Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Faith or Fear (AUDIO)

The contest happens within us every day: faith or fear? Listen to the message here. I hope you find it helpful.

Why Shepherds? Why You? Why Me?

[This is the message prepared for last evening's Christmas Eve services with the people and friends of  Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. But something the nurse practitioner at the doctor's office called viral gastroenterits hit me yesterday, meaning that I shouldn't be around people. Living Water's worship and music director Mark Brennan shared the message while doing all of his other work. Thank you, Mark!]

Luke 2:1-18
The accounts of the first Christmas in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels are filled with characters. 

Of course, there’s Jesus, God the Son Who comes into the world as a baby Who will one day die and rise to give forgiveness and everlasting life to all who believe in Him. 

There are Mary and Joseph, the couple chosen by God the Father to be Jesus’ earthly parents. 

There’s Caesar Augustus, the most powerful of the Roman emperors, who ordered a census in his conquered territories, meaning that to register, Joseph and Mary, both descendants of David, had to travel to Bethlehem, where the Old Testament prophecies said the Messiah would be born. 

There are the angels and the animals. 

Later, there are King Herod, and scribes, and wise men from the East who, following a portentous star, arrive sometime after Jesus’ birth to bring gifts to the Baby they perceive to be a King. 

In their way, the appearance in the nativity histories of each of these characters makes sense.

But what about the shepherds? When you think about it, the shepherds’ part in this story seems misplaced. 

It’s easy to understand why Mary and Joseph are in the story. 

Easy to understand too the presence of Caesar, who turned the lives of ordinary people upside down when he ordered them to walk distances of eighty miles or more just for the privilege of being taxed by a foreign overlord. That order meant that Jesus would be born in the right place.* 

It’s even easy to understand the presence of the livestock.

Unlike kings, emperors, and wise men though, the shepherds had no earthly power. Shepherds were poor. Shepherds had no influence. They were vulnerable. And they were thought of as among the lowlife of society. No Judean child thought, “When I grow up, I want to be a shepherd.”

And unlike the animals at the manger, the shepherds would not have been physically close to the place where Jesus was born. They had no reason to be in Bethlehem; their place was in the fields.

Yet it was to shepherds keeping watch over their sheep that God sent an angel to announce the birth of the Savior of the world. 

But God must have thought the angels were important on this night. 

And just in case the shepherds thought the angels’ message was really for someone else, just like all the other good news and happy blessings of the world always seemed to be, the angel’s message could not have been clearer. He tells the shepherds: “...I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12)

The shepherds weren't a Christmas afterthought on God's part. It's significant that the angel didn’t go to the powerful king, priests, or scribes in Jerusalem to let them know. The big shots in Jerusalem were too busy being big shots to rejoice over an angel pronouncing the Messiah’s birth. Besides, as Matthew tells us, it was these elites who regarded Jesus as a threat and determined that any newborn Messiah would need to be exterminated in his crib.

The shepherds have none of what the Jerusalem elites have. 

They have no power, perks, or comfort. 

Like the poor and weak of every age, their daily lives show them how vulnerable and fragile they are. 

And it is precisely to people who see their vulnerability that Christ comes
  • He comes to those who know that they are sinners in need of the grace and forgiveness He gives to all who believe in Him. 
  • He comes to those who are weak and heavy laden and offers them rest. 
  • He comes to those who are rejected by the world and gives them God’s eternal acceptance. 
  • He comes to the poor and the poor in spirit and gives them the riches of heaven and His presence with them always!
God sent the angel to announce Jesus’ birth to the shepherds and so fulfilled what Mary, the virgin chosen by God to be Jesus’ mother, had said would happen when the Messiah arrived. 

She had told her kinswoman Elizabeth that her soul magnified God because “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty...just as he promised our ancestors.” (Luke 1:52-53, 55)

God comes to those willing to cast aside their delusions of self-sufficiency, self-importance, and self-righteousness

The God we know in Jesus comes to those willing to pray, “Hallowed by Your name, Father. Your kingdom. Your will be done, Lord.” 

