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Advent is a very special time for the church. It’s a time of preparation for one of the biggest days of the whole year: the day we celebrate God coming down to Earth in the form of a newborn baby.

So how do we prepare for Jesus birthday? Well, we decorate the house (And some of us were here yesterday doing that), we buy gifts (though most of them aren’t for the birthday boy), we sing songs to get us in the mood, and we try to be just a little cheerier than usual.

All in all, I think it makes for the “most wonderful time of the year.”

But I like to think that Advent is more than the crazy obstacle course race to Christmas. Instead I like to think of advent as the call to be ready for Christ to come. 3000 years ago, Isaiah was sounding the call. 2000 years ago, it was John the Baptist. And today… well… you get me.

And my message isn’t drastically different than theirs: Jesus is coming, and we need to get ready. But how? How can you possibly get ready for something like that?

Last week Pastor Nieting spoke about that, and I want to pick up right where he left off. The end of the world could come at any moment, and we don’t have to be afraid because we live in the Kingdom of Grace. That is the basic, central truth of what Christianity is all about… God gives us undeserved love and patience and forgiveness. And as Pastor Nieting reminded us last week, we need to get that news out to our neighbors, coworkers, everybody.

But I think we need to up raise the bar here a little bit. 1 Peter 4:7-8 says this: “The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” Pause here with me for a second and think this through.

Imagine you’re standing in the middle of the mall, watching the people pass by. Now pick a random person. Imagine that that person found out that this was the last day they’d ever spend on earth. What do you think they would do with that time? Max out their credit cards and go skydiving? Eat cheesecake until they fall out of their chair? Or worse?

What would you do with that time, if this was for sure your last day on earth?

Peter’s advice isn’t to get away with as much as you can… it isn’t about making “the most” of our time, it’s about making “the best” of our time. If Jesus is coming back today, let Him find us loving one another.

After all, we live in a messy, hurting world – a world that one day God will wipe out and start fresh. But that doesn’t mean we ought to become hardened or indifferent to the people around us. On the contrary, we ought to do what we can to ease suffering and fight sin wherever we can. And 1 Peter tells us this to take the offensive against sin we ought to love. “Love covers a multitude of sins…”

We usually think about grace as something that only God does. We’re miserable sinners, and we depend on His grace. And that’s true; absolutely true. But that doesn’t mean that we only receive grace.

1 Peter 4:10 says, “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.” So, again, Peter is saying, “The end of the world is at hand, so get busy administering God’s grace.” Notice, Peter is charging each of us with this job. Grace isn’t just for God to dispense. It isn’t just for pastors to pass out. It is the charge of every child of God.

So, what does that look like? Well let’s establish a few facts. Fact #1, we live in a world that is full of hurting people. Every person you lay eyes on is a person who needs love, a person who doesn’t have it all together, a person in need of forgiveness and healing.

If you aren’t sure about that, think about the people you know the best. I bet those people thrive on your approval, and are crushed by your harsh judgment. I bet you know tons of their flaws. It isn’t that the people in your life are necessarily more messed up than everyone else in the world… you just see the part of them that strangers can hide.

Fact #2, you are unique and that is on purpose. God made you in a specific way, positioned you in a particular time and place, and has given you entrusted you with certain gifts. There has never been someone just like you, and there never will be.

If you say that grace is undeserved love and favor… well guess what? The best parts of you are gifts of God’s grace. Are you smart? That’s an act of God’s grace? Are you strong? Grace. Are you talented? Grace. Are you kind? Grace. The list goes on and on.

Fact #3, as a child of God, it’s your job to bring grace and healing into the lives of the hurting sinners all around you.

That’s precisely what 1 Peter 4 is driving at. You are who you are and where you are so that you can bring God’s love to the people around you. If you are a talker, then you need to talk as if you are God’s spokesman. If you are a servant, then God will empower you to serve. Everything we do in life should be a testament to God’s love and mercy.

We are absolutely dependent on God’s grace, and that comes in all kinds of forms. Sometimes it is received in a direct way… like in the absolution or in communion. Other times He uses regular folks like you and me to pass along His grace to the people in our lives who desperately need it.

Three Advent candles are lit, and they remind as that Christ’s coming is nearer than ever. Will you make the best of the time left? Will you pass on the grace that you’ve received?

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2 Peter 3: 8-15

On the outskirts of a small town there was a big pecan tree inside the cemetery wall. One day, two boys filled up a bucketful of nuts and sat down by the tree, out of sight, and began dividing the nuts. “One for you, one for me. One for you, one for me,” said one boy. Several dropped and rolled down toward the fence.

A boy came riding along the road on his bicycle. As he passed, he thought he heard voices from inside the cemetery. He slowed down to investigate. Sure enough, he heard two deep voices saying, “One for you, one for me. One for you, one for me.” He just knew what it was. He jumped back on his bike and rode off. Just around the bend he met an old man with a cane, hobbling along. Come here quick,” said the boy. “You won’t believe what I heard! Satan and the Lord are down at the cemetery dividing up the souls.”

The man said, “Beat it, kid. Can’t you see it’s hard for me to walk?” When the boy insisted though, the man hobbled slowly to the cemetery. Standing by the wall they heard, “One for you, one for me. One for you, one for me.”

