What is Baptism?

Baptism of Our Lord, Year A, January 12, 2020

Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17

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.

 

Ritual baths to cleanse away impurity have always been an important part of Judaism.  They’re called mikvehs.  Have you touched a dead body or someone with a disfiguring disease?  Mikveh.  Have you just finished menstruating?  Mikveh.  Have you just recovered from some gross or disturbing medical condition?  Mikveh.  Are you converting to Judaism?  Mikveh.  Getting ready for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish religious calendar?  Mikveh.  Did you just buy new dishes from a gentile?  They need to be purified in a mikveh.  Unlike the Christian sacrament of baptism, mikvehs in Jewish religion are something that people do many times throughout their lives, any time someone needs to be ritually purified.  John the Baptist was part of this long tradition.  He invited people out to the Jordan river for a mikveh that would cleanse them from the impurity of their sin.  But he probably wasn’t expecting this to be a permanent change in their spiritual status, any more than any other mikveh was.  It would be something that needed to be repeated over and over again throughout the person’s life.

This is why John the Baptist was so confused and horrified when Jesus came to him and asked to be baptized.  John’s baptism—John’s mikveh—was all about sin and ritual purity.  Jesus, as God’s son, was not sinful.  He was already pure.  He didn’t need to be washed and made clean.  But in the process of being baptized, Jesus was doing something new.  Jesus was taking the ritual bath of his Jewish heritage, and turning it into the Christian ritual of baptism.

On the surface, they are very alike.  Both involve water symbolically washing away impurity; and while modern Jewish mikvehs don’t usually have anything to do with sin and repentance, John’s version did, and so do Christian baptisms.  Yet Christian baptism is not just about repenting from sin.  If sin and repentance were the only part of it, we’d need to re-baptize people all the time.  Baptism is a lot of things.  Here are some of them:

Baptism is an initiation rite.  In baptism, we become part of the Christian community and fellowship.  The person being baptized (or their parents, if they are too young) make promises to be a part of the Christian community, and the congregation responds by promising to support them in their life of faith.  Through this we become part of the body of Christ, the hands and feet of God in the world.  We confess the same faith as all Christians in every time and place.  We begin our service to the same Lord, and our worship of the same Savior.

Baptism is an adoption.  In baptism, we are claimed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the seal of the cross of Christ forever.  The words that God spoke at Jesus’ baptism—”This is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased”—are also the words God speaks over every person being baptized.  We are adopted into the family of God and become brothers and sisters with Christ and with every other Christian who has ever been or ever will be.

Baptism is a washing away of sin, but not on a temporary basis.  We are not cleansed by the water itself, but by God’s promises of forgiveness.  It is that promise, and not the water, we trust in; it is that promise to which we turn, and it is that promise that will never be rescinded, no matter how much we sin after our baptism.  It’s the first time we experience the grace of God, which showers down upon us for the rest of our lives.

Baptism is new birth.  Just like being born from our mother’s womb means passing through the waters of birth, so too does being born from above mean passing through the waters of baptism.  By the way, if you’ve ever been asked if you have been born again, the answer is yes: it happened when you were baptized.

Baptism is death.  In the waters of baptism, our old sinful self is drowned, and we rise out of the water as new people, tied to Christ’s death and resurrection.  As Christ died, so too we will one day die; as Christ rose from the grave, so too will we one day rise from the grave, when Christ comes to judge the living and the dead.

Baptism is when the Holy Spirit first enters into us.  It is when we are anointed with the power of God.  Every time there is a baptism in the New Testament, the Spirit is there.  Sometimes the Spirit appears before the baptism, sometimes during it, sometimes after it, but in all cases, the Spirit is there.  The Spirit is planted in us like a seed, and helps us grow in faith, hope, and love.  The Spirit helps us prepare for and participate in God’s coming kingdom, to the glory of God the Father.

