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Pastor Mark Nieting
Matthew 1: 18-24

Ten years ago in a nice suburb of Rochester NY, Peter Lovenheim was walking his dog. He was surprised to see a TV news truck parked down the block. The news wasn’t good: a neighbor 3 doors down had killed his wife and then himself. Their children escaped by running out into the night.

It wasn’t long before a “For Sale” sign went up in front of the crime scene home, but everything else in the neighborhood seemed to go on as if nothing had ever happened. Lovenheim’s comment, in a book he wrote about it, was this: “A family had (tragically) vanished, yet the impact on our neighborhood was slight. How could that be? Do I live in a community surrounded by people whose lives are entirely separate? Is it even possible to build relationships anymore, given how busy people are?”

He pondered the issue for weeks until he decided to do what any normal American suburban man would do: He asked his neighbors if he could sleep in their houses! His daughter thought he was NUTS, but a good number of his neighbors said YES, and out of that experiment, true community was born, one home and one relationship at a time. Lovenheim was the author who slept over.

A similar situation existed about 2000 years ago, when God looked over His creation and saw people not only separated from each other, but separated from Him as well. 2000 years before THAT God had also looked down and, not happy with what He saw, sent the Flood and started over. He was determined not to do that again, so this time God decided to do what no one ever expected a “divine being” to do: He came to sleep over. He came to be “God with us,” Emmanuel.

God’s Prophets had been setting the stage for 2000 years. In today’s Gospel lesson (from Matthew 1), the divine drama begins to unfold; first with the family tree and then with the story itself. God comes to 42nd generation male, named Joseph, and speaks to him in a dream. Joseph is engaged to a young virgin named Mary, who has just discovered that she is pregnant NOT. Joseph knows it is not HIS child, but because they haven’t been living together (this being a far more sensible age than today)….he KNEW there was going to be a scandal in town and Mary would be branded “with the scarlet A.”

Before Joseph could quietly divorce her, it was made very clear to him that “God’s ways are not always our ways.” The angel makes sure that Joseph knows that Mary’s child isn’t a scandal, but a marvelous gift from no one less than the Holy Spirit. The child was to be named Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins, foretold by Isaiah the prophet in these words: The virgin would conceive and give birth to a son and they will call Him Immanuel, which means ‘God with us.’ (Is 7: 23)

Three questions leap from this text: 1) What did Isaiah mean back then? 2) What did the angel mean when he gifted Mary and Joseph with the news? 3) What does EMMANUEL, God with us, mean to us?

In Isaiah’s day, about 740 BC, Israel was divided into two kingdoms, Israel on the north and Judah on the south. Neither of them was very powerful, especially when compared to the “big dog of the day,” Assyria. The king of Judah, Ahaz, knew that Israel and Syria were unifying against Assyria and wanted him to join their alliance. Napoleon once said that God is on the side with the most battalions, so, against the advice of Isaiah, King Ahaz used the temple treasury to bribe the massive armies of Assyria onto HIS side. King Ahaz must have felt smug and secure……even though Isaiah the prophet had warned him over and over and over to trust in God, not in “slippery alliances or reservoirs of water.”

King Ahaz forgot that his ancestor Gideon once destroyed an entire army with 300 soldiers and God’s angel of death. One more time God invited Ahaz to trust HIM. God offered (7:11) ANYTHING in heaven or earth as a sign and all Ahaz would do was play the pious son. “No thanks, God,” he said, “I can’t tempt you!” Nothing God could say would move Ahaz away from his trust in the armies of his ally Assyria. God gave Ahaz a sign anyway……within the time it took a young woman to bear and wean a son, Assyria would defeat Israel.

Let it be spoken, let it be done…..Assyria carried Israel and Syria off into captivity, and Judah was saved. God had come to be with His people once again, but once again the people didn’t trust God, didn’t thank God, didn’t care about God. Within 30 years Assyria was back…..and by 586 BC Judah itself was carried off into captivity. God was with them…..but they were not with God.

We have enemies that threaten us. Almost every day we’re reminded that terrorists are ready to strike us. The economy worries us. Health issues, taxes, jobs, the future of our kids and our grandkids; we spend a few minutes watching the news and we could all use a sign from God that things are going to be ok!

And if we’re brutally honest about it…..our sin threatens us more than anything else. We know we’ve sinned against God and His Word time and time again. It’s way too easy to be too busy to build our lives on God’s Word. It’s way too easy to get so busy we neglect caring for one another in real Christian community. From the Lord’s perspective, friends, every one of us can give Him a headache!

Finally….. we know that the devil is doing his best to separate us from God and His love for us. Using Luther’s phrase, he’s a sneaky old foe. He’s strong and smart and he’s got thousands of years of experience dealing with people like you and me. What we need the most is for God to move in with us……we need Emmanuel!

God has always come to us through his prophets……the words of Isaiah just two chapters from this morning’s text remind us of countless Old Testament prophecies about “God with us.” ‘For unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given….and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.(Is 53: 6-7)

God has always come to us though His apostles in the New Testament. He has “Promised to work all things together for the good of those who love Him.” (Rom 8:28). He has promised NOT to give us more than we can bear. (1 Cor 10: 13) And God has come to us in the words and promises of Jesus Himself, “I will be with you always, even to the end of the earth!” (Matt 28) That’s “God with us!”

Here’s the question of the day: do you trust God to keep His promises? Will He really do these things in YOUR life? What SIGN does He give YOU?

The SIGN is EMMANUEL….God with us! God comes to earth as the Christ child to break down the walls that have divided us from Him and to reconnect us with our creator……to be WITH us in His perfect life, in His death, and in His resurrection. These are Paul’s words in 2 Cor 5:19, “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to Himself.”

