Tag Archive | grace

3rd Sunday after Pentecost, 2016

3rd Sunday after Pentecost, year C, (proper 5), preached 6/5/16

first reading:  1 Kings 17:17-24

Psalm 30

second reading:  Galatians 1:11-24

gospel reading:  Luke 7:11-17


Today we continue hearing from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians – as we did last week, and will for the next four weeks to come.

Last week we read his very angry, person introduction, in which he let the churches in Galatia know, in no uncertain terms, that they were headed down a WRONG path.  Today we pick up exactly where we left off, even overlapping verses 11-12.

In our verses today Paul is reminding the Galatians of his “earlier life,” and the life he is leading in their present tense. And he makes a point of saying that only God could bring about such a transition.  It’s a very stark “before and after.”

Some people come to faith because they reach a rock bottom and they have nowhere else to turn.  This wasn’t the case at all for Paul.  He was doing well.  He was respected.  He was successful and had “advanced… beyond many… of the same age…”  He LOVED his Jewish faith, and saw the upstart Christians as WRONG.  And he would use his respected position to protect the faith which he loved.  He writes, “I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it.”

But in the midst of this success, his life is rudely interrupted – changed forever.  The before and after couldn’t be any more different.  It all starts in vs. 15-16:  “But when God… was pleased to reveal his Son to me…”  Without warning, without any desire or effort on his part, his life and purpose were changed forever.

From a worldly perspective it became exponentially harder, filled with persecution from within and without.  Within, there were those who challenged his authority – from without, those who saw faith in Jesus as a threat like he once did.  The gospel did not make his life better on the outside, it made it worse.  He went from powerful to struggling, from persecutor to persecuted.

This is the main argument he gives for the gospel he’s preaching not being of human origin.  It must be God’s work, because it makes no earthly sense at all.

The other way Paul makes the argument that his “conversion” is not of human origin, is the enormity of the grace he has received.  To be the persecutor, to be the one violently trying to destroy the gospel – then to become its chief evangelist is a sign of mercy that can come only from God.

All the pain Paul caused those early Christians, even perhaps sending some of our earliest martyrs to their deaths – and God says, “I forgive you, and I will use you.”  WOW.  Think about it.

If God can forgive Paul and then use him to spread the gospel – if Jesus died and rose for Paul – then there’s nothing that could possibly stand in OUR way of receiving God’s mercy and love.

God took a hateful religious zealot bent on revenge and destruction – and turned him into a missionary for love and forgiveness – gave him the call to reach out to EVERYONE even to the Gentiles!  God called Paul, the Jewish zealot, to spend most of his mission reaching out to those who were the “other” to him in his previous life.  God called Paul, the Jewish zealot, to proclaim to the Gentiles that Jesus loved them too, and that God’s love and grace was just as much for them as for the original followers.

This is a living testimony to the POWER of God to wipe OUR slates clean and give US new beginnings. It’s hard to imagine a modern day equivalent.  Perhaps God converting and calling a member of the Westboro Baptist group to become an evangelist proclaiming God’s love for the LGBT community…

If God can extend grace and new life to THIS extreme, imagine what God can do for you and me.

broken-chains1-1-300x217Is there something that you’ve been holding onto?  Something you did (or WAS) years ago?  Some embarrassing or hurtful event you were a part of that still eats at you?  Do you ever have the feeling that you’re just not good enough? That God couldn’t possibly forgive this “thing” you feel hanging over you?

Even people sitting in churches, even pastors, sometimes have events and feelings either come back to them, or “stuff” they haven’t been able to let go of.  But that’s on US, not on God.  God isn’t holding onto it, WE are.

KNOW THIS – from Paul’s example – if Jesus forgave Paul, including the destruction he wrought in his life before God “was pleased to reveal his Son to [him],” then God certainly forgives you and me and all the awful things we have done and things that still weigh us down.

Let them go.  Because through Jesus they’re already gone.

