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By Pastor Michael Cofer

April 16, 2017

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!

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December 4, 2016 - Second Sunday in Advent

By Pastor Michael Cofer

You can tell Christmas is coming: eggnog is nestled hopefully in the dairy case at Kroger; you can’t find a parking spot in the same zip code as the mall and your calendar is overflowing with wonderful (if time consuming) holiday events. Kids in school are getting extra cagey as they anxiously await Christmas break. Travel plans are being made furiously and maybe you’ve got an extra-extra workload to make your upcoming Christmas vacation happen.

Life is full, hectic and maybe a little overwhelming. I think we’d all like to find a little peace for ourselves. Maybe some down time, a little quiet time, a little “me” time. Or, better yet, wouldn’t it be great if life just slowed down so you could handle it at a more reasonable pace?

But, maybe you’ve had this experience–I certainly have. You have a moment to rest and a quiet moment… but your brain won’t stop hounding you with the stuff that you could or need to be doing instead of resting… and even in the quiet, you don’t find peace.

There are a lot of things that can rob the peace we should have: busyness, anxiety, guilt, bitterness, anger. Know what all of them have in common? They aren’t out there. They’re in our hearts.

The more I thought about it, the more I’ve come to realize that peace isn’t something to be found. It’s something to be made…

Jesus is called the prince of peace. At his birth the angels said “peace on earth!” But those things weren’t incidentals that Jesus happened into. They were his mission. Jesus came to bring peace between God and man. He didn’t look for it. He didn’t wait for it. He came to make it.

You’ll remember that Jesus said, “blessed are the peacemakers.” He didn’t say, “blessed are the peace-finders.” You know what the difference is? Peacemakers make the first move. Peacemakers are the ones who humble themselves and put themselves in the vulnerable position.

Think for a moment how God could have made his entrance… He could have come with a host of sword-bearing seraphim in righteous retribution. Or, He could have shown forth in unveiled holiness as he did in the days of Moses and David – when to touch or even look at Him would mean instant death for sinners.

Instead he came as a tiny, precious baby born among pack animals and greeted by poor shepherds. It didn’t have to be this way; these were choices God and the message it sent was crystal clear: “I come in peace.”

That peace wasn’t going to just happen on its own. There was never going to be a morning when the world stumbled into peace with God. Even among God’s chosen people. Do you know that “Israel” means “struggles” or (more literally) “wrestles with God?” Peace with God doesn’t come naturally to us.

But that’s why Jesus came. That’s why He became one of us – to bridge the gulf between God and man. To deliver the message of God’s love and forgiveness and make peace. And that’s why He laid down His life – to bring an end to the conflict between God and man, to heal the mortal wound in our relationship with God that began with Adam and Eve.

And yet… the song the angels sang wasn’t about peace in Heaven, but “peace on earth and goodwill toward those on whom His favor rests.” The peace of Christ shouldn’t stop with our relationship to God, but it should spill into our relationships with our fellow man. How will that happen?

Do you suppose that we will find peace with our neighbor? Or will we need to make peace with them? If we follow the prince of peace, then we will learn about the humble joy of being peacemakers. And peacemakers make the first move. Peacemakers are the ones who humble themselves and put themselves in the vulnerable position.

What does that look like? It means being understanding and gracious when others have offended us… even if you have the right to be angry or bitter. Why would anyone ever want to exercise that right?! Instead, a peacemaker returns offense with love, kindness and forgiveness (even when it isn’t being sought). Peacemakers humble themselves, and admit their own mistakes and ask for forgiveness.

There is no peace with God without grace and forgiveness. And, you know what? The same is true for peace among men.

So, perhaps part of our Advent preparations should include some serious self -examination. Which of my relationships are broken and hurting? What unforgiven sins do I need to finally forgive? What bitterness and anger do I need to let go of? Who do I need to ask for forgiveness? Where are guilt and shame driving a wedge between God and me, or between my brother and me?

And let’s not stop at self-examination… because alone it won’t accomplish peace. Rather, let’s make the move to actually asking God and our neighbors for forgiveness. Let’s take the steps to mend our broken relationships. You won’t be received 100% successfully. Some folks don’t want to be forgiven. Some folks want to nurse the grudge and cling to the hurt. You might not be able to help that. Jesus faced the same thing, you know. That’s okay. Still, he made the first move. And even to those who rejected Him, He never withdrew his offer of grace. And that’s the call for us. In Romans 13 it says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

You know, an interesting thing happens when you are a peacemaker–you will have peace. Even in those relationships where they don’t want to forgive or be forgiven… If you are the peacemaker, then you will lay down the burden of those sins. Your love and compassion for the other person will grow, as you see how it hurts them to carry the hurt around. But you will have peace–peace that goes well beyond what seems possible… because the peace we have to offer is nothing other than the same peace we have received in Christ. The grace and forgiveness we have in Him is sure and certain and inexhaustible. He made the first move and humbled himself to make peace, and that’s what we celebrate on Christmas.

