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By Pastor Michael Cofer
Third Sunday in Lent
John 4:5-26

Last month the most coveted awards in cinema were given out by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  The Oscars.

There’s a lot of categories – some of which get very little attention.  Sure, you may hear about who won best leading actor or best supporting actress or which film took best motion picture.  But there’s only a dedicated few that care about best Sound Mixing or best Production Design.

But the one category you’ll never see at the Oscars is Best Extra.  I think that’s kind of a shame, but it’s just a fact of being an extra.  In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, extras are the “other people” you see on the screen – the ones without names.  It’s the couple laughing and sipping coffee way off to the side while big name actors are having a serious conversation front and center.  It’s the dozens of anonymous people walking down the sidewalk while the hero of the film races down the street in his sports car.

Extras are important in plays and movies, because it makes the scene look full and alive.  Without them, things just look empty and dead.  But, it’s their job to be seen but not noticed, talking but not speaking, looking natural and casual, even though they are just going through the motions.

If you’ve ever been an extra in a play, then you know what a weird experience it is.  See, when two extras on stage are having a “conversation” silently to the side… they aren’t really talking at all.  They may be reading each other’s lips, they may laugh silently on occasion, but there’s no real conversation happening.  They look like they’re talking – but they really aren’t.  They’re paying attention to what the other actors are doing so that they don’t miss their cue to move on to the next beat.  It may look good, but if you could hear their “conversation” the illusion would be shattered.

Extras are fine in the movies – but there is no such thing as an extra in church.  Sadly, though, I think it’s easy to lose sight of that.

As the guy who stands up in the front and actually looks at the whole congregation each week, it’s really hard to not feel bad when our numbers aren’t so good – and it’s really easy to feel a little prideful when our attendance is a little extra good.  I like to see the sanctuary nice and full.

Now, a full sanctuary is by no means a bad thing.  But in reality, I have no way of knowing who is actually here to worship and who is just filling up the scene.  And truth be told, I don’t think it’s the same folks every week.  In fact, if I can confess to you a little bit, sometimes I struggle worshiping heart and soul because I’m thinking about what comes next and watching to see that the volunteers are doing their jobs and thinking about the email I forgot to send this week and… and…

And this is the season of Lent – a time for honesty and self-examination, repentance, and renewal.  And so today, as we hear from Jesus about the true worship of God, let’s take up the invitation to turn to Him anew.

Jesus tells the woman at the well that the true worship of God is in Spirit and in Truth.  She had asked him a procedural question; where are we supposed to worship?  Jesus’ answer exposes a truth that we probably already know and take for granted – but things taken for granted are also easily forgotten.

Jesus’ answer to the woman is that “where” doesn’t really matter.  Or, probably more accurately, “where” answers itself if you understand what worship is.  You may have noticed Him say, “a time is coming and has now come” when the worship of God won’t happen in the “designated areas.”  On the one hand, He’s prophesying the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.  But that’s decades off.  He’s also saying that this is already going on.  In fact, this woman is about to do it herself.

Over the course of their conversation, this woman was gradually learning more and more about who Jesus is… a teacher, a prophet, and then the very Messiah.  And what does she do?  She runs and tells everyone who will listen what He has said and done for her.  She’s worshiping Jesus in the town square.

The Magi did it in Bethlehem… they recognized who he was and were compelled to bring Him gifts and bow down before Him. When Jesus walked on the water, the disciples realized that He was the Son of God and worshiped Him.  Every time someone sees even just a sliver of who Jesus really is, their reaction is worship.

See, that can’t be faked.  I can say all the right things, I can sing my lungs out, I can drop a huge check in the offering plate, I can well up with tears during the sermon and shout Amen at all the right times… Look, those a good things to do in church.  But why I do them makes a huge difference.  If I’m trusting that doing this or that thing in this or that way is what God likes, then I may not be worshiping at all.

The true worship of God isn’t about learning all the words and all the right moves.  It’s about being overwhelmed by who God is and what He has done.  Worship isn’t really a gift you give to God – it’s just what happens when you see even a sliver of who He really is.

That’s why the worship of God is in Spirit and in Truth.  He doesn’t care how many extras are pantomiming a conversation with Him.  He is looking for people whose hearts are His.  He’s looking for people to worship – not just in a particular time and place – but with their innermost being.

That sort of worship is never contained to a 75 minute church service.  Oh, it’ll happen there, but then it spills out into the rest of your week.  That sort of worship wells up from within you in your home, and in your office, and in the grocery store, and on the soccer field.

You have a stream of living water welling up inside of you.  Its source is so deep and full that that stream will stretch into eternity.  Just… just imagine that for a moment.  However small or powerless you may feel, you have this thing that is infinitely large and life giving growing inside of you.  Picture it. Really try to visualize that.   A river that flows endlessly from Jesus, flowing endlessly down into you and out into every corner of your life.

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By Pastor Michael Cofer
Lenten Midweek 2
Luke 11:1-13

Our series on Spiritual Disciplines continues tonight with prayer.  While this may be much more familiar to many of us than fasting or meditation, I’ve still found that some folks have some pretty strange ideas about it.

To define it simply, you could say that prayer is nothing other than “talking to God.” That may sound a little casual to you, but it really is that basic.  It is as simple and as vital as breathing.

I understand that this can seem daunting to some people.  After all, in prayer we are brought into the presence of the King of the Universe.  This is an awesome privilege, and one that should not be taken lightly.  When we pray, Almighty God inclines his ear toward us – and that idea makes some people very nervous!

“Who am I to tell God anything?” they’d say.  “Who am I to bother God with my worries or needs?  I’m sure He has more important things to do than to hear about my life!”  And sometimes it goes deeper into fear. “What if I mess it up?  What if I pray for the wrong thing?  What if I say something wrong?”

Well, He is the King of the Universe, and He does have important things to do.  But no, He doesn’t have more important things to do than to hear your prayer.  As a matter of fact, God is so powerful and wise that He can spend as much time as you want with you and still get all of the rest of His work done.