There’s nothing we have to do – praise God for that.  Nothing required for us to do, because Jesus has done it already. As Paul will make clear throughout this letter, in Jesus we’re FREE.  Free from having to pay for our sins.  Free from all our past mistakes.  Free from having to try to be perfect.  Free from having to do “a” or “b” to “get” God to love or forgive us.

This is what GRACE is.  This is MERCY.  An undeserved outpouring of God’s love.  It means each day we get a new beginning, a new life.  Each time we call our for forgiveness it is there for us because we have been baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Because of this freedom in Christ, we are free to be bold in faith.  To try and even fail in serving God, just like Paul.

Our mistakes do NOT define us.  Our past does NOT define us.  Even our successes do NOT define us.  GOD’S GRACE DEFINES US.

And that, Paul says, is not of human origin, or from a human source – THAT power is from God alone. Praise be to God.

AMEN.

law and gospel

As I shared in a post last week, for part of my Lenten discipline this year I’m taking time for personal devotional reading each day.  Specifically I’m focusing on  Daily Readings from Luther’s Writings, selected and edited by Barbara Owen, published by Augsburg (Minneapolis) in 1993.  As I was reading this morning, I came across the following entry and was instantly drawn in (it’s found on p. 98).

“The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”  John 1:17

“It is proper that the Law and God’s Commandments provide me with the correct directives for life; they supply me with abundant information about righteousness and eternal life.  The Law is a sermon which points me to life, and it is essential to remember this instruction.  But it must be borne in mind that the Law does not give me life.  It resembles a hand which directs me to the right road… Thus the Law serves to indicate the will of God, and it leads us to a realization that we cannot keep it.  It also acquaints us with human nature, with its capabilities, and with its limitations.  The Law was given to us for the revelation of sin; but it does not have the power to save us from sin and rid us of it.” Luther’s Works, Sermons on the Gospel of St. John (1537-40) LW 22, 143-44

Law and Gospel

We talk a lot about “Law and Gospel” especially in the Lutheran branch of Christianity.  It’s an eye-opening way to look at Scripture, a profound way to orient our thinking and believing, and it is the foundation of my preaching. Clergy use the phrase frequently, but I wonder how good we are at actually explaining it to people.  As I read the above passage from Luther slowly and quietly this morning, it struck me that a lot of the chaos that exists in our culture and in our lives is there because we have lost sight of the distinction between law and gospel – because we think one can give us the other.  

Basically, VERY basically, the Law is that which convicts us, while the Gospel is that which saves us. The Law is the rules, the Gospel is the love.  Some incorrectly reach the conclusion that the Law is the Old Testament, while the Gospel is the New Testament (to be clear, there’s plenty of gospel in the Old, and a boat load of law in the New).

It’s a huge part of our cultural psyche that we’re self-sufficient and independent.  We pull ourselves up by our boot straps. We’re told that we’re rewarded justly for the effort we put into something.  Behave, play by the rules, work hard – and we’ll get what we deserve.  This thinking filters down to our lives as individuals as well.  We worship at the altar of “merit.”  We work hard to “deserve,” “earn” and “justify” the benefits of our hard work.  It seems natural then, that we apply this cultural worship with our religious faith.  Now, there are many faiths which DO focus on how our actions impact both our earthly and eternal fates – but Christianity is NOT one of them.

Christianity tells us that there is nothing we can do to earn our salvation; our salvation comes through Christ’s sacrifice only.  And that can be hard to swallow.  There is a huge chasm between the “do it yourself” culture and Christian faith which says, “you can’t.”  Many have tried to bridge this chasm by blurring the distinction between law and gospel, believing that somehow our actions DO impact on our salvation.  Others live with a certain contradiction – saying “Jesus saves,” while also saying that if a person behaves a certain way they aren’t saved.  Luther’s quote above is very helpful, because it doesn’t negate the power of the Law.  But it puts the power of the Law in its proper place.  I want to highlight a few key words (at least key for me):

The Law is a sermon which points me to life, and it is essential to remember this instruction.  But it must be borne in mind that the Law does not give me life… The Law was given to us for the revelation of sin; but it does not have the power to save us from sin and rid us of it.