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.                       (St. Francis)

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Pastor Cofer
Easter Sunday
John 20:1-18

There is a time and a place to sit in quiet contemplation and meditate on the deep mysteries of God. There is a time to enter humbly and reverently into the presence God.

But it’s not today. Today is a day to let it all out. All the alleluias that have been bottled up for 6 weeks… all the joy and praise and light can’t be contained anymore. BECAUSE JESUS IS ALIVE!

I’m sorry, but if that doesn’t rouse you from your sleep, you must not be paying attention. JESUS IS ALIVE. Right now. He was nailed to a cross. He was dead and buried. But He is alive again! This isn’t a metaphor. This isn’t a “spiritual” thing. He got up off the slab, folded his burial shroud nice and tidy as if He was making His bed in the morning. Then he blew the boulder away from the entrance in an explosion of glory and WALKED OUT OF THE GRAVE.

I thought for a long time about what message I was supposed to bring to you all today. Easter is a big, important day. So I wanted to give you a big, important sermon. But I prayed about it, and asked God what to say, and you know what He told me? Jesus resurrection is impressive enough, all on its own.

I don’t think we fully appreciate the significance of Easter. The facts are so simple any child can understand them, but the news is so good, it’s almost hard to believe. Jesus died. And then He came back to life and will never die again. He’s living and breathing and speaking and thinking and celebrating.

It’s tempting to laugh at Mary as she’s standing at the empty tomb. She turns and looks at Jesus, full on in the face and she in all sincerity asks Him, “Have you seen Jesus? He seems to be missing…”

But really, you have to cut her some slack. She expected to see Jesus lying in the tomb. Usually when you put a dead person somewhere, they tend to stay there.

Now, if you’ve ever been stood up, you know it’s not a great feeling. You’re not sure how long you have to wait around, maybe you’re hoping that the other person got caught in traffic, or maybe went to the wrong place or something. In your mind you invent all sorts of reasons why they aren’t there with you.

And standing there at the empty tomb Mary is feeling a bit stood up. She had come at o-dark-thirty to take care of Jesus’ corpse. She had the spices ready to go to cover up the smell. She had mentally prepared herself for the shock of seeing him lying there, and was all set to go through with the mourning process.

But He wasn’t there. And her mind raced to think up some explanation… maybe they moved him. But “they” who? And where to? People shouldn’t be messing with Jesus body! And after she finally accepted that He was gone, she started to weep.
Of course, Jesus had told them all that He had to die, and on the third day he’d rise again. But, in the midst of her grief perhaps resurrection seemed like too much to hope for. Or maybe she thought He meant something spiritual when He talked about rising from the dead. So the empty tomb doesn’t immediately fill her with hope – she hasn’t yet realized that this resurrection is real, a flesh and blood thing.

Now, let’s be honest with ourselves: most of the time, we see what we expect to see. Sometimes I’ll bump into one of the fine folks from Hope Lutheran when I’m at the grocery store or the gas station or something. Maybe I’m wearing flip flops or a sweatshirt or a hat. And we make eye contact… and it’s awkward. I smile with the “hey there!” smile and they smile back with the “Do I know you?” smile. And then it clicks and they go, “Oh! It’s pastor! Hey Pastor! I didn’t recognize you without the robe!”

This is precisely what happened to Mary. In her mind, Jesus was still dead, even though her eyes were looking straight at him. And then it happens; He calls her by name and realization washes over her in a flood of joy and relief and wonder.

Maybe we’re a little guilty of the same thing. Sure we know He’s alive, but maybe sometimes we expect Him to play dead. Maybe we don’t expect Him to speak anymore. Maybe we don’t expect Him to move anymore. Maybe we don’t expect Him to heal, and feed, and occasionally flip over some tables.

Easter isn’t just the celebration of a miracle 2,000 years ago and half a world away from here. It is the celebration that JESUS IS ALIVE right now. The tomb is still empty.

And you know what the folks who visited the empty tomb did? They ran and told people. They didn’t care if they looked silly or if people would think they were crazy. They had just witnessed the greatest event in history and who cares what anybody thinks about them! When you have news this good, you have to tell somebody.

I’m here to tell you today that the tomb is STILL EMPTY and JESUS IS STILL ALIVE. This isn’t old news, folks. This is earth shaking, heart pumping, too-good-to-be-true-but-it’s-true-anyways news. And I’m sorry, but it is not okay to keep this to yourself.

When Chick-fil-a is giving out free sandwiches, we tell everyone and their dog. We post it on Facebook. We tell the other folks in the office before leaving for lunch! “Come on, guys! Let’s eat more chicken!”

