Blog Archives

 

By Pastor Michael Cofer
Holy Trinity Sunday
Matthew 28

 

I have to tell you that it is an absolute privilege that I get to be a pastor.  The honor and respect that you show me is truly humbling.  I know that most of you have a high regard for my seminary training, and the office that I as shepherd of this congregation.

I really value the education I received in seminary.  In some ways it was a very fruitful time, and I wouldn’t be the theologian I am today without it.  But, curiously, most of the education I got had little to do with the day-to-day work of a pastor.

I learned a lot about translating and interpreting the Scriptures. I learned biblical history and church history.  I learned a bit about preaching (but, honestly not that much).  I had one class on how to lead worship, one class on counseling, one class on the practical operations of the church.  I had zero classes on prayer.  Zero classes on evangelism.  Zero classes on how to teach.  Zero classes on identifying spiritual gifts or raising up leaders in the congregation.

And how many classes do you think I had on “making disciples?”

In fact, the idea of being or making a disciple was never really defined for me.  I have always known that the Great Commission is, well, super important.  But I always kind of understood it as Jesus’ command to share the gospel to the ends of the earth.  You know, a command to evangelize.

I still think that evangelism is an important part of the Great Commission – but I’ve come to learn that it isn’t even the main idea.  The Great Commission isn’t a bullet point for the church to add to its agenda.  It is His description of what the church is and does.  Everything that falls under this dictate is the function of the church.  Anything that is not is extraneous.

This may not be obvious right away, but probably because we haven’t done a very good job defining discipleship.  So, let’s start with simple definitions: A disciple is a follower… but not like a Twitter or Facebook follower.  It’s a student, an apprentice.  And when we’re talking about Disciples of Jesus, there is a pretty clear method for making them: Baptize them in the name of the Holy Trinity, and teach them to obey Jesus’ commands.

Before we explore the method, let’s clarify something.  Jesus doesn’t tell us to make believers.  The Great Commission doesn’t really talk directly about giving people principles or philosophies to believe in.  He says to make disciples.

Consider for a moment: can you be a Christian and not be a disciple of Jesus?  Because we talk so little about being disciples, you might have an impulse to think these are separate things.  But I don’t think you can find any examples of it in the whole New Testament.  In fact, before they were first called Christians, the people of Christ called themselves Followers of the Way.  Followers – not “believers” – Followers.

See, following Jesus – that is living in obedience to His commands – always follows belief.  If you believe Jesus is who He claims to be and that the word He speaks is true, you will obey Him.  But obedience to Christ has to be taught.  It just doesn’t come naturally, no matter how much faith you have.

Jesus spent three years in intentional discipleship of others.  In the Gospels we have an inside view of what it looked like. He spent personal time.  He shared meals with them.  He helped them learn to pray.  He shared insights from God’s Word.  He was honest about things he saw in their life and in their heart – sometimes rebuking and offering forgiveness when it was needed.  He was a consistent presence in their life, and without that consistency the discipleship would not have had the same impact.

Now, why did Jesus take on those disciples?  Because He needed their help with His ministry?  Not really.  It was because He took an interest in building them up and helping them mature.  The goal, of course, was to get them to the point where they could make disciples as well.  They were the cornerstone of His church growth strategy.  If they weren’t fit to make disciples, then there wouldn’t be a church after He left.  The church is nothing more and nothing less than disciples of Jesus making disciples of Jesus.

A few years ago, I received a new call to Hope, and along with it a new title: “Associate Pastor of Outreach and Discipleship.”  I gladly accepted that call, but the title struck me as a little silly.  If you take “outreach and discipleship” away from the church, what’s left?  And what is the expectation of that call?  Am I to do the outreach and discipleship of this church… or am I charged with ensuring that this church is outreaching and discipling?

See, Jesus taught thousands.  He healed and served countless multitudes. He exemplified godliness to everyone He met.  But He had twelve Disciples.  Not thousands, or hundreds, or dozens.  He had twelve.

I cannot outperform Jesus.  I cannot disciple 300 people.  I can disciple less than a dozen.  I cannot reach out to all of the lost.  I can reach out to the people in my corner of the world.  The Great Commission is for everyone here, and if we aren’t all grabbing taking responsibility for our part, we are missing out on what Jesus is calling us to be.

I know that this stuff may sound daunting to some of us… but it really doesn’t need to be.  And I know some of us feel unqualified – but that’s fear talking.  Please, please, do not miss what I’m about to tell you…

You do not need a seminary degree to make disciples.  You do not need to be theologically sophisticated.  You do not need to be the most spiritual person you know.  You do not need to be perfect.  You just need to have a serious love for Jesus, and take an interest in people who are younger in their faith.

I think there is a weird thing in our culture that devalues experience and age.  And then on the flipside, there is a huge reluctance to self-identify as being spiritually mature – as if maturity is an unattainable goal that only comes about when we get to heaven.  That is not at all how the apostles talk about maturity.

Maturity means that you have a strong foundation in the faith and a solid grasp of the essentials: things like grace, salvation, repentance, prayer, and worship.  Unless every pastor you’ve had has utterly failed you, most of this congregation should be mature – not finished or perfect, but mature.  This isn’t a matter of pride, it’s a matter of responsibility.  If we’re all immature, then no one can accept the responsibilities of maturity.  No one can make disciples, and the Great Commission is lost on us.

But that isn’t us.  God has blessed this church with so many wise, godly, loving people.  And this Great Commission is for you.  This is the step He is calling us to take – a personal investment of time and love in each other’s lives.  A holy and intentional friendship with people who can benefit from what we’ve received in Christ.  Some of those people are here today.  Some of them haven’t been in a church in a long time – if ever.

These people need you.  They need your wisdom.  They need your experience.  They need your prayer and your encouragement.  They need you to follow Christ and they need your help to do the same.  You have the commission and Christ will be with you every step of the way.