As I was thinking about that concept, what popped into my mind was this, What things would change in my life if Jesus moved into 1116 Norcova Court, Chesapeake, Virginia? I’m not talking about clean towels in the guest room and a higher hot water bill…..I’m talking about my life! Imagine thatJesus moved in with you!! What would a “sleepover God” discover about any one of us?

What would He think about how busy I am? About how fast I try to get things done? About how tightly scheduled my days are? About how little time I set aside to pray, to read, to study, to meditate? About how shallow I allow relationships to become? About how few of the gifts He has given me I truly “steward” well?

In the middle of the chaos of our lives…..Isaiah and his wife the prophetess; Mary and Joseph; Mark and Pam and all the rest of us…..God sends Immanuel, in the form of a tiny baby to “sleep over with us.”

It’s been 38 years since my first born son Benjamin came into my life…and I can STILL remember how things change. Suddenly I was forced to pay attention to a tiny, helpless individual who was cuter, sweeter, and smarter than any human being who had EVER lived before! I had to pay attention to feedings, diaper changes, and naps. My nights became days….and my days stayed days too. It was nothing less than an entire refocusing of ME.

The same is true with the coming of Jesus to be “Emmanuel, God with us!” Our lives become refocused away from the worries and anxieties of normal living and onto the “peace that passes earthly understanding.” Our sins are forgiven because the Messiah came to sleep over….and He has promised once and again never to leave us and never to forsake us.

In just a few short days we will celebrate Christmas. We’ll enjoy wonderful church services, special family traditions, presents and time off work. But what we will really receive once again is the Sign that God gave us of His eternal and everlasting love, His mercy, His favor, the blessing of His forgiveness, and the promise of life forever with Him. He is the God who came to sleep over….and He is the God who never left. Immanuel……God is with us…….forever.

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Pastor Michael Cofer

My goodness! Look at how many of you there are travelling together! You must be going to see the new king. Or haven’t you heard…?

Well! I guess that would make me the bearer of good news, then! My colleagues and I have been studying the sky for pretty much our entire adult lives. It is our profession, you see.

Many powerful people think that the position and movement of the planets and stars can tell you all sorts of things: whether or not to go to war, whether a drought is coming or not, when they will find true love… all kinds of things. And my job is to study those stars, and figure out what they are trying to tell us.

Truth be told, more often than not I’m just guessing. The stars don’t speak to me in crystal clear language… but the king (my boss) expects me to be able to answer any question he has or else… well, let’s just say that his unemployment plan isn’t very pleasant.

So, yeah… most of the time I “read” either incredibly vague things in the stars, or I just say what the king wants to hear. Better that than the alternative.

That’s why I’m so excited about going to see this new king. For once, the stars were speaking to me, loud and clear. I won’t bore you with the details of my job, but you have to know that the skies are crying out that there was a new king born in the west. I’m not sure where, yet, I’m just following the star until I get there.

Now I don’t mean to speak ill of the king I currently work for. He’s not that bad a guy as far as kings go. But the thing with kings is this: they don’t live forever. Now, if you have a bad, king… that’s probably good news. But even if you have a good king, you know eventually he’s going to… you know… keel over. Then usually, and I do mean usually, the next king isn’t as good. And the one after him is even worse.

I mean, you’ve read the history books; you know how kingdoms rise and fall. And with each new would-be king, there’s a whole new set of wars and turmoil and… well you know.

But this baby king that’s just been born – He’s a game changer. I’ve been talking with my colleagues about this the whole trip down here, and this is what we’ve discovered…

Zechariah describes this new king as riding in on a donkey and taking away the chariots and warhorses and weapons. Isaiah talks about this baby being born who will be called the Prince of Peace, and he says that his reign and the peace that goes with it will just keep growing forever. Best yet, Isaiah says that this new king will reign forever.

I can’t really wrap my mind around an idea that big… a king who brings peace to the whole world without an army, a chariot, or even a sword. And yet, without violence, he will conquer everything. And he will reign forever. Forever.

Well, I suppose if anyone can bring us a lasting peace, it’d be him. I think he’s the one we’ve been waiting on. That’s why I’ve got this gold. It’s the only sensible gift for a king, I think. True, this isn’t a lot of gold by kingly standards, but it’s more about what it represents: power, glory, beauty, honor, and victory.

And when he comes through on all that he’s been foretold to do, I think I’m going to owe him a lot more than this little gift.

Still though, you know what I’ve noticed about good kings? They don’t get wrapped up in the size of the gift… they care much more about the heart of the giver.

Well, I suppose I’ve talked enough… time to get walking again. Maybe we’ll see each other again when the new kingdom comes.

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Pastor Mark Nieting
Matthew 11: 2-15

Jesus turned to them and asked, “What did you expect?”

Happy “Pink Candle Sunday,” the 3rd Sunday in Advent……and I pray that all of our preparations and our expectations for Christmas are in line with each other in our hearts and in our homes….amen.

It’s a tad ironic, isn’t it, that on JOY Sunday our Gospel lesson focuses on the story of John the Baptist languishing in the dungeon of the Fortress Machaerus with little or no expectation of getting out alive. John was there because he was a straight-shooting, no-nonsense, down to earth prophet of God who dared to speak the truth to King Herod’s sister about her sinful lifestyle and challenged her to, in the words of last Sunday’s Gospel, “produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” His message obviously didn’t go over well, and she had Herod throw John into prison.

John the Baptist was certainly an individual who had a sense of God’s power and God’s presence. His conception was clearly the result of a miracle, and if his parents didn’t live long enough to tell him about it, I’m sure others did. Before he was born he had an in-the-womb meeting with Jesus and Scripture recorded that joyful moment for posterity. He took the vows of a Nazarene to prepare himself for his ministry. From childhood on, he knew that he would be a prophet of God to prepare the way for the Messiah. He wasn’t simply “another child,” but he was the one Isaiah talked about, the “voice crying in the wilderness.”