It’s natural, right? When you have good news, and you can give it away freely… you do!

You want some good news? How about this: Jesus is alive. And you know what that means? He’s just the first of the resurrection. His resurrection is a preview for you and me, and for everyone who believes in this Jesus. This is so much better than free chicken sandwiches. We’re talking about the cure for death. And it’s absolutely free.

I hope you can get excited about that. Better yet, I hope you can tell somebody, because the whole world needs to hear this:

Christ is Risen!

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Pastor Michael Cofer
Palm Sunday
John 12:12-19

They say that history is written by the victors. I think that’s probably true, but it points toward a sad reality about how we reckon history: military might is the key to power.

The “great” kings are those who spread their empire farther and farther – which is to say, those who conquered other kings at the point of a sword. Even those who “kept the peace,” did so by a show of overwhelming force.

To this day, as civilized as we think we are, we understand that our national peace and security require having the most potent fighting force on the planet. Most of us know that the freedoms we enjoy must be actively guarded. People who understand this are grateful to those who serve honorably in our armed forces.

So it is perhaps strange that Jesus received the welcome of a great king when He rode into Jerusalem. He never took up arms against anyone. He had no armies to command (at least none anyone had ever seen).

Moreover, when he rode into town He didn’t ride in on a chariot – which was, in point of fact, the ancient world equivalent of a tank. He didn’t even ride in on a powerful horse, able to charge and maneuver around a battlefield.

No, He rode in on a young donkey. I don’t care what Shrek says – a donkey is not a “noble steed.” It is not intimidating. It is not impressive. It isn’t even really dignified. And yet, the people lined the streets with shouts and cheers and waving palms, hailing their coming king.

Now, of course we understand that all of this had to happen so that the words of prophecy would be fulfilled. It was so inevitable that if the people had been silenced, the very stones would cry out… and wouldn’t that have made for an interesting scene!

But prophecy doesn’t come out of the blue. They aren’t random words that will come true by happenstance. Prophecy is the expressed will of God. These words were part of His plan of salvation. So, it begs the question: What is God communicating to us about the kind of King Jesus is?

The most obvious is that Jesus is humble and gentle. He is a man of peace – the Prince of Peace, actually. He doesn’t exercise His rule by fear, but through mercy and compassion.

He is also fearless. Jesus is heralded as “the King of the Israel” as he rides into Jerusalem. Jerusalem – where the standing king of the Jews lives. He is unafraid of Herod or the Roman government who keeps his place secure. He is not secretly sneaking in to assassinate king Herod. A showdown is inevitable, and Jesus brings no weapons or troops with Him.

Why not? Why doesn’t He come armed and armored? Why a donkey instead of a chariot? Simply put: Jesus’ strength isn’t in horses or swords. He is the first and only king who conquers and keeps the peace without wielding the power of death.

The nations of this world rise and fall by the strength of their arms. When a bigger army or a better weaponized technology come along, the peace is broken and a kingdom falls. Those who conquer by the power of death can never hold their kingdom in absolute security.

But Jesus’ doesn’t conquer by wielding the power of death. He conquers by overcoming death with life.

In John’s gospel, the story of Palm Sunday is linked directly with the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead. John tells us that it is precisely because they witnessed this resurrection that they through the parade and declared Him king.
Who can win against a power like that? Even if an army laid waste to thousands or millions of Jesus’ people, He could simply walk through the battlefield and call the fallen back to their feet, restored and whole. The invaders will have gained nothing for all their violence.

The king who conquers by the power of death is intimidating, but the king who can raise the dead is unstoppable.

As we approach Holy Week, what we see is nothing less than a showdown between Death and Life. On the cross, Jesus offers himself up to the very worst that the kingdom of death can muster: suffering, humiliation, hatred, and death itself. Jesus takes them all on his shoulders, uplifted on the cross, buried in the tomb. The weight of it is terrible, but the king who overcomes death with life is unstoppable.

So the shouts of “Hosanna” must be heard. “Save us! Bring us Peace! Be our King!” The crowds that day may not have really understood what was going to happen. They may not have recognized the revolution as it was happening. They may not have celebrated the victory with their new king.

But we understand. We know that the peace He came to bring isn’t a tentative, temporary thing. It is the eternal victory that comes from putting death to death and ruling by the power of resurrection.

And we also understand that our real enemy – the tyrant that enslaved us – cannot be overthrown through violent revolt or political maneuvering. We cannot fight on our own behalf, but we need a champion to fight for us. We need a new king to set us free. So we cry “Hosanna!” today to Jesus Christ, our eternal king. We cry “Save us!” to the one who laid down His life to set us free, only to take that life up again in triumph over death itself.

