Saturday, February 02, 2008

Thank You, Charlie Lehardy!

Charlie Lehardy is one of the most consistently thoughtful and wise bloggers around. That's why I'm so honored that he takes the time to recommend things that I write. He did that here. Thank you, Charlie.

From the Trivial Pursuit File

My blogging friend, Pastor Jeff, has posted something called a MEME, which is basically a blogging challenge or chain letter. He stipulated that I should:
1. Pick up the nearest book ( of at least 123 pages).
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people. [That is, ask five other bloggers to respond to the same MEME.]
Directly in front of me on the shelving unit of the computer desk at which I'm working is a book I read several years ago, How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe by Thomas Cahill. I had pulled it out to look something up recently. If you haven't read it, it's a fascinating book, not the least reason being its profile of Saint Patrick.

Here are the three sentences I found just beyond the first five sentences on page 123, which just happens to be the beginning of chapter 5:
By 461, the likely year of Patrick’s death, the Roman Empire is careening in chaos, barely fifteen years away from the death of the last western emperor. The accelerated change is, at this point, so dramatic we should not be surprised that the eyes of historians have been riveted on it or that they have failed to notice a transformation just as dramatic--and even more abrupt--taking place at the empire’s periphery. For as the Roman lands went from peace to chaos, the land of Ireland was rushing even more rapidly from chaos to peace.
Cahill's thesis is that the Irish church saved ancient wisdom and was the home of a rubust, joyous, grace-filled faith in Christ.

Hope Shifting?

This morning during my devotional time, I read a passage of the New Testament I've read many times, but noticed something I'd not seen before. (That seems to be happening to me a lot lately.)

The passage is in the book of Colossians, a letter written by the first century preacher and evangelist Paul to a group of Christians in Colosse, a town in Asia Minor, modern day Turkey. Paul is talking about how, through Jesus Christ, God reconciles people once hostile to God and to God's ways to Himself. He says:
"...[God] has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him— provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard..." [Colossians 1:22-23]
God loves sinners, which is a lucky break for me, since I am a sinner. I'd rather do what I want to do than love God or love my neighbor. That proves that I'm a sinner.

When I'm especially out of my mind, I delude myself with the notion, in spite of my inborn tendency toward sin, a tendency I express in my mind and my actions countless times each day, that I can be sinless enough to earn a place at God's table.

But that's not possible. Our sins leave us with an impossible debt we can't pay off. And, as Paul writes elsewhere, "the wages of sin is death."

That's why Jesus went to a cross. Through His death there, He paid off our debt. All who turn from their sin and place their hope in Christ alone are reconciled with God.

That part is clear enough not only from this passage in Colossians, but from countless others as well. Here's the part of the passage in Colossians I never noticed before: "...provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel..."

Show me the things in which you invest your hope and I can tell you what your priorities are. Show me what you place your biggest hope in, and I'll show you who or what your god is. We all have gods, even atheists. It's the object of our greatest desire.

Paul says that there's great spiritual danger in shifting the bases of our hope. "If only I get that job...that wife...that car...that bit of entertainment...that lover...that whatever," we tell ourselves, "then our lives will be fulfilled...then we'll be happy."

As a Christian and a pastor, I've discovered hundreds of ways to shift my ultimate allegiance and hope from Christ, toward seemingly pious and faithful things: "If only we could have 200 in worship...If only I could pastor a big church...If only I could get that book published...If only we could feed a thousand hungry people, then..." But unless our hope is rooted in Jesus Christ alone, unless our allegiance is to Him, we're only play acting in our faith.

It's so easy to shift our hopes to the immediate rewards of this world rather than keeping them on the God we can't see...the God Who came into our world in the person of Jesus Christ and died and rose for sinners like us. I know that it's easy for me to be hope-shifter.

And I must confess that very often, I place my hope where it doesn't belong. Thank God He doesn't judge us for our aberrant behavior. He judges us solely on Who and what we place our hope in when, like the prodigal son in Jesus' famous parable, we come to ourselves.