And his message? It was…..and we know this well…..REPENT, the Kingdom of Heaven is near. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the tree. Repent and bear fruit in keeping with repentance…..or else! Last week we focused on Matthew chapter 3, where John prophesied that Jesus would come with His “winnowing fork in His hand, to clear the threshing floor, to gather in the wheat and burn up the chaff.” More modern theologians would call John’s message one of “fire and brimstone”……and John clearly expected that to be the case with Jesus as well.

John’s sense of himself worked into his great success as a preacher. He was so eloquent that some people thought he WAS the promised Messiah, even though John made it perfectly clear that he wasn’t!

John was a prophet and he knew that the lot of a prophet wasn’t an easy one. For a year he had been in prison, NOT because he did anything wrong, but because he did everything RIGHT! John, who had preached that the Messiah would come to set the captives free was himself a captive who needed to be set free……so John’s question in today’s Gospel lesson was right out of human nature. Word of what Jesus had been doing had obviously reached into Herod’s prison; word about Jesus’ miracles, about the healings that happened, about the demons that were cast out, even about the dead being raised.
But something was nagging at John’s mind, a question that ultimately he sent his disciples out to find Jesus and ask Him, “Are YOU the Christ….or are we supposed to look for another?”

It wasn’t that John was expecting Jesus to ride in and rescue him from prison…..that would be self-focused and short sighted and John was neither. He was struggling with his own expectations of Jesus in comparison to what he had heard Jesus was doing. He KNEW Jesus was the man he baptized in the Jordan River; God had revealed that to him in a very clear manner. He KNEW Jesus was REALLY the Christ foretold by all the prophets before him. But all John heard was works of grace, of mercy, of love, of compassion. Where was the fire and brimstone? Where was the “winnowing fork?”

It was a moment of doubt being experienced in a difficult time by a great man of faith, and I suggest that most of us have been there at one time or another in life. All of us experience struggles. We all have challenges. We all have times when our faith ebbs a bit on the low side. And when we do, where do we turn? We turn to God! We turn to Christ in prayer. We turn to God’s Word.

That’s exactly what John did…..he turned to the source of the Word, to Jesus. Since he couldn’t leave prison and discuss it with Jesus one-on-one, he did the next best thing: he sent his disciples with one straightforward question: “Are you the ONE who was to come, or shall we look for another?”

This was Jesus’ answer, sent back to him through his disciples. “Tell John what you hear and what you see,” Jesus responded. “Tell him that the blind receive their sight, the crippled get up and walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf can hear again, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” Jesus responded to one prophet….to John….with words John would have recognized as those of his brother prophet Isaiah. (Is 35)

It was a MARVELOUS answer, far deeper and richer than first meets the eye. It was an answer worthy of JOY SUNDAY.

Tell John, Jesus said, that those who are spiritually blind because of the darkness of their sin are now able to see……the blinders on the eyes of their hearts have been removed!

Tell John, Jesus said, that those crippled by sin and unable to walk in the paths of righteousness are now able to do so because I am here!

Tell John that those afflicted with the ugly leprosy of sin have been washed clean and made right not only with their priests, but with God! They are no longer contagious in the bad sense, but in the GOOD!

Tell John that those deaf to God’s good news are now able to hear, not only with their ears but with their hearts and their souls.

Tell John that those DEAD in their sins have been made alive!

Tell John that the GOOD NEWS is preached to those who are willing to hear…..and if that doesn’t bring true JOY…..NOTHING WILL!
Jesus had one more thing to add to John’s disciples before they hurried away to take this message to their master: Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.
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On “Pink Candle Sunday” let me suggest an alternate translation: Those who don’t stumble over their expectations of me will be filled with JOY!

Why would someone stumble over Jesus? Why would someone not be blessed? It all depends on what we expect! If John’s expectations were a release from prison or a bit of earthly comfort…..he might have stumbled. If my expectations of the Messiah are the same, I might stumble as well. That’s why John’s prayer, Jesus’ prayer, and our prayer remains the same: YOUR kingdom come. YOUR will be done….in my life, as it is in heaven! That’s where JOY comes from!

Nothing less than the power of God can do any of this, and Jesus, the Son of God and the Messiah of the world had come to do it all. That was truly Good News, and it was being proclaimed throughout the land…..and it still is!

John the Baptist was the last great Old Testament figure in Scripture. As a prophet he never lived to see Jesus fulfillment of all the Old Testament prophecies: His suffering, His death, His resurrection. John had to leave the stage before all that could happen. About John Jesus said that he was the greatest of those ‘born of woman.’ (Mt 11:11) That’s high praise in anyone’s book…..and great praise in God’s Book.

As quickly as Jesus gives praise He takes it away again. In the next verse he says the “least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

Faith, my friends, is a humbling experience. It’s what we can’t see. It’s what we can’t touch. It’s built on the trust we have in the promises we are given. And when those promises come from God……they hold, because God is faithful, even if…or when we are not. John’s faith may have wavered….but it certainly did not break. His place in Heaven was assured by the words of Jesus.

Every Sunday we confess our faith in the Triune God….and every week the challenges of life confront us. That’s when, like for John, Jesus responds to us with His words: See what I’ve done: the blind see, the deaf hear, the Gospel is preached to the poor……and in one John didn’t get to hear…..I died and I rose again for you! Believe and have faith, and you will have joy, forever!

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Pastor Michael Cofer

Well, hello! Are you all going to see the prophet, too? Surely you’ve heard of him. The skies tell me he was born very recently, and I’m on my way to see him now. After all, I want to hear what God has to say. Hopefully, a Word from God can help me make sense of life.

Every year that passes, it seems like the world is torn apart a little more. Each war is worse than the last; each emperor is crueler than the one before. Crime is a little higher; crops are a little smaller.

