Saturday, December 13, 2008

Are they really two different people?

Or are they one and the same? I mean him and him.

We'll know for sure if, in a surprising twist, Samwise Gamgee is appointed to Barack Obama's vacant US Senate seat.

Mugabe Government Claims UK Caused Cholera Epidemic

Talk about whoppers! This one would make Rod Blagojevich blush.

A day after Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe claimed that the cholera outbreak in his country had been thwarted, in spite of confirmation from numerous sources it was claiming more victims, a member of the Mugabe regime claimed that cholera had been planted by Britain:

Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu described the outbreak as a "genocidal onslaught on the people of Zimbabwe by the British."
In the meantime, the same BBC report linked above reports that, "a senior South African Anglican bishop said that Mr Mugabe should be seen as a '21st Century Hitler.'" He asked for Anglicans in South Africa to pray for Mugabe's removal from the Zimbabwean presidency. (Also see here.)

I am praying that God will set the wheels in motion to have Robert Mugabe and his military henchmen step down from power peacefully.

Friday, December 12, 2008

"What Would Jesus Say?"

Below--verbatim--is today's emailed inspiration from my friend and colleague, Pastor Glen VanderKloot. Read the details included to find out how you can receive OnLine with Faith.

OnLine with Faith

December 12, 2008 Issue 477e
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WELCOME to the daily issue of ONLINE WITH FAITH.
ONLINE WITH FAITH is a ministry of Faith Lutheran Church,
2313 Whittier Avenue, Springfield, IL, 62704, Glen VanderKloot,

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A Thought for the Day

What would Jesus say?

Letter From Jesus Christ, concerning His birthday

It has come to my attention that many of you are upset
that folks are taking My name out of the season. Maybe
you've forgotten that I wasn't actually born during
this time of the year and that it was some of your
predecessors who decided to celebrate My birthday on
what was actually a time of pagan festival. Although
I do appreciate being remembered anytime.

How I personally feel about this celebration can
probably be most easily understood by those of you who
have been blessed with children of your own. I don't
care what you call the day. If you want to celebrate My
having said that let Me continue:

If it bothers you that the town in which you live
doesn't allow a scene depicting My birth, then just
get rid of a couple of Santa's and snowmen and put in
a small Nativity scene on your own front lawn. If all My
followers did that there wouldn't be any need for such
a scene on the town square because there would be
many of them all around town.

Stop worrying about the fact that people are calling
the tree a holiday tree, instead of a Christmas tree.
It was I who made all trees. You can & may remember Me
anytime you see any tree. Decorate a grape vine
if you wish:

I actually spoke of that one in a teaching explaining
who I am in relation to you & what each of our tasks
is. If you have forgotten that one, look up John 15: 1-8.

If you want to give Me a present in remembrance of
My birth here is my wish list. Choose something from it.

1. Instead of writing protest letters objecting to
the way My birthday is being celebrated, write letters of
love and hope to soldiers away from home. They are terribly
afraid and lonely this time of year. I know, they tell
Me all the time.

2. Visit someone in a nursing home. You don't have to
know them personally. They just need to know that someone
cares about them.

3. Instead of writing the President complaining, why
don't you write and tell him that you'll be praying for
him and his family this. Then follow up. It
will be nice hearing from you again.

4. Instead of giving your children a lot of gifts you
can't afford and they don't need, spend time with them.
Tell the children in your life the story of My birth,
and why I came to live with you down here.

Hold them in your arms and remind them that I love them.

5. Pick someone that has hurt you in the past and
forgive him or her.

6. Did you know that someone in your town will attempt
to take their own life this season because they feel
so alone and hopeless? Since you don't know who that
person is, try giving everyone you meet a warm smile
it could make the difference. Also, you might consider
supporting the local Hot-Line: they talk with people
like that every day.

7. Instead of nit picking about what the retailer
in your town calls the holiday, be patient with the
people who work there. Give them a warm smile and a
kind word. Even if they aren't allowed to wish you a "Merry
Christmas" that doesn't keep you from wishing them one.

