Saturday, January 02, 2016

One Flesh

[This was shared during the wedding of Steve and Charla earlier today.]

Genesis 2:18, 21-24
Today is a miracle. Or maybe we should say that it's the culmination of many miracles.

One miracle is that God caused Steve and Charla to find each other.

The other is that God has subdued cancer to allow this day to happen.

With you, Charla and Steve, we give thanks to God for His blessings.

You’ve chosen Genesis 2, verse 18, then verses 21 to 24, as the text for your wedding day. It’s a good choice because here, God brings the first man and the first woman together in marriage. In fact, these verses tell us about a lot more than just marriage, things like the grace of God, His creative power, the need of those created in God’s image for relationship and community.

But for today, let’s just focus on a few things it tells us about marriage, especially your marriage, Steve and Charla.

We’re told: “The Lord God said, It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’ [And then:] So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.”

Throughout Genesis 1, God has looked at everything He created and declared it “good.” After God had made human beings, God called His creation “very good.”

But now, as God looks at the man, he says that it “is not good for the man to be alone.” After God says this, in a part of Genesis not included in our lesson, God creates animals and Adam names them. But there was no other part of God's creation that scratched that basic human itch to be connected to another human being, someone who, unlike God the Father, “has skin on them.”

So, God decided to “make a helper suitable for him.” Now, when God says this, He isn’t saying Adam needed someone to clean up after him.

To understand this, you just have to look at a few passages in which someone else is described as “a helper” in the Old Testament.

In Exodus 18:4, for example, a man named Eliezer says: “My father’s God was my helper...”

Moses says in Deuteronomy 33:29: “Blessed are you, Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the
Lord? He is your shield and helper...”

In the case of God, of course, though God ultimately comes to us as the servant King Jesus, a helper is our superior: the last Who by His death and resurrection is first, the One Who bears the name above all names.

When it comes to human beings, a helper isn’t inferior
or superior.

For the follower of the God we know in Jesus Christ,
a helper is someone who helps us to make it through this life, who shares this life with us, and reminds us of the trustworthy promises of Jesus that He will be with those who believe in Him always and that we share in His victory over sin and death.

In times of suffering and difficulty, helpers sustain and encourage us
In times of happiness and ease, helpers ground us

As I’ve observed you in the two years I’ve known you, Charla and Steve, I see two people who are, from God’s perspective, helpers to one another. You take care of each other, as God intended.

All believers are to be helpers to one another, of course. But marriage is meant to be the place where that especially happens. That’s part of why we celebrate with you today!

After God had presented Eve to Adam, Adam speaks for the first time in the whole Bible: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ [the Hebrew word for woman is ishah] for she was taken out of man [the Hebrew word for man here is ish.

The two are to be
one flesh in more ways than just physical intimacy.

They are one flesh, first of all, in the sense that they come from the same place
: They were both created by God from the same God-made material. Both are, as King David would later write, “fearfully and wonderfully made.”

And they are also one flesh in the sense that, by grace through faith in the God the whole world can now know through Jesus Christ, they share the victory Jesus gained when His crucified flesh rose from the dead, conquering sin and death

Husbands and wives, new families unto themselves after they enter into the covenant of marriage, are to be, in Luther’s phrase, “little churches,” part of the body of Christ, able to sustain and encourage each other in Christ’s love, able to forgive one another when inevitable conflicts happen, and able to remind each other that nothing will be able to separate believers from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Charla and Steve: We do rejoice with you today. May you be helpers to each other. And may you remain and grow in being one flesh as you build your life together on Jesus Christ, the sure cornerstone, the redeemer of our souls. Amen

Monday, December 28, 2015

U2 song

"In a little while
"Surely you'll be mine
"In a little while I'll be there

"In a little while
"This hurt will hurt no more
"I'll be home, love"
[In a Little While by U2]
I love the hope in those words. And they're perfectly matched with the melody. It's set within a song expressive of devotion and longing, pain and the certainty of redemption and belief in the power of love. Beautiful. 

Sunday, December 27, 2015

God's Plans for Us: Worth the Wait

[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church on Sunday, December 27, the First Sunday of Christmas.]

Luke 2:22-40
In today’s Gospel lesson, we learn about the actions and words of four people--Joseph, Mary, Simeon, and Anna. And yet, the four of them are not at the center of things.

At the center of the incidents our lesson recounts is a baby, which seems appropriate on this Sunday when we will see the Baptism of Caroline.

Babies are often at the center of things, controlling the lives and daily schedules of their elders.

This year, my niece and her husband had their first child, a beautiful little boy named Marshall. He is my parents’ fifth great-grandchild, but as we all remind each other, he’s the first baby we’ve had in our family for some time. And so, we all act appropriately loopy over the little guy. Babies don’t really have to do anything to gain our attention or our love.

Luke records different reactions to another baby, the baby Jesus, from the normal ones though.

Among the milling throngs at the temple, few people seemingly notice or care about the child in Mary’s arms.

