We Want to See Jesus

Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year B, March 22nd, 2015

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 51:1-12, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33

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.

“No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” says the LORD. Wouldn’t that be awesome? A world where everyone knew God, and loved him? The kind of “knowing” that God speaks of in this passage isn’t an academic kind of knowing. It’s not about memorizing facts or Bible verses or bits of theological interpretation and being able to trot them out on cue. It’s not about having all the answers ready to go for any question. No, this kind of “knowing” is about relationship. It’s about knowing God like you know your parents, or your spouse, or your child, or your best friend. It’s about living together and loving and working together through good times and bad. It’s the kind of knowing you only get through experience and trust and being there for one another.

But how do we have that kind of relationship with someone we can’t see? Sure, we can worship, study the Bible, pray, give generously of our time and treasure, but that doesn’t guarantee a relationship with God. There have been times in my life when I’ve done all of that and still felt spiritually empty, dry, wondering if God was listening and sometimes if he even existed. It’s possible to do everything right and still not feel that relationship. Of course, then there have been other times when God has felt so close to me I felt like I could reach out and touch him. Times when God felt like he was sitting beside me in worship, or speaking directly to me from the pages of Scripture. Every relationship goes through rough patches—but when my relationships with my family and friends go through rough patches, they’re still physically there, present, and it’s a whole lot easier to bridge that gap.

Of course, the thing is, even when I’m going through a spiritual rough patch, when I can’t see or feel God, he’s still there. I just can’t see him. And sometimes, it’s because I’m not looking in the right place. I get so wrapped up in my own ideas—in how I expect God to act, and do—that I can’t see him because he’s working in a way I didn’t expect. Other times it’s because I’m so distracted by all the stuff going on in my life that I’m just not paying attention. And still other times even looking back, I don’t know why I didn’t see God, and I just have to trust that he was there as he promised to be. When I’m going through a spiritually rewarding patch—when worship is renewing to my soul, when Scripture is enlightening, when prayers feel like they’re being heard—it’s easy to see God. It’s easy to feel that I know God, that our relationship is strong and that God’s teachings are written on my heart. But other times it’s not so easy. So I have a real feeling of kinship with the Greeks in our Gospel lesson who want to see Jesus, because sometimes I want to see him, too. I trust God when he says he’ll always be there, I just … want a little bit of reassurance.

Some Greeks in Jerusalem came to the disciple Philip and said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Don’t we all? Wouldn’t that be wonderful, to see Jesus in the flesh? To be able to ask him questions and learn directly from our Lord? What a great opportunity! I wonder what those Greeks thought when they actually did get to see Jesus. If they were following along behind Philip as he went to get Andrew, and then went up and told Jesus there were some people here to see him. Because if they did, if they heard what Jesus said to Philip and Andrew, I bet they were disappointed and confused. He started talking about dying and rising and bearing fruit and glory and service and being lifted up and … okay, after Jesus died and was resurrected, it would make sense, because that was what Jesus was talking about, but these guys don’t know what’s about to happen. They don’t know. They’re looking for God, or maybe they’re just looking for a miracle worker, and what they find is a guy who looks ordinary but says some crazy weird things. He’s not the kind of guy anybody was expecting. I wonder if they went home disappointed, thinking that they’d been wrong about this Jesus guy, after all. Because here’s the thing, even seeing Jesus in the flesh didn’t magically make peoples’ doubts and fears go away. It didn’t magically mean that they knew God in that deep relationship that Jeremiah was talking about.

Here’s the thing about relationships: they take time and effort and attention. They don’t generally just spring into perfection overnight. You have to work at them. You have to be willing to take the time to get to know someone, to learn and grow with them, and to put in the effort to fix things when they’re wrong. You have to be willing to choose love and forgiveness when people mess up. And God is always willing to do that. To take time for us, to reach out to us, to forgive us and love us and go through life with us and experience it with us.

