The God of Small Things

Christmas Eve, December 24, 2019

Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-20

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

 

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

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

Luke’s account of Jesus birth begins with power and might—worldly power, that is.  “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.”  The Roman Empire ruled as much of the world as it could conquer, and exercised influence through threat of military reprisals on an even larger area.  To Romans, anyone who wasn’t a Roman citizen was a barbarian … and they made a distinction between being a citizen, who had rights, and merely being a subject, someone who lived in the Roman Empire, but didn’t have rights, and this latter category was the majority of the population.  Rome prided itself on having brought peace, but it was the peace of a sword.  They called the Emperor the Prince of Peace, but it was a peace based on killing anyone who disagreed, and selling their children into slavery.  It was a peace based on the idea might was right.  There were no checks and balances, no pretense of neutral courts.  Parents had a right to do whatever they wanted to their children, up to and including killing them.  Husbands had a right to do whatever they wanted to their wives and concubines, up to and including killing them.  Slaveoners had the same rights over slaves, and slaves made up a large and ever-growing proportion of the Roman population.  Things that we would consider horrific abuses were believed to be right and good.  And over it all, the Emperor reigned, oppressing the poor so that he and his favorites might be enriched.  This was all seen as inevitable and good.  Goodness, for the Roman Empire, lay in the exercise of power, and obedience to authority.

So when the Emperor to be sure he was squeezing every last bit of taxes possible out of the poorest and most marginalized people, he declared a census of the entire world—or, at least, the part of it he controlled, which to him was the same thing.  And so it was, that a two newlyweds–the wife heavily pregnant–had to leave home and go to a distant town called Bethlehem, because that was where the husband’s family was from.  They had to travel knowing that Mary was heavily pregnant and could give birth at any time.  They had to travel to a place where they had only distant family, family that might not take them in because Mary had been pregnant already when she and Joseph got married.  And they got there, tired and sore, and found that there was no room for them, no room except a stable filled with animals.  And so it was, that in a humble stable, in a backwater region, in poverty and disgrace, the God of all creation was born in human flesh.  The greatest power in all the universe came not in pomp and splendor, but in weakness, in hardship, in humility, thousands of miles away from any power or authority that humans recognized.

This is not an accident.  It is not a coincidence.  God chose that poor couple to bear and raise his son.  God chose that stable for his son to be born in.  God could have arranged for Jesus to be born the son of a great emperor; God could have arranged for Jesus to have all the wealth and prestige and worldly power that the world has to offer.  But God didn’t do that, because God sees things very differently than we humans do.  God doesn’t care about wealth and human power; God cares about every human being from the smallest to the greatest.  God cares about justice for all people, not just the ones on top; God cares about joy and hope and love and life and light, and God wants these things for all people, not just the ones fortunate enough to be born in palaces.  When we spend too much time chasing worldly power, we let it shape our views of who matters and who doesn’t, who deserves good things and who can be ignored.  But the truth is, nobody gets ignored by God.  Nobody gets forgotten.  There is no place too small or too humble or too poor for God to be present in, and no human being too wretched or sinful or despised for God to love.  And God sent God’s only Son, Jesus, to be born in a stable as a sign for us of what really matters.

I’m going to close with a poem by Ana Lisa de Jon that says this better than I could:

My God is the God of small things.
Seeds….
Newborn babies.
Nutshells that contain multiple truths
in humble small containers.

My God is the God of small beginnings.
Like breathing
or opening eyelids.
If we but move today
we can accomplish what he asks.

God, my God of swaddled babes
that fumble for the breast
He teaches us the worth of
lying still in trust.

My God is the God of humble things.
Caves.
Beds of straw.
Lives that don’t amount to much
if judged upon their origins.

My God is the God of silent things.
Wombs.
Passages in the dark.
Quiet incubators, within which cells divide
and muscles stretch towards the light.

God, my God of birth pangs
and pain that finds release
He teaches us that the dark
often precedes new life.

My God is the god of honed things
Parred down.
Simplified.
A carpenter sanding back the wood
to reveal the grain beneath.

My God is the God of beloved things.
Neglected.
Abandoned.
Rescued for nothing they have done,
but because of a plan of redemption.

God, my God of Christmas coming
somehow the wonder of Advent
is knowing we need do nothing
but let new life be birthed in us.

Amen.

