, that they are fine, that they have it all under control.  They aren’t slaves to their addictions.  They can quit at any time, they say, even when it’s obvious they can’t.

Some chains are harder to spot than others, particularly when (like the people in today’s Gospel lesson) we are in denial.  We confess every Sunday at the beginning of worship that we are sinners, that we fall short of the glory of God, that we are held in chains by sin and cannot free ourselves.  But when it comes down to it, how many of us really take that seriously?  After all, it’s not like we’re Snidely Whiplash, gleefully chortling and twirling a moustache as we plot evil deeds.  Our sins are little things, we tell ourselves.  After all, saying something hurtful when we’re upset isn’t that big a deal, is it?  Paying more attention to our jobs or hobbies than to the people around us isn’t that big a deal, is it?  Watching movies and television shows that treat women like sex objects, play on racial stereotypes, or promote violence isn’t that big a deal, is it?  After all, everyone does it!

And on their own, each little sin may not look like much—but when you add them all together, they dominate every aspect of our lives.  Those sins keep us apart from one another, keep us from building right and lasting relationships with God and each other, breaking us apart, keep us isolated and turned in so that all we can see or hear are our own fears, our anxieties, our prejudices, our flaws.  We don’t want to admit that those sins keep us from listening to God’s Word, and keep us from truly living the good and abundant lives God wants for us.  We build up walls between ourselves as individuals, as communities, as a nation.  And we pretend everything is all right, that we can stop at any time, that we have it all under control, when the truth is, those sins control us, instead.  We don’t want to admit that we are slaves to sin.  We don’t want to admit that there are things we can’t do by ourselves.  Particularly not here in America, where we idolize self-reliance.  Admitting that there are things larger than us, things that we can’t control, feels like weakness.  And so we close our eyes to our brokenness, to our slavery, and pretend that we can do it all ourselves.

Sometimes that self-reliance turns into legalism.  Yes, Jesus saves us … but surely there’s something we need to do to make sure.  God gave us the commandments to help us live full and abundant lives in harmony with God and one another, guidelines for how to live a free life full of love of God and our neighbor.  And yet sometimes, we get so focused on those laws that we fulfill the letter of them while leaving no room in our hearts to love God and our neighbor.  We use those laws to justify our conflicts and our hatred of one another.  We get so focused on how we think God’s Word should be interpreted that we can’t hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to us.  We get so focused on the world around us that we can’t see the ways God is building the kingdom of God among us.  And so the commandments that God gave us as a gift become a curse, chains binding us and showing us just how far we fall short of the grace and freedom God wants for us.

Today is Reformation Sunday, when we commemorate the religious movement in 16th Century Germany that formed the Lutheran church.  Through the Reformation, God freed people from their preconceived notions so that they could follow God’s Word.  People from across Germany, and all of Europe, started reading the Bible with open minds, and praying with open minds, and trusting God to free them from the chains that bound them.  And the church was transformed—Lutherans, other Protestants, Roman Catholics too.  By opening themselves up to God’s Word, people allowed God’s Word to change them.  Relying on God’s Word changed the way they thought and the way they lived.  Everything was affected, not just church life.  The role of women in society changed.  The way they handled poverty changed.  It wasn’t change for the sake of change, but change for the sake of living out the Gospel through love of God and love of neighbor.  It was change for the sake of the freedom that only comes from Christ.

Dorfl the golem found that it was easy to break the physical locks and chains holding people captive, but the things that really made people slaves were the words inside their heads.  For some people, those words are ‘I’m better than everyone else,’ while for others those words are ‘I’m not worth anything.’  Sometimes the words that enslave us are ‘we’ve never done it that way before,’ and sometimes the words that enslave us are ‘that’s the way we always did it—I want something new.’  Sometimes the words that enslave us are ‘what will people think?’ and sometimes the words that enslave us are ‘I don’t care about anyone else.’  There are so many words inside our head that can become prisons without our even realizing it.  And like Dorfl, we can’t free ourselves.  Someone has to open our hearts and minds and replace the words of slavery with the words of freedom.

Thank God for Jesus Christ, the living Word of God, who comes to set us free.  Christ comes to transform and reform us, to heal our relationships with him and with one another.  Christ comes to us when we are so tied up by our brokenness that we don’t even realize it and sets us free.  Christ comes and breaks open hearts and minds made hard and heavy by sin and puts words of love and hope and freedom within us.


Fear itself

Pentecost 8 (Year A), Sunday, August 7, 2011

1 Kings 19:9-18, Psalm 85:8-13, Romans 10:5-15, Matthew 14:22-33

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Saint Mark Lutheran Church, Salem, OR

Watch a video of “Fear Itself” sermon

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.

In his first inaugural address Franklin Delano Roosevelt said “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  While that was obviously a bit before my time, I know the phrase because it seeped in to our national consciousness.  It’s now the kind of cliché that people toss around without thinking.  Today we are in a very similar situation to the one Roosevelt wrote about.  Our economy is unstable and unpredictable, has been for some time, and looks to continue that way for the forseeable future.  In addition, there is considerable international instability, as there was in the 1930’s.  To top it off, technological changes are bringing social changes at a pace we can barely keep up with, which was also true to a certain extent in Roosevelt’s day.  There are a lot of things to fear, and a lot of people who allow themselves to be paralyzed by that fear.  You can be paralyzed by your fears without even consciously admitting to yourself that you are afraid.  Roosevelt knew that.

