Friday, November 26, 2010

Who Causes You the Most Trouble?

In his book, Developing the Leader Within You, John Maxwell tells the following story:
A reporter once asked the great evangelist D.L. Moody which people gave him the most trouble. He answered immediately, "I've had more trouble with D.L. Moody than any man alive."

God Will NOT Abandon Those Who Want Him More Than Anything Else!

In this time when the Church itself often appears to be set against God, God's Word, and God's will, those who seek to live the life style of daily repentance and renewal to which Jesus Christ calls us, can take encouragement from Psalm 127:
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh— my adversaries and foes— they shall stumble and fall.

Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.

One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.

For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.

Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the Lord.

Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!

“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face, Lord, do I seek.

Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help.

Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!

If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up.

Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.

Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence.

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord
Psalm 127 is the scriptural basis for this fantastic piece by Philip Yancey.

The Office of the Keys

"I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Jesus, in Matthew 16:19)

It's not an option for Christ's Church to stint on telling the truth about sin and forgiveness, law and gospel.

Churches and Christians who, in the name of their own version of "love," fail to use the keys which Christ has conferred on them, risk the immortal souls of both themselves and those who heed their false gospel.

Christ has entrusted us with the task of calling people to repentance, so that they can take up Christ's gift of forgiveness and new life. The "office of the keys" reposed in the Church is a sacred obligation. Martin Luther talks about it in The Small Catechism:
What is the "Office of the Keys"?

It is that authority which Christ gave to His Church to forgive the sins of those who repent and to declare to those who do not repent that their sins are forgiven.

What are the words of Christ?

Our Lord Jesus Christ said to His disciples: "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."-John 20:23

"Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."-Matthew 18:18

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Don't Be Afraid of the Word, "Righteous"

Yesterday, in an email to the congregation I serve as pastor, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church, I thanked people for being so committed to prayer. Then I mentioned this:
James writes in the New Testament, "The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective" (James 5:16). And don't be frightened by that word "righteous." You don't have to be a stained glass saint to be righteous. A righteous person is simply a sinner who is right with God: they repent for their sins and trust in Jesus as their Lord. You can be assured that your prayers in Jesus' Name do great things!
Our righteousness doesn't depend on us. (Thank God!)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

What is the Church Year?

[Five years ago, as we were beginning a new season of Advent, I presented this explanation of the Church Year. It remains one of the most popular posts I've written for this blog. As we prepare, this Sunday, November 28, to begin another Advent season, I thought people might find it helpful.]

The Church Year is a human invention. Observing it won't make us better than anybody else. Nor does keeping it "save" a person from sin and death.

But the Church Year is one of those customs or traditions designed to help people know the God we meet in Jesus and also help believers to grow in their faith.

The Church Year is built around three great festivals: Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost.

Christmas, of course, is the celebration of Jesus' birth.

Easter is the day remembering Jesus' resurrection from the dead.

Pentecost remembers the occasion fifty days after Jesus' resurrection and ten days after His ascension into heaven when the Holy Spirit came to Jesus' praying disciples and gave birth to the Church.

Historically, Easter was the first holiday (the word contracts two words: holy day) that Christians began to celebrate. This only makes sense, as it's Jesus' resurrection that gives Christians hope for this life and the one to come. While early Christians did seem to remember Easter on a Sunday falling at the beginning of the Jewish Passover, the practice of the first Christians, all of whom were Jews like Jesus, was to worship on the traditional Jewish Sabbath--from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday--and to celebrate every Sunday as a little Easter. (Some echo of this can be found in the Gospel of John's occasional references to an "eighth day," a new beginning in a new week.)

Over time, a Church Year developed which allowed for the retelling of Jesus' life, death, resurrection, and ascension, followed by Pentecost. The Church Year, in order, moves through these seasons:
  • Advent
  • Christmas
  • Epiphany
  • Lent
  • Easter
  • Pentecost
Advent, with which the color blue is most often associated today, is celebrated on the four Sundays preceding Christmas, which always occurs on the fixed date of December 25. The word advent, means coming or presence. The theme of Advent is waiting. This season remembers more than the centuries when the world anticipated or waited for the coming of the Savior, Jesus, on the first Christmas. It also calls us to patiently await both God's activity in our own lives and the return of Jesus at the end of earthly time. Advent's blue, the color of the sky, reminds us of the endless hope all believers in Jesus Christ have.