It is to  just such people that our Savior comes today so that He can raise them with Jesus. 

To many people--if not to most people--this will seem crazy, foolish. “But,” the apostle Paul writes in the New Testament, “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised that no one may boast before him.” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29)

Friends, the angel’s “good news of great joy” is for you. The Savior Jesus will give never give life with God to those who are too busy being busy or pretending to be self-sufficient to hear His call to new and everlasting life. But Jesus does give life to those who, like the shepherds, listen to God’s voice and follow where Jesus leads

And Jesus does give life to those who, broken by the knowledge that they are sinners in need of a Savior and made new by the Gospel Word that God so loves the world--God so loves you--that He gave His Son to live, die, and rise for you, replacing your sin and death with His righteousness and His risen life.

To you this day Christ has come. 

To you every day Christ comes. 

Run to Him when He calls you, then tell the good news of the Savior Who, unlike kings or scribes or presidents or emperors, is always and forever and totally for you

God knew that that message would mean everything to the shepherds and that because of it, they would run to see the baby and then tell others about the Savior. 

May the angels’ message given on the first Christmas mean everything to you and me too, so that every day, we run to spend time with Jesus and every day, we point others to Jesus. 

Merry Christmas, friends!

*Eighty miles is the approximate walking distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Faith or Fear?

[This message was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, earlier today.]

Matthew 1:18-25
I was ordained as a pastor, serving my first parish. Even before I was ordained, I had preached and led worship every Sunday of my year-long seminary internship and done these things at lots of churches all over Ohio. 

But now, Sunday mornings were agony. Each week, I woke up feeling sick to my stomach, feverish and faint. I had stabbing headaches. This went on for my first five years as a pastor. 

One morning as I prayed about all of this, the thought crossed my mind--a thought I’m sure came from God: I had stage fright and I had it because I was terrified that I would embarrass myself, that I would say the wrong thing, that people wouldn’t like my worship leadership or my preaching. I would fail in this calling, letting down God, my wife, my family, and the Church. On Sunday mornings, instead of seeing a group of fellow sinners in as much need of the gospel Word of forgiveness, new life, and godly power as I was, I saw them as potential judges ready to condemn me. And I thought such condemnation was completely warranted. I covered my fears up with bravado, but really, I was just waiting to be exposed for the fraud I assumed people would eventually see me as being. 

In the contest between fear and faith constantly exploding within me, I was letting fear get the upper hand. I put more trust in my fear than I put in Christ.

Faith versus fear. 

Have these two contestants ever jousted in your gut? 

You know a struggling friend could use your offer of prayer in Jesus’ name. But you’re afraid that she or he will be offended. So you say nothing. 

You know that a victim of injustice, whether at school or work or in society, could use the support of a Christian advocate. But your fear of what others might say if you spoke up keeps your mouth clamped shut. 

You know that a ministry of the church could use your help far more than it needs your “ideas” or criticism. But you’re afraid of not doing a good job, or of losing free time, or of being accountable to yet another person. So, you don’t get involved. 

You’ve hurt someone. You know that the faithful thing to do is to apologize. But you’re afraid of the humiliation that goes with acknowledging a wrong, a fault, a sin. So you let the wounds to your relationship fester. 

You feel inadequate as a parent or friend or professional and you’re sure that soon, everyone will know.

Each day, as baptized believers in Jesus, the contest of faith versus fear happens within us. 

Fear is the voice of our sinful nature that may tell us that protecting ourselves from pain and death or promoting our own interests are our highest callings. 

Or fear may insist that we’re not good enough. 

Faith happens when we hear the voice of the Holy Spirit drowning out the screams of our fears, telling us that Jesus Christ died and rose for imperfect people like you and me and that He has us in His loving grip now and forever. 

