A God Who Listens

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year C (Lectionary 17), July 28, 2019

Genesis 18:20-32, Psalm 138, Colossians 2:6-15[16-19], Luke 11:1-13

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 ourFather, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Our Gospel lesson is Luke’s recounting of the Lord’s Prayer.  Now, we all know the Lord’s Prayer; both Matthew and Luke recount Jesus teaching it to his disciples, and the version we all know by heart is an amalgamation of the two versions.  One of the interesting things about Luke’s recount of how Jesus taught this prayer, however, is how little time Jesus spends talking about the prayer, and how much time Jesus spends talking about what God is like.  The prayer itself takes up three verses of our reading.  The other ten verses are about God, and how God responds to prayer.  To Jesus, how we pray matters less than the fact that we do pray, and that we know the God we’re praying to.

And the thing about God is that God listens and responds.  God is awesome and great and mighty beyond our understanding … and God listens to us.  God takes our wishes and will into account.  God doesn’t always give us what we think we want, just like a good parent doesn’t always give a child what they want when the parent knows it’s not good for the child, or has some other reason.  But just like a good parent always listens to their child and responds, God is always listening and responding to us.

Jesus gives an example of human behavior to show us what this is like.  Humans can be pretty terrible to one another.  We don’t always listen; we don’t always respond.  Like someone already in bed for the night, we don’t want to respond even to emergencies when they are not convenient for us.  But God is not like that.  God listens.  God responds.  God is working in and through us even when God’s response is not what we want.  Notice that in this passage, all the examples Jesus gives are examples of relationships.  A friend in need, or a child and their parent.  Part of a healthy relationship is communication; if you can’t be honest, and ask for help when you need it, it’s not much of a relationship, is it?  But we have a relationship with God that is always open.  God will welcome every call for help, every shout of joy, every question and thanksgiving and hope and fear.  And we are invited to be persistent—to be shameless in our demands—even when we disagree with God.

Take the example of God and Abraham from our Gospel lesson.  God had seen how much evil there was in Sodom and Gomorrah.  Now, I want to caution you; modern readers hear “Sodom” and think “homosexuality,” even though the Bible itself has a different view of Sodom’s sin.  It’s very convenient for heterosexual people; we can hear sermons on the Bible’s main example of sin all day and never wonder about our own sins.  But the various Biblical texts that mention Sodom don’t focus on the sex at all.  The clearest and most concise summation of Sodom’s sin comes from Ezekiel 16:49: “This was the sin of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”  The people of Sodom, the Bible tells us, worshipped power for the sake of power.  They believed that might made right and that people with power and wealth could take anything they wanted, heap any abuse they cared for on those who had nothing.  They humiliated and degraded those beneath them for sport.  And that included rape of all kinds.  In the Biblical account, the sex is a manifestation of the evil of Sodom, not the cause of it.  It wasn’t until the tenth century that the word “sodomy” came to mean only homosexual encounters.  Before that, “sodomy” meant any great sin.

So when God comes to Abraham talking about Sodom’s sin, God is not just talking about what they do in bed.  God is talking about the whole shebang: how their society is structured, how they treat one another, what character traits they value and what they treat as trash.  And the thing is, God doesn’t have to ask Abraham’s permission to smite Sodom and Gomorrah.  God knows just how bad it is, just how terribly the residents treat one another, how people there prey on one another and manipulate and cheat and hurt one another.  God’s judgment does not depend on what Abraham thinks of them.  But still, God listens to Abraham.

And Abraham disagrees with God.  Abraham thinks God is wrong, that God is being unjust in wanting to destroy Sodom.  Not because Abraham thinks Sodom is such a great place; Abraham knows just how much injustice and exploitation and evil goes on in that city.  No, Abraham is convinced that surely, there must be some good people there, and it’s not fair for them to be condemned along with the bad people.  And if God could condemn the good along with the bad, then God would not be good.

And God lets Abraham argue with him.  God doesn’t shut him up or ignore him or say “how dare you challenge me.”  Most humans, when someone argues with them, respond with hostility or dismissal, especially when the person arguing with them has less power or status.  But God is not like that.  God takes Abraham’s concerns seriously.  God says, “yeah, you’re right.  Destroying good people along with bad would be wrong.  How many good people do you think are enough to redeem that horrific place?”  Abraham bargains, coming back shamelessly, again and again, until finally they agree on a number: ten.  Ten good people, and Sodom will be saved.