Still someone else might say, “Sure, but there are other people with more important prayers than mine.”  Maybe, that’s true.  But God has time for them and for you.  God is big enough to hear your prayers and theirs.  And He isn’t judging your prayers.  He is gracious and kind and He cares about your life – your highs and lows, your triumphs and failures, big and small.

So, rather than thinking about God as remote and busy and critical – let’s learn from Jesus about prayer.  He says that God is our Heavenly Father who loves us and who gives good gifts to His children when they ask for them.

You know, my son isn’t quite 2 yet… and he is working on talking, but it’s still very rudimentary.  “Book!  Book!”  “Milk!  More Milk!”  “Up!  Up!”  “Dada!” I don’t read him books or give him milk or pick him up because he has asked for them with eloquence and persuasion.  I answer his pleas because I love him, and I know him well enough that I can make sense out of the broken words, moans, and cries.

How much more ready is God the Father to hear and answer the prayers of His children.  He isn’t looking for fancy prayers – indeed, sometimes you won’t even find the right words, but He still hears and answers.  That’s what a good and loving Father does.

Also, God isn’t looking for you to become more independent.  He isn’t hoping you’ll grow out of needing to ask for things.  I think a mark of spiritual growth is a growing dependence on God – inviting Him into continually more and more areas of our life.

I hesitate to say this, because I don’t want to turn the gift of prayer into burden, but it may be a good thing occasionally to have an honest look at how frequently you are in prayer.  It’s not that God favors quantity over quality, but I think that how often we are in prayer is an indication of how involved in our life we think He is.  The reality is, He’s more involved than we will ever know – after all, this is the same one who has a running count of the hairs on your head.  I want my prayer life to reflect that reality.

So let’s make the turn to talking about prayer from a very practical standpoint.  Firstly, who should pray?  Since prayer is a free gift that God gives to all His children, I think it’s a shame if anyone is not actively engaged in it.  God wants to show you love by hearing and answering your prayers.  Even if you feel awkward or uncomfortable, even if you don’t think you’re very holy or deserving – you should pray. After all, your prayers will be heard not because of who you are, but because of who God is – your loving Father.

How do you get started?  And what kinds of things should you say?  There’s always a temptation to over think this.  This is especially true if most of your exposure to prayer has been in church where we pray with a somewhat lofty and high-toned style.

I would actually encourage you to do the opposite.  Keep it simple.  Speak plainly.  If you are anxious about finding a job, say, “God, please help me find a job.”  If you just finished a great day, say, “Thanks for a great day God.”  Those simple prayers are heard and answered by God.  If you want to close out the thought and bring your prayer to an end, the traditional thing to say is, “Amen.”  Amen pretty much just means, “truly.”  When you say Amen to someone else’s prayer, it’s like saying, “I second that!”

I try to keep a balance of things I say thank you for and things I ask for.  That’s not a rule, I just think it’s good way to remember that God has already done so much for us.  In fact, I sometimes try to remember to praise Him for who He is in addition to thanking Him for things He’s done.  If you’re trying to understand that distinction, it’s kind of like the difference between thanking your husband for working hard and telling him that you appreciate his patience.

Many people are only used to praying in silence.  That’s fine, but it’s also kind of a new idea.  When you read about people praying in the Bible, it was most likely done aloud every time.  I find that praying aloud can really help me focus on the act of praying, even if no one else is around.  If you haven’t tried paying aloud before, you may feel a little foolish.  It may not come out as polished and eloquent as you hope.  That’s fine.  I’d encourage you to keep at it.  Let your ineloquence fuel your humility as you gradually grow in your confidence in talking to God.

If you are comfortable praying aloud alone, you will grow more confident in praying with others.  Praying with someone in need is one of the most basic and powerful acts of compassion that a Christian can do – and literally any Christian can do it!  Just remember that the power of your prayer isn’t in choosing the perfect words for the situation – the power is in your Father who hears and answers the prayer.

So as we continue our walk towards Calvary, may God draw you more and more frequently into the simple act of conversation with Him until the words of scripture are made manifest in us: pray without ceasing.

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By Pastor Michael Cofer
Second Sunday in Lent

Imagine you woke up one day and found yourself in medieval England.  People more or less speak your language.  They might look at your clothes or hair funny, but otherwise, it’s not too hard to get along.  But then the wake-up alarm on your phone goes off, and you pull it out of your pocket…

How do you explain this device that you’re holding?  It glows. It captures imaginary paintings of any subject in less than a second.  It can play music without instruments and emulate the voices of men and women you’ve never been in the same room as.  If there are two of these devices and you know the proper code, you can speak to each other anywhere in the world as though you were together.

How could you possibly explain those things – and that leaves out an awful lot – without being accused of sorcery or madness?  Explaining how the various components work wouldn’t help at all – presuming you even know that.  To understand a cellphone, you really have to have seen the world in which we live.

Now, this is not a perfect analogy, but thinking about a situation like that gives me some understanding of how frustrating it must have been for Jesus to try and explain the kingdom of heaven to people.

He uses a lot of metaphor since they don’t have the proper frame of reference for Him to speak plainly.  Parables aren’t His way of being difficult – they’re accommodating our limited capacity to imagine or understand the kingdom of God.

So, from Nicodemus’ perspective, the conversation with Jesus took a turn for the bizarre pretty quickly.  Nicodemus opens up with what you’d think would have been a really good start, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

But Jesus doesn’t commend him or even accept his praise, because Jesus knows something that isn’t obvious to you and me – Nicodemus doesn’t really see Jesus when he looks at Him.  He sees Jesus’ effects, but he doesn’t see Jesus – not yet at least.  But Jesus wants him to.

Nicodemus thinks he’s figured Jesus out. But he isn’t even close to grasping the whole thing.  Jesus isn’t just some teacher that God sent.  In fact, teaching isn’t even Jesus’ main purpose. But it doesn’t matter how Jesus tries to explain His purpose; until you have been born again you cannot see the kingdom of God.

Think about the disciples.  How plainly did Jesus tell them over and over again that He must die and that he would rise again! They saw his works.  They knew he was a teacher sent from God.  Peter even confessed that Jesus was the promised messiah.  But still, they could not understand Jesus.