Christmas begins on December 25 and ends on January 6, with Epiphany Day. (That's why people sing about The Twelve Days of Christmas.) We don't know the exact date of Jesus' birth. Our current date was long ago selected to be a Christian alternative to a pagan Roman festival, Saturnalia. Christmas has a short season of two Sundays associated with it, running right up to the season of Epiphany. The color of the Christmas season and of Easter, because they are both festivals of Jesus, the sinless Savior, is white.

The word epiphany comes from a Greek compound word meaning to shine upon. The Epiphany Season begins with January 6, the day we commemorate the arrival of wise men from foreign lands who followed a star to the baby Jesus to a house in Bethlehem. It was there that Mary and Joseph lived with their Child for several years after the Savior's birth. January 6, in fact, is called Epiphany Day. (Because the wise men brought gifts, Epiphany was historically the day on which Christians gave gifts to one another.) The Epiphany Season is composed of between four and nine Sundays after January 6. The season is bracketed by a first Sunday, which always remembers Jesus' Baptism, and a Sunday at the end that remembers Jesus' Transfiguration. At the Transfiguration, on top of a mountain, accompanied by three of His disciples, Jesus' image was transfigured by the luminescence of heaven and God spoke, confirming Jesus' identity and mission. On the two bracketing Sundays of the Epiphany Season, the color is white. During the season in between, the color is green.

During the Epiphany season, Christians look at the early signs that pointed to Jesus being more than just a human being, but also God in the flesh, the Light of the world. The emphasis of the Epiphany season is usually on sharing the good news of Christ with others, shining the light of Christ on those around us.

After Epiphany comes Lent, a word which in the Old English, meant spring. Lent is a time for spiritual renewal and precedes the holiest days of the Church Year, including Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. Lent is referred to as a season of forty days, which it is if you know how to count the days. Because Sundays are always "little Easters," the Sundays in Lent (not of Lent), are not counted as part of those forty days.

The color associated with Lent is purple, the color of royalty because in ancient times, purple dyes were so rare and expensive that only royalty could afford cloth of that color. Historically, the season of Lent was a time of preparation for adult converts to the faith to prepare for their initiation into Christianity at Easter.

There are several key days on the Lenten calendar. The season begins with Ash Wednesday. This is a day of repentance, that is, of turning away from sin and turning to Christ for forgiveness. Of course, as Martin Luther phrased it, "daily repentance and renewal" are meant to be an ongoing element of the Christian's life as we routinely strive to orient ourselves to God and His will for us. But Ash Wednesday is a time when all are especially reminded of it.

Near the end of the season comes Passion Sunday (also known as Palm Sunday). On this day, we're called to remember both Jesus' seemingly triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the Sunday before His execution and Christ's passion, as well as its foreshadowing of Easter. Passion, a word that is used in entirely different ways today, really means to be so committed to the well-being of another that we're willing to die for them. Christ had that kind of commitment to us and so, went to a cross. Passion Sunday begins that portion of Lent called Holy Week.

The next major day on the Holy Week calendar is Maundy Thursday. Maundy is rooted in the Latin word mandatum, from which we get our word mandate, related to the word commandment. That's because on the Thursday night before He was executed, during the Passover celebration at which He instituted Holy Communion, Jesus also gave His disciples "a new commandment": that they love one another.

Many churches have foot-washing rites during their special gatherings on this day. Jesus washed the feet of His disciples before they ate together on that first Maundy Thursday and also commanded all of His followers to be servants like Him.

Good Friday, which comes on the next night, is a solemn remembrance of Jesus' death on the cross. For me, this is one of the most moving worship services of the year. At our congregation, as is true of many churches, we have a service called Tenebrae. This word comes from the Latin and means darkness. The service remembers the darkness that engulfed the world at Jesus' execution as well as our need of Him as the light in our darkness. The service ends in silence as all contemplate Jesus' sacrifice of Himself for us.

Easter Sunday brings the celebration of Jesus' resurrection in a special way and continues throughout the Easter season. This is usually the high point of the year, even in churches that don't use the Church Year. The Easter Season lasts about seven weeks. The Gospel lessons incorporate accounts of the resurrected Jesus' appearances. Tucked in the midst of the season, on a Thursday, is Ascension Day. This comes forty days after Easter. More on that below.