Now, God knows what is in the heart of every human being.  God sees all our thoughts and all our actions, the good and the bad alike.  God knows that every person in Sodom has been infected with selfishness and cruelty and malice, but he still listens to Abraham’s concerns, acknowledges when Abraham has a good point, and takes his perspective into account.

This is not the only time people in the Bible argue with God.  It happens all over the place.  Moses argues with God multiple times, so does Job, so do most of the prophets and some of the kings.  Jesus’ mother Mary argues with Jesus at Cana.  The psalms are full of people arguing with God, or complaining about God, and bringing every care and concern to God—even when that means accusing God of not doing the right thing.  Even when we have a bone to pick with God, God would rather we brought that concern to God than shoved it under the rug and let it fester.

This is the kind of God we have.  This is what Jesus wants us to know about God when we pray.  The important thing is not the formal structure of prayer, or the wording, or any of that.  Sometimes having a formal structure and memorized words for prayer is helpful, sometimes it’s not.  The important thing is that we know that God is listening.  That God cares about us, and God cares what we think and feel, and listens whether we’re happy or sad, thankful or protesting, whether we agree or disagree, whether we are safe or in danger, whether things are going well or poorly, God is listening, and God is working to give us what we need.  No matter what we are thinking or feeling, God loves us, and God desires an open and honest relationship with us.

That’s why God sent Jesus to us.  Why God became human and lived among us, to know us more intimately.  God joined us to God’s own self through baptism, through the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord.  We worship a God who would literally rather die than be separated from us, or abandon us.  Thanks be to God.


On Unclean Spirits

Fourth Sunday of Epiphany, Year B, January 28, 2018

Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Psalm 111, 1 Corinthians 8:1, Mark 1:21-28

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, O Lord.

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

So, raise your hand if you’ve ever seen a real exorcism.  Not one in the movies or other fictional story, a real, live exorcism.  Nobody here has seen one.  Okay, raise your hand if you’ve ever seen someone who was possessed by a demon or unclean spirit.  And, again, nobody including me has seen someone who was possessed by a demon.  I mean, I’ve seen TV shows about demons and such, Supernatural and Sleepy Hollow and such, but I’ve never seen one in real life.  And most real-life cases I know of where someone has thought that they or someone else was possessed by a demon, the real cause turns out to be mental illness, or something like that, instead.  No exorcisms necessary, just a good therapist, the appropriate medication, and understanding and support from family and friends.  That’s why a lot of people today look at many of the exorcisms that Jesus performs and assume that what really happened was that the person was mentally ill, and Jesus healed them.  Still a miracle far beyond anything modern medicine can even dream about, but not an exorcism.

There’s two problems with that.  The first is that it’s not taking the witness of the Bible seriously—nor the witness of our ancestors in the faith, nor the witness of our Christian brothers and sisters of other cultures, who often tell of encountering demons.  And, I mean, we believe in spirits.  It’s one of the core parts of our faith that we confess every Sunday: we believe in the Holy Spirit of God, one person of the trinity.  That is absolutely not up for debate.  And if there’s a Holy Spirit, it’s not a big leap from that to wondering if there might be other spirits, too.  Un-holy ones.  Or, as the spirit in today’s lesson is called, “unclean” ones.  Ones that don’t come from God, and don’t lead us closer to God, but rather lead us away.

Consider the liturgy we use in baptism.  It’s ancient.  Christians have been using that same liturgy since the very beginning of Christianity.  Every generation puts their own spin on it, modifying it to fit their times, but the core of it is the same.  Which is why so many churches from different traditions have baptismal rites that sound very similar, even if nothing in the rest of the worship service does.  And part of that liturgy is to renounce all the evil spirits.  “Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?”  If the baptized is old enough to speak for themselves, they say it.  If they’re too young, their parents say it for them, and when they are confirmed, they will renounce other spirits as part of the Confirmation rite.  There would be no need to pointedly renounce evil spirits if they weren’t floating around.  We may not talk about unclean spirits much, but that doesn’t mean we ignore the possibility they’re out there.

There’s a Christian spiritual practice called Lectio Divina, or “divine reading,” where you pick a Bible passage and meditate on it.  But before you start meditating, you pray.  And one of my professors in seminary was very adamant that you had to specify, in that prayer, that you were asking for the guidance of the Holy Spirit and for God to protect you from other spirits, because you don’t want to be opening yourself to just any old spirit that might be wandering by.  You want to open to the Holy Spirit.  Given all of these aspects of Christian worship and devotion that deal with spirits other than the Holy Spirit, I don’t want to assume that any “unclean spirit” or “demon” in the Bible is merely a mental illness described by people who don’t know what it is.  I mean, it may be, but we don’t know.