The old man whispered, “Boy, you’ve been telling me the truth. I’d don’t want to see the Devil, but let’s see if we can see the Lord.” Shaking with fear, they went down to the gate, but still couldn’t see anything. The old man and the boy gripped the bars of the gate tighter as they tried to get a glimpse of the Lord. At last they heard, “One for you, one for me. That’s all. Now let’s go get those nuts by the fence and we’ll be done.” They say the old man made it back to town a five minutes ahead of the kid on the bike.

In last Sunday’s message we focused on “the beginning,” where God created the heavens, the earth, everything in them….human being included. It was “First Article” theology: We aren’t “accidents of evolution,” as science tries to convince us. God made us and we are His creatures. God gave us full responsibility for creation: use it, maintain it, be responsible for it, and be good stewards of all of it.

In this morning’s Epistle text we move from the beginning of time to the end. The disciple Peter assures us that there will come a time when God will bring HIS creation to an end. We don’t know when that will happen: it’s been over 2000 years since these words were written, but when it does happen, it will be different than the first time. There is an old spiritual that slaves sang in the fields that picked up that message. It includes the lines, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign. No more water, the fire next time.”

We aren’t living at the beginning of time, and since we’re still sitting here, it’s obvious that we’re not at the end yet. So we’re somewhere on the timeline between beginning and end. To which are we closer? The beginning was thousands of years ago, and the end of the world and the God’s final judgment is going to be….when? We don’t KNOW, and since we have no control over God’s timetable, we have to accept the facts as He has revealed them. The only question left to ask is this: What will we do with the time that we have?

Today being the FOURTH of December, there are 20 days left until Christmas Eve. 20. No more. No less. Children may WANT it to come sooner so they can enjoy their presents and we adults MAY want it to come later because we have too much to do…..but the reality stands. We have 20 days to prepare.

If there are too many things on our “to do lists” we may have to set priorities so we don’t waste time with things that really aren’t all that important, so we can accomplish the things that ARE. But 20 days is all we have!

The time is coming when Jesus WILL return and bring this present world to a close. The only reason that hasn’t happened yet is because of God’s patience. He doesn’t want anyone to be lost. He wants the story of Jesus to reach every corner of creation, a story we know very well.

We aren’t just stewards of creation, we are also stewards of The Gospel. Peter reminds us that in the time we have left, whether it’s 20 days or another 2000 years, we are to live “holy and spotless lives” (v 11) so that when Jesus comes, He finds us “blameless and at peace with Him.”(14) Are there things going on in our lives that don’t meet God’s expectations? Are we good stewards of Creation? Are we using the gifts God has given us wisely? Are we keeping God first when it comes to our time, our talents and our treasure? Is there so much “clutter” in our lives that we are having trouble keeping living as God’s people? Advent is a call to do some spiritual “housecleaning” as we prepare to welcome the Christ-child AND the returning Christ as well!

In the 20 days left until Christmas, I’m sure that our children will be reminded over and over that Santa is “checking his list” to see if they have been “naughty or nice.” We say it to them and then we chuckle to ourselves, knowing that no matter what, every single present will still end up under the tree, NOT because they’ve been good, but because they’re our kids and we LOVE them.

We’ve learned that behavior from our Heavenly Father, because that’s how He is towards us. He made us, gave us life, and He LOVES us, no matter what.

With the love of God being such a prominent teaching in the Scriptures and such a wonderful message to hear, it’s can become convenient to ignore warnings of God’s final judgment. But judgment is a theme that occurs throughout Scripture. God wants a relationship with each and every of us, which is why He’s being so patient about coming back. But since this relationship is offered to us as a free gift by the calling of the Holy Spirit, it can, and far too often is, rejected.
And if we reject it, there must be some different consequence than if we embrace it. That consequence, according to the Bible, is ultimate separation from God that happens at the time of the judgment. The only way for there to be no judgment would be for God to become indifferent to our fate, and that flies in the face of his love for us.

The urgency of Peter’s words (and Paul’s and Jesus’ as well) are that human freedom and human responsibility matter. What we do in life matters now and matters in the eternal sense. We will have to answer for the kind of people we are.

Unlike human judges, however, God also provides mercy and grace. No matter what we deserve, God sent his Son the first time to tell us about forgiveness so that if we accept it and start living lives of godliness, we have nothing to fear.

In 20 days Christ will come to your home and your heart at Christmas. He will also come again to take us to HIS home. It’s time to be prepared. Amen.

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I think it’s time that the Christian church adopts Thanksgiving as an official church holiday. Oh sure, a lot of people think that Thanksgiving Day is uniquely American – remembering the pilgrims and Plymouth Rock and all that stuff. And yes, I suppose that may be where the tradition started, but I think Thanksgiving Day taps into something deep in the souls of God’s people.

As a matter of fact, the Bible tells us that Jesus celebrated thanksgiving feasts a couple times in His life. Do you remember the story of the feeding of the 5,000? If you think you’re going to be busy cooking tomorrow, you’ve got nothing on Jesus. After all, he’s on a mountainside with thousands of people, and He doesn’t want to send them home hungry. After all, Jesus is a gracious host.

So he sat down with what little they had, gave thanks, and gave it to them. And then they passed the food around. 5,000 families ate at that first Thanksgiving feasts – and when they were full, there were 12 basketfuls of leftovers.

There is a lesson to be learned from Jesus here. He didn’t lament to the Father that he had too little to feed everyone, but rather He gave thanks for what He had.

I can share with you that I seldom feel like I have enough. I have a well-cultivated sense of dissatisfaction, because we live in a world where being a good citizen means being an active consumer.