And it’s no different in our day.  A lot of people like the idea that “God is love.”  But they reject the idea of their own sinfulness.  They refuse to believe that a loving God would condemn anyone – or, more probably, they only wish that the people they hate would be condemned.

When you look at how Jesus and Nicodemus interact from a worldly perspective, Jesus doesn’t look very loving.  He tells Nicodemus that he is blind and spiritually dead.  He tells Nicodemus that he’s going to have to give up the life he lived up to this point if he is going to enter God’s kingdom.

But Jesus isn’t condemning this man.  He stands condemned already.  Jesus is offering him life.  “You don’t see the kingdom of God yet.  But you can.  I want you to.  I came so that you can enter the kingdom.  Your religious education and your acts of righteousness are only pushing you farther and farther from it. To see this kingdom, you must enter it, and nobody enters it as anything but a spiritual newborn.  You bring nothing but dependence into this relationship – no wealth, no stature, no wisdom.  You come into this kingdom small, and naked, and new. You come not as a father or teacher or leader.  You come as a child.“

Remember how Paul said that he counted everything before Christ as a loss?  For those with nothing, this is easily good news. For those with a load of guilt or a checkered past, the idea that they can start over is really welcome.  The idea that Jesus is all that matters is a blessed mercy.

But if you think you’ve scratched your way to the top and have accomplished so much without Jesus, the idea of giving up that prestige, influence, and pride is really difficult.  The idea of starting over is agonizing.  Being called a child is insulting.  Being told you don’t get it is frustrating.  And if you are a righteous, religious, moral, upstanding citizen it’s hard to believe that you need a savior.

And if you don’t think you need a savior, then you don’t know a thing about God’s love.  Because Jesus is what God’s perfect love looks like.  God’s love isn’t about ignoring your brokenness – it’s about healing it.  God’s love isn’t about rewarding the deserving but about rescuing the undeserving.  God’s love isn’t about making you feel better about yourself – it’s about making you new and alive.

God loved his creation so much that He sent His only natural Son to become one of us. To become an object of hatred and scorn.  To bear on his shoulders the full weight of mankind’s evil from Adam and Eve until the end of the world.  To take the death that we earned for ourselves.  To be lifted up on a cross so that whoever turns their eyes to him will not perish but will have never-ending life.

Nicodemus probably wasn’t ready to hear it all.  He probably couldn’t see it yet. But he was brought to Jesus because he felt the effects of the Spirit.  He saw what God was accomplishing through Jesus and it led Him to this place and this conversation.

That may be true of the people in your life, too.  “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”  When the people in your life see you about God’s business, they may not understand it.  They may not recognize where it’s coming from or what it’s going to accomplish.  But they will notice it’s happening.

That’s how God prepares people to receive this rebirth in the Spirit.  He shows the proud what humility looks like. He shows the lost what love really looks like.  He shows the dead what life really looks like.

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By Pastor Michael Cofer
Lenten Midweek 1
Deuteronomy 8:1-5

Fasting is an ancient practice that the people of God have engaged in for thousands of years.  It has always been an important part of spiritual life but in our day it has almost been lost entirely. It used to be so common, that the Bible doesn’t really give any advice on how to do a proper fast – apart from Jesus’ encouragement to not make a big show of it.

Of course, those of us who celebrate Lent have a small glimpse into it.  Many folks give something up from Ash Wednesday until Easter.  Now, that’s not strictly speaking a fast (unless what you gave up is eating), but it comes near to fasting.  Interestingly, I find many folks don’t know what giving something up is meant to accomplish, they just try to pick something that will be hard.

If you’ve done this, I’m not going to suggest that you stop, but as we talk about traditional fasting, perhaps it will help you nuance your abstinence in a more meaningful way than simply testing your willpower.

So, from the outset, we should recognize that fasting is an act of worship.  And to understand how that can be, we need to have a solid grasp of what worship actually is.

Simply put, the natural reaction to realizing who God is and who you are in relation to Him is worship.  Sometimes that looks like falling face down as a sinner in the presence of a holy God.  Sometimes it is erupting into jubilant song at the undeserved goodness and love that God has showered on you.  Sometimes it is being swept up in silent awe at the enormity of the God who holds the universe in the palm of His hand.

Fasting is an act of worship, because it is recognizes that we are wholly dependent on God and God alone.  In fact, there is nothing in this world that we need more – not even food.  Fasting is the deliberate choice to live the word of God we read today, “…man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

This is a really hard lesson for us to believe, I think.  We live in a land of such plenty,; we’re used to big hot meals several times a day.  We crave coffee and chocolate and pasta, and the thought of doing without sounds really, really hard.

But the value in fasting isn’t that it’s hard. In fact, that it’s hard is irrelevant.  If you have a regular practice of fasting, it may become easier over time, but it will continue to become more valuable.  The goal of fasting is not suffering; it’s praise.

And in that vain, it’s important to keep your fasting focused on the right purposes.  It isn’t a pious way to lose weight.  It isn’t the secret to forcing God to give you what you pray for.  Your fast is to be worship, a way to externalize an inward truth – God is more than enough.

In a way, this is very parallel to the spiritual act of tithing.  In tithing we give a portion of our wealth back to God, and in so doing we learn that it is God Himself, not our paychecks, that care for and provide for us.  It is a way to worship God with our wealth.  So, too, in fasting we learn that what God desires for us is more important than what we desire for ourselves.  We decrease ourselves – we deny ourselves – so that He may increase in us.  And in so doing, we worship God with our bodies.

Amazing things happen inside of us when we begin to operate in concert with the faith we believe.  What do you suppose will happen in your heart when, even for just one day, you discover that you need less than you think?  What do you think will happen in your heart when, even for just one day, you experience freedom from what your own desires?  What do you suppose will happen in your heart when, even for just one day, you spend your idle thoughts on God’s goodness and love?