The other problem with assuming that all Biblical exorcisms are actually healings of mental illness is that this guy is very different from the other people possessed by spirits in the Bible.  See, I don’t think anybody knew he had an unclean spirit until Jesus cast it out of him.  This guy seems like a normal guy.  He’s going about his ordinary life just like everyone else in the village, and unclean spirit or not he’s in the synagogue, the place of worship.  He’s a member of the congregation.  Other people with “unclean spirits”—the ones who are visibly different, the ones who act like they have schizophrenia or other mental illness—they’re excluded, shoved out of the community, ignored, pushed aside.  This guy isn’t.  So his friends and family probably think he’s fine.  They probably think he’s normal, ordinary.  He’s got an unclean spirit so fully in control of him that it can speak through his mouth, and there he is, in the middle of the congregation, and not one person has noticed.  Except Jesus.

I wonder what else the unclean spirit was saying with that man’s voice.  I mean, it can’t have been outright blasphemy; these people know the Scriptures, they know the traditional interpretations, if this guy tried outright heresy they would have noticed.  But there have always been people who twisted Scripture to fit their own desires.  For example, the Bible repeatedly tells us that God is love, that the deepest core of God’s character is that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”  From the beginning of Genesis right on through to the last page of Scripture, we are told that God’s deepest concern is for the kind of justice where even the weakest person, even the outcast, receives good treatment, and the kind of mercy that works to reconcile people with God and with one another.  But people have always taken pieces of Scripture out of that context and used them to rationalize unjust and unmerciful treatment, too harsh on the people they don’t like and too lenient of themselves.  Maybe that’s the sort of thing the unclean spirit was saying with that man’s voice.

Or maybe I’m overthinking it.  Maybe the unclean spirit didn’t say anything spiritual at all.  Maybe it just sort of was there, stirring the pot.  You know the type.  The ones who add to the drama of any situation so that it’s harder to find a good solution because everyone’s so upset they can’t think straight.  Or maybe the unclean spirit was the type to whisper poison in peoples’ ears, the sort of comment that sound innocuous on the surface but always has an edge that hurts.  Someone like that can do a lot of damage, cutting people down and making them suspicious of one another.  Or maybe the unclean spirit was the self-righteous type, filling the man full of the conviction that he was always right and therefore anyone who disagreed was wrong and the enemy, so he could treat them accordingly.  If you think about it, there are a lot of ways an unclean spirit could have done serious damage not just to the person it possessed but to the whole community, if it managed to go undetected as this one evidently had.

I wonder what the man who was possessed thought.  I wonder if he felt like a prisoner in his own body, helpless to stop the spirit from acting.  But even more, I wonder if he even knew.  If he just listened to the voice of that unclean spirit influence him and thought, “that sounds like a pretty good idea I just had.”  And that may be the scariest thing of all.

Thank God Jesus was there to free him and cast out the unclean spirit.  But it raises the question: what about unclean spirits here, now, today?  I mean, Jesus isn’t walking around physically in the flesh any more.  He’s not just going to walk I into one of our churches and command an unclean spirit to leave.  And yet, we are not alone.  We don’t face spirits or demons—whether actual entities or mental illness—alone, for God is with us.  In our baptisms, we are marked with the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit, and that is the deepest reality of our lives.  Even if other spirits trouble us, they cannot stand forever against the power of our Lord and Savior.  We renounce the powers of the devil and of all unclean spirits, and we are right to do so, because they can do a lot of damage.  But it is the power of the Holy Spirit that gives that renunciation a force greater than we could ever manage on our own.  I don’t know what other sorts of spirits are out there, nor how often we might encounter them.  But I know this, for certain and sure: the Holy Spirit is greater than they could ever hope to imagine, and the Holy Spirit is active in us and among us.  Thanks be to God.


How To Pray

Prayer is something we talk a lot about as Christians. But how often do we start with the basics and teach people how to do it? The end result, as several studies have shown, is pews full of people who don’t pray very often or feel their prayers are effective, but are too embarrassed to ask for help because they think they should know this already. This was brought home to me in Confirmation class. This year, we begin each class by praying for one another … and the first thing I had to do was teach the kids how to do it.