But there is only one way to fulfill the destinies of our lives, one way to be reconciled with God and so, to experience peace with God and peace with ourselves. And that's to keep our hope fixed on Jesus Christ.

The great thing about God is that even when we allow sin to control our lives and we let our hope shift away from Christ, we can be reconciled anew. That's why one of the key elements of the Christian life is to live, in Martin Luther's phrase, in "daily repentance and renewal." We seek forgiveness. We ask God to give us midcourse corrections. And He graciously makes them happen. He infuses us with new hope!

Where is your hope? If it's in Christ, you have life with God forever. And there's nothing better than that!

Friday, February 01, 2008

Second Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (February 3, 2008)

[This is the second pass at this Sunday's Bible lessons. For more on what these posts are about, see the first pass for the week here.]

This Sunday's Bible Lessons:
Exodus 24:12-18
Psalm 2 or Psalm 99
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

General Comments (continued):
9. Psalm 2: Churches are given two choices for the Psalm this week. We'll be using Psalm 2. It appears to be a coronation psalm, used as a hymn of praise as a new Israelite king was enthroned.

10. In it, God is pictured as laughing at the presumption of those who would conspire against His anointed king or His people. This has nothing to do with the intrinsic power of the king and everything to do with the power of God Himself.

11. The last verse of the psalm is interesting in light of its use on this special Sunday. "Happy are those who take refuge in Him," that is, in God, it says. On the mount of Transfiguration, Peter appears to want to take refuge in three booths memorializing a moment when the glory of God appeared to him. But Jesus says that the disciples who were with him and he himself must go to the valley below. We're called to take refuge in God in the midst of the everyday places and challenges of life.

12. 2 Peter 1:16-21: Here, Peter exhorts first century churches and us to pay heed to the eyewitness accounts of those who were with Jesus and saw His ministry personally. In declaring that Jesus died and rose, they weren't palming off "cleverly devised myths," but were recounting what they saw.

Peter then goes on to tell about how he saw the glory of God in the person of the transfigured Jesus.

Verse-by-Verse Comments: Matthew 17:1-9:
1Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.
(1) Like Moses, who took only Joshua with him to the top of Mount Sinai to receive the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed, Jesus takes only Peter, James, and John with Him to the mount of Transfiguration.

These three were, in spite of their faults, the inner-inner circle of Jesus' early followers. Jesus spent the most time with their three, no doubt because they would be the leaders of the early Church. Next, Jesus spent time with the twelve, who included these three.

The twelve are part of that group called apostles. (Paul would be added to their number after Jesus' resurrection and ascension.) The word apostle, apostolos in the original Greek of the New Testament, means sent one. The twelve were to go into the world, sharing the good news of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection and establishing congregations.

The group with whom Jesus spent the next largest block of time was the disciples. The word disciple, mathetes in the Greek, means student or follower. Rabbis, or teachers, were often itinerant and as they went about teaching, their disciples followed them, both spiritually and physically. The total number of disciples Jesus had is unknown. But the New Testament claims that more than five-hundred people saw the risen Jesus and that only those who had followed Jesus--however imperfectly--saw Him after the resurrection.

The group with whom Jesus spent the least amount of time was "the crowds."

(2) This event took place "six days" after Jesus told His disciples that He would be going to Jerusalem, be rejected by the priests and the people, suffer death on a cross, and then, rise from the dead. Peter, at least, was repulsed by this idea, upbraiding Jesus for even suggesting that successfully displace the Romans and the puppet king Herod, to take control of Judea. But Jesus would have none of the disciples' selfish dreams. He had come to die for the sins of the world and not even those how were counted among His followers would stand in His way.

2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.
(1) This event is recounted in such understated terms that one could almost miss it. To be transfigured is to have one's appearance change. Jesus' appearance was apparently transformed so that the glory of God shone from Him.