Light in the Darkness

Christmas Day, December 25th, 2016

Isaiah 52:7-10, Psalm 98, Hebrews 1:1-4, John 1:1-14

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

 

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

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

I think it’s hard for us modern people to understand the miracle of light in the darkness.  Sure, we get that darkness is bad—you’re a lot more likely to hurt yourself when the lights are out, either by tripping over something or walking into something you didn’t see.  And when it’s dark, the animal part of your brain gets a lot jumpier.  Or, at least mine does.  When I get up in the middle of the night to get a glass of water by the light of the nightlights, there is always that bit of my brain that is sure there is something lying in wait to get me in the shadows.  I know perfectly well that there isn’t anything there, under the bed or around the corner, but there’s always a little corner of my mind that just won’t listen to reason.  I know the darkness is bad.

But at the same time, I have light any time I want it.  I can flip on a switch, or turn on my phone, or grab a flashlight.  There are streetlights outside so that I can talk through town even after dark with enough light to see.  And if the power went out for a long time, I’ve got a lot of candles I could dig out.  The only time I ever have to deal with darkness—truly deal with it—is when I want to.  When I choose not to turn the lights on.  But that wasn’t the case in Jesus’ day.

In Jesus’ day, they didn’t have electric lights.  They did have oil lamps … but those were expensive, and a lot dimmer than any modern electric light.  The oil to provide good light for fifteen minutes of work could cost as much as a day’s wages for a poor laborer.  So poor people generally didn’t use lamps at all.  When the sun went down, the only light available was that of the cookfire.  And, since the Middle East is arid and trees are scarce, even wood was expensive.  You didn’t burn it unless you had to; you might only light the fire when you actually had a meal to cook.  If you were a poor person, you went to bed with the sun.  And while middle-class people could afford lamp oil, it was still an expensive and precious commodity.  There were no streetlights, no lamps on peoples’ front porches.  When night came, the light went away.  You went home, probably to bed, and stayed there until dawn.  The darkness could be pushed back a little by a lamp or a cookfire, but only dimly, only temporarily.

So when our Gospel reading calls Jesus the light of the world, that means something far more significant than we really get.  The light that shines in the darkness, that the darkness can’t overcome.  This is not just a dim and feeble lamp that you save for when you absolutely need it.  This is a light that shines, always.  That gives light to everyone, not just those huddled around it.  This is a light that shines deep into the gloomiest corners of the world, the murkiest corners of our hearts.  There is no shadow that can hide from it, no evil that can escape it, no hate or fear or selfishness that can prevent that light from shining.  That light sustains our life, sustains our souls.

That light came into this world in the form of a baby, born in a manger, the Word of God made flesh and blood and bone.  That light is Jesus Christ, and his light still shines in this world.  It does not matter how dark the world gets.  It does not matter how much sin and evil try to hide, it does not matter what shadows they try to cast over all the world.  The light of Jesus Christ will always be there, guiding us to God and showing us the truth.  The light of Christ will always be there to soften the hard-hearted and heal the broken-hearted and judge the cruel-hearted.  The light of Christ will always be there to expose our self-deceptions, to quiet our fears, to help us see the world as it really is.  That light helps us to see the truths deeper than any illusion.

Much as we fear the dark, we sometimes turn to it.  Because, you see, the dark is easier.  It’s easier to let our fears control us than it is to be brave.  When dealing with people who are different, it’s easier to hate than it is to love.  It’s easier to cling to comforting illusions and self-deceptions than it is to face the truth.  It’s easier to puff ourselves up with self-righteousness than it is to follow God’s true path of righteousness.  It’s easier to assume we’re always right and good than it is to face the times when we fail, when we make mistakes, when we are wrong.

But the light of Christ shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.  The light of Christ helps us see God as he truly is, and turns our hearts and minds to God, so that we may become his children ever more truly.  The light of Christ helps us see ourselves and others more clearly.  Thanks be to God for Jesus Christ, our light and our life.

Amen.

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.

Amen.