No Comments
 

By Pastor Michael Cofer
The Day of Pentecost
Acts 2

 

Last year, the Olympics were in Rio.  Admittedly, I didn’t watch much of the games last year, but I usually like to.  It’s inspirational.  It’s exciting to root for your country.  It’s fun to celebrate the achievements of individual athletes and share stories around the water cooler like, “Did you see watch the archery match last night?” I mean honestly, most of us say a phrase like that every fourth year at best.

But, you know what my favorite thing about watching the games is?  Pretending I know anything about these sports.  I have the audacity to think – or even say out loud – “Oooo… He really should have tucked tighter to get a better rotation on that dive!”  It is ludicrous that I think I should look at the best athletes in the world and say, “You know what they should do different?”  But somehow I do with a perfectly straight face.  That’s the Olympic spirit of a couch potato for you.

You know, I think we can do this about church sometimes, too.  “You know what this church really needs?”  “You know what’s wrong with this church?”  “You know what this church is missing?”

Just like me watching the Olympics, the commentary probably has some merit, but lacks the thorough knowledge and insight that the real pros have.  I would dread having an Olympian basing their performance on my advice.

So, who is the expert that we should turn to? Who has the thorough and intimate knowledge of how a church should perform?  Who has the insight and foresight to cast a vision for the church of tomorrow?

Of course, it’s Jesus.  And on this day of Pentecost – the day that celebrates the explosive growth of the church and the unleashing of God’s gospel power on the whole world, why not look at Jesus’ strategy?

Are you ready for it? “Wait on the Holy Spirit.”  Got it!  We’ll do some grassroots, viral marketing and then… “No.  Wait on the Holy Spirit.”  Got it!  So we’ll start building a suitable worship space and… “No.  Wait on the Holy Spirit.”  And then?  “And then… it’ll happen.  You’ll do the right thing, and you’ll be amazed at yourself and the people around you.  You’ll… you know what?  I’m not going to spoil it for you.  For now, wait on the Holy Spirit.”

But what if he doesn’t show up?  “Have I ever broken a promise?” No… but… “But nothing.  Wait on the Holy Spirit.”

Can you imagine what sort of mess the disciples would have made of things if they hadn’t waited on the Holy Spirit’s power? At best, their efforts would have been futile.  At worst, they might have been successful but made it into something completely different than Jesus intended.

Sadly, this is true for many churches today.  In his book, “Radical,” David Platt wrote, “I am most concerned [that]… I am part of a system that has created a whole host of means and methods, plans and strategies for doing church that require little if any power from God… God’s power is at best an add-on to our strategies.  I’m frightened by the reality that the church I lead can carry on most of our activities smoothly, efficiently, even successfully, never realizing that the Holy Spirit of God is virtually absent from the picture.”

What about Hope?  How much do we rely on the Holy Spirit in how we do church?  Not just by way of a theological footnote where we acknowledge his work after the fact, or just assume that he comes alongside whatever our plans are.  How much of doing and being church are we trying to do under our own strength and wisdom and how much are we depending on Him?

I think this is part of why they were told to wait on the Holy Spirit.  The Pentecost experience could have happened the moment Jesus ascended into heaven.  But God chose to wait over a week.  Why? Because God needed to establish for the apostles that the church He was building was His work.  They had to learn that they are not in control of it.  They needed to learn that God often has plans that He doesn’t reveal to us ahead of time.  They needed to experience the difference between life with and without the Spirit’s power.  They needed to see that the Holy Spirit is way, way out of their control… and that that’s a very good thing.

In 2,000 years, very little has actually changed – and God hasn’t changed at all.  This is still His church.  It is still out of our control and in His hands.  The Holy Spirit is every bit as surprising, powerful, and in charge as He has ever been.

If we’re feeling tired, lost, or confused then it’s time to refocus on Him.  Because God is not tired, lost, or confused.  It may be that we’ve been trying to run on our own steam – which only works for a little while.

I know that waiting isn’t fun.  It isn’t a great battle cry.  It isn’t inspirational.  But it is one of the constant refrains throughout scripture. God wants us to give in to Him.  He wants us looking to Him, and depending on Him.  This stresses control freaks straight out, but there’s no getting around it.  Without the Holy Spirit’s power and leading we cannot be God’s church.

But when He empowers us, when we wait on Him to lead us, the picture is incredible.  He shows up in supernatural power and does amazing things through regular, humble people.  When we think about the apostles, it’s easy to think of them as these elite exemplars of faith and piety.  But that isn’t how the Bible describes them.  They were common, thickheaded, flighty, and fearful regular Joes… except when the Spirit comes on them in power.  And then they do the kinds of things that Jesus did.

Why shouldn’t that be us?  If God hasn’t changed, if the apostles were regular folks, if God’s mission is still the same, if human needs are still the same… Should we be expecting something other than what God was doing back then?  Should we be pursuing our plans, relying on our power, seeking human wisdom… Or should we wait faithfully for the Holy Spirit’s power, and then move how He leads?

To get there, we’re going to have to grow in our prayer life.  We’re going to have to become more expectant and more patient.  We’re going to have to learn to set aside our plans and preferences and really learn to listen to God’s leading.  And when He shows up in power, and only when, we’ll be ready to move.

No Comments
 

By Pastor Michael Cofer
Sixth Sunday of Easter
John 14:15-21

As we approach the 500th anniversary of the reformation, it’s a good time to refocus on what makes us Lutheran. It’s not pipe organs or candles or steeples.  It’s not polka, it’s not lederhosen.  It is the absolute, unwavering belief that you are saved by God’s grace alone.

This is, without a doubt, the most beautiful, most liberating, most hope-filled doctrine any church could ever proclaim.  When the doctrine of God’s grace really penetrates your heart and dominates your mind, your love for Christ will grow and grow and grow.  It’s exactly as Jesus taught: He who is forgiven much, loves much.

So, consequently, we also put no small effort into demonstrating, recognizing, and confessing our sinfulness.  After all, what is grace for a person without sin?  We take it as a given that everyone is a sinner… That’s not being judgmental; it’s just being realistic. And it just means that everyone (ourselves included) starts in a position of needing God’s grace – grace which He freely gives.