Are you afraid?  Are you afraid of losing your job, or your retirement fund, or your house?  Are you afraid of terrorists attacking our country again, whether Islamic or a nationalist like Anders Breivik’s recent campaign in Norway?  The problem with fear is that it’s so easy to get used to it, to deal with it by pretending it doesn’t exist, so that we don’t realize just how much control our fears have over our actions.  In my own life, I discovered this just a few years ago when my first internship deteriorated.  I’m not naturally very good in social situations.  It has been a struggle for me, over the years, to learn to read social cues.  What I didn’t realize until after having a major setback and going through counseling for a year was just how anxious I was about it.  I spent so much time afraid, I didn’t know what it felt like to not be afraid.  I certainly didn’t realize how much that anxiety controlled my actions.  Because I was anxious, I avoided social situations, and when I was in them I focused more on my fears than on dealing with people, which made it even harder.  I didn’t realize I was doing it, because I was trying so hard to pretend I wasn’t afraid.  All I did was dig myself in deeper.

There’s a lot of that kind of fear going around the church these days.  By ‘the church’ I don’t just mean St. Mark or the ELCA.  I mean all Christians in America, and in the world.  It’s the kind of deep-seated fear that people often try to avoid facing head-on.  It is, at heart, a fear of the unknown.  It used to be that a church opened its doors in this country, and people came.  People participated.  You could assume that most people were Christians, that most people would come to church or send their children to church.  You could assume that they would want to participate in potlucks and soup suppers and circles and Bible studies.  You could assume they would give money to the church.  You could assume that American society would support churches by not scheduling things on Sunday mornings or Wednesday evenings that might conflict with church.  You could assume that even people who weren’t Christian themselves would respect Christian beliefs and had a basic foundation of Biblical knowledge.

You can’t assume any of that any more.  So people are afraid, because they don’t know what to do now.  In most churches, membership and budgets are both shrinking.  Nobody’s quite sure what’s going to happen next, and where we go from here.  A lot of Christians, and a lot of congregations, have responded to that uncertainty by pulling in on themselves.  They don’t want to deal with the fact that things are changing, because it’s frightening when you don’t know what’s going to happen.  So they do things the same way they always have and try to convince themselves that everything’s going fine.  People pretend that doing the same things they always have in the same way they always have will work the same way they always have.  Instead of going out into the world, they let themselves get isolated and withdrawn, where it’s safe … but that means they can’t bring God’s Good News to anyone.  In fact, when you’re hiding like that, when you’re guided by your fears, it’s hard to hear the Good News yourself.

Today’s readings have something to say about fear.  First we have Elijah.  To give you a bit of background, today’s first lesson comes just after the story of Elijah and the prophets of Ba’al.  You see, Queen Jezebel worshipped Ba’al instead of the God of Israel, and had killed most of the prophets of God.  So Elijah, one of the few people who stayed faithful to God, challenged the prophets of Ba’al.  Elijah and Ba’al’s prophets set up altars to their respective gods, and prayed, and whichever god lit his altar on fire first was the winner.  Elijah doused his altar with water before praying, just to prove how much better God was than Ba’al.  When God lit the altar in one of the showiest miracles of the Old Testament (and Ba’al’s altar failed to get so much as a spark), Elijah was proved right.  So he slaughtered the prophets of Ba’al to drive the message home and possibly also to get revenge for all the prophets of God that had been murdered.  Alas, Queen Jezebel was not amused at having her god humiliated and her priests killed, and threatened to kill Elijah.  And so Elijah, just after participating in a graphic proof of God’s power, fled in terror, ending up in a cave on Mount Horeb.  That’s where our first lesson begins, with Elijah cowering in a cave as far from the people of Israel who follow Jezebel as he can get.  Hiding from the very people he was called to bring God’s Word to.

Then there’s Peter, in the Gospel lesson.  Peter was in a boat with the other disciples, being tossed about on a stormy sea in the wee hours of the morning after what had to have been a nerve-wracking night of trying to keep their boat from sinking.  The disciples—including Peter—thought Jesus was a ghost and were terrified.  Wouldn’t you be, if you were them?  Jesus tried to calm their fear and Peter responded by demanding proof: make him walk on the water, too.  So Peter got out of the boat and came to Jesus.

I once sang a song in a church choir about this story.  It was a fun song, kind of a modern jazzy blues piece, but I didn’t like it.  The moral of the song was “Your faith alone will soon decide/If you’re gonna sink or swim.”  Problem is, that’s not what happens in the story.  Peter’s faith doesn’t decide whether he sinks or swims.  Peter’s faith failed.  Even with Jesus standing right there in front of him, Peter’s fear won out and Peter started to sink like a stone.  If it were left up to Peter’s faith, he would have drowned.