In Exodus 19:21, God warned Moses to warn the people against looking at God directly when He revealed Himself. The powerful light of His visage would be so great that if they looked at Him, they would die. Even the reflected light of God was seen in Moses' face after his encounters with God.

In the Gospel lesson though, the disciples are both terrified and privileged by the chance to see glory of God shining from Jesus. It's not a secondhand, mediated light like the ancient Israelites had seen in Moses' face. This is the real deal. In the Transfiguration, Jesus was giving His three main disciples that He was God.

3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.
(1) How Peter, James, and John knew that they were seeing Moses and Elijah is unexplained. Maybe they had name badges like you see at conferences: "Hello, My Name is...Moses."

(2) But the significance of their appearing with Jesus at this moment is unmistakably clear. Moses was the lawgiver and Elijah was Israel's greatest prophet. They represent the two great strands of God's self-disclosure as recorded in the Old Testament, the law and the prophets. Throughout his gospel, Matthew is at pains to show how Jesus was not a departure from Old Testament faith, but the fulfillment of it.

4Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
(1) In his account of the Transfiguration, Luke says that Peter suggests the erection of booths results from not knowing what he was saying. Matthew conveys the same point by telling us that God interrupted Peter.

(2) So, what was wrong with Peter's suggestion?

Well intentioned though it may have been, it was born of the human desire to bottle up God, to put God's glory in a box and then pull it out at times of our choosing.

BUT GOD IS A DEVOURING FIRE! He breaks out in the times and places of His choosing.

There is no way that Peter, James, and John, as they set out with Jesus, could have anticipated this blazing outbreak of God and His glory. Moments like these are reserved by God as means by which He can reassure His followers of His presence, His love, and His power.

Now, we can be assured that any time we call on the Name of the Lord, God will be present. But moments like those on the Mount of Transfiguration are rare, putting it in the category of a miracle. If miracles happened every day, we wouldn't call them miracles. We'd call them the stuff that happens every day.

Miraculous self-disclosure by God cannot be boxed in a booth. But such events can give us strength, comfort, and encouragement when we step down from the mountaintops to live each day.

Peter's proposed booths would have domesticated God, turned Him into the creature of human beings. But God cannot be tamed. He will not be domesticated.

Nor can you bottle up miracles, no matter what the armies of false preachers and teachers may tell us to the contrary!

(3) The words spoken by God the Father here are the same spoken by the voice from heaven when Jesus was baptized in Matthew 3:17.

6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.
(1) The person whose first reaction to coming into the presence of God's majesty and glory isn't fear is clueless. God's perfection and power should humble us. Recognition of God's glory should also cause us to recognize our own sinfulness and need of forgiveness.

(2) Falling to the ground was more than an involuntary response born of fear. It was also a spontaneous expression of worship.

7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
(1) The God we meet in Jesus Christ doesn't want us to remain quaking in fear. He wants to be our God, for sure. But He also wants to be our Savior and our Friend. God wants to bring us forgiveness and new life. He wants a relationship with His children.

8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
(1) The moment had passed. The point was made. The revelation of Who Jesus was--God as well as man--had happened. Now, it was time to go down from the mountaintop so that Jesus could fulfill His mission of death and resurrection for the sinners of the world.

After we've been consoled and empowered by the presence of God during our times of worship, Bible reading, prayer, receiving the Sacrament, or time in Christian fellowship, it's time for us to live our lives, carrying Christ's Good News with us wherever we go.

(2) After the Father says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!," He leaves the disciples to look to and to follow Jesus. THIS IS WHAT WE ARE LEFT TO DO AS WELL. We don't need signs. We only need Jesus. (I say this because it's the truth, but believe you me, I sometimes hanker for signs as much as anyone else! After thirty-two years of being a Christian, I'm still just beginning to learn how to follow Jesus.)

9As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
(1) Why does Jesus tell the three disciples with Him to keep their mouths shut about what they had seen until after His resurrection? I know that I would have been busting a gut to say something.