If you aren’t sure what I mean, consider this: tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day – the day when we stop and appreciate everything that God has given us. It should be a day marked with contentment and satisfaction. The day after Thanksgiving is Black Friday – the single biggest day of the year for going acquiring new stuff.

The apostle Paul understood this in a much better way than most of us do. He had some serious highs and lows in his life. He speaks with great credibility when He says, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”

Joy is not a product of circumstance. It isn’t about having a privileged life, or having everything you could possibly want. It is about reflecting upon how much God has already given you. Indeed Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never be hungry.”

Of course the disciples didn’t understand what that meant when it was said. At that time, I don’t think they could have imagined that at The Lord’s Table, the host is the meal. But that is exactly what happens.

There are many names for the Lord’s Supper, one of which is “Eucharist,” – the Greek word for Thanksgiving. After all, when Jesus gave us this sacrament, He began by taking the bread and giving thanks. Likewise with the cup, before it was given to His disciples, Christ took it in his hands and gave thanks.

The parallel between the Eucharist and the feeding of the 5,000 should not be overlooked. What we hold in our hands and put in our mouths seems to be very modest: a bite of bread and a sip of wine. But by the power of Christ, it is incalculable abundance.

Tomorrow you will probably eat a big meal. You may eat so much that you can hardly move. You may say, “I’m so full, I couldn’t possibly eat anymore…” And then they’ll bring out the pie. And yet, no matter how much you eat (or overeat), you will be hungry again. But when we eat of the bread of life, we are given nourishment that lasts forever.

As we gather around the Lord’s Table, and as we gather around our tables at home, let us pause to remember that if we have Jesus, we have everything we need. That is the greatest gift than can be given, and we receive it with our deepest and humblest thanksgiving.

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Matt 25:31-46

On the “last Sunday of the Church Year” our focus is most always on the end of time, the last day and the final judgment, where, in the words of today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus will come to “separate the sheep from the goats.” Today, after hearing what Jesus had to say, I think it is valid to ask: What’s the difference between a sheep and a goat? After all, if I had to be an animal in Bible times, a goat wouldn’t be my top choice. It was the “scapegoats” which were driven into the wilderness by the high priest after being “loaded up” with the sins of the people. They probably ended up as lions’ lunches! Nobody in the Old Testament seemed to appreciate the goats!

But, you might argue that being a sheep in Bible times wasn’t easy either. A sheep, after giving up its wool, might end up on someone’s menu and someone’s dinner table! They were burned up regularly as temple sacrifices. But Jesus always gives the indication that He’s on the side of the sheep, as their “good shepherd,” so hands down, my nod goes to the sheep over the goats.

Let’s see if YOU can tell the difference: I’m going to show you a few pictures. (on screen, mixed: 3 of sheep, 3 of goats.) Which are sheep? Which are goats? I think it’s pretty obvious, don’t you? For shepherds, it’s even easier. Goats are thinner; tend to eat more shrubs than grass; have hair rather than fleece; a goat’s tail stands up, while a sheep’s hangs down. How well did you do on the quiz?

It’s obvious that Jesus isn’t talking about two bunches of critters, He’s talking about people, real human beings who, ultimately, will be sorted out into two groups: the sheep-people on the right, who will be welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven, the goat-people on the left, who will be driven from Christ’s presence, forever. So, given that Jesus is actually talking about real people, how can we tell the difference between “sheep people” and those who aren’t? (People pictures.)

Hmmm, not as easy, right? The criteria certainly isn’t based on looks. It’s not about income or social status. It’s not about which way tails point! Rather, as we listen to Jesus, the Good Shepherd and Judge of All, the criteria have to do with whether or not one actually ministered to HIM by their compassion to others, as opposed to those who ignored Him by ignoring those who were in need!

One of the striking things about this particular teaching of Jesus is that unlike sheep and goats, those who have served their neighbors and those who have not can ultimately ONLY be distinguished by Christ, who serves as the great “sorter” in the story. Even the doers and the non-doers of the good deeds don’t easily recognize one another and the members of BOTH groups seem quite surprised to learn into which group they have been sorted, some obviously for the good and some…..not so!

Right about now your “spidey-senses” are probably tingling from the way Jesus portrays the Christian faith. It ALMOST sounds as if it’s all about doing good works; like our final destiny is based on whether or not we love our neighbors. It DOESN”T say anything about loving God, about repentance and the forgiveness of our sins, or even embracing Jesus as our Savior! If we take this passage at face value, a pagan person who feeds and clothes his underprivileged neighbors is on better spiritual footing than his Christian friend who doesn’t! Jesus is NOT painting a picture of Himself as the “cosmic scorekeeper,” keeping a database of the good and the bad we do and weighing them to see which comes out on top. That’s NOT the message of the Gospel. It’s extremely important that we pull back the lens of Scripture to see the full picture of Christ’s work, and His message.

*In Matthew 22: 37, Jesus does just that, as He summarizes the Commandments for the Pharisees: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: love your neighbor as yourself.

When God calls us to Himself through Holy Baptism, He washes our sins away and brings His Holy Spirit to live inside of us. That’s the gift of faith: it’s not earned, certainly not deserved, give us by grace simply because God loves us. What Jesus is reminding us is that God’s love for us allows us not only to love HIM back but to love those around us…..those same people HE loves!

*The disciple James (2: 17) says: Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead!”

