Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Church is Leaving the Building!

Men’s Retreat
Luther Crest Bible Camp, Alexandria
February 8, 2015
Mark 1:29-39

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Jesus has some “crowd control” problems as he begins his ministry here in Mark’s gospel.

Earlier (in last Sunday’s Gospel reading) he dealt with a heckler in a very public setting, Capernaum’s synagogue:  "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God."  (Mark 1:24)

The heckler, a demon-possessed man, speaks with a voice that comes straight from hell…surprisingly, acknowledging Jesus’ identity and naming Jesus as a threat to all the powers of darkness.
Jesus dispatches this heckler by exorcising his evil spirit.

Now in today’s gospel reading, Jesus leaves the public space of the synagogue to enter the private space of a house inhabited by his followers Simon Peter and Andrew.

Here in the intimacy of a dwelling evil rears its head once again, under the guise, not of demon-possession, but of a fever afflicting Peter’s mother in law.

We dare not underestimate the danger here.  In the first century there were no anti-biotics or IV-drips, no “take two aspirin and call me in the morning” physician protocols.  Fevers frequently killed! 

So Jesus goes to the stricken woman, touches her, lifts her up off her sickbed—healed!  She is restored so immediately, so completely that she’s able to rise up and resume her vocation of serving Jesus and his traveling companions. 

News travels fast in Capernaum, though, the way news travels fast in our northwestern Minnesota communities.  Garrison Keillor likes to say that people don’t read the Lake Wobegon newspaper to learn the news as much as they read it to confirm the news!

News of the healings of the demoniac and Peter’s mother-in-law travels so fast that by sundown the whole town has turned out, engulfing the home of Peter and Andrew.  “They brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons…”

So Jesus’ “crowd control” problem now shifts from handling a heckler to dealing with the crush of a mob.   Hands grab for him, arms reach out to him, rasping voices call to him. 

But Jesus doesn’t shrink away from this swarm of sufferers.  Jesus makes himself available to all of them.

This brings to mind a familiar scene from that long-running TV series M*A*S*H.  

Remember when Drs. Hawkeye and Trapper John were in the operating room for four, five, six hours at a stretch?   

After closing up wounds, suturing lacerations, stabilizing the seriously wounded….the two M*A*S*H surgeons would come out into the sunshine, squinting, exhausted—their hospital scrubs drenched in blood, sweat and tears.

That’s how Jesus might have appeared here in Capernaum, just outside the house of Andrew and Simon Peter.

So it is no wonder that after such an exhausting day, surrounded by persons clamoring for Jesus’ touch, he steals away very early the next morning.  When it “was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”

As a little Sunday School kid I was baffled by the notion that Jesus prayed.   How could that be, if Jesus was himself God?  When Jesus prayed, was he simply talking to himself?

It’s taken me six decades just to start to get a handle on that….to realize that the praying of Jesus reflected his dual identity as truly God and truly human.   And the truly human side of Jesus needed to pray, the way you and I need to pray, because so much of our lives distract us from, draw our attention away from our God who is always as close to us as our next heartbeat.

So we intentionally take time to place ourselves consciously before God, to attend to God, to listen to God even as we speak to God.   Nowadays our culture lifts up the idea of “mindfulness”….and for Christians, the best form of mindfulness is prayer.  

Isn’t that why you decided to escape your workaday lives and retreat to Luther Crest for 48 hours?

So Jesus “retreats” here, he escapes the crowd (or so he thinks) to get in touch with his heavenly Father….but even there, in his prayer place, the crowd finds him once again.  “Simon and his companions hunted for [Jesus].  When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’”   The crowd is on the prowl!

But Jesus’ brief time of pre-dawn respite has apparently crystalized something in his thinking and planning. 

Jesus’s path has become clear to him in the darkness of his praying.  "’Let us go,’” Jesus announces to his companions…”Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.”

Let us go, Jesus responds.   Let’s get on the move, let’s travel, for we have miles to go, a journey to pursue.

The previous day’s experience made it clear that Jesus could have stayed in Capernaum, just set up shop (or erected a shrine) where he could sit like a guru and hold audiences with those who had the time and resources to come to him.

