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Pastor Mark Nieting
Genesis 4: 4-16

Ash Wednesday 2011

Dear Friends In Christ, Gathered together wearing the “mark of the ash.”

All things, except for God, have a beginning…..a ‘genesis.’ Only God is eternal. Only God has always existed. God’s WORD begins with some very majestic words, ”In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” He brought all things into existence, literally from nothing…..with a thought from His mind.
“Let there be light. Let there be heavens and the earth. Let there be the dry land and the seas. Let there be plants and swarms of living creatures.” God said it and it happened…..and, God looked at all of it and God saw that it was GOOD.

In this fantastic paradise God formed Adam and then Eve from the dust of the ground. He blew His breath into them and they became living souls; and it must have been incredible for them; walking with God in the Garden of Eden.

But there was also evil in the Garden, a fallen angel named Satan, intent on spoiling God’s creation and the lives of God’s created. He tempted them to doubt the authority of God and they “reached for the fruit” and fell into sin. God’s holiness and man’s sinfulness resulted in consequences: Satan was cursed, Adam and Eve were put out of the garden, and…..Good News…. God promised to right the wrong that had come into the world. In time, a Savior would be born.

A child WAS born, the first-born of Adam and Eve. They named him CAIN. Was he the One, the Savior? Adam and Eve wondered. Even Satan wondered; would this be his downfall? The one who would crush his head?

A second son was born…..and named ABEL. Cain tilled the soil. Abel tended the flocks. Can you imagine the boys listening to their parents’ stories of the Garden of Eden, of walking with God, of life in paradise? Cain and Abel must have LOVED those stories, but NOT the stories that led to their expulsion from the Garden. Those stories were not so easy to hear…..how would they play out? When would Satan meet his “head crusher?” Who would that be?

Abel grew up in the shadow of his older brother. He heard the same stories. He worked long hours taking care of the flocks, while Cain raised the crops. Both brothers worked hard and their labors produced wonderful results.

Whether God commanded them to bring thank-offerings or whether it was a spontaneous outpouring of their hearts we don’t know, but a day came when each brother brought some of the “fruit of their labor” to give thanks to God. It was the first act of worship in human history.

Cain gathered a basket of fruits from his trees and seeds from his fields.
Abel chose a lamb, the finest of his flock.

Both offerings were certainly fine. Both were likely equal in value. The difference wasn’t on the surface…..the difference was in the hearts of the givers.

Abel’s heart will filled with love for God. Abel was waiting and hoping for God’s promise to be fulfilled. Abel quietly laid his lamb on a simple altar, offered with prayers that the sins of his parents would be overcome by the love of their God in forgiveness. Prayers that God would fulfill His promise of redemption.

Cain brought his gifts with a different motivation, one that’s still common today: that God can be influenced by the gifts we bring to Him. Cain’s faith was surpassed by his pride and his self-importance. Cain’s faith was in himself.

God accepted Abel’s offerings……….but not Cain’s. It made Cain angry. His anger turned to hatred; his hatred hatched a plan; and the plan flowered into the killing of his brother. Cain became a metaphor for murder in the first degree; outcast and separated not only from his family but from his God.

The lamb in this story seems almost insignificant. After all, it wasn’t the content of the offerings that we remember, it was the content of the hearts. Abel holds the story for about 3 sentences; and then he’s gone. Cain’s story isn’t much longer. Neither of them will ever be mentioned again in the Old Testament; and only briefly in the New.

But the LAMB will play an ever-increasing role.

It was there, just outside the gate of the Garden of Eden, that the lamb was quietly placed on the first altar in the first recorded worship service. The LAMB will be in full focus when God brings his first prophecy into fulfillment. And the LAMB will be in full glory and splendor in the final pages of Scripture as St. John describes the climax of God’s creation.

That is the genesis of the lamb.

God uses “types” … another word for “symbols”…. In the Old Testament to foreshadow Christ, who would be the fulfillment of that Garden of Eden prophecy; the one to crush the head of Satan.

The brazen serpent of Moses, held high on the pole in the desert to save God’s people from the poison of the snakes, was a “Type” of Jesus.

So was Jonah, three days in the belly of the whale and then “rising again” to life.

It was the blood of thousands of lambs saved God’s people from the plague of death in Egypt. So the lamb was a “type” of Jesus, who was to come.

There came a day when John the Baptist DID come, telling people “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

Then came that fateful night when the lamb of the Passover was placed on the table in the upper room, set before the Lamb of God Himself; the “type meeting the anti-type,” the shadow meeting the substance, the promise meeting the fulfillment.

And then, for Abel, for Cain, for Adam and Eve, Moses and Peter, for Caiphas and Pontius Pilate, for you and for me, came those hours on the cross when Christ, our Passover Lamb, offered HIMSELF up to God in sacrifice for our sins.

At the end of time we will be, if by grace we are still in the faith, a part of that great supper of “the Lamb and His Kingdom,” guests at His Feast of Victory!

Lent comes again this year, as quietly as that first lamb came to that first altar. And so Christ comes to us in this season as He came; quietly that first Christmas, in a stable outside Bethlehem. The Lamb came and continues to come, in His holy Word. The Lamb meets us in the waters of our Baptisms. And the Lamb feeds us in the Sacrament of the Altar.

We are “the people of the Lamb.” He created us…. ransomed us…. and will be OUR LAMB forever. Amen.

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Pastor Mark Nieting
Matt 5: 33-37

Sermon on the Mount, part 5


Almost 300 years ago, in England, there lived a sea captain named Fudge. He became notorious for the amazing stories he told about his adventures on the seas, stories everyone KNEW were lies. Whenever his crew heard someone else tell a lie, they would yell “Fudge! Fudge!” Over time his name became the “dockside” word for, shall we say, “stretching the truth.” His fame spread to America, so that when someone heard a lie they would say, “You’re FUDGING!” And so it continues to be. Make a promise and go against it, what are you doing? Fudging! If you’ve made a budget with some “wiggle room,” what’s that called? (A Fudge factor!)

Let’s face it, right…..everybody ‘fudges’ once in a while, right? Everybody stretches or bends the truth, don’t they? Even if it’s just to make someone else feel good…..you know, the commercial where “Honest Abe’s wife asks him if the dress makes her look fat!” !) Even TIME magazine headlined an issue “Lying, Everybody does it!” In fact, just to level the playing field, if you have NEVER told a lie, never fibbed, never “fudged” or bent the truth even a tiny bit, raise your hand up high. Welcome to the Liar’s Club…..you won this one “hands down!”

In the Greatest Sermon ever preached, Jesus has been describing “life in the kingdom of heaven.” He’s pushed back all the “Pharisaical Fine Print” to emphasize the two great summaries of God’s Law: Love the Lord Your God with all your heart, your soul and your mind; and Love Your Neighbor as Yourself. “Life in MY kingdom,” Jesus said, “reflects the condition of the heart.”

In this section Jesus addresses ‘truth-telling’ and oath-taking,’ things which certainly seem to go together, don’t they? We “swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God” when we appear in court. If we insist on someone believing us we say stuff like “I swear I mean it!” which is supposed to more honest than just saying “I mean it!” We use expressions like “honest to goodness,” the ever-popular, “cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye,” and when we want to pull out ALL THE STOPS and make sure someone knows we are really telling the truth, we ”swear to God,” don’t we? Who would lie with that oath attached? “I SURE WOUDN’T, I SWEAR TO GOD!”