We NEED the Law; the law holds a very important place for us because it guides us in life and faith.  It holds up the ideal to us of community and individual life.  As Luther described, the Law is the hand which directs us.  And because the Law is the ideal, its function is to show us where/when/how/who we have failed.

The Law does not give me life – it does not have the power to save me from sin.

The Law guides my life, shows me where/when/how/who I’ve sinned, but can’t save me from it.  That function belongs the the GOSPEL.  The Gospel proclaims God’s love for us even while we sin.  The Gospel tells us that through Jesus sin and death have no power over us.  The Gospel tell us that precisely because of our inability to keep the Law, Jesus died and rose again for us.  The Gospel proclaims God’s love and grace in both the Old and New Testaments.  The Gospel is also the very person of Jesus Christ. Without the Law, the Gospel means nothing – we have no need of it.  Without the Gospel, we are utterly condemned by the Law.  They each have their place in our lives, but it’s dangerous to confuse them. When we do we can become selfish, not caring about our actions, thinking “anything goes” – or we shut doors on people, hurting them with our judgments; also hurting ourselves, when we’re left wondering if we’re good enough, if we’ve done enough, if we’ve believed enough for God to save us.

The Law is certainly an indispensable part of the word of God, but the Gospel has the LAST word.

17th Sunday after Pentecost, 2015

17th Sunday after Pentecost, year B, 2015 (preached 9/20/15)

first reading:  Jeremiah 11:18-20

Psalm 54

second reading:  James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

gospel reading:  Mark 9:30-37


When I was growing up I often heard the phrase, “Children are to be seen and not heard.”  Usually this was said to me because I had appeared to someone to overstep my bounds.

I always hated that phrase.  As a child I felt like it shushed me – shut me out of the conversation.  As an adult I know phrases like that are all about de-valuing.  As a child, my opinion didn’t count.

I know the adults around me loved me, and they didn’t consciously mean me harm, but they counted my thoughts and words as UNWORTHY.

But at least my presence was acknowledged and valued.  In the ancient world in which Jesus walked and preached, children were NOTHING.  Forget about “seen and not heard,” they weren’t even supposed to be “seen.”  Children had no status, and were viewed as little more than property.

Now, even since my childhood, the place of children in our society is much greater.  One could argue that we’ve become “child-centric.”  It seems for parents now, that the world revolves around our children.  Our lives are planned around their activities and needs.

Sometimes, I must say, their desires supercede our values.  Worship and faith community life take a back seat too often to sports or clubs.  Or when our need to have our kids think we’re cool us takes precedence over common sense – like parents who allow their kids to have alcohol at a party at their house.

So in our child-centric culture, Jesus’ act in our gospel reading today can lose its punch.

Remember the status of children in the world in which he lived.  Nobodies.  Nothings.

He uses a child to illustrate his point – that the one who wants to be first must be last – must be a SERVANT (the Greek equivalent of a waiter).

The disciples were oblivious to almost everything that Jesus was trying to them.  He was preaching about suffering.  They were arguing about who was the greatest.  Jesus, as with everything else he said and did TURNED THINGS UPSIDE DOWN.

“You want to be great?  Then be last.  Do you need a visual for what that looks like?  Take this worthless child, and welcome him or her IN MY NAME.”

If we look at this reading too quickly we think it’s just a quaint picture of Jesus telling the disciples that children are important.  We need to get back to the SHOCK the disciples must have felt at that moment.

They still wouldn’t get it, not until after the resurrection.  After all, don’t we say, “hindsight is 20/20.”  But we, brothers and sisters, have the advantage that they didn’t.  We can ONLY read this knowing what came after.