Something in Jesus’ prayer time that early, early morning clarified for him that his vocation was not to stay there….but to keep moving, to keep encountering the crowds that would forever be nipping at his heels.

Jesus articulated something crucial about how he discerned his calling, his vocation.   Jesus’ vocation would take the shape of a journey, a pilgrimage through this weary world that would finally bring him to the Cross and the Grave “for us and for our salvation.” (Nicene Creed)

That destination shaped the calling for Jesus, every segment of his journey from the first step to the final step.

Jesus made it clear that his was a peripatetic ministry, a walking-around ministry, with a starting point and an endpoint.

And as it was for Jesus, so it would be for his followers.   They would follow, meaning that, like Jesus, they would be on the move, out into the world—this is the shape their vocation would take, as well.

Only in such a fashion would Jesus make it unmistakably clear that God is a moving, sending God who is who is always calling persons not to sit still but to keep on the move.  “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”  (Luke 19:10)

My dear friends, Jesus’ words here in Mark 1 still have decisive bearing on our callings, our vocations as baptized followers of our on-the-move Savior who says to us:   “Let us go…”

Our vocations, our callings are dynamic, not static.   We follow a mobile Savior who came to preach God’s strong and gentle Rule over all things.  As Professor Matt Skinner of Luther Seminary puts it:  “It is this preaching’s nature not to stay settled and rooted in a single place among a fixed audience but to seek new settings and opportunities to express itself.”Working Preacher

One of the most fateful decisions Christians made centuries ago was to erect church buildings—some of them magnificent cathedrals like the ones my wife and I visited in Germany last month.

When that happened, the church embraced a grave risk:  the risk of being planted, settled, sedentary, “nailed down” to a specific location.   I fear that the movement began by Jesus often became immobilized when we started investing so much of our identity and way of life in bricks, mortar and real estate.  

And now in this 21st century, as many are wondering whether it’s time to become more of a movement and less of a club with a clubhouse….we are rethinking the ways buildings and real estate may have stifled the dynamism of vocation and ministry as Jesus imagined it and lived it.

Now please, I am not suggesting that you go home and light a match to your church buildings—far from it!—but I do believe we need to reimagine, in fresh ways, how we might get better at leaving our buildings and institutional structures and hitting the open road with Jesus who always goes before us.  

At the conclusion of our weekly worship services, after we’ve heard:  “Go in peace, serve the Lord”…instead of responding with just:  “Thanks be to God!” what if we added something like:  “Watch out world—the church is leaving the building!”

When we talk in such a fashion we claim the great gift that comes with the whole notion of vocation as we’ve pondered it this weekend.

Truly, our vocations are dynamic, not static.   We may begin by naming our vocations:   son, brother, husband, father, friend, worker, citizen, neighbor…

But those names, those statuses take us somewhere, send us out into the world, deliver us to our neighbors…

So, where is your vocation leading you, where are your feet taking you?   To ordinary places?  Yes, most of the time…to ordinary places, including places you never pictured yourself going.

Our feet will take us to wherever the next generation is hankering for accompaniment and maybe even open to a bit of our wisdom.

Our feet will take us to wherever the lost, the last and the least are hungering for life’s necessities including the staple of life we call justice

Our feet will take us into public spaces, sometimes even into the hurly burly of political conversations about the common good.

Our feet take us to nursing homes, homeless shelters, hospitals, even cemeteries--wherever ears are longing to hear some word, some touch that restores faith, hope and love in Christ.

Through our vocations (which Luther sometimes called the masks God wears out in the world) through our vocations God’s work is done:  the Good News of Jesus is voiced, the neighbor in need is loved, the earth itself is cared for until God’s New Day dawns.

And we get to be part of that simply because God has called us to it.


In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Qualified and Call-i-fied

Zion Lutheran Church, Twin Valley
Installation of Pastor Sarah Dille
Epiphany 2/January 18, 2015
John 1:43-51

I don’t know if Jesus had a “to do” list when he began his work on earth….but if he did, I’m guessing that right at the top of said list was this notation:  Get help fast!

And what a strange thing that would be!

Here he is, as we confess in the Nicene Creed:  “God of God’s, Lord of Lords, True God of True God”….but when Jesus starts his work on earth the first thing he does is seek out helpers.   Really!?   The One we call “Very God of Very God” needed helpers along his way?