The one part of prayer that each of them knew how to do was to ask for God’s help with a problem. Which is good! We should take our problems and concerns to God in prayer. But if that’s all that your prayers consist of, you are in danger of treating God like a vending machine. Prayer is not just about asking God for what we need. Prayer is about talking with God and building a relationship. You know that old hymn What a Friend We Have In Jesus? Prayer is how we build that relationship, that friendship. And any relationship in which one person does nothing but talk about what they want the other person to do for them isn’t a very healthy relationship, is it?

A very important part of prayer is thanking God for what God has done and is doing for us. Thanking God for being with us, for giving us the ability to get through the day, for helping us with our problems—that’s one reason I start of each worship service and class with “God moments.” If you don’t pay attention to where God is working in your life, you can’t thank him for what he does for you. Once you start looking for God in the world around you, and thanking God for what God does for you every day, it’s easier to open up to the desires God has for you.

Thanking God, asking for what we need, those are both very important. But there’s another key component to prayer that shouldn’t be forgotten. It’s asking God what God wants … and then taking the time to listen. We get so caught up in what we want, that it’s very hard to listen to what God wants. It takes practice and attention. If you’ve never done it before, you can start out like this: “God, I’ve told you what I want and what the problems are in my life. What do you want? Help me to know your will for me, and to follow it.” Then take time to sit quietly and listen. That’s hard—Americans are bad at sitting quietly and listening! We fill every second of our day with noise and activity. But to hear God, it helps if you leave space for God to speak. You might find that breathing slowly and evenly helps you to stay focused. If you can’t clear your mind—if thoughts keep coming—consider praying for those things that are on your mind, and lifting them up to God.

Prayer should be a time of peace and rest. It should be a relief from the cares of the world. If it isn’t, if bringing everything to God in prayer leaves you more tired and more stressed than ever, ask yourself this: are you leaving those cares at Jesus’ feet, or are you carrying them away with you afterwards? It is really, really hard to give your worries over to Jesus. (I struggle with anxiety, and let me tell you, “laying your burdens upon Jesus” sounds easy but it can be one of the hardest parts of a Christian life.) It is tempting to pick them up and take them with you—after all, we’re taught to be in control of our lives, have a plan, pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. But we can’t control everything, and there comes a point where you can only say “God, help me,” and leave it in God’s hands. If you can do that, trust that God will take care of you even if things are going badly, you will find a kind of peace that you just can’t get anywhere else. (It’s okay if you struggle with this. Being a Christian doesn’t mean getting everything right, it means walking with God even as we get things wrong.)

I encourage you to pray about more than just your own needs. Pray for family and friends, too, but also people across the country and across the world. And pray for your church! At both annual meetings last month, I asked people to pray for each congregation. Birka is wondering when and if they should close, and several members of Augustana have come to me and said it feels like the church is “drifting.” In both cases, our first step should be prayer. What is God calling us to do? Where is God calling us to go? What dreams and hopes is God giving us, and what fears that are getting in our way? We don’t gather as a congregation to be a social club, to reminisce about the good old days, or because it’s habit. We are God’s people, whom God has called and chosen to be his hands and feet in the world. So whatever we do, it should be focused on God’s will for us. But to know God’s will, we have to ask—and that means praying! I hope this helps you deepen your prayer life.


Responding to Prayer

Fifth Sunday of Easter, (Year A), May 18, 2014

Acts 7:55-60
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

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

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

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

When I was a senior in high school getting ready to go off to college, someone told me this joke: God answers all prayers. Sometimes the answer is “yes,” sometimes the answer is “no,” sometimes the answer is “You have got to be kidding me.” That last answer, “You’ve gotta be kidding me,” by the way, is the answer you’ll probably get if you decide not to study for a test and just pray that the answers will magically appear, as I found out once or twice in college.

Jesus said, “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” And in another place, Jesus said, “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you.” These are words Christians quote a lot, when talking about prayer. If you just ask God, God will give it to you.

It’s an interesting lesson to be paired up with the martyrdom of Stephen, which was our first lesson. Stephen, you see, was one of the first Greek converts to Christianity. He was a deacon; he preached and he did social ministry work, giving food to the poor and making sure the widows and orphans were taken care of. But the authorities in Jerusalem were not happy. They had thought that when they had Jesus killed that they wouldn’t have to worry about him anymore. They thought that Jesus’ death would mean that things would go back to normal. And here the Christians are, telling everyone they meet that Jesus was raised from the dead and helping people in Jesus’ name, bringing more people to the faith. The authorities tried to stamp this “Jesus movement” out again by arresting Stephen and putting him on trial. But they couldn’t get him to deny Jesus; in fact, he used the trial to try and spread the Gospel even to his accusers. And so they killed him. They took him out and threw rocks at him until he was dead.