“Oath-taking” is mentioned 200 times in the Old Testament, going back as far as Abraham. It’s not that God’s people are forbidden from taking oaths; that’s certainly not the case in Scripture. The taking of oaths is nothing more than a simple admission that people tell lies! It’s a reflection of our sinful hearts. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (The Cost of Discipleship page 152) says it this way: “The very existence of oaths is a proof that there is such a thing as lies. If lying were unknown there would be no need for oaths.”

Swearing oaths was as common in Jesus’ day as it is today. The intent has always been the same; to get people to tell the truth. But God also doesn’t want His name taken in vain, or used to back up a sin, so people, wisely, I believe, substituted other things in their oaths. They didn’t swear “by God,” they swore “by heaven” or “by Jerusalem” or “by the temple.” The closer the oath was related to God’s actual name, the more weight it had: kind of like the difference between swearing “on my mother’s grave” or swearing “on the grave of my third cousin, twice removed.” It’s obvious which has the weight…….and so once again, it became all about the fine print. If you swore “on the altar” it didn’t mean nearly as much as if you “swore by the gifts on the altar.”

In WC Field’s parlance, they were “looking for loopholes.” It was just another way to add “shades to the truth” while still appearing to actually TELL the truth.

How does Jesus address all this “fine print?” Just like He has with everything else in this sermon, but cutting to the chase and putting it all into one sentence: “Let your yes be yes and your no be no!” People in MY kingdom, Jesus says, are going to be people of honesty and integrity. If we live like this, there will never BE a need for oath taking, swearing, or promising on stacks of Bibles!

Do you know anyone who is as good as his or her word? Their yes is yes and their no is no! Those are people who STAND OUT from the crowds, don’t they?

It’s almost that joyous time when Little League begins, when boys and girls turn into baseball players and (some) parents turn into raving lunatics! The story is told about a 7 year old little leaguer named Tanner. He was known for telling the truth. (True story from S.I.) Tanner was playing shortstop one day. He scooped up a grounder, swiped his glove at the runner and the ump called “OUT!” Tanner stood still, looked at the ball, looked at the ump, and said, “I missed him.”
“What do you mean,” asked the ump? “I missed him,” said Tanner. “He’s safe!” So the ump called the runner safe. Imagine how THAT endeared Tanner to his own teammates.

Several weeks later; playoff game; same ump; same situation. Tanner scoops, tags, the ump calls the runner “Safe!” Tanner looked at the ball, looked at the ump, and then said quietly, “But I tagged him.” “What do you mean,” asked the ump? “I tagged him!” said Tanner. So the ump changed his call to OUT….and OUT stormed the coach of the other team, madder than a wet hornet, screaming, yelling, protesting…..you know how they get!

The ump told him what happened 2 weeks ago, and then said, “I know Tanner, and Tanner tells the truth.” Period. End of story. That’s what God wants His people to be like: people living in God’s LOVE and acting in love for each other. People of TRUTH. People of INTEGRITY. He wants us to be people who stand out from the crowd because of how we handle the truth in our lives.

How does this play out in our daily lives? We’re going to look at several different areas of living where the truth is prone to tampering; where our yes can take different meanings and our no might not be a no at all!

The first is in the area of regular, every-day relationships, the promises and commitments we make to our family and our friends. We may have the best intentions, but…..not always the best results. Ever said to someone “I’ll call you in a minute” and it took hours, if ever, for you to call them back? Ever said to your child, “I’ll play with you as soon as I get home” and it didn’t happen? What was the expression on those little faces when they realized you weren’t going to follow through on your promise? Ever said, “The check’s in the mail” and it was actually the truth???

It may not hurt when we’re on the “saying end,” but when we’re the one on the receiving end? When the nurse says ‘the doctor will be with you in just a moment’ and before he comes you’ve built Fort Knox out of tongue depressors? How many times have we been asked to pray for someone…..and said we would; and 2 weeks later when we see them across the Fellowship Hall we whisper, “God, please bless old Farquahr?” Ouch!

Every time we break even a casual commitment our credibility is diminished, trust is eroded, relationships are strained, and…..importantly, God is offended. And when we take it a step farther and begin to tell outright LIES, it gets even messier. Every time we tell a lie we have to keep score: to whom did I tell what lie, when I told it, who might know. So one lie is told, and then another, and another, until eventually we might not even be sure what the truth is ourselves! Sir Walter Scott said it this way, “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” Lying may seem “convenient” at the time; it might keep you out of trouble for a while, but it never, ever turns out well. Even spiders can get caught in their own webs!

The second area of “truth-telling” for us as Christians is our business lives, our workday world. When we commit ourselves to working for a company, we commit ourselves to doing all we can do to the very best of our God-given ability. We are, after all, God’s representatives in all those different places. It’s God who has given us the job. It’s God who is honored by the tithes and offerings that come from our paychecks. We may well be the one connection our employers can make to Christ! Are we giving a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay? Are we following through with commitments and promises we make? Are we “looking for loopholes” and sliding by with the bare minimum……or have we committed ourselves to honesty and integrity? It may not always be easy to take the “high road,” but it’s God’s way.

The third area of “truth-telling” for us as Christians is in the “Kingdom Commitments” that we have made to God in various ways.
Every person who joins this congregation (at least since I’ve been here) has pledged to do the following seven things:
1. Attend worship regularly.
2. Lead a Christian life while not living in a manner that is offensive to the witness and example of the Christian faith.
3. Develop a pattern of sacrificial tithing to the Lord’s work.
4. Grow (in faith) through regular personal study and by participating in our Christian educational programs.
5. Discover and use your spiritual gifts to extend God’s Kingdom (serve).
6. Allow yourself to be admonished when you have erred.
7. Accord honor and love to those in congregational leadership.
Some of these I have struggled with over the years! Perhaps you have also?

For every child who is baptized here at Hope (and in every church), those parents take an oath before God to raise their children in the faith, bring them to Sunday School and confirmation classes, and teach them God’s Word. I made those promises for each of my children, and in some areas, my performance may have been “less than stellar?”

For every person married at a Christian altar the promises are made to love each other to death do us part. I failed on this one once….doing much better today!

Those are our Kingdom Commitments, promises made to God and to each other with the best of intentions……and I’m not reeling off these lists to put any of us on a “guilt trip,” but instead, to remind us that God IS the one who remains faithful when we fail. God’s “Kingdom Commitment” to us took Jesus all the way to the cross and the grave. God’s Kingdom Commitment to Jesus was renewed in His resurrection and extended to us as well. It’s God’s commitment that comes to each of us in Isaiah 15:9, when He says, “Then you will call and I, the Lord, will answer.” God is faithful and He is as Good as His Word. His YES is YES and His NO is NO…… even when ours……..well……turns to FUDGE at times.

Jesus simply asks us to be people who live by His word and keep OUR word. I’ll close today’s message with a short parable from the great theologian, Dr. Seuss, in his noted discourse, “Horton Hatches the Egg.” Horton promised to sit on Lazy Mazie’s egg, since Lazie Mazie doesn’t want to work that hard. The weeks go by with Horton balancing on the nest up the tree. His friends, who used to encourage him, make fun of him. Remember his response? “I meant what I said and I said what I meant. An elephant is faithful, one hundred percent!”

Our God is. Our Savior Jesus is. It’s our challenge, our goal and our blessing!

Amen.

