Psalm 61:3

Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer; for You have been my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Jesus isn't cute. He's dangerous.

There is one word that I cringe at every time I hear it applied to a grown man, especially to an elderly man.  Maybe you have heard this word, or you yourself have used it.  I know it has been used by different people in regards to my own grandfathers and grandfathers-in-law.

 This man who has been faithful to his wife for 50+ years, who worked his fingers to the bone to provide for the upbringing of his children, who brought them to the font of baptism, who drove them to catechism classes, who showed them the value of an honest day’s labor, who forced them into the cellar and held the doors shut as the violent winds of a tornado passed by outside.  

What word is used to describe him?  Good?  Brave?  Strong?  Virtuous?  No.

The word is: “CUTE.”  I hate that word, or at least when it is misapplied to grown men.  The word “cute” means basically the same thing as “pretty”.  And if there is one thing that elderly men are not, and I do not think any of them would disagree with me on this, it is pretty.  They are not cute. 

So why do we call them that?  Why do grown women, and sometimes men, who love their fathers and certainly wish them no disrespect, use that word, “cute”, to describe someone who is not?
I think the real reason has its roots in our sinful nature and the attempt of the devil to castrate the power out of anything that is truly good and right.  Let me be very clear: I am not saying that everyone who uses this word in this way is aware of this.  The devil has tricked us all.  Our sinful nature has pulled the wool down over our eyes.

The word “cute” has given us the sinful ability to ignore the words and advice, the life and the lessons, of those who have gone before us.  That way when my grandfather tells me, a grown man, that I should play more with my kids, I can say, “Oh, that’s cute.”  And go on doing whatever I want.  

What the patriarch of the family lets us know what he thinks about the way I dress, or about the company that I keep, or about my living arrangements, or about my dangerous drinking habits, or about the rampant sin out in the world, I can write him off.  I can say, “Oh, that’s just grandpa being his cute little self.”  And I can ignore him.

The word “cute” cuts the power out of a man’s or a woman’s words, for it happens to mothers as well as fathers.  It tames them, makes them less dangerous, makes them more manageable.  And that is precisely what they should not be, at least not by you and me.

So what does this have to do with Christmas?  Why do I bring this up today of all days?  Because Christmas is everyone’s favorite Christian holiday.  And I believe the reason is that it is “cute”.  Or at least we think it is.

Everyone loves cute little baby Jesus lying in the manger.  They love the pretty angels that sing pretty songs.  They love the gentle mother who quietly gave birth amidst the gently falling snow.  They love the kind husband-to-be who passively watches on as the shepherds come and go.

It is such a quaint scene.  It is so nice, so sweet, so cute.  And that makes it manageable.  That makes it tame.  Cute baby Jesus does not hold any authority over me.  He does not offend me, challenge me, call me to repentance or call me to action.  And He certainly won't be forgiving my sins.

 I can sing my Christmas carols, exchange some gifts, eat too much, kiss my girl under the mistletoe, and be on with my life.  A cute Christmas is just far less dangerous to my sinful nature than, say, Good Friday or the Day of Jesus’ Resurrection.  At least our sinful self would love to think so.

Allow me, then, to give you a different view of Christmas, a powerful, untamed, unmanageable, dangerous view of the birth of Jesus.  Jesus Christ is not cute.  Oh, I am sure he was as attractive of a baby as any other, but He did not come that we may look at Him in that way, and He certainly did not stay that way for long.

The birth of Jesus Christ is an invasion of this sin-saturated world by the One Righteous God.  Listen to how the author of the book of Hebrews describes the Son of God and tell me how "cute" you think it is:
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”

Jesus is superior to the angels.  Well, the angels that appeared to the shepherds where not a pretty group of choir boys.  They were an army of spiritual warriors who instill fear and awe into all who see them.  Why else would the shepherds be so terrified at their appearance?  It is a miracle that they offered praise and glory to God and peace on earth, rather than fire and destruction, which is what this sinful world deserved.  