8. If you really want to make a difference, help
support a missionary, especially one who takes My love
& Good News to those who have never heard My name.
You may already know someone like that.

9. Here's a good one. There are individuals & whole
families in your town who not only will have no
"Christmas" tree, but neither will they have any
presents to give or receive. If you don't know them
(and I suspect you don't) buy some food & a few gifts
& give them to the Marines, the Salvation Army or
some other charity which believes in Me & they will
make the delivery for you. Checks are nice, too.

10. Finally if you want to make a statement about
your belief in and loyalty to Me, then behave like a
Christian. Don't do things in secret that you wouldn't
do in My presence. Let people know by your actions
that you are one of mine.

Don't forget to support your church and the people
and programs there.

My house is where my people gather to learn of my
grace and mercy.

Just love Me & do what I have told you to do.
I'll take care of all the rest. I'll help you.
And do have a most blessed Christmas with all
those whom you love, and remember .. I LOVE YOU!



Father help me to focus on serving you and your
people. In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

2 Corinthians 9:6 NIV

Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also
reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously
will also reap generously.



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Glen VanderKloot
Faith Lutheran Church - Your Church for New Beginnings
A Purpose Driven Church

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Zimbabwe: Time for South African Government To Do Something

How does a lying thug like Robert Mugabe stay in power? Clearly, he's supported by other lying thugs.

In fact, press reports from earlier this year indicated that in the wake of the 2008 presidential elections in Zimbabwe, Mugabe was preparing to concede his loss and step down from office. But his military sponsors told him that he would, under no circumstances, concede. So, the lying thug who has oppressed and murdered thousands of Zimbabweans while he and his henchmen robbed his countrymen and failed to provide them with basic government services, is himself marching to others' tunes--probably gladly, a content bird in a gilded cage.

But now the horrors have reached truly awful proportions. A cholera epidemic, exacerbated by the neglect and indifference of Mugabe's regime, by an estimate of the World Health Organization (WHO) released just yesterday, has exacted an enormous toll. Says WHO in a press release issued in the Zimbabwean capital of Harare:
A widespread cholera outbreak, under-resourced and under-staffed health system, and inadequate access to safe drinking water and hygiene are threatening the wellbeing of thousands of Zimbabweans. As of 9 December, 16 141 suspected cases of cholera and 775 resultant deaths (case fatality rate of 4.8%) had been recorded since August in two-thirds of the country's 62 districts.
Since then, Mugabe has said that WHO, in cooperation with Zimbabwean medical people, had thwarted the cholera outbreak:
I am happy to say our doctors are being assisted by others and the WHO [World Health Organization] have now arrested cholera.
Save the Children says that the epidemic has actually been underestimated by WHO. In a statement issued earlier today, STC country director Rachel Pounds says:
According to the latest figures 775 people have died so far. Save the Children knows this is an underestimate — not least because the figures do not include areas in which we work and where we know there have been many unrecorded deaths.

Also, the percentage of people who are dying having contracted cholera in the first place is way higher than normal for this disease, in some areas. With even the most basic health care on hand, you would expect to see a death rate of only one or two percent. In some areas of Zimbabwe a third of those who have contracted the infection are dying.

So, why exactly does a despot deny the existence of an epidemic repeatedly confirmed by countless credible sources?

To hold onto power, of course, although given those post-election conversations about stepping down and the military junta's veto of Mugabe's plans to do so, one wonders who is really calling the shots in the Zimbabwean government these days. But in this hypermediated age, it becomes less possible for repressive regimes to hide unpleasant realities, health crises even more than repressive actions.

Mugabe keeps playing the same old tune, claiming that the latest international calls for his resignation, this time in the face of his indifference to the cholera epidemic, mean that Britain, the US, and France are all anxious to invade and conquer Zimbabwe.

But none of those nation's governments are going to do that. It would be inappropriate for them to do so, for one thing. It would also be harmful to their national interests at this stage in international history. Besides, none of the nations he accuses of salivating over Zimbabwe has the will to undertake such an invasion nor the desire to deal directly with the nation-building that would be required after such an invasion. None of the nations' peoples would stand for an invasion.