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The Heart is the Matter – Matt. 5:21-32
Pastor Cofer


Last week we spent some time talking about how Jesus really expanded the definition of the “Law” from a complex system of “do’s” and “don’ts” to the far simpler and infinitely more demanding mandate of love. This week, that theme gets elaborated upon in some pretty specific and uncomfortable degree.

After all, He pretty much called all of us murderers and adulterers. You know, I’m getting a little disgruntled with this Jesus. He isn’t playing very nice. I mean, I thought Jesus was supposed to be loving and accepting. This Jesus seems so judgmental and… mean.

Or maybe he’s just being a little over the top to prove a point. Surely he can’t mean that being angry with someone would actually be a sin? I mean, I can’t help getting angry sometimes, and some people deserve to be told off, because that’s being honest. And Jesus wants me to be honest, right?

We all know better than that, don’t we? Jesus meant it when he said that harsh words and even harboring anger and condescension are the same as murder in your heart. But we try to minimize or rationalize away from that idea, and I think I know why…

Inside of me there is this little Pharisee that just insists that I am ultimately a good person. That little Pharisee likes to tell me that at the end of the day God loves me because I’m a pretty decent person, who doesn’t murder or sleep around or steal. That little Pharisee inside of me has a hard time buying into what Jesus is saying here.

I used to make sense out of this text by thinking that Jesus is making the Law so hard to obey that no one could do it. And if no one could do it, then everybody would need a savior. I’ve come to realize that that’s a very backward way of looking at it.

Jesus isn’t actually making the Law harder. He isn’t actually raising the bar on righteousness. Rather he’s actually just explaining the way things have always been. If that’s true, it sheds some light on the whole business of cutting off your hands and gouging out eyes.

Some people would say that we shouldn’t take Jesus seriously about all of that gruesome stuff, otherwise we’d have a whole lot of blind, handless Christians walking around. But you know what? I take Jesus to be quite literal in this passage. If it were as simple as losing a hand or an eye to keep from sinning, it would totally be worth it.

The trouble is, it isn’t my eyes or my hands that cause me to sin. Those are the tools I use to sin, but the cause of sin is my heart.

That’s not to say that sin doesn’t have consequences in the real world. It definitely does. After all, if you have been harboring hatred in your heart, that’s just like murder right? Well, they are the same sin, but the consequences of each are different. You can’t say, “Well I’ve killed him in my heart already, why not go ahead and actually kill him?” But both the murderer and the one who hates are subject to judgment before God, and the penalty for each is the same.

Now, if you are the type of person who always thought of yourself as generally good (and certainly better than the more flagrant sinners and criminals of the world), this message comes across as bad news. If you think you’ve got it all together, then you’ve got another thing coming. But what if you are one of those folks who sees yourself as a mess? What if you don’t think too highly of yourself? What if you aren’t one of the “good people?” Then maybe the distance between you and the religious folks isn’t so far after all.

If sin resides principally in the heart, then who could possibly judge anyone but themselves? Who could say that the Pharisee is righteous or that the Tax Collector is wicked? Only God can see the hearts of men, so only God can judge.

Indeed, if sin resides in the heart, then I only have the ability to judge one person: myself. No wonder Jesus is so firm in his prohibition that even calling your neighbor a fool is as grave a sin as murder. It is no less than idolatry, because to do that means to put yourself in God’s place. Rather, the right thing to do is to seek reconciliation.

Think about it: Jesus said, “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” Now, let’s say that today we were going to take Jesus at His word. How many of us would be able to put an envelope in the offering plate?

Jesus is making a strong point here: until you get your heart straight, until you let God be God, your worship will be strained. It doesn’t work to work on your relationship with God to the exclusion of the very people He is calling you to love.

It’s not about being a people-pleaser. Jesus certainly wasn’t that. It’s about being honest about our sinfulness – deeds, words, and even thoughts – and seeking reconciliation. We see a beautiful picture of that in action between Jesus and Peter.

You’ll recall that when Jesus was about to be arrested, Peter emphatically told Jesus that he would die before he ever denied Jesus. And yet, as soon as Jesus is handed over to trial Peter denies Him not once, but three times. Three times Peter publicly rejected the title of “Christian.” If I were in a place to judge Peter, I’d have said he had no faith and there’s no way he was going to be saved.

It’s a good thing I’m not the judge. Because Jesus (who had every right to turn his back on Peter) instead restored him to his place as a disciple – not once, but three times. That is the kind of attitude that we are called to. We are to be honest with ourselves about our own sinfulness, but we are also to be merciful with others who sin against us.

Sin and righteousness: they both begin in the heart. That’s what makes the cycle of repentance and forgiveness so transformative. Christ fulfills our pleas to “create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me.” That inside-out change is the gift we receive because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. As for the little Pharisee living inside of me… well… I’m encouraging him to move out so Jesus can remodel my heart.

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Pastor Michael Cofer
Matt. 5:17-20

What do these phrases have in common? “Results not typical.” “Shipping and handling not included.” “Void where prohibited, restrictions apply.”

Yup, it’s your typical everyday fine print. Loved by lawyers, despised by the rest of us, fine print is just part of our lives. I mean, honestly, do you always read the “End User Agreement” or “terms of use” every time you update a program on your computer? Or do you just scroll to the bottom and click “I agree” without having read a thing? If so, don’t beat yourself up; very few people love reading all the restrictions and exceptions and legalese.

Now, I never took Jesus for the fine-print type of guy. The scribes and Pharisees were the kings of the fine print game, and generally Jesus is on the opposite side of the discussion from those guys. But in our passage today, we get something that at first is very strange. So strange, in fact, that some scholars make claims that Jesus couldn’t POSSIBLY have said what Matthew says he did. But, since I trust saint Matthew more than modern scholarship, I have to make sense of this section of scripture somehow.

As you know, we’ve just started working our way through the sermon on the mount, and up until now Jesus’ message has been one of inclusion… Like He’s bringing the kingdom of heaven to the regular folks. Not the holier than thou religious elite, but the meek, and the hungry, and the mourning. And as soon as he finishes up that beautiful series of blessings, he immediately jumps back into championing the law – the very sort of thing we’d expect a Pharisee to do.
I wonder what the people on the mountainside that day must have thought. Do you think they rolled their eyes and said, “I know there must be a catch,” or “I should have known he was just like all the other rabbis?”

But He isn’t like the other rabbis, is He? So, what then does it mean when Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them?”

My first thought is Jesus is talking about being perfect and sinless. That’s definitely part of what’s going on here, and it’s a pretty important point. After all, what good is a savior who needs to be saved himself? But by the Pharisees’ standards, Jesus actually wasn’t perfect. He healed people on the Sabbath, his disciples didn’t always do the ritualistic washing before eating, He hung out with sinners and touched lepers. According to the Pharisees, Jesus hardly fulfilled the law.

But what makes this passage make sense is a simple, fundamental difference: what Jesus meant by “the Law” is vastly different then what the Pharisees called “the Law.” For the Pharisees, the Law was a compendium of rules that governed the most minute details of your life. It was a rigid prescription of the “right” thing to do an any situation.

But when Jesus talks about the law, he doesn’t need a library of books or the authority of rabbinical precedent to explain it. In fact, he distills all you need to know about the law into two commands, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Now, maybe Jesus didn’t keep all of the rabbinical rules and restrictions, but he never failed to love. That is at the heart of Jesus’ assertion that He has come to fulfill the law; He came to embody love.