Baptism is both God’s gift and our response to that gift.  It is God reaching out to us to claim us as God’s own, and it is how we accept and reach back to God.  It is something that God does to us and in us, and it is something we choose and claim as our own and affirm and incorporate into our lives.

Baptism is a sacrament.  It is something commanded by God, which combines a promise of God with a visible symbol for all to see.  Baptism takes something intangible—God’s promises and our faith—and unites it with something which we can see, touch, taste.  It takes something absolutely ordinary and every-day (water!) and turns it into the most extraordinary thing imaginable.  It connects us with God.  It is the living water which sustains our souls.  It reminds us of God’s presence and God’s promises and our own promises every time we turn on the tap or cross the river or go to the beach.

God shows no partiality.  The gift of God’s grace, the gift of living water, the gift of adoption, the gift of the Holy Spirit, these gifts are open to everyone.  All we have to do is receive them.  God has done the hard work already—God has sent God’s Son, Jesus Christ, to call us, to teach us, to heal us, to claim us, to die for us, and to rise from the grave for us.  All we need do is respond to what God has done and is doing in us.  There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus; nothing that can invalidate the promises God made at our baptism.  We can go astray, leave the faith, abandon God, and still when we come back our baptism is just as valid as it ever was.  All we have to do is say ‘yes’ to it again, say ‘yes’ to God again.

This is the foundation of the Christian life.  This is the foundation of the Christian calling.  This is the foundation of everything that we have and everything that we are, which is why in many ancient Christian traditions, the Baptism of Jesus is a far more important holy day than Christmas.  God calls us to do many things, to love one another, to work for justice and peace, to feed the hungry and care for the sick and clothe the naked and visit those in prison and free those held in bondage by the injustices of the world.  All of these things have their foundation in baptism.  We are children of God.  We are members of the body of Christ in the world.  We are brothers and sisters of all God’s children.  We are filled with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ.  We are claimed by God and sent out into the world to do God’s will.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Third Sunday of Advent, Year A, December 15, 2019

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

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.

John the Baptist was a prophet.  God spoke to him, and gave him a mission, and he knew it.  That mission was to prepare the way for God’s anointed holy one, by proclaiming a need for repentance and forgiveness.  John the Baptist could say “Thus says the Lord” and be absolutely correct and literal that the Lord was speaking through him.  John the Baptist knew Jesus from his earliest days, because they were cousins.  And John the Baptist doubted.  His mission to point out sin where he saw it got him put in prison, because powerful people don’t like having their misdeeds pointed out.  He sat there, in prison, and he knew that God was at work, and he knew that God was going to send a messiah, but sitting there in prison, waiting to be executed for the crime of speaking the plain, unvarnished truth, he wanted reassurance that the messiah was coming soon.  He sent his followers to ask Jesus “Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?”

We Christians have this idea that faith has to be perfect, and that faith and doubt are opposites.  Christians, we think, are supposed to have this serene confidence that never wavers no matter what happens around us.  Christians, we think, are supposed to have all the answers to every possible question, and if none of those are true—if we doubt, if we have questions we can’t answer, if our confidence in God’s saving grace wavers—then we are bad Christians.  But there are two problems with that.  First, people throughout history have done all sorts of terrible and evil things without remorse because they had convinced themselves that it was God’s will.  Being certain you’re right doesn’t always mean you actually are right. And secondly, what about John the Baptist?  As a prophet, if anyone on the planet should be able to sail through life doubt-free, it would be him.  And yet he questioned.  He wasn’t sure.  He thought he knew what God wanted, and when things turned out differently than he expected, he let himself wonder whether he had been right or not.

And Jesus doesn’t condemn or scold him for it.  Jesus doesn’t rebuke or admonish him, or turn to the watching crowds and tell them they needed to be better than the great John the Baptist himself.  Jesus doesn’t get offended at being asked to prove who he is and what he has come to do.  Instead, Jesus responds with reassurance.  Look at what I’m doing and what is happening around me, Jesus tells John’s disciples, and ask yourself what it looks like for God’s coming kingdom to break in among us.