Holding Together

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

The Baby who Breaks the Cycle

Christmas Eve, December 24, 2015

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

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

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

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

Normally, when I read the words of the prophet Isaiah that we just heard, I focus on the light, and on the announcement of the child’s birth, that child who will be the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, the Prince of Peace, who will bring justice and righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. But this week, as I was pondering these texts, I found myself struck by other verses. The ones about the boots of the tramping warriors, and the garments soaked in blood, and people suffering under the yoke of oppression. And two things came to mind: first, what words to hear on the night of Jesus’ birth! And second, how much the boots of warriors and garments rolled in blood have been everywhere, this last year. How much fear and violence and hate there seems to be in the world. Isis beheading people and sending terrorists to Beirut and Paris. Mass shootings in the US. Police killing people and then trying to cover it up. Race riots. Women and children and disabled people abused and murdered by husbands, fathers, teachers. Every kind of evil under the sun. There has been so much violence and bloodshed this year, and I wasn’t expecting to hear it in the Bible texts appointed for Christmas Eve, and I didn’t want it to be there. I wanted to hear about peace, and light, and a beautiful baby. I don’t want to hear about violence and baby Jesus in the same breath.

And yet, isn’t that very contrast the reason that the birth of Jesus is such good news indeed? We live in a world filled with violence on a grand scale that reaches across countries, and violence on a small scale that lives in our own homes and schools. We live with violence and injustice, and desperately need peace; we walk in darkness and need light. And whenever we rely on our own abilities to protect ourselves and make the world safer, it seems things backfire against us. We get rid of one terrorist only to have another, worse one take his place. We fight to defend ourselves and only add to the cycle of violence. We fight fire with fire, only to find we made the whole blaze bigger and more dangerous. The more we rely on our own might, the more tramping warriors there are, the more garments soaked in blood, the more darkness there is. It seems an endless cycle.

But in Jesus Christ, that cycle is broken. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us, and that son is the Prince of Peace who will rule with justice and with righteousness. And with that birth, the yoke across our shoulders—the burden of violence, of hatred, of fear—is broken. There is a new way, a different way. A way that gives light in the darkness, that brings joy instead of fear and hope instead of hate. This baby, to us this night, is a king indeed—but not a king like the kings of this world. This baby looks nothing like the kings and rulers of this world, for this baby hasn’t come to set up another country just like all the rest. This baby has come to turn the whole world upside down, to change the way we live, to change the way we relate to one another. This baby has come to make the whole world new.

Because the peace this baby has come to bring isn’t the temporary peace of a ceasefire while both sides get ready for the next fight, or the false peace where you grit your teeth and smile at people you don’t like because it’s the holidays, or the unjust peace where you don’t speak out against those who hurt you because you don’t dare. This baby has come to bring true peace, the peace that the world cannot give and doesn’t understand, the peace based on justice and mercy and love for all people and all of creation.

Jesus did not come into this world to play the same old power games in the same old way. If he had, he would have been born in a palace. But instead, God chose for his son to be born in the cold, in the dark, in a backwater village where nobody wanted him or his family. And God chose to send the first messengers announcing the birth of his son to shepherds—poor, dirty, outcasts. I think part of the reason he chose that is so that we wouldn’t be able to fool ourselves that this Prince of Peace is anything like the other princes, lords, presidents, governors, and leaders that we see around us all the time. This prince is different. This King of Kings, this Mighty God, does not come with a sword to try and fight us into peacefulness. He doesn’t come to respond to hate with more hate. He comes with open arms to bring love in the midst of hate, justice in the midst of oppression, mercy in the midst of judgmentalism. He comes to take everything we think we know about the way the world works, and turn it upside down.

Jesus Christ came into this cold, dark world to build something new. To bring light, and life, and peace, and hope. He came to bring a new way of being, a new way of looking at the world. A way based on love, instead of fear and hate; a way that opens up the possibility for true peace, in our hearts, in our community, and in our world. And though that peace will not be fully known until Christ comes again in glory, its light shines among us even now. That light shines every time we choose love instead of hate, every time we choose justice and mercy instead of revenge, every time we choose to put down our fists and our hateful words and raise our hands to help instead. That light redeems us, breaks us free from old, worn patterns, from despair, and helps us see the world through God’s eyes, instead of the world’s eyes. That light shines every time we help those in need, every time we choose to be generous, every time we open our hearts and our minds to God and God’s people. That light shines every time we set aside our fears and our doubts to do the right thing.

Thanks be to God for that light, for hope in the midst of a hopeless world, for peace in the midst of a violent world, and for joy despite all the things the powers of this world can throw at us. May the light of God shine in our hearts this Christmas and throughout the year.