I don’t think Jesus needed helpers as much as he wanted helpers—he required helpers in order to be true to himself, in order live out his mission as the one and only God-in-human-flesh.   
This old world is filled with all sorts of Unmoved Mover-type gods, self-sufficient gods who need no help and want no help.  

But Jesus came among us to be God and to “do God” for us, with us, and never without us.    And for Jesus to do and be all of that, for Jesus to get through to us in the only way God wants to reach us, Jesus had to enlist followers, friends, disciples through whom Jesus would accomplish his greatest work—bringing God’s unfathomable, unconditional forgiving love “home” to human hearts.

Here’s how the great missionary bishop of the 20th century, Lesslie Newbigin, put it: “God’s purpose is precisely to break open that shell of egotism in which you are imprisoned since Adam first fell and to give you back the new nature which is content to owe the debt of love to all [people].  And so God deals with us through one another.  [REPEAT]   One is chosen to be the bearer of the message to another, one people to be God’s witnesses to all people.  Each of us has to hear the gospel from the lips of another or we cannot hear it at all…Salvation comes to each of us not, so to say, straight down from heaven through the skylight, but through a door that is opened by our neighbor.”[i] 

All four gospels spin that out in the way they tell us the story of Jesus.   Jesus is baptized, commissioned, sent by his Father….and right off the bat he calls others to join him, follow him, help him.

And as if that were not wild enough, it appears that Jesus was ready to go after just about anybody he happened to meet.

So here in this gospel text, Jesus puts the squeeze on Philip—and we aren’t even given a little mini-bio on Philip—only that he came from the home-town of  two other Jesus-helpers (whom Jesus had already recruited).

“Quality control” seems not to have been on Jesus’ mind as he started calling helpers.   In fact, he wasn’t even all that picky about who did the inviting….because as soon as Jesus called Philip, Philip turned around and found Nathanael (without even “clearing” him with Jesus first).  It’s as if Jesus came a calling and those whom he called just felt that they could go out right away and start doing their own calling!

Sounds a little chaotic, doesn’t it?   I can tell you—and, if you were on the call committee here at Zion, you know--that we 21st century Lutherans are much more “particular” about who gets called to represent Jesus in our midst as a pastor!

But with Jesus himself, it’s sort of a free-for-all:   it’s as if Jesus has a big vacuum cleaner that just sucks up whoever crosses his path.

So Jesus calls Philip and Philip calls Nathanael, about whom we know even less than we know about Philip….

…..EXCEPT, except that when Philip reaches out to Nathanael, it seems as though Nathanael immediately raises an eyebrow in a skeptical fashion.   Nathanael displays some “attitude” right off the bat. 

Not one to hide his true colors, Nathanael’s first instinct is too call into question Jesus’ credentials by besmirching the good name of Jesus’ hometown, Nazareth.   “Never heard of anything good coming out of THAT one-horse town!”   Nathanael, it would seem, was going to be one tough nut to crack!

And isn’t that interesting…..Jesus calls this guy and that guy, and some of the guys don’t seem all that interested in or attracted to Jesus, at first blush!

Jesus starts his ministry seeking helpers….and he doesn’t limit himself to the “easy marks.”   Nathanael falls under the sway of Jesus’ attractive powers, even though Nathanael’s going to need a little persuading.

You and I probably would shy away from a fellow like Nathanael.  If we were on the visiting committee or the evangelism committee, doling out names of folks to be visited—we might not fight over who gets to see Nathanael!

We would seek out more compliant, non-judgmental subjects…..we’d go after easier targets…but Jesus’ big disciple-capturing vacuum cleaner just brings in a whole motley crew, including folks who on the surface were hardly—hardly!—cut out to be his helpers.

And so it has always been in the movement Jesus initiated.  Jesus comes a’calling, and there’s no telling who will end up in his merry band of followers.  In fact, as the four gospels play it out, Jesus even seems to have a special place in his heart for those who are most ill-suited to following him.

And what’s that about?

I think it’s about the fact that Jesus’ “personnel handbook” reads nothing like the policies and procedures we follow when hiring workers or even calling pastors.  