To put it a different way, the Pharisees used the Law as a way to prove themselves right, and to hold down those who don’t measure up. Jesus, on the other hand, used the Law as the standard of righteousness.

There is a key difference between being right and being righteous. A man who is worried about being right is concerned with whether or not his fellow man sees how right he is. You know anyone who always needs to be right? Folks like that are prone to arguing, and often to regarding those who don’t agree as beneath them.

But a person interested in being righteous isn’t worried about what other people think about them, they are only interested in what God thinks about them. In some regards this is a much freer way to live, because he is more understanding and forgiving and loves you more than any person in your life can be. But in another regard, seeking righteousness is a much higher bar than just trying to be right. Seeking to be loving is a higher standard than simply trying not to sin.

That’s why Jesus says that even though he is “fulfilling” the law, it isn’t going to go away. However impossible it is for us, I think it would still be possible to imagine living a life that satisfied the literal, explicit demands of the 10 commandments. But I don’t think it’s possible to imagine living a life that doesn’t require us to love. Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans wrote this, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.”

I think sometimes we Lutherans give the Law a bit of a bad wrap, because we are so consumed by the gospel. But those two do not stand in opposition, you can – and should – embrace both as gifts from God. Indeed, it is from the gospel that we receive God’s love, and it is the law that motivates and instructs us how to love others, including God Himself.

So, I’m not disappointed when Jesus says that the Law will never go away, because it means there will always be cause for us to love one another.

Lord God, teach me to pursue Your righteousness, and give up my need to prove myself right. Conform my heart and mind to the demands of Your Law, that is the rule of Love, that I may be made ever more into the likeness of Jesus Christ, who fulfilled the Law for my sake. Amen.

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Pastor Mark Nieting
Matthew 5: 6-16

Unless you’re living under a rock in the desert, you know that this is Super Bowl Sunday. Packer fans and Steeler fans have been preparing for what is probably going to be an excellent game (especially for Green Bay). But honestly, the rest of us watch the Super Bowl for what reason? The commercials! I know people who go to the bathroom during the game, but are glued to the TV just to see the latest and the greatest ads. You’ll have your favorites, I’ll have mine, all by what kind of an IMPACT they make on us when we watch and when we listen.

Last Sunday we started a teaching series on what is (arguably) the greatest of all sermons, the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus had an IMPACT on His audience, which was made up of everyday folk, from the very first word: Blessed. The word BLESSED can be translated different ways: Happy; Fortunate and my favorite CONGRATULATIONS. Congratulations to those of you who don’t think you’ll ever make it into God’s kingdom. Congratulations to those of you who are mourning. Congratulations to those of you who are humble and lowly. Congratulations to those of you who have a hunger and a thirst to be right with God. Congratulations, because you have come to the right place at the right time and you are placing your faith in me as your Savior: YOU WILL BE BLESSED!

In the first four “beatitudes” Jesus makes it clear that HE is the HOPE for the poor in spirit, He is the STRENGTH to those who are meek, He is the COMFORT for those who mourn, and HE is the one who provides righteousness to those who know that they have none on their own….those like me and those like you. “You,” Jesus says, “are not like the Scribes and the Pharisees who are so full of themselves and their self-righteousness” that they are literally blind to what God really wants…..which is hearts and minds yearning to be filled with HIM. These first four beatitudes remind us that life in this world is usually full of problems. They remind us that we often fall far short of God’s expectations, yet congratulations are in order because through faith, God has seen the needs we have and has fulfilled them.

We’re four sentences into the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus already has His listeners eager for more, and He’s ready to give it to them. He describes three active, positive qualities of those who are God’s Saints….both then and now.

Congratulations to those who are merciful…..
Congratulations to those whose hearts are really about God…..
Congratulations to those who are peacemakers……

These are three significant virtues of those who are a part of the Kingdom of Heaven. They are ‘marks of Jesus’ disciples.’ They describe…..us.
At the end of this same sermon Jesus would say, “By their fruits you will know them. A good tree produces good fruit. A bad tree doesn’t. Good trees can ONLY produce good fruit. Bad trees can’t. And ultimately, unless there is change, they will get cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matt 7: 17-20, paraphrased)

What is Jesus describing? Whom is He describing? It’s God’s people living their faith in God’s ways; people who have a desire to serve, rather than to be served. He’s lifting up Kingdom People who have hearts for the lost and a willingness to reach them. He’s describing Kingdom People who are recognized by their desire to build up others and not to tear them down. He’s emphasizing Kingdom People who have hearts for healing the rifts between individuals, not exploiting them.

In his meaning of the Eighth Commandment (Thou Shall Not Bear False Witness) Martin Luther said it this way, “No matter what happens, put the best construction on it.”

Does that describe you? Do you “bless others” by living this way, or do you look for ways to “bless them out?” Are you eager to forgive…..as Christ has forgiven you? Do you help cover someone’s sins….or are you quick to expose them? Can you hold something in confidence, no matter what it is, or are you part of the “mass media” who can’t wait to Facebook the latest gossip about anyone and everyone?

“You’re a REAL WINNER,” Jesus says, “if MERCY wells up in you and pours out to people around you. If you live by KINGDOM PRINCIPLES you’re not only blessed yourself, you bless others too. If your heart is about ME and MY Kingdom, congratulations, you’re a part of it, forever. You’re like God’s son if you act to bring peace. If you’re a bridge-builder. If you’re willing to put yourself on the line to heal broken relationships. If you’re willing to let go and let God bring healing……that’s what makes you like me,” says Jesus.

“Yes,’ say the people, “Tell us more, Jesus….tell us more.” Jesus does, but in this last “BEATITUDE,” things change. Jesus catches the crowd at the peak of their excitement and gives them a bit of a shocker:

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are YOU, when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you because of me. REJOICE and be GLAD….. because your reward will be great in heaven.

I bet the crowd gulped a bit at that, don’t you? After all, doesn’t “being blessed” mean having things easy? Doesn’t being a follower of Jesus mean He will protect us? Where’s that “lie down in green pastures” thing from Psalm 23? We’re already “reviled” by the Romans and the Pharisees…how much worse can it get?

If Jesus was looking to make an impact……He certainly got it with this one!

Jesus was reiterating what Christians experience every day: the value system of the Kingdom of Heaven is completely different from the value system of the world. They will ALWAYS be in conflict with each other. There has always been and there will always be conflict between God’s values and Man’s values, between God’s Ways and Man’s Ways. It started thousands of years ago…..a perfect example being Cain, who valued HIS possessions and wanted to keep them. He killed his brother Abel, who valued honoring God with the best.

In far fewer words, what Jesus was saying was this: if we live with Kingdom Values and Kingdom Principles and we LIVE what we believe, people are going to notice. That’s what we WANT! That’s how we will make an IMPACT.

Jesus moved on to two illustrations that people of His day probably understood even easier than we do today. He said,“You are the salt of the earth. But if salt has lost its taste, how can it be restored? It’s useless! It’s thrown out!”

Salt is a mineral. It’s a flavoring. It’s a preservative. It even kills germs. Roman soldiers used to be PAID with bags of salt, it was so valuable back then. But how do we know if WE are being SALTY? I googled “salt meter” to see how I would go about measuring whether we, as Christians, are truly “worth our salt.” There are thousands of kinds of meters that I could buy to measure salt in my food, salt in my aquarium, salt in my blood, salt in my yard, even salt in my tears, you name it, there’s a machine to measure it. I know when my food needs salt and I know when it’s got too much… that’s obvious to me! But how do I measure whether I am being “the salt of the earth?” Is there a “Salt of the Earth O Meter?” I don’t want to be thrown out……….do you?