Amen.

The Snake Problem

Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B, March 15th, 2015

Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21

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.

When people ask for God to save them, I doubt they have the serpent on a pole in mind. Put yourself in the Israelites shoes. You’re out camping in the wilderness, with your whole family, and you can’t just pack it out and go home because you have no home but the one you’re travelling towards. And then, all of a sudden, there are snakes. LOTS OF SNAKES. Everywhere around. You can’t avoid them. You can’t get away from them. And they’re poisonous! If they bite you, you die. What would you pray to God for? Probably to take the snakes away. Right? You would want them gone. And, if that wasn’t possible, you would pray to God that they wouldn’t bite you. First choice, no snakes. Second choice, snakes that don’t bite.

And that’s not what God did. Instead of smiting the snakes, vanishing them, or pulling their fangs, God arranged a cure for the poison. An anti-venom. Put a bronze snake up on a pole, and look at the snake, and it will heal you after a snake bites you. I read this lesson and I asked myself, “couldn’t God have just prevented the snakes from biting them in the first place?”

That’s a question that comes up often. Whenever someone gets sick, whenever someone gets hurt, we pray for healing, and we wonder, why couldn’t God have prevented it before it happened? Wouldn’t prevention be easier and cheaper than a cure? All this evil and violence and sin and brokenness in the world—why can’t God just make it go away? Why can’t God get rid of the snakes?

The problem is, of course, that all too often the snakes are us. We human beings cause so much hurt in the world, as individuals and as societies. We hurt one another. We act selfishly. We are broken with sin and death, and we spread that brokenness around. We sow the wind and reap the whirlwind. We hurt others and ourselves through what we do and through what we leave undone. We don’t always see the consequences of our words and actions—in fact, humans tend to be pretty good at ignoring them—but they can be huge. In the case of the Israelites, their poisonous words came back to haunt them in the poison of the serpents. But it wasn’t only the ones who had been complaining who bore the brunt of the snake attacks. No. The whole community was affected. It’s like that with us, too: the people whose lives are most devastated are often not the ones doing the worst.

In order to prevent evil—in order to keep human beings from screwing up and hurting themselves and each other—God would have to take away our free will. God would have to take away our ability to make choices. Because we choose the wrong thing so often! We choose to spread the poison. We choose to close our eyes to the pain of others. We choose to ignore the way our words and actions affect the people around us and even the people far away. In our first lesson, God could have removed the snakes. But what do you do when the snakes are the people? When everyone is a snake, and everyone is a victim of snakes? Because we are all sinners, and we are all victims of sin.

And if you think I’m exaggerating, think about Jesus’ words in the Gospel lesson about doing things in the dark instead of doing them in the light. What are the things you do or say or think in the darkness—where nobody can see it—instead of the light? What things about yourself do you hide away? What things have you done or said that you sweep under the rug where nobody can see them? I do it, you do it, we all do it. “And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light.” Even when we think we want the light, we keep doing things in the dark. We talk about how much we love Christ’s light, and yet we keep doing things under the cover of darkness.

Until Christ comes again—until there is a new heaven and a new earth and we are made whole in Christ, we’re going to keep sinning and being sinned against. We are going to keep choosing the darkness because it’s easier, because everyone else does, because we’re ashamed. While we live in this sinful, broken world, that’s not going to change. We repent, we turn to the light, and pretty soon we slide back into the shadows. Or we talk about the light, but we keep the shadows inside us, hidden away so the world can’t see them. There isn’t a way to take the snakes out without taking us out as well. While we live on this earth, there will always be darkness. When Christ comes again, when we stand before the throne, all our darkness will be washed away. Until then, we’re going to have to live with it.

But that doesn’t mean the snakes win. It doesn’t mean there’s no hope. It doesn’t mean the poison gets the last word. When the people of Israel were bitten by the snakes, and they looked up to that bronze serpent, they were healed. The snakes were still there. The bites and the pain were still there. But the poison was gone. They were saved from death. They weren’t saved from the snakes at that point—that would come later—but the snakes couldn’t kill them, as long as they were looking to the serpent on a pole.