If I’m going to encourage an almost lost practice, I should probably offer some practical advice on how to do it.  A friend recommended an excellent book to me called “The Celebration of Discipline,” and in it the author suggests that you start small and build into it.  So, for instance, you might choose one day a week where after lunch you refrain from eating or drinking anything but water until lunch the next day.  That’s right, just missing dinner on night and breakfast the next.

When you go to break your fast, take it easy.  Don’t overindulge.  Don’t eat heavy foods.  Fresh fruits and vegetables are best to gradually start your digestive rhythms again.

After you’ve done that a few times, then you can step up to forgoing the lunch as well – missing 3 meals.  Over time, you might grow your fast to 2 or 3 days.  Or you might just continue fasting once or twice a week every week.

I’d be remiss to not mention that in particular health situations, this sort of fasting may not be a good idea.  If you have any concerns about it, you should consult your doctor. And if you cannot, then perhaps you can think about “alternative” fasts – something to abstain from that would help you learn dependence on God.  But the truth is, for most of us traditional fasting for a day or two (or even significantly longer) is a healthy thing to do.

Also, if you get grumpy during your fast – don’t use your fasting as an excuse!  Fasting doesn’t cause your to lash out at people; a sinful heart does.  What’s happening in your fast is that your sinful heart is being exposed.  This is common, but like all sin the proper response isn’t excuses.  It’s repentance and forgiveness.

Again, fasting is by no means a law, and I would hate to make it one.  But there is an incredible opportunity that people who live in this time and this place would benefit from immensely.  You may gain a new intimacy with God.  You may find new clarity in hearing His voice.  You may gain a new compassion for the hungry and poor. All of those are worthy gains – but they are secondary to glorifying God in the private sanctuary of your own body.

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By Pastor Michael Cofer
Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany
1 Corinthians 3:10-23

 

If there is one thing that I love about being a Lutheran, it’s that we are so emphatic about the free gift of salvation.  Now, don’t get me wrong, all Christians believe in that – and if they don’t they aren’t actually Christian.  But we Lutherans are the champions of the doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ Jesus alone.

That doctrine is the unshakable foundation upon which God’s church is built.  It was a doctrine that Martin Luther himself was willing to defend even if it cost him his very life – and it almost did!

Now, this is by no means a Lutheran invention.  This is the foundation that Paul laid at the churches he planted – including the one in Corinth.  And in the Epistle reading for today, we get this point reiterated again: The Gospel of Christ is the foundation of the church… and if you have that foundation, you will be saved.  Period.

But we make a mistake when we act as if this is the only thing that matters.  And I find that it’s a very easy mistake for me to slip into.  I don’t know if it’s because I like things to be tidy and logical or if it’s just a matter of being spiritually lazy, but I think it’s easy to settle for “good enough” with God.

God doesn’t relate to me in minimal ways.  He doesn’t give me “just enough” grace.  He gives me grace upon grace.  He doesn’t love me “just enough.”  He loves me more than I will ever know.  And I don’t think He wants me to respond to Him in minimal ways either.

In the scripture we read today, Paul is making the point firmly that there is more to life in Christ than the bottom line.  The Gospel is the most important thing, but it isn’t the only important thing.  Without the Gospel of Christ everything falls apart… but what follows up that Gospel matters too.

As in previous weeks, we can (and should!) think through this scripture at both the church-level and the personal-level.  Now to get the most out of this metaphor remember that what’s being built is a temple for God.  We aren’t talking about your house; we’re talking about His.

If I’m building my house, then I should build it to my specs.  It should reflect who I am, meet my needs, and if it’s good enough for me then it’s good enough.  But if I’m building His house… well it should be built to reflect who He is, to fulfill His purposes and settling for “good enough” isn’t really a way to accomplish that.

So, if we’re talking about how this plays out at the church-level, this is all about what we teach and do on top of the Gospel foundation.  Some churches are built out of empty promises of happiness and wealth.  Those messages are really attractive, and you might be able to build a pretty big temple pretty quickly out of twigs and straw.  But the truth is, those teachings don’t hold up to the reality of life for the majority of people.  Those promises aren’t backed up by God’s Word.

Other churches might be built up on inoffensive messages that go hand-in-hand with what the culture around them is saying.  They may say, “God loves you just the way you are,” which is true, but ignore the call to “repent and bear fruit in keeping with repentance.”

The contrast is the church that’s built out of the bricks, gold, and silver of God’s Word.  It can be very heavy.  Those teachings can be very costly.  The church that stands on God’s Word is going to turn off a lot of people – not that we want to offend, because we should be gentle, humble, and loving.

But here’s the truth we have to face.  Every one of these temples will pass through the fire… and what God is interested in is what will be left after the fire.  It doesn’t matter how big or beautiful your temple was before the fire if it’s a pile of ashes on the foundation.

If I’m building the temple of the eternal God, I want to do it with materials that last forever.  The values of our culture will come and go.  The wealth and happiness of this life are gone in the blink of an eye.

By contrast, Jesus himself says, “Heaven and Earth will pass away, but my word will never pass away.”  And Paul will write later on in this same letter, “Prophecies will cease, tongues will be stilled… now these three remain: Faith, Hope, and Love.  And the greatest of these is Love.”

A temple built on the foundation of Christ, and built out of the Word of God, lived out in lives of Faith, Hope, and Love is a temple fit for God’s dwelling.  The thing is, those churches may not be experiencing the sort of “measurable success” right now that the twigs and straw churches do.  But God is much more concerned with the quality of construction.

So, given all that, let’s make the turn to talking not about the church as a collective, but about each one of us.  The Bible is very clear that you personally are a temple of the Holy Spirit.  And while that idea does apply to your physical body, I don’t think it applies exclusively to your body.

I think a good way of understanding this passage in a personal way is to think about the life you live.  If Christ is your foundation, you’ll come through the fire.  But God hasn’t given you this life as a formality.  We aren’t just biding our time until we get to heaven.  I mean, you can but what a waste that would be.

And, whether we are conscious of it or not, everyday we are building on that temple.  That is isn’t really a question.  The question is, what kind of construction am I doing?  What is this temple going to built out of?  And, if I really do believe that I’m a temple for the Holy Spirit to indwell, what does a life built to reflect who God is and to accomplish His purposes look like?