And I struggle to understand how God fits in this picture. Couldn’t He – shouldn’t He – step in and do something?

But we haven’t heard from God in a very long while. There was a time when He walked among us, and talked to us, but people grew disobedient, and then fearful, and soon they didn’t even want to hear Him speak.

So God sent prophets: men and women who would bring the word of God down to his people. They would listen to God, and then pass that word on.

But even that situation didn’t last, because people didn’t much like the things God had to say. And they treated the prophets they were given shamefully – and many of them were outright killed.

So it’s been a long while since God sent a prophet, but I very much want to hear His Word again. I want to know that He still loves us, and to live at peace with Him.

That’s why I’ve brought this myrrh. Myrrh, as I’m sure you know, is pretty powerful stuff. A lot of people associate its smell with death – and that’s fair. It is often used to help preserve bodies after they’ve died. But did you also know that myrrh is helpful in healing wounds? It’s true.

So, to me, myrrh has this kind of mixed meaning. On the one hand, it’s bitter smelling; it reminds me of suffering and even death. But on the other hand, it makes me hopeful for healing and restoration.

That’s a pretty good picture for who this new prophet will be. He won’t just bring the Word of God; he will be the Word of God. He won’t just tell us what we need to hear, he will be what we need most.

And it will cost him dearly. One of the ancient prophets said this about him:
“Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.

We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way;
and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

It’s hard to imagine all of that happening to an innocent newborn. It does make me a little sad to think that it was for this reason he was born. I’m sad, but I’m also grateful. God knows what He’s doing, even if I don’t understand it.

So, I’m going to take this Myrrh to the newborn prophet, because I believe he will bring healing to our wounds. And I suppose I should get going. Maybe I’ll see you there!

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Pastor Mark Nieting
Matthew 3: 1-12

It starts with falling into water, and it starts this FRIDAY (December 10): the latest film in the series “Chronicles of Narnia.” It’s called The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The story begins with two children, Edmund and Lucy, who have to spend a dreary holiday with their nasty and unfriendly cousin Eustace. Lucy and Edmund have been to Narnia before (you know that if you’re a CS Lewis fan) but Eustace hasn’t, and he mocks them terribly for their belief in this magical land.

Suddenly, a painting of a ship on Lucy’s wall comes to life, and the three children are drawn into Narnia. They fall into the ocean and are rescued by the sailing ship called the Dawn Treader. We could say that the movie begins with a splash.

Once the 3 children are on board, Edmund and Lucy are greeted by their old friend Caspian, who’s now a king in Narnia. He’s set off on a quest (what good sea story doesn’t have a quest of some sort) to find the Seven Lost Lords of Narnia, as he had earlier promised the lion Aslan. They sail from island to island on the Dawn Treader, running into dragons, dwarves, storms, slave traders, and mer-people. Along the way, all 3 of them are transformed, especially the nasty cousin Eustace. But I won’t spoil the story…..see it….or read it.

CS Lewis fans KNOW that powerful and wonderful things happen in the land that Lewis created to teach lessons about the Christian faith. Aslan, the divine lion, is one of the best fictional representations of Jesus Christ. Although Aslan is gentle and loving, Lewis reminds his readers over and over through all 7 books that he is “not a tame lion!” “Dawn Treader” is a spiritual adventure, similar to those found in the Gospel of Matthew, and it begins like today’s Gospel begins, with a dip in the water!

Matthew 3 is set 30 years after the birth of Jesus, with John the Baptist appearing in the wilderness of Judea proclaiming “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near!” For people who have been living under the thumb of the Romans for their entire lives, and for people who have been waiting for this Kingdom for hundreds of years, it might seem like high fiction, but John says it’s very close, and he prepares people for it by baptizing them in the Jordan River.

Matthew’s description of John has made kids laugh and squirm for ages, a man wearing clothes made from camel’s hair….which must have smelled great after it got wet, his hair uncut in true Nazarene fashion and eating locusts dipped in honey….ick! But John was a true prophet, the last prophet, the one foretold by Isaiah, appearing not in the towns or the temple, but in the wilderness.

His way of living was right in tune with his calling and his craft. He was cut from the same cloth as Elijah, Elisha, Zechariah, and many more. His message was their message, made all the more urgent: THE KINGDOM is NEAR! Prepare!

John never claimed that any of what he said was about him. He was crystal clear that he wasn’t even fit to tie the sandals of the Messiah, who was to come, and come soon. And his description of Jesus was like Lewis’ description of Aslan: He would be good…..but He would not be tame. HE….Jesus…wouldn’t baptize only with water…..HE would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with FIRE!

Who answered John’s call? Who went out to see him? Matthew uses a tad of hyperbole when he says “everybody” but even Josephus the secular historian records (Antiquities 18: 63-64) that a lot of people did: all the Lucys and Edmunds and so many others who were eager and excited to be a part of the kingdom of heaven. They were then like so many have been throughout all of history: unsettled about their lives, knowing there was something greater beyond the horizon, wanting to get right with their creator and head off in a new direction of living. They’ve all…..from then until now…..responded to the word that John uses in his call: METANOEO> Change your mind! Change your purpose! Change the way you live! Change!

But…..in the crowds out to see John are, and we’ll continue the Lewis’ metaphor for a bit, are some sour and nasty Eustaces: Pharisees and Sadduccees, those‘holier than thou’ spiritual leaders who lorded their “righteous living” and their ancestral connection with Abraham over everyone else……a strange claim considering almost everyone in Israel had descended from Abraham! How did John address them? The same way Jesus did later: “You brood of VIPERS! Who warned YOU to feel from the wrath to come? Produce FRUIT in keeping with REPENTANCE!”