See, the one thing all of scripture and the prophets are really clear on, is what it looks like when God’s will is done.  What it looks like when the kingdom of God happens in reality here, now among us.  People with physical impairments, whose body or brain doesn’t work quite right, are healed.  People who have been abused or exploited or suffered receive good news and freedom from that abuse and exploitation and suffering.  All people receive justice and mercy and healing, in whatever way they need it, but that is especially true of those whose lives have been full of injustice and cruelty and illness.  We tend to see God in the good times and beautiful things in the world, and God is certainly present in those times and places; but according to scripture, God is most truly present in the dark places, the times when everything goes wrong, the places where there is hurt and suffering and pain and grief, the places that we think are the most God-forsaken.  God is in those places, and God is at work to bring healing and wholeness and life.  If you want to know where God is you go to the places where there is the most pain and despair, and you look for healing and hope and things getting better.  The cross is one such place: a place of death and destruction and pain and humiliation, and yet God was present in that place, and using that horror to save the world.  So when John has doubts about whether or not Jesus is God’s promised Messiah, Jesus points not to himself but to what he has done.  The people he has healed and fed and loved and made new.  Those are all signs of God’s coming kingdom, so when you see them, you know that God is near, and God is at work.

This is why I keep asking where people have seen God, and sharing my own stories about where I’ve seen God.  Because we all have times of doubt.  We all have times when we can’t quite believe that God is present.  It’s easy to believe when everything is going well and all your needs are met.  It’s a lot harder to believe when you are in pain, when you are grieving or depressed, when you are lonely, when everything is going wrong.  Human nature tends to focus on the bad stuff, for the simple reason that if you’re alone in the wilderness and you don’t notice a beautiful flower, no harm done.  But if you’re alone in the wilderness and you don’t notice a hungry bear, you could die.  So our brains focus on all the horrible things as a survival strategy, and so we don’t notice—or don’t value—the ways in which God is at work in the midst of all those horrible things.  We notice the bears that want to eat us, but not the grace-filled flowers that make our world better.  We have to train ourselves to notice God’s saving work, both in the wonderful good times, but also especially in the times of pain, and fear, and doubt.  And that’s what Jesus tells John: yes, things are really bad right now, especially for you.  But even in the midst of all this pain and suffering, God is still at work.  Don’t lose hope.

But the other thing is, that John isn’t alone, and Jesus makes sure that John’s disciples won’t leave him to suffer by himself.  It’s not just John’s faith that’s important; the faith of his community is important too.  It’s not just about what John sees, it’s about what they all see.  It’s not just about John having faith in the midst of his doubts, in the midst of pain and fear, it’s about them all having faith in the midst of doubt, and pain, and fear, and supporting one another and John.  Human beings were not created to be lone wolves.  Human beings were not created to be isolated individuals.  Human beings were created to form relationships, communities.  Right there in the first chapter of Genesis, God says that it is not good for human beings to be alone.  And this passage shows why.  In the midst of his suffering, in prison, and about to die, John’s faith is faltering and weak.  John’s ability to see God’s good work in the world is at its lowest ebb.  John has reached the end of his rope.

But if John can’t see, his friends can see for him.  If John can’t be strong enough to endure, his friends can help support him.  If John’s faith is faltering, his friends can have faith for him and in him.  John is not alone.  God is with him, but in this time of suffering when God’s presence is the hardest to see, John’s friends can be the tangible manifestation of God’s presence and love.  We all have times when our faith falters.  We all have times we fail.  We all have times that our own strength is not enough to get us through.  That’s why God gives us good and healthy relationships: family, friends, communities both secular and religious.  And yes, sometimes those communities fail; sometimes we form unhealthy, manipulative and abusive relationships instead of healthy and life-giving ones.  But the good and healthy relationships are a blessing from God and God desires all people to have such blessings.