But we aren’t always willing to do that. We aren’t always willing to take the time for God, to let go of our preconceived notions about God and experience God as he is. We aren’t always willing to take the time to learn about God, to follow God, to get to know God. Sometimes we get distracted. Sometimes we get confused, or angry that God didn’t do things the way we wanted him to. Sometimes life just gets in the way. Sometimes we just … don’t understand, and can’t trust what we don’t understand. And so we break that relationship. We turn away. For a lot of different reasons—some of them that seem pretty good at the time!—we break that relationship.

But here’s the thing. God doesn’t abandon us, even when we abandon him. God won’t force us, but he’ll always be there to offer us forgiveness and a place with him. God is always working to break down the barriers that keep us from seeing him and knowing him. God is always planting the seeds of a new relationship in us and in the world around us.

Amen.

“Who, me?”

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Year C, February 3, 2013

Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, 1 Corinthians 13, Luke 4:21-30

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

 

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

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

A pastor preached a moving sermon on the gifts of the Spirit.  After church, as people were shaking the pastor’s hand on the way out the door, one of the members of the church stopped to chat for a bit.  Now, this member had been on the fringes of the congregation for some time.  He attended worship sporadically, and he didn’t participate in any event or ministry of the church besides Sunday morning worship.  “Pastor,” he said, “that was a great sermon.  Thank you so much for preaching about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and how people should figure out what gifts God has given them so they can use them in ministry.  I could name a couple of people in this congregation who really needed to hear that!”  And off the man went, whistling, secure in the knowledge that while other people had gifts they should be using, he didn’t need to think about it.

No, that hasn’t happened to me, despite preaching on the gifts of the Spirit two weeks running, but many of my friends have a story like that.  It seems to be very easy to assume that God only gifts other people, that God only calls other people, so we can go on with our comfortable lives.  Even when we do accept that God is calling us, too often we try to argue with God, and claim we couldn’t possibly do whatever it is we’ve been called to do.  “Who, me?” seems to be the most common response, followed by a list of excuses.

I know I did.  When God started nudging me in the direction of ministry, I didn’t even believe God actually intervened in daily life.  I believed in God, sure, I just didn’t think he was doing anything in the world these days.  I didn’t believe he could possibly be calling me to ministry, and I sure didn’t want to be a pastor.  I wanted to be a science fiction author, or maybe an editor at a publishing house.  I could also see myself as a historian or an English professor.  I tried to ignore that sense of call as long as I could, but eventually I had to give up, and so I went to seminary.

What a relief it was to hear all the stories of how my classmates got there—I wasn’t the only one who’d tried to get out of a call to ministry!  We sat around in a circle and heard story after story about arguing with God, story after story filled with doubts and plans that got derailed.  Then, in class, as we studied the Bible and the history of Christianity, I noticed more stories about people who were called to a ministry they didn’t want to do and didn’t feel qualified for.  Yet God called them despite their objections, and gave them the gifts and support needed to perform the ministry to which they were called.

Jeremiah was one of them.  Like Moses before him, Jeremiah’s response to being called as a prophet was to say he couldn’t possibly do it.  He was too young.  He wasn’t a good enough speaker.  Who would listen to him, anyway?  Yet God had an answer to every one of Jeremiah’s objections.  “Don’t say you’re too young,” God said, “just go where I tell you.  I’ll give you the words you need, and I’ll take care of what needs to be done.”  God dismisses Jeremiah’s objections, because in the end, it isn’t really about Jeremiah at all.  It’s about God, and what God is doing through Jeremiah.  The words aren’t Jeremiah’s: they belong to God, just as Jeremiah himself does.  Jeremiah may be young and untried, but God will give him the gifts he needs to do the work God has called him to do.