So Jesus tells us to welcome the worthless, the nobodies, the powerless.  Ok, so he doesn’t directly command us to do so, but he baits us.

“Whoever welcomes such a person in my name welcomes ME – and whoever welcomes me… welcomes the one who sent me.”

When we welcome the worthless, we welcome Jesus, and when we welcome Jesus we welcome God who sent Jesus into the world for you and me.

Who among us doesn’t want to welcome Jesus?  Who doesn’t want to welcome God?

Well, since we’re gathered HERE, in this place this morning, my guess is that most of us DO want to welcome Jesus and God – into our community, and into our hearts.

So what does that look like?  What does Jesus putting a child in his arms THEN, look like for us NOW

I’ll talk about who the “children” are, but first I want us to focus on ourselves as welcomers – and then bring it back to the children.

Number one, ego has no place among us.  Let there be no arguments among believers about who is the greatest.  There is only ONE greatest, and he washed his friends’ ugly dirty feet on Maundy Thursday, and died on a cross as a despised criminal on Good Friday.

Two, Judgment also has no place among us.  If we want to welcome Jesus among us we welcome ALL those who society as deemed unworthy – the nobodies, the worthless.  If we want to welcome Jesus among us, we welcome those who WE also have deemed unworthy – because for as much as I might say judgment has no place, we still do it, me included.

It’s sin – this compulsion we have to look down on others, to rate ourselves as better than some.  We’re bound to it. We can only confess it, and cling to Jesus’ grace for us, unworthy as WE are.

Because, in the end, that is OUR relationship with Jesus.  In the end, WE are that child Jesus took in his arms.  WE are the nobodies, the unworthy, the worthless.  In bondage to sin, unable to free ourselves.

None of us like to think of ourselves in that way, but there it is.  Between what we have done, and what we have left undone, we’ve got nothing to bring to God.  We’ve got NO case for deserving GOD’S welcome to US.  We’re guilty.   We may not look like it.  Our worthlessness may be hidden by nice clothes or a fancy car.  But we can’t hide it from God.

It’s a radical, shocking thing this love of God.

We have received tremendous immeasurable grace from Jesus – grace that takes us from hell to heaven, grace that welcomes us and gives us the courage AND humility to welcome others.

This is the life Jesus has given us.  His love breaks down every wall our sin puts up.  His love calls us to love others, and welcome them into this wonderful broken community of grace.

We welcome because Jesus welcomes us.  We welcome, knowing that as we do, we welcome God.  And it starts and ends with God’s shocking grace.

AMEN.

My 2 Cents

I have something I need to “get off my chest.”  As I peruse linked articles on Facebook and Twitter and other places online I see a lot of posts about faith.  Many times the articles and posts have to do with warning people about going to hell if they don’t behave a certain way or do certain things or live a certain kind of life.  And this disturbs me.  It’s not that I don’t believe in hell.  But,

I’m not sure if preaching hell is the way to bring folks to heaven.

What I AM sure of is that it’s not the way we live that will keep us from hell.  And I am also sure that it’s not MY job to decide who’s going where – that’s way above my pay grade, thank you very much.  Some time ago in worship we read the parable of the wheat and weeds (or the wheat and the tares).  In this parable Jesus tells us the job of sorting the one from the other belongs to the angels – in other words, NOT you and me (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43).  You can read my sermon on that text here.

You see, I believe in the power of JESUS.  It’s not the way I live that keeps me from hell or earns me heaven.  It’s Jesus that accomplishes that.  Jesus didn’t die to make us holier than we are now.  We don’t have one holy cell in our bodies apart from JESUS.  There is no one who can boast in their works and their ability to live as God wants,

“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and

“for by grace you have been saved  through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Apart from the Bible I’m also influenced by the documents of my faith tradition.  In the Augsburg Confession we read,

“…our works cannot reconcile us with God or obtain grace for us….Whoever imagines that he can accomplish this by works, or that he can merit grace, despises Christ and seeks his own way to God, contrary to the gospel”(article XX).