*St. Paul, a recovering Pharisee himself, (Titus 3:8) “Insist on these things, so that those who have come to believe in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works; these things are excellent and profitable to everyone!”

Do our good works EARN salvation for us? Certainly not. In this world we’ll always remain sinners in need of forgiveness, which Jesus won for us on the cross. But this judgment account reminds us that our faith is lived out NOT just an hour or two on Sunday mornings in church, but in the arena of our daily lives! Jesus isn’t trying to scare us in this passage; He’s simply encouraging us to love our neighbors…..in the same way HE loves us! He wants us to keep working at it, not to offer excuses, and not to assume someone else will do it.

For the “Sheep,” their love for their Savior flowed naturally into their love for those “in need,” so easily in fact, that when Jesus commends them for feeding Him and clothing Him and visiting Him, they were amazed. They were simply living out their faith, loving Jesus and serving others, no matter who they were.
The difference……gets clearer by the moment, doesn’t it?

As you leave God’s house this Sunday, I offer you a challenge: when you see a person in need, love them as you love Jesus. Serve them as you would serve Jesus, because, as He reminds us, we never know: it just MIGHT be Him!

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Eph. 5:22-33

One of the great joys of being a Pastor is to be there with people on the real important days… The birth of a child, a baptism, a confirmation, a funeral… But by far the day that garners the most attention and planning and excitement is the wedding day.

Weddings are an exceptional time; everyone is at there absolute best. Hair is immaculately styled, flowers are arranged vibrantly, cummerbunds are suitably cumbered. Man and woman are full of hope and joy and mutual admiration.

I have noticed a bit of a trend, though, which troubles me. I find that couples, and the ladies in particular, tend to want to avoid reading the passage from Ephesians we heard earlier. What usually happens is we’ll read through it in my office, and when we get to “wives submit to your husbands,” the women look very uncomfortable, and the men look too comfortable.

The reason why is that we have a really messed up idea of what the relationship between men and women, and particularly husbands and wives, should be like. This Friday we’ll host the Love and Respect seminar based on the Ephesians text, and we’ll spend a decent amount of time talking about what that submit stuff is all about.

The thing I want to lift out of this section and really focus in on is the idea that the marriage relationship should be parallel and comparable to the relationship that Jesus has with his church. That’s the underlying, unifying theme of this scripture… To understand marriage, and even love in general, you need to look to Christ’s example.

Love as it is portrayed in pop culture is a fickle, conditional, and treacherous thing. You fall in, you fall out, and if you can’t be with the one you love… Well you know the rest.

But that isn’t remotely how Christ loves. You have probably heard the saying that you have to love yourself before you can love anyone else. There maybe some truth to that statement, but I think it is often taken to mean “you must love yourself MORE than you love anyone else.” That’s Just flat wrong, if we are to take Christ’s example.

“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. (1 John 3:16 NIV84)”

Is he Lord of the church? Of course. But how does he exercise his Lordship? He leads from the front. Jesus considered your life more important than his. He didn’t have to die… He willingly chose to die so that you could live. He gave up everything because of his love for us. “[The] Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28 NIV84)

Is that the picture of love in your household? Now before you answer too hastily, let me revisit a couple verses. “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. (Ephesians 5:25-27 NIV84)”

That goes well beyond bringing home a good paycheck or taking out the garbage. Christ gave himself up for the eternal well being of the church. He worked hard to ensure that his bride was spiritually healthy.

This should be a gut-check for anyone of us who claims to love another person, whether romantically or otherwise. Is your first concern their spiritual well being? Are you helping them live a holy and godly life? Are you hindering them from it?

I know I still have room to grow in this area. Sometimes I’m motivated by a desire to cherish and honor my wife. Sometimes, however, I’m motivated by a desire to have everything my way or at least avoid an argument.

But that’s where Jesus’ example of Love is so instructive. He didn’t avoid conflict at all costs. He wasn’t an appeaser. Nor was he a tyrant, barking orders and doing very little himself. Instead, Jesus was the trailblazer – the one who leads from the lead, who engages obstacles head, on and who lays down his life to protect his beloved.

And what is both the biggest challenge and the greatest blessing is this: Jesus loves constantly and unconditionally. On the good days and the bad ones, when I’m lovable and when I’m completely unlovable, He remains faithful.

On your own, this is pretty much impossible. My patience has limits. I can only be so gracious and understanding, and then… Then, I need to be reminded of the way that God loves me.

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love… We love because He first loved us. (1 John 4:7-8, 19)”

God calls us to a very high standard of love, but He never asks more of us than He is willing to do for us. He gave his all to win our hearts and souls. With a love like that, how can we keep it to ourselves?

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All Saints Sunday 2011
Luke 18: 9-14

First, dear Saints of God, allow me to read these verses from Luke 18:

“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers, even this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”
But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his chest and said, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”
‘I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (vs 9-14)

During His entire ministry there was a “love-hate” relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees: He loved them; they hated Him. The Pharisees were confident of their STATUS as the true SAINTS OF GOD because they KNEW they had earned it! They were sure, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that God LOVED them because of who they were and how well they kept God’s Laws, and they took great pride in that. They KNEW they were better than anyone else.

The tax collector, on the other hand, KNEW he was lower than dirt, even without the Pharisee telling him, although I think we can be sure that the Pharisees, and everybody ELSE in town, never failed to remind him that he was really “scum!”