Prophets and pastors aren’t the only ones who don’t expect God’s call and try to avoid it when it comes.  I’ve only been working in ministry full time for a few years, but in that time I’ve seen many cases of ordinary church-goers who’d been given gifts, but didn’t even realize it.  I’ve seen ordinary people sitting in pews just like you are today, who think God may be calling them to something, but dismissed it out of hand.  They were too young, too old, too rich, too poor, too busy, too proud, too humble, not good enough, not eloquent enough, not brave enough, not big enough.  Who were they to think that God might have a job for them to do?  Besides, if God really wanted something done, why hadn’t he asked someone else to do it?

The thing is, though, nobody is good enough, on their own, to do God’s work.  Nobody, on their own, has enough gifts.  Nobody, on their own, knows what really needs to be done.  Nobody, on their own, has all the right words.  Everything that we have, everything that we are, comes from God.  Our Lord created us, formed us in our mothers’ womb.  He was with us every step of our lives and he is still with us, today.  And God has lots of plans for each and every one of us, and gifts to give.  The question is, how will we respond?  Will we hear that call, and will we use those gifts for the work God has given us?  Or will we say, “No, I couldn’t possibly do that, God must be wrong”?

I don’t know what God is calling each individual person here to do.  I don’t know what gifts God has given to members of this congregation.  I don’t even know what God is calling this congregation to—after all, I just got here myself.  But this I can tell you: God is calling us to minister to one another, to our community, and to the larger world, and God is giving us the gifts we need to do so.

Have you ever felt a pull you couldn’t explain?  Have you ever seen a problem and thought, “Somebody really should do something about that”?  Have you ever had people around you say, “you know, I think you could be great at that!”  Those might be signs that God is calling you.  It might be something big, or it could be something as small as sending a card to someone who is sick.

So how do we know whether or not we’re being called?  And how does God give us the gifts for ministry?  The first step is always prayer.  Prayer for guidance, for strength, for wisdom, for courage.  Prayer should be the first thing we do when we wake up in the morning and the last thing we do at night.  And in that prayer, we should leave room for God to speak to us.

The second step is looking around and seeing what resources God has given us.  Part of the way God equips us for ministry is through the church around us.  Regular worship attendance is a large part of it; regular worship strengthens our faith and deepens our connection both to God and to the body of Christ which is the church.  Worship helps nourish our souls just as food nourishes our bodies.

But besides worship, God has given us many things to prepare us for God’s ministry that we don’t always take advantage of.  Bible study, particularly in groups, can help deepen our understanding of God’s Word.  (Augustana will be having an evening Bible study on the first Monday of the month at 7 PM, starting tomorrow.  Birka’s will be the third Sunday at 6:30.)  When we read God’s Word and discuss it, we learn more about how God is active in the world around us and in our lives.  Camp is one place where our faith can be strengthened and our skill at talking about our faith can be helped.  The Synod has regular events to help people learn and grow in their faith.  For example, there will be a Global and Local mission event in Bismarck on February 22nd and 23rd.  And the GIFTS program has regular sessions to help people’s understanding of Scripture and worship grow.

These are only a few of the things God uses to equip us for the ministries God has called us to.  Yes, our lives are busy.  Yes, God’s call is sometimes daunting.  But God has provided all that we need to answer that call, and will continue to provide.

Promises

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Jeremiah 32:1-9, 36-41

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.

Jeremiah was not a very popular guy.  Do you know the story of Cassandra, from Greek mythology, the woman who was doomed to prophesy disaster and not be believed?  Jeremiah was the Cassandra of the Old Testament.  When all the other prophets in Judah (particularly those paid by the government) were predicting that Judah would defeat the mighty Babylonian army that was attacking them, Jeremiah said the opposite.  Even though the Judeans were God’s people, the Babylonians were going to conquer their tiny kingdom.  And Jeremiah refused to be bought off, and he refused to be silenced, and that’s why the king had him locked up at the beginning of today’s lesson.  When everyone else was turning themselves inside out to pretend things were going just fine, Jeremiah pointed out the obvious.  When everyone else was singing hymns to the glory of the Kingdom of Judah and insisting that since they were God’s people nothing bad could ever happen to them, Jeremiah pointed out the ugly truth.  They weren’t acting like God’s people, and bad things could and did happen to them.  And what was going to happen to them—being conquered by Babylon and deported into exile—was going to happen whether they believed it or not.  The only choice they had was whether they were going to let it take them by surprise, unprepared, or instead let God help them prepare for the trials ahead.