These foundational beliefs – our sinfulness and God’s grace in Christ – are the core of Christianity… and the clear teaching about them is one of the great gifts that Lutheranism has given to the Christian Church.

And while these are the most precious truths I know, I’d be remiss if I led you to believe that it’s all you need to know.  Unfortunately, I think we might emphasize them so much that we think this is the whole story – a closed loop of sin, grace, sin again, and grace again.  In such a story, who loves whom?

To be honest, it’s fairly easy to talk about Jesus’ love.  It’s endless, it’s unconditional, it reaches the unlovable.  It is clearly demonstrated in Christ’s life, and even moreso in his death.  And as a poor, miserable sinner, I know how much I need that love and how much I don’t deserve it.

But it’s a mistake to think that we’re meant to have a one-way relationship with Jesus.  We aren’t meant to simply be loved by him, but we are meant to love him back.

You’ve probably heard the term “cheap grace,” used before, and even if not, you can guess that it’s not a good thing.  The most obvious version of “cheap grace,” is the person who says, “It’s okay if I sin; Jesus will forgive me.”  And sure, that is an example of taking grace for granted…. But I’d like to offer a bit of a broader picture of cheap grace: if your relationship with Jesus is all about what you get out of it, then you have been living on cheap grace.

Sadly, there are a lot of people that, whether they admit it or not, are looking for a one-way relationship with Jesus.  They want to be loved, they want to be fed, they want to be welcomed… but they give little or no thought to being the ones lovingfeeding, and welcoming. On the other hand, how many of those people would say they “love Jesus?”

Well intentioned churches just like ours have contributed to this problem.  For a long time we’ve tried to market Christianity as easy and accessible.  We’ve talked about Jesus’ love for us, and have left the topic of loving Jesus a little open-ended…

Last week we read Jesus say to us, “I’ll do anything you ask of me.”  And that sounds really good.  This week we read Jesus say, “If you love me, you’ll do what I ask of you.”  And that sounds… harsh? Not at all!  He’s just bringing into focus that a relationship with Him is a two-way street.  Loving and being loved.  Serving and being served.  Hearing, and being heard.

The reality is, you can’t separate Loving and Obeying Jesus. 1 Corinthians 13 teaches us that if you carry out Christ’s commands, but you don’t have love, you accomplish nothing. But here, in John 14, Jesus shows us that loving Jesus isn’t just about how we feel about Him.  Loving Jesus means obeying Him.

We aren’t talking about earning Jesus’ love for us. We’re talking about our love for Him. That doesn’t mean we should start obsessing about much or little we think we’re loving or obeying Jesus.  That won’t produce anything in us except pride or despair.  Rather, we have to start looking through Jesus’ eyes and responding to His heart to the people around us.

A curious thing happens when we do this… We begin to see Him more clearly, more regularly, more vividly.  We become more sensitive to what His Spirit is saying and doing in us.  “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”

Think about that for a minute…. Are you hungry for a deeper relationship with Jesus?   Do you want to know Jesus more and more?  Do you want to see Jesus manifest in your life?  The key is in obedience to Him.

Now, this is not an invitation to become rigid and law-oriented.  By no means is Jesus looking to make more Pharisees.  And that’s why He’s so clear that it’s His commandments that He wants us to obey.

Jesus spends an awful lot of teaching time in clearing away commandments that man added to God’s law.  Not that he was making obedience easier – in fact, He revealed that obedience to God is much harder than people thought.  Not only are your actions subject to judgment, so are your thoughts and feelings.  The righteousness that God desires is in the heart… but what is in the heart will show forth in actions.

So what are the commandments that Jesus gave?  Love God.  Love one another.  Consider others ahead of yourself. Forgive one another. Trust in God.  Follow Jesus.

That’s what a life of loving Jesus looks like.  It isn’t about “What Jesus can do for me?” It’s about “What can I do with all this love Jesus has given to me?”  And as we pursue the answer to that question, Jesus promises to be with us, to manifest in us, to guide us by His Spirit.

To become the church that God is calling us to be, we can’t just be grace consumers.  We are called to be the channels by which His love impacts the world.  We are called to love Jesus back.

No Comments
 

By Pastor Cofer
Fifth Sunday of Easter
John 14:1-14

Have you ever broken your arm or leg?  I did, back when I was in first grade.  My right elbow was fractured for a significant portion of that year.  I don’t remember a lot about that year, but I do remember the cast.  I remember it being sweaty and itchy inside there, and occasionally aching quite a bit.  But that wasn’t the worst part of it.  The very worst was just not having the use of that arm.

I couldn’t really play kickball or foursquare or do much on the playground at all.  I had to eat left-handed.  And, of course, I didn’t have many good options when it came to practicing my handwriting.  My wrist was fine, so I think I mostly tried to write with my right hand…. But with the cast covering part of my palm and the inability to bend my elbow, things just didn’t go well.

And then you get the cast off and you have both hands again.  It’s a wonderful feeling.  And it’s a little awkward too.  After a few months of immobility, my arm wasn’t as strong as usual.  I was clumsier with it than normal.  But after a little while it was as good as new.

A cast on one arm is an inconvenience.  But I really feel for the folks who break both at the same time.  Or even worse, being laid up in traction at the hospital.  You’re there, thinking about all the things you could be doing.  Thinking about all the work that’s piling up.  Thinking about… well, anything, because that’s about all you can do for the time being.

Brothers and Sisters, I want to tell you that Jesus has no intention of being laid up in traction. I know he’s thinking about the things he wants to get done.  I know there’s a load of work piling up.  Remember when He said, “the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few?”  That’s what we’re talking about here.

It is a fact that we are the Body of Christ.  We are His hands and feet.  If He is going to get any work done around here, it’s going to be through us.

Now, this isn’t a sermon about being busier.  That’s the last thing we need.  So, before you jump ahead of me, let’s just ask the very fundamental question: What is the work that Jesus wants to get done?