I think, in the first place, it means not putting too much stock in the things that don’t last forever.  I mean, if I know that Jesus has saved me, but the life that results is selfish and indulgent, seeking comforts and my own wealth… what will I have to show for my efforts after I pass through the fire?

But suppose instead that my daily life is aimed squarely at showing the world what God is like – that is, building my temple in a way that reflects who God is and accomplishes His purposes.  I may not be understood or loved by everyone.  I may wind up with less cash in my pocket.  I may be taken for granted or taken advantage of… but don’t you know that Jesus teaches that God sees these things and He will reward us for them?

God’s love for you is unconditional.  His grace is abundant.  Christ, the foundation, is unshakable and will save you when you pass through the fire.

But let’s not stop there.  God isn’t a God of “minimums” and “good enoughs.” Your life isn’t just about how you can benefit from God.  It should be about glorifying God.  Magnifying God.  Showing the world what God is like and sharing that same abundant grace and unconditional love.  A life built out of those materials is a temple built to last, even through the fire and into eternity.

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By Pastor Michael Cofer
Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
1 Corinthians 3:1-9

Last week I really stressed that the power of the Gospel isn’t in the person who speaks it, but rather it’s in the Holy Spirit.  Today’s reading takes that idea and amplifies it for us.

You’ll remember that the Corinthian church was divided into camps – and one of those divisions was over which of their “pastors” was the best.  Some followed Paul, others followed Apollos, some rejected both.   And when you read this letter, you have to really give Paul some credit for being both firm and humble.

You’d think it’d be natural for him to be thankful that some folks admire him so much.  You’d expect maybe a gentle, “I’m flattered that you think so much of me, but…” statement.  But he doesn’t go there at all.  He takes no pride in it whatsoever – in fact, it bothers him deeply.

Why? Because Paul knows that this admiration is causing divisions in the body of Christ.  Because Paul is being made into an idol.  People have mistaken the power of the message for the power of the messenger – and lost the message in the process.

This is why Paul says that they are still unspiritual.  And this has to be frustrating for Paul, because it means that Apollos’ work seems to have made very little progress among them.  And make no mistake, being part of a church should result in growing maturity – but it isn’t automatic.

On the flipside, you don’t see Paul being critical of Apollos’ failure to help these baby Christians grow up.  So who’s fault is it?

I think there’s always been the view that churches rise and fall on the strength of their pastor.  From an earthly perspective, that’s probably very true.  But I don’t think that’s God’s perspective at all.  In fact, there aren’t many churches – there is one church, and it rises and falls on the strength of Jesus Christ.

I’m guilty of this same kind of thinking, you know.  When I think about what it means to be a successful pastor, I naturally think about a growing worship attendance or membership.  I think about pastors who speak at conferences, write books that people actually want to read, that produce insightful videos and all that stuff.

But you know what?  That’s not really what the Bible says is success.  Success is doing the task that God has given you no matter how the result turns out.  “So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor.”

There is something deeply humbling about that statement, and with godly humility comes liberation.  See, Paul assures us that God will reward us according to our labor.  Not according to the harvest.  Not according to our talent.  We’ll be rewarded for our faithfulness to his calling.

So, you’ve been sowing like crazy, and you don’t see anything happening – that sincerely might have nothing to do with you.  You’ve been watering the heck out of some fields, and you’ve got nothing to show for it.  That’s not on you.

The problem in Corinth wasn’t Paul or Apollos.  It was between the people in that church and God.  Paul was supposed to plant – he did that and God was pleased with him.  Apollos was supposed to water – he did that and God was pleased with him.  If you’ve done the thing that God asked of you, then the results are his responsibility not yours.

This isn’t just true of pastors and their congregations.  This is true in every Christian life.  Maybe you’ve been loving your neighbor, and that relationship is going nowhere.  Maybe you’ve been praying for a coworker and nothing seems to be happening.  Maybe you’ve been trying to talk with your friend about God, and they still aren’t ready to believe let alone come to church.  That doesn’t mean your doing it wrong or that you don’t have the right gifts. And it definitely doesn’t mean you should stop.

Now, it’s a well-established fact that I know very, very little about farming or gardening.  However, I can tell you this much, until the shoots come up, you won’t see any progress.  But, just because you can’t see it growing doesn’t mean it’s not.  There’s an awful lot of growing that happens under the surface before a shoot will ever come up.

This is why farming is such a great metaphor for sharing the gospel.  You may not see the green sprouts come up – that doesn’t mean the seed you sowed aren’t in there.  You don’t go digging up the seeds to verify that they’re in there.  Once you put them in the ground, you have to trust that they’re working.

You don’t stop watering just because you don’t see the sprouts.  If you do, what will happen?  The sprouts will never come.  And maybe they won’t come up anyways.  That’s a matter between the seed and the ground.

God didn’t call you to make his fields grow – He called you to sow seeds and water the ground.  These aren’t highly-skilled jobs.  They don’t require fancy degrees or exceptional talents.  They simply require faithfulness to the calling and trust that God is doing His part.

And whether you see a great harvest, or none at all, the Lord will say to you, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Come and share your master’s happiness.”

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By Pastor Michael Cofer
Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
1 Corinthians 2:1-12

Confirmation is one of the long-running traditions of the Lutheran church.  People feel all kinds of different ways about it… everything from, “I really cherish the experience I had,” to “it was so strict and hard!”  I’ve heard parents and grandparents who were disappointed that we don’t do it the way their church did when they were young.  I’ve heard some say they are so relieved that we don’t.

Most of us went through it – for some of us it was not so long ago and for others its been decades.  However it was taught and whenever it happened, my experience has been that most adults simply don’t remember most of what they learned.

Now, that’s a little disappointing to me, but I understand it.  So, over the last few years, I’ve made it a point to revisit the big concepts of confirmation whenever I can work it in smoothly.  I don’t usually say I’m doing it, and I don’t usually quote the catechism.  But I, and probably most Lutheran pastors, try to remind you of all that rich theology that you crammed into your brain for a year or two.