We tend to put all the emphasis on being qualified.  But who, pray tell, will ever be qualified enough to follow Jesus let alone to help Jesus?  

One of my former colleagues on the synod staff  liked to say that we may not be “qualified” but we certainly are “call-i-fied” by Jesus![ii]

Which is to say:   when Jesus calls us, Jesus’ very call to us becomes the only credential we need to be numbered among his helpers.    Jesus’ invitation itself—because it comes from Jesus the Savior of lost causes, Jesus the forgiver of champion sinners, Jesus the liberator par excellence--Jesus’ invitation MAKES us, fashions us, transforms us into followers who are worthy of the One who calls us.

That happens here at the end of this text:   despite his initial reluctance, Nathanael tags along with Philip to meet Jesus who immediately tells Nathanael that he already reads him like a book—Jesus knows Nathanael’s whole back-story….

And Nathanael is so flabbergasted by Jesus’ instant “knowing” of him that he impetuously blurts out one of the first bold confessions of faith that we hear in the Gospel of John:   "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!"

….to which Jesus responds, in effect:  “Nathanael, you ain’t seen nothing yet!”

So where does this all land in our lives today, here at Zion, as we install Pastor Sarah?

Well, I can tell you this much:   she certainly is qualified to be your pastor!   As you’re already learning, Pastor Sarah is extremely knowledgeable, she knows how to communicate, she’s good with people, and she has the heart of a pastor.   Pastor Sarah is qualified and then some!

But here’s something even better:  Pastor Sarah is also “call-i-fied.”    Jesus has known her for a long, long time.   Jesus has looked her in the eye, staked his claim upon her in her baptism, wrapped her up in rhythm of his overflowing forgiveness,  nourished her at his Supper, wooed and won her for the sake of a lifelong relationship marked by Jesus’ cross, illuminated by the light bursting forth from Jesus’ empty tomb.

Pastor Sarah knows this stuff, and more importantly, she believes it.  

And she “gets it”—that Jesus calls not just her but all of us to be the Christ-speakers and Christ-bearers God has created us to be.  

So here’s the upshot, the payoff:   Everything that happens here at Zion—every baptism, every Holy Communion celebration, every announcement of God’s forgiveness of our sin, every Bible study and Sunday School session and confirmation class, every church council meeting, every pastoral visit by Pastor Sarah, every caring conversation that you are part of whether with other members of Zion or neighbors in the community—everything we do is designed to pass on God’s calling, gathering and sending Word….from one person’s mouth to the next person’s ear, bringing Christ home, helping Christ find a place in every human heart.

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.
 



[i] Paul Weston, Lesslie Newbigin:  Missionary Theologian, A Reader (Eerdmans, 2006), p. 50.
[ii] I’m grateful to Mr. Erin Anderson of Perham, Minnesota for this wonderful phrase.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Starry Night

2015 Bishop’s Bible Studies
Starry Night (Genesis 15:1-21)
Please read this passage before exploring this Bible study.



Getting In A Word Edgewise

We human beings spend about a third of our lives asleep.  It’s startling simply to say that out loud.  Our tendency is to think of “our lives” as our active engagement in the world around us; we tend to discount our “down time.”

More happens when we’re asleep than we often realize, though.   We may be “out” for roughly eight hours a night, but there is One who neither slumbers nor sleeps (Psalm 121:4).   Truth be told, sometimes God gets through to us best when we’re not fully conscious, awake, seemingly in control of things.

During 2015 I’m offering the people of our synod a series of Bible studies on dreams and visions in the Bible.   As we consider the faith practice of creatively imagining the contours of God’s promised future we will do well to stop, look and listen to what God is doing in the world.   Where is God leading us?   How might we best align our own plans and energies with God’s dream for the whole creation?   This is what “mission planning” looks like for congregations filled with people of faith who believe God is always out ahead of us.

But it’s not easy or automatic to “stop, look and listen” for God in this noisy, busy, hectic world.   That’s why God is always on the lookout for opportunities to get a word in edgewise with us.  Often such opportunities arise when we aren’t trying to manage the universe by ourselves.   God seeks out times when we’re vulnerable and open to what God wants to share with us.  This Bible study series will lift up eleven of such “holy intrusions”[1] that marked key turning points in the scriptural story.