He’s already died and rose again, so we can cross that off the list.  He’s paid the price for the sins of the whole world.  He’s broken the power of sin and death and crushed Satan under his heel. Check, check, check.  But there is still this big job to be done – spreading the gospel to the ends of the earth.  Spreading the life-giving, life-saving faith to folks dying without it.

think we’re probably all still on board at this point.  But what’s coming to mind is probably more about being the “mouth” of Jesus than His Hands and Feet.  Don’t get me wrong, you can’t spread the gospel without opening your mouth.  But there’s a lot of talk in this world.  And just talking about Jesus isn’t going to get it done.

So let’s take a step back and ask, how did Jesus spread the faith?  How did His disciples spread the faith?  How did the generation after them do it?  It wasn’t just talk.  They prayed, and God did impossible things… and then they got to explain it.

I used to think that miracles were a rare thing that once in a great while God would do.  Usually they’d happen to other people, and probably in some third-world country.  But by-and-large miracles were just proofs that Jesus is God.  I’m not, so I won’t do any.

A careful reading of the scriptures would kinda blow that thought out of the water.  If I can’t do them because I’m not God, how come Peter could?  How come Paul could?  How come Stephen and Philip could?  And for that matter, what about Moses and Elijah?

I had misunderstood something very important. Yes, Jesus’ miracles were proof that He is the Son of God.  But the disciples’ miracles were proof that Jesus is the Son of God.  It wasn’t about Peter’s extraordinary power.  It wasn’t about Paul’s superhuman faith.  Jesus’ followers follow Jesus. They do what they learned from Him.

Imagine what Jesus would do among us if He were here today.  If your template is the ministry you read about in the Gospels, in Acts, and in the Epistles, then it’s probably much more supernatural than what we are used to.  Why?  Because they lived in a specially blessed era of history?  Because they were physically closer to Jesus?

I don’t think those reasons hold much water.  After all, Jesus promised to be with us until the very end. And the words we read today are pretty inclusive: “Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and will do even greater things than these because I am going to the Father.”

The stuff that you imagine Jesus would do if He was here right now is stuff that Jesus wants to do, and that’s why He’s made us His Body on Earth.  Because He is ascended, He has passed on his ministry to us.  But not just the ministry.  He has given us his Spirit to live in us and empower us to carry out these works.

It isn’t your power, it’s His.  It’s on His authority.  It’s His promise: “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You will ask anything in my name and I will do it.

I know it can be hard to believe that as an absolute statement, because we’ve all prayed for things that didn’t happen. And I’m not about to tell you that it’s because you didn’t believe hard enough or something.  Rather, let’s talk about what praying in Jesus’ name means.

See, there are times when the Father is glorified in ways we don’t expect.  There are times when His plans aren’t what we expect… so even though we ask, and ask in faith, He might still say no.  Those times are often hard to understand, but God can be trusted to know what’s best.

The trouble is that those experiences can be formative.  We can start expecting Him not to intervene, not to heal (or just to do so in small, natural ways).  And so we start wrapping a cast and a sling around Jesus’ arms as if they were broken – immobilizing them so we don’t hurt ourselves further.

Friends, Jesus’ arms work just fine.  His hands can do so much more than we expect or even imagine.  If we start with expecting God to say “no” to the prayers we really want to pray, then we will never pray them. Don’t you know that God’s heart is for life and healing and restoration?  “No” is not his default position… “No” is the exception, not the rule.

It isn’t about getting what we want.  It isn’t about demonstrating our great faith.  It’s about Jesus being glorified.  It’s about being His hands and feet to continue His ministry.  It’s about putting actions behind our words.

We do nothing on our own. He is calling us to pray in His Name, with His power and on His authority.  The Father is revealed in Jesus and Jesus is revealed in us when we do the works that He does through us.

 

No Comments
 

By Pastor Michael Cofer
Fourth Sunday of Easter
John 10:1-10

Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd. I’m not sure there is a more comforting image of Jesus in all of scripture. As soon as I read these words, my mind is instantly pulled back to the 23rd Psalm with its green pastures and quiet waters. And it’s such a relief to know that I’m not lost or alone – that Jesus is protecting and guiding me all the way.

Granted it’s not the most dignified thing in the world to be called a sheep. After all, sheep are easily frightened and not terribly bright. They need a shepherd to protect them from dangers – and sometimes from themselves.

And while that may not be dignified, it does pretty well describe some aspects of my relationship to Jesus. I do need his protection. I do need his guidance. I do need his wisdom and courage.

That said, there is a sizable portion of Jesus’ teaching about the Good Shepherd that will really challenge us if we take it seriously. I think we all like the idea that Jesus calls us by name, and that we (his sheep) will be able to recognize his voice and follow him. And that’s were things actually start to challenge us.

See, we’re not meant to stay in the pen. Now, the pen is great. It’s a safe place where we can rest secure. The shepherd leads the flock into the pen for their good.

But, the pen isn’t an end unto itself. Suppose the flock stayed in the pen and never followed the shepherd out into the world… what would happen to the flock?

After a while they’d get hungry and munch the grass where they stand. And for a time, they’d think things are great. But after a while they’d eat it all up. And then they’d get hungrier and hungrier. Maybe they’d fight over the little bit of grass they have left. They’d waste away. And if they stay in the pen long enough, there just won’t be a flock anymore.

The Good Shepherd doesn’t keep the flock in the pen all day. He leads them out. He calls their name and leads them out. He wants them to move to new pastures where they can eat and thrive. He wants them to stretch their legs – to grow strong and mature and that just doesn’t happen in the pen. Nor does he take the flock to the same spot time and time again. The same problem would happen. He has to move them to where the grass is green, even if they’ve never been there before.

Now, let’s make the turn to unpack this metaphor. The shepherd is Jesus. The flock is his church. Note that while he knows each of us by name and calls us by name, he is moving the flock together. He wants to keep the church together and moving as one. Now, the pen is… well… it’s probably right here: a place of rest and safety for his church. And the pastures are… well, for lack of a better term, the pastures are out there. Out in our city. Out in our future.