But despots love creating foreign bogeymen to unite their countries and to secure their own illegitimate claims to power.

The question is, of course, as they watch thousands of their neighbors being felled by cholera, whether Zimbabweans actually buy the malarkey their fake president is selling. I doubt it.

Even if they do view Mugabe's claims skeptically, they're unlikely to be able to stand up to his regime without some outside help and encouragement.

The consensus is that Mugabe will only step down if a coalition of neighboring African nations calls for his resignation and announces a series of escalating steps designed to pressure him and his regime to walk away from power peacefully. Only an African solution will work.

Some African nations have called for Mugabe to resign. But the most important government in the region, which has often enabled Mugabe's reign of terror, that of South Africa, is key. If the South African nation had grown some sense of ethics, it could end the despotism of the Mugabe regime and the immediate suffering of the Zimbabwean people.

There's reason to believe now that what a sense of ethics couldn't drive the South African government to do may now be propelled by a sense of self-preservation. The cholera epidemic is spreading. Medical refugees from Zimbabwe are flooding into South Africa. In the past, South Africa may have rightly bargained that it could set astride an oppressed Zimbabwe. It may now calculate that it's no longer possible to live alongside an oppressed Zimbabwe that exports its diseases and, with them, discontent with neglectful, corrupt governments.

This is actually a golden opportunity for the government in South Africa, which would like to have the respect of the world. Brokering a deal by which Mugabe steps down peacefully would be welcomed by the people of Zimbabwe, others in the region, and the international community, which has no interest in the instability and drama he brings to the world stage.

In the meantime, I'm calling on God to intervene in causing Robert Mugabe to step down peacefully and to, at last, give the people of Zimbabwe a chance at better lives.

Making Our Relationships Work: Grace

[As was true of last Wednesday's Midweek Advent sermon, this one was inspired by a sermon by Pastor Roger Sonnenberg. But he shouldn't be blamed for what follows.]

Philippians 1:2-11
At age seventeen, she learned that she had diabetes and that it was of such severity, she would probably not live many more years. In spite of that prognosis, she had taken good care of herself in the ensuing years, living far longer than anyone had expected. But now, at age 58 she was dying.

She was one of the finest people I ever knew: loving wife and mother, active in the church and community, fun friend who loved to dance and send out birthday cards, a person who prayed constantly for others, someone whose faith was central to her life. But in the hospital ICU, moments before she died, she told me, “Pastor, I’m such a terrible sinner.”

As I probed that statement, I learned of no sin left unconfessed on her part, just a gnawing sense of inadequacy, of failure as a human being now haunting her on her deathbed.

I talked with her about God’s grace, God’s unmerited favor and love, given to us through Jesus. She was too weak even to open her eyes. And yet, as we discussed grace—as I tried to give it to her in her last moments--she seemed to recognize it, to see it, to remember it like a forgotten friend.

Often in the frenzy of daily life I forget grace. I can get so concerned about what others think of me, see in me, or judge about me, that I forget that Jesus Christ already was born for me, already lived for me, died for me, and rose for me. I can become so obsessed with whether I’m contributing, producing, taking care of my family and friends, and being a responsible person that I forget that performance isn’t the measure of a life. I forget that if we let grace soak into our lives, God’s grace will flood in us and from us.

Last week, we said that solid relationships are built, first of all, on our commitments and promises to others, all of which are built on God’s commitments and promises to us. Those commitments and promises are what the Bible means when it talks about covenants.

The next ingredient in the Bible’s recipe for our relationships is grace. Grace, which in the New Testament Greek is charitas, from which we get the English word charity, is the power that makes it possible for us to keep our covenant promises. As we have been charitably graced by God, we are to grace others.

But grace isn’t something we can generate. In our second Bible lesson for tonight, Paul begins his joyful letter to the church in the city of Philippi, written as he was being imprisoned for his faith in Christ, by telling the church there how grateful he is for them because, “you hold me in your heart…you share in God’s grace with me.”