“If in my name you ask me for anything,” Jesus says, “I will do it.” Then what about Stephen? If I were in his shoes, I certainly would have prayed to be set free. And what about the other Christians, the ones who worshipped with Stephen and worked with him and studied God’s word with him? What about all of the poor people whose lives had been touched by Stephen’s gifts? What about all the widows and orphans who needed Stephen’s help? Surely they must have prayed for him! Prayed to the God he worshipped to save him! And yet Stephen was killed in a brutal execution.

Our prayer list has several people on it who have been on it for quite some time. One of them is Grace, who is related to Julie from Birka. Grace is only a little girl, I think she’s about three, but she’s spent most of her life in the hospital. She has cancer in her brain. She’s had many surgeries, and although sometimes things seem to be going well inevitably there is some new problem, some new challenge, some new heart-wrenching procedure for her to endure. Her whole family are devoted Christians, and they have been praying her entire life. We have been praying for her for a long time. Jesus says that he will do whatever we ask in his name. And yet Grace still suffers.

When I pray with someone who is seriously ill, I always include this petition: “Lord Jesus Christ, we know that you are a healer. We know that you heal every ill, whether in this life or in the life to come. We pray that healing will come in this life, and soon. But we trust in the healing that will come in your kingdom.” Sometimes, when I’m praying with someone who is old and frail and at the end of their life, that is a comfort. Yes, things won’t get better in this life; but this life is not the end. But when I pray for someone like Grace, who would have her whole life ahead of her—her life in this world—if only she could be healed now, it is cold comfort. We know that God has a place for little Grace all ready, a place where she can play and laugh and run. But her parents would much rather be able to see her play and laugh and run now, here, in this world.

So how do we deal with times like this? Times when we pray and pray and pray and bad things happen anyway? How do we reconcile it with Jesus’ words? I’m not talking about when people pray for stupid things, things that they think they want but will only hurt themselves or others in the long run. I’m not talking about when people pray selfishly or only out of habit. I’m talking about heartfelt prayers that stream from deep needs. What happens when we ask Jesus for something, and it doesn’t happen?

There’s two responses that people generally fall into. One is to lose faith. “Nothing happened, so God must not care. Or maybe God doesn’t exist.” The other is almost worse: it’s to blame the one who prays. “Well, Jesus says he answers prayer, so if their prayer wasn’t answered, they must not have prayed the right way. Or maybe they just didn’t have enough faith. If they’d been better Christians, God would have listened.” What a horrible, hurtful thing to say to someone who has lost a loved one!

I am reminded of Stephen. He prayed. And I am certain he prayed to be set free; I am certain he prayed that he would not be killed for his faith. Stephen’s faith was as deep as it is possible to be: he would literally rather die than keep silent about it. And we know God heard his prayers; Stephen saw Jesus with him. He did not die alone. But he did die. It wasn’t because God didn’t care, and it wasn’t because he wasn’t a good enough Christian. So what do we make of that?

I notice a lot that when we talk about answers to prayer, we talk about specific things. We don’t tend to talk about prayer as a conversation with God; it’s a laundry list of things we want and things we want to apologize for. Yet when Jesus taught us to pray, he told us to start with the relationship: “Our father in heaven.” But even that is too distant a relationship: we say “father,” but what Jesus actually said was something closer to “Dad” or “Papa.” This is a close and loving relationship. That’s where we start from, with prayer. God is not a vending machine in the sky. God is the one who made us, the one who loves us, the one we can call at three in the morning when we hit rock bottom.

Then, Jesus’ prayer goes on: Pray for God’s kingdom to come. Pray for God’s Will to be done here on Earth, just like God’s Will is done in heaven. God’s Will—Jesus has told us what God’s will is. God’s will is for wholeness, and healing. God’s will is for all the things that have been broken by sin and death, by injury and illness, by malice and carelessness, to be healed. God’s will is for the entire cosmos to be saved. God’s will is for love to win. Bad things happen, in the here-and-now: good people die. Children get sick. People say and do things that hurt one another. People go hungry and can’t find work. But this is not God’s plan for the world, and this is not the end of the story. God’s kingdom will come. God’s Will will be done here on Earth as it is in heaven. We don’t know the timeline for that; we don’t know when. But it will happen, and we pray for it.