There is NOTHING I can do, absolutely NOTHING, that puts me in any favor with God or brings me close to the gates of heaven.

This is not to say that our actions aren’t important.  The way others see us reflects God to them.  In the Lutheran baptismal liturgy we present a candle to the baptized with the verse, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)  So, do we want others to see God through us by experiencing GRACE or JUDGMENT?  Because when the unchurched or non-believers or the “spiritual but not religious” read and hear talk about “you have to be a certain way or you’re going to hell” what they hear is judgment.  But this is not the message of Jesus.  He didn’t die in order to heap judgment upon us.  He sacrificed himself in order that we might receive “grace upon grace.” (John 1:16)

So this is the way I choose to live my life and the way I approach evangelism.  When a non-believer walks away from me I don’t want them thinking, “wow, another judgmental Christian telling me I’m going to hell – been there, done that, I’m not interested.”  I want them to think, “Why is she being so nice to me?  Doesn’t she know how imperfect I am?  What’s up with her?”  When a person has had an encounter with me, I want them to receive a message of God’s love and grace for them, not hate, not fear, not judgment.  (Of course I’m not perfect, and there are plenty of times when I’m sure people have received a message of “less than grace” from me, but that’s why I need grace too!)

In my experience I’ve also found that fear of hell doesn’t really matter to people if they have no hope of heaven.  Most people have judged themselves already, they don’t need me for that.  What they need is to be FREED from that judgment – and better living won’t do that, only Jesus’ love can do that.  And for those who think too highly of themselves?  Well, judgment from me won’t cure that disease, it just confirms their belief that Christians are hypocrites and they’re above all that.   And in the end those with an inflated ego feel an emptiness too – they’re just trying to fill it with “stuff.”  Eventually that stuff will fail them.  When it does, I want them to think of a loving God who’s willing to receive them with joy, not a judgmental God who will say “I told you so.”  Think Prodigal Son.

I’d rather preach heaven than hell.   I’d rather attract people with the joy of Jesus than the fear of the Devil.  I’d rather say, “Jesus loves you” than “do you know where YOU’RE going when you die?”  After all, Jesus gave us the command to LOVE our neighbors, not condemn them.   Many people like to quote John 3:16, “For God so loved the world he gave his only Son, that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.”  That’s wonderful, but folks should remember the next verse too:  “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17)

Just my 2 cents…

15th Sunday after Pentecost, 2014

15th Sunday after Pentecost, year A, 2014 (preached Sept. 21, 2014)

first reading:  Jonah 3:10-4:11

Psalm 145:1-8

second reading:  Philippians 1:21-30

gospel reading:  Matthew 20:1-16


I gave birth to three people and have lived with them for almost 15, 11 and 8 years now.  I have lived with my husband for almost 20 years, and I’ve been alive for almost 49.  So I have a LOT of experience with whining, sulking and grumbling.  I have a LOT of experience with classic temper tantrums.

And I have found that most of the sulking, whining, grumbling and tantrums start with the feeling of being wronged.  Something’s not right with the expected order.  Something is not fair.

As a parent, there are times when I’ve watched a tantrum play out and feel real sympathy for my children as they struggle to learn one of life’s painful lessons.  Other times as I watch a tantrum play out I think, “Get over it already.  You can’t always get what you want.”

But when it’s you having the tantrum, when it’s you sulking and grumbling about fairness, it’s hard to tell if those around you should be sympathetic or annoyed.  We’re almost always convinced of the rightness of our cause and don’t want to be told we’re wrong or to “get over it.”

But today we have two examples of God telling us precisely that – “Get over it.”

Why God chose Jonah to be a prophet I’ll never understand.  He didn’t want to preach to the people of Ninevah.  God had to swallow him up and spit him out before he would go.  Then afterwards, when the people repented and God forgave them, Jonah had a classic temper tantrum.  Not the kicking and screaming toddler kind, but the ranting and raving, sulking and pouting, “just let me die” drama queen kind.