Pentecost Day, as I mentioned, is the celebration of the Church's birthday, when the Holy Spirit, Who hovered over the waters of primordial chaos to bring life into being back in the Old Testament book of Genesis, once again creates. This time, He creates new life by bringing Christ's Church, His body in the world, into being. The color of this day is red.

There follows after that a season that lasts from twenty-three to twenty-eight weeks. It's referred to simply as the Pentecost Season. The color is green because the emphasis here is on growing in our faith, learning to be Jesus' disciples or followers at ever-deepening levels of maturity.

The very first Sunday after Pentecost is Holy Trinity Sunday. This focuses on the great mystery of the God we meet in the Bible: One God in three Persons, revealed in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The whole Church Year comes to a close, on the Sunday closest to November 30, with Christ the King Sunday.

Associated with each of the Sundays and many of the festivals of the Church Year are three cycles of appointed Biblical lessons. These cycles, referred to as Years A, B, and C, are called lectionaries. There are several sets of lectionaries, the the most well-known being those associated with the Roman Catholics, another with Lutherans, and another with a consortium of several Protestant denominations. The lectionaries are fairly similar, but do diverge occasionally.

Each Sunday and special festival day of the Church Year has appointed lessons from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the New Testament (either Acts, Revelation, or the letters), and a Gospel lesson. Generally speaking, the Old Testament, Psalm, and Gospel readings are thematically linked. The New Testament lessons are designed to make it possible over a three year period, to have almost all the letters, Revelation, and Acts read in public worship.

The three different cycles are built on the three synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. (Synoptic is a word that means to see together. These three Gospels are quite similar to one another--they see things similarly, while the Gospel of John has the most unique material.) Because Mark, with only sixteen chapters, is so short, the appointed Gospel lessons during its year are often taken from John.

Through my years as a pastor, I've felt free to spring loose from what one of our former Lutheran bishops, David Preus, called "the tyranny of the lectionary," looking at Biblical texts not appointed in the lectionary, in order to address issues that seem to be important in our community or world. But the lectionary does provide a well-rounded diet of Biblical material which, when looked at in a disciplined and devoted way, can help Christians develop a deeper faith.

[The image above, showing the cycle of the Church Year, comes from Augsburg Fortress, the publishing house of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.]

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

"I aint got no horror story..."

"...God kept me in my youth I give him all the glory
got my story with the flow,
and now I know
the blood of the lamb has saved my soul
and that's my testimony..." (great rap from Da T.R.U.T.H.)

Here's a "video" from his recording.

Here's a live version. It's great that he asked some audience members come up on stage.

What I love about this track is that it's simply this guy's testimony about his own relationship with Christ. So often, Christians who have always believed and never been doubters, addicts, thieves, or serial adulterers feel inferior because they don't have a dramatic story to tell about their conversion. These are people like Fred Meuser, who was the son of a pastor and served as president of the seminary from which I graduated. If you spent any time with Fred, you would see as all of us who were students at Trinity, that he believed fervently in Jesus. Jesus was the center of his life. And yet, Fred had experienced no drama in his life, no years of hollow rebellion, no dark nights of doubt. "I can't remember a time when I didn't believe in Jesus," he told a group of us who had just begun our seminary training in back in January, 1980.

It's OK for Christians to have always believed. In fact, it's more than OK. Ask any Christian who, before coming to faith in Christ, wandered far from God, and they'll tell you that they would gladly have skipped all that "drama" if in its place they could have known and followed Jesus sooner.

Who need earthbound "drama" when you can have the King of kings as your best friend?

God Will Carry You!

Five years ago, a remarkable young member of the congregation I serve as pastor, Sarah, underwent the first of two bone marrow transplants (BMTs).

A second one happened two months after I became her pastor, in January, 2008.

Both procedures involved long hospital stays and accompanying complications. Through it all, Sarah and her wonderful family--Mom Becky, Dad Bryan, and Brother Stephen--have displayed faith and tenacity. They are heroes of Christian faithfulness to me!

Putting it in the only terms I can understand, Sarah's second BMT was 93% successful. This means that she will continue to need treatments always, but that she can lead a normal life. (Whatever a normal life might be!)