Then he writes, “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”

Paul’s prayer was that the grace of God, already something that the Philippian Christians enjoyed, would grow in them, so that through them, the whole world would experience what it means to be accepted and loved not for what they do, but solely for being children of God.

Paul had reason to believe that his prayer would be answered. A few years before, on what scholars call his “second missionary journey,” he and his companions had started the Philippian church. People who had once been hostile, unknowing, or indifferent toward the gospel of Christ had been transformed by God’s grace. They had been changed so much, in fact, that when they learned that Paul had gotten into trouble with the law and was imprisoned, they sent him a financial gift. Grace begets grace, it seems, setting off a chain reaction of love that can transform people’s lives. Paul knew that.

Grace then, isn’t an abstract philosophical concept. God didn’t stand far off in heaven and tell us, “I love you.” Instead, God got involved with the human race:
  • God wrestled with Jacob.
  • God gave Israel a covenant and a promised land.
  • God chastised David when David fell into sin and restored David when he repented.
  • When God came to the world in the person of Jesus, He wept for the dying, fed the hungry, healed the hurting, forgave the sinful.
  • God went to a cross, suffered, and died, then ate fish on the seashore with the disciples after He rose from the dead.
Like a hustling base runner in baseball or a relentless linebacker in football, the God we know in Jesus Christ dares to get His uniform dirty and never gives up on giving grace as a living, everyday reality.

God calls and empowers us to do the same with the people with whom we share our lives: our spouses, friends, neighbors, coworkers, classmates, and even the people with whom we are part of Christ’s body, the Church. And grace, when shared, transforms the way we live our lives.

Pastor Roger Sonnenberg retells the story of a “husband and wife who no longer loved each other. The man had grown paranoid over the years and had become extremely demanding of his wife. He even prepared a list of rules and regulations for her to follow. At times, he even insisted she read them out loud to him so that she understood them exactly as he meant them so that she would obey them to the letter…. After many long years, the husband died. Shortly afterwards, the woman fell in love with another man and married him. This man was totally different. He loved her, making no demands at all. He did everything he could to make his new wife happy, always affirming her with accolades and [gestures of appreciation.] One day as she was cleaning house, [the woman] found one of the old lists of demands made by her first husband. With tears in her eyes, she began to read the list, but then suddenly realized she was doing everything her first husband's list demanded. This time, however, she was doing what she was doing to please her husband, not because of demand or obligation.”

How can we create grace-filled, assuring, life-giving relationships with others?
  • We begin with the God we know in Christ, the God Who came right down into our lives on Christmas in order to give grace to us.
  • Then, we ask God—actually ask God—to help us display grace, to live grace, toward others.
  • And then, we actually dare to give grace to others.
True story. (Except some of the particulars have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty.) A man I knew was having trouble with his wife. She was always in a sour mood, harping about how they didn’t have any money. Now, there are certainly times when it’s appropriate to confront people about their behavior. But this man had confronted his wife her negativity many no avail. He decided to take a different tack. He prayed to God to help him to understand that his wife was really frightened, fearful that God wasn’t going to take care of them in the midst of difficult financial times. He asked God for the right things to say. He asked God to help him to be affirming and loving to his wife. He prayed for her. Several weeks later, he said to me over dinner, “You know how you always talk about the importance of praying, Mark? Well, I prayed for Tina and that I could be more loving. Things have changed.”

Ginger Johnson Broslat tells about going to what’s called “the world’s largest nativity scene” at Opryland in Nashville, Tennessee. (Where our youth group will be going this summer for the Week of Hope mission trip.) The nativity scene was made up of large crystalline sculptures that are brightly illuminated. As Broslat notes, “In sharp contrast to this impressive display, the humble story of Christ’s birth…” is retold, “reminding all…of the humility of our Savior, born in a…stable.”

“But,” she says, “in the eyes of a two-year-old, a baby in a crystal blanket is just as much baby Jesus as one made of construction paper and cotton balls in Sunday School. Any way you look at it, baby Jesus is reborn every day when the heart is touched by the story of his birth.” She then explains: “At the end of the presentation spectators were invited to take a closer look…Brooke [the two-year-old]…ran over to the manger, her eyes wide, fixed on the baby. As she gazed, her little body dropped to its knees and her mouth opened in awe. She held her hand to her heart, eyes sparkling with joy as she looked up at me and whispered, ‘Jesus loves me, this I know.’”