It’s a matter of perspective. Where were they looking? Where was their focus? As long as they stayed focused on the snakes, on their own pain and the poison that was killing them, they died. When they looked up—when they looked for the gift God had given them—the poison was healed. It is so easy to focus on the pain, on the suffering, on the creepy and bad things. But if we do that, we may not be able to see the salvation God gives us. We don’t have a bronze serpent on a pole. We have Christ, crucified for us and resurrected. When we focus on the pain and suffering around us and in our own lives, it’s so easy to lose hope, to drown in it. But when we remember God’s love, when we remember the salvation and grace given to us in Christ Jesus, when we look to Christ, we know that we are not alone, that we have hope, and that there is a love that will not let us go.

Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” God has not abandoned us to the poison and darkness of the world. We look to Christ, hanging on a wooden pole for all the world to see. It was our sins that killed him. We look to his death on a cross as an example and symbol of our sinfulness, just as the people of Israel looked to an example and symbol of the snakes that were killing him. And Christ saves us from the poison of our sins and our darkness, just as the serpent on a pole saved the people of Israel from the poison of the snakes, the poison of their own bitterness. In this life, we still have to live with the consequences of our actions, and all too often we have to live with the consequences of other peoples’ actions, too. The snakes are still here, and they still have the power to bite, even if they can’t kill us any longer.

But unlike the serpent in the wilderness, Jesus’ death on a cross is not a temporary fix, because it’s not the end of the story. Jesus died, but he rose again. And we who look to him are tied to his death and resurrection. Just as he rose, so we too will rise, when he comes again. We will see him, face to face, and we will be made whole and clean so that no darkness or poison will ever be able to get a hold of us again. We’ll choose the light, forever and always, joyfully and freely, and all the pains and hurts that our darkness causes ourselves and one another will be healed. Thanks be to God.

Amen.

The Wedding Robe

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 28), Year A, October 5, 2014

Exodus 32:1-14, Psalm 23, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14

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

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

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

Have you ever had that dream where you’re going to something important—work or school, usually—and you get up in front of everyone and you realize you’re naked? Yeah. That one. Or a dream when you have something important you’re supposed to do and you realize when you get there that you’ve forgotten the one crucial thing you can’t do without. I think everyone gets those dreams, at least sometimes in their life, and some people get them more often than others. If you get that dream often, this Gospel reading may have struck a chord. Because in it, Jesus tells a parable about a king hosting a huge banquet for the wedding of his son, and the very last detail of the story is that he spots a guest who isn’t dressed properly—who doesn’t have a wedding robe—and throws him out into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. He wasn’t prepared, he wasn’t dressed right, so out he goes.

Which is kind of weird, because the king has spent most of the parable doing everything he can to get people in the front door in the first place. There are no qualifications to getting invited in. The best people in the land get invitations, and so do the worst people. Rich and poor, good and bad, old and young, healthy and sick, men and women, everyone gets invited. The king makes a huge deal about this: the feast is for everyone. He sends his servants out to bring in everyone they find. Not just those who can afford to dress in the latest fashions, or the ones who are of the right social circle to know what to wear to a wedding, everyone. And then the one guy gets thrown out. But when you think about it, he can’t have been the only one who wasn’t dressed properly—who didn’t have time to change, or who didn’t own a wedding robe—when the king’s servants came to get him. So it just doesn’t make sense that he gets thrown out.

Parables are stories that teach, they’re metaphors, they’re images that invite us in and invite us to put ourselves in the story. To ask questions, and to think about God in a new way. Now, obviously, no story about human beings can contain all that God is and all that God does. Which is why there are so many parables. Together, they add up to a larger story about who God is and what God is doing.

Some things about the parables are obvious. For one thing, many of them are about parties. When you look at all the parables about parties and all the stories about parties and feasts in the Bible and all the visions and dreams about parties and feasts, it’s pretty clear that God loves a celebration. And so many of the parties in those parables and stories and visions are metaphors for the Kingdom of Heaven that whenever you come across a party or a feast, you should be thinking about God’s Kingdom in the back of your head. Similarly, most of the time you come across a parable of a king or landowner or master, God is being compared to the king or landowner or master. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the king or master is God, just that God is like that king in some way.

In this parable, we have a party, and a king. And we have a lot of invitations—God is calling people in, and they’re not listening, but those invitations go out to everyone regardless of who they are or what they’ve done. Just like God’s call to salvation goes out to everybody. So far, so good. But then we get to the dude who doesn’t have a wedding robe, and gets thrown out on his ear. And that’s where the Bible commentaries start to have problems.