Hopefully by now you know that I’m not a “God wants to make you rich and comfortable so you can coast into eternal life” kind of preacher. But these words of Jesus are for you: He has come that you may have life and have it abundantly. Abundant life can’t be contained in a pen – even one as nice as this.
So, the first challenge is for the flock to get out of the pen. Now, if you’re with me so far, then let’s talk about the next challenge – following the Shepherd out.
See, as soon as we realize that there ain’t enough grass here to feed us all, the next impulse would be for us to go find some pastures. There’s a million wrong ways to do this, and only one right way.

Should we go back to the pastures we have fond memories of? It was good yesterday, surely it’ll be good tomorrow? Should we choose the best and brightest sheep to work up a plan to scout out good pastures? Should we talk to some of the other flocks and get notes on where they’ve been grazing?
Or, should we look to the good shepherd, respond to his call, and trust that he knows better than the rest of us? Should we trust him to protect us when the way to where he is taking us is rocky and dark?

I think we have some funny ideas about lost sheep. Being a lost sheep doesn’t mean jumping the fence when the rest of the flock is in the pen. Well, it can mean that, but that’s much less common. More common is simply going your own way when the shepherd is driving the flock. Maybe it’s a refusal to move with the flock. Maybe it’s a determination to head toward familiar pastures. Maybe it’s a fixation with a new and novel sight that you just have to check out.
It can be any of these things equally… and it’s usually not callous or malicious. But the truth is quite simple, if you go any direction other than where the good shepherd leads – even if it’s to a place he took you in the past – you are wandering off. It’s the shepherd’s job to know where we’re going and lead the way. It’s our job to trust and follow.

As a congregation, we’ve taken some steps forward in this area. We cannot respond to his call if we aren’t listening. We will not get to the green pastures he has marked out for us if we try to go our own way. That’s why events like last week’s prayer service are so important. Many of the people of Hope have faithful and vibrant private prayer lives, but we need that same humility and trust as a whole church.

We’re used to discussion and debating and voting and consensus to guide our way forward – and all of that can be fine, but if we all agree on any direction other than where Christ is leading us, we’re lost. The abundant life that Jesus has in store for this church begins with seeking his will and listening to him anew.

You know, when we read the Easter story and see the disciples hiding in the upper room with the doors locked even after the reports of the resurrection reached them, we shake our heads and say, “What’s there to fear? Jesus is alive! He’s defeated death and hell and the devil himself!”

Shouldn’t we have that same attitude about our own church? Jesus doesn’t want us to stay small and hidden and afraid. There is nothing to fear because He laid down his life for us, and even death couldn’t hold him. Jesus is alive today and he loves this flock more than you’ll ever know. He has abundant life to lead us to and He is calling us out.

No Comments
 

One of my all-time favorite movies is the 1987 classic, “The Princess Bride.” In the movie, Peter Falk plays the grandfather of a boy who has stayed home from school sick (presumably to play videogames).  So, grandpa swoops in to make the boy feel better by reading one of his favorite books.

At first, the boy is skeptical and critical… but before long, he is fully engrossed in the story. And then this happens… [Video Clip]

How can that boy be so sure that the hero will win in the end?  Because that’s how it’s meant to be.  That’s what’s right.  Maybe life isn’t always like that, but it should be.

We just know the hero can’t really lose… not really.   But even though you know he can’t lose, you still get the goosebumps and the chill up your spine when he swoops in and to the rescue.

This is the beauty of Jesus’ life… it unfolds the way our hearts know it should, because He is the hero that we long for.  Every other hero that has come before and every one that will follow after ultimately loses to something – even if only to their own mortality.  But Jesus is victorious over everything – even death can’t stop him.

I want to tell you something – and it’ll offend some people, but I just don’t care because I have to speak truth.  The Christian faith is the only one that is vindicated.  It is the only faith that has a victorious hero at the end of the story.

“Wait a minute!” you think.  “What about Islam?  Muhammad rides off into heaven!  And then there’s the Buddha!  He becomes so enlightened that he just… I dunno.  Whatever he does. And I could go on.”

Sure, you could.  But before you do, let me ask you this question: where are the witnesses?  Who was there when Muhammad rode off in to heaven?  Nobody.  There are no witnesses in the story because there were no witnesses to the event because it didn’t happen.  Who was there when Buddha reached enlightenment and transcended his body?  Nobody.  It had to happen in secret and all alone, because there were no witnesses.  But if there were no witnesses, how do we know what happened?  We DON’T because it is just a made-up story.

But what about Jesus?  His is not a story of a man doing miraculous things is secret.  He is in the streets.  He’s in the synagogue.  He is nailed to a cross for all the world to look upon.  He was killed by trained killers – people who had executed dozens or maybe hundreds of people in the same way.  He was dead as dead can be.  He was sealed in a tomb – literally sealed to prevent anyone from sneaking in.  Guards were paid to keep all of Jesus’ followers away so that no one could fake his resurrection.

But He went and rose anyway!  In glory, he rolled away the stone and stepped out and the guards ran panicked back to the priests who hired them.  And He stayed there, outside the tomb so Mary could meet Him.  And then He walked with people on the road.  Then He appeared in the upper room.  Then He walked on a lake in broad daylight.  And by the time He ascended into heaven, there were more than 100 witnesses there to confirm the fact.  Saint Paul reports that Jesus showed himself to more than 500 people after the resurrection.   FIVE. HUNDRED.  Most of whom were still alive when He made that claim.

And that doesn’t even mention the dead he raised with him who went home to their families to bear witnesses to what Jesus had done.  Jesus stuck around for over a month, eating and talking and showing that He was very, very much alive!

We talk a lot about the cross, and we talk fairly often about the empty tomb.  But the truth is, the empty tomb is not proof enough.  My hope is not in the empty tomb – an “Argument from silence.”  My hope is in the risen Christ… Jesus of Nazareth in the flesh.  That’s the real proof.