Then Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Nobody lights a lamp and puts it under a bushes (basket). What good is that? It only good when it BRINGS light to the darkness around it.”

Have you noticed that this room is “brighter” than it used to be? The old lights weren’t doing the job…..we all complained that it was too dark in here; so OUT with the old lights and IN with the new ones. Do you notice the difference? Have the new lights MADE AN IMPACT?

That’s Jesus point! If we aren’t LIVING kingdom values; if we aren’t LIVING our lives for Him and like Him…..NO ONE WILL NOTICE THE DIFFERENCE! And if no one notices the difference, then there IS no difference! And if there is no difference between we who claim to be a part of the kingdom of God and those who are not…..in all honesty, we aren’t a part of the kingdom either. We aren’t worth our salt and our lights have gone out. Neither is a good thing and in neither case does God receive ANY glory nor do we receive ANY blessing!

It’s not….we need to be reminded over and over…that we GAIN acceptance into heaven by our good works. We are justified, made right with God, by the gift of faith in Jesus Christ. It’s HIS righteousness that we wear, not our own, as the result of our salvation. It’s in the daily living-out of our faith that we draw the attention of others not to ourselves for our own sakes, but to God, for THEIR sakes, so that ultimately they too would give their hearts and lives over to Him and receive the Kingdom of Heaven as well.

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Sermon on the Mount, part 1
Pastor Mark Nieting
Matthew 5: 1-11

Once upon a time (about 1960) in a city far away (Milwaukee) I received a set of golf clubs for Christmas and when the snow finally melted, my father started to teach me how to play. By the time I got into high school I wasn’t too bad at it and played fairly regularly with a bunch of friends. Then one day dad took me to watch the Greater Milwaukee Open, where, for the first time ever I saw genuine professional golfers really play the game. I’d been happy when it only took me 4 or 5 shots to make the green…..these guys hit it 300 yards at a time. I had become great friends with the animals that lived at the edges of the course; these guys had never even met them! They were WAY out of my league, so far that I was about ready to hang the game up for good. Ever felt that way?

To make it worse, there are those people who are really good at something and they KNOW it and they want US to know it. Watching pros was tough enough, but just to make sure we were kept in our proper place, there were the ones who would hit the ball hugely and lean over to their caddies and say just loud enough so we could hear, “I really didn’t get the whole thing!”

There we have a genuine slice of life…..the average among us seem to be living in the shadows of the elite, and the elite seem to take a delight in making the average feel even less. Isn’t that the way life seems? And is that a good thing?

In first century Israel there was a small group of men (no women, only men) who were widely regarded as the religious superstars of the day. They set the spiritual bar SO high that the average person from Jerusalem or Capernaum felt the same way I did at the Greater Milwaukee Open: there was no way they could ever measure up to these Scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees who obviously had God’s full attention….and God’s full respect……by the way they lived!

So there were lots of everyday people who had simply given up on trying to measure up to what God wanted. They wanted to be right with God but all they saw was the bar set so high that there was no WAY. And, as we know from reading the New Testament, the Scribes and Pharisees took pleasure in their spiritual elitism. They paraded around in their robes and positioned themselves in public places so when they were done praying they could say to the “rank and file,” See how righteous I am!!! In your face! You’ll never measure up!”

That’s the background against which Jesus began His ministry. Only a few weeks before today’s Gospel he was listening to John the Baptist calling Him “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” and was baptized by John as a voice from heaven thundered, “This is my Son, listen to Him!”

Shortly after that, word got around that Jesus was doing miracles: sick people being healed, demons being exorcised, paralyzed people getting up and walking. That’s pretty powerful stuff in ANYone’s culture, so it’s no wonder that the crowds started coming, listening and following Jesus anywhere He went. And, according to Matthew chapter 4, wherever Jesus went He talked about the “Kingdom of God.” That phrase is used 100 times by Jesus in Matthew, Mark and Luke!

The people of Jesus’ day had been waiting for the KINGDOM ever since the Kingdom of David ended with the Babylonian captivity in 587 BC. After they returned they had been ruled over by the Persians, the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Hasmoneans, and finally, worst of all, the Romans. The prophets spoke for centuries about the coming KING who would be even greater than David: the Christ, the Anointed One, the Messiah.

The people of Jesus’ day may not have been sure what “The Kingdom” would actually LOOK LIKE, but they were waiting…..watching…..and hoping to be in it, even though the Scribes and Pharisees had made it perfectly clear that only the very few who lived the way THEY did would ever make the cut. It would have been like high school seniors wishing to get into Virginia Tech when they have been told over and over they wouldn’t even make the cut for TCC.

So when Jesus started talking about the Kingdom, people came……with two questions in their minds and their hearts: 1) WHAT would the KINGDOM be like? and 2) WHO would QUALIFY to get in? I’ve asked those questions. Have you?

All of that sets up the Sermon on the Mount. We can visualize the crowd getting settled down and ready to listen. Finally the first word comes out of Jesus’ mouth: makarioi. In English we translate it blessed. We could also use: fortunate, happy, even lucky. Any of these would lift the hearts of the crowd on the mountain, and the crowd at Hope, and every other human being who has ever read these words. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

I’d suggest another translation of makarios: congratulations! Congratulations to those of you who have come with empty hearts and heavy spirits, because today I am telling you that MY kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven, is open to you!

Can you imagine how that felt to the people on that “mountain,” people who had been taught for their entire lives that they were spiritually “second-class?” The Pharisees just KNEW they were “rich in spirit” and they made sure everyone else knew how POOR they were in comparison, and here Jesus turns it all upside down. It’s hard to imagine the impact on the crowd; people suddenly realizing that Jesus, who had already demonstrated that He was so much more than their Jewish leaders, wanted them in His Kingdom. There was no dress code, no elitism, no economic requirements, no special privileges……..Jesus simply invited them to believe in Him!

In His first dozen words Jesus rocked the crowd as people, maybe for the first time in their lives began to think, “Me? Enter the Kingdom of Heaven? Is that possible?”

What Jesus proclaimed in the first words of the Sermon on the Mount was nothing less than the true, radical nature of God’s grace towards His people. These are words that St. Paul later would engrave on our hearts in his passage to the Ephesians, “By grace are you saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is a gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” It’s what we express in songs like “Rock of Ages,” the verse that goes “nothing in my hands I bring, simply to your cross I cling.”

People who are POOR IN SPIRIT bring nothing to Jesus but sin-stained lives and aching hearts…..and Jesus pours out the Good News: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

Obviously in a sermon that takes 3 complete chapters of Matthew, Jesus is only getting started. He’s got more good news in the second “beatitude,” His second blessing: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” You and I (and those around that mountain) have no lack of things in our lives that cause us tears of sorrow: every day we deal with the affects of sin, death and the power of the devil. It doesn’t matter whether our sorrow and mourning is over an earthly loss, over a broken relationship, over a debilitating sin, even a whole series of struggles, what Jesus is saying is this: Congratulations! If you’re someone who is mourning you’ve finally come to the right place: the Kingdom of Heaven is the ONLY place where you will find true comfort!