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By Pastor Michael Cofer

Today, Tomorrow, the Third Day  ( 2/21/16)

In most stories you can pretty easily separate the heroes from the villains. It helps keep the action clear. It helps you know who to root for, to sympathize with, and to emulate. In the old westerns if you wore a white hat, you were a good guy; if you wore a black hat, you were probably bad. And if the Bible was made into an old-time western, what color hat would the Pharisees wear?

But the gospel reading today opens up with a most peculiar scene: the Pharisees come to warn Jesus of a plot on His life. Pharisees are Jesus’ most frequent and devious opponents. Just saying the word “Pharisee” makes me feel kind of… angry, I suppose.

So, when the black hats come to warn Jesus, it’s easy to regard their words with some skepticism; it is possible that these particular ones are just looking to keep Jesus out of Jerusalem. Then again, this isn’t a story of one-dimensional, moustache twisting villains. The Bible is full of real people, with real feelings, and real concerns. It might be that, while most Pharisees would like to see Jesus silenced, murdering an innocent man might have been too much for them.

I suppose we’ll never know what prompted their warning. Whatever their motivation it is clear that they understood the stakes – probably more so that Jesus’ disciples. If Jesus goes to Jerusalem, Herod will have Him killed.

But why? Why does Herod care about this wandering rabbi? It isn’t as if Herod is all that concerned about doctrine. He doesn’t seem particularly concerned about the worship life or religious practice of the Jews. So why would he care one way or another about Jesus?

Because Jesus isn’t just a teacher. He isn’t just a spiritual leader. He is, as the inscription on the cross would later read, the King of the Jews – and more than that. He is the King of the Universe. And as such, He doesn’t bow to the likes of Herod.

When Herod looks at Jesus, he sees a rabble-rouser, a disturber of the peace, one more in an endless train of rebels and revolutionaries. He sees a magician, doing parlor tricks to manipulate the backward Judeans into propping Him up. Herod sees a threat to his throne and probably (if things go far enough) a threat to his own life.

And Herod was wrong about Jesus on every point.

So, the message Jesus sends back to Herod is not a threat. It is not an argument. It is a simple statement of fact, delivered with prophetic certainty. “I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal. In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!”

He is unafraid to die. In fact, He makes clear that He has to go to Jerusalem because that’s where he is supposed to die. The threat of death was supposed to keep Jesus out of Jerusalem, but it instead confirms Jesus’ purpose.

And, this scene really discloses the heart of Jesus to us in a clear way. As He mourns over Jerusalem, you can hear how agonized He is over their rejection of Him. Jesus longs to gather them under his wings. He wants to cover them and protect them in the shelter of His very body and life. This is a tender affection, and a deeply serious one.

But what is most telling is that He knows that the people of Jerusalem that He longs to save are the very people who will kill Him. What does that say about Jesus?  Can you imagine a love like that – willingly laying down your life to save the very people who so despise and reject you that they will kill you?

And that’s the kind of savior we have. Loving the unlovable.  Redeeming the unredeemable. Giving His all – literally His all – for people who would not and could not ever repay Him.

From the sound of things, Jesus is only a couple days away from Jerusalem. “Today, tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.”  But you and I who have the benefit of knowing the whole story might hear those words a little differently.

While Jesus might have literally meant that He’d arrive in Jerusalem in 3 days time, He is speaking as a prophet – and when a prophet speaks prophecy, it often has multiple fulfillments that grow greater and greater each time. So when we hear Jesus say the words, “on the Third Day,” our ears should perk up and our thoughts should turn toward the empty tomb on Easter morning. After all, the cross wasn’t the goal. If Jesus was dead today, then you and I would have no hope. The goal is the resurrection. The goal is our salvation and eternal life for all who find shelter under his wings.

And if that is true, then how he describes the path to the tomb should help us see the cross in a new light. “I will keep on driving out demons and healing today and tomorrow and on the third day…” I don’t usually think about the cross quite in this way, but what a compelling way to think about Jesus’ death! This isn’t a passive act – on the cross He is driving out demons; He is purifying his kingdom, pushing out all of the occupying forces, liberating the promised land. On the cross He is healing – not the temporary ailments of body and mind that last only for a time.  He is healing the wounds that endure for eternity.  By His wounds He is healing the souls of men.

If Jesus knew that His resurrection was where He was headed, and that the road to the empty tomb must pass through the cross, then there is no force on earth that can stop Him from completing His mission. He came to lay down His life as the once-for-all sacrifice for sin, and then to take up his life again to break the power of death. His goal wasn’t Herod’s throne; His goal was the throne in heaven.

But you might look around at the world today and ask, “This is it? Jesus is all done? He’s reached His goal and… now what?”  Now we look forward to an even greater fulfillment of Jesus words. Today, tomorrow and the after-tomorrow.