They didn’t want to hear what Jeremiah was saying.  They would rather follow false prophets who told them comforting lies.  So King Zedekiah, the ruler of Judah and the man who had ordered Jeremiah to be locked up, came to Jeremiah, and asked him why he insisted on prophesying that the Babylonians were going to win.  The answer may seem obvious: Jeremiah was a true prophet, and that’s what God had told him to say.  And I’m sure Jeremiah had told him that before, but apparently King Zedekiah had a hard time believing that God would allow anything bad to happen to God’s people.

Have you ever felt like Zedekiah?  Like you couldn’t believe something bad was happening, and so you’d rather keep you head in the sand than face it?  A man with his head buried in the sand.We laugh at the image of a guy with his head buried in the sand like an ostrich, but only because we’re looking at it from the outside—we’re not in that guy’s head pretending that everything is fine and if he can’t see the problems they don’t exist.  I know there have been times in my life when I’ve tried to pretend that everything was okay, as if wishing things would turn out fine would make it happen.  It’s hard to face unpleasant realities.  But pretending that everything is fine doesn’t make it true; and that’s as much the case today as it was two and a half thousand years ago when the Babylonian army sat right outside the Jerusalem city wall.  Jeremiah could have told King Zedekiah that.  But he didn’t.  Instead, he told King Zedekiah about a piece of property he’d just bought.

Property?  With the enemy at the gates, Jeremiah bought land?  And why tell that to the king?  I think it has to do with why we have trouble facing unpleasant truths.  I know when I don’t want to face the truth, it’s usually because I think it’s hopeless—that there’s nothing to be done.  I sometimes hide from the truth because it makes me feel like God has abandoned me, or no longer cares for me.  And there have been times in my life where I’ve hidden from the truth because I didn’t want to admit what I had done wrong.  I don’t want to see the truth because I can’t see a way forward.

But you know what?  Whether they were in exile or in Babylon or home in Jerusalem, God was with them.  Just as God is with us no matter where we are, no matter what we do, no matter what happens to us.  By telling Jeremiah to buy that property, God was telling him—and the people of Judah—that there was a future, that God would be with them, that the dark times wouldn’t last forever.  God was telling them that there was something they could do: they could follow God.  There was hope for the future, but that hope could only come through facing their problems and trusting God to guide them through.  God was telling them that the promises he had made them—to be their God and to give them land—were still just as true in that time of trouble as they had been in times of safety and security.

God has made promises to us, too.  God’s promises come to us through Jesus Christ, who came that we might have life, and have it abundantly.  In this broken, sinful world there will be times of trial, times when the world seems to be coming apart around us, times when it’s hard to face what’s coming.  Just as God never abandoned the people of Judah, God will never abandon us.  God loves us so much that he gave his only son to die for our sake.  God loves us so much that he is willing to take our burdens on himself, and redeem us from our brokenness, and make us whole.  God will always be our God, even when we stray from the paths he has laid out for us.  And God will always be with us to guide us back home to him.  God will never draw back from doing good to us, in the midst of our brokenness.  In the midst of our darkness, there is light, and hope.  And that light comes from the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Amen.

Doing the Right Thing: Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, 2008

Lectionary 22 / Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)

Sunday, August 31

Jeremiah 15:15-21

Psalm 26:1-8
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

Preached by Vicar Anna C. Haugen

First Evangelical Lutheran Church, Greensburg, PA

Sermon podcast

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.

