Friday, November 25, 2016

Christ is the King

This is the sermon I preached Sunday, 11/20  at St. Timothy and St. Mark Lutheran churches. The scripture text was Luke 23:33-43.

I have to admit that I was confused when I first looked at today’s gospel text. Doesn’t this seem like an unusual text, especially at this time of year? After all, this is not Good Friday!  What does Jesus’ crucifixion have to do with Jesus being Christ the King? 

Listen to the way theologian N T Wright describes the situation:                                      
Jesus has stood on its head the meaning of kingship, the meaning of the kingdom itself. He has celebrated with the wrong people, offered peace and hope to the wrong people, and warned the wrong people of God’s coming judgment. Now he is hailed as king at last, but in mockery. Here comes his royal cupbearer, only it’s a Roman soldier offering him the sour wine that poor people drank. Here is his royal placard, announcing his kingship to the world, but it is in fact the criminal charge which explains his cruel death. (NT Wright, Luke for Everyone, 284)
Let the irony sink in. We are watching a parody being played out.
The concept of kingdom is a little hard for Americans to grasp. We don’t have a king. Our country was founded in rebellion against a king. Some explanation of the Greek word for kingdom will help us. The Greek word translated as kingdom means the power or authority to rule as king. "Entering the kingdom of God” can be understood as "accepting God's rule” over us.
Throughout his gospel, Luke tells us more about the kingdom: It is not something that can be seen (17:20). It is something within us (17:21). It is something proclaimed or preached (4:43; 8:1; 9:2, 60; 16:16). It contains secrets (8:10), but it can be sought (12:31) and given as a gift (12:32) and received (18:17). And finally, the kingdom comes near (10:9, 11; 21:31). 
This parody of worshipping the king on a cross contains quite a cast of characters, but for the moment, I’d like to focus on three groups and their responses to Jesus and his kingdom. The religious leaders scoffed at Jesus, the soldiers mocked him and one criminal.
The religious leaders scoffed at Jesus saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” (v. 35). Scoffed literally means that they looked down their noses at Jesus or that they thumbed their noses at him.
The soldiers mocked Jesus. Their derision echoes the devil’s challenge during Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, “If you are the Son of God…” (4:3, 9). The soldiers added further insult by offering Jesus sour wine, which was cheap vinegar heavily diluted with water. It was the drink of slaves and soldiers.

One of the criminals crucified with Jesus derided him saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us” (v. 39).  Literally, the criminal committed blasphemy because by belittling Jesus, all who mock him are belittling the power of God.

Did you notice the similarities in the various taunts of Jesus? All three derisions focus on the saving significance of Jesus’ death—vv. 35, 37, 39. Whether they knew it or not, they were proclaiming the truth of the saving power of this king on a cross. What irony that all referred to Jesus as the Savior (vv. 35, 37, 39). “Save yourself”—this was essentially the same thing the devil tried to tempt Jesus with. Avoid the humiliation, pain and suffering of the cross. After all, you are the king, aren’t you?

Luke’s description of Jesus’ crucifixion underscores his real identity and the true meaning of his death. Jesus is the Messiah of God (vv. 35, 39). Jesus is the Chosen One (v.35). Jesus is the King of the Jews.

How did the king on the cross respond to this antagonistic barrage? “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (v. 34). 

How are we supposed to respond to the forgiveness of the king? We’re shown this in the response of the second criminal. The second criminal expressed faith to see and believe that Jesus is the one who will have the final word, who will rule as king. He says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (v. 42). In scripture remembering carries with it the idea of responding in an appropriate manner. It’s more than just having something pop into our heads that we’ve forgotten. The criminal is asking Jesus to respond with action as he thinks about this repentant man. We too should be asking Jesus to respond with action as he thinks about us. 
Jesus’ response is to affirm the criminal’s confidence that he would be with him in paradise. What exactly is meant by the word, “paradise?” Is it heaven? Is it a tropical island in the sunny Pacific? Is it a place where we can eat all the food we want and never gain weight? Is it simply just a state of mind? 
Let’s think about paradise as something other than a place. Paradise can be thought of as a restored relationship with God.  
Jesus’ interaction with this criminal illustrates the truth of salvation. Salvation does not mean avoiding the cross. Neither Jesus nor the criminal were saved from suffering and death. Salvation means having faith, even when dying on the cross. “It means having faith to proclaim that Jesus is the powerful king, precisely when he’s on the cross” (Brian Stoffregen). The end result of the cross is that Jesus was restored with his relationship with the Father. Through Jesus’ death on the cross, our sins are forgiven and we too are restored in our relationship with the Father. 
Are we willing to believe in and worship Christ the King who stays on the cross until death? Can we be confident that Jesus will remember US and do what is good for us?
Christ the King, who was killed by the Roman Empire for treason and insurrection, did not merely challenge the orders of the world, but overturned them altogether. Jesus established a new reign governed by love, mercy and grace. Our king reigns from his unlikely throne, granting multiple opportunities for forgiveness to us all. On this feast of Christ the King, let our rallying cry be that of the second criminal. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 