By contrast, I find that most people do remember the lessons they learned in Sunday School… even though it was longer ago.  They remember that Jesus loves them.  They remember that Father Abraham had many sons.  I am one of them, and so are you!  They remember Noah and Daniel and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  They remember the simple, honest, uncomplicated story of Jesus’ birth, how he died on the cross, and how he rose again on Easter.

As we continue our series on “being church,” I wanted to spend a little bit of time thinking about these verses, “I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power,so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.”

It seems to me that as soon as I say the word “Evangelism,” some folks break out in a cold sweat and start looking for the nearest exit.  Now, that’s a funny reaction for a word that means, “giving good news.” After all, who doesn’t love to be the one to bring good news?

But I know the reality.  Many of us have an over-complicated, high-pressure tactics view of “evangelism.”  A lot of folks imagine that it’s somewhere on the spectrum between door-to-door salesman and debate-team chairman.  Some people think about tracts you’re supposed to push on virtual strangers.  Some think that it’s about having all the answers to the really tough questions.  Some think it’s about being slick and silver-tongued.

It’s not.  It’s not any of those things.  In fact, sincerity matters more than eloquence.  Love matters more than apologetics.  And, when you get down to it, it is all about God doing the work.

Now, before you say, “Yeah, and He’ll get a lot more done through her than He will through me,” let’s revisit last week’s reading.  “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. 

Think about David and Goliath for a minute.  If God had chosen a super-ninja, Navy Seal to take down Goliath, who would consider that a miracle?  People would be like, “Yeah, that dude is seriously awesome.”  But instead He chose David so that people would ask, “What just happened?  How is that possible?”  And of course, the answer is, “God did it.”

This is God’s preferred method.  If he only used, handsome, charming, brilliant people to share the good news, it’d leave you to wonder, “Would they believe anything this guy said?  I mean, what if he was Buddhist, or atheist or something?”

This kind of thing actually happens more than we want to admit.  People put their faith in a persuasive church leader, and then when he messes up in some public way (because he is a sinner after all), their faith is shaken and they turn away.

Our reading today actually urges us to go the completely opposite route.  Don’t worry about looking wise or sounding persuasive.  Don’t present a mountain of arguments or biblical proofs.  When you’re sharing your faith with someone who isn’t a mature Christian (or a Christian at all!), keep it simple.  Keep it focused on Jesus.  Let the Holy Spirit do the work.

I think evangelism a lot like old-school shaving.  You heard me right… shaving.  Not with those new-fangled doo-hickeys with 12 blades with a moisturizing strip.  I’m talking about a good old fashioned, dual-edged safety razor… or even a straight razor if you’re super-old-school.

There’s two pieces of advice that you need to learn before you’re ready to take the plunge into retro shaving: use a sharp razor, and let the blade do the work.  If you’ve never shaved with one of these devices before, chances are you will press too hard and you’ll nick yourself left and right. And you’ll keep nicking yourself until you learn to trust the razor.

When I first started, I was all kinds of nervous about it.  I knew the blade was sharp, and I was sure I was going to get all cut up.  I’ve been shaving like this for like 3 years now, and I hardly ever cut myself.  I know the blade is sharp – but now I understand that that’s a good thing. It means I don’t have to push hard to cut the hair.  I just set it lightly on my face, pull it gently along the grain, and the blade does all the work.

I think sharing our faith with others is a lot like that.  The Holy Spirit is sharp.  You can trust it.  You don’t have to muscle it.  You don’t have to be afraid of it either.  He’ll do the work.

“But what do I SAY?!  What do I DO?!  I don’t even know where to start.  I really don’t feel qualified for this.”  Look, everything you need to say you probably learned in Sunday School.  That doesn’t mean that your confirmation is of no value to you.  Your faith should be growing: in trust, in knowledge and understanding, in action.  But when it comes to sharing Jesus with others, it doesn’t really make sense that you need to have all the answers before they can begin to believe.

Think about these very familiar words of Jesus, “Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God likea little child will never enter it.”  How sophisticated is the message that children can believe?

God doesn’t need salesmen to push Jesus on people.  He wants witnesses who will share in simple and sincere ways what they have seen God do – people who trust in the Holy Spirit to change hearts, rather than trusting in their own charisma or brilliance.  He wants someone like you – even if it’s with a bit of trembling and weakness – to pass along the incredible gift of Faith that you have received.

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By Pastor Michael Cofer
Third Sunday after the Epiphany
1 Corinthians 1:10-18

This week we’re going to pick up right where we left off last week.  If you weren’t here or if you’ve just forgotten the message from last week let’s have a quick refresher: Christ has made you holy and called you to be holy.  These aren’t aspirations or goals. They are reality.  And they aren’t real for a select few of the “really good Christians.”  Every person here baptized into Christ has been made holy and is called to be holy.  Period.

Which makes for a great jumping off place for the message to day.  Have a look around you at the other folks here.  Each and every one of them is here today because God brought them here. It’s why you’re here, too.

I hope that when you look back on your life – when you think about your story – I hope you see God’s hand along the way.  Maybe you saw it clearly in some pivotal moments, in crises, and transitions. Maybe you saw it gently and steadily guiding you in subtle ways no one else would notice.  Maybe you’re just now coming to realize things God did with and for you decades ago.

Now, consider for a moment that God was just as involved in the life of every person here.  What does that mean for a church?  And what does that have to do with the Scripture we read today?

“I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.”  There’s a lot to chew on in that one verse, but let’s start with a very simple idea: God is not satisfied with divisions in His church.

So, go back to what we were just talking about.  If God brought each and every person to this church, then He wants all of them to be a part of this Church.  There may be some folks that you don’t care for, whose personality clashes with you, who you can never seem to see eye to eye with… I’m not going to tell you that that’s okay.  I’m going to tell you that God put them and you in the same Church and He probably had a good reason for that.

And, I know I’m going to touch a nerve with this but I have to address it – broken relationships.  Every church deals with this, and Hope is no exception.  There may be some people here carrying wounds on their heart from disagreements and heated words and maybe even legitimate betrayals from people they used to consider friends.  And when you look in that person’s direction you think, “I’m done.  I’m done with them.”