In Psalm 56:8 (RSV, Living Bible, a few others) there is an image of God being so moved by the suffering of His people that He collects their tears and keeps them in a bottle where He is reminded of them and is aware of them and can be with those who shed them in their times of need. I know stamp collectors, coin collectors, baseball card collectors and more, but I’ve never heard of God being a “tear collector” for the people He loves! Imagine how that felt to those on that mountainside whose lives were burdened down with the sorrows of life: not only were they welcomed into the Kingdom, but promised complete peace when they arrived. (And, parenthetically, it almost goes without saying that those who will be left OUT of the Kingdom of Heaven will ultimately experience not a single shred of peace, for all eternity!)

That promise and that invitation of Jesus still stands today, and it’s doubly good for us as New Testament Christians, as we not only mourn Jesus’ death for our sins, but celebrate His resurrection…..the ultimate victory over any mourning!

It’s taken me three pages to say what Jesus said in two sentences, and it’s only getting better. Jesus adds another piece of Good News that blesses especially a certain group in His audience…..and every audience since: those who are humble and meek. They haven’t pushed themselves to the front of the line so everyone can see where they are. They haven’t polished the tassels of their religiosity so others can recognize their importance. They’re the ones who are still marveling that Jesus even recognized that they were there: they KNOW they don’t stack up spiritually to the Pharisees; they know their not hot stuff and they’re fine with that. The third beatitude, almost word for word from Psalm 37:11, has Jesus looking these folks lovingly in the eyes and saying to them, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth! Congratulations to those of you who know

Three sentences into the Sermon on the Mount and the people are really starting to get a grasp of Jesus and His Kingdom. It’s not a place you scrape and claw to get yourself into. It’s not open to those who think they’re something special and let God…and everyone else know it. It’s “blessed are the humble-hearted, for God will see to their inheritance, and it will be good.”

I don’t know what this week will bring in my life….or yours, but in these three short verses, Jesus has already assured us that as we have received the gift of faith in Him as our Savior and our Lord:
- we will be blessed.
- we are already included in His Kingdom.
- we will receive comfort through His grace.
- and we will receive a wonderful and eternal inheritance.

Take some time this week to re-read Matthew 5…..so that as we finish the Beatitudes next Sunday you will be even more ready to be BLESSED.

Amen.

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Pastor Mike Cofer

One of the most pervasive, most primal themes in human thought is the conflict between light and darkness. It’s a theme that comes up in philosophy, art, literature, and movies. Whether you’re a fan of Plato and Socrates, or Obi Wan and Yoda, you have been exposed to battle between Light and Darkness.

It’s probably unsurprising that our Bible is jam-packed with talk about Light and Darkness. People often mistake them for equal opposites, perfect foils for one another, but that isn’t remotely true.

Before we get into our reading from Isaiah, let’s first acquaint ourselves with some of the basics of Darkness and Light. First, and probably most controversial, I would suggest that Darkness is the natural state of things. On the first day of creation God created light. Prior to that, there was no light – the very definition of darkness. It takes the movement of God to make Light; Light doesn’t simply happen on it’s own.

Which leads me into the next point: Light is something, and Darkness is nothing. Light actually exists. It has physical properties, it moves, it influences, it is. Darkness, on the other hand, is not a thing; it is only the absence of light. While Light is active, Darkness is purely passive. It is only identifiable because it has not been touched by the Light. In fact, every time that light and darkness meet, Light wins. Every single time.

What is even more fascinating, I think, is that objects that have no light of their own can be made bright by being struck by light. The sun, for example, generates light, but the moon does not. The moon is just a shiny rock. But when the light of the sun strikes the moon, the Moon becomes a light too. And on a clear night a full moon can yield enough light for folks to see without difficult.

You know what makes the difference between an object that is bright colored or dark colored? Bright colored objects reflect most of the light that hits them; dark objects absorb most of the light that hits them.

Now hold that in mind while you consider these two selections from Isaiah:
Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.
-Isaiah 9:1-2

It is too small a thing for you to be my servant , to restore the tribes of Jacob, and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
-Isaiah 49:6

I have walked in darkness. I mean literally. Last week, I got up out of bed to go check out a noise in the middle of the night, and I was trying to be careful not to wake Alisha. So I didn’t turn on the light. Wouldn’t you know, I didn’t even mke it out of the bedroom without stubbing my toe and (you guessed it) waking Alisha in the process.

Now, in the scheme of things a stubbed toe isn’t a huge deal, but think about if you had to go through life like that. I mean, I’m not blind. I have the capacity to see, but I simply avoided the light.

You and I have an incredible gift as children of God. We actually have Christ – the light of the world that will one day take over the sun’s job – living inside of us, guiding and directing our path. That is an incredible gift. And it makes us different than the rest of the world.

Granted, some people walk in darkness, but it seems like they’re doing okay. They aren’t in financial trouble, their relationships aren’t falling apart. And some of you all who are walking with the light of Christ are really struggling, because your path isn’t all smooth and easy. And maybe you’ve asked yourself, “What’s the point in walking in the light? All it does it make me more aware of how hard things are.”

Well, let me share this thought with you: the light isn’t just for seeing where you are, it’s also about knowing where you’re headed. Think about Jesus calling his disciples. Was he calling them to an easy life? Not at all, but I doubt any of them (except maybe Judas) had any regrets about following Jesus.

But, as Isaiah’s message also reminds us, it isn’t enough for us to hoard the light. It’s too small, too petty a thing for us to be content with simply being light receivers. We ought to be light reflectors. Isaiah, Matthew, and John call Jesus the Light, but Jesus calls us the Light of the World. He says that a lamp isn’t lit just so it’s light can be hidden. Its job is to let that light shine.

This isn’t a prideful thing. It isn’t meant to puff up our chests and give us big egos, because we aren’t what it’s all about. I’m not the source of light, I’m just a reflector. My job is to try to be moved by Christ to be like Christ – to love how he loves and to live how he lived.

Jesus shines His light on me without reservation or condition; he just gives it to me freely. It’s no good trying to catch that light, to tuck it away and store it up for the hard times because every day, every minute, every second that passes he is pouring out on me more life and love and grace than I can possibly take in.

How about you? Is the light that God gives you reflected outwards in your life? Does your gratitude to God extend beyond your prayers? Does the love Christ pours into you splash out and overflow on to the people around you? Or, are you happy to just soak it up and hold it in?

Lord make me lavish with your love. Thank you for invading this dark world with Your light. Teach me to reflect your light, to shine in this world that cannot understand the light that you give. In Your precious name, Lord Jesus, we pray. Amen.

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Pastor Mark Nieting
Matthew 3: 13-17

Muddy Water by Trace Adkins

“There’s a man in me I need to drown.
Baptize me in that muddy water. Wash me clean in amazing grace.
I ain’t been living like I oughta. Baptize me in that muddy water.”

When you saw that video clip, did it bring to mind the typical “Lutheran” baptisms we are so accustomed to seeing: Beaming parents bringing their beautiful baby wearing the “family baptismal gown” (now on its 3rd generation of wearers) up to the decorated font with the pastor in his robes, the acolyte ready with the baptismal candle, the Sacrament itself, and then a trip around the sanctuary while we all sing “More Precious Than Silver.” We have to admit that for most of us, our mental images of baptism are far closer to what I just described than either Mr. Atkin’s video clip, or even the baptism of Jesus. At least on the outside, that is!