Our world can be a bleak and scary place.  We are waiting for Christ to come again in glory; we are waiting for the promised salvation; we are waiting for the reign of God to blossom among us.  Sometimes it’s hard to keep the faith; sometimes it’s easy to assume that God has abandoned us and the whole world is going to hell.  And yet, even in the darkest places, God is present and at work.  Even in the midst of evil, God is working to bring hope and healing and new life.

Amen.

Preparing the Way

Advent 2C, 2018, December 19, 2018

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

Repent!

Second Sunday of Advent, December 4th, 2016

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Abraham as our Ancestor

Third Sunday after Advent, December 13th, 2015

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

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.

Last week we heard about John the Baptist’s birth, and this week we’re hearing about his message. And I have to ask: when you think “good news,” does being called a “brood of vipers” come to mind? No? Being told there’s an axe waiting to cut down any tree that bears good fruit—implying that you’re one of the trees to be cut down—that doesn’t relieve your fears? How about “the wrath to come”—does that make you think of Good News? I mean, there are some ultra-conservative hardliners who seem to positively rejoice in the misfortunes of others with a ghoulish delight in how they see God punishing them, but let’s be honest. Does this really sound like Good News?

We’re familiar with this hellfire-and-brimstone preaching. We hear it all the time. You better watch out, people say, or you’re going to go to Hell. Are you sure you’re really saved? Shape up! You have to be morally perfect, because if you do ANYTHING wrong, you’re going to hell—unless we like you well enough, in which case we’ll make excuses. You better believe EXACTLY the right thing, because if not, God won’t accept you. Are you saved? Turn or burn!

And then on the other side of the Christian community, you have the people who hear all of this and—quite rightly—see that such preaching is both harmful and misleading, because the Bible tells us over and over again that God’s deepest, truest nature is love, and that while his anger lasts for a short time, his love lasts forever. And they see that focusing on hellfire all the time makes people fear God, and drives away most people who aren’t always true believers, so they just kind of ignore Bible passages about judgment. But the thing is, while love is God’s defining characteristic, that doesn’t mean that God is a doormat: there’s judgment, too. But whether you’ve spent more time listening to the hellfire preachers or to the people who just kind of ignore Hell altogether, I would bet you anything you please that our preconceptions get in the way of how we hear John’s message.

First, it’s a lot better news than the scare-the-Hell-out-of-you types would have you believe. Yes, there is judgment. Yes, we are a brood of vipers—and can you look at the news and our politicians across the spectrum and all the evil that humans do to one another and disagree? But the thing is, let’s take a good hard look at what John tells people to do: share with those less fortunate, and treat people fairly. That’s it! That’s all you have to do. Of course, it’s easy to say that, and less easy to do it, when everyone around you is coming up with reasons why it’s okay to cheat people or ignore the poor or blame others for their misfortunes—after all—everyone is doing it. But still, we’re not talking superhuman feats of goodness, and we’re not talking the perfect faith that believes all the right things and never wavers. We’re talking about things people can actually do. No impossible standards here! That’s good news! Set your mind on God, live a just and charitable life! Let God take care of the rest! Bear fruit worthy of repentance, and trust that God’s Messiah will come and save you.

Humans like to make things complicated. And we like to think that it depends on us—what we do, what we believe. We like that because it gives us power, it puts the ball in our court, makes salvation about our actions and our choices. But it’s really not; we are incapable of earning our salvation, because we are incapable of perfection. God knows that, and that is why he sent Jesus. We can’t get rid of our own sin.

Last week, we heard the prophet Malachi talking about God burning away our impurities. This week, we hear John the Baptist talking about how the Messiah will separate the wheat from the chaff, and burn up the chaff. Now, we tend to hear this metaphor saying “good people will be saved by Jesus, and bad people will burn in hell,” but that’s not it. I remind you that wheat and chaff are both part of the same plant. Do you know anybody who’s really, totally, 100% good? Or really, totally, 100% bad? Even if you think you do, I bet things are a little bit more complicated than that. We all have wheat and chaff inside us, and when the Messiah comes—when Christ comes again, to judge the living and the dead—that chaff is going to be taken out of us and burned. We can’t do that. We can’t separate out the good and evil in any human heart. If salvation depended on making ourselves good enough to enter God’s kingdom, we would all be damned. But we don’t, because it’s not about us. It’s not about our actions. It’s about God choosing to save us, God loving us even though we are sinners, God sending Jesus Christ his Son to break the chains of sin and death, and, at the end of the ages, Jesus Christ coming again to judge the living and the dead.