But two people know that this child deserves and will continue to deserve for all eternity, all our attention, allegiance, service, and worship.

As the text begins, Joseph and Mary bring Jesus to the temple. There, Mary’s purification following childbirth will be certified and Jesus will be circumcised and named. The couple will also bring an offering--a dove or pigeons--to be sacrificed by a priest, these being the sacrifices God had told Moses that Israelites who couldn’t afford a lamb could bring to the temple. Joseph and Mary are doing for this child everything that accorded with Old Testament ritual and sacrificial law.

But soon this young couple will meet two people who will remind them that the baby in their arms spells the end for the need of those laws.

Jesus will become the sacrifice that once and for all, will erase the power of sin and death over anyone who believes in Him.

Several decades later, Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, will point to Jesus and declare: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” [John 1:29]

At the temple, the couple, holding Jesus, encounter Simeon, a man filled with God’s Holy Spirit, the power of God’s life filling his elderly frame, empowering him to tell God’s truth.

Verse 25 in our lesson tells us that Simeon “...was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him.
It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms…”

Simeon knew about waiting for the unfolding of God’s plans. Most of his fellow Judeans had long ago stopped waiting for the Old Testament prophecies of a Savior-Messiah, so much so that Matthew tells us when wise men came from the East looking for the newborn King, all of Jerusalem was in an uproar at the thought that the baby would upset the lives to which they were accustomed.

But not Simeon! He had believed the prophecies and yearned for their fulfillment, had waited and prayed and worshiped and trusted in God.

Now, in his old age, he sees what long generations of faithful members of God’s people had, according to Hebrews 11:13, only seen and welcomed “from a distance.” He sees the one who, Isaiah had said some seven-hundred years earlier, would “be a light to guide the nations” [Isaiah 42:6] and would bring comfort to His own people [Isaiah 49:13].

He even takes the baby in his arms to offer worship and praise!

All that Simeon had been waiting for was in his arms!

Now, the old man tells God, he can die in peace. “For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” [Luke 2:30-32]

Joseph and Mary “marveled” at Simeon’s words.

But that isn’t all that Simeon has to say. He turns to the young mother who had been forced to deliver this child in an animal stall and tells her to steel herself for the cross the baby would one day bear for us all. Verse 34: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel,” Simeon says, “and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.”

The baby Jesus, God on earth, the foundational truth of the universe, will be (and still is) an uncomfortable presence in a world given over to sin, where human beings want, more than anything else, to be gods unto themselves.

Hebrews 4:12 tells us: “...
the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

Jesus, the Word made flesh [John 1:14], exposes the human race as people walking in darkness needing a great light [Isaiah 9:2], but wanting to run from the light or destroy it, wanting to avoid admitting its need for a Savior, wanting to deny that the wages of its sin is death [Romans 6:13], wanting to rid itself of God altogether [Luke 20:14].

Simeon is telling us that Jesus’ rejection and death on the cross are inevitable. But the God of the universe now in Simeon’s arms is also Mary’s baby, which is why Simeon warns her, “
And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”    

Mary had told Elizabeth that “all generations will call me blessed” [Luke 1:48]. And so she was. She bore God in her womb and raised Him. To play such a part in God’s plans for saving the world was a blessing! But in this blessing, there would also be grief.

And the same is true for us.

When we dare to take Jesus as our Lord, to live in our Baptismal covenant, along with the new life that He offers, it spells the death of our old selves. As, day by day, we continue to surrender to Jesus, we will grieve over self-centered ambitions and self-driven ways, even as we thank God for the blessing of eternally belonging to Him. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously put it, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die."

Mary has probably barely absorbed Simeon’s words when Anna appears. She is a prophet. She’s a member of the Israelite tribe of Asher, one of the tribes taken into exile by the ancient Assyrian Empire.

But, despite everything, a few of their number had continued faithfully to follow God, had returned to the promised land, and had waited for the coming of the Messiah.

Anna, like Simeon, continued to trust in God even when those around her had given up on faith.

Like Simeon, she knew the importance of waiting for God to fulfill His plans in history. The believer knows that every passing year when Jesus hasn't returned to finally establish His kingdom, is an opportunity for more to come to repentance and new life from the God revealed in Jesus.

When Anna sees Jesus, “she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” [Luke 1:38].

At the end of these remarkable events, we’re told that Mary and Joseph took their child back to Nazareth, where He would grow strong, be filled with God’s wisdom, and have God’s grace upon Him.

The waiting then, wasn’t over.

It would be decades before Jesus’ death and resurrection.

But those events--Good Friday and Easter Sunday--were worth the wait.

Even today, on the other side of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, we are called, like Simeon and Anna, to wait with trust and hope in the midst of days we can't understand or explain, believing that God has what is best for us in mind.

And, like Mary and Joseph, we are called to do the everyday tasks of life that God calls each of us to do, all to God’s glory.