Today is ALL SAINTS SUNDAY. You, if things worked well this morning, are wearing a nametag that calls you a what? All together: A SAINT. Turn to the person next to you and address them by name: Hello, Saint Michael!

That was fun, wasn’t it? But knowing what you know about the person next to you, was it easy??? Is it easier for you to think of that one special person sitting next to you as somewhere in the category of “tax collector,” or somewhere in the “Righteous Pharisee” category? Don’t answer that yet…..but I want you to think for a moment about how you would answer that question about yourself!

In your heart of hearts, do you envision yourself as being closer in spirit to the Pharisee……or the Tax Collector?

Before you pledge yourself to join the ranks of the Pharisees…..or the IRS, let me tweak the question in light of the nametag that you are wearing, the one that starts with SAINT. Are you accepting the title of SAINT because of things YOU have DONE? After all, you go to church, you give some offerings, you try to be a good person, you’ve memorized the hymnal and wear red on Reformation! What’s not for God to like about that, Saint So-and- So? You just HAVE to be making God happy, right??? That’s got to count for SOMETHING, doesn’t it?

OR…..are you a Saint because, like little Paige Grace Schultz who was just baptized a few moments ago right here at Hope, you were lost in your sins until you were: called by the Holy Spirit, washed in the water of your baptism, forgiven of your sins, and clothed the righteousness of CHRIST, without Whom you would be nothing?

The tragedy of this parable, which is just as applicable today as it was 2000 years ago, is that the Pharisee doesn’t even begin to understand that it is the Tax Collector who has God’s attention! He’s the guy who knows that NOTHING he does in life earns or merits him anything before God. He KNOWS he’s lost. If he’s going to be saved…..if he’s going to be sainted….it’s God that’s going to make it happen!

The Pharisee is so busy judging everybody else, so busy putting everybody else down beneath him because they don’t “do the faith right,” that he misses what God offers for free, through Jesus Christ!

There was one Pharisee who DID get it. His name was Nicodemus. There was something nagging at him; something keeping him up nights with worry. Was he really DOING enough to be saved? So, being wide awake in the middle of the night, he came to Jesus and asked, “What else do I have to DO to be saved?”

Jesus sent him right back to square one. “Start over, Nicodemus, be born again! This time,” Jesus told him, “let ME do the work. I’ll bear the cost, you receive the gift!” There’s one Pharisee who lived the rest of his life in grateful JOY, because he was able to lay down the burden of his own salvation at the foot of the cross.

Last weekend, in case you didn’t notice, I wasn’t here. I had been invited to officiate at Pastor Isler’s retirement at Nags Head. The president of Grace had invited us down and I assured her that we would come…..and by the way, would she make a reservation for us at a motel close by the church?

On the way down I got that nagging little feeling……Do I really have a reservation? WOULD there be a room waiting? I’m a bit of a worry wart, so I worried, until I got to the desk. The clerk’s response was a little different than the normal “Who are you?” It was “Hello, Mr. Nieting! We’re happy to have you here! Your room is ready, you can check in any time you’d like!” I tried to give her my credit card, to which she replied, “Oh, that’s not necessary. It’s been paid for!”

!t doesn’t get better than that, and it’s not because I’m a cheap Lutheran. It is a metaphor for Sainthood….ours….yours and mine! All I could do was accept the gift, and rejoice in being in a place reserved for me by someone else, who had also paid the price so that I could be there! That’s the JOY of ALL SAINTS DAY!

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Pastor Michael Cofer
John 8:31-36

Thank you all for inviting me to speak at your church today. Wittenberg is on the cusp of growing chilly at this time of year and I apologize if I have brought with me a hint of our less temperate climate. For those of your who might not recognize me, I am professor Martin Luther. I hope you will not think me prideful to assume that you know who I am, since you have my name stamped all over this lovely church of yours.

Though I must say, I am much embarrassed that anyone would call themselves a follower of Luther, and in some ways it makes me feel as though I have failed. If you bear any admiration for my teaching, or any brotherly love for me, then please follow Christ alone, and not some bedeviled sinner like me.

Well, lest we waste any more of our precious time together, let’s lay aside that issue and move on to something of much greater import than how we label ourselves. Rather let us talk about truth. Every generation since Adam and Eve were persuade by the words “did God really say…” have struggled with this notion of truth. Pontius Pilate, when face-to-face with our Lord (the living embodiment of truth) asked “What is truth?”

Scholars and philosophers have chased after it with reckless abandon and have brought to bare the full force of human wit, and are left asking the question, “what is truth?” and yet they are confounded because truth is mightier than any eloquence and the Spirit is greater than genius. That is why the scriptures tell us that the mysteries of God have been hidden from the wise and revealed instead to children.

It is an inborn desire in all human hearts; to know and cling fast to the truth. I have studied a thousand books, and yet there is only one of them that can speak into the heart and kindle the fires of faith and hope and truth. Before to the Word of God, all worldly wisdom must bow in reverence.

I must tell you that one of the great joys in my life was to watch the passion and devotion which consumed the common folk for the word of God. Of course you well know that before I translated the Bible into German, nobody but scholars and priests could read it. Regular folks with regular jobs had to just leave it to the “professionals” to tell them whatever they needed to know about God. But when they got the Bible in their own hands in their own language… They devoured it. They carried it with them, when they could. They committed it to memory… It became part of their daily vocabulary.