It’s not our job to make ourselves perfect for God; God will purify us. It’s our job to live until he comes, to do the best we can in this sinful, fallen world, to do God’s work, to spread God’s love, to share with those who need help and live our lives with justice. The prophet Micah put it this way: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” It’s not about being perfect, in action or belief. But there is action required.

When we focus too much on judgement, we tend to think it’s all about our own actions—do this, or say this, or believe this, and you’ll be saved. Yet when we forget about judgment it’s really easy to get complacent. It’s really easy to go, “Yeah, God will fix everything eventually, and he loves me, so it doesn’t matter what I do. I can do or say anything selfish or hateful, and it doesn’t matter.” Which is wrong, of course—yes, God forgives us, but that doesn’t mean we should do bad things just because we can. There are consequences to our actions, in this life and the next. Jesus will burn away the chaff in our hearts, but obviously our lives and the whole world will be much better if we keep the chaff to a minimum. God loves us, and God forgives us, but what we do still matters.

And then there’s the other reason people get complacent. John warns about that, too. “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor,’ for I tell you, God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.” See, in those days, Jews took a lot of pride in being children of Abraham. God chose Abraham, which meant God chose them, so they could sit comfortably in that knowledge without ever looking at their own lives and asking themselves if they were doing what God wanted them to do. After all, they already knew, right? They were children of Abraham! They had all that history! They’d heard the stories, they’d heard the words of Moses and the Prophets, they knew the promises, they had it made. No need for uncomfortable examination of their hearts, their actions, or their community, because after all, they were the Children of Abraham! God had chosen them and given them that land!

When modern American Christians get complacent, it’s not about being children of Abraham. It’s usually about things like denominations and theological heritage: “We’re Lutherans!” Or “We’re Baptists!” “We’re God’s chosen people!” Or sometimes it’s about our congregation and building: “God brought our ancestors here to the prairie, and built a great community of faith here!” Or sometimes it’s about our politics: “We’re the Republicans!” Or “We’re the Democrats!” Whichever group you’re part of, a lot of people will say “We’re the ones who know how God really wants us to vote!” There are a lot of things we put our trust in and take for granted. And it’s not that any of these things are bad—on the contrary, many of them are very good and have brought much good into the world, just like the children of Abraham did. The problem comes when we use them as an excuse to ask ourselves what God wants us to do now. The problem comes when they become more important to us than following God’s call to repent, to live with justice and mercy, to trust in the salvation to come.

May we heed John’s call to repent, to live lives of justice and mercy.  Most of all, may we learn to trust in the salvation of our Lord.

Amen.

Preparing the way

Second Sunday after Advent, December 6th, 2015

Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 1:68-79, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 1:8-25

 

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.

The Second Sunday of Advent is traditionally about John the Baptist, the guy who was the voice calling out in the wilderness “Prepare the way of the Lord!” John the Baptist was the guy who got people all fired up about God and repentance so that when Jesus started his ministry, people were ready to listen. But as I was thinking about John the Baptist this week, about preparing the way for God, I started to ask myself, “so who prepared the way for John? Who helped make him who he was, who helped get him started on his journey of faith so that he might lead others to God?”

As it happens, Luke tells us a little bit about John’s heritage. His parents were fairly ordinary Jews from a priestly family; his father was a priest named Zechariah, and his mother’s name was Elizabeth. And Zechariah and Elizabeth were old, and they had no children—which in those days, meant there was something seriously wrong. They believed that children were the way God showed his favor—if you didn’t have children, God must be punishing you. And they always assumed it was the woman’s fault, that she must have something wrong with her. Not just physically wrong, but morally wrong. So there Zechariah and Elizabeth were, old and childless.