Maybe this is the reason: Until after Jesus' death and resurrection, the Transfiguration would be a disconnected and meaningless event, a sign that seemed to point to nothing but itself. You can't really make sense of it until you know Jesus Who suffered and died on a cross.
  • Without the cross, you may think that following Christ is all glorious mountaintop experiences.
  • Without the cross, you may forget how great the gap sin has created between God and us.
  • Without the cross, you may think that you don't need to repent or daily turn to God for the strength to resist sin.
  • Without the cross, those who heard Peter, James, and John tell about the Transfiguration might have thought that God's glory only consisted of blazing brightness.
The cross tells us that God also has His glory when, having become one of us, He dies in payment for our sin. That demonstrates the greatness of God's love and that, folks, is glorious!

Thursday, January 31, 2008

"It's Character, Stupid"

"I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me."

The writer was Abraham Lincoln, speaking of the catclysmic Civil War, initiated not by Lincoln or the government he headed, but by insurgent forces who attacked a United States military installation on US soil.

Things happen over which we have no control and much of life is composed of our response to events. "If you want to make God laugh," said Father Myke, a World Trade Center hero on September 11, 2001, "tell Him what you plan to do tomorrow." This echoes wisdom found in the New Testament book of James:
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.” Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:13-15)
And it isn't much different from the words of John Lennon in his song, Beautiful Boy: "Life is just what happens to you, while you're busy making other plans..."

The point?

Stuff happens.

Even to presidents.

This is important to remember as the 2008 presidential campaign unfolds. In town hall meetings and debates, candidates are asked what they would do about the economy, the war in Iraq, the struggle with radical jihadists, global warming, and a whole host of other vital national and international concerns. Candidates respond with everything from sound bites to detailed programs on their web sites. And all of that's fine.

But beware! Events have a way of overtaking even presidents.

Franklin Roosevelt ran as a balanced budget conservative in his 1932 race for the presidency. But by the time he took the oath of office in March of the following year, he realized that Keynesian deficit spending was necessary to give the economy a major boost. He also saw that the nation needed a major infusion of confidence and steel, assets he had in abundance as a result of his, by then, decade-long battle to overcome polio.

Because much of what happens during a presidential term of office can't be anticipated, there is something far more important to consider when deciding who will get our votes for president. In short, the characters of the people who vie for the presidency are more significant than their political philosophies or their position papers.

Character is forged in personal experience with adversity, not only in the adversity we personally experience, but also in the extent to which we're willing to stand with others in their adversity.

Often, the United States has been lucky. The presidents we've elected have largely, been unknown to us and what we have known of them has often been a public relations smoke screen.

Today, smoke screens are out there. But in this era of multiple information outlets and YouTube videos, we have a much better chance of knowing what makes our candidates for public office tick. We can get a fix on their characters.

Hopefully, as this presidential election process continues, we will pay heed to the candidates' positions on the issues and look at their resumes. But more than anything, I hope, we'll consider their characters. It's their characters that will give us the best indication of how they might respond to the unknown events that loom in the futures of us all.

[By the way, here are links to a series I wrote that features one of Abraham Lincoln's most remarkable and laudable character traits, his capacity to change and grow:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7]

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

First Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (February 3, 2008)

[Each week, I take one or more "passes" at the Bible lessons for the succeeding Sunday. They give background information on the texts as a way of helping the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, the congregation I serve as pastor, to prepare for worship. Since we use the appointed lessons of the Revised Common Lectionary, a version of which is used by most Christians in the world, hopefully these passes will also help others.]

This Sunday's Bible Lessons:
Exodus 24:12-18
Psalm 2 or Psalm 99
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

General Comments:
1. This Sunday brings us to the celebration of the Transfiguration of Our Lord. This event, recounted slightly differently by the Gospel writers Matthew, Mark, and Luke, is important. Like all the Gospel lessons for this Epiphany season, the Transfiguration, when Jesus' appearance blazed with the glorious light of heaven before His three closest followers, is a manifestation of Jesus' deity.