Mary may have been gentle, but she was also a pillar of faith.  She was a righteous woman who had to suffer the scorn of the society around her as her pregnancy began to show.  She is a faith-filled woman who courageously submitted to the will of God, not with fear and trepidation, but with joy and thanksgiving.

Joseph, I am sure, was kind.  But he was also just, and virtuous.  He also braved the scorn of the community by taking an unwed mother to be his wife.  And he did all that was necessary to fulfill the Law in this child’s name: circumcised on the 8th day, dedicated at the temple, celebrating the Passover every single year.

The cute little baby lying in a manger was not here to coo at us for all eternity.  He was born to die that we might live.  In a short manner of time that child would grow into a man and He would quickly get about His heavenly Father’s business.  

Jesus would reach out and lay His holy hands upon those with diseases that made them untouchable.  Is that cute?  He drove demons from the bodies of men and women and sent them back to hell.  Was that cute?  He carried His cross to Golgotha and patiently waited as ignorant soldiers drove railroad spikes through His hands and feet to secure Him to the instrument of His death.  And what is more, He forgave them, He forgave you, even as they did it.  There is nothing cute or cuddly about it.

Jesus Christ could not be tamed.  He would not be managed.  He was and is the most powerful man in the universe, and that makes Him dangerous.  And He shall always remain so. 
Even death could not tame Jesus Christ.  He was too dangerous even for death to keep its grip on Him.  And thank God that it is so.  For with His resurrection Jesus delivered the final blow to the devil, the world, and our sinful nature.  He brought life and immortality to light.

Cute just can’t cut it.  It took a dangerous man to hold the power of the universe in His hands and to use it to heal, feed, and comfort.  It took an untamed Jesus to die and rise for your sins and mine.  It took the unmanageable Son of God to conquer death and give freedom from the grave to all who trust in Him.

Our sinful nature wants Jesus to remain cute, tame, and manageable.  He is anything but.  Even as a babe lying in the manger Jesus Christ is the most dangerous person ever born.  He is the embodiment of unimaginable righteousness, power, and glory.  And He exercises that power to save us from our sins, to raise us from the dead.

This Christmas, I am not asking you to throw away your angels that look pretty or to put away your precious nativity scenes.  I am asking you to take the time and listen to your elders, hear what advice they have to give, and don't write them off as "cute" or "old fashioned".

I am reminding you that some people are not in our lives to be tame and manageable.  They are there to be dangerous.  They are there to challenge us.  They are there to save us.

And Jesus Christ, born on this day, sacrificed for our sins, risen from the dead, and seated at God’s right hand, fits that bill.  Let us, along with all of God’s mighty angels, worship Him.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Church Is Awesome

As a community we have seen some awesome things lately.  I am using that word loosely.  A tornado is awesome, not because it is good or desired, but because when you see it and the damage that it leaves in its wake, it makes your jaw hit the floor.  Perhaps the better word is “fearsome”.

                Besides the destruction and devastation, however, there have been many awesome things.  There was the quick response of individuals to help their neighbors.  Many of you drove to New Minden to help pull people out of the rubble and to pick up the pieces of their lives.  You went to the various farms and outlying homes that had been hit and worked into the dark helping to make the clean-up that much more doable.

                And then you stayed.  You did not come for just one day, but many came back the next day, and the next, sometimes finding new people to help, new ways to lend a hand.  Some donated food and water.  Some donated money.  Some prayed.

                And then there was the worship service on Wednesday evening.  Pastors Tim and Jacob Mueller organized an awesome service of Word and Prayer.  And together we raised our voices, both in prayer and praise, in thanksgiving and supplication.  

                As a pastor, I cannot be everywhere at once.  I cannot literally be all things to all people, at least not all at the same time.  So on behalf of the families who received help, on behalf of those who simply don’t have the platform or opportunity to say this, and as the pastor of several who suffered much through Sunday’s storms: Thank You.

                Thank you for being what you were called to be in your baptism.  Thank you for being the people of God, the body of Christ.  As the body of Christ, when one member suffers all suffer with it, and you have certainly done that.  You have suffered together, and it is my hope and prayer that you will continue to do so.
               Disaster, it seems, brings out the best in people.  And the church is no exception.  For a time we are not Republicans of Democrats, Hoyletonians or New Mindenites.  We are one in Christ, one in suffering, and hopefully one in thanksgiving.