And then it was Zechariah’s turn to serve at the Temple and enter the holy of holies, the inner sanctuary that only priests could enter and then only on certain days, while the congregation waited outside. And at that time, the angel Gabriel came to Zechariah and told him not to be afraid, that God had heard their prayers, and that he and Elizabeth were going to have a child. And Zechariah didn’t believe him.

Can you blame him? I mean, they were past the point when you normally have kids. And sure, there were times in the Bible when God gave children to an infertile couple—even an elderly infertile couple, most notably Sarah and Abraham—but it still doesn’t happen every day. If an angel appeared to you at the age of sixty and said you were going to have a child, would you leap to believe that right away? I wouldn’t! Twice in three thousand years isn’t much of a precedent. I’d be more likely to wonder if I’d fallen and hit my head and was hallucinating, or something. So I don’t blame Zechariah for being a bit skeptical. He asked for a sign, some way to know that God’s messenger was really there, and really meant he and Elizabeth would have a child. I don’t think he wanted the sign he got, though. Which was that he couldn’t talk at all until the baby was born.

But while Zechariah and the Angel were talking, the congregation was waiting outside, wondering what was taking so long. I bet they were surprised when Zechariah came out, unable to talk, unable to tell them what had happened! I bet they were even more surprised, later, to hear that old Elizabeth was pregnant.

Time passed. Elizabeth spent a lot of time thinking about what was happening to her and her husband. She spent a lot of time praying and asking God what to do. Elizabeth was six months pregnant when the angel Gabriel came to Mary, to let her know that she, too, was going to have a surprising pregnancy—the Messiah, the Son of God. And the first thing that Mary did when she heard the news was to go visit her cousin Elizabeth. And even though everybody else treated Mary badly because she was pregnant out of wedlock, Elizabeth welcomed her and supported her and believed that God was at work in Mary and Mary’s child, just as God was at work with Elizabeth and her child. I wonder, if Elizabeth hadn’t been there to support her, how much harder would it have been for Mary? If Elizabeth hadn’t been there to say, “you’re not crazy, God really has chosen you to do something special”, would Mary have been able to boldly proclaim what God had done to her and for her in the beautiful words of the Magnificat, her Song of Praise? Imagine how much harder it would have been for Mary, to do what God had called her to do, if she’d had to do it all alone. She already had a call from God that would make her life a lot harder and turn a lot of people against her—but at least she had the support of her beloved cousin.

So Mary went home, relieved, supported, affirmed, to try and patch things up with Joseph, her fiancé, who thought that she’d been stepping out on him. Elizabeth and Zechariah went on through the rest of her pregnancy, and she gave birth to a son, and she named him John, which means “God is Gracious.” Now, throughout all this time, remember, Zechariah had been unable to speak. And all their family and friends thought that of course Zechariah would want to name the long-anticipated son after himself! But John asked for something to write with, and confirmed that the baby’s name should be John. Because John was a gift from God, freely given. And when he wrote that, Zechariah’s mouth was open and he was able to speak for the first time in nine months. For nine months, he hadn’t been able to talk. For nine months, he had been forced to listen, and to think. For nine months, he had been contemplating God’s gift, and the angel’s words, and the ways in which God had been with the people of Israel throughout history, and when his mouth opened he began to praise God, in the words that we spoke together as our Psalm.

He spoke of all the things God had done for them: setting them free from slavery, delivering them from their enemies, bringing peace, saving them from death, showing them compassion and mercy and forgiving their sins, and always, always, always remembering the promises he had made to them. Zechariah remembered how faithful God had been to those old promises, and he saw that God was beginning to make new promises, too, and that his and Elizabeth’s son John, this gift of a gracious God, was going to have a part in that salvation.