2. But the Transfiguration, which in Matthew's Gospel is recounted immediately after Jesus tells His disciples that He will die on a cross and which is ended with Jesus' insistence that He, Peter, James, and John must leave their mountaintop experience and go to the troublesome world below, is the perfect bridge between the seasons of Epiphany and Lent. Epiphany begins with magi bringing gifts for the Baby King, Jesus, and continues with celebrations of Jesus' Deity. Lent points us toward Good Friday. The Baby King, affirmed on a mountaintop by God the Father, came to earth to die for our sins. Jesus, in effect, tells the disciples--and us--that it's time to quit celebrating the revelation of Jesus as God and get on with addressing the why, what, and how of God becoming a man.

3. All the texts for this Sunday point to moments when the glory of God came to dwell among people on earth.

4. Exodus 24:12-18: Moses ascends the mountain to encounter God. There, God will give Moses stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments.

But once on the mountaintop, Moses and his assistant (and eventual successor) Joshua, must wait for six days. God will not be rushed. Of course, God will listen to our prayers, even those we fire up from the shower, while driving in traffic, or doing our jobs. But, when the God of the universe has things to communicate to us, He wants our undivided attention. Far too often, as Ole Hallesby and others point out, we miss out on the blessings and guidance God wants to give to us because we fail to wait for God.

Waiting, when we have and make the time for it, allows us to "be still and know" that God really is God. It's incredibly comforting and encouraging when, in the midst of our super-busy days, we let God penetrate the clutter of our days so that He can reach us.

God made Moses take the time.

5. Moses' six-day wait also evokes memories of the first creation account in Genesis. There, we're told, God created for six days and then rested on the seventh.

6. Mountaintops, in the ancient near East, were often places where so-called theophanies took place. The word theophany refers to a God-appearing.

Mountaintops were also places on which ancient peoples built altars to worship. A scandal of Israel's life is that, after God had given His people the promised land, many of them built altars to false gods.

7. In v.14, because he and Joshua were going to the mountaintop, Moses delegates the responsibility of judging the disputes of the Israelites to Aaron and Hur.

I often received good-natured teasing from the people of my former congregation for delegating tasks to others. But it's a wise and venerable tradition. In Genesis 18, Moses' father-in-law, Jethro, after observing the time and effort Moses was investing in judging the disputes of the people, advised that if Moses didn't start delegating, he would wear himself out. When leaders delegate, they save themselves wear and tear and can address other issues.

Another advantage of delegating responsibility is that it increases the sense of ownership people have for their people, their church, their company, and their church.

Of course, those to whom we delegate responsibilities don't always discharge them well. Aaron, Moses' brother, had a sort of mixed record when Moses gave him responsibilities.

But this too, can be instructive to the leader, alerting her or him to the weaknesses of others, areas in which others may need more instruction or a little TLC, and giving the leader an understanding of the areas of giftedness and abilities of others, in turn informing the leader as to how best to employ the gifts and abilities of people.

8. The appearance of God to Moses on Mount Sinai was like a devouring fire. Too often, we Christians sentimentalize God. We read a phrase like, "God is love," taken from First John, and we turn God into some indulgent grandfather who, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, doesn't care what we do so long as a good time is had by all.

That is not the picture of God we get from His self-disclosure in both the Old and New Testaments.

God's love isn't some syrupy banality. It's a tough commitment to what is best for us and implacable enmity to anything that isn't good for us.

And God isn't some mushy, befuddled old codger. God is a devouring fire!

To those willing to submit to Him and His authority over their lives, this fire will light our way. This fire will also purge sin from our lives, never a painless process. He will accept no rivals for absolute Lordship of our lives.

No wonder then that so often, when people have encountered God in His holiness, as happens also in the Gospel lesson for this Sunday, they quake in fear. When we see God in all His glory, we see pure goodness and it condemns us. But God has no desire to condemn us. It's why nearly as often as people quake in fear before God, He or His emissaries tell the fearful, "Do not be afraid."