How many choices did John offer? How many options did he present? Only two: water…..or fire! Be drowned in the repentant waters of baptism……or be burned up like the chaff. That’s the choice John presents to people then and now. Repent and produce fruit in keeping with your repentance, (faith without works is dead), or be cut down, sifted like chaff, and burned up in the fire. It’s ‘wheat in the barn or chaff in the fire;’ there’s nothing in between. There’s no other choices.

John called on people to CHANGE….which has never been easy for ANYONE. It’s been said that the only people who like change are wet babies….and most of them cry until the change is over. Change is difficult…..even if we KNOW that what we have to change is absolutely necessary! Keeping the status quo and not rocking the boat, no matter what that is, is far too often much more comfortable than going through change that will transform us for the future.

But here’s the kicker: transformation doesn’t happen in the boat, it begins with a cold dip into the water!

Advent, as Pastor Cofer reminded us last Sunday, is far more than a nostalgic historical journey into the birth of Jesus 2000 years ago. It’s preparing our hearts, our minds and our lives for the second and final coming of Jesus. When that will be, no one knows, but for every single human being alive today, John’s message is just as strident as it was for those in the Perean wilderness back then: it may be today. It may be tomorrow. It may be……….. and when it comes, it’s either “wheat in the barn” or “chaff in the fire.” That’s it.

That’s why there is so much urgency to the preaching the Gospel today. That’s why there is so much at stake in carrying out the Great Commission of Jesus to make disciples of all nations! How does He tell us to go about doing that? By baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything He has commanded us. In other words, we are to bring them through the water of Holy Baptism so that their faith will produce fruit in keeping with their repentance.

Here’s the “question of the day.” How do you tell a Christian from anyone else?

Christian jewelry and Jesus T-shirts might give someone a clue, but actions speak louder than wardrobes. A “Honk if you Love Jesus” bumper sticker could be a sign, unless our hand gestures don’t bless the driver who just cut us off at the light. No collection of Christian art means much in a home that’s torn apart by sinful behavior, abuse or conflict. A Bible on the coffee table is certainly an indicator, but it does no one any good unless it is read, believed, and followed!

What is the mark of a Christian? It really isn’t anything we can see. It’s hard to quantify, especially from the outside. The mark of a Christian begins in the Sacrament of Baptism and it continues throughout the journey of life as we…..each of us….produce fruit in keeping with the faith God deposited into us when we went “under the water.” Faith, that shows itself in love, in using the gifts and talents the Spirit invested in us from the time of our baptism. The mark of a Christian is a life transformed………….forever.

The apostle Paul writes in Colossians 1: 13, “He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transformed us into the kingdom of His beloved Son.” There’s movement here……it’s about people moving. It’s about people who are being redeemed, being saved, leaving one kingdom and journeying to another. Only Paul makes it clear that it’s not the travelers who make the travel arrangements; it’s God who does it all. It’s God, who…..using Luther’s words here,….by His Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies us, and it all begins with baptism. It’s a journey and it’s all God’s doing………..thank God for that!

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Pastor Michael Cofer

It feels like I’ve been walking forever – crossing fields and fountains, moors and mountains following yonder star. Oh…. Oh…. Don’t get me started.

Still though, it’s worth it, to see the newborn high priest. Sure, by the time I get there, he won’t be an infant anymore… probably more like a toddler. I kind of wish I could be there now, to see the little baby in his mother’s arms.

And to think that someone that small is going to be intermediary between the maker of the universe and all mankind… I mean, some parents act like the world revolves around their baby, but in this case I think it might be true.

It took me a long time to figure out what kind of gift to get that little child. I mean, I don’t really know if it’s rich or poor, or even if it’s a boy or a girl. And sure, I could give a gift card, or something, but it feels so impersonal… and I’d really like to make a good impression. After all, this isn’t just any baby.

Anyways… I thought about it for this present for a long time, and you know what I came up with? Incense. Yup, incense. And I know what you’re thinking… but I promise it has nothing to do with masking unpleasant baby smells.

Nope… It has a deeper meaning than that. See, like I said, this little baby is going to be the one who will speak to God for us. And that’s where the incense comes in – I want him to offer a sacrifice for me.

Now, I’ve rubbed elbows with some pretty important people, let me tell you. I’ve had the ear of princes and kings and… well… you name it. But nothing, and I mean nothing would stack up to having the ear of the God of the Universe. Think about it: if you had Him on your side, who could stand against you?

The only trouble is, why would God listen to me? What do I have to offer Him? There’s nothing I can do that He can’t do for himself… and worse yet, I’m a pretty flawed individual. I know, I know. Looking at me, you’d think I’ve got it all together. But honestly, I don’t.

People have called me a wise man, and I try to live up to that, but no one has ever accused me of being perfect, or spiritual. I’m not exactly what you’d call a holy man… and so me and God don’t always see eye to eye.

That’s why I need a go-between… you know, someone who can talk to God for me – who could stand in my place. I mean, I’m not holy, but God is… and from what I know about God is if you want to stand before Him and live, you better be holy too.

I don’t know if they have priests where you’re from, so let me just explain a little bit about what they do. Basically, whenever we act contrary to God’s will, our relationship with Him is strained.

After all, God has the right to punish us for our sins. But as far as I can tell, He’d rather not. Since breaking God’s law seems to be part of human nature, there wouldn’t be much chance of us ever being on good terms with God.

So He came up with this system where we can offer sacrifices to kind of cover over our mistakes, and avoid the punishment we’d deserve. Now the job of the priest is to actually make those sacrifices for us, sins sinners can’t stand before God.

The trouble is, every high priest is selected from among the people – which means he’s probably a sinner too. That guy is appointed to represent the people in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.

On the one hand, it’s nice that he’s good that he is a sinner, because he is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness.

Of course, being a sinner, he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people. So, in the end, he’s not much different than the rest of us. He lives for a while, and then dies and a new high priest is chosen.