Jesus’ sacrifice is complete. His resurrection is complete. But His work continues. The salvation He accomplished through the cross and empty tomb is working their way to the ends of the earth. He is still healing, because disease and despair and the wounds of a fallen world persist. He is still driving out demons, because they still antagonize and oppress. His words were “today and tomorrow.”  His day, and in the days to come.  But we also look forward to a day on the horizon when He will return in glory and when His victory over sin and death is made fully manifest.

On that day everyone, no matter what they professed in this life, everyone will say “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” Every knee will bow – even those who rejected Him. But for us who know and love the Lord, we will bow in joy rather than fear. We will welcome the coming King.

 

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By Pastor Michael Cofer
Second Sunday in Advent

You know what drives people crazy at this time of year? It isn’t Christmas. It’s the run-up to Christmas. Christmas eve will be magical and wonderful and moving. The stars will shine brighter. The cookies will taste sweeter. The tree will be ever-greenier. The children will be transmuted into angels – asleep in record time. And we’ll all say Merry Christmas and mean it.

No, Christmas is great. It’s the getting ready that drives you nuts. The shopping and wrapping and baking and organizing parties and the traffic and the checkout lines and the list making and the extra hours at work and the cleaning the house for those out of town relatives coming in and the…

I’m not going to lie, I get pretty stressed this time of year. There I just so much to do and it never seems like there’s enough time. And when I say that Christmas is less than 3 weeks away… rest assured that freaks me out more than you.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth all of the fuss. I mean, how much can we leave undone and still have a Merry Christmas? Would it be Christmas without presents? Would it be Christmas without a tree or lights on the eaves? Would it be Christmas without the eggnog and ugly sweaters and Jimmy Stewart movies?

It’s funny to think how much importance we layer on to traditions that we made up for ourselves. Tinsel and wassail and advent calendars are great… but how much of it really matters? And how much stress do we put on ourselves to make those things perfect?

Our advent theme for this week is “Prepare.” So, I’m obviously not saying that we shouldn’t prepare. But I want to ask the question: “Prepare for what?” See, how you answer the question will ultimately decide what we can and can’t do without. It’s that question that will shape your next 18 days.

Of course, we all want to answer with “Christmas!” Advent is a time of preparation for Christmas; it’s true. But what is Christmas? Why celebrate it at all?

I hope the answer is obvious to all of us here today. Christmas is the celebration of God sending His only Son into the world to bear its sins and be its savior. It is a celebration of God’s decision to be meek and lowly, poor and vulnerable, approachable and adorable. The King of Kings, the infinite and eternal God of the Universe came to earth as a little baby. And in so doing, He showed us that He wants to be near us, He understands us, and He loves us so much.

How do you prepare for that? How do you celebrate that?

It was, of course, John the Baptist who sounded the call to get ready for Christ. “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance… The person with two tunics should share with him who has none, and whoever has food should do likewise.” His advice for Advent preparations was simple, direct, and actionable. Stop living in sin. Stop living for yourself first. Repent, and then live repentantly.

Now, I hope you understand, I’m not suggesting that we need to abandon all of our Christmas traditions. But what I am saying is that in the first place, we should put the emphasis on those things that point at Jesus.

Rather than worrying about showing up our neighbor’s Christmas light display, maybe we can think about decorating in such a way as to point at Jesus, born in Bethlehem. Maybe instead of spending fortunes on giving gifts to folks who have no real material needs, we can give extra generously to people in need. Maybe when we stand in those interminable lines at the store or sit in bumper to bumper traffic, we can make good use of the time, showing love to the people around us or in a moment of prayer.

After all, it isn’t just a celebration of Christ’s first coming that we need to prepare for… If you happen to sleep through Christmas this year, life will go on. No, it’s his next coming that we must be ready for. And maybe our Advent preparations should reflect that.

I don’t know if this is possible, but what if we challenge ourselves to make every bit of Christmas preparation be an act of worship to Christ?

Even as we sweep our houses clean, we should examine our hearts to see if they are clean too. Even as we buy and wrap gifts for our friends and family, we should ask what Jesus wants for His birthday, and pursue that. As our excitement grows with each day bringing us closer to Christmas, so should our anticipation for Christ’s return continue to grow.

Or how about pondering? Sometimes we’re so busy doing that we don’t take the time to take in the significance of it all. Pondering the mystery and majesty of Christ’s coming is a great way to prepare for Christmas. It requires more than just reading the story, though. As you read it, try to visualize it as vividly as you can. Think about Mary and Joseph as real people – tired, desperate, scared. Imagine the smells and the sounds in that stable. Count the angels stretching across the sky, and try to hear the song they sing.

Experience the story with as much clarity as you can, and ask God what each part means – because the Christmas story should never be so “familiar” that is ceases to impress us.