Jesus saved Peter.  Jesus saved Peter despite the fact that Peter’s faith was weak and small and not good enough for the task at hand.  Jesus reached out to Peter when Peter was tossed about by the storm and riddled with doubts and fears, just as God sheltered and guided Elijah on his journey and came to him in the cave.  Just as God comes to us when we are blinded by our own fears.  You see, the story isn’t really about Peter’s faith or even Peter’s fear, it’s about God’s saving grace.  And the story of our faith isn’t about what we do or don’t do, it’s about how we respond to God’s saving grace in our lives.

Like Elijah, it is very tempting to hide ourselves away from the things we are afraid of.  God sends us out into the world to bring his healing grace and proclaim his saving Word, and yet we are afraid.  It’s hard to talk to people about your faith, particularly when there’s a good chance they’ll have prejudices about it—and you.  It’s hard to talk about your faith with people who don’t agree with you.  It’s hard to talk about God and God’s grace in a world full of fear.  It’s hard to have confidence in God’s salvation when you’re being tossed about on the storms of life.  We don’t have to worry about being killed for our faith as Elijah did, and we don’t have to worry about literally drowning if our faith isn’t strong enough as Peter did, but we still have a lot of reasons to fear.  Thank God that God’s faithfulness is stronger and greater than our fears!

God came to Elijah, and sent Elijah back out to spread God’s Word.  Even when Elijah thought that Ba’al’s prophets had taken over and destroyed God’s people, there were still some who remained faithful.  More than that, there were people who needed to hear God’s Word.  As Paul said, how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed?  And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard?  And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?

We are the ones sent to proclaim good news to a fearful world.  We are the ones who have experienced God’s love and faithfulness, and we are the ones sent to pass on that love to everyone we meet.  We don’t know what’s going to happen, and there are many reasons to be afraid.  There have been times—and there will be in the future—when we let our fears get the better of us, when our faith fails.  There will be times when the storms of life distract us from God’s presence beside us.  There will be times when it feels like we’re all alone and we can’t imagine a way things could turn out okay.  But God will always be with us no matter what.  We are not alone, and God will never let us go.  God sends us out into the world, in the midst of the things we fear, but we do not go alone, for God is with us.


Ash Wednesday

Isaiah Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Psalm 51

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

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.


My grandparents often listen to old Andrews Sisters music.  Since I spent a lot of time at their house as a child, I know many of those old songs by heart.  One of them, sung with Bing Crosby, is called “Accentuate the Positive.”  I’m sure many of you have heard the chorus: “You’ve got to Accentuate the Positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative, don’t mess with Mister In-Between.”  It’s a good anthem for the power of positive thinking.  And in many cases, it’s good advice.  But it also has a downside: you can’t always eliminate the negative, and when you can’t, too many people try to ignore it.  We try to shove the unpleasant parts of life under the rug, so they don’t bother us.  We try to bury the ways in which our pleasures—the things that we want, the things that seem good—are connected to injustice or selfishness or other sins.  But you can’t ignore the negative forever.

The positive is fun—people usually don’t need any extra encouragement to go to a party, for example.  Facing up to unpleasant realities is a whole different kettle of fish.  It’s a lot harder, and in the short run at least, less pleasant.  How many people around the world and in our own congregation went to Mardi Gras parties last night, who didn’t come to Ash Wednesday services today? Who can blame people for preferring pancakes, sausages, and doughnuts to ashes, and the reminder that we are dust, and to dust we shall return?

And yet, the truth is that we were created out of the dust of the earth, and to that dust we will all return some day.  We were sinners from our mothers womb, and we cannot free ourselves from the sin and evil and brokenness which holds us captive.  A lot of the time, we can’t even see the bonds that hold us and keep us from reaching our full potential as God’s beloved children.  Sometimes, we can’t see them because we don’t want to—all we want to see is the good stuff, the fun stuff, the stuff we like.  We don’t want to admit that the things and activities we like may not always be good for us, for our fellow humans, or for the world God has entrusted to us.  But the problem is, until we are willing to see that we are held captive by sin and brokenness, we can never be free of them.

We come here on Ash Wednesday, knowing that no matter how hard we try to follow God’s commands, we fall short.  We come here knowing that there is nothing we can do to free ourselves from sin.  And yet we also come here knowing that God loves us, that our savior Jesus Christ came into this world to set us free from the chains that bind us.  We return to the Lord our God, knowing that he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, knowing that if we turn to him and acknowledge our brokenness, he will create clean hearts in us, and put his Spirit within us.

Yes, we are sinners, and we will inevitably return to the dust.  And yet, our God is with us, and our God calls us back to him, to redeem us and set us free.  It is only through Jesus Christ that we may be washed from our sins, renewed and set free to be truly ourselves, healed and whole.  In Christ, we are reconciled to God, and that grace gives us a peace and joy that goes beyond any human understanding.  Instead of burying our heads in the sand and pretending that everything is fine, we are given the strength and support we need to face reality, sure in the knowledge that we are loved and redeemed, and that our sin and brokenness don’t have the final word.  Through Christ, we are given the freedom and power to work for God’s good creation.

We are dust, and to dust we shall return.  But our God is the one who created us out of that dust, who brings healing and renewal to all who come to him.  He loves us so much that he was willing to die for our sake.  We are tied to our Lord’s death and resurrection, and the ashes we wear tonight, real though they are, only tell part of the story.  We are dust, and to dust we shall return, but we are also beloved children of God, in whom we are washed and set free.