But with this new high priest things will be different. He is to be a priest forever, which I suppose means he will live forever. So, if he were to be my representative before God, he would do so forever. Unlike the other high priests, he won’t need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. When he offers a sacrifice, it stands forever – by the sheer power of his holiness.

That’s why I’m going to see the baby high-priest. If I understand the prophecies right, he will be holy for me. He will carry my prayers to the throne of God, and God will hear them for His sake, even if I don’t deserve to have them heard or answered.

So I’ve got this incense – frankincense to be precise – that I’m going to leave with that little baby, and maybe when he grows up, he’ll remember me and say a prayer for me. And maybe God will look favorably on me because of the sacrifice that this newborn Priest will offer.

You know, you might think about going to see this baby too. After all, wouldn’t it be nice if God heard your prayers? Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone holy representing you before The Almighty?

I should probably get going, but if you do decide to go see him, all you have to do is follow that star.

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Pastor Michael Cofer


I think sometimes the Bible stories that we teach to little children can sometimes be glossed over by adults. Take for example the story of Noah’s Ark. I suspect we all know that story pretty well, but if you read it closely and in context, there are some strange and interesting things going on.

Now, I could spend the rest of my sermon talking about Enoch and Lamech and the Nephilim, and all of that weird stuff we usually just skip over, but that stuff is kind of off to the side of where we’re going today. Today, I just want to try and get a good handle on what Noah’s world was like.

First off, it was thoroughly secular. What I mean is, by and large, people just didn’t think about God. He was a non-issue in their lives. They were busy with their own pursuits: eating, drinking, marrying, and whatnot. Perhaps in Noah’s day, God was considered a quaint and antique notion; hardly relevant in popular culture.

The other thing that is really remarkable is that people commonly lived between 500 and 900 years. We have the best medical knowledge and treatment in human history in this time and place, and yet even making it to 150 years old is completely unheard of. So think about the people of Noah’s time. They must have felt almost immortal.

By all worldly standards, they had it good. And yet, despite their supposedly long and full lives, and all of the wisdom you would assume comes with 700 years of experiences, people lived in utter ignorance and (as the story plays out) foolishness.

Fast-forward a few thousand years to our day. What parallels do you see? If God was warning us that the time of judgment – the end of the world as we know it – was at hand, would we listen?

The moral we usually take from the story of Noah’s Ark is usually something like, “God will protect people who love him,” or “God punishes unrepentant sinners.” What’s interesting, is that when Jesus references Noah, He offers a very different moral: “Be prepared.”

We are very much in the day’s of Noah. We’ve heard the message that the rain (Reign) is coming. Some of us believe it, some don’t. Most don’t act like it matters one way or another. We don’t know how soon it’ll come, and that can lead to a sense of complacency. When in fact it should do just the opposite.

Today marks the beginning of the church year. So, you know, Happy New Year. We’re on the verge of the marathon sprint to Christmas that we call “advent.” There will be a lot of things over the next few weeks that will be vying for your attention: Gift-buying and wrapping, cleaning, decorating, Christmas pageants… you name it. And even though that stuff is fairly important, don’t let them distract you from what really matters: being prepared for Christ’s return.

Now, it’s possible that you’re a little confused about why we’re talking about the end of the world today. What does that have to do with advent? Actually, it’s pretty simple.

Many people mistakenly think that Advent is the time when we get ready for Christmas. That maybe true in a sense, but it’s not the whole story. See, the thing about Christmas is that it’s the celebration of something that’s already happened. Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is a historical fact. More to the point, how can you get ready for something that’s already happened?

I think a better way of thinking about Advent is to think of it as a time when we prepare for Christ’s coming. So, yes, we think about all of the preparations that lead up to his first coming; things like Mary’s pregnancy and the pre-birth meeting of John the Baptist and Jesus in the respective mothers’ bellies, and all of the prophecies that pointed toward that blessed manger bed. That’s good stuff to remember, but the call of Advent is for us to be prepared also for His return.

Some people say this is a dreadfully morbid talk, thinking about the end of the world and all. They’d rather just focus in on little, inoffensive baby Jesus, cooing in swaddling cloths while the angels sing overhead and the star beams down its warm light upon a poor stable roof.

I love as good manger scene as much as the next guy, and maybe more than a few, but I have to say – think Jesus’ second coming will be even more spectacular. It’s not going to be a little secret party for mom, dad, and a handful of shepherds. It’s going to be an earth shaking celebration so loud, so bright, so awesome that dead people will literally wake up to see what’s going on.

That’s one of the cool things about the Christmas story. Even though we had tons of prophecies and God was pretty explicit about how He would send His son – still nobody could have guessed it. Nobody would have thought God would squeeze himself into a little embryo. Nobody would have guessed that He would be born like a beggar in a borrowed garage. Nobody could have spelled out Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

But with God, anything is possible.

So, for now we live in the middle times – the Noah times, and our job is pretty simple. Be ready. Jesus could come at anytime. Be ready – Not anxious, not complacent, not afraid. Just be ready.

Which begs the question: “How can I be ready for Christ’s return? How can I expect the unexpected?”

Jesus uses the metaphor of watchmen guarding against thieves. I wouldn’t have used this comparison because it has such a negative connotation to it… but He’s Jesus, so I guess it’s okay.

So if we are to be like watchmen or guards, what are the ways that they stand ready? First, they don’t expect any advance warning. A lot of people spend a lot of time trying to decipher Daniel and Revelation to figure out what historical events will telegraph the end of days. Others look to the likes of Nostradamus or the Mayans. Our gospel today said pretty clearly that even Jesus doesn’t know when it’ll be. And if Jesus doesn’t know, nobody but God the Father knows.

Jesus does offer us some signs of the time: wars, rumors of war, disease and famine, family’s being torn apart, etc. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty descriptive of our times. But everyone since Jesus’ day has been saying that. Which just reinforces the point that we need to be ready at all times.