Truth be told, if we wanted to be baptized where Jesus was, it’s not even LEGAL today. The Israeli government has banned people from “dipping in the Jordan” anywhere near the traditional site of Jesus’ baptism. That once-mighty river, the river that Joshua and the Israelites crossed with the help of God, the river that kept David safe from his enemies, the river Elijah divided with his coat, the river where John the Baptist proclaimed the coming of the Messiah, that river is so dirty and polluted that if we WERE to be baptized there, even by sprinkling, we’d probably end up with some kind of disease or infection.

Who wants the result of their baptism to be bad for them, right? After all, our understanding of baptism is clear: God’s Holy Spirit calls us to the water, where He washes our sins away and brings us into the family of Jesus Christ. Baptism is, using Luther’s Words, the “washing of regeneration.” All of those things are GOOD for us, in the now and into eternity. They aren’t blessings we can bring onto ourselves, they are given to us by God, which is what baptism DOES, and it all started in the Jordan River, where John the Baptist met Jesus.

All of God’s people have jobs to do….and John’s job was to get God’s people cleaned up ritually and spiritually for the coming of the Messiah. John took his job seriously, focusing his work in the Jordan River as close as he could get to the major population center of Jerusalem. That’s where the baptism of Jesus took place, not up north in the Sea of Galilee, close to Jesus’ hometown.

We have all sorts of images of faith in our hearts and minds……many of them involving baptism. The Jews of Jesus’ day had all sorts of images…..and many of them involved the travel through water. Water was THEIR symbol of liberation.

A few examples: By God’s command, Noah had built the ark and God used it to preserve their ancestors from death in the flood. After 400 years in Egyptian slavery, God delivered them through the Red Sea and drowned Pharoah and his army behind them. Then, after 40 years of wandering in the wilderness their ancestors had crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land, both a “grand entrance” and a “final deliverance,” or so they thought.

Honestly, friends, how did things go for the Jews after they entered the Promised Land? Was it all “milk and honey,” “peaches and cream?” Did they all live happily ever after? We know the answer to that…….there were battles to be fought, and when they trusted in God, those battles were won. There were “giants in the land,” overcome again only with God’s help. There were temptations of any and every sort…..and far too often God’s people succumbed, from the kings down to the peasants. But…..here’s the promise in all of this….God was, and God still IS, faithful to His people.

We can visit the same question on Jesus. After HIS baptism, how did things go with HIS life? The very next verses of Matthew’s Gospel take us, and Jesus, straight from His baptism to 40 days of fasting in the desert and temptation by the devil. Before He could even begin His mission of our redemption, Jesus was tested and tempted in ways we can only begin to imagine and pray we will never have to face………trials and tribulations all the way to His death on the cross.

The baptism of Jesus helps us understand our baptisms. The story of His baptism IS a glorious story. There is Jesus’ humility in presenting His sinless self to John, humility that reflects in our understanding that there is NOTHING any one of us can do to win, earn or deserve God’s love and forgiveness. There is the Voice of the Father from heaven proclaiming Jesus’ Sonship and the presence of the Spirit in the dove over the waters….what a wonderful image of “dry land after the deaths of the flood!”

Each of our baptisms IS a glorious story. It doesn’t matter whether we were baptized as tiny babies or far later in life, the fact is, God made it happen. He called us out of our sinful lives into the light of His truth. Baptism washes the stain of original sin from our hearts and….. I love this language…..”marks us as ones redeemed by Christ the crucified.”

It may not be a historical Lutheran tradition, but a lot of Christians make the sign of the cross sometime during worship, some of us at the mention of the Trinity, others when the Absolution of Sins is pronounced. It helps us remember our baptism. It is a symbol of our identity. It’s who we are. We are Christians!

It also marks us as being prepared for hazardous duty, because where our Jesus went, we are also called to go. When we come out of the water of OUR baptisms, we don’t only take on the Name of Jesus, we also take on the Mission and the Message of the ONE whose name has marked us.
Scripture is clear (Luke 15:7 and 10) that the angels of heaven rejoice whenever a sinner responds to the call of the Holy Spirit and repents. But at the same time we are marked with the name of Jesus, we are also marked as enemies of the devil and all who are under his control……and therein, my dear friends, is both the problem and the challenge.

Permit me a historical example. During the time of the Soviet Union in Russia, the communist government had outlawed all religious practices. Christian parents who dared to bring their children to a church to be baptized were assured that if the government knew about it, those kids would never be allowed to attend a university. The simple mark of baptism meant that they would be blacklisted. That’s a discussion I’ve never had to have when I’ve done “pre-baptismal counseling!”

How about something more recent? Last summer a medical team working in Afghanistan was ambushed and murdered by the Taliban. There were six Americans, one German, one Brit and two Afghans…..and all of them were Christians who had put their faith into action to help people they loved. They were accused of being spies and trying to convert Muslims to Christianity.

These examples might seem a bit extreme, and they may be, but the fact remains that when we are baptized, two things happen: First, God, in the person of Jesus Christ, steps into OUR unrighteousness to bring us HIS righteousness. There is nothing in the entire universe that can compare with that! But second, in taking the mark of Christ upon us, the sinful world marks US as its enemy.

It may be as subtle as sleeping in on Sundays or the constant conundrum of the choice between soccer or confirmation classes…….but the conflict is there……and so is the promise of Jesus, that where His people are, so is He also! Remember that at the moment of YOUR baptism, the angels in heaven rejoiced and the voice of God the Father also proclaimed YOU as His beloved Child in whom He is well pleased. You may not have heard it in the physical sense, but the promise is there nevertheless……God will not abandon you nor will He forsake you…….His care for you is as deep and as wide as all of creation.

Martin Luther reminds us that ever morning when we wake up and splash water into our faces, we are to remember our baptism…..and give thanks to God that Jesus brought His righteousness into our lives. Holy Scripture reminds us that all this happened in God’s plans even before He created the world. And in the words of the song with which I began this message, Trace Adkins reminded us that there are still things in our lives that need to be “drowned in the muddy waters.”

That’s just another way of saying that God is not done with me….or with you…just yet. He’s still cleaning us up, filling us daily, and renewing His promises that He is with us always…..as we go about making disciples of all nations.
And just how do we do that………? By baptizing them! On and on it goes! Amen!

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Pastor Michael Cofer
Luke 2:40-52

Today’s gospel reading is unique in that it offers us the only story in all of scripture in between Jesus’ birth and the start of His ministry some 30 years later. Luke is the only gospel writer who shares this account with us, which makes me wonder why he decided this particular story was important enough to make the final cut of his gospel.

Strictly speaking, nothing miraculous happens. In fact, if anything it seems like we see Jesus being a bit disobedient and his parents being grossly negligent. This is all the more punctuated for us because we’re still in the fading glow of Christmas, and even Luke’s gospel skips the 10 or 12 years between the magi and today’s story.

So what are we supposed to make of this account? Is the point that Mary and Joseph are only human – that they weren’t perfect parents? Well, I’d say that’s a fair conclusion, but I think we can go a bit deeper than that.

When Luke writes about Jesus growing up, he says that the child grew in wisdom and in grace. People tend to put a premium on wisdom. Everyone recognizes the value of being wise or having wise friends. Wisdom can yield tangible, material benefits. Solomon, for example, was incredibly wealthy, with a very successful career.

Grace, on the other hand, is a lot harder for people to see the value in. Grace can sometimes stand in opposition to worldly wisdom. Grace means giving the benefit of the doubt. It means not demanding repayment for debts you are owed. The wise person never misses an opportunity, but the gracious person never exploits or presses his advantage.