Quite a change from the guy who looked at an angel and said, “no offense, but how do I know you’re telling the truth?” And I wonder. Without the angel’s visit, without those months to think it over in silence, would Zechariah have been able to sing that song? Would he have been able to be the kind of father who could raise John to be who he needed to be? And Elizabeth, she didn’t have an angel’s visit, but she didn’t need one. She spent the months before John’s birth thinking, too, rejoicing in God’s gift and seeing what God was doing in and through her cousin Mary. That certainty in God’s promises, in God’s forgiveness, in God’s presence—John was going to need that in order to become John the Baptist, a man like one of the prophets of old, out in the desert proclaiming that God’s reign was near, calling all people to repentance and forgiveness, calling them to prepare themselves for God’s coming, insisting that everyone would see God’s salvation.

John got his faith from somewhere, and I think that somewhere was his parents’ experiences in the months before his birth. Though his parents probably didn’t live long enough to see it, John took that faith and he listened for God’s call and he went out into the world and did what God wanted him to do, and in so doing he prepared the way for the Messiah to come. Jesus, only six months younger than John, started his ministry probably a couple of years after him, a few years of people who had gotten used to thinking about forgiveness and repentance, of salvation, of God present and active in the world around them. And because of John the Baptist, they were ready to listen to Jesus; and John the Baptist was ready because of his parents, and ordinary Jewish couple whose story is only recorded in one of the four Gospels.

It makes me wonder, how God is working through us, here and now? Because we, too, are getting ready for Christ’s coming. Not just at Christmas, but his coming again in glory at the end of the age. We, too, are called to proclaim the kingdom of God, to follow God’s call, to tell the stories of what God has done, to use our hands to do God’s work in the world. Elizabeth and Zechariah probably never saw the fruits of their labors; I doubt they understood what the Son of God was truly going to do, what it meant that their son was going to follow in a prophet’s footsteps. Just like we don’t often understand the consequences of what God calls us to do. And yet, through their witness, through their daily actions in raising their son, God’s will was done, and God’s presence in the world grew. May we, like Zechariah, Elizabeth, and John, do our part to prepare for the coming of our Lord.

Amen.

An epiphany in the wilderness

Baptism of our Lord, Year B, January 11, 2014

Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:1-11

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

 

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

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

There’s a movie in theaters right now called “Into The Woods.” It’s based on a musical by Stephen Sondheim that throws several well-known fairytales—Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel—together and intertwines them. It’s called “Into the Woods” because that’s where all the action takes place, where the characters meet and collide and scheme and cheat and help one another and learn and grow. In the woods—far away from their ordinary daily lives, from the patterns and social expectations that guide their normal behavior and perspectives—change is possible. Growth is possible. Learning is possible. Magic happens, and ordinary things become extraordinary, in the woods.

In the Bible, the wilderness functions kind of the same way. It’s the place where change happens. It’s a place that God is most likely to be able to take someone and turn them around, break into their life and make them new. In the wilderness—whether a physical or a spiritual kind of wilderness—you can’t hide behind anything anymore. You don’t have your normal job or what the neighbors will think or anything else to distract you. God often appears in the wilderness. God spoke to Moses through the burning bush in the wilderness, and it was during a forty-year stay in the wilderness that the Hebrew people learned to trust God and follow him again after generations of slavery in Egypt. It was in the wilderness that God renewed the faith of a despairing Elijah. And it is in the wilderness that John the Baptizer appears, the messenger preparing the way for Jesus.

And it is in the wilderness that John proclaims a baptism of repentance. Repentance literally means “turning around.” You go out into the wilderness to see John the Baptist, and that’s what’s going to happen. You will be turned around. You will be re-oriented. Your priorities will change. But the baptism of John was just water—water, and the wilderness. John knew that something was coming, something new, something extraordinary, beyond human understanding. John knew that God was coming. “I have baptized you with water,” John said. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” An ordinary repentance—even one in the wilderness—may not last long. When you go back to your normal life, it is all too easy to slip back around into the way you’ve always been. But it’s not quite so easy to slide back when God is the one to turn you around, when you have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit.