Secondly, watchmen aren’t reactive – like your home alarm system – they are proactive. They don’t wait for the thief to break in before they go looking for him. They stay up all night with their eyes wide open, searching, waiting, expecting the thief to appear. And when he does, they are ready.

Finally, a good watchman or guard knows what to do when the thief appears. This is where the metaphor gets a little weird, because I’m not going to shoot Jesus if he shows up at my house. But all the same, when Christ returns, I expect that I will recognize Him, and He me. I won’t have to go running to the mountains for cover, as some probably will. I won’t panic because I’ll know that this is the day I’ve been preparing for my whole life.

And what a joyous day it will be.

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Pastor Michael Cofer
Luke 17:11-19

Thanksgiving is a wonderful time of the year. I have to say, I am very glad that we have a national observance of thanksgiving. Even in the depths of a historical economic downturn, our country is far and away one of the wealthiest in the world.

We have much to give thanks for. Still though, I think sometimes the point can be lost on some folks. After all, it is Thanksgiving Day, not Thankfulness Day. Not clear on the distinction? Let me explain.

Thankfulness is a nice feeling. It comes from reflecting on just how good your life is. When we do that, when we stop to appreciate all of the blessings in our life, it is a moving experience. A warmth wells up in your chest, the corners of your mouth float heavenward, all the colors you see are a bit more vivid, and all the people around you emit a faint golden glow. You might just find yourself feeling a little smaller, a little more humble.

It’s good to be thankful. But it’s even better to give thanks. In the gospel reading, there were ten lepers that Jesus healed. Now, in Jesus’ time a leper had no place in society. They were exiled from their homes, their families, their jobs, and everything they loved.

Now, I imagine that when the lepers were healed, they had an experience not too different from what many of us experience just before carving the turkey. They were reunited with their families. They had a renewed gratitude for the comforts of home and all the blessings that are a part of what we would call a “normal life.”

I expect that all ten lepers, on the day that they were healed, were very thankful. But only one of them gave thanks.

It’s easy to let thankfulness be a very self-serving thing. It can be about how great our lives are – when it ought to be about how great our God is for giving us life.

Thanksgiving demands an object of our thanks. And sure, there are lots of people in our lives we should thank, but none more so than the Giver of All Good Gifts.

So, I’m going to suggest a little fine-tuning to your Thanksgiving traditions. In many homes, just before the meal, the family members take turns listing things that they are thankful for. The formula usually goes like this, “I’m thankful for…”

That’s pretty good. Pretty easy to do. But if you really want to make the move from Thankfulness Day to Thanksgiving Day, try this formula out instead: “Thank you, God, for…”
And since I won’t be at all of your homes for dinner tomorrow, maybe I can have my turn to say thanks right now…

Thank you, God, for making me and all creatures; for giving me my body and soul, my eyes and ears and all my members, my reason and my (sometimes questionable) senses… and for daily taking care of them.

Thank you also for my clothing and shoes, more food and drink than I really need everyday, my house and all the stuff I clutter it up with, for my wife and all my family, and my dog.

Thanks for my job, my coworkers, and most of the people at my church. Okay… all the people at my church; each one of them is a blessing to me and to the congregation.

Thank you for giving me all these things, even when I don’t appreciate them. Thank you for loving me unconditionally. Thank you for teaching me to trust you, even when it hurts. Thank you for second chances, for clean slates and do-overs.

Thank you for being bigger than me. Thank you for speaking the unknowable mysteries of the universe to us in words we can kind of understand.

Thank you for sending Your Son into this world to be the full revelation of Your will. Thank you for His life, for His death, and for His resurrection. Thank you for the promise that He is coming back to take us home.

Thank you for sending Your Spirit to live within us. Thank you for using us in Your master plan.

And above all, thanks for being You. Amen.

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21 November 2010
Pastor Mark Nieting

When pastors teach about stewardship there are always a few in the seats who will whisper, “It’s another “God needs your money” sermon!” There are a lot of things wrong with that statement: If God REALLY needed my money He would simply take it and there would be a wet spot in the pulpit! God doesn’t NEED anything. God HAS everything. He made it and it ALL belongs to Him.

Over the last few weeks we’ve focused on financial problems, on pride and greed that cause us to live beyond our means; on having a budget; about simplifying our lives. We all know what comes next: the pastor tries to whip up more money for the church budget, right? Wrong. Put the church’s bills aside; we’re going to focus on OUR NEED TO GIVE, as opposed to the Church’s need to GET. We’re going to focus on GENEROSITY……and our innate need to BE generous.

Suppose an ultra-rich gazillionairre died and left Hope a few million dollars that we could use each year for our budget. Would that be a reason to stop giving? (The proper answer here is NO!) By the same token, if our treasurer got on his knees and begged us for $15,000 to break even this week, that would NOT be a reason for you to start giving. You and I have a NEED to give. It’s how God wired us up from the very beginning. We have a built in need to be generous.

As I’ve said before, the Bible is filled with teaching about giving. Open to 2 Corinthians 8-9 and let’s pray before we dive in. (Opening prayer)

Paul is encouraging the Christians in Greece to give to the Church in Jerusalem, which is struggling under persecution and drought. To help the “mother church” Paul is asking all the other churches to take a special offering. He’s already asked the churches in NORTHERN Greece (Macedonia) and now he’s writing to the church in Corinth. Let’s read from 8:1: Now brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity! What do we learn here? People in extreme poverty and people going through hard times (like many people are now) can still be generous!

Let’s read on: V 3: I testify that they gave as much as they were able and even beyond their ability! 4 Entirely on their own they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints. 5 And they did not do so as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will. They asked PAUL if they could be part of the SOLUTION, not part of the problem. For them, giving was a privilege, just as faith was a privilege. Again, God doesn’t want our money, He wants our hearts. What we DO with our money is a clear indicator of what’s going on in our hearts.