A Lutheran’s Argument For Religious Freedom

There are a lot of debates going around now about religious freedom, morality, and related topics.  There is also a lot of violence throughout the world, that testify to the consequences these debates have.  So one of my classmates recently wrote theological defense/championing of religious freedom.  It’s concise, well-reasoned, theologically sound, and well worth reading.  So, with his permission, here it is:


by Robbie Ketcham



The Gospel of Jesus Christ, rightly understood as God’s will to save the world by God’s grace and love alone (Jn. 3:16), not only allows but demands that one not restrict another’s religious or moral freedom in God’s name.



1.) Some of the most notable public displays of religion have often depicted God as legalistic, judgmental or condemnatory. Further, the promoters of this view of God have often taken it upon themselves, either individually or institutionally, to restrict the religious and moral freedom of others, under the supposed authority of God.

a.) This has been most apparent in the rise of militant Islam, including the declaration of religious war against the United States by al-Qaida; and barbaric interpretations and executions of Sharia law in Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Taliban-controlled areas of the Afghan-Pakistan region.

b.) The Christian Church has historically also misused the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a basis for denying religious freedom to others, especially in the Medieval period of the Church.

c.) While the United States has not committed such institutional actions denying religious freedom, certain individuals and so-called Christian churches in the United States have also misused the Gospel so as to intimidate or restrict the freedom of belief of others,  such as in attacks or bigotry against those of other faiths or intentionally desecrating the sacred texts of other faiths.

d.)  Others, on both the “conservative” and “liberal” wings of American Christianity, have advocated for legal limitations on people’s moral freedoms, seeking to impose by law their own sense of personal morality (often regarding sexuality or speech, and using such euphemisms as “family values”) or their own sense of social morality (often regarding the distribution of wealth or taxation, and using such euphemisms as “social justice”).

e.) Still others, while not seeking to act through physical violence and intimidation or through legal action, have propagated corrupt interpretations of the Christian faith, such as claiming the God “hates” or condemns others based on their morality, especially in regards to sexuality.

2.) These images of religion have, especially in recent years, led to a backlash against organized religion – and, in Europe and the United States, against Christianity in particular.

a.) Several recent surveys have shown that non-Christians’ perception of Christians is as judgmental or intolerant. (There have been several articles that I cannot retain at the moment, but here is one:

b.) The recent movement of “evangelical atheism,” epitomized chiefly through writings such as Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” and Christopher Hitchens’ “God is not Great,” attempt to refute religion altogether, but are chiefly a condemnation of this legalistic idea of religion. (Again, I fear I’ve not the link at the moment, but in an article with the London Guardian, Dawkins seemed to acknowledge this – in response to a criticism that his work did not as fully grapple with theologians such as Barth, Tillich or Bonhoeffer, he said that he was confronting religion as most people saw it – which he described as being chiefly that of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, etc.)

3.) Given that such an image of a judgmental God seems to correlate with increasing disillusionment with Christianity, the issue of religious tolerance and freedom is therefore neither merely one of political correctness nor merely one of social niceness. It is, in fact, a theological issue that could well determine the future health of the Christian church in the West. Indeed, one can claim that the promoters of such a judgmental image of God are “turning to a different gospel – not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing [the people] and want to pervert the gospel of Christ” (Gal. 1:7). As such, these false prophets and teachers must be condemned not just on the basis of political correctness or social propriety, but on the basis of true theology and the true Gospel of Christ, lest Satan work through them as “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Mt. 7:15) and so tear down people’s faith in the true Gospel of God’s love and grace, manifest in Jesus the Christ.



1.) The ultimate basis of authority on Christian doctrine is the Incarnate Word of God, Jesus the Christ. For in the Christ, “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14). Hence, the Incarnate Word is also the Word of “grace and truth.” The Incarnate Word is the Word of grace, in that the crucified and resurrected Christ ensures all God’s chosen of salvation and everlasting life by God’s love and freely given grace alone, regardless of works. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (Jn. 3:17). The Incarnate Word is the Word of truth, as Christ is the one and only true Son of God, “the way, the truth and the life” (Jn. 14:6).

2.) The Protestant canon of the Holy Bible is the Inspired Word of God (2 Tim. 3:16). In its original writing and rightly interpreted in light of the Incarnate Word of God, the Bible is an authoritative and infallible witness to God’s desire to be in right relationship with humanity, which includes God’s desire for right human living (the Law; Rom. 7:7), the human inability to so live rightly (the condemnation of the Law; Rom. 7:8-14), and which culminates in the salvific death and resurrection of the Christ, through which God’s relationship with humanity is forever restored (the Gospel; Rom. 3:23-27).

3.) The ancient and ecumenical Creeds of the Church are authoritative accounts of the Christian faith, insofar as they are in line with the Incarnate and Inspired Word of God.

4.) The unaltered Augsburg Confession of 1530 and the Small Catechism of Martin Luther are authoritative accounts of the Christian faith, and in particular of the Gospel of God’s salvation of humanity by grace and love alone without regard to human works, insofar as they are in line with #1-3.

5.) The other writings of the Book of Concord of 1580 are enlightening and useful reflections on the Christian faith, insofar as they are in line with #1-4.