There is a banner that hangs over the door to the gym in Talmadge Middle School in Independence, Oregon. It’s one of many inspirational quotes and slogans that decorate the halls of that school. It says: “What is right is not always popular; what is popular is not always right.” The banner was there every day of the three years I went to school there, but few of the students ever bothered to read it, or apply it to their lives if they did. I know I read it, decided it was true, and promptly forgot about it.

Doing the right thing is hard, when it’s not the popular thing. It’s much easier, not to mention a lot more fun, to go with the flow and do what everyone else is doing. It’s safer, too—no danger of looking stupid or preachy or offending people. And let’s face it: most of the choices we have to make every day, most of the things we do, aren’t exactly life-shattering choices. Nobody lives or dies, nobody gets rich or poor, nobody’s soul is saved or lost. We may not always do things that are exactly right, but they’re not exactly wrong, either. The banner above the gym door is true, but it’s not what we want to hear.

Jeremiah lived by that truth. He’d been called by God to be a prophet, to bring God’s word to the people of Israel. It’s been said that a prophet’s job is to speak truth to power, even when that’s not what the power wants to hear. Jeremiah went one better: he spoke the truth to everyone. And no one wanted to hear it. Our first lesson today comes from one of Jeremiah’s laments. He complains that people are persecuting him because he’s speaking the words God has told him to speak. Jeremiah was attacked and accused of treason for doing what God wanted him to. But in today’s lesson, God tells him that this persecution isn’t going to last forever; in the end, God’s will will be done, and Jeremiah will be saved. More than that, eventually the people of Israel will heed Isaiah’s words and return to doing the right thing, to behaving like the people of God, and not just paying lip service to their faith while doing the easy thing, the popular thing.

It must have seemed an incredible, almost unbelievable, idea. Israel had been doing the popular thing for a long time. They’d demanded that God give them a king so they could be “like their neighbors,” and although David and Solomon and a few others had been good rulers, most had been utter disasters. Israel had focused on trade and their economy, and they’d produced an upper class that could rival the neighboring countries in wealth, but at the cost of trampling on the poor and oppressed. They’d learned to play power-politics, staking their safety and freedom on military alliances and power blocs, playing one neighboring nation off against another. Some of them had even adopted the gods of the nations around them. Most people worshipped as God had commanded, gave lip service to God’s laws, and went on with their daily lives as if it made no difference. Their minds were set on human things. God had brought them out of Egypt and freed them from slavery to be a chosen people, holy, a royal priesthood, but they behaved no differently than anybody else.

It’s no wonder they didn’t like Jeremiah; he called them on everything they were doing wrong, and told them that this time, they weren’t going to escape the consequences of their actions. It wasn’t what they wanted to hear, and it wasn’t what they wanted to believe. Most of the Israelites weren’t bad people, after all, and most of them worshipped God according to Israel’s traditions. Surely they hadn’t done anything bad enough to warrant conquest. Surely something would happen to turn the tide and restore Israel to safety and prominence. It’s true, the northern kingdom of Judah had already been conquered, and the Babylonians were right outside their gates; there was still a good chance they might be bribed, or perhaps an alliance with Egypt would provide the military might to drive the invaders from their lands.

I’m sure the people of Israel felt they had many good reasons to disregard Jeremiah’s warnings. What good would repentance and changing their way of life, their way of thinking, do against an invading army? They went about their business as usual, ignored the word of God in their midst, and hoped for the best. But in the end, all their power politics and riches couldn’t save them. They were conquered by Babylon and taken into exile. Many fled to Egypt to escape; Jeremiah wanted to stay in Israel but was forced to leave his homeland for Egypt. God’s assurances that all would be well in the end must have been even more unbelievable then than they had been when they were made.