That is the message of Christmas and the message of grace: God came into our world in the person of Jesus to give us grace, His unmerited favor, and He can help us to live out that same awe-inspiring grace in our everyday lives and in our everyday relationships. We turn to God in repentance and ask for His grace. We ask God to help us share grace. And then, we dare to share grace with others.

May we rely on God to help us to do just that in all our relationships.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Why Should Jesus' Execution Bring Salvation?

In comments earlier today, Spencer Troxell, posed an important question:
I wish I understood why it was necessary for Jesus to be crucified for the sins of the world. Can you explain this to me without saying "For the wages of sin are death, which is the answer that I'm always given, although it's not a logical answer. WHY IS IT THAT one man's murder by an angry mob somehow offers salvation to that mob?

This has always troubled me. You're one of the smartest christians I know, so hopefully you can shed some light on the subject.
First of all, I'm probably not one of the smartest Christians Spencer knows and I'm apt to prove it in what I write below.

Secondly, he's not alone in wondering about the Biblical insistence that Christ's death was necessary to bring about salvation for humanity. I think about it myself sometimes and just this evening, before our Midweek Advent worship, a member of the congregation I serve as pastor remarked, "I'm looking forward to seeing how you answer that question because it's something I wonder about."

The Bible is insistent that Jesus had to suffer and die for fallen humanity in order to bring us salvation. The Gospel of Luke, for example, says that the risen Jesus told two of His disciples, who were skeptical of the word they'd gotten from some others of Jesus' followers that they'd seen Him alive at His tomb, "Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”" (Luke 24:26)

But why was it necessary? There are, you should know, many theories of atonement among Christian theologians. (Atonement is a word from Old English, literally a compound word meaning at one-ment. The idea is that Christ's death on the cross brings reconciliation between God and humanity, making them one.) Honestly, all these theories are little more than informed conjecture, none of which can really tell us why God chose to use Christ's death on a cross and His resurrection to bring about that reconciliation. But that God has made that choice, the New Testament is emphatic.

Both John's Gospel and the New Testament book of Hebrews refer to the ancient Jewish custom of sacrifice of unblemished lambs in connection to Jesus. On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, these lambs were sacrificed on the altar at the temple in Jerusalem. The lambs were stand-ins for people who realized that their sins, their violations of God's call to love God and love neighbor, the themes of the two tables of the Ten Commandments and later, incorporated by Jesus into the Great Commandment. The lambs bore the sins of the repentant and for yet another year, they and God were at one.

In John's Gospel, John the Baptizer sees Jesus and says, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29).

But, the New Testament, especially Hebrews, makes clear that there is a qualitative difference between Jesus and all the other unblemished lambs who gave their lives for the sins of others. Hebrews says that all the Jewish religious rites that preceded Jesus were either faint copies of heaven or faint precursors of God's definitive action in Christ. The temple replicated heaven. The lambs sacrificed at the temple could only atone for sin for a restricted period of time. The atonement from Jesus is everlasting.

Hebrews says that Jesus was not only the ultimate sacrificial lamb, but also the ultimate high priest. It was the high priest who sacrificed the lambs on Yom Kippur. Priests had to purify themselves in order to enter the holy of holies where the sacrifice happened. Not so with Jesus because He was sinless. And this sinless sacrifice and priest, Hebrews says, "has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself" (Hebrews 9:26).

From all of this, I think, we get an idea of the seriousness of sin. And in speaking here of sin, I'm not necessarily referring to the individual violations of God's will that are forbidden in God's law, things like false witness, stealing, or misusing God's Name. Those are sins, individual acts that result from the basic human problem of alienation from God and an inward turn to self and selfishness. If we're turned away from God, we're turned away from the source of life. Jesus, Hebrews says repeatedly, has done what all the religious rites of ancient Judaism only hinted at: obliterated sin's power "once for all." (See here).