Jesus grew in both wisdom and grace. You can’t fool him, you can’t take advantage of him, and yet, he always gives you better than you deserve. It’s not because he doesn’t know better, but it’s because he loves you.

There was something else about this story that grabbed my attention. The reason Jesus and his family went to Jerusalem was that it was the Passover. Now, for Mary and Joseph, they probably didn’t see the connection between Jesus and the Passover, because this is long before the Last Supper, long before Jesus’ death on a cross. For them, Jerusalem at Passover was a family tradition, and a religious observance. They’d probably made that trip even if Jesus wasn’t part of their family.

But for Luke looking back at this account, and for us as well, it can’t be merely a family tradition. I mean, when I hear about Jesus in Jerusalem for Passover, alarms start going off in my head; something significant is happening.

When I think about the Passover Lamb, I think about the Lamb of God. When I think about the death of the firstborn Son to free the nation from slavery, I think about the Son of God dying to free us from our slavery to sin and death. When I think of the Passover meal, I think of Christ’s body and blood, broken and poured out to give me life. To me, it’s so obvious.

But it wasn’t so obvious for Mary and Joseph. They were so busy with the holiday, with all the family and friends, all the hassle of traveling and the stress that comes with it that… well… they lost sight of Jesus, and didn’t even know it.

And what’s more, it’s not because Jesus snuck off or was elusive. Jesus didn’t go anywhere; it was Mary and Joseph who left him.

We’re in that same place right now. The holiday is pretty much over, and it’s time to go back to life as usual. And it’s tempting to put on the blinders, and just get busy cleaning up the mess, getting caught up at work, making up all the lost time from your vacation… and in the process, leave Jesus back at the church instead of bringing him home with us.

You know what’s great about Jesus, though? He’s always waiting for you here. He doesn’t lose interest and leave. He doesn’t chew you out or belittle you for messing up your priorities.
So maybe if you are like me, and you’ve spent a lot of this past Christmas too busy with stuff to actually give Jesus the attention, let’s head back to the temple and bring Jesus home with us this time.

Gracious Lord Jesus, You are the most important thing in all the world. Forgive me being too busy for You. Help me commit, this year, to keep you at the center of my focus. Don’t let me leave without You today, or ever again. Thank you for your undeserved love and forgiveness. In your precious name I pray, Amen.

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Pastor Mark Nieting
John 1: 1-18 (and Micah 6: 6-8)

Merry Christmas everyone…..on the “Festival of the Nativity” in the year of our Lord two thousand and ten! Grace, mercy and peace from God our Father and our newborn Savior, Jesus Christ!

There’s one “glad tiding” that I know you will rejoice in with me this morning, and that, of course, is the birth of our Savior. That’s the number one piece of Good News, and the true “reason for the season,” the cause of celebration, the root of rejoicing, the happy in the holiday…..and so on and on it goes.

There’s a “lesser tiding” that also goes along with Christmas DAY, a far more mundane one, but I’ll share it nevertheless….the shopping season is over! Honestly friends, how many of you struggled to find the PERFECT gifts again this year? It’s not easy: you know what the challenges are, or shall I say, WHO the challenges are on your shopping lists. It’s those people who already have everything…..or they are so “picky” that buying them the right gift is impossible.

It’s sad, really. We work so hard to find the PERFECT gift, and then it doesn’t fit, it isn’t the right color, it was broken in the box, or the design doesn’t match the one they already have, or…..worst of all, it isn’t what they wanted. You know how it works: they unwrap the present you spent MONTHS selecting, there is a short pause…..just a nanosecond, really, but in that time you already know the truth. They may SAY, “It’s beautiful,” but their eyes have given the truth away……and plop, the joy drains right out of Christmas.

I thought about that again this week….but my thinking actually went in a different direction. What if I were trying to give Jesus a gift for HIS birthday? What would I give Him? Gold….already got it. Frankincense? That too. Myrrh? Not in any catalog I’ve seen. So what??? Hebrews 1 reminds us that He is the Creator of ALL things….so we can’t give Him something He doesn’t already HAVE! What do you give the God who not only HAS everything, but MADE everything?

What does God want from me? What would bring a smile to His face?

Luckily we don’t have to wonder about the answer to those questions, because He’s left us His “wish list……one He wrote in the little book of Micah, about 700 years before the first Christmas. In case you don’t remember him, Micah lived around the same time as Isaiah. His country was a mess…..threatened with enslavement by Assyria, God was completely out of their hearts and minds, and there was moral chaos everywhere. The politicians were corrupt; the merchants were ripping off the poor people; the leaders couldn’t be trusted.

Sounds like Micah’s world of 740 BC was almost identical to our world of 2010.

So Micah, God’s “shoot-straight, pull no punches” prophet wrote this short message to a world no different than ours today; a world filled with people facing difficult issues and serious problems…..and right in the middle of it Micah gives us God’s Christmas list. It’s only 3 verses……let’s unpack it this morning.

Micah begins, in 6: 6, by asking the question: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?” A year-old calf was supposed to be the highest quality sacrifice a person could bring…..would THAT please God? To give Him the best “stuff” we have? The answer, says Micah, is no.

“Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil?” (6:7) If God isn’t happy with QUALITY, perhaps we can go with QUANTITY? Maybe God could be bribed….as if He were a politician! Again, the answer is no.

One more try…..”Shall I offer my firstborn for my sins, the fruit of my body for the sins of my soul?” What a terrible idea THAT would be….especially if you happen to BE the firstborn! Child sacrifice was forbidden by God, but the neighbors of the Jews practiced it frequently…..offer a child, especially your firstborn and then, just maybe, God will forgive us!

Still…the answer is NO. God isn’t playing “Let’s make a deal.”

All these things deal with the outside of people….all these things, even firstborn, are, to the giver, “stuff.” What God WANTS is our hearts.

The prophet Micah sums it all up in one verse (6:8): What does the Lord ask of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. Three things…..we might call it “God’s short list.” Justice, mercy and humility. In other words….God wants us….down to the core of our hearts.

No present means anything until it is unwrapped…..so let’s unwrap these 3 words, these 3 ideas for a brief moment this morning before we move on to receiving God’s gifts to US in the body and blood of Christ, waiting here on the altar for us.

Acting Justly? God IS just. God treats each of us fairly. God plays no favorites. In Scripture this concept is applied in some very concrete ways: caring for the poor, remembering widows and orphans (not only at Christmas, but all year long), being honest, with everyone, refusing to take advantage of the less fortunate.

Loving mercy? Micah’s word here is the same one we use in our table prayers, “His mercy endures forever!” It means loving the unlovely even when they don’t love you back….which God does, all the time. It means doing unto others what God has done to us. How has God treated YOU this year? Have our sins been forgiven? Then we are called on to forgive others! Has God overlooked our faults? Then we can overlook the shortcomings of others! Has God blessed us? Then…it’s our JOY to bless others! It’s God’s way of living, and loving.

Finally, “walking humbly with our God.” What’s that? It’s putting the proper perspective on our relationship with God…..He’s God and we’re NOT! It’s realizing that God made us…..that God made everything…..and we belong to Him. If we live that way…..and walk with God that way….not only will WE be blessed, but we will bless others, day in and day out!

That’s what God wants: our hearts…..our souls…..our all, responding to Him and to His love with our own love. That’s why we are here today, because we are giving Jesus the one thing He wants for Christmas: US…..acting in love, in justice, in mercy and walking in humility before our newborn Savior and King!

Merry Christmas!

Amen.

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