When those happen in my house I have very little patience.  When I’m the one having that kind of tantrum, it’s hard to see reason.

Truth be told, sometimes in life, we can’t see reason.  Sometimes decisions and events are just the prerogative of folks higher up.  Sometimes those decisions can affect us in very traumatic ways – but other times those decisions don’t affect us at all, they just offend our sense of fairness.

THIS is the kind of tantrum Jonah has, and God has little patience with it.  This is also the kind of tantrum the laborers in our gospel reading have.  And again, God has little patience with it.

God decides to forgive the people of Ninevah.  The landowner decides to give ALL the workers the same wage.

Neither of these decisions has any negative consequence for anyone.  Nothing bad will happen to Jonah as a result of Ninevah being spared.  Nothing bad will happen to the workers who labored all day in the field – they’ll get paid what they were promised, which is a GOOD thing.

Yet the people bitterly complain and throw their adult-type temper tantrums because it’s not FAIR.

They’re angry because people they don’t like or don’t think deserve anything earthly or heavenly are getting rewarded.  Jonah feels like he’s better than the Ninevites, the all-day workers think they’re better than the late-comers.  God basically says, “Enough!  It’s none of your business!”

Have you ever said or heard the statement, “My house, my rules?”  God says to Jonah, “My city, my rules.  If you can be concerned about a BUSH, why can’t I be concerned about THOUSANDS of people?”  Jesus has the landowner say, “My vineyard, my rules.  It’s my money, I’ve paid you what I promised, why should you be angry because I’m generous?”

We often get angry when we perceive an inconsistency in the rules of fairness.  But God’s fairness, God’s math if you will, isn’t about:  “Good deeds – bad deeds = the possibility of salvation.” God’s math is “Sin + grace = salvation.”

Ninevah was a bad place with bad people and when they repented God wiped that slate clean.  The landowner’s agreement was for the workers to be paid a full wage at the end of the day, no matter when they started.  No matter when we come to faith, whether at 5 or 95 – our reward, our GIFT of heaven is the same.

When we really think about it, thank GOD.  Really, thank God that God doesn’t play by our human rules of fairness.

Thanks be to God for generosity, for grace, for mercy, for loving us when we don’t deserve it, for forgiving us when we don’t deserve it.  Thanks be to God for wiping OUR slate clean through Holy Baptism and giving us a new start each day, and an eternal new start when our time on earth is done.  Thanks be to God for the self-sacrificing, most unfair act of all in the gift of Jesus, who offered himself for our sinful selves.

When I have snapped at my husband, or yelled at my children, when I’ve disappointed someone here at church, when I haven’t stepped up to the plate at my kids’ schools, when I haven’t called my mother in a week – – I am SO thankful God doesn’t play by our rules.  When I cut someone off in traffic, when I’m short with the customer service representative on the phone, when I envy those who appear more successful, wealthy or powerful than me – I am so thankful that God doesn’t play by our rules.

In truth, when we tantrum over unfairness, it’s usually because we perceive OTHERS, those people, them, as having received special treatment – like the Ninevites or the late-coming laborers in the vineyard.

What we often FAIL to see is that WE are the Ninevites, WE are the late-comers.  We are the ones receiving the special treatment.  WE are THEM.

In every moment, you and I are in need of God’s UNFAIRNESS.  Every moment you and I are in need of God’s cleansing grace and mercy.

Thank you God for putting up with our temper tantrums,  and for being so unfair – with the Ninevites, the late-comers, and with us.

AMEN.

quid pro quo

I saw a statement on twitter yesterday that made me sad.  Sad for the untold number of people who actually believe it.  Sad for the preachers and spiritual leaders that don’t have the audience or the “reach” to combat it.  Sad for Jesus, whose sacrifice is rendered useless if the statement is true.  The statement?