Advent is less about preparing our homes as it is preparing our hearts. It’s less about spending time with family as it is about spending time with Jesus. It’s possible to do both, of course – doing both is probably the best way. But part of our Advent preparation is keeping it all in perspective and choosing to spend our energy and time on what matters and reducing what does not.

If you think you’re stressed out right now, know that you are surrounded by people who are struggling in the very same ways. But if the cookies burn and the presents get lost in the mail and the bulb goes out on your Christmas lights… understand that those things are peripheral. Christ came to redeem it all. And that one fact will supply you with peace that is unrivaled in all the world. Hope as you look forward to a new and better world that the messiah will bring. Love enough to share, because God so loved you that He gave his one and only Son.

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By Pastor Michael Cofer
First Sunday in Advent

Today marks the beginning of Advent, the beginning of a new year. It’s a time of preparation for Christmas – and perhaps preparation for Immanuel to come to us as well.

As the day approaches, you can see its signs everywhere you look. Each day is a little shorter than the one before, a little darker, a little colder as the Earth itself awaits the arrival of Christmas so that it can brighten and warm and gladden once more.

Evergreens are springing up in people’s living rooms, adorned in silver and gold and twinkling lights. Shoppers are bustling in the malls or check Amazon on their phone every few minutes. Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby millions who recognize their voices but not their faces. The smell of gingerbread is on the rise and pumpkin spice is in decline.

Even if you had been asleep for months, you could tell that Christmas is on the way. You simply need to read the signs all around.

As we begin the marathon sprint toward Christmas, let’s not waste the season. Let’s get the most out of it. Our Advent celebration will focus on three calls to action: Watch, Prepare, Rejoice.

And so, today we heed the call to Watch. You know, Watching is completely different than searching. To search, you have to know what you’re looking for. In fact, if what you’re searching for is different than you expect it to be, you’ll likely miss it. And whether it is found depends on the skill and effort of the one who searches.
Not so with Jesus. We don’t go find Him. He comes to us. He seeks us. When we talk about Jesus as “Immanuel” – God with Us – He’s with us because He came to be with us.

Watching can be hard. It can try our patience. You ever have a repairman scheduled to come by the house. “Between 2 and 5” they say. So you’re ready for them at 1:55 – waiting anxiously for the repairman. At the stroke of 2 you peak out the window. Nope. Not yet. 2:30. 3:00. Every car door you hear slam you scurry to the window to see if it’s him. 4:45. 4:50. And you’re starting to worry they aren’t going to get to you today.
But hopping in your car and driving around looking for their truck won’t change a thing… in fact, leaving your post means you might miss him when he does arrive. You must simply trust that he’s on the way, and keep your eyes open to receive him when he comes. And when he does arrive, you are relieved and even joyful because you know he’s going to fix what has been broken.

Watching is fundamentally an act of faith. You don’t watch if you don’t expect anything to happen – especially these days. Our attention spans are shrinking and when we expect nothing to happen we will turn our focus elsewhere. But if you know something is about to happen – something good you don’t want to miss – it’s much easier to shut out the distractions and focus.

You know… there are some phrases that catch your attention because they’re a sign of what’s to come. If someone says, “guess what!” you know they have some news to share. If someone says “Heads up!” you know something is hurtling through the air at your face. And if someone says, “Watch this!” you should probably have the ambulance on speed dial… because they are about to attempt something amazing. And in my experience, it isn’t usually amazing, and more of often than not it teeters on stupid.

But when God says, “Watch this!” you can be sure it will be amazing. You can be sure that it will exceed your expectations… and you’ll probably walk away surprised, a little confused, and very very impressed.

So to the prophets of old, God said, “Watch this! I’m going to send my very Son. Watch! He’s going to be so gentle and humble – but in Him will dwell the fullness of my Power and Glory. Watch! The King of Kings will be poor and homeless and rejected by his own people, but His love for them will never fail. Watch! With one single sacrifice, I will break the powers of sin, death, and the devil. Watch this!”

We’ve seen Him do it, and it is amazing. Even to this day, 2,000 years later, it’s still impressive, confusing, and wonderful.

But let’s not be mistaken. God is still saying “Watch this!” Just because Jesus’ saving work is complete, that doesn’t mean God retired! Far from it! He is still moving, still speaking, still amazing – if we are still watching.

As we watch for the return of Jesus, let’s also watch what God is doing among us. Last week we talked about the return of Jesus – which could be any minute now. And it will happen exactly when God has made everything ready for that coming.

That means that HE is very busy even now. Changing hearts. Saving souls. Healing, forgiving, renewing, leading, calling, speaking… and if we don’t Watch, we may miss it. If we expect that God will be quiet and still, then surely we won’t see what He is doing – we’ll turn our attention somewhere else.