The God of devouring fire is for us. Thank God!

[More on these lessons later, I hope.]

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Romney Claims Business Success Prepares Him to Handle Economy...Is That True?

With John McCain and Mitt Romney in a statistical tie there, Floridians are voting in their state's presidential primary.

Concerns about the national economy have increased in recent weeks. In the face of these concerns, Romney has been touting his supposed superior capacity to deal with economic issues because of his business background.

So far as I can recall, only three US presidents have spent major portions of their adult lives in business: Herbert Hoover and the two Bushes.



Hoover was an authentic business success. After graduating from Stanford University, Hoover was a mining engineer who made millions for his company. He had an extraordinary ability to pick the right places to mine. Eventually, he negotiated a deal with his company, getting a piece of the profit on all the successful projects he initiated and becoming a millionaire before he was thirty. Hoover then became an independent contractor, making millions more.

After that, as most people know, the native Iowan headed a major relief effort, providing food and other help to Europeans in the post-World War I-era.

Hoover was seen as a can-do guy who knew how modern economies worked.

It was maybe inevitable then that Hoover should become involved in government work. Warren Harding appointed him to be Secretary of Commerce, a post he continued to hold throughout the tenure of Harding's successor, Calvin Coolidge.

During his years at Commerce, Hoover was ubiquitous, involving himself in a broad range of domestic and foreign policy matters. He was called "Secretary of Everything."

In 1928, there was simply no question that Hoover would be the Republican nominee for president. He won in a landslide over New York Governor Al Smith. Inaugurated in March, 1929, Hoover was president a scant seven months when the stock market crash hit.

In the face of the ensuing depression, the well-meaning Miracle Man seemed incapable of perceiving, let alone responding to, the crisis. At first, he denied that a major problem existed. Then, as he slowly realized the magnitude of the nation's woes, he offered ineffectual measures. He was trounced as he sought re-election in 1932. For all his undeniable acumen as a businessperson, a catalyst for major coordinated efforts, and a management genius, acknowledged as such by both President Truman and Eisenhower, two of his successors, Hoover was utterly incompetent in dealing with economic matters.

The Bushes were the inheritors of great wealth, acquired by George H.W. Bush's grandfather. They were two examples of the family tradition, which says that its male members will go into politics, but only after securing independent wealth, a pursuit buttressed by the family's notable capacity for easily acquiring initial capitalization. George H.W. Bush was, by most accounts, quite successful in his ventures into the Texas oil industry of the 1950s. The younger George appears to have been far less so, helped to success in spite of red-inking business practices in both oil and in major league baseball.

Of course, the elder Bush lost the presidency to Bill Clinton, whose campaign mantra was, "It's the economy, stupid." George H.W. Bush seemed detached from the economic difficulties then afflicting the country.

The younger Bush takes credit for forestalling recession through the enactment of tax cuts early in his term and is even now grappling with the current downturn in the economy.

Is business success (or failure) an indicator of a potential president's ability to deal with the economy? The number of presidents who actually spent much of their adult lives in business is small. So, it's difficult to know the answer to that question. But, based on the small sampling, the answer would appear to be no.

[UPDATE: I don't want this post to be interpreted as saying that those who spend large chunks of their lives in the business world shouldn't be president. My only point was and is that history doesn't suggest an automatic acceptance of Romney's argument that because he spent time as, essentially, a capital investment banker, he knows how to "manage" the US economy.]

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Christ Lightens Our Darkness, Calls Us to Follow

[This sermon was shared today during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio.]

Matthew 4:12-23
The call came late in the afternoon on a bleak day for Ann and me. We had learned earlier that day that Ann had miscarried. I was in seminary at the time and when Ann called me with the news, I sped home to be with her. That’s when the call came. The caller was a faculty member from seminary. “I understand you’ve had some troubles,” he said. “What can I do to help?”