                It is a shame, however, that this is what it takes for us to lay aside our differences, to treat one another as fellow children of God, rather than rivals or enemies.  And it should not be that way.

                Too often we are rather slow to forgive.  We are even slower to forget.  We perceive that someone has slighted us, they have insulted us, or committed a sin against us.  And we hold on to that.

                Sometimes even after the person has apologized, even after we have given forgiveness, we eye them with suspicion.  We forgive, but we refuse to forget.  We allow differences, some of them rather petty, and some of them not, to drive us apart.

                When we do this we are dealing with one another in a rather unchristian way.  You see, we only have two hands.  And in those hands we can only hold one thing at a time.  We can hold on to our grudge.  Or we can hold on to Jesus, but never both.

                You can hold fast to your anger, resentment, jealousy, rage, or apathy.  Or you can hold fast to the Gospel of Christ.  But one of them is going to have to go.  There is no way to hold on to anything in addition to Jesus.  Our hands are not strong enough.

                That is what happens.  This is why there are divisions in the Church.  This is why there is anger and resentment: because we take our eyes off Jesus.  We let go of Him so that we may hold on to our own ideas, our own rights, our own responsibilities, our own judgments.  Rather than listening to the Word of God we listen to the voice of our heart, our heart filled with sin, with jealousy, with rage and resentment.

                You are the people of God by baptism into Christ Jesus.  And that has never been more obvious that it was in this past week.  And the vision was beautiful.  It was awe-inspiring.  It was a condemnation of the way the rest of the world does business and a beacon of hope to those living in despair.  And that is what the Church is meant to be every single day.

                I want to read for you the end of our Epistle lesson from this morning.  Saint Paul begins his letter to the Colossians by praising, in great detail, Jesus Christ our Lord: 

“And he is before all things, and in (Christ Jesus) all things hold together.  And he is the head of the body, the church, He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.  For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth of in heaven, making peace by the blood of the cross.” 

                Our hands are not powerful enough to hold on to anything.  But the hands of Jesus hold all things together.  That is what Jesus was doing on the cross.  He was stretching out His hands between heaven and earth and making peace between God and man.  He makes peace with His blood.

                On the cross Jesus reconciles all things to Himself.  He is the center of the Church.  He is the head of the body.  And without Him everything falls to pieces.  And He does not wait for us to make Him the center of our lives.  He does not await our coming around to realize just how pivotal He is.

                Jesus inserts Himself where He belongs.  This is why Jesus has called pastors into His churches, to keep interjecting Him back into every discussion.  I am here to remind you that Jesus is the head.  Jesus brings reconciliation between warring parties.  Jesus is preeminent in everything.  And hopefully you are here to remind me as well.

                When we let go of Jesus it is impossible to be the body of Christ.  His blood is the glue that holds us together.  His hands are the ones making forgiveness a reality both between God and man, and between man and man.

                And so Jesus keeps sticking His nose in where we may not want Him.  Like a bad penny, He keeps turning up.  He has shed His blood to bring us to God and to bring us together.  And He will not let us forget.

                Perhaps the reason this becomes easier in a tragedy is because when everything else blows away, you only have Jesus to hold on to.  All other options are gone.  But that need not be the only time.

                You are the body of Jesus Christ.  He is your head.  In His life and death He reveals to you His Father.  And in His hands He holds all things together.  He forgives your sins and enables you to forgive the sins of your brothers and sisters.

                Let us not allow tragedy to be the only time we act together as brothers and sisters, as members of one body under the headship of Jesus Christ.  May the events of this past week be one shining example of who we are in Christ every single day.  Amen.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Gone Through Hell

(To the members of St John’s and Trinity, the citizens of New Minden and Hoyleton, to all those affected by the storms of life and seek from the Lord great and abundant mercy; grace, mercy, and peace be with you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.)