I wonder, how many of you own your own, personal copy of the Bible? Wow… That is incredible. So many of you. Surely you must be passionate about the word then. Surely, if almost every single person, even many of the children, have their own copy of the scriptures, you must know them very well. I can only guess that they are on your lips every day.

You know, I should tell you a secret. You will not know the truth simply by reading the bible. Now, hear me out. There are many people who read the Bible, and it does not strike their hearts at all. People throughout history, including my time and I could guess even in yours, have misused and abused the holy scriptures for their own purposes, or have read into it folly and error where none ever stood. Such a person may be an attentive reader, and yet be closed completely from the truth.

Our Lord said in the gospel of John, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” As you can see, knowing the truth does not come through cloistered study, but in living – in bearing the mantle of a disciple. It is through obedience, not cunning, that a person learns the truth.

And where there is truth, there is freedom. Yet, a strange duality emerges. Freedom follows truth which follows obedience. A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. And yet, a Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant, subject to all. What does this mean?

Every man, no matter their station in the world, is compelled by one of two masters. Christ tells us plainly that, “everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” I believe it. I find, with the apostle Paul, that when I sin I am appalled at it.

It is not merely the outward act that shames me, it is knowing that the sin began first in my heart and grew out from there to my will, and finally was given life in my words and deeds. I have tried all manner of things to rid myself of the disease of sin. I have fasted and prayed, attended daily confession, did acts of penance even to the point of damaging my own body. And none of it could free me from my bondage to sin.

And why should it? What slave can set himself free? But Christ offers the gift of freedom to us. He can do what we could never do. He alone understands our slavery and has the power to liberate us. That is the power of the cross.

I believe that Jesus Christ, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, in order that I may be His own, and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, even as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity.

In Christ you have been set free. Not so you can go back to living the way you always have, but so that you can begin anew as a free person. Should we run back to the devil, who despises his servants and wishes them harm? Certainly not! Rather, we should serve our Heavenly Father, who calls us His children, who loves us, and who desires for us eternal life.

Everyone who sins is a slave to sin, but if the Son sets you free, you are free indeed. This is most certainly true.

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Pastor Mark Nieting
1 Thess. 2:1-13

Having AFRIZO here on Wednesday was an incredible blessing, and having two of the men, Emmanuel and Michael, in our home was wonderful, even though it wasn’t near long enough. It was very obvious that these fellow Christians have a passion for their Lord Jesus……their faith is certainly contagious! I got a real boost from listening to them sing and from their personal stories.

We learned that 80% of Kenyans are Christians! 10% are Muslims and other pagan religions. The Gospel of Jesus is making a difference in the lives of millions of people the way in Kenya. The difference is that while the church is GROWING in Kenya…..and many other parts of Africa, it is not growing here.

Are you surprised to know that there are more Lutherans in East Africa than there are in the United States? Are you surprised to know the Christian faith is also growing by leaps and bounds in India and in China? It’s SO exciting to know that the Church of Jesus Christ is alive and growing around the world, despite persecution and poverty. And there is plenty of persecution against the church. It started in Egypt, where dozens of Coptic Christians, one of the oldest branches of the Christian church in the world, were murdered by radical Muslims.

I watched a You-Tube video by a missionary named Francis Chan. He was telling stories about Christians he encountered traveling in Asia. One woman, nine months pregnant, was run out of her village when people found out she was a Christian. She had her baby in the jungle and couldn’t go home.

Another man showed Pastor Chan the scars on his back from the beatings he got when his neighbors found out he was a Christian. They tried to beat him to death after they killed his entire family. Another man, and this is a frequent event in India, had his house burned down. Still others lose their jobs.

Pastor Chan was incredulous. After all, stuff like this doesn’t happen to Christians in America, does it? Yet time after time these Christians would simply shrug and say, “It says in the Bible that this is going to happen to us!”

We may not have these specific problems in our country, at least right now, but I do think we have another that’s as bad or even worse. At the risk of sounding somewhat judgmental, I believe there are literally millions of people in our country who SAY they are Christians, but it’s far from obvious in their everyday lives. They may spend a lot of time being AROUND the things of God, they may have a Bible on the coffee table at home, they may check the box “Christian” on religious surveys, but there doesn’t appear to be any evidence OF their faith!

It’s what St. Paul warns about in 2 Timothy; about people who have a form of “godliness” but it has no impact on their daily lives. It doesn’t seem to have any impact on the way they live! St. Paul might call them “Christian atheists!”

What is a Christian atheist, you might ask? It’s someone who says they believe in God but for all practical purposes they live as if God doesn’t exist, period!

I cannot remember all the times I have been told by people that their faith is a very private thing; a very personal thing, something that they can’t talk about. I’ve been told that by people who have cars decorated with all sorts of political bumper stickers. I’ve been told that by people who have team flags flying on their front lawns, and pins in their lapels. At a glance I can tell that they are Democrats, Giants fans, love America, belong to the Rotary Club, root for Kyle Petty, want to save the whales, adore Elvis and drink Pepsi……but as for their faith in Jesus, there’s not a clue in sight.

Why is this? The faith into which we have been baptized and which we confess weekly in worship says that Jesus Christ is the ONLY Name under heaven, given among men, through which there is salvation, and yet far too many of us move around in life as if we expect to be beheaded if share anything about Him other than when we hit our thumbs with hammers! WHY is it so hard for so many of us to talk about our faith, even to our own families and friends?

-Perhaps we are simply so comfortable in our faith that we take it for granted, like the air we breathe and the water we drink; that Jesus has been, and always will be a part of our lives…..that He’s no “big deal?”