When the Word of God moves over us--over our imperfections and doubts and our fears--to create faith in Christ within us, there is nothing that this world or the devil can do to us that will allow us to be separated from God and His love

Faith assures us that, in the words of the apostle John, “ [the love of Christ living in us] has no fear, because [Christ’s] perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love.” (1 John 4:18, New Living Translation]

Our gospel lesson for this morning, Matthew 1:18-25,  features a man in whom this contest between fear and faith is happening. 

The man is Joseph. Mary, the woman to whom he is pledged to be married, announces that she is pregnant, not through the usual means, but from God the Holy Spirit, and that the child she carries is the promised Messiah. 

Although there had not yet been a marriage ceremony and Mary and Joseph were forbidden from having marital relations until after that happened, by Jewish law they were viewed as husband and wife. Joseph naturally assumed that Mary had been unfaithful to him. But the appointed punishment for adultery was that violators were to be stoned to death. And even if that punishment weren’t meted out by the people of Nazareth where they lived, Joseph knew that if Mary’s sin were exposed, she would be forever disgraced. 

He resolved to divorce her quietly.

But then, in verse 20, an angel of God appears to Joseph in a dream. “Joseph son of David [he says], do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

“Do not be afraid, Joseph,” God was telling him. “The child Mary bears is the Savior of the world, Whose very name, Jesus, Yeshua, meaning Yahweh, God, saves, is coming to save you and everyone who repents and believes in Him from sin and death and separation from God.”

Why did the angel tell Joseph not to be afraid? 

What was Joseph afraid of? 

I can think of several possibilities. 
  • Joseph may have been afraid of personal humiliation. What if Mary was just telling him a story and the angel was just a figment of his imagination. Joseph couldn’t know until God’s Word called him out of fear and to faith. 
  • Joseph may have been afraid of exposing Mary to rejection and death. He’d made his decision to divorce Mary quietly. But even after the decision was made, Joseph considered--or agonized--over doing the right thing. 
  • Joseph may have been afraid that by protecting Mary, he would be going against the will of God. Joseph may have feared that in treating Mary so compassionately, he was simply enabling her sin and displeasing God. 
  • Joseph may have been afraid of what others would say about him. If he took Mary as his wife, people would always say--as they still say today--that he was the actual father of Jesus. They would refuse to believe that Jesus was the sinless Son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary. They would write Joseph off as one more sinful religious hypocrite. 
Maybe, by turns or simultaneously, Joseph feared all of these things. 

But the angel says, “Do not be afraid, Joseph!”

And that’s God’s message to you and me this morning: Do not be afraid!  

Do not be afraid of what might happen. Have faith in what has already happened: Jesus Christ has already died and risen for you, you have been baptized into His death and resurrection, and He has given you the gift of faith. 

Do not be afraid of the world, its violence, or the human race’s penchant for self-destruction. Jesus has conquered the world. 

Do not be afraid of having less than what you need. The Savior Who refused to test His Father by jumping from the pinnacle of the temple has taught you to pray confidently for your daily bread.

Do not be afraid to be kind to or to love others. Jesus says that you’re to see everyone around you as you see Christ Himself, as people to love as Christ loves you. 

Do not be afraid to say no to sin because in doing so, you will say yes to God’s grace and new life.

Matthew says that after Joseph was visited by the angel, Joseph did what God commanded him to do. He took Mary as his wife. When faith defeated fear in Joseph, Mary’s life was saved, of course. 

But so was the life of Jesus, the Savior Who assures us by His resurrection that, no matter what we may fear, we can have faith in the God Who, through the baby born in a manger--crucified, risen, and ascended to heaven--makes us His own for all eternity. 

That day God made me aware that I was afraid, I sensed Him telling me, "Get over yourself, Mark. Turn to Me. Christ has shown you my loving face. Don't be afraid. Believe!"

When you turn to Christ, He gives you a faith bigger than all your fears. And He gives you a life with Him that makes all our fears eternally irrelevant. 

If you remember nothing else of this message today, please remember this: Faith trumps fear. 

Turn to the God we know in Christ and He will conquer your fear. Amen 

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]