Jesus’ prayer continues. Pray for your daily bread. Not for steak dinners and caviar, not for a year’s supply, just what you need to get through the day. Don’t worry about the future; let God take care of it. Pray for the courage and strength to get through today. And while you’re at it, pray for forgiveness, for yourself and for others. Pray for the grace you need to get through the day, along with the strength. Grace given by God, and grace shared with the world around you. Pray that you won’t have to go through dark places in your life, and pray that God will lead you safely through those dark places you can’t avoid. But always remember that the dark places are temporary. The kingdom, the power, and the glory belong to God, now and forever. The dark places don’t win, in the end; the evils of this world don’t last forever. God’s kingdom is real, and God’s kingdom is coming, and thanks be to God for that.

God answers all prayers. But the answers aren’t always the ones we expect, or the ones we hope for. Sometimes the answer is yes, and then we rejoice. But sometimes God acts in ways we didn’t expect, to do things we didn’t even know to pray for. Sometimes the answer is no—sometimes we pray for things we shouldn’t be praying for. Sometimes the answer is “You have got to be kidding me.” But sometimes, sometimes the answer is, “Wait.” Sometimes the answer is, “My dear, precious child, what you ask can’t be done in this world as it is now. But my Father’s house is large, and there’s room for all. I’ve prepared a special place just for you. It will be waiting for you, no matter how long it takes to get here. But in the meantime, let me help. Let me support you and guide you and comfort you. You are not alone; I love you.”

On Prayer

Lent Wednesday 1–Prayer

March 12, 2014

 Psalm 28, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28, Matthew 6:7-13

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.

Imagine a family where the parents and children never talk.  The father gives long pronouncements on how the children should act, but never asks about what’s going on in their lives.  The children, in turn, only talk to the father when they need to borrow the car keys or want a new cell phone.  It’s not a very healthy family, is it?  The relationships between the father and the children are pretty weak.  The father doesn’t know what’s going on in his children’s lives, and the children know even less about their father.  They may love one another, but when trouble strikes, it’s going to be very hard for them to work together as a family.  And even when times are good, it will be very easy for them to drift apart without even realizing it because there just isn’t that much holding them together.

For many people, that’s what their relationship with God is like.  They’ll sometimes listen to God’s Word in worship, but they don’t really respond to it, and their prayers are mainly a laundry list of what they want or need in their life.  If they’re generous, they’ll pray for other people’s needs, too.  And if God is listening to their prayer, he’ll respond by granting their wishes.  If God doesn’t respond, then he must not be listening.  When you think about it, this kind of an attitude reduces God to one big vending machine up in the sky: you punch in the combination for what you want, and he gives it to you.  It’s not about building a relationship; it’s not about walking with God through the joys and sorrows of life, it’s about getting God to give you stuff.

But listen to the words from our reading from First Thessalonians.  Paul is concluding his letter with a bunch of general advice on how to be a Christian community.  There’s lots of stuff about how to build right relationships—respect the leaders, help the weak, always seek to do good to one another, greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss: it’s all about relationships.  And prayer is part of that!  “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.”  Instead of just giving God a laundry list of things that need fixing, thank God for what you have, and rejoice with God and your fellow Christians.  And pray without ceasing—in other words, prayer isn’t just something you do right before bed and when things are truly dire, prayer is part of every breath you take and everything you do.

Consider the Lord’s prayer, the model of how to pray that Jesus gave to his disciples.  We recite it every week in church.  Think of it like a framework for prayer.  You start off with the address—hey, God, how are you?  And, by the way, the word Jesus uses, it’s not a formal word like “Father.”  It’s more like “Daddy.”  It’s not about calling on some distant father-figure, but rather about a close and loving relationship.  Then you move on to talking about God’s kingdom and God’s will—basically, what God is doing in the world.  Then you move on to your own concerns, not just what you want but everything that’s going on in your life—your need for daily necessities, the times you’ve messed up, the times you’ve done good, the concerns you have about your life, the temptations and the evils.  Then you bring the focus back around to God for a little bit, before ending the prayer.  When you think about it, it’s a lot like a conversation.  If you recorded one end of a conversation over the phone, it would probably sound a lot like that.