God Starts Over With Abram

The first eleven chapters of Genesis are often called the pre-history (or primeval history) section of the first book of the Bible.  These chapters (focused on creation, fall, and flood) set the stage for all that is to follow.

Starting with Chapter 12 Genesis narrows the focus to God’s method of choosing one nation—Israel—to be God’s chosen people, the instrument of God’s rescue and redemption of all humanity.   Even though God could have taken any number of nations already in existence and made them God’s chosen people, God decides to start afresh with a man and his wife and to fashion from them a people.

So in Genesis 12:1-3 God focuses the story on Abram, a nobody-in-particular who lived in “Ur of the Chaldeans,” probably located in present-day Iraq.   Out of the clear blue—for no reason other than God’s own free act of choice—Abram is commanded to leave his homeland and strike out for a land that God will show him.   There God will make of Abram a great nation by whom “all the families of the earth will bless themselves.”

In Genesis 15 God reiterates and expands upon this in the context of a vision that Abram receives at night.   Enjoining Abram not to be afraid, God proclaims, “I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”   God meets Abram where he is at—vulnerable, uncertain—and pours gracious promises into Abram’s hungry ears.

But Abram is not utterly passive in this vision.   He responds honestly to God, naming the obstacle that seems to block his path:  “I continue childless.”   God, it seems, has chosen an empty vessel, ill-suited for becoming a “great nation.”

So God beckons Abram out into the night and directs his gaze toward the heavens:  “Number the stars if you are able….So shall your descendants be.”    Abram drinks in God’s promise of fertility-in-the-face-of-barrenness, and in this fashion Abram’s trust in God is “reckoned to him as righteousness.”   That is, God counts Abram’s assent to God’s promises as constituting a life-giving relationship with God.

Then, in a somewhat bizarre scene of slaughtered animals and a floating fire-pot and flaming torch, God enters into a solemn agreement (God literally “cuts a covenant”, v. 18) with Abram in which Abram is promised
·       A land that he will possess (the boundaries of which correspond to the extent of Solomon’s kingdom at the period of its greatest extent, cf. I Kings 4:21),
·       A deliverance of his descendants in the distant future, after a time of sojourning in a “land that is not theirs” (i.e. a reference to the Israelites’ slavery in Egypt and the Exodus), and
·       A long life for Abram that will see him “go to [his] fathers in peace…buried in a good old age.”
What’s remarkable about this strange dream is that in it “God himself enters a communal relationship with Abraham under the forms which among men guarantee the greatest contractual security.”[2]  In other words, God “comes down” to earth, via this covenant with Abram, and is bound to Abram in the same way humans in that time made covenants with one another.

Holy Intrusions—Then and Now

God’s call to Abram in Genesis 12 and the vision of Abram in Genesis 15 illustrates well some of the characteristics of God’s “holy intrusions” throughout the Bible and in our own lives:

1.     “Holy intrusions” always reflect God’s surprising initiative in our lives.   There isn’t even a whiff of a hint that Abram did anything to deserve God’s intervention in his life!  God simply seized the moment to start something new in the world, when Abram and his wife Sarai[3] were singled out for a great and glorious future.
2.     “Holy intrusions” often come when things look dark or uncertain.   Abram is keenly aware of a huge problem that makes God’s promises seem so improbable:  his wife Sarai is barren.   In his vision (Genesis 15:2-3), Abram is not passively mute but gives voice to the predicament God’s promises must confront:  “I continue childless…a slave born in my house will be my heir.”   Abram may have been asleep or in a trance-like state, but in his mind’s eye he was still trying to work things out, make things add up.   God seeks out times like this to get a word in edgewise with Abram—God is always looking for such opportunities to address us, too.   As Walter Brueggemann observes:  “We do well in our management while we are awake, and we keep the light, power and control on 24/7.  Except, of course, that we must sleep…Unbidden communication in the night opens sleepers to a world different from the one they manage during the day…[and] this unbidden communication is one venue in which the holy purposes of God, perplexing and unreasonable as they might be, come to us.”
3.     “Holy intrusions” mark key turning points in the story of God and God’s people.  Starting here with God’s call to Abram, the biblical story transitions from pre-history to the history of God with the people Israel.   An unexpected future is opened up.   From our perspective as Christians, the remainder of the Bible tracks the twisting, turning but always progressing adventure of how God made good on his promises to Abram and Sarai.  This adventure continues beyond the pages of the Bible, into the ongoing history of God’s people in Christ.  To cite an example closer in time to our own day, Brueggemann calls Martin Luther King Jr. “perhaps the greatest dreamer of the mid-20th century,” whose famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 “was a gift of imagination from beyond the realm of political realism…the product of study, of suffering and of long-term nurture in the black church.”