Other than praying for us, I told him, his call was help enough. It was a little light in our momentary darkness, a reminder of the love and care of God that reaches out to us even in dark, sad times.

We need that light always, but some times more than others.

Our first lesson for today, taken from the book of the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, addresses a people living in darkness. Written in 733 BC, Isaiah’s homeland of Judah was all that was left of the larger land God had once given to His people. Their national life was darkened by the awful prospect of invasion from countries to their north or domination by the Assyrian Empire, the regional superpower. On top of that, their religious life was not what it could be, many of the people having wandered far from God.

It was a dark time. But Isaiah said that God was on His way, bringing light for their darkness, light that would help them to see God’s love, provision, and power, light that would help them to see their way through the darkness. He writes: “…There will be no gloom for those who were in anguish…The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.”

Our Gospel lesson for this morning recounts events that happened more than seven centuries after Isaiah gave his prophecy. Judah, His homeland, was, in many ways, still in darkness. The country was occupied by a foreign empire; in this era, it was the Romans. Violent puppet kings, with no legitimate claim to the crown, drawn from the Herod family, were on the throne. The people were horribly overtaxed and forced to endure all sorts of indignities. Some shortsightedly thought that the solution to their problems were political. But God had other ideas.

It’s then that Jesus began His public ministry. Our lesson tells us that Jesus did two things as He began.

First: He brought God’s long-promised light to people’s lives. He said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Of course, we’ve talked about that word “repent” before. It means more than simply being sorry for one’s sins. It also means that we’ve turned away from our sins, repudiating its power over us, and have turned back to God, asking Him to be the Lord over all our lives and our decisionmaking.

But, look at what Jesus says He’s bringing to us: the kingdom of heaven. Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is quoted as using that phrase, kingdom of heaven. If we’re a bit lazy in our listening, we might think that Jesus is talking about a place, far-off, a sweet-by-and-by heaven. But that isn’t what Jesus means when He talks about the kingdom of heaven. Whenever anybody in His time talked about heaven in this way, they were talking about God. In Jesus, God’s kingdom comes to us. In Jesus, God Himself comes to us.

We need God come to near to us, don't we? There is power and there is comfort when we know that God is near. In the movie, The Color Purple, one character tells another, “When you walked into the room, I knew there was a God.” We long for that assurance! In Jesus Christ, the world comes to see that God isn’t content to stand far off, watching His children suffer or wallow in sin. He comes near to us!

Many of you may know the story of Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch Christian alive at the time that Nazi Germany overran her land. Because she and her family were Christians, they were horrified by the death camps to which the Nazis were sending. And so, they allowed their home to become a hiding place for Jews seeking to escape the Netherlands. They were found out and sent off to the very camps out of which they were trying to keep their Jewish neighbors. During the course of the war, incarcerated in the camps, Corrie’s father and sister and the members of her extended family all were killed. Only Corrie survived.

One of the things that sustained Corrie through that dark time was a place that she and her sister set up in a section of the camp reserved for garbage. Nobody else wanted to be there. But in the midst of the refuse and the maggots and the stench, Corrie and her sister had established a kind of sanctuary. It was there each night that they went to pray, to praise God for the forgiveness of sin and new life that belongs to all who believe in Jesus Christ. In her book, The Hiding Place, Corrie ten Boom writes that in time, that horrible garbage dump was the place she most wanted to be. It was the place where the light of God, fully revealed to the world in Jesus Christ, came to her darkened life.

Christ's light is still coming to us. About ten years ago, a friend of mine was dying. He lay for some time in a Cincinnati hospital, under the care not only of the nurses who worked there, but also of his wife, who is a nurse, and of hospice. It was, in many ways, a most remarkable scene, one that plays out in scores of hospital rooms and bed rooms every single day. But my friend and his wife were also deeply trusting followers of Jesus. For as long as my friend remained conscious, he would spend time talking with Jesus, worshiping Jesus, listening to his wife read Scripture.