In 2009, Sarah was the Logan High School Homecoming Queen. She graduated near the top of her class. (Sarah was inducted into the National Honor Society while in a hospital intensive care unit.) She's now in her sophomore year of college, a psychology major with aspirations of working with young oncology patients in hospitals. (I can't imagine anyone more qualified by temperament, experience, or faithfulness to Christ to do such work.)

Last week, Sarah contracted pneumonia and struggled to breathe. Years of chemotherapy have significantly weakened her immune system. The quickness with which the pneumonia struck, at a point when everything was going so well for her, was stunning for everybody, especially for Sarah and her family.

They all had to hit "battle stations" again.

For Bryan and Stephen, that entails not just visits to the hospital and lots of praying, but also exhausting errand-running and schedule-juggling, among other things.

For Sarah's mother, Becky, a professional person just like Bryan, this means remaining with Sarah 24/7, acting as her advocate, prayer partner, intermediary, and "pal." It's a role that Becky plays well and includes a healthy respect for the fact that Sarah is now a young woman of 19.

Becky says that the day before Sarah was taken to the hospital, they had been to a massive expo in Louisville. There, they saw the reproduction of a painting showing a cowboy carrying a calf on his shoulders. Beneath it was a passage of Scripture, the very one Becky said she needed to face the new challenge which, unbeknown to her, she would face the next day. (It's amazing how God works that way, isn't it?)

Thank God, Sarah is doing well! Last night, she didn't require oxygen. She isn't on oxygen today. The regimen of treatments, buttressed by the prayers and love of Bryan, Becky, and Stephen, along with the pleading of an army of prayer warriors, has been used by God to turn away this latest assault on an incredible young woman. Sarah is to go to a regular care unit today and may be discharged tomorrow, in time to spend a very happy Thanksgiving with her parents, brother, and extended family!

During a phone conversation a little while ago, Becky revealed to me for the first time, that she has a new favorite Bible verse. Throughout Sarah's previous hospitalizations, Becky grasped hold of Psalm 46:10, which says, "Be still, and know that I am God!" That's a great passage, part of the psalm that inspired the lyrics of Martin Luther's hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God. It's been a touchstone passage for her for several years.

Becky says that, over the past week or so, she's been holding onto words God revealed to the prophet Isaiah, words inscribed at the bottom of that print of a cowboy she found little over a week ago:
Even to your old age, I am He, even when you turn gray I will carry you. I have made you; I will bear; I will carry and will save (Isaiah 46:4)
God makes hundreds of promises in His Word, the Bible. Someone has said that all of those promises are like blank checks, just setting there for believers to "cash in." The God Who has never broken a promise is ready and willing to answer His promises to us. Of course, maturing believers realize that God takes an eternal perspective on things. This is why Paul says, in 1 Corinthians 15:19, "If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied." We often want the things we pray for to happen immediately; God knows that He has an eternity to provide for us "far more than all we can ask or imagine" (Ephesians 3:20). But we know that God's promises--God's Word--are absolutely sure and completely reliable!

In Becky's new favorite passage from Isaiah, we see a promise from God for all believers who are exhausted and who know that the burdens on our shoulders are too huge for us to carry. God will take our burdens and carry them for us, just like Jesus, God incarnate, already took the weight of our sins to the cross.

We have an incredible God! 

He wants to bear the burdens you and I were never meant to carry. 

Peter talks about this in the New Testament: "Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you" (1 Peter 5:6-7).

God cares for you!

So, when the things you're carrying get too heavy--even before they get too heavy--remember to do two things:
God can carry you.

If you let Him, God will carry you!

Getting rid of earmarks is a fine idea, but...

...see here. (Two funny cartoons.)

(TY, to my son.)

Monday, November 22, 2010

Will You Stand Up or Just Watch?

A more literal translation of the original Greek in Luke 23:35, part of yesterday's Gospel lesson, reads like this:
And the people stood beholding. And also the rulers scoffed, saying, "Others he saved; let him save himself, if this man is the Christ, the Chosen One of God."
The verse comes as part of Luke's account of Jesus' crucifixion. It describes two groups: the people (in Greek, the laos, from which we get the English word laity) and the rulers (in Greek, the archontes, or the first ones), which can be translated as leaders. "The rulers" in this passage is not a reference to the civil rulers, the foreign Roman conquerors, but to the religious leaders. They were the Temple leaders of God's chosen people, the Jews.