To God it evidently makes perfect sense that a condition which threatens our eternal lives should be reversed by a perfect sacrifice on the part of an eternally righteous God Who didn't need to experience death. It must make sense to God that our sin should be exchanged for His righteousness, that His undeserved acceptance of death should bring us life.

I don't understand this. Nor can I explain it.

But I do want to suggest a different way of looking at Jesus' death. The angry mobs who cried for Jesus' death and the gutless Roman governor, Pilate, who ordered Jesus' execution were only the proximate causes of His murder. Unlike the lambs offered up by sacrifice by pious Jews on Yom Kippur, Jesus, God-in-the-flesh offered Himself up. His death wasn't really the result of the decisions of jealous priests, angry Pharisees and Saducees, disappointed crowds, or a Roman governor. According to the Old Testament prophecies and the witness of the Gospels in the New Testament, God long ago decided that Jesus would die on a cross. Jesus' death happened at God's initiative, not ours.

Luke 9:51, for example, says that Jesus, when it was time for His crucifixion, "set his face toward Jerusalem."

When Pilate couldn't get answers out of Jesus, he asked if Jesus realized that he had the power to have Jesus executed. "“You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above..." (John 19:11).

And elsewhere, while referring to Himself as "the good shepherd," Jesus asserts, "No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again" (John 10:18).

Now, what's significant in all of this to me is that it speaks to a premise of your question. Yes, my sin is the ultimate reason that Jesus went to a cross. A sinful world didn't (and doesn't) want the bother of a sinless Savior come to reclaim a fallen world. We harbor the notion that if we can kill off Jesus (or deny His resurrection or deny His existence), we can have the run of things and do exactly as we want. (See here.) But, in reality, had it not been Pilate, Herod, Caiaphas, Annas, Judas, the angry mobs, or the sadistic soldiers, Jesus would have died for us anyway. God mandated it and was in control even when Jesus' murderers thought that they were. His resurrection underscored that.

I don't know why God chose to use the death of a sinless Savior to bring salvation. But when I look back on Old Testament history and when I consider the horrors that human sin unleashes--from the killing chambers of Auschwitz to the terrorist horrors recently unleashed in Mumbai, God's method of atonement doesn't surprise me. Sin is truly grave, killing business. It doesn't shock me that death would play a role in the expunging of its killing power.

In the cross, it seems, God comes into our world and shares the worst of our human experience so that all who surrender to Christ can experience the best of God's experience, resurrection and everlasting life.

I don't get it. But apparently from God's vantage point, it was necessary in order for Him to truly connect with us and take us back from the evil that threatens to take us down for eternity.

This may not be a very satisfying answer, Spencer. But for now, it's the best that I can do. Someone sharper than me can probably see and say more.

[UPDATE: Four years ago, my colleague and fellow blogger Mark Roberts wrote a fantastic series of posts on why Jesus had to die.]

"’s good to remember why Jesus was born. The Son of God did not come to establish a nostalgic, family-oriented, commercially successful holiday."

Christmas is God's solution to our biggest problem.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Helen Keller on Making a Difference

(Here's a great thought for the Advent Season, a megatheme of which is how we're to live as we await the return of Jesus Christ at the close of history. It was in this morning's OnLine with Faith, the daily emailed inspirations provided by my colleague and friend, Pastor Glen VanderKloot, who serves at Faith Lutheran Church in Springfield, Illinois.)

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A Thought for the Day

“When we do the best that we can, we never know what miracle is wrought in our life, or in the life of another. “ (Helen Keller)

Scripture: 2 Peter 1:5 (CEV):
“Do your best to improve your faith. You can do this by adding goodness, understanding…”

Lord, help me to remember that I might make a significant difference in someone's life by doing small acts of kindness.


You can receive Glen's daily emails, composed of gems like this, by sending an email to and typing SUBSCRIBE on the Subject line.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

How to Build on a Good Beginning

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

Mark 1:1-8
Andrew Greeley, the priest, novelist, and sociologist, tells a fictional story that, especially in these days of financial crisis and corporate bailouts, has the ring of truth to it.