In the last days of his life, employees of the hospital would ask if they could come into Sig’s room. They wanted to pay their respects, of course. But many of them said that they wanted to be in that room with him because they felt, as they never had in their lives, the very presence of Jesus. Even though Sig was dying, the place also seemed to be pulsing with the very life of Jesus. In that room, the Lord assured us that He was still the light of the world and that death is not the end of the line for those who follow Him!

As Jesus began His public ministry, He brought the light of heaven into our darkened world. He’s still doing that for those who dare to believe in Him.

But, according to our Gospel lesson, Jesus did a second thing as He began His ministry: He gave His followers a ministry.

In our lesson, Jesus approaches four fishermen—Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John—and tells them, “Follow Me. I’m going to make you fishers of people.”

This incident is so familiar to us that we may miss what’s really going on here. We may think that to be really faithful to Jesus, we have to leave our nets, or leave our computers, or leave our desks, our trucks or assembly lines, our cash registers, classrooms or kitchens. But the fact is, although Jesus calls all Christians to spread the light of His love, to invite others to worship and follow Him, not all of us are meant to be preachers who venture far from home.

This is a good thing because, as people told me when I visited Germany a few years ago, there can sometimes be too many preachers. There, they have the saying that preachers are like manure. Spread around they do a lot of good. But too many of them brought together stinks. The fact is that God calls us to all sorts of ministries.

Several years ago, I remember reading an article in a magazine by a woman who, filled with a desire to spread the Good News that all who turn from sin and follow Jesus have everlasting life, was sure that God wanted her to become a missionary. She told her husband, who was a bit skeptical. “Honey,” he said, “in all honesty, you really haven’t made much of an effort to share the Gospel with people you know. Shouldn’t you try doing that before you take me off to Africa or Asia with you?”

He had a point, the woman realized. And so, she prayed, asking God to show her how she could share Christ with her neighbors. Then, it dawned on her. Any time a new family moved into her neighborhood, she would bake bread for them and welcome them. That’s it. In time, she became “the bread lady.” The new neighbors would call the bread lady to ask about good mechanics, reliable doctors, and so forth. But they also talked with her about other things and in the course of her conversations with these neighbors who became friends, she was also able to share the light of Christ and invite them to worship with her.

And we are never too old for doing our ministries. At a conference I attended a few years ago, the speaker talked about how her daughter, who was going through a terrible divorce after her husband had left her, one day got a strange phone call. "Mrs. Smith," the elderly woman said, "I was wondering: Do you love Jesus?" "Yes," Mrs. Smith, the conference speaker said, "I do love Jesus. But I sometimes wonder if he's abandoned me. I still love Jesus, though." "I'm glad to hear that," the woman responded. "I don't often get that answer."

Now, Mrs. Smith was curious. "Who are you?" she asked her caller. The woman explained that she was an elderly widow, losing her eyesight. Saddened over the deaths of so many of her friends and frustrated with her more limited physical abilities, one day this woman had poured out her heart to God. "What good am I?" she asked the Lord. "What can I do but sit around and wait to die?" The answer popped into her head in the form of two words: telephone and Jesus.

She priced a special line for telephones and learned that for a certain budgeted amount, she could make so many calls a month. She had the phone installed, pulled out the phone book, and started with the A's.

Making calls every day, over the course of several years, that elderly woman who thought that she was no good to God or anybody else, gently called hundreds of people to faith in Jesus Christ!

Now, that may not be our style as Lutherans. But the lesson is clear: Jesus, the Light of the world, calls all of us to fish for people, to serve God and neighbor. We may not even have to leave our living rooms to follow!

Jesus began His ministry, declaring that He had brought the light of heaven to our darkened world and calling four people to become fishers of people.

You and I who are privileged to be part of Christ’s Church today are a band of sisters and brothers with a message and a ministry. The message: Jesus is the light of the world. The ministry: To share Jesus in whatever ways we can.

May God empower us and bless us as we bear the light of Christ into every dark place we encounter.