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.

The Holy Spirit and the Kingdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

What do you hear?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Preparations of the Heart

Advent 2A, December 8, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.