6.) The Holy Spirit’s continued action in the proclamation and witness of the Church is authoritative, insofar as it is in line with #1-4.



1.) As noted in Art. III Sect. 1 of this paper, Jesus Christ is the one and only Son of God. As Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6). While this does not mean that a doctrinal belief in Jesus Christ in this world is a condition for salvation (for indeed, such would make doctrine itself a work, and would restrict God’s freedom of grace; see also Karl Rahner’s concept of “anonymous Christians”), it does mean that adhering to the Christian faith and being baptized in the name of the Triune God is the one assurance of salvation, for “the one who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mk. 16:16). Therefore, this argument in support of the freedom of belief should not be misconstrued as a relativistic view that minimizes the centrality of the Christian faith.

2.) Despite the centrality of Christian faith, however, neither the Incarnate nor the Inspired Word of God suggests that one should force his belief on another through law, force or intimidation. Indeed, the Incarnate and Inspired Word of God instead argues forcefully in favor of upholding another’s freedom of belief.

a.) The Incarnate Word of God is Jesus Christ, in whom is “grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14). This grace is God’s free gift given through the death and resurrection of the Christ, and is freely given to those whom God chooses. Grace and faith, therefore, cannot be obtained through human effort (see Luther’s Small Catechism, on Art. III of the Creed). While God does work through human means to spread the Gospel (see Augsburg Confession, Art. V), any human attempt to force one’s belief upon another runs contrary to God’s sole independence to give grace and faith to those whom He wishes.

b.) The Inspired Word of God – that is, the Protestant canon of the Holy Bible – repeatedly shows Jesus explicitly refusing to force his beliefs on others. For instance, Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the desert with all the kingdoms of the world would have given Jesus the power to force all people to follow a particular belief. However, Jesus explicitly refused such temptation – which, Scripture notes, would have actually been a worship of Satan (Mt. 4:8-10). Even if one considers another belief to be an enemy of his own faith, Jesus does not allow for one to act with force, but with love for enemies and without judgment or condemnation (Lk. 6:27-42). When a Samaritan village refused to welcome Jesus, the disciples asked if they should command fire to come down from heaven and consume the village. But Jesus rebuked the disciples for such thoughts (Lk. 9:51-55). In sending out 70 followers to proclaim the Kingdom of God, Jesus warned that some would reject the message, but he did not order the followers to force any belief, but rather to leave the town and leave any retribution to God alone (Lk. 10:10-12). Even at his arrest, when a disciple attacked a slave of the high priest with a sword, Jesus rebuked such force, saying, “Put your sword back into its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt. 22:51-52). Therefore, Scripture clearly shows that it is against God’s will to force another into one’s own beliefs. While one can try to persuade others through proclamation, it is the Holy Spirit alone that can inspire faith and belief – not any human force of sword, law or intimidation.

c.) It is true that some components of the Old Testament Law, such as the rule of cherem or cities “devoted to destruction” (e.g., Deut. 20:16-18) could be read as allowing for religious warfare. However, such a reading for today is out of line with both the context of the Mosaic Law – which had its roots in an Israelite theocracy that had been overturned by Jesus’ claim that his Kingdom is “not of this world” (Jn. 18:36) — and is out of line with the overall theme of the Inspired Word as grounded in the Incarnate Word, as described in #2a. Further, even such texts were not efforts to force others into Israelite belief, but were attempts to defend the Israelites against others’ beliefs (Deut. 20:18) — therefore, they cannot be used as a basis for attempting to force or intimidate another into adopting one’s own faith. Indeed, the Old Testament also witnesses to God’s sole role in judging the righteousness of other nations and peoples (Isa. 2:3-4), saying that “vengeance is mine” alone (Deut. 32:35, cf. Rom. 12:19). Therefore, the Mosaic Law cannot be used as a basis for forcing or intimidating another into accepting one’s own beliefs.



1.) It is undoubtedly true that a great deal of religious teaching is on morality. The Old Testament Law, the teachings of Jesus and the writings of the New Testament all include numerous exhortations for a moral life. Likewise, the whole basis of Christian faith – that Jesus Christ came to redeem sinners (1 Tim. 1:15) by God’s grace and love alone – would be meaningless if there were no such thing as sin, or that which separates humanity from God.

2.) Despite the wealth of teachings on morality, however, both the Incarnate and Inspired Word of God suggests that one should not attempt to force one’s moral code upon another by force, law, threat of divine condemnation or intimidation, but should instead seek to persuade others toward right action as a response to God’s grace and love.

a.) The Word became Incarnate not to condemn the world, but so that all the world might be saved (Jn. 3:16-17). This salvation cannot be obtained by human action alone (Gal. 2:15), not can it be lost by human action alone (Gal. 3:25-29, Rom. 8:31-39; see also, Augsburg Confession Art. IV). Therefore, if God has chosen to freely justify and save humanity, and in so doing free it of the condemnatory demands of the Law, no human can try to use force, human law or the threat of divine condemnation (the heresy of Pelagianism) to force obedience to a particular moral code.