“Once upon a time,” Greeley writes, “there was a company which was in a bad way. The last three CEOs had been dummies. The company's stock had lost 60% of its value, its market share…decline[d] by thirty percent, [its] bright people were leaving, morale among the employees was at rock bottom.

"The worst part of the trouble was that the product they made was still the best in the market. But the previous leaders had been lazy and mean and had spent most of their time awarding themselves and their friends huge bonuses. They paid [no] attention to advertising or marketing.

"Finally, a new board was appointed at the stockholders’ insistence. They fired the last CEO with a thunderous denunciation. They warned the employees that all their jobs – and their pensions – were in grave jeopardy. The workers were terrified.

"Finally the new CEO arrived. He was expected to fire half the workers, cut back on expenses, and give the company the good shaking that everyone said it needed. Instead, he [walked] around the building, smiled at everyone, assured them that everyone would be all right, and that he didn’t plan to fire anyone. ‘Another fool,’ [some] said.

"Then he met with the union leaders to get their suggestions. They told him the truth that the product was [still] the best in the business. “I thought that too,” he said. Then he hired [a] new marketing and advertising director, brought in [a] new advertising and public relations firm, and launched a very clever television campaign. By that time, everyone in the company admired him and worked hard for him. In six months the company was well on the way to recovery.

"‘You catch more flies with honey,’ a top executive said of him…[But] the new boss, [quoting three different psalms from the Old Testament], merely said, "‘The fear of the lord is the beginning of wisdom. 'But,' he added, 'it's only the beginning.’”

Our Gospel lesson for this morning takes us to the very start of the Gospel of Mark. Mark’s account of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, in many ways, is the strangest of the four Gospels in the New Testament.

Mark uses what might be called “caveman Greek,” especially in comparison to the poetic writing in John’s Gospel or the lucid, precise prose of Luke.

And if Matthew is the religious scribe, Luke the historian, and John the poet-philosopher, Mark seems like the crazed journalist on a deadline. He conveys the good news about Jesus Christ, God come to earth as a human being, with few words and little explanation.

We see this in the first verse of our Gospel lesson, the first verse of Mark’s Gospel. It says, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

To our English teachers, that probably will sound like fingernails on a chalkboard. There isn’t a verb in sight! It’s a sentence fragment. What was Mark thinking?

Well, I believe that this was a deliberate choice on Mark’s part. For me, the clincher for believing that can be found in Mark 16:8. It’s the passage that says that after being told on the first Easter that Jesus had risen from the dead, the women who had gone to the tomb to anoint Jesus body ran away terrified and because of their fear, at first told nobody what had been revealed to them.

Scholars believe that, years later, for whatever reasons, the first Christians tacked on to Mark’s gospel reports of the risen Jesus meeting His disciples. That doesn’t mean that the tacked-on reports in Mark 16 are untrue. They’re all true, I believe. But by ending his gospel at chapter 16, verse 8, Mark was confirming what he hinted at in the sentence fragment that starts the book. Just as the CEO in Greeley’s story knew that having a good product was only the beginning of making his company successful, our knowing the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection—our knowing the Christmas story that we will celebrate in just seventeen more days, on Christmas Eve--is only the beginning of the gospel.

When I was in high school, I took journalism and got involved with the high school newspaper, The Occident. In my junior year, I wrote editorials. In my senior year, I was the news editor. And, if I may say so, for a high school publication, The Occident was no rinky-dink operation. The paper was published every two weeks, usually eight pages in length, sometimes up to sixteen. The faculty advisors, Mrs. Becker and later, Mrs. Dritz, could be ruthless in their critiques of our work. One of us might submit a story of which we were proud, for example, and then be asked, “So what? You haven’t shown why this story matters. It just sets there. You need to revise it. We can’t take up space in the paper with stories that don’t engage the reader.”

Mark doesn’t tell the story of Jesus just to flap his jaws, see his name in print, or to entertain us. He wants to engage us. He wants us to become part of the story of Jesus.*

If Mark heard that, after considering his gospel, you and I were content with a Christian life in which we sat for an hour each week for worship on Sunday mornings, listening to a preacher yammer and reciting the Lord’s Prayer and a Creed, he would be appalled.