If you’ve been praying the Lord’s Prayer with me all this time, I sure hope you aren’t done with them.  Because Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgives us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”  I’m not asking you to grin and bear it or fake it or whatever.

And I can say this from my own experience: most of the time I need to ask forgiveness from the person I think wronged me.  Not the sanctimonious, “I’m sorry if you feel like I did something wrong” kind of non-apology.  It takes some humility and soul-searching and thinking about things from the other person’s perspective to realize that I’m part of the problem.

When you dig down into it, there’s really nothing that both divides the church and glorifies Jesus.  Anger, hurt, envy, self-righteousness, unforgiveness.

Now, I’ve been talking about this at the congregational level, but this stuff is true in the bigger circles too.

You know, Christian churches aren’t in competition with each other – but sometimes we act like we are.  And when we do, it’s never pretty. I’ve seen both sides of it. Sometimes we get transfers from those other churches for one reason or another, and it’s easy to feel prideful.  It’s easy to pat ourselves on the back as because we know (but it’d be rude to say) that we’re better than they are.

Sometimes it goes the other way.  People leave Hope and worship at another church. And it’s easy to wonder what we’re doing wrong…. Or worse, to get jealous or bitter about them “stealing” our members.

You know, if we pull back the lens and I think we’ll realize that God’s church hasn’t grown when people transfer in and it hasn’t shrunk when people transfer out.  Hope wasn’t given the mission of being the biggest and best congregation around.  God’s mission is for His whole church to share Jesus with people who don’t yet have Him.  Our mission as His whole church is to bring the life-giving Gospel to a world dying without it.

That’s why it’s not okay for us to settle for divisions. If you are outside looking in at the church and what you see is in-fighting, competition, and disagreement – would that suggest to you that the church has “the truth?”

Moreover, can you imagine what it would take for the church – the whole church or even just this one congregation to live the hope that we read today and, “that all of you agree with one another in what you say [and be] be perfectly united in mind and thought?”  How would that ever happen?

Do you suppose that it will happen through a series of open forum debates?  Through focus-study groups or theological task forces and commissioned reports?  I’m not saying those things have no value, but I don’t think they’ll bring us closer to this goal.  I think the only path to it is humility and a dedication to focus on what is important to Jesus.

We have to stop asking His opinion about what we think, as if He’s our advisor.  He’s our Lord.  He’s the head, we’re the body… that means He sets the direction, the agenda, the focus, the vision, the whole… everything.  Of course the hand will have a different focus than the foot.  Of course the shoulder will disagree with the knee.  That’s why they don’t call the shots.  They only way they move together is when they submit to the head.

And that’s the reality of God’s church.  Whether we like it or not, whether we accept it or behave like it, we are one.  There is one Lord over all of us.  There is one Savior who paid for the sins of all of us.  We all depend on the same grace.  We all share the same faith.  We were brought together – different though we might be – by God’s design and according to His will.

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By Pastor Michael Cofer
Second Sunday after the Epiphany
1 Corinthians 1:1-9

It’s 2017.  We’ve turned the page on a new year, and that means it’s time to look forward.  It’s time to look toward the future.  It’s a time of new beginnings and fresh starts, and I for one am ready for one.

I hope you’ve had a chance to reflect on the past year, to take stock of yourself and to give some thought to where you’re headed.  It’s a good exercise to do every so often, and Januaries seem like a natural fit.

It’s probably good to do the same as a church.  Now, don’t get me wrong – God’s word doesn’t change and neither does His mission.  He doesn’t need to be made-over or updated to keep with the times.  But as His church, as the people who believe and proclaim that word and who are called into that mission, it’s necessary for us to check our bearings every so often and make sure we’re still headed where He’s leading.

It’s undeniable that we are in a time of transition here at Hope.  God willing, we’ll have a new senior pastor soon… but it isn’t just that.  Families are changing, people’s needs are changing, the community around us is changing.  Our world is changing.

For many of us it can be discouraging and confusing.  The things we used to do just don’t work the same as they used to… and maybe if we’re honest we feel like our church is not as effective or important as it once was.  And maybe some of us long for the good old days.

God doesn’t.  He isn’t pining for the good old days and He isn’t discouraged or confused. And, in fact, He has something very different to say about His church.

Over the next several weeks, we’ll be reading through some of 1 Corinthians, and we’ll hear what God has to say about being His church.  Now, it’s worth knowing before we get started that the Corinthian church was a mess.  They had some very deep problems and were anything but “healthy.”  I point that out now because you have to know that praise given to or promises made to a church like theirs would certainly be true of us as well.

So, with that in mind, look at how Paul talks about the Corinthian Christians: “those made holy in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people.”  Made holy and called to be holy.  Sometimes when we talk about God’s grace and the salvation that Jesus won for us, it’s easy to make it all about the promise of heaven.

That’s a good thing to focus on, but it’s too narrow a view.  God’s grace doesn’t just give us a ticket to heaven… it changes us.  It is transformative.  In the verses we read today, it says that God’s grace makes us holy and equips us with everything we need to be His holy people.  These aren’t talked about as optional upgrades to being a Christian… They’re all part of that same gift of grace.

We talk about being saints here at Hope, at least a couple times a year.  But I think it takes a while for the weight and reality of those words to sink in.  So, don’t let these words roll off of you.  Don’t assume they’re for the people in the pew in front of you.  These words are for you: You have been made holy in Christ Jesus.

He doesn’t do things by half measures, and he never fails to do what He attempts.  So if Jesus made you holy, guess what?  You are holy.  But for those words have an effect, we need to know what that means.  Holiness isn’t the same as prudishness or being holier-than-thou.  Holy people don’t strut around looking holy – in fact, it may just be the opposite.

Holiness being set apart for God.  It means being made righteous and being purified, but it also means being dedicated for Him.  It means being His, not just in name or as a technicality, but His in life.

After all, we were made holy and called to be holy.