How many of you have seen the musical Fiddler on the Roof?  It’s a movie about a devout Russian Jew named Tevye and his family.  Tevye narrates the story partly through his conversations with God.  God doesn’t answer back verbally; there’s no dramatic voice from heaven.  But Tevye keeps up a constant stream of commentary: what he’s thinking, his joys, his hopes, his fears.  All directed towards God.  Of course, God knows what’s in Tevye’s heart already … but speaking those things to God helps Tevye build a relationship with God.  It is definitely a relationship.  Tevye may not always understand why God allows some things to happen, but Tevye knows God intimately and has confidence that God knows him just as well.  God isn’t just an afterthought of Tevye’s routine, or a vending machine to be manipulated.  God is a real presence in Tevye’s life, because Tevye is paying attention to God, and Tevye has confidence that God is listening whether Tevye’s requests are answered or not.  Tevye is sharing all of his burdens and joys with God, and in so doing he leaves space for God to be in his life.  And it doesn’t just affect Tevye; Tevye’s faith and love ripple out through his family and his community.

What would it be like if we all prayed that way, without ceasing, confident that God listens to us?  If we truly brought all our joys and hopes and fears and concerns before God, and not just our requests?  If we built a relationship instead of just treating God like a vending machine?  I think our faith would be stronger, and our love for God and one another would be stronger, too.  I pray that we may all learn to pray as Jesus taught us.


Prepare the Way of the Lord

Pentecost 22A, Sunday, December 4, 2011

Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Trinity Lutheran Church, Somerset, PA

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

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

“With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.”

Time is very important to us as modern Americans.  Our lives are ruled by clocks and calendars.  Time is measured, weighed, accounted for.  Time is money.  Time is saved and filled and well-spent.  We kill time.  We waste time.  There’s no time like the present.  As children, time seems to drag on.  As adults, time flies.  Whether old or young, time is something we think we can understand, predict, and manipulate.  But as St. Peter points out, God’s understanding of time is not like our understanding of time.  It’s not about hours or minutes or days or years.  God’s time is about what God is doing, and God’s time is about relationships.

Our understanding of time is tied to our understanding of the world.  It’s hard to understand God’s time because we are so caught up in our daily cares and concerns.  We’re particularly aware of time now, in winter, when the days are short and the holidays are close.  The end of the calendar year is coming soon, and Christmas will be here even sooner.  There are, after all, only twenty more shopping days until Christmas.  And there’s a lot to do in those twenty days!  Parties, presents, cleaning, travel—it’s a lot to pack in to a month!  Yes, we want the day of the LORD to come, we want God to make all things new … but we’ve got other things to worry about.

Today is the second Sunday of Advent.  That in itself is a reminder of how different God’s time is from the world’s time.  As the calendar year is fast drawing to a close, the church year—which begins on the first Sunday of Advent—has only just begun.  While the world prepares for presents and parties, we are preparing for the coming of God.  And when the world turns off the Christmas music and packs up the tinsel on the 26th, we will still be celebrating Christmas, and the presence of God with us.

We live now in the between-times.  Two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ was born as a child in Bethlehem, in Judea.  And Christ will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, creating a new heaven and a new earth.  Advent is a time of preparation both for celebrating Christ’s coming, both as a child and at the end of the ages.  This is not just a time for remembering and singing beloved favorite songs.  This is a time for looking forward and preparing for the day of the LORD.  As Isaiah and John the Baptist thundered, “Prepare the way of the LORD, make his paths straight!”

Being a Christian is not easy.  We live in the in-between times.  The first Christians expected Jesus to return soon, within months or years of his resurrection and ascension.  And yet, here we are, two thousand years later, still waiting, still caught between the already and the not yet.  Our salvation has been accomplished through the death and resurrection of Christ, and yet the fullness of that salvation will not be known until Christ comes again.  “In accordance with Christ’s promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.”  The first Christians that St. Peter wrote to needed to know how to live in the in-between times, and so do we.  The question is not what must we do to be saved.  We are saved.  The question Peter wants us to ask is this: now that we have been saved, how should we live?

And that’s the question we face today.  We are saved by the grace of God in Christ Jesus.  So how should we live?  Should we retreat into our homes and our churches to wait?  Should we go with the flow of what the world around us does, forgetting that Christ will come again when we least expect him?