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Thursday, November 17, 2016

Agony and Ecstacy

This is the sermon I preached this past Sunday, 11/13 at St. Timothy and St. Mark Lutheran Churches. The gospel text was Luke 21:5-19.
A while back, Ray and I watched the movie "The Agony and the Ecstasy." It is the story of Michelangelo and the conflicts and joys he experienced as he painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. To begin with, Michelangelo felt ill equipped for the task for which Pope Julius had commissioned him. He was a sculptor, not a painter.
Additionally, during his work on the chapel, Michelangelo experienced significant barriers to his artistic inspiration from society, his family, the Pope, and the Church leadership of the day. To produce the marvelous frescoes on the chapel's ceiling, he worked day and night for four years on top of scaffolding lying on his back! What a feat! In order to produce the wonderfully, amazing work of art, Michelangelo had to endure agony before experiencing the ecstasy of the finished work. How people marveled at the glory of the frescoes. Even today, Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel are considered some of the finest examples of the Italian Renaissance. Michelangelo kept insisting that he was a sculptor not a painter. Imagine what he could have done if he had considered himself a painter.
Today's gospel story from Luke, could also be called, "The Agony and the Ecstasy." In it, Jesus describes the agony that Jesus’ followers will endure due to opposition and obstacles they will experience in their lives of faith. But the ecstasy of it all is the presence of Jesus with them.
For the Jews, the temple was an amazing edifice. It was the center of Jewish social, religious and political life. On top of that, it was the place where God lived. Jesus predicted the temple's destruction, which was unthinkable! Jesus' hearers asked the obvious questions. When is this going to happen and what do we look for to know it's time?
Have you noticed that Jesus never seems to give direct answers to the questions posed to him? Rather than focusing on a special sign and when that would occur, Jesus emphasizes the importance of bearing witness to God's work.
Jesus outlines three signs symbolizing the time, which is one of agony. The first is the appearance of false messiahs and false calculators of time and place (v. 8). False messiahs preceded and followed the time of Jesus. In our day, we have seen plenty as well. Are you familiar with the expression about "drinking the Kool-Aid," referring to the mass killing of the followers of Jim Jones in Guyana?
The second sign is wars, tumults and international conflicts (vv. 9-10). Haven't these always been a part of the world as well? Just look at the number of conflicts in the 20th and 21st centuries and it makes your head spin. Some of the violence in scripture has shocked those of us who read the Old Testament devotionally or in a Bible study. Certainly, every generation has experienced such conflicts and indeed wondered if they were the final generation before the end.
Jesus' third sign is natural disasters like earthquakes, famines and plagues with cosmic terror (v. 11). These too have always been with us. In 79 AD, not long after Jerusalem's destruction, Mt. Vesuvius erupted, destroying the Roman city of Pompeii. Certainly, people then must have thought that the end was coming soon. Just think back to what we’ve seen in the past few years—Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, the Fukishima earthquake and tidal wave, the tornadoes in Oklahoma and throughout the Midwest and most recently the hurricane devastating Haiti. Then on top of it all was the rancor displayed in the campaigns for President. Do you get the feeling that we’re riding on a cosmic roller coaster? If you think things are going to calm down, get ready to clench that grab bar. Jesus tells us there is more to come!
Jesus outlines the fearsome persecution his followers will experience. Jesus' disciples will be arrested, persecuted, handed over and brought before kings and governors. We see much of this played out in the book of Acts. Jesus' followers suffered at the hands of Jews and Gentiles. In today’s world, Christians are being persecuted in China, the Sudan, Egypt and other places throughout Africa, the Middle East and Asia.  
However, when things seem the bleakest, Jesus provides three counter-measures to all that is happening. The first is that persecution would provide an opportunity for witness (vv. 13-15). Really Lord, can't we just share the gospel in a time of quietness and peace?
That may not sound like such good news, except Jesus would give his people the right words of testimony and a wisdom that is unlike any other. This does not mean that I can just stand up on a Sun. morning and say whatever comes into my head for a sermon. Sometimes I wish it was that simple, but I still need to spend time in prayer and preparation. What Jesus is talking about is not simple preaching or sharing one’s faith. It is for those who are on trial for their faith. Jesus promises his continual presence with his followers during these times of trial.
The second promise is that not a hair of Jesus' followers' heads would perish (v. 18). What does Jesus mean here? How can that be when Jesus described such terrible persecution? We've heard the stories of how many Christians have been martyred throughout time. Does this mean they weren't doing God's will, that they had somehow missed the boat?
Since Jesus said that some would be executed, this promise can't mean complete physical safety. What Jesus was guaranteeing is that nothing would happen to his people outside of God's range of operation. God knows all about what we're going through and is with us in it.
It's a little puzzling as well when Jesus promises that nothing will spell the end of life for the faithful (v. 19). The emphasis here is on the resurrection life that no one can take away from us--the life in Christ that started at our baptism, continues throughout this life and into the next life.
The third promise is the instruction to endure. That does not mean hanging on by the skin of our teeth. Rather than passive waiting or placid exercise of patience, Jesus is speaking of actively dealing with life and the circumstances that we face. He is talking about endurance intertwined with a hope that has God as its object and its expected outcome being divine intervention. To use a sports analogy, the best defense is a strong offense. Needless to say, if you want a challenging life, follow Jesus. It is not for the faint of heart.
Where are we today in relationship to what's written in the gospel and what are we supposed to do about it? Do we bemoan the aging membership of our congregation? Do we wonder or fear what life will look like with our President-elect? Do we wonder what our future in Bemus Point/Mayville? Who will take over when our older members are gone? Are we testifying to friends, co-workers, people we meet and neighbors in our community about God's love? If we hope in God, and allow him to use us, it will be impossible to keep quiet and to keep people away from God's church.
We may experience pain and suffering along the way and in our witness of Christ, but God promises us the ecstasy of his presence with us individually and as his people in this place. Amen!