God’s promises hinge on our obedience.

Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve come across a statement like this, or heard preaching with this slant, but for some reason today I felt like I had to write a response.

Praise and thank God that God’s promises do NOT hinge on our obedience.  Our obedience has nothing to do with it.  There is no quid pro quo with God.  You see, that’s one of the basic differences between God and human beings.  WE operate constantly on an “if/then” basis with one another.  Many times we’ll only do something nice or generous if we’re going to get a public thank you – one of the reasons why so many churches are filled with plaques of folks who have donated stuff, and why a hospital I walked through the other day had a HUGE wall of names of donors.  God doesn’t operate that way.

In reality, God’s promises are true and sure despite our LACK of obedience.  Jesus didn’t die on the cross so that we could perfectly follow God’s Will – he died precisely because we are NOT perfect and consistently sin and do NOT act in obedience.  THAT’S CALLED GRACE.  You and I don’t deserve a thing from God except condemnation.  But what does God give us?  GRACE.  FORGIVENESS.

I’m wondering what this person considers to be “God’s promises?”  Oftentimes when we hear phrases like this, what the people are really referring to are not God’s promises, but earthly “blessings.”  If I follow rules A, B and C, then God will give me D.  This my friends, is baloney (to put it nicely).  There are many preachers out there these days who are spouting this nonsense because IT’S WHAT PEOPLE WANT TO HEAR.  Of course we want to hear that if we play by the rules we’ll be rewarded.  Of course we want to hear that if we’re good little boys and girls God will get us a new toy.   We DON’T want to hear that bad things happen to good people.  We DON’T want to hear that we can be faithful and love God and still have a life filled with hardship.  We want to believe that we are somehow in control of our own destiny.  The idea that we are NOT in control is downright frightening.  But my friends, that’s the truth.

Another truth is that faith and material success or “worldly blessings” are often at odds with one another.  They can be a trap, a very dangerous trap.  If we’re not VERY careful our worldly blessings can become other gods for us.  What we have is never enough – whether it be money, power, respect, popularity etc… And for every successful person who thanks Jesus in some television interview, there are MILLIONS struggling to get by – struggling materially, struggling politically, struggling in their careers, struggling in relationships.  Does their lack of “blessings” signal that they are somehow disobedient to God or that God loves them less?  ABSOLUTELY NOT.   You know, the weak and heavy laden, the hated, the mourning, the sick, the little ones, etc…?  Jesus constantly reached out to those on the margins, touched the untouchable, even ate with sinners.  Our earthly blessings are not a sign of our obedience (or lack of it).

GOD’S PROMISES HINGE ON GOD’S PROMISES. 

That’s the way it goes.  God gave us some promises, and because God MADE the promises, God will KEEP the promises.  You know why?  Because unlike human beings, when God makes a promise God will never break it.

And what ARE God’s promises?  LOVE, GRACE, FORGIVENESS, PRESENCE, REDEMPTION, ETERNAL LIFE.

God makes NO promise that we will be loved by others – only that GOD loves us.  God makes NO promise that we will be wealthy.  No promise that we will be respected.  No promise that we will come first by worldly standards.  No promise of physical health.  No promise our relationships will be stable or healthy or even SAFE.  But God DOES promise us that we are forgiven, that we have a place in heaven, and that while we’re still in this life on earth we are NOT alone, but are always held in God’s arms.  And because of THESE promises of God we can have strength to cope with our challenges, strength to try to make our earthly life better, and peace that no matter what life throws at us, no matter how much we screw up, God will always love us, because the following is also true.

GOD’S PROMISES HINGE ON JESUS 

2nd Sunday after Christmas, Year A, 2014

2nd Sunday after Christmas, Year A, 2014 (preached Jan 5, 2014)

First Reading:  Jeremiah 31:7-14     Second Reading: Ephesians 1:2-14   Gospel Reading:  John 1:1-18

 

I almost feel like I have nothing to say, especially after the second and gospel readings for today.