When Jesus came to the Jordan River, he was one of many. At this point, Jesus looked like a fairly normal guy—nobody looking at him would see anything special. Yes, he was the Son of God, but he hadn’t really done much to show it. His time to teach and preach and heal and feed people and die had not yet come. His baptism was the turning point. Jesus, being fully God as well as being fully human, didn’t need any sins forgiven—he’d never sinned in the first place. But this was the turning point, when people begin to see how incredible this ordinary-looking person really is. This was the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. This is when things are set in motion. This is when God manifests—not just the Son by himself but all three together, Father, Son, and Spirit.

When Jesus went down into the water in the wilderness, he said good-bye to his normal, ordinary life. When he came up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn open and the Spirit came down to him and the Father said “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” It’s like a family reunion, a big group hug before Jesus begins his ministry, before he puts himself on a collision course with the powers of this world which will eventually result in his own death. I love you, the Father says. I will always be with you even as you walk towards death, the Spirit says. And if you think I’m putting too much weight on Jesus’ death here, at the beginning of the story, think about this: the word Mark uses to describe the heavens tearing apart? That word is only used one other time in Mark: when Jesus dies, and the curtain of the Temple that separates ordinary people from the Holy of Holies is torn in two. Jesus’ whole ministry is bookended by this tearing: the things that separate us from God—whether the curtain of the temple, or the heavens themselves—get ripped in two. And it’s not just a simple slice, easily mended. This is a rip, a shredding. There’s no putting it back together again. God is coming into the world—God is coming to be with us.

This is the season of Epiphany. Epiphany is about revelations, about God appearing, and as we move through this season, I want you to listen to the readings each week I want you to listen for the epiphanies, the revelations, in each one. In our reading today, it’s obvious—God tears the heavens open and speaks directly, and the Holy Spirit takes visible form like a dove, coming down. But although this epiphany seems to be mostly for Jesus—we’re told he heard the voice of God and saw the Spirit, we don’t know whether anyone else did—baptism is not just for Jesus, it’s for us. Because John’s baptism is only with water, but after this, every baptism done in Jesus’ name involves the Holy Spirit and the voice of God. That baptism with the Holy Spirit that John talked about that was coming? That’s the baptism we experience every time we bring a child or adult to the font and splash them with water. It’s not just our words. It’s not just our water. God is present.

In each baptism, the heavens are torn open a little wider and the Holy Spirit comes down, dancing over the water just as the Spirit danced over the waters of creation. In every baptism, God claims the one in the water, saying “You are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased.” No matter what else happens, God is there, present in the whole community, welcoming and claiming each child and adult as God’s own. God is working. God is calling us and turning us around. We can still walk away from God—but God will never walk away from us, because God loves us and has chosen us. No matter where we go—no matter where life takes us—whether we are faithful or not, whether we walk by still waters and green pastures or through wilderness and temptation—God is with us. Sometimes, especially when we’re walking through wilderness and temptation. Even when we are blind to him, when our own fears and dreams drown out his voice, God is with us, calling us and guiding us and hoping we will turn to him and follow. Hoping that we will see him all around us.

Because God doesn’t just come to us once. God doesn’t just have one epiphany. God keeps coming to us, all the time, in many ways. In good times in bad, at home and when we wander and stray far away. We don’t always notice God—we’re not very good at seeing God’s presence in our lives. When good things happen, we attribute them all to our own skill or luck or deserving, instead of to God’s gifts. When bad things happen, we ask why God allowed it even while we ignore the ways God supported us and carried us through the wilderness. But even when we don’t see God, God is there.

We don’t always see God, but whether we see him or not, God is there. And when we do see him, when we look up from our distractions and our cares and see him, that’s an epiphany. What have the epiphanies been in your life?

Amen.