The "actions" of each group interest me.

The people stand and watch as a man who has committed no crime is subjected to execution at the hands of the Gentile Romans. The people may have been horrified by what they saw, but they did nothing.

I think it's safe to say that they actually relish their lack of religious power or influence. These things enable them to hide behind a feigned ignorance about Jesus. Their ignorance must be fake because even one of the hardened criminals being executed next to Jesus can see that Jesus is the King. He understands that Jesus will somehow live on beyond death, confesses his sins to Jesus, and professing faith in Jesus as the King of kings, asks to be remembered in Jesus' kingdom. The people simply could not have been ignorant about Who Jesus is.

But the people know that if they confess their sins and profess faith in Christ, crosses might await them, too. They'd rather save their necks and forgo being part of Jesus' eternal kingdom than be with Jesus in paradise. Taking a stand is too risky for them, too inconvenient.

The other group in the verse is the leaders. One thing especially interests me about their words. There is an intrinsic confession of faith in Jesus' power: "Others he saved." They acknowledge the reports about Jesus to be true. They knew that Jesus had saved some from death (like Jairus' daughter and his friend, Lazarus), saved others from demon possession, saved some from blindness, saved some from execution, saved others from disease, saved still others from social shunning. In other words, they acknowledged all of the saving deeds that pointed to Jesus as the long anticipated Christ (Messiah or Anointed One or King), but refused to bow down to Him.

The leaders knew Who Jesus was, but instead of welcoming Him or trusting the witness about Him in God's Word--what we Christians know as the Old Testament portion of our Bibles, they wanted Jesus dead. They loved their own power and position more than they loved God. In fact, they had replaced God's Word with their own teaching. When God showed up in the flesh, He threatened them.

In the days of the Reformation, Martin Luther pointed out that the leaders of the sixteenth century Church had arrogated powers to themselves that didn't belong to them. Through an elaborate legalistic system, they stood between the God revealed in Christ and the laity. They tried to keep the people from reading the Bible. They changed the liturgy, usually spoken in a language only elites could understand, from a means of praising and interacting with God, to an object of terror, grim obligation, superstition, and extortion.

Luther, in many ways, sought to tear down the walls between the God revealed in Christ and the people. He pointed to passages like 1 Peter 2:9-10, to say that "ordinary" Christian laypeople had a priesthood. (A priest is a person who advocates for God before people and advocates for people before God.)

This, of course, is a liberating notion. Historians like Rodney Stark and Alvin J. Schmidt have shown that this teaching that all believers are equal in the sight of God, each with their own ministries, played a central role in the development of the Enlightenment, the idea of the individual, the modern democracy, and market capitalism.

But the priesthood of all believers also carries with it responsibility. Christian laypeople who know Jesus as Messiah and King can no longer dodge either His Lordship over their lives or their responsibilities as priests. Peter says that the priesthood of all believers has a purpose; God makes us priests "in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of Him Who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light" (1 Peter 2:9).

In Lutheran circles, this means that while pastors have certain functions--our confessions speak of the pastor's ministry of "Word and Sacrament," it doesn't alter the fact that all Christians are privileged to have their own relationship with Jesus Christ. It doesn't alter the fact that they are called to know the Word of God for themselves. It doesn't alter the fact they're called to grow and mature in their faith and that they have their own ministries.

Today, many of the elites in my own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), in the name of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer would call, "cheap grace," are telling us that people don't need Christ for salvation, that repentance is unnecessary, that the Word of God is only one source of authority in the lives of Christians and the Church (rather than the authoritative source and norm of our life, faith, and practice), and that if you accept the Bible's teachings that sexual intimacy is to be confined to heterosexual marriage, you're guilty of sin.

The question before laypeople in the ELCA is simple: Will you accept these false teachings and ignore your duties as priests of God, or will you lay claim to your God-given role and trust in Christ alone? Will you seek to reform our denominational body?

Today, in modern North America, no Christian leader can order your crucifixion. So, the only things impeding any ELCA layperson from praying and working to bring our denomination back under the Lordship of Jesus Christ are indifference, laziness, or complicity with false teaching.

ELCA Lutherans: Our denomination is in error. Will you stand up for Jesus or will you just watch?