I’m making a big deal about this because if you think that Jesus’ resurrection is just another religious myth to help us feel better about our own mortality or something, you have completely missed the point.  The story of Easter is not a metaphor or a fiction or some sort of spiritualized account.  JESUS DIED. JESUS ROSE. AND HE IS ALIVE TO THIS DAY.  Not just in our hearts or memories.  He is ALIVE.

You want to know how I know my faith is founded on the truth – how in the midst of countless belief systems, I can be absolutely sure that Jesus is what he claimed to be?  Because He did it all out in the open, for all the world to see.  JESUS DIED. JESUS ROSE. AND HE IS ALIVE TO THIS DAY.

Which is great for Him… but that is far from the end of the story.  His resurrection is also the proof of the promise that we will rise with Him.  In 1 Corinthians it says, “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man.  For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”

See, the story of Easter isn’t just a cool story about something that happened to somebody else ages ago, halfway around the world. His victory over death is for you.  He’s showing you a preview of what’s ahead.

When you pray to Christ, you’re praying to a flesh-and-blood, living-and-breathing person who literally loved you to death, and overcame it.  Jesus paid it all on the cross, it’s true, but what good is that if we still end up dead?  But this is the goal.  This is the victory.  This is what He’s about.

And if He was so public about His resurrection, how could we not be?  He doesn’t want us to keep this message a secret, held in these four walls or in the quiet of your own heart.  He wants us in the streets!  He wants us out there and over-the-moon excited. Bold. Joyful. Fearless, because…

CHRIST IS RISEN!

No Comments
 

By Pastor Michael Cofer
Maundy Thursday 2017

Here in the garden we are given a glimpse into the full scope of what happened on the cross. Once Jesus is arrested and taken off to be crucified, He is already confirmed in what must be done.  On Good Friday we see no hesitation, no flinching, no fear or doubt. And that is precisely why this time of prayer in Gethsemane is so important for us.

Jesus stood fearlessly in the prow of a boat and rebuked a storm that threatened to capsize them.  He faced off against demons and banished them with a word.  He never looks nervous or apprehensive or afraid.  Except in this moment.

It can be tempting to think that because Jesus knew he had come to die on the cross for us that that somehow made it easy for Him.  Or we might think that because He is the Son of God, that he was at peace with how it had to happen.

But listening to Jesus pray in the garden, it is clear that he was not at peace.  He was troubled down to the bone.  He was so distraught that His sweat rolled down like drops of blood.  And He prayed, “take this cup from me.”

On the one hand, we are hearing his true humanity speak.  The crucifixion is incredible suffering and excruciating death and no one should ever experience.  But I don’t think that that is enough to make Jesus want to turn back.  No, there’s far more going on in the Spiritual realm than in the physical.

God’s Word tells us that Jesus had to become sin for us.  I’m not sure I can fully understand that, but when I imagine how much guilt and shame can weigh me down… and then I try to imagine what it would be like to shoulder that much weight from every person who ever had or ever would live… it’s absolutely crushing.

And when I think about the closeness and love that Jesus and the Father share at all times, and then I imagine what it must have been like to be suddenly and utterly cut off from it.   I can’t fathom the loneliness and rejection that He would endure.  Not just to be abandoned by his disciples – but to be forsaken by the one person with whom he had been in constant communion from before the creation of the world!

I don’t think it’s theater or farce when He asks the Father to take this cup from Him.  In fact, I think it’s wholly necessary that He should feel this way – because to be the Christ He must obey His Father’s will above all.

The whole plan of salvation is Christ setting right what Adam had broken.  Through Adam’s sin famine, disease, and death spread throughout all of God’s good creation.  Through Jesus ministry the hungry were fed, the diseased were healed, and even the dead were raised.

In the Garden of Eden, Adam took the fruit and ate, craving the glory of godhood for himself.  And when he did so, it was as if he said to God, “My will, not thine be done.”  But in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus takes the cup that his Father has chosen for him – forsaking the glory of godhood that He rightfully owned.  And in so doing, He can say, “Not my will, but Thine be done.”

That’s how we know it’s love.  There is no other reason that Jesus would go through with it – but He loves the Father and the Father loves us.  This is a love the likes of which the world has never seen, and will never understand.  And that’s what we see as we follow Jesus to the cross… not tragedy or travesty or injustice.  We see the Love of Christ on full display.

No Comments
 

By Pastor Michael Cofer
Palm Sunday 2017
John 12:12-19

You know, I don’t usually think of Jesus as a “party” guy… but there’s actually pretty good evidence for it.  His first miracle was supplying the wine for a wedding banquet.  Over and over he’s invited to somebody’s house for dinner. He was even accused of being a drunkard (which He wasn’t.)

I’m not saying Jesus lived like a frat boy, but I’m saying that He was no stranger to celebration.  And that makes a lot of sense when you think about the work that He did: healing the sick, casting out demons, raising the dead.  If Jesus did something like that for someone in my family, I’d throw him a party.  Wouldn’t you?

And that’s what we’re doing today: celebrating along with the people in the story that the King of Israel has come to save us!  Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest!

Of course, with 2000 years between us and the actual events we’re remembering today, we have little bit different perspective than the people in the crowd.  We know what Jesus actually came to do.  Most of the crowd couldn’t guess how the next week would go – and probably a lot of them had a complete change of opinion about Jesus by Friday.

Ironically, the most clued-in people that day were probably the Pharisees.  They had a better sense of just how much would change if Jesus was king.  He was out of control, and idealistic, and impossible to argue with. And Pharisees were professional arguers!

It was so frustrating for those Pharisees to see people celebrating Jesus this way!  But why?  Was it a personal grudge against Jesus? After all, He keeps making them look bad in front of everybody.

I think that maybe part of it, but I think they were driven more by fear than jealousy.  If Jesus is who he claims to be, it is extremely threatening to them… And to fully understand that, we really need to talk about Jewish life in Jesus’ day.

There was a very high view of the priests, rabbis, and religious leaders.  Now, when I say there was a “high view,” I don’t necessarily mean that these men were well liked, but they were respected as authorities, and your average Joe would never consider himself to be on the same spiritual level as the religious leaders.