In these holy seasons of Christmas and Epiphany, we recall with great joy all the ways God has made good—and continues to make good--on his promises to Abram and Sarai.   Through them and their greatest descendant Jesus the Christ, “all families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Lawrence R. Wohlrabe serves as bishop of the
Northwestern Minnesota Synod of the
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.


For reflection and discussion:
1.      1.     When is the last time you had a sense that God was “getting in a word edgewise” with you?
2.      2.     Recall a time when things looked dark or uncertain for your congregation (or another congregation you’ve been part of).  What was that like?   How did the congregation come through that time?  How do you think God might have been involved?
3.      3.     Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad says, regarding Abram’s call by God, that “one must always remember that to leave home and to break ancestral bonds was to expect of ancient men almost the impossible.”[4]  Are there any ways in which your congregation might need to “leave home” to travel to a place God wants to show you?  How might God be calling your congregation to leave its comfort zone and change for the sake of a new way to “be church” for the sake of God’s mission?

This is the first in a series of monthly bishop’s Bible studies during 2015 on the theme, Holy Intrusions.  These columns are designed to equip the disciples and leadership groups such as church councils, for faithful and fruitful ministry.   Feel free to use each column for personal reflection or group discussion, e.g. church council meeting devotions/discussion.  



[1] I’m indebted to Walter Brueggemann for this pungent phrase.   See his wonderful article from the June 28, 2005 issue of The Christian Century at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3218
[2] Gerhard von Rad, Genesis:  A Commentary, Revised Edition (1972, Westminster Press), p. 187.
[3] If the names “Abram” and “Sarai” sound strange to you, see Genesis 17:5, 15.
[4] Von Rad, p. 161.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Paragons of the Kingdom

Opening Devotions
Board of Regents Meeting—Oak Grove Lutheran School, Fargo, ND
December 18, 2014


Matthew 2:13-18
Now after [the wise men] had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.  Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
   wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
   she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’

In England, near the beginning of the 15th century, a religious order called the Star of Bethlehem decided to welcome some patients into their monastery in London.  In time the monastery was named Bethlehem Hospital—the first “lunatic asylum,” as they called it, in all of England.  Over the years Bethlehem became shortened and slurred into Bedlam….and soon this hospital for the mentally ill was called Bedlam….a word that eventually became associated with any place or situation characterized by uproar or confusion.[1]

From Bethlehem….to Bedlam…

Sometimes it feels like that in late December.  We long for Bethlehem….but instead we encounter Bedlam in our malls, our workplaces, our homes, maybe also our congregations.

Even the church’s calendar has a Bethlehem-to-Bedlam quality about it.   On December 25 we observe the Nativity of our Lord, but one day later we remember St Stephen, the first Christian martyr….and three days after Christmas we revisit this gruesome story of the Holy Innocents, Martyrs.

I know preachers fairly well, and I can tell you that whenever one of those two lesser festivals falls on the Sunday after Christmas, most preachers moan and groan and duck for cover—avoiding the stoning of Stephen, side-stepping the slaughter of the innocents. “Let’s just sing carols and not read these bloody tales, lest we ‘spoil Christmas.’”

But truth be told, even if the church’s calendar didn’t shove these horror stories in our faces….life itself and the daily news can easily ‘spoil Christmas’ for us.

132 Pakistani school children senselessly slaughtered this past Tuesday, two years (almost to the day) after the horrific school shooting in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut!

Every Advent, for as long as I can remember, something happens that threatens to ‘spoil Christmas’ for us.  At the same time, though, such tragedies make us hanker for Christmas all the more.

Because even these heart-stopping brutalities remind us what was at stake for God to come among us in the baby born in Bethlehem’s manger.