Mark isn’t interested in good religious practice, per se. Neither is Jesus. Neither is God the Father or God the Spirit.

God became flesh in Jesus Christ on the first Christmas in order to make it possible for you and me to have God’s forgiveness for our sins, to have purpose as we live each day on this earth, and to have eternity with God.

That story can not be allowed to simply set there. Believing in Jesus is a good beginning. But the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, demands and deserves a response. By the lives we live after we’ve come to believe in Christ, we move beyond the beginning of the gospel that Mark has told us about.

Last Sunday, the First Sunday in Advent, Mark’s gospel conveyed one of the ways Jesus said that we could respond to Him: to wait expectantly for Jesus' return at the close of history. We said that we can wait well first, by spending time with God each day through reading His Word and praying and second, by reaching out to others with His love.

Today, in Mark’s account of John the Baptizer’s ministry at the Jordan River, we see another way in which we can both respond to Christ’s death and resurrection for us AND anticipate His return. We commit ourselves to the discipline of repenting for our sins—turning back to God, placing ourselves in the hands of the God we know in Jesus Christ.

When we do this, we experience forgiveness of our sins, the reconciliation with God that makes it possible for us to live each day in peace and power, look forward to our futures with anticipation, and even to be reconciled to others.

True story. On a Christmas day back sometime in the 1980s, a young man was walking on the side of the road, south on I-85, just below High Point, North Carolina. He was trying to hitch a ride.

He hadn’t been home in two years. In that time, his family had heard nothing from him. There had been a blowup with his mom and he left, traveling across the country, working odd jobs he could find. He’d worked at filling stations and fruit stands, as a taxi driver and a farm hand. He'd been a nursing home orderly and an assistant to a plumber. Now though, the anger seemed to have subsided. He was ready to go home.

He was just thirty miles away, but no one seemed interested in picking him up. “Mom,” he said to himself, “I’m tired and hungry, but I’m coming home.” A few trucks occasionally passed by, but nobody stopped.

Then, suddenly from across the road, he could heard that someone was shouting at him. “Mike! Hey, Mike, come here!” The hitchhiker, Mike, was surprised to see that the man calling out to him was his stepfather. Mike ran across the road. “Get in, son,” his stepfather said, “We’re going home.”

“How did you happen to be here?” Mike asked his stepdad after he’d settled into the pickup truck. “I came to pick you up,” he explained, “Drove straight here.” “But how did you know I’d be here? I didn’t write. I didn’t call.” “Your mother sent me. Just this morning in her prayers for you, she knew you were coming and that you were on I-85 just below High Point.”

The God Who led a son back to his home wants to lead you and me to our home with Him for all eternity.

Repentance, turning back to God, isn’t a one-and-done thing. Everyone here this morning knows how temptation and sin, in spite of even our best intentions, can work on us, striving to tear us from the hope and peace that God offers to us through Jesus Christ.

By coming to God, as the masses from Jerusalem and the Judean countryside did in response to the preaching of John the Baptizer, we respond to Jesus. We make our lives available to Jesus Christ. We submit to becoming what Martin Luther called, “the Holy Spirit’s workshop,” allowing God to remove the sin and the bad habits that keep us from being the loving, just people we were made to be and who, deep in our souls, we want to be.

Jesus became human, died, and rose for us. But that’s only the beginning of the Gospel. He’s a Savior Whose grace and love demand a response because He will not force Himself on us. He will only transform the lives of those who, day in and day out, pray, as we were taught pray in song when we were kids: “Come into my heart. Come into my heart. Come into my heart, Lord Jesus. Come in today. Come in to stay. Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.”

If you know that song or even if you don't, sing that with me now, would you? “Come into my heart. Come into my heart. Come into my heart, Lord Jesus. Come in today. Come in to stay. Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.”


*In his commentary on this passage, Brian Stoffregen does a fantastic job of showcasing Mark's goal of seeking to engage the reader.