But if we do expect that God is alive and moving – if we Watch – He will continue to amaze us.

This Advent, let us Watch what He has done, what He is doing, and for what He is about to do when Christ returns to make all things new.

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By Pastor Michael Cofer
Christ the King Sunday
Text: Mark 13:24-37

What if today was your last day on earth – and you knew it! What would you do with that day? Would you spend the day binge watching Netflix? Shooting endless rounds on the golf course? Gambling away your last penny in Vegas? Telling off your boss?

You know, when we ask the question in this way, it tends to drive people to ask the question “What do I really want to be doing right now?” Or maybe, “What have I always wanted to do, but have been too afraid to do?” I like the urgency that those questions pose, but in the end, they are all about me and my wants. And that doesn’t sound very Christian to me…

The old adage “Live every day like it’s your last,” really breaks down if you take it seriously. Who’d ever pay their taxes? Or vacuum? Or do their homework?

But there is a kernel of truth buried in that flawed premise: today could be your last. In fact, if might just be everyone’s last because Jesus is coming back. And on this Christ the King Sunday – the last Sunday of the church year – we celebrate that very fact. The return of Jesus is closer today than it ever has been, and if tomorrow comes we’ll be even closer still.

And Jesus’ words to us in the Gospel reading today invite us to really think in these terms. “ Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning— lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.” Today might be your last; live accordingly.

It’s funny to me that there is such a variety of opinions on when the “end times” start. Jesus listed off all kinds of “signs of the end” – in the moon and stars, among the nations and even within families and neighborhoods. I don’t even need to list them right now because Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”

That means that the conditions are already right. The signs are already there. We’re in the end times now and have been for 2,000 years. Don’t panic. But also… don’t fall asleep. Don’t waste the time you’ve got.

Instead of asking what you’d do if today was your last, let’s think about what we’d do if we expected Jesus to show up at any moment. If Jesus is coming back tomorrow, how would you spend the rest of today? When he returns, what do you want to be found doing?

See, if you remove Jesus from the question, then the “last day on earth” question comes down to what you would do if your actions had no consequences. And when you get down to it, a day without consequences is a meaningless day. But if we’re getting ready for Christ’s return tomorrow, then today has incredible consequences. Today wouldn’t be meaningless; it would be the most important day ever.

I tell you what, when he comes back I don’t want him to find me holding grudges. If today is the last day, then I’m going to do my best to be reconciled with everyone. Probably I’ll have to hand out way more apologies that I receive, but that’s okay. Glory awaits me when He returns, so I can bare a bit of humility and embarrassment.
And if Jesus comes back tomorrow, I’m going clean up my life today. I’m going to put away my vices. I’m going to fill my ears, mind, and heart with things that Jesus would be proud of.

I’d probably take some chances, too. Not silly things like gambling or skydiving… but I’d take chances for Him. I mean, if I know tomorrow is it, I’d probably tell some other folks. And sure, a lot of them might not believe me – most maybe. But those who know me well, and know that I love them – they might at least give it a moment’s thought. They might decide its worth getting ready “just in case.”

I probably wouldn’t waste much time buying stuff I don’t really need. These shoes have seen better days, but they’ll make it one more. There are newer, better phones – but this one is still working just fine.

I probably wouldn’t start any more fights. In fact, I’d probably let a lot of little stuff go – if I’m sure I’m in the right. After all, if Jesus is coming back, I’d like him to see me living at peace and making peace wherever I can.

I’d probably smile more. Sing more. Pray more. Give more. Love more. I’d make more time to be with people.
I’d cherish my family time. But I’d also cherish my water-cooler conversations. I’d cherish my waiter, grocery bagger, garbage man and telemarketer. I’d worry less. I’d fear less. I’d complain less. I’d focus on what God has done and is doing and is about to do.

Now I can’t tell you for sure that tomorrow is the day. In fact, Jesus says that nobody knows when: not the angels in heaven, not even Jesus Himself. Only God the Father knows… so if anyone claims to have “cracked the code,” you can be sure they haven’t. So, I’m not saying that tomorrow is the day. But I am saying that every passing day brings us one day closer – and tomorrow very possible will be the day. And if not tomorrow, then the day after is even more likely.

So let’s live today like tomorrow is it. Or better yet, let’s live like it’s today. Christ is coming.

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“Bad things always seem to happen when someone’s gone,” said Chaplain Tim Oswald in this week’s sermon. In his case, it was when he deployed and there always seemed to be a mouse in the house!

But when Jesus ascended to Heaven, He gave us some instruction for what we should do while He’s away and until He comes again.

1. Watch out for deceivers. Make sure you’re hearing the Truth…not what we want to hear.
2. Be on your guard. As Christians, we will have to bear witness to Christ. And the Gospel must be preached to all nations. There will be persecution.