And that makes even more sense when you look at how the Holy Scriptures were understood in Jesus’ day.  They were seen principally as a book of spiritual laws – and no mere “sinner” could be expected to understand it for himself.  Hence the Word of God wasn’t taught nearly as much as the writings of the various Rabbis.  And the modern rabbis debated endlessly on how to interpret those writings.

And then, of course, there were different schools of thought (factions… what we would call “denominations”) that would fight over all kinds of doctrines.  How could a layman ever expect to have a clear understanding of God’s Word when the folks who devoted their life to study it couldn’t agree?

So, if you were a teacher of the law or a priest, you held a lot of power in the Jewish community – power that couldn’t really be contested because only the elites could claim to understand God’s Word and His Will.

And these folks wound up with a fairly cozy arrangement with the Roman government.  So long as they were more or less peaceful and compliant to Caesar, they could maintain their way of life more or less unbothered.  If you were a Pharisee, you were probably well-to-do and relatively affluent, and upsetting the status quo would threaten that.

And then Jesus shows up.  He teaches God’s Word without filtering it though the tradition of the Rabbis.  He never backs down, He never compromises… and people flock to Him.  The longer His ministry goes, the harder it is to argue that He’s from God since He keeps on doing miraculous and wonderful works – even raising the dead!

It’d be convenient to think that they conspired to kill Jesus because they thought He was a heretic or false prophet.  But it simply isn’t the case.  Over and over, they don’t kill Jesus because they were afraid of the people.  If they feared God (as they ought) they would have stoned the false prophet.  But they didn’t fear God, they feared the people.  They feared the cost to themselves.

That is, until the Jewish people began to call Jesus their King.  And that was a step too far.  If they had been faithful – if they had been hoping in God’s prophecies of the Messiah who was to come – they would have embraced Jesus and joined in the celebration.  But they were afraid of what it would mean if this Jesus was their king.

And what kind of King would he be?  His clothes weren’t as nice as the Pharisees.  He was homeless and penniless.  His disciples were mostly blue-collar nobodies. He couldn’t be bought or bargained with.  And He refused to side with any of the current administration.

His presence challenged everything they knew.  He was a man of peace, meek but powerful.  He was wiser than any of them, but disclosed the mysteries of heaven in the simplest of words.  He was a holy man, but he showed love and kindness to sinners.

What kind of King would He be?  The kind who wears a crown of thorns.  The kind who leaves His throne to serve the lowliest.  The kind who wages war by laying down His life willingly.  The kind who reigns forever.

That’s what is so threatening to the Pharisees.  With a King like that, what would his Kingdom be like?  What would His people be like?  Under Jesus’ reign, there is no room for pride, for elitism, for self-importance, for greed, for jealousy.  Under Jesus’ reign, these things must give way to humility, grace, love, gratitude, and service.

This King Jesus would literally stop at nothing to rescue His people.  That’s what this parade is – it is a conquering king come to liberate his people, and it is the lamb of God come to die for the sins of the people.  It is the culmination of God’s justice and God’s mercy coming to offer the ultimate act of love for people who would reject and despise Him.

He isn’t the kind of king we would make for ourselves – thank God!  But He is exactly the king that we need. And He shall reign forever and ever. Amen.

No Comments
 

By Pastor Michael Cofer

It’s weird to me that you hardly ever hear about charity in the context of church.  As a matter of fact, the word “charity” has drifted pretty far away from its place as a Christian virtue in the modern parlance.

On the one hand, people might think of a charity – as in, some non-for-profit organization that is aimed at helping the underprivileged or oppressed.  A charity is something you might give money to, or volunteer with.  It has organizers, it has commercials on television, it has experts.

These organizations are often a very good thing – and make a positive difference in the world.  But someone can heavily support a charity without actually having or experiencing anything like Christian charity.

On the flipside, most people don’t want to be a “charity case.”  They want to earn what they have.  They don’t want pity or the sort of pride-swallowing that goes along with accepting help from some one else.  After all, aren’t we told that hard work and determination are all you need to make it?

But if we can get back to the heart of charity, we’ll find that it isn’t about donating to organizations or helping anonymous people.  It’s personal, and it’s even more about the orientation of our hearts than it is about the movement of our bank accounts.  And as Christians, we have to recognize that we are all charity cases.

Maybe let’s start with that. So, Charity is acting in response to love and compassion.  Before we talk about our practice of charity, let’s look first at God’s.  Each day He feeds and clothes me.  Each day He gives me a home to live in and a world to inhabit.  He has given me my family, my friends, my church.  He daily and richly supplies me with all that I need to support this body and life.

He gives me these things, but not because I’m deserving.  He gives them to me because I need them and because He loves me.  It’s that simple.  He is generous and gracious and is moved by love to show kindness to me.

The goal of spiritual growth is to become more like Christ – to reflect God’s character in our own lives.  And this is what the practice of Charity is meant to do: to teach us to grow in mercy and compassion, in practical love and in generosity, to value people over possessions and even to value others ahead of ourselves.

Some folks make huge donations to charitable organizations to put them in a better tax situation. That’s not an act of charity.  It may do good and it may bring relief to some suffering people – and so I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from donating to worthy causes.  But Christian charity is firstly a disposition of the heart and secondarily the acts that flow from it.

There’s any number of barriers to charity.  Sometimes it’s skepticism or cynicism.  Perhaps we see someone begging, but they seem healthy enough to work and we say to ourselves, “If they’d spend the day looking for a job, they’d be better off.”  Or maybe we think a more judgmental thought than that. “They’ll probably just buy booze with this money.”

Now, it’s a fine thing to be sure that the help you give is actually helping. But if you’re going to do that, it will require a higher investment in this person – it’s not an excuse to do nothing.  In reality, there are a lot of healthy looking people who – because of mental or emotional issues – are almost unhireable. If they interviewed with you, you would pass them over so fast.

Could you imagine if God looked at you and said, “If only you’d stop asking me for help and go take care of yourself!” or “You’ll probably just waste the blessings I could give you…”  If we see the poor among us and feel disgust or indignation, then we have a long way to grow before we have anything resembling God’s charity in our heart.