Into this sorry old world where children have always been at risk, God came among us as a child….the one Infant who got away from cruel old King Herod….and grew to become a man who wrapped his arms around children, blessed them, and set them in the midst of his closest followers—pointing to these little ones as paragons par excellence of his peculiar kind of Kingdom.

Jesus our Lord came among us not to have a joyride or a picnic, here on earth--but to redeem us, to restore fallen humanity, and to renew the whole, groaning creation.

Nothing, nothing that happens to us, nothing that makes us shudder when we watch the news on TV….nothing and no one is outside of the scope of  God’s saving intervention in this fallen world.

That is a wonderfully appropriate thing for us to remember today as we meet to care for this beloved school where children are treasured, where little ones are nurtured, in the name of him who came among us as a little child and who calls us to recognize in our youngsters, signs of his kingdom right here, right now.

Let us pray:   Eternal God, whose Advent we celebrate with joy and thanksgiving, bless all schools, and especially Oak Grove Lutheran School, that they may be lively places for sound learning, new discovery, and the pursuit of wisdom.  Grant that those who teach and those who learn may find you to be the source of all truth.  Open our eyes to behold in the faces of our children the image of your dear Son, who took on human flesh to make us and the whole creation new.  Bless our deliberations today so that everything we think and say and do will give you glory and reflect your care for all children.  In Jesus’ name.   Amen.




[1] Based on an excerpt from Edmund A. Steimle, From Death to Birth (Fortress, 1973) p. 115.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Gospel Era Dawns!

Dilworth Lutheran Church, Dilworth, MN
Advent 2/Mark 1:1-8
Installation of Pr. Elizabeth Hiller

Mark 1:1    The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Some years ago an advertising agency down in Florida came up with the idea of creating a series of billboards, each of them conveying a message purportedly from God.   This “GodSpeaks” campaign caught on for a while, and swept across the country.

Perhaps you saw one of these 10,000 clever billboards that were put up in about 200 cities across America.

Some of these simple, direct GodSpeaks messages were warm and inviting, for example:
·        “Tell the kids I love them.”  --God
·        “Is your heart heavy?  I’m here.” --God
·        “Let’s meet at my house Sunday—before the game.”   --God
·        “I love you. I love you. I love you.”  --God

But other GodSpeaks messages had a surlier, more menacing tone:
·        “Have you read my #1 bestseller.  There will be a test!”   --God
·        “Life is short.  Eternity is not.”—God
·        “You think it’s hot here?”  --God
·        “Don’t make me come down there!”  --God

Such supposed “messages from God”, like the hand-drawn signs you see even dotting our own landscape….such messages always make me wonder:  what sort of God is speaking here?  What tone of voice is coming through?   Most importantly:  Is the ‘news’ from this God good news or something else?

Our text from St Mark, chapter one, offers an answer, right out of the gate:   “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

As you may know Mark is considered to be a first of its kind:  the first-written, earliest-to-appear of the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John).

Mark (whoever he was!) probably set out to write a biography of Jesus…but his little writing project produced something far beyond a simple biography-of-Jesus. 

Not that Mark’s gospel is lacking in information about Jesus….but when Mark got going, it became apparent that he had written the kind of document this world had never seen before.  

It was as if Mark realized, as he wrote, that he was imparting transformation at least as much as information.  Mark realized that the words spilling forth from his pen had a snap-crackle-pop energy to them.   These words didn’t just say something—they DID SOMETHING!

It’s as if Mark was quickly overcome by a compelling need to burst forth with glad tidings, fresh news so amazing that it simply had to be shared—the way young couples can’t wait a second longer to share the news about their engagement or the birth of their first child.

What’s the latest from God?  Is the news from God good or not?

Mark tipped his hand right off the bat, no beating around the bush:  “The beginning of the good news (we could say:  the glad tidings) of Jesus Christ the son of God.”

Mark began his writing project by gushing:  “Hang on to your hats, folks!  We’ve got the latest, freshest news from God, and it’s all good news--the greatest news ever!”

And then, to flesh that out, Mark didn’t just launch into a series of facts about Jesus or a long list of doctrines about Jesus….but rather he simply started regaling his readers with what this Jesus did when he arrived on our scene….always with an urgent, breathless quality to it.