“We’ve been spared so much of that in the United States, haven’t we?” he asked. “But you can see what is happening in places like where ISIS controls Christians and you can see what’s coming here! It’s not that far now; it’s building up momentum.”

3. Stand firm in your faith. And,
4. “Let us not forsake the assembly of ourselves together.” (Hebrews 10:25) In other words, don’t forget about church! Don’t go golfing. Don’t take your kids to baseball. Don’t spend time on your boat.

“Going to church is not an option; it’s not something you do when you feel like it,” he stated. “It’s something He [God through St. Paul, the presumed author of Hebrews] commanded us to do!”

Listen to all of Chaplain Oswald’s message:

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By Pastor Michael Cofer
Text: Mark 12:38-44

A few weeks ago we read the story of the rich young man who, despite wanting to follow Jesus, simply couldn’t give up all of the world wealth that weighed him down. Looking at that story, I think it’s easy to relate to that guy. It’d be hard to give up all that you have, wouldn’t it? I mean could anyone really do that?

Then we read this morning, not one but two separate accounts of widows giving their very last to God. And reading those stories, I’m filled with questions.

Like, why? Why did the widow give an offering of the last two pennies she had? Is this something she wanted to do? Did she feel that she had to? And shouldn’t the church have been caring for her – not the other way around?

Then again, how much are two mites going to buy you? Maybe a bite of bread? Maybe. But with his “great wealth,” the rich young man had some real buying power. So he had much more to lose, right?

Deep down, I think that’s how we feel about it, but it’s really faulty logic. I’ve known plenty of folks who don’t have great wealth – they’re struggling to cover bills every month – and they don’t have an easier time giving to God than their more affluent counterparts in the church.

It’d be easy to make this a stewardship message about proportional giving – but I don’t think that’s really the point that Jesus is trying to make. The person he honored was the one who gave all. The same thing he asked of the Rich Young Man and doesn’t see, He witnesses in the Poor Old Widow.

Could it be possible that however much God has given of you, He wants you to give it all back? Or, maybe if you aren’t ready to tackle that question head on, maybe it’d be worth asking “Why did he give you the wealth that you have?”

Before you say, “What wealth?” let’s keep the widows in our scripture readings in mind. I feel pretty confident that none of us are literally as poor as them. So back to the question, “Why did God give you the wealth you have?” The answer should be obvious. Every gift he has given you – your talents and abilities, your time, and even your wealth – are meant to bring him glory.

Notice that Jesus honors the widow, but He also condemns the scribes and the teachers of the law. They made a show of their offerings, but Jesus describes them as “devouring widows’ houses.” I’m not tell you that you need to put more in the offering plate. That might be true, but it doesn’t replace your God-given responsibility to take care of the poor and needy around you.

God is not glorified when his people flaunt their wealth. Glorifying God with our riches doesn’t mean wearing expensive clothes to church. It doesn’t mean slapping a church bumper sticker on an expensive car. It doesn’t mean hanging a painting of Jesus in our palatial house.

Glorifying God with our riches looks more like giving our clothes to the needy – not just donating them to Salvation Army, but handing them to a brother or sister in need. It might mean taking a homebound person to the grocery store or church in whatever car we have. It might mean giving a displaced family a room or two to stay in, or taking in some foster children.

Glorifying God with our riches means not just acknowledging that it all belongs to Him – it means using it in the ways that He would use it.

God wants it all –not just so that He can accomplish good with it – but so that we can learn that the security we think it brings is just an illusion. It isn’t actually the money in my bank that will ensure I eat tomorrow. It isn’t really my mortgage payments that ensure I have a refuge from the cold.

I am 100% at God’s mercy. And the sooner I learn this fact, and the deeper it seeps into my soul, the freer I will actually be.

Consider the Widow of Zarephath. Everyday she gave the last that she had to honor God. And the next day there was enough for that day. Everyday, God asked for 100% of what she had. And everyday God gave her 100% of what she had.
This is why Jesus taught us to pray for daily bread. Everyday we depend on God’s grace a fresh. Just like His forgiveness and mercy are new each day, so are the material blessings He gives. He can be trusted with all that we have because He provides for us everyday.

God loves you. More than the birds of the air. More than the flowers of the field. Whether we realize it or not, whether we believe it or not, we all are at God’s mercy. We are not in control – He is. All that we are and all that we have belong to Him. And as long as we love and trust our stuff more than we love and trust Him, this is a scary thought.

But as our love and trust in God eclipses our love and trust of his blessings, we will discover that living at God’s mercy is a great place to be. He gave His all for us – His very life – to save our lives, to pay for our sins, and to claim us as His own. A God who does that can be trusted completely with all that we have and all that we are.

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