Sometimes the barrier is feeling like we don’t have enough to be generous.  I remember one time when Alisha and I were leaving the grocery store.  We had grabbed a couple sandwiches and were going to eat on the way to our next stop.  As we were leaving the parking lot there was a man who was in obvious need… but I didn’t have any cash on me.  So, I felt bad for the guy, but I didn’t think there was anything to do for it.

Well, thank God for my wife.  She gave the guy her sandwich, and then she and I shared mine…. And we didn’t go hungry.  I learned in a small way that day that we can usually make do with less than we think, and that frees us up to be generous with others.

And while the practice of charity is often in money or material goods, there is a bigger application.  Can we be charitable with our time?  Can we be charitable with our words?

After all, charity is about being moved by the needs of others to act in love and compassion.  It what’s needed is a sandwich, we can share that.  But if what’s needed is a listening ear or a word of encouragement or a friendly smile, we can share those too.  We don’t define for ourselves what charity we engage in – God defines it for us by putting the needy in our path and invites us to speak and act on His behalf toward them.

No Comments
 

By Pastor Michael Cofer
Fifth Sunday of Lent
John 11:1-45

When I was a kid, I thought spiritual growth was about knowing more stuff about God. Which was good news for me, because I was pretty good at Bible trivia.  And I’d been in Sunday school my whole life. I went to a Lutheran school, where we studied the Bible every morning.

Now, as an adult, I treasure the foundation I was given in God’s Word as a child. Without it, I wouldn’t be very able to instruct others, or to preach, or to even articulate my worldview in a compelling way.  But as I’ve matured I’ve learned that the growth that God really intends for us is not an ever-increasing store of Bible trivia, but growing closer to Him.

At this season in life, I want to know Jesus personally.  I want to know what He likes and dislikes.  I want to know how He feels about things.  I want to be able to intuit what He would do in any given situation.  I want to cultivate a friendship with Him.

And I’m finding not only is it possible to get to know Jesus personally, but it something He wants for all of us.  If you think that just because you didn’t live in the middle east 2000 years ago you missed your shot, you are very mistaken.  The same Jesus we read about in scriptures is still alive, is still both God and Man, and is still revealing the Father to us.

See, when I was a kid, I knew John 11:35.  It is a someone notorious passage for confirmation teacher because every year there is some kid (or several kids!) who want to choose it as their confirmation verse because it is the shortest verse in the Bible – just two words. “Jesus wept.”

Now, even at my most pious, I understood those words to be a historical fact about Jesus.  But today, when I read those two words, they mean an awful lot more to me than they did when I was a 13 year-old confirmand.

I used to picture Jesus as a guy who is mostly calm and collected.  I used to picture him healing the lame or the leper with cool passivity, because the problems of this world are no big deal for Jesus.  He can heal disease, calm the seas, and even raise the dead with a word.  So, no big deal, right?

But that’s the kind of view you get of Jesus when you just read the highlights without getting to know the man Himself.  The Bible talks about Jesus having a heavy heart or a gut wrenching sympathy for the sick and needy.  He wasn’t dispassionate; He was (and is) the very picture of compassion.

I don’t think there’s any other way to read this story.  From the moment Jesus heard that Lazarus was sick (and maybe long before) He knew how the whole story would unfold.  He knew that the Father had ordained a miracle – not of healing but of resurrection!  He said so, “This illness is not for death, but for God’s glory.”

And of course, God had chosen this path for Christ so that He could reveal a new truth about Jesus.  Not only is He a healer, but He is the resurrection and the life.  Even when all seems hopeless, when death seems to have won the day, Jesus is victorious.  And we have a beautiful anticipation of the greatest miracle of all – Jesus’ own resurrection on Easter.

But if Jesus is armed with all of that information – if He knows that Lazarus is only moments away from returning to life – why does He weep?  Well, because He’s broken hearted.  His friend died, and no matter how certain you are of the resurrection, that is a terrible thing.  So here, at Lazarus’ tomb, the Resurrection and the Life weeps openly.

Look at it from Jesus’ perspective. How many of Jesus’ enemies and antagonists were healthy and comfortable?  And yet, here is the tomb of a beloved friend of Jesus.  And Jesus is surrounded by Lazarus’ friends and family, and they are all aching and mourning.  They are struggling to make peace with the situation (and I suspect maybe even some anger that Jesus didn’t show up in time to save him).

Why did this happen?  Because we live in a broken world, and because we are all sinners.  It wasn’t supposed to be like this.  We were meant to live forever in peace with God and one another.  But instead, this.  Suffering, death, loss, tears.

Jesus weeps because sin is a terrible thing.  The damage it does is incalculable, and Jesus hates it.  Even the faithful, even his beloved suffer because of it, and that breaks his heart.

That same Jesus who wept outside the tomb of Lazarus walks with us today.  His compassion is every bit as powerful today as it was 2000 years ago.  It’s part of what makes Him the Christ that God intended Him to be.  Hebrews talks about Jesus as being the perfect high priest for us because He sympathizes with us.

Understanding this tiny verse helps me understand so much more.  It helps me understand why Jesus is so passionately opposed to sin.  It helps me understand that you can both mourn death and hold fast to the resurrection.  It helps me see that Jesus understands exactly what I’m going through (whatever that happens to be) and He is right there, going through it with me.

Now, that’s obviously not the end of the story… and I’d be remiss if I stopped there.  No, they roll away the stone, and Jesus lifts up his voice and says, “Lazarus, come out!”  And just like that, with a couple words Jesus undoes the power of sin and breaks death’s hold.

How dare I ever think any less of Jesus than that?!  He is not too late.  Lazarus is not too far-gone.  Jesus is the resurrection and the life.  He is the antidote to the poison of sin.  With a couple words He breaks the unbreakable curse.

He didn’t meet Mary and Martha’s expectations… but what he did exceeded their wildest dreams.

No Comments
12345...