These two passages in particular do a brilliant job summing up Jesus’ purpose and his unimaginable love for us.

In St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians the language is wonderful:  blessings and more blessings – we are holy and blameless before God in love.

We are adopted as God’s children.  God gives us “glorious grace” FREELY bestowed.  “In him we have redemption through his blood, and forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.”

St. Paul writes about God’s wisdom, the mystery of his will, God’s good pleasure, gathering up all things in him.  He tells us that in Christ we have obtained an inheritance, that we live for the praise of Jesus’ glory.

That we are marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit, and that God gives us a pledge of our inheritance, again, to the praise of his glory.

Like I said, what can I add to that?  I mean, they are pure words of grace.

The gospel reading from St. John is more poetic in nature.  A little harder to get at, and it shares the dark side of the gospel story as well.

St. John refers to Jesus as THE Word, through him we have life and light, and the light overcomes the darkness.

He was with us, but we didn’t recognize him – even so he makes us children of God, not because of anything we have done, but through the Will of God.

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”  “From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.”

Even though they come at ti from different angles – St. John through the darker side of saying how Jesus was with us and we didn’t recognize him, and St. Paul using such positive language, I see a few themes running through both, and one of them is GRACE.

St. Paul writes, “to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved,” and “the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.”

In St. John’s gospel Jesus is described as being FULL of grace and truth.  And verse 16, “From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.”

Grace freely bestowed, grace lavished, FULL of grace, grace upon grace.

Our journey of faith begins and ends with grace – grace at the font, grace and forgiveness proclaimed throughout our lives and present in the body and blood of Christ, and finally grace at our leaving this world and going to the place God has prepared for us.

Grace is the free and unmerited love and forgiveness given to us by God through Jesus Christ.

On this second Sunday of Christmas, this last DAY of Christmas, we have a wonderful opportunity to remember that this gift of grace first came to us in the form of a baby.

When a pastor presides at Communion, the part I read or chant after the Great Thanksgiving, (where you and I go back and forth:  The Lord be with you – and also with you.  Lift up your hearts – we lift them to the Lord…), the next part the pastor does is called the “Proper Preface.”  The proper preface for Christmas is one of my absolute favorites of the whole year.

The reason I love it so much is for this line:  “that beholding the God made visible, we may be drawn to love the God whom we cannot see.”

It’s a lot easier for us people to grasp something when we can see it for ourselves.  That’s why we have the saying, “Seeing is believing.”

It’s a lot easier for us people to believe in concepts such as “love” when love is demonstrated, not just talked about.  That’s why we have the saying, “Actions speak louder than words.”

God knows this.  So The Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth.  God wanted grace for us, mercy and forgiveness for us, to be more than a theological concept, to be more than an idea.

Through the Incarnation of Christ, Emmanuel, God WITH us, puts a “face on God’s grace.”

You know how companies get spokespeople who become the face of the brand?  A few that come to my mind are the Marlboro Man, Jared for Subway, and Flo for Progressive Insurance.

I almost hate to make the comparison, because obviously God in Jesus is SO SO SO much more than this.  Because in the end, Jesus isn’t just the “face of God’s grace,” Jesus IS God’s grace – and there’s a HUGE difference.

You’ve been told God loves you, but how do you KNOW?  We ALL know, because Jesus came, and lived and DIED and rose again FOR that love.

God’s grace lavished on us in Jesus.  Jesus FULL of grace.  Grace upon grace.  Grace heaped upon us.

We see in Jesus, the baby in the manger, the PERSONIFICATION of grace.  His life helps us to understand what the word grace means – unmerited love and forgiveness.

You want to know what grace is?  How HUGE it is?  You want to know if God loves you?

Seeing is believing.  Actions speak louder than words.

Look to the manger.  Look to the cross.

“That beholding the God made visible, we may be drawn to love the God whom we cannot see.”

AMEN.