-Perhaps it’s because we don’t want to appear to be “soft” or “dependent” on someone other than ourselves?

-Maybe it’s because someone has convinced us that Christianity isn’t “cool?”

-Could it be that we’ve engaged the message our culture loves: that all religions are equal and we’re all going to end up in the same place, no matter what?

Have you ever been rescued, say, from drowning, from a burning building, a sinking ship, quicksand in the jungle, rescued in the nick-of-time and saved??? IF that has happened to you, what’s the result? Easy: you share the story, over and over again! You live thankfully and joyfully! It becomes your STORY!

Once we understand, not just in our heads but in our hearts, the magnitude of what Jesus has done for us becomes a very real JOY that fills us and overflows out of our lives and our lips, as it did from the young people of Arizo Wednesday evening! It becomes our story, a story worth retelling.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ IS a personal thing…..because WE are persons created by God and redeemed by Jesus Christ! The story of Jesus is a personal story witnessed by thousands of people who told thousands of others and through their written testimony shared it with billions more. The Written Word of God has it’s own power but it’s magnified even more when one person shares it with another person…..when it becomes OUR story.

That’s why Jesus tells EACH of us to “make disciples of all nations.” It wasn’t a command to pastors or evangelism committees. It’s to each of us, and it comes best and is received best when it flows out of our lives into those around us as a result of the joy of our own salvation!

It’s you and me…..whenever God opens a door…..sharing “Moments of Hope” with the people around us……..and changing lives forever. Amen.

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Pastor Michael Cofer
Matthew 22:15-22

They say there are two certains in life: death and taxes. Both seem to be faced with an almost equal dread. I don’t know of anyone — except maybe Warren Buffett — who was excited by the prospect of paying taxes. Let’s face it, part of the success of the Tea Party movement is their strong stance against taxation.

I have to say, I felt a little disappointed reading our Gospel today. Jesus had the perfect opportunity to forbid paying taxes… And he blew it!

Not really though, because what he said is far more meaningful, and frankly a brilliant move given the situation. So let’s get the context straight. As you well know, the Pharisees would do anything to trap Jesus… even enlisting the help of folks on the opposite side of the religious or political divide. We don’t know tons about the Herodians, but they were clearly a pro-Rome political group. Pharisees weren’t necessarily a policital party, but they were the experts in the religious law.

Now I want you to imagine a denarius. It was a silver coin with the face of Caesar engraved on it, and an inscription that said he was the son of “deified Augustus,” and on the back he is proclaimed the high priest. Got that image in your mind? If you were an orthodox Hebrew, you know what you might call that? A graven image. An idol.

There was a bit of controversy in Jesus’ day as to whether Jewish people could handle Roman money. So in the mind of th Pharisees, paying taxes could be called idolatry, and in the eyes of the Herodians not paying taxes would be criminal, or even rebellious.

It was a pretty good trap, I think. I’m sure I would have tried to avoid the topic if I were in Jesus’ sandals… Or done some sort of non-committal, politician answer. But Jesus never wastes an opportunity to teach, and he can’t be intimidated by anyone, so he faces down the Pharisees with a simple, direct statement, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar, and to God what is God’s.”

I’m pretty sure that means I have to pay my taxes. But is that all there is to learn from this passage? Definitely not. In fact, I think that a bigger question opens up: what does it mean to give to God what is His?

Well, as a starting place, let’s ask the question “What belongs to God?” If we confess that God is the maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible… I think we have to admit that everything belongs to God. They are His stars. This is His earth. This is His church. We are His people, made by Him in a very specific way that makes us each unique. Everything blessing we enjoy comes from Him. It is all His.

But I can’t very well give God the universe, can I? Maybe I should just give all of the stuff I own to God. Maybe that’s what Jesus means… Pay my taxes, then give the rest of it to God. Then I’ll have nothing, and I won’t owe any money to Caesar, and I can just starve to death and go to heaven.

Whoa…. Back the train up. That isn’t the kind of life and/or death that Jesus is advocating. God gave us our lives and our stuff and this world, and we ought to take good care of it. The trick is that none of that stuff can become an idol.

See, God isn’t all that concerned with material gifts. If we give to Caesar (or Washington) what bears Caesar’s (or Washington’s) image, then perhaps we should give to God the thing that bears God’s image. God doesn’t want our stuff; He wants us. He wants us to love Him the way He loves us. Wants us to live like we’re His children. He wants us.

But it isn’t that cut and dry, is it? Because, I don’t know about you all, but I can get awful wrapped up in my stuff. Money can do some really great things, but it can be a huge source of anxiety, or on the flip side it can offer a false sense of security. Whether you have too much of it, or too little, money will often occupy way too much of our attention.

That is part of the reason that tithing and offerings are so important. It is one way that we remind ourselves that God is in charge, and that He will provide. God doesn’t want to tax you 10% on what you make… that’s not what tithing is about. It’s about checking your priorities on a regular basis.

But, let’s not stop at talking about just money. Because God wants you, and you are much more than my bank account. God made you uniquely, and has positioned you exactly where He needs you to be.

Giving God what’s His means exploring and growing and stretching into the person that He has made you to be. When God knit you together in the womb, He had in mind a fantastic person: someone who abounds in love and grace, someone who excels in their talents, someone who walks closely with God.