This year, as we dwell in Mark’s Gospel a lot, we’ll notice things like how often Mark uses one of his favorite words:  “immediately!”   Everything happens at breakneck speed in Mark’s gospel.  Every story is told with an economy of words (lest we dilly-dally along the way)…

….until, until we come to the end of Mark’s short gospel, when the pace slows down, because Mark has gotten us to the climactic conclusion, where everything about this Jesus comes together at his cross, his grave, and his rising-from-the-dead three days later.

There, at the very end of Mark’s short gospel, it becomes crystal clear that in Jesus we meet a God who means us well, always and forever.

It’s as if someone hits the slow-motion button starting with the 14th chapter of Mark’s Gospel…as we behold Jesus  not just spreading the good news but becoming the good news as he dies on the cross for us, is buried in a grave for us, and after three days is raised to life again for us and our salvation—the best, greatest surprise this sorry old world has ever seen.

Which is why, of all those GodSpeaks billboard messages I referred to earlier, the goofiest one surely has to be this one:  “Don’t make me come down there! –God.”

No, no, no, no, no you wacky billboard people! 

“Don’t make me come down there”???   Sorry!   It’s way too late for that!  God has already beat us to the punch.  God has already come down here—and we thank our lucky stars for that! 

God’s arrival in Bethlehem’s manger, God’s Advent in our midst, kicks off the whole amazing adventure of God’s rescuing redemption of you and me--God’s astounding restoration of the whole creation!

All of that is tucked into this first sentence in Mark’s Gospel.  This isn’t just “nice to know” information about Jesus.   This is a sentence that cracks open the transformation that God in Christ is all about.

Mark Allan Powell, who teaches New Testament at our ELCA seminary in Ohio, says that “Mark wants to tell us about the beginning of a new era, a time and place in which God has entered human history in an unprecedented way.  It is ‘the gospel era’…[in which] God is ready and willing to rule our lives…”[1]

What the GodSpeaks billboard campaign got right is that we really do pine for a Word from God.  Our ears are truly itching to hear from the One who made us.  

But (we also want to know) if there is news from God, is it good or not?  Mark’s answer is clear:  “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ the Son of God.”  Folks, we’ve got the latest news from God—and that news is as good as news ever gets!

It sounds so sweet to our ears, because, you se,we’re dying to hear it.

We’re longing, we’re panting to hear such good news because most of the time we’re caught up in all the bad news that’s always coming at us.

Think about that:  the news has been pretty grim, of late, hasn’t it?

It’s filled with words about Ebola….beheadings by terrorists in Syria and Iraq….school shootings that have become all too routine….and the violent deaths of young black men in our cities.

I don’t know about you, but my wife Joy and I regularly find ourselves shutting off the TV and the radio, the news gets so depressing.

So we escape to social media, like Facebook, except that there too the bad news is readily available from our “friends” who beseech us to pray for them as they cope with bad choices, cancer diagnoses, wayward kids, strained marriages, lost jobs, and on and on.

In this perpetually bad news world, we hanker for another message.  If God were to speak today, what would God say?

That’s the question, Pastor Elizabeth, that I hope will be on your mind not just during this Advent season, but in all the seasons yet to come, every day as you walk among God’s people and every week as you get ready to stand in this pulpit.

Don’t get me wrong:  you can, and at times you will, draw our attention to the bad news “out there,” as well as the bad news we have made of things because of our sin….
But  when you do that, do it always with an eye toward the latest, freshest news from God:  news that is always good!

God’s good news in Christ has the power to shut down all the purveyors of bad news, including that nagging little voice inside each of us that’s always haranguing us with all those “shouldas, couldas, and wouldas!”

May you come to the good work of pastoral ministry here with a daily dose of St Mark’s ants-in-the-pants eagerness to burst forth with the story of Jesus that has launched the gospel era, the advent of God’s strong and gentle rule over all things!

And as you take up your ministry here at Dilworth Lutheran Church, Pastor Elizabeth, may you always have ears able to hear and a voice ready to say:  “God is still speaking.  God has news for us—and it is GOOD news, always and forever!”

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.




[1] Commentary on Mark 1:1-8 at https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2266