If you're intent on doing more than watching, why not take the following initial steps?
  • Pray that God will bring reform and renewal to the ELCA
  • Get involved in a group Bible study in your church
  • Go to the Lutheran CORE web site and see for yourself if what you find there doesn't make sense and square with what Lutherans believe about Christian faith (Lutheran CORE is a group committed to reform and renewal in North American Lutheranism, whether one is committed to remaining in the ELCA or to being part of new bodies, such as Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ or The North American Lutheran Church)
  • Read The Book of Concord, containing the basic confessional affirmations of Lutheran Christianity
  • You might also want to read a book of essays written mostly by Lutheran laypeople and clergy called, By What Authority?: Confronting Churches Who No Longer Believe Their Own Message
  • Ask God what He might want you to do as part of your own ministry

[UPDATE: The verification words that popped up when I posted the link to this piece over on Facebook were: "On Lummox." They don't quite have the ring of, "Onward, Christian soldiers," but when spoken to a spectating denomination, might, I guess, have the same basic meaning.]

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Who Sees the King?

[This sermon was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today. As I explained this morning, this is an only slightly reworked version of a sermon I preached at Saint Matthew three years ago. Since I don't think it's possible to plagiarize one's own sermon, I guess that's OK.]

Luke 23:33-43
A family was moving to a new town. As they approached the outskirts of the place, they decided to stop at a local filling station and ask the attendant there what the town was like. “Well,” he said, “what was the last place you lived in like?” The family said, “It was awful. Neighbors were unfriendly. Delivery and repair people never showed up on time. Dogs barked at all hours. Our bosses were scrooges and the kids never once had a good teacher.” The attendant considered their answer for a while and said, “This place is pretty much like that. You’d be better off moving on.”

Later that day, the same scenario unfolded. Another family showed up at the filling station and wanted to know what this new town was like. “What was your old town like?” the attendant asked. “It was great,” the family said. “Everyone was friendly. The businesspeople did their best to get things done on time and always went above the call of duty. We had great bosses and the kids’ teachers were fantastic! Even the dogs were quiet.” The attendant considered their answer and said, “This place is pretty much like that. You’re going to love it here!”

Sometimes what we see is the thing we’re looking for. We see it because we’re open to seeing it.

On this Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the Church Year, our Gospel lesson seems, at first, to be out of place. After all, we’re about to celebrate Thanksgiving and are looking ahead to Christmas. But the Gospel lesson is the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, an account of the first Good Friday.

But the lesson seems out of place in another way: Nobody seems less like a king than a man executed on a cross. Not many will look at the crucified Jesus and see a king, let alone the King of kings.

True story: A young woman rediscovered her faith in Jesus while she was a teenager. She bought a simple cross necklace. One morning, her father spotted her wearing the necklace and asked what was going on. She explained that she wanted to be able to see the cross in the mirror every time she washed her hands or combed her hair. It would remind her of Christ.

Her father was repulsed. “Do you have any idea what happened on the cross?” he asked her. He went on to explain in detail what a humiliating and life-crushing experience crucifixion was. To that man, Jesus’ death on a cross was proof that Jesus was no king, just another pathetic victim of the world. To him, the story of Jesus on the cross ended not in the Savior paying the price for our sins nor in His resurrection from the dead so that all who repudiate their sin and believe in Jesus will live with God forever. To him, Jesus’ story ended in death for Jesus and for us all. Intent on making his own way in the world, what that man wanted to see when he thought of Jesus on the cross was exactly what he saw.

In our lesson today, the jealous religious leaders who sought Jesus’ death, the cynical soldiers who gambled for His clothes, and one of the criminals crucified with Him all saw Jesus as they wanted to see Him. Each in their way, taunted Jesus, seeing Him as a loser headed for utter humilation and defeat.

“He saved others,” the religious leaders say. “If He is the son of God, let Him save Himself.”

“If you really are the king,” the soldiers taunt, “save Yourself.”

“Aren’t You the Messiah?” one of the criminals asks, “Then get us off the hook and save yourself too.”

Whether the leaders, the soldiers, or the first criminal harbored notions that Jesus really was the Messiah, God’s anointed King, may not be important. It's clear though, that the religious leaders knew that Jesus was the King, but wanted to get rid of anyone who might threaten their status. The others who taunted Jesus that day were probably just garden-variety cynics who believed, like the father of that young woman, that life must end at the grave.