                How do you comfort someone who is almost literally going through hell?  That is the pastoral task that was before Jesus Himself as He hung on the cross between two thieves.  “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” begs the one.  

            What do you say to someone like that?  How do you offer them comfort, hope, assurance that everything is going to be ok?  What could even Jesus possibly have to offer this man now?
Tornado debris in New Minden, Ill., Monday, Nov. 18, 2013. Photo: LCMS Communications
            What could I possibly say to comfort you?  You who have lost friends and neighbors?  You who have lost homes, buildings, pets, a livelihood?  You who are at times so overwhelmed by the size and the scope of what needs to be done to move forward that you don’t know whether to get started or to run and hide?  You who are begging to be remembered?

            What can one pastor say to another, or one congregation to another, who has lost their sanctuary?  What words are there?  

            The thief, of course, suffers justly.  He even admits as much to Jesus face.  He is a scoundrel, who deserves the punishment he receives, harsh though it may be.

            For you, however, there is no direct cause and effect.  The tornado did not come because you missed church on Sunday, or because you fought with your spouse, or even, as one news channel reported, because “Father” Mueller celebrated “Mass” at the Lutheran church Sunday morning.  

            No.  Rather, God sees the sin of the whole world.  He sees us all, sinners through and through, and He wants to warn us.  God sends disaster so that we may know what the world looks like without Him in it.  This storm ripped through our region to give us a glimpse, just a short vision, of hell.  He shows us this so that we may repent of sin, large and small, and turn to Him.

            The thief on the cross sees this first hand.  He sees what it is like to go through hell, although he does not experience it.  He sees it, not in his own life, but in the fading life of the man next to him, the Son of God crucified for all men.

            Jesus Christ suffers through a death completely devoid of God’s goodness.  He is forsaken, abandoned upon the cross, to atone for all the sin, all the evil, all awful things that the thief has ever done, that you and I have ever done.

            Because the Son of God suffered hell, the thief does not.  That very day he was in paradise.

            I cannot promise you that today you will be in paradise, at least not in the same way that the thief was.  But I do promise this: because Jesus Christ has suffered hell, you will not.  You are remembered in His kingdom.

            Jesus remembered you at the cross as He prayed, “Father, forgive them…”.  There He wiped away the stain of sin from your conscience.  He remembered you at your baptism.  There He put His name on you.  Jesus claimed you as His own, as a citizen of His kingdom.  He will not forget who belongs to Him.   

He remembers you today, gathering you here to be consoled by His word.  Today He wants you to hear Him: “I will never leave you nor forsake you.  I am with you always.”  This disaster cannot make Him forget you.

            Jesus will remember you on the last day, when He calls you by name from the grave.  “Where O death is thy victory?  Thanks be to God who gives us the victory over death through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  You will rise again, immortal, to live in His kingdom forever.

            He remembers you by sending His army to your aid.  Normally we think of the angels as “the army of God”.  And certainly they are a great and powerful heavenly host, but that is not who I am talking about tonight.  Those who belong to the kingdom of Jesus are His hands and His feet in this world.  We are the body of Christ.

            The neighbors who called to see if you were ok, they are the body of Christ.  The woman who put her arms around you and prayed; she is the body of Christ.  The strangers who stopped by and picked up scrap metal for hours on end; they are the body of Christ.  Those who cooked meals, offered shelter, gave hugs, prayed without ceasing; they are the love and compassion of Jesus Christ in action.
November 17 Tornado
            Jesus remembered you in His kingdom.  He remembered that He cleansed you at the cross, that He claimed you in baptism, that He will call you by name on the last day.  And He sent His kingdom, His body, to your aid.  And He will continue to do so.

            Jesus Christ never forgets His people.  He came into this world to make for Himself a holy people.  He will always remember them.  He will always remember you.

            Like the thief on the cross, you have come as close to hell as you ever hope to get.  And tonight you also have a glimpse of paradise.  You have seen the kingdom of God gathered to help and serve.  Now you see them gathered to receive His Word, and to await from His great and abundant mercy.

            Keep praying, “Lord, remember me in Your kingdom.”  And have confidence, because He will never forget.  Amen.