b.) The Inspired Word of God also refutes any attempt to force moral obedience upon another. Although the Mosaic Law might have been initially used as a legal code for ancient Israel (that is, the “First Use of the Law”), even then God maintained His covenant with Israel despite its transgressions (see, e.g., Ex. 32:14) and remained a God “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (e.g., Ps. 145:8). This steadfast love came to its full manifestation in the death and resurrection of the Christ, which fully freed humanity from the consequences of the Law (Gal. 2:15; Rom. 3:21-22). Moral demands thus become means by which humanity is shown its sin, and is drawn to Christ for forgiveness (the “Second Use of the Law”). God still does desire humanity to follow God’s will, but not as a demand but as an invitation to live a new life in Christ (Rom. 6:1-4; the so-called “Third Use of the Law”). This is not truly “Law” anymore, but free invitation, for breaking such “law” will not carry any eternal or eschatological consequences, as Christ has overcome the full burden of sin (it is true, of course, that human actions can have consequences in this world). Again, Jesus’ refusal of Satan’s temptation of worldly kingdoms manifests this, as an earthly King Jesus could have forced all to follow his moral code. Rather, however, Jesus says that “my kingdom is not of this world” (Jn. 18:36), allowing others the moral freedom even to kill him. Likewise, Paul refused to force Philemon to free Oenesimus, but instead appeals to him on the basis of love (Phm. 8-9). Paul also encourages the Corinthians to give of themselves, but “not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7). Therefore, Scripture shows that God does have moral expectations for humanity, but that no human should take upon himself the power to force his own morality upon another.



1.) Any attempt to use force, law, violence or intimidation as a means to make another adopt a particular belief, or to force not to change beliefs, should be most strongly condemned.

2.) Any attempt to use force, law, violence or intimidation as a means to make another adopt a particular moral code, or to force one into following certain actions on the basis of divine will alone, should be most strongly condemned.

a.) While the realities of civil society do demand some degree of law and restraint, these laws should be based as much as possible on the practical and utilitarian benefits to society, liberty and good order, and should not be based on one’s perception of “God’s will.”

3.) Even if disagreeing strongly with another belief or moral code, one should act with respect if trying to encourage or exhort another to adopt one’s own beliefs or morality.

4.) Those adopting such beliefs as outlined here should proclaim this Gospel of freedom in God’s love and grace, over against the false prophets and teachers who would distort God’s will into a means of coercion, intimidation, legalism, moralism or judgmentalism.

5.) Prayers should be frequently made to God for wisdom and guidance so that even those professing these beliefs might avoid corrupting the God’s will into a means of legalism, judgmentalism and condemnation, and for God to work God’s loving will, despite humanity’s resistance and inclination to cling to its own desire for control and power.

And with such prayers are the foregoing theses humbly submitted.


Some disclaimers:

I do recognize that parts of this might alienate friends both on the right and the left of me – which I’ve actually sort of come to expect. 🙂 I also recognize that not all of this is necessarily “Lutheran,” though it is strongly influenced by my understanding of the Confessions (see “Basis of Authority”). Hence, I title this “A Lutheran’s argument” rather than the more basic “a Lutheran argument” or the more vague “a Christian argument.”

Sermon: Christ the King

Sorry for posting this a week late, but I was a bit busy with Thanksgiving last week.

Christ the King

Sunday, November 23 2008

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

Psalm 95
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46

Preached by Vicar Anna C. Haugen

First Evangelical Lutheran Church, Greensburg, PA

MP3 of SermonBulletin.

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.

Today is the last Sunday of the church year; next week is the first Sunday of Advent, when we begin preparations for the coming of our Lord.  Today, we celebrate the fact that Jesus Christ is our King, ruler of heaven and earth.  We are citizens of two worlds, of this world we live in now and of the world to come, when Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead.  Jesus Christ is Lord of all.  Jesus Christ is the king of both heaven and earth.  It’s easy to imagine Christ as King of heaven, where he reigns in glory with angels and pearly gates and all that.  It’s a lot harder to imagine Christ as king of this world we live in today.

What does it mean that Christ is King?  What kind of a King is he?  When I think of kings in this world, I think of grand castles and historic wars and riches and crown jewels locked safely behind glass.  Most kings in the world today are ceremonial figureheads, like Queen Elizabeth of England.  She comes out, she waves at crowds, she makes speeches, she travels the world, but in the end the country she rules is actually governed by elected officials in Parliament.  Then there are all the kings in history, who actually did rule their people.  Some were good, some were bad, but all had flaws when you take a close look at them.  They favored the rights of the rich and powerful and ignored the needs of the poor, they played favorites, they started stupid and tragic wars, they lived in lavish palaces while the majority of their people lived in squalor and filth, they had so much power and wealth and used it to get more power and wealth.  Even David and Solomon, the two greatest kings in the Bible, had significant problems.  David’s adultery and poor parenting skills caused a vicious civil war, and his son Solomon the Wise raised taxes and forced labor levies so high to pay for his building projects that on his death the kingdom of Israel-God’s chosen people-were permanently split in two.  That split never healed because a few centuries of rule by bad kings later, the Northern Kingdom was conquered by Assyria and taken off as captives and was never heard from again.  If that’s the legacy of a good king, well, I can see why our forefathers rebelled and threw out the English king in favor of a democratic government.  It’s hard to imagine a king being a good thing, hard to think of Christ as a king, when you think of all the bad things kings have done.