Even the crowds who gazed on these events in silence appear to see only hopelessness in Jesus’ crucifixion. I suppose most people who take the time to consider Jesus on the cross see hopelessness. They can’t see how Jesus’ crucifixion proves that He is the King of kings.

But we who follow Christ have been helped to see things differently. Paul writes about these two different ways of seeing Jesus on the cross in First Corinthians in the New Testament. If you would, please turn to page 657 in the pew Bibles. Look at 1 Corinthians, chapter 1, verse 18. Read along with me silently. Paul says: “…the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

Only one person in today’s Gospel lesson was foolish enough to see the power of God in Christ’s crucifixion. He was one of the criminals. He looked at the suffering Jesus on the cross and saw not a defeated man, but the King of kings. He was so certain of Jesus being the King that he turned to Jesus and said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus promised, not because the criminal deserved it, but because he both confessed his sins and professed his faith in Jesus, that he would on that very day be with Him in paradise.

Why did that one man see Jesus as the King of kings that Good Friday?

As good Lutherans who read our Bibles, we all know that it wasn’t because he was smarter than the others, or that he was a better person, or that he had done more good things. None of these things create faith or give us our places in Christ’s kingdom. Faith that saves us from sin and death is a gift from God. In another place in the New Testament, Paul says, “No one can confess ‘Jesus is Lord,’ unless he is guided by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3, TEV). God creates and sustains faith in those who are open to seeing Jesus as their Savior and their King. Today’s Gospel lesson shows us that only one kind of person is open to seeing Christ as King. Only one kind of person will pay attention when God’s Spirit prompts them to confess their sins or follow Jesus Christ.

Michelle Akers was the first American woman to play professional soccer in Europe. After scoring ten goals in five games in the first-ever Women’s Cup in 1991, she signed an endorsement deal that brought her fame and money. She got a tryout to be a place kicker with the Dallas Cowboys, her longest attempt going 52-yards.

But in 1993, she was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome. “When it was really bad,” Akers says, “I couldn’t sit up in a chair. The racking migraines stranded me at home, unable even to get up to brush my teeth or eat.” Five minute walks required two days on the couch to recover.

Strength and hard work, the two kings on whom Akers had relied her entire life, could no longer be called on to help her. She says that it was unbearable to not be the “best in the world” or the person who could always bounce back from any injury. “I was forced to spend a lot of time thinking about who I was. I didn’t like what I saw,” she says. Then, her husband left her.

It was then that Akers was invited by her strength coach to worship with him. She didn’t know why exactly, but Akers accepted the invitation. It was the beginning of a new life with Christ as her king. Looking back, Akers says, she thinks that for years God had been calling her to follow. But, certain that she knew what she was doing, sure that she could make her own decisions, convinced even that she didn’t need forgiveness or help with living her life, she ignored God and the Church. Akers says “It took total devastation before I could [surrender] and say, ‘Okay, God. You can have my life. Please help me.”

Who sees Jesus Christ as King? People who see that their lives are broken without Him.

They see Jesus as King first of all, because they see themselves as they are: as sinners in need of forgiveness, as ordinary human beings who cannot make it without the eternal God.

They're also people who see that at the end of our power to cope or hope is a King Who fills His people with love and gives them the capacity to face any cross in the certainty that they belong to God forever!

Years ago, at a national gathering of Lutheran youth in San Antonio, I met a nurse who worked in a nursing home. She told about caring for a retired pastor who was dying and had, for some time, been in a coma. She knew his favorite song and so, standing by his bed one day, sang it to him: “Yes, Jesus loves me; Yes, Jesus loves me; Yes, Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so.” At that the pastor lifted himself from the bed as far as his weak arms would allow and looked the nurse straight in the eye to tell her, “Don’t you ever forget it!” Then, he fell back on his pillow and died.

In Jesus, the One Who, from His cross, forgave those who killed Him, we see the King...
  • Who stands by us no matter what...
  • Who heals our deepest hurts…
  • Who forgives our sins…
  • Who always loves us…
  • and Who gives all who turn from sin and follow Him paradise.
Today, Christ our King tells us to consider all these things and then gives us a simple message: Don’t you ever forget any of that! Amen