If the party is like heaven and the king is like God, what the heck does the wedding robe symbolize? There are no other parables about wedding robes, so we can’t look elsewhere for help. What could anyone possibly do—or fail to do—that would get them thrown out of heaven once they were already in? And the outer darkness—does that stand for hell? We today spend a lot more time thinking about hell than people did in the Bible, Christians have spent the last two thousand years imagining ever more horrible hells and trying to figure out who’s going to hell and who isn’t, and then taking those speculations and reading them into the Bible. Is this hell, or is it something else, and is it permanent? What I mean is, could the guy go home and get a wedding robe and be allowed back in, or is he doomed to stay in the outer darkness forever? And is it the guy’s lack of a robe that causes him to be thrown out, or the fact that he didn’t answer the king? And what does it mean that many are called but few are chosen? Does that mean chosen to enter God’s kingdom, or chosen to have a specific role, or what?

This is where all those old nightmares about showing up to school naked start running through peoples’ heads, except worse. Because when you wake up from one of those nightmares, you sigh in relief, get up and go to the closet and you know what to wear and you just have to put it on and go. In the light of day it’s no big deal. But we don’t know what the robe symbolizes. We don’t! So we can’t just go to the closet and pull it out and go about our business, secure in the knowledge that we’ve got it covered and we’re in like Flynn. I mean, people have claimed it means all kinds of things that we should or shouldn’t do, but everyone has a different answer. And like I said, we Christians have spent two thousand years imagining worse and worse hells and more and more reasons why people are going to them, and Americans tend to like neat and simple answers to faith questions, and there isn’t one for this question.

Here are a few things to think about. First, Jesus was talking to the Chief Priests and the Pharisees when he told this parable. They were part of the people of Israel, the first people God had called, and they thought they knew what God wanted of them. They took it for granted that they had all the answers. They were so certain they knew what God wanted that even when God stood in front of them as Jesus, they couldn’t accept that they might not know everything. In the terms of the parable, they thought they were wearing the wedding robe and already in at the feast. They were wrong.

Second, let’s remember God’s history of calling people. God is incredibly persistent. Even when people turn away and reject him, God keeps calling them. Take our first lesson: the people of Israel turning away from God to worship a statue they made. God got angry, but God didn’t abandon them. God was faithful even when they were not. The whole pattern of the Old Testament is people turning away from God, facing the consequences, and being called back and forgiven and welcomed. Any interpretation of this parable has to take that history into account.

Then there’s the matter of the robe. True, there are no other wedding robes in the parables, but remember the parable of the prodigal son. When the prodigal son, who has rejected his father and gone away to live on his own, hits rock bottom and comes back expecting to get thrown out on his ear or, at best, given a job as a servant, his father gives him a new, wonderful outfit and throws him a party to welcome him home. In that parable, the guy was already in the place where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth—the pig-sty, where he was starving. He comes home and his father gives him everything he could ever want, far more than he dared to ask for.

And in Paul’s letters, he talks several times about being “clothed in Christ.” That is, when we are baptized, we are reborn as children of God, and we wear Christ’s love and sacrifice for us as if it were a garment. And that clothing, that “robe,” if you will, is nothing we have or make or do, but it is given to us by God. That’s why people being baptized, from babies to adults, often wear white robes. It’s why Confirmation students wear white robes, too. And it’s why, in some churches, they have a white garment called a pall that is draped over the casket at funerals. It symbolizes Christ, whose love and mercy and forgiveness wraps around us like a warm fuzzy bathrobe, an invisible garment that we wear twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. And that love is more important than anything we do or don’t do. So when you hear about this dude with no wedding robe, think about the prodigal son, and about the wonderful garment that is Christ.

I can’t tell you what Jesus meant, for sure, with all the details of this parable. I can’t tell you what the robe means, or why the guy didn’t have an answer for the king, or what the outer darkness is for sure. I can’t give you neat certainties and easy answers, because that’s not how Jesus works and that isn’t what the parables are for. But I can tell you this, for certain and sure: God calls everyone. No matter who, no matter where, God calls everyone. And the love and grace given to us in Jesus Christ is more powerful than anything else in the world, including our own sinfulness. Thanks be to God.

Amen.