Except our democratically-elected political leaders don’t have that great a track record, either.  Washington, Jefferson, and the rest of the founding fathers owned slaves and left in place a system of slavery that was horribly unjust and cruel and caused a massive civil war for their children and grandchildren to fight.  Lincoln had no plans for the future besides winning the Civil War, and his lack of planning led to problems with Reconstruction after his death.  Our presidents have a better track run over the long term than the kings and queens of many other nations, but that’s not saying much.  All leaders of nations, whatever they call themselves and however they came to power, have fallen short of their promises and caused problems for their people.  Yet they keep making new promises about what they’re going to accomplish as leaders, each promise more lavish than the rest.  And we follow them, hoping they’ll fix all the things that are wrong with the world, all the mistakes their predecessors made.  We hope they’ll make things better for us, make a better world, fix the wrongs and injustices that affect our daily lives and prevent new ones from occurring.

On November 5, the day after the recent election, I visited a few shut-ins, and the conversation naturally turned to politics.  The Obama supporters spoke as if Obama was a savior who would right all the wrongs in America and in the world.  The McCain supporters spoke as if America was doomed and would crumble and fall within the next four years.  Now, politics is a touchy and dangerous subject for any pastor to discuss with parishioners, and I’m not quite comfortable yet with where the boundaries are.  But one thing I know for sure is that no matter which political party won this or any election, no matter which candidate is installed in office, the world is in God’s hands and will always be in God’s hands, difficult as that can be to remember at times.  And so we come back to the question: what does it mean that Christ is King of this world as well as the next?

In the first lesson, the leaders of the world-particularly the kings of Israel and Judah-have failed at their task as leaders and shepherds of their people.  The people are scattered and divided, the rich have gotten greedy and the poor have gotten trampled.  There is no justice anywhere.  The ones with God-given gifts to take care of and protect others have used those gifts to make themselves even richer and stronger at the expense of the ones they’re supposed to be protecting.  It’s not their riches God objects to-it’s the way they’ve used those riches to do the exact opposite of what they should be doing.  The result?  Everyone has suffered.  The nation has been conquered by foreigners and everyone-rich and poor alike-has been carried off into exile.  God sent the prophet Ezekiel to bring comfort: exile is not permanent.  The injustices that plague Israel will be redressed, and a new shepherd, a new king, will be given to lead them.  This king, however, will not be like their old leaders who brought them to this low point.  This new David will be a true shepherd-he will take care of the people with justice, and both rich and poor will be fed and protected and cared for.  This new David is Christ, the Messiah, king of heaven and earth.  What does it mean that Christ is King?  Christ is not just a ceremonial king, there to be brought out for rituals and holidays and ignored the rest of the time.  He has true power of both judgment and protection.  Christ’s kingship means that the old way of doing things, the way of life in which value is calculated by riches and power, will come to an end.  In its place will come a world in which all people are valued, in which everyone gets a fair chance and all will be cared for.  Christ’s kingship means that justice isn’t about who’s got the biggest army or the most money, and it means that no matter how bad things seem to be now, this world is not the end.

But justice can’t happen without judgment, and that means that injustices can’t be swept away under the rug or excused as simply the way things are.  People need to be held accountable for the things they’ve done, good and bad.  God’s justice can’t be bribed, or swayed by politics, or biased in any way.  God knows what is in our hearts and minds, God knows what we’ve done even better than we do, and God will judge everyone with greater justice than any human court could ever hope to do.  Let me repeat that: God will judge.  Not us, God.

In the second lesson, Jesus talks about the judgment that will happen when he comes again.  The story is simple: everyone will be judged and sorted into two groups.  The ones who are righteous-the sheep-will go into the Kingdom of heaven, and those who are not righteous-the goats-will be sent away to eternal punishment.  This parable is pretty well known.  It’s a common subject of sermons and Bible study classes.  It’s an excellent way to show what God’s justice looks like: when we see someone in trouble, and we have the power to help, we should do it.  We see the face of God not in the kings and rulers and powerful and wealthy of this world, but in those who are the most vulnerable.  We see the face of God in people who are hungry, thirsty, alone, naked, sick, imprisoned.  We have been given many gifts, not just of money but of time and talents as well, and we should use them to take care of those who honestly cannot take care of themselves.  This is what Christ our King commands.  This is the standard against which he will judge us.

And again I point out: the standard against which Christ will judge us, not the standard we will use to judge others.  Here’s what most people miss when they read this parable: the sheep don’t think they’re sheep and the goats don’t think they’re goats.  The sheep are honestly surprised to hear that they’ve been serving Christ in their daily lives, and the goats honestly can’t think of a time when they haven’t served.  The problem is that the goats were serving the wrong things-and didn’t know it.  They got so caught up in what they thought needed to be done, they forgot to ask what God thought needed to be done, and how God wanted them to go about doing it.