Imagine if every morning when you, see your reflection in the bathroom mirror, instead of saying, “Yikes!” (well… that’s what I say most mornings, your mileage may vary)… what if you looked at that reflection and said, “God chose you.  He loves you today. And today, you are 100% His, start to finish.”

I wonder if we wouldn’t feel differently about ourselves.  I wonder if the drive into work would go differently.  I wonder if people at work would notice the difference after a week, a month, a year.

See, He’s called us to be His Saints – His holy people.  And that means He has some pretty big expectations for us.  He doesn’t see us as ineffective or irrelevant.  He has called us to be distinct from the rest of the world… and to trade our own expectations and life-plans for His.

I know a lot of us don’t feel particularly holy.  We may not think we’re particularly special or gifted – and accordingly, we might think God has very low expectations of us.  But if we hear what God is telling us in our reading today, then I believe we have a lot more to work with than we think.

It says that, “In [Jesus, we] have been enriched in every way,” and we “do not lack any spiritual gift.”  That might come as a bit of a surprise, but it makes sense, really.  If God has brought us together as His church, and has given us His spiritual gifts, why would He leave out anything we need to accomplish His mission?

And what is that mission?  It’s easy to overcomplicate this – to depend on mission statements or expect some detailed point-for-point plan.  But in reality, God’s mission is simple, and you already know what it is: to share Jesus with people who don’t yet have Him.

I don’t know that we always operate as if God has enriched us in every way.  I think sometimes we are a little shy or a little down on ourselves, and maybe we’re willing to defer God’s work to some other church or some other Christian who is more able or better equipped.  Maybe we can just hold our own here, and that’s enough.

That sort of thinking doesn’t really work if we believe that God called each of us individually and specifically to be a part of this family together.  It’s His mission we’re called to, it’s His power that makes it happen.  The problem is not in whether we’re equipped to do it, it’s in whether or not we believe that we’re on His Mission.

We shouldn’t be hoping that God’s on board with our mission.  We should be getting on board with His.  We shouldn’t be hesitantly questioning whether we’re cut out to share the gospel.  Don’t you know that the Bible says that, “the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.”

There’s any number of goals we could set as a church for 2017.  Whatever else may come, let me propose this one: This year, let’s act like we’re on His mission.  Let’s obey Him, even if it seems daunting or audacious.  Let’s act like we’ve been given a Spirit of power and love. Let’s face each day remembering that Jesus has made us holy and called us to be holy.

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By Pastor Michael Cofer
Matthew 2:1-12

epihanyGifts. They’re an important part of the story of the Magi. In fact, I’m pretty sure where we get our tradition of exchanging Christmas presents directly from the gifts that the Magi brought to Jesus.

A lot of pastors (myself included) have preached plenty on the symbolism of each of the gifts the Magi brought. But this year, as I read over this story, I was taken by the act itself and the meaning therein. They came to present Jesus with gifts.

Well, sort of. According to their conversation with Herod, the Magi came to worship Jesus. We’re not entirely sure where these guys started from… “the east” is a little vague, after all, but we can be reasonably sure it was a long, long trip and probably not all that comfortable.

They went well out of their way, at their own expense and peril, to come and worship the newborn king of Israel. And when they found him, they did just that. They bowed down before Him and presented Him with gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh.

As far as we know, they got nothing in return. If they did, the whole affair wouldn’t mean the same. There was no treaty signing. No exchange of gifts. The Bible doesn’t even record their names or countries of origin. So why do it?

It doesn’t make sense from a practical stand point. But this isn’t a practical matter. It’s a matter of the heart. It’s an act of reverence. It is worship in a very pure form – an act recognizing and acknowledging who God is and who we are.

The way we usually do Christmas presents can often stray pretty far from gift-giving. Children are taught that if they are good, they will get presents. If not, they won’t. Santa even has spies perched on the shelves of many a home these days, enforcing the lesson that if you’re good, you get gifts.

That isn’t really how gifts work, you know. If you have to earn it, it’s a reward or a salary. Gifts are freely given without conditions or strings. Gifts are a way that we show someone what they mean to us; who they are to us.
God’s gifts to us are the free act of His love toward us. He doesn’t owe us anything. But we’re His children, and that’s how a loving Father acts. He show us He’s our loving Father in countless ways everyday. Literally every good thing we have comes from His hand.

At some level, I think we get this. When I was making my Christmas shopping list, I definitely did not give equally to everyone I know. The gifts I gave to my friends, to my distant relatives, to my close family, to my son and to my wife were all quite different.

If you’ve ever been dating someone during the holidays, you probably had a conundrum on your hands… What kind of gift shows that right level of commitment and care, without disappointing her or scaring her off?

This is why we are able to make use of the Magi’s story. The gifts they gave reflected who they thought Jesus would be… a king, yes, and probably much more. Israel was not in a place of great prominence on the world stage at this time. The Jews were captive to the Roman empire. The birth of a new Caesar would be front-page news; the birth of the king of the Jews would barely merit reporting.

But these men traveled from afar, and presented this newborn king with costly and majestic gifts. That’s whom they believed Jesus to be – a king with worshiping.

I think we could learn something about worship from these Magi. Sometimes, I think, we approach worship as if we’re doing God a favor – and one He should be grateful for! We attend church when it isn’t too hard to fit in. We put a little money in the plate. That’s better than nothing, right?

Well… I suppose it is. But the act of worship is recognizing and acknowledging who God is to us. It isn’t meant to be a grudging tradition that we do because God expects it. If that’s what it is, then our worship says to God, “You are someone I’d rather not have to deal with, but I’ll give you the bare minimum to keep you off my back.”

I don’t think that’s how many of us feel about God – or at least, we don’t think we feel that way. So, what would a Sunday look like if it was going to communicate that God is someone we love, that we need, that we trust? What sort of gifts could we bring to say, “God, you are the most important thing in my life?” How would our singing, our praying, our hallway conversations be changed if our intention for coming to church was to bow down before our king?

We get that opportunity every time we gather in God’s house. Not just on Epiphany, every week. As we begin 2017, let’s make this a year to “Come and Behold Him, Christ the Lord!”

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