No, says Peter.  No, say John the Baptist and Isaiah.  Now that we are saved, we are called to action!  We are called to live in the knowledge that Christ will come.  We are called to let God guide us in doing his will. Comfort my people!  Prepare the way of the LORD!  Make a highway for our God!  Straighten the things that are crooked and level the obstacles, within ourselves and throughout the world.  Open up to the possibility that God wants to use us.  We are called to be God’s hands in the world.  We are called to be Christ’s body, working together for the building up of God’s kingdom.  We wait, but we know the glory of the LORD is coming, and that we are God’s people.

So how do we open ourselves up to God so that he can use us to prepare his way?  Anyone who’s driven the turnpike through the Alleghenies knows that making a straight and level path is no easy task.  There was a lot of rock moved, filled in, and tunneled through to make that road.  It didn’t happen by accident, it took a lot of work and a lot of people working together.  Making a straight road isn’t any easier on a spiritual level.  Physical roads are made with bulldozers, jackhammers, dump trucks, rollers, and a whole host of other tools.  And the crew has a map that tells them where to go and what to do.  If a road crew came out to work with no tools and no map, they wouldn’t get very far and would almost certainly end up in the wrong place.  So what tools and maps has God given us for our spiritual road-building?

You probably know what most of them are already.  And yet, particularly in today’s busy world we so often choose to fill our time and our attention with other things that distract us from the work God has called us to do.  The tools of the Christian trade—the foundations of Christian life—are sometimes called spiritual disciplines, because they’re not always the easiest or most entertaining thing to do.  They are a habit or regular pattern in your life that repeatedly brings you back to God and opens you up to what God is saying to you so that you can follow God’s call.  Spiritual disciplines take time and attention, which is hard to find in today’s busy world.  But without them, we’re like a road crew standing empty-handed on the side of the road.

Prayer is the first of the tools God has given us.  Regular prayer, every day, in good times and in bad.  St. Paul tells us to pray without ceasing.  And scientists tell us that regular prayer can reshape our brain and the way we think.  Through regular prayer we lift our concerns to God and receive God’s inspiration and guidance.  What are the obstacles in our lives?  What are the things in the world around us that we should be aware of?  Who around us needs prayer?  Where does God want us to build his road?  Who does God want us to comfort?  Prayer can be closely linked to meditation, a focused attention on communing with God.  Without regular prayer, any roads we build will only be of our own making.

Study is another important spiritual discipline, and a foundation of many others.  God gave us our brains for a reason.  God gave us the Scriptures for a reason.  I know this may come as a shock to quite a number of people in America today, but God did not give us the Scriptures so that they could sit on a shelf and look important.  The Bible is the story of God’s work in the world and in his people from the creation of this world to the beginning of the next.  When we read the Bible, together in groups and on our own, God uses the stories of our ancestors to speak to us today.

Worship is our response to who God is.  Worship is how we come together to respond to God’s blessings.  Worship is coming together to remember who we are, and whose we are.  In worship we come together as a community, and remember that we aren’t alone, that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.  Then we hear God’s word preached, and are fed with Christ’s body and blood and strengthened for the work to which we have been called.  Then we are sent out into the world again, renewed and refreshed for the new week.  Through worship, God helps us to hear what he calls us to do and equips us to go out and do it.

Fasting is probably the least practiced spiritual discipline in America.  It doesn’t mean punishing yourself or deprivation.  Fasting is about simplicity.  What in your life is adding to the clutter and minutia that fills your days?  What in your life do you take for granted?  What in your life is distracting you from God?  It seems we are so hungry these days, for money, for attractiveness, for the latest gadget and gizmo. Fasting is about renewing our hunger for God.  When we fast, whether from food or television or cell phones or watches, we take a break from the normal everyday world.  When we fast, we take time to go back to the essentials, filling time and money we would waste with time for building our relationship with God and one another.

Service is another important spiritual discipline.  Americans volunteer a lot, more than most people in the world.  And yet, as Christians we are called to a special kind of volunteering.  We are called to be Christ’s body in the world.  In fact, the ELCA motto is “God’s work, our hands.”  Service is faith in action.  Christian service is about connecting the Gospel with our actions, and letting God use us to do God’s will.

We are waiting for the day of the LORD, for the coming of Christ.  We have been saved, and yet we are still waiting.  But while we wait God has called us to live lives that show that salvation to the world.  We are called to comfort God’s children.  We are called to prepare God’s way, to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ in our words and in our actions.  We don’t do this on our own, but with the tools and guidance God gives us.  May we hear and follow God’s Word.