It’s kind of like when I was a kid and I would take care of my younger brother on Saturdays while Mom and Dad were at work.  We had a list of chores to accomplish, and it was my responsibility to see to it the chores got done and that we both did our fair share.  Now, I was a fairly bossy girl, and my brother has always been laid back, and so normally he’d just go along with whatever I told him to do, and normally I tried to divide things relatively equally.  But sometimes I’d get so caught up in the fact that I was in charge that I would try to make my brother do a lot more than his fair share-and then try and micromanage how he did it.  Well, I never got away with it for very long-eventually, even my laid-back brother would call Mom and Dad to complain, and I would get in trouble.  Even if the chores got done like Mom and Dad wanted, they didn’t get done how Mom and Dad wanted when I made my brother do most of the work, and they got done in ways that harmed the relationship between myself and my brother.  Just as it was easy for me to think I was doing what my parents wanted by bossing my brother around and making him do most of the work, it’s easy for us to arrange things the way we want them and justify it by thinking we’re doing what God wants.  It’s easy to fall back into the habits of power-seeking, of seeing things through the eyes of this world instead of through the eyes of Christ, and not even realize we’re doing it.

That’s a scary thought.  If it’s that easy to forget about the true justice of Christ, if we can honestly think we’re serving God when we really aren’t, what’s to stop us from being goats?  How can we make sure we’re headed for eternal life rather than eternal punishment?  We do our best, but what if that isn’t enough?  Well, the bad news is, our best isn’t enough and there’s no way we can make sure we’re sheep and not goats.  We can’t judge anyone, not ourselves, not others.  The power of judgment belongs exclusively to Christ our King, who isn’t blinded by power and money and all the things we use to decide status.  But the good news is that Christ exercises that judgment along with mercy, in grace and love.  Christ uses his kingship for protection and care.  As sinners, we stand condemned before the throne.  But Christ loves us still.  And that is where we place our trust and our hope of salvation, not in our deeds that often go wrong, but in the grace of God.

Jesus Christ is our king both in this world and the next.  Doing good things isn’t just about salvation.  We do good works because our God and King desires justice in this world, and mercy, and he wants to work through us to accomplish it.  We do good works because our God cares just as much about the weak as he does the strong.  Christ can be seen in the hungry, the thirsty, the lonely, the naked, the sick, the dying.  The world may have forgotten them, but God hasn’t.  And neither should we.

Jesus Christ is Lord of all.  The rulers of this world have the power of laws and armies and bureaucracy in their control, but Christ is still the one in ultimate control.  Things may seem grim or depressing when we see all that’s wrong with the world, all the things that we as human beings have done wrong.  But Christ doesn’t exercise that power through a show of riches and might.  He rules by bringing justice and grace to the world, to those who need it the most.  He rules by gathering up the lost and forsaken, by being a good shepherd to his people.  Thanks be to God.

Law and Gospel: living in the tension between sin and salvation

We Christians talk a lot about the Gospel.  It’s a term so basic we don’t often stop to define what we mean when we say it, but let’s take the time now.  “Gospel” can actually mean two things: first and most obviously, the four Gospels are the four books of the Bible that chronicle the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  But there’s a deeper meaning.  “Gospel” literally comes from an old English word meaning “Good News.”  “Evangelism” is derived from an old Greek word meaning “Good News.”  On a fundamental level, the Gospel is the Good News that God loves us and wants to save us from our sins, to make us happy and healthy and whole and in a right relationship with God and with our fellow human beings.  Gospel, then can be found in more places in the Bible than just the four Gospels.  The Gospel can be found in every single book in the Bible, from Genesis through Revelation.  (“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” Isaiah 40:1, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Genesis 28:15, etc.)

But there’s more in the Bible than just Gospel.  Before you can talk about the need for healing, you have to understand that you’re sick.  Before you can see the need for salvation, you have to be able to see sin.  That’s where the other thing in the Bible comes in: the Law.  The Law is the stuff that points out just how far short we fall of the life God intends for us.  The Law is not just the legal codes in Leviticus and other places in the Old Testament.  Just as there is Gospel in the Old Testament, there is also Law in the New Testament.  The parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids in Matthew 25:1-13 is a good example.  The bridesmaids were to meet the groom with lamps lit.  Five brought enough oil, five didn’t.  The groom was delayed.  The five who ran out of oil left to find more, and when they came back they found they had missed the bridegroom’s coming and were not allowed to enter the wedding.  It’s an allegory for the coming of the kingdom of God, and the message is that if you’re not prepared, you don’t get to come in.  After two thousand years of waiting, how many of us are truly ready for the coming of God?  This passage is law because it points out to us just how unready we are for God’s coming into our lives, and because the redeeming mercy of God is not shown to the bridesmaids who weren’t ready.  Will there be mercy?  Yes, because God is a merciful God.  But before there can be mercy, there must be the recognition of a need for it.  The Law convicts us, and the Gospel saves us.

We are redeemed by God’s love manifest in Christ Jesus.  But sin is the default condition of the world and everyone in it, and this will be the case until Christ comes again.  We still sin, every day, which is why we still need God’s love and forgiveness.  We are saints–people made holy by God–who are also sinners.  If we forget that we are saints, we turn away from God in despair at our brokenness.  If we forget we are sinners, we turn away from God because we think we can rely on our own merit, and we become self-righteous hypocrites who condemn sin in others without recognizing it in ourselves.

We need both law and gospel.  We need the law to remind us of our need for God, and we need the Gospel to remind us that God answers our needs.

If you have any questions about this article, or any aspect of Christianity, please comment and I will address the question next week.