Friday, November 11, 2016

All We Need

This is the sermon I preached at St. Timothy Lutheran Church, on Sunday, Nov. 6. The scripture reading was Ephesians 1:11-23.

All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten is a book of short essays by American minister and author Robert Fulghum. Fulghum explains how the world would be improved if adults adhered to the same basic rules [learned by] children, [such as] sharing, being kind to one another, cleaning up after themselves, and living
 "a balanced life" of work, play, and learning. (Wikipedia)
Today’s second reading is telling us that all we need to know we learn in Christ.
The fabulous, flowing language sweeps us away as we hear about all the wonderful things Paul asks God to do for the saints of Ephesus. This letter was meant to be circulated to other churches as well as the church at Ephesus. This message is meant for us today.
The phrase "in Christ" begins this reading and runs throughout it. That relationship of the believer to our Lord is the foundation of our faith and the glue that holds it together.
Everything for us begins and ends in Christ.
In this relationship, there are four things Paul wanted the churches to know and God wants us to know:
First, in Christ we have hope (vv. 17-18).
Second, in Christ, we have power (vv. 19-20).
Third, in Christ, we have victory (vv. 21-22) and
fourth in Christ, we have fullness (v. 23)
God wants us to know that In Christ we have hope (vv. 17-18).
This hope is rooted in the knowledge of God; coming from the "spirit of wisdom and revelation" for which Paul prayed.
Revelation was not Paul’s main concern here. All kinds of people will tell us crazy things that are contrary to scripture and good judgment, things that God supposedly told them to do out of some revelation that they received of so-called truth.
Notice that the prayer for revelation is coupled with prayer for wisdom. They belong together. Revelation without the wisdom of discernment will lead us into all kinds of trouble.
God wants all of us to have a personal, experiential relationship with him. We are underestimating God when we think knowledge about him is all that there is to the Christian life.
Before I was a parent, I thought I knew everything I needed to about raising children. Seeing how other people's children behaved, I knew that MY children would never do that! It wasn't until I became a parent that I could fully understand the joy and angst of raising children.
God wants us to know is that in Christ, we have power (vv. 19-20).  And what kind of power is Paul talking about? It is the power that raised Jesus from the dead. It is the power that brings life to death and strength to the weak.Power is so important for God's people that it is mentioned 4 times in these few verses.
How great is that power? It is immeasurably great.    
Have we ever been in situations that make us feel powerless as if we had no choice in what was happening around us? It is not in our own strength and determination, but in Christ that we have the power that raises us above the issues we're dealing with.
We can only understand what the real intent of faith is when we come together as a church in God's power to carry out our mission in the world around us. Our call to be salt and light, to bear witness to God's mighty power to bring justice, hope and love to a broken world is beyond our own strength. In Christ's power we can be and do all God has called us to.
God wants us to know that in Christ we have victory (vv. 21-22). Although circumstances around us may seem to declare the opposite, we live under the promise that no matter how bad things get, God's ultimate victory is certain. As author John Jewell wrote, "We live under the promise of the resurrection, the power of God within the community of faith and the affirmation that 'all things' [not some things] have been put under the feet of Christ who is, 'head over all {things} to the church'" (John Jewell, The certainty of God's victory in the long term empowers our life of faith in the short term.
God wants us to know that In Christ we have fullness (v. 23). What is meant by the word fullness? Jesus brings completeness and maturity to our lives as we abide in Him.
This is not any old relationship. It is not a “Jesus and me” fullness for us individually, but one we experience as part of the body of Christ. In the church, the body of Christ is "the [completion] of him who fills all in all" (v. 23b).
The Apostle Paul's prayer in Ephesians shows us God's design for his church. In Christ we have, hope, power, victory and fullness.  
Living as God's church, with Christ as our head is demonstrated by our openness to God, to each other and to the cries of a broken world. Others will enter into this reality by experiencing our life together.
Do people see the fullness of Christ in our worship and in our lives? If not, why not?
We have this amazing treasure in Christ. Let's not keep God in a box all to ourselves.  Let God loose in our lives, our church and our world, just as the saints who came before us did.