Giving God what’s His means cultivating the art of thanksgiving. Take the time to enjoy and appreciate your life, your family, and this world. God knew what he was doing when He made those things, and they are dear to Him. For Christians, thanksgiving is the practice of looking at God’s creation and saying along with Him, “It is good.”

God loves you so much. He is the proudest parent you know. And the thing He wants most in all of the world is for you to love Him too.

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Rev. Mark Nieting
Matthew 22:1-14

Take one trip through your basic cable guide and you’re guaranteed to stumble over a number of (so-called) reality shows all themed around WEDDINGS. Just to name a few, there’s “Say yes to the Dress, Cake Boss, Platinum Weddings, My Big Redneck Wedding, Engaged and Underaged (on MTV, of course) and my favorite, Bridezillas! American culture seems obsessed with all things wedding, and cable is cashing in big-time!

In today’s Gospel Jesus gives us a wedding-themed parable in which people have the opposite attitude towards weddings. If WE are “wedding obsessed,” then those Jesus describes in Matthew 22 are “wedding-phobic!” The story, on the surface is simple: a wealthy king has invited his most special friends to the marriage of his son. But instead of jumping at the chance to attend what will be a fantastic feast, EVERYONE on the guest list RSVP’s with a big, fat NO!

The King sends another round of invites to the same folks and the response is an even more emphatic round of “NO!” The King is so upset that in round 3 he sends his troops out and DESTROYS those who “disrespected him.” [THAT would make for a great TV episode, wouldn’t it?] Finally, the King sends his servants to bring in ANYONE they can find, and it’s not long before the hall is filled with a huge crowd.

For most of Jesus’ first century audience and all who paid attention in Sunday School, this part of the parable has a very obvious meaning, especially when it’s connected to the last two parables which were also directed at the Pharisees who rejected Jesus’ every invitation to be a part of the Feast in the Kingdom! The entire Old Testament had been one long invitation and one long time of preparation and when the Bridegroom, in the person of Jesus, finally showed up, the “special people” could have cared LESS! In fact, they crucified Him instead.

We, beginning with the first disciples, are the “other ones.” We’re the “found ones,” the ones to whom the invitation has now been extended. We’re the ones who were pulled in from the alleys and the highways! The invitation came when the Holy Spirit introduced us to Jesus. We were “dressed for the wedding” at the moment of our baptism. Our sins are forgiven and our status is secure. We’ve RSVP’d for the resurrection at the end of the world, when the REAL party starts!!

I have a simple goal for this morning’s message. I want each one of us to get the absolute MOST out of the Invitation that we have received. It’s a wonderful thing to have received this invitation and we don’t want to lose out on any of it. The first thing….and it sounds so SIMPLE…is to ENJOY the fact that you have been invited! If the promises of God are true, and the Gifts He has given us are real: like FORGIVENESS of our SINS, like the POWER of the Holy Spirit living within us…..we ought to be the happiest, most JOY-FILLED people on earth!

Far too often there are way too many followers of Jesus who walk around looking like their invitation to heaven got lost in the mail! We get upset about all sorts of little stuff. We gripe and complain about things that in the big picture are really nothing at all. We live like the Bridezillas we love to mock on TV, We make mine-fields out of ministry opportunities and rob others of their joy at the same time. I see that happen far too often on Sunday mornings even here at Hope! That’s NOT what the Bridegroom had in mind when He invited us to HIS party! He wants us to live like we LOVE being there! In fact, the parable goes on to say that if we’re not “well dressed” for the occasion, we just might get tossed out!

Being invited to the Marriage Feast of The Jesus and His Church is the ultimate in all invitations, and we ought to be BLOWN AWAY by the fact that we are a part of it! This parable is our call to LIGHTEN UP AND ENJOY THE PARTY! Maybe that’s what David was saying when he wrote, “Restore to me the JOY of my salvation,” (Ps 51:12), don’t you think?

The second way we “maximize our invitation” is to invite others to join us at the feast. Jesus couldn’t have been clearer: no matter who you are or what you’ve done, HE wants YOU to be there. God wants the Heavenly Halls to be FILLED with people celebrating with Jesus, forever. A while back the entire world was invited to watch the “Royal Wedding” of William and Kate, and hundreds of millions tuned in. For a lot of social climbers, it was the invitation of a life-time! I really doubt that anyone who received one turned it down! God is planning a party that’s a gazillion times bigger and a bazillion times less boring, and ……..so who are YOU inviting to be there with you? Will you let them say NO, at least without an argument?

Will your kids be there? Will your spouse be there, sitting next to you? Have you invited your neighbors? When was the last time you invited ANYONE to come with you to church, so they could meet Jesus and receive His invitation? We KNOW that once the bridegroom comes and the door is shut, that’s it. It will be too late after that for ANYONE….no matter how much we love them.

I pulled this invitation out of our mail basket at home: it’s for the wedding of some friends that is scheduled for October…. FIRST! Oh, oh….there’s no way Pam and I are going to get into that one….it’s already past, and the door is closed. Do we really want any of our dear friends to have that experience, eternally? So let’s get cracking, folks…..it’s now, or it may be never!

Finally, the third way we can maximize our enjoyment of the invitation we have received is to allow GOD to be the judge of who “gets in!” It’s not up to you or to me to determine who is “worthy” of God’s grace and who is not. Our only tasks are to REJOICE in the fact that we have been invited and then, out of that joy, to INVITE, and to KEEP INVITING people around us. Amen.

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