Like the Israelites of Jeremiah’s day, Peter, too, had his mind set on human things. You may recall from last week’s Gospel that Peter has just confessed that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of the living God. It’s a profound insight; it’s the first time in Matthew’s gospel that anyone but the narrator has called Jesus that. You’d think that the person who is spiritually-minded enough to realize that just a few verses earlier would get what Jesus is trying to say now, but Peter is still too focused on human things. According to the beliefs of the time, the Messiah was supposed to be a political figure, a king just like his ancestor David who would drive out the Romans and their puppet-kings and restore Israel to its former glory as a nation. True, there would be some religious changes, but in support of the political restoration, not in place of it. Suffering? Death? What kind of revolutionary goes in predicting that ahead of time? What kind of revolutionary counts that as success? And even if you ignore the political aspects of the Messiah’s coming, how could suffering and death possibly be according to the will of God?

Peter’s not alone in thinking that, of course; how many people today assume that when something bad happens, it means God has abandoned us? How many people assume that if God loves you and you have the right faith, you’ll always be happy and healthy and rich? How many people assume that faith is nothing more than coming to church on Sunday, and ignoring it the rest of the week, as if God was a decoration you could take out on Sunday and store in a box the rest of the time? How many people who believe that are sitting in our pews right now?

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” We tend to think of the cross sentimentally, today. We sing hymns about it, we create beautiful artwork, we wear it as jewelry. If we think about “bearing our crosses,” we tend to think about things like arthritis, having to deal with annoying people, the kinds of problems everyone deals with all the time. That’s not what the disciples were thinking about when they heard Jesus say those words.

This is what they were thinking about: crucifixion was the ugliest, most painful, most shameful death the Roman Empire could come up with—and remember that this is a people who considered fights to the death to be a form of public entertainment. Criminals condemned to crucifixion were dragged naked through town, carrying a part of the thing that was going to kill them on their back, mocked by everyone who saw them. Then they were nailed to their cross—heavy, iron spikes driven through their hands and feet—and hung up in the air by those wounds for hours in the hot sun. They didn’t die from blood loss or pain, they died when their bodies became too weak and tired to hold their chest up to breathe anymore and they suffocated. And it took a long time, while the whole city watched and jeered. Take up your cross? What kind of insanity is that? Who would follow a Messiah who promised that as the reward?

Someone who had their mind set, not on human things, but on divine. Paul gives us a brief outline of what this mindset looks like in our second lesson: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. … Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Paul’s words give us a pretty picture of what life as a Christian is supposed to be like. It’s not as easy as he makes it sound of course, particularly in days like our own when hate and fear and evil seem to be everywhere, from local crime to national politics to international terrorists and wars. But oh, God, think of what life could be like if we could all genuinely live the way Paul tells us to, lives full of love and compassion and joy and harmony, a peace of mind and spirit too deep to be explained, even in times of trouble. Think of what life could be like, if we truly put our trust and our faith in Christ Jesus our Lord, the true Messiah who comes not for political or military revolution, but to save us from our sins, make us children of God, and show us how to live lives of truth and justice and grace. Think of what we could be if we put our faith in God, instead of our money and our power and our politics. If we were ruled by hope instead of fear. If we did what was right, instead of what was popular.

Living that way means that you can’t always take the easy way out. It means you can’t hide behind the excuse that everyone else is doing it. It also means that people aren’t always going to like what you have to say, or what you do. Few people in America risk death or imprisonment on account of their faith as Jeremiah did, but ridicule and discrimination, both obvious and not, are certainly possible. Focusing on divine things instead of human things doesn’t mean everything in your life will go well, or that God will reward your faith with material prosperity. But it does mean that no matter where you go, no matter what happens to you, God will be with you, to guide and protect and care for you.

Jeremiah died in exile in Egypt. We don’t know how he died; we do know that he never stopped calling the people of God to repentance and new lives of faith, and that once the worst had happened, his words turned to comfort and hope for the future. Peter was crucified in Rome, after years of working tirelessly to spread the Gospel. Yet they were never alone, for God was with them, and when they died, God was waiting to welcome them into the rooms prepared for them. May we, like them and all the saints that came before us, learn to keep our minds on God’s will, instead of our own. Amen.