To me, this, in fact, surfaces one of the primary takeaways from today’s Gospel lesson: Following Christ isn’t, in this life, the glorious, flawless, brimming with success and easy procession that the false teachers on TV make it out to be. Waiting trustingly for the unfolding of God’s plans for our lives--as individuals and as believers in Jesus--is something we go at each day as we follow Christ above all else: as we do our duty to God, our families, and our communities; as we worship and pray and learn to know God better through His Word.

Mary, Joseph, Simeon, and Anna all
must have had times when their faith was tested, when prayers seemed futile, when grief worked at driving a wedge between God and them. But our text tells us that they remained steadfast in focusing on the Lord they actually held in their arms and attended to that day in the temple.

Many years after the events in today’s Gospel lesson, the apostle Paul would tell a young pastor, Timothy: “Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” [2 Timothy 4:8]

Everyone loves babies, I think. (Except, maybe when they cry?) But the baby Jesus is the only Child Who can change our eternities, giving us life with God. For a needy world, He was worth the faithful waiting exhibited by Simeon and Anna.

And for all He has in mind for us, He is worthy of waiting for all that He has in mind for us in ways no less faithful...and no less certain of His good plans for us. Amen

Receiving the Greatest Gift of All

[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church on Christmas Eve.]

Luke 2:1-20
“And she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.” (Luke 2:7)

That’s the stark way that Luke the evangelist chooses to tell us about the birth of Jesus, the Savior of the world, God-in-the-flesh. Just one single verse. 

The simplicity of Luke’s description contrasts with that other Christmas, the Christmas celebrated by the wider world, the loud Christmas that blares, “Buy this,” “Borrow that,” and “Grandma got run over by a reindeer.” 

That other Christmas has launched thousands of different product lines, generating millions for entrepreneurs, songwriters, and retailers. It’s rife with glitzy extravaganzas, dazzling displays, movies with awesome special effects, and loud parties. 

And you know what? There’s nothing inherently wrong with that other Christmas. 

"In the bleak midwinter,” as an old song puts it, a time of grey skies and (usually) cold temperatures, the lights and the color of that other Christmas are probably something we can all use. So, I’m not knocking it.

But the Christmas of absorbing electronic games and of kisses that begin at Kay’s—that other Christmas is only you and I howling at the moon. 

No matter how many times we sing Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, no matter how much we buy, give, or get, no matter how much we laugh or how much egg nog we knock back, that other Christmas is just a season on the calendar, a diversion in December.

That other Christmas cannot change the fact that we are sinners alienated from God, in need of a Savior. 

It can’t show us that that Savior has come with, as another of our Christmas songs puts it, “healing in His wings.” 

The other Christmas has little to do with Jesus, the miracle child who would go to cross and tomb to share our deaths so that when He rose, all who follow Him, can look forward to sharing in His resurrection. 

Luke says that Jesus had to be delivered in a stall, probably a cave like the one in which He would be buried on a Good Friday about thirty years later. The reason for that sad fact was simple: There was no room for Mary, Joseph, or Jesus in the inn. No room.

But how much room do we give to Jesus even when we aren’t feeling overwhelmed by that other Christmas? 

Do we give room to Jesus when He tries to confront us for the sins that would separate us from Him? 

How about when He tries to assure us of the forgiveness we feel we don’t deserve? 

Do we give Him room when He tries to guide us in the ways of justice and compassion for our neighbors, of sacrificial giving, of marriages according to God’s plan? 

Do we give Him room enough to let Him speak to us in times of prayer, as we read the Scripture, when we worship God together, or when we receive Holy Communion?

Many Christians spend lots of time and energy lamenting how the world seems bent on “taking Christ out of Christmas.” Often though, these same people are little more than Sunday morning Christians, who give Christ no room or time in their lives. Christ is not evidenced in their Christmases or their lives.

Jesus and the life that He gives to all who turn from sin and turn to Him eternally outlasts all the things extolled by that other Christmas: big money, houses, mortgages, the comforts this world can momentarily provide. 

But those who throw in their lots with Jesus outlast the seemingly important stuff of this world. 

Life that never ends, true joy, and the power and blessings of God in us and for us are among the gifts that Jesus brings to those who make room for Jesus to be the Lord, the ultimate authority, over their lives. 

This Jesus, the real Jesus, who is marginalized, sentimentalized, and forgotten by the other Christmas, is emphatic in saying that only He can offer these things. “I am the way and the truth and the life,” He tells us. “No one comes to the Father except through me.”

In this year in which bad news seems to come to us every day, we have good news this Christmas!

It’s put well in a favorite Christmas hymn: “where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.” The meek soul is the one who realistically understands that its need of Christ.

May we always be meek enough to recognize our need of Christ and to make room for Him. When we make room for Jesus Christ, He enters into the places and circumstances and lives that we surrender to Him. 

If we let Christ into our lives, Christmas--the real Christmas--will happen in our lives not only on December 25, but every day we live this life...and beyond. 

Merry Christmas, everybody!