Paul had urged Titus to take this offering in Corinth and in v 7 he says, “Just as you excel in everything- in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and your love for us, see that you also excel in the grace of giving!” 8 I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others.” Giving is just as much a part of being a Christian as is worship, prayer, Bible reading, and everything else. Giving cannot be separated from the Christian faith!

What Jesus did for us can never be paid back. We can’t even try because it can’t be done. But we CAN say thank you. We do it by living Christ-like lives; by sharing with others; and by being good stewards of EVERYTHING God has given us. Before I go on, let’s be clear about one thing: God doesn’t need my money………but I need to give! Say it with me. Say it again.

By now some of you are getting excited and some of you are getting nervous. You’ve seen the bulletin insert and I’m sure there are questions rolling around; questions that St. Paul will answer for us in Chapter 9.

The first question, and I know it sounds crass but trust me, it’s real for a lot of people, is this: what’s in this giving thing for me? What’s in it for me? Maybe YOU didn’t ask this one but Paul answers it anyway with the principle of “sowing and reaping.” Let’s read 9:6: Remember this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. I overseed my lawn every fall, and you know what? The more grass seed I scatter, the more grass comes up! It’s that simple. This is God’s promise: the more we give, the more we will receive! It’s the same principle God states in Malachi 3 when He literally “double-dog dares” us to give the full tithe by stating that when we DO, we will be blessed to overflowing!

Time out for a quick disclaimer: there’s a lot of preaching and teaching in some churches that says this: God wants you to be rich (or healthy) but it won’t happen unless you first send some “seed money” to a specific ministry (usually theirs) and then….if you do it all right, God will pour out the blessings. It’s called Prosperity Theology or “Name it and Claim it” and it’s been warned about ever since Paul warned Timothy about it (1 Timothy 6). God isn’t a giant ponzi scheme or chain letter for earthly wealth……God is about BLESSINGS, blessings that come from being a part of God’s family, and God is THE giver of givers!

Here’s another question: I’m tired of being “hit up” for money every time I turn around. It’s telemarketers, special events, police, firefighters….and now church!
What do I do? Ever ask that question? Paul answers that in 9:7 “Each should give what he decided in his heart to give….not reluctantly or under compulsion. For God loves a cheerful giver.” This may be the best news you’ve heard all week: someone calls, interrupts your dinner and asks for a contribution, you can honestly say, “God doesn’t want me to give to your cause! The Bible says so!”

God cares more about your attitude than about your money! In the bank of heaven, hearts matter more than cash. Five dollars given sacrificially and generously matters far more to God than Five Thousand dollars begrudgingly given by someone who has plenty and doesn’t really want to give it up! It’s the “widow’s mite” 101. It’s about hearts. It’s about love. It’s about our gratitude to God for the incredible gift of salvation through Jesus Christ!

In 7b Paul writes “God loves a cheerful giver.” It’s a lousy translation. The Greek word used here is “hilarious!” God loves a HILARIOUS giver! One who gives out of PURE JOY!!!! Is that you? It hasn’t always been me! And when we give for the right reason, it’s FUN. That’s why I am never ashamed to ask you to give: it’s fun!

Another question: What if I give and I go broke because of it? Maybe I need to hold on to some of my money, just in case, right?? Paul answers this in v 8: God is able to make all grace abound in you, so that in all things, at all times, having all you NEED (there’s that word: NEED), you will abound in every good work!” It’s the 23rd Psalm “cup-runneth over” principle: God blesses us SO we can bless others and WHEN we bless others we ourselves are blessed.

That question leads to a bigger question: how much should I give? The answer is clear: God expects us to give a tithe. 10% of what make. Make $5000 a month? Drop a zero; give $500 and use all the rest! Make $15 babysitting? Give $1.50! 10% is the Biblical standard that goes back to the time of Abraham. Abraham KNEW how much God had blessed him and he showed his gratitude by giving 10% of everything he had and God blessed him even more. A tithe isn’t what we do to earn God’s approval….it’s our way of saying THANK YOU to God.

For 2000 years Christians have understood that the tithe is the base level of our giving, and if you’re not there yet, that should be your goal. If you’re already there, you know what a blessing it is to be able to give “hilariously,” and you’re already looking for ways to give MORE!

Which leads to the final question for today, one that is running through a lot of minds right now: what if I HONESTLY cannot afford to tithe? “Pastor, I’ve been through my budget, cut out all the junk, and either because of bad choices in the past or bad circumstances I cannot tithe. What do I do?”

There are 3 keys to dealing with this; to being able to lift up your head and your heart and know that you are working within God’s will on giving. We’ll call it the “3 keys to worshipful giving,” and they go like this:
#1: PLAN to give regularly. Paul tells God’s people that every time they get paid to set aside a regular amount and save it for their offering. Don’t just “show up” in church and dig through your wallet…..oh, that’s a $20, need that later, here’s some ones for my offering…..make regular giving a priority. That’s why we are getting the opportunity to fill in an estimate of giving this morning, as a tool to help each of us develop a PLAN for regular giving. Please take those out now.
#2: The second key is Proportionality. God (in Deuteronomy) tells His people to give in proportion to what God has given us. If God has given you NOTHING, how much should you give? Nothing! If God has given you a LOT, God expects you to give a LOT. See how FAIR this is? It’s percentage giving.

Now, you may be honestly saying you cannot give 10%. Then what percentage CAN you give? Look at the chart on the back of the card. Can you give 3%? 4%? 5%? 7%?….then start there. Make that your base level of giving and then, trusting that God will bless you, make a commitment to increase it from year to year and move toward tithing. That’s what Pam and I did in the past and we know God has blessed that commitment….and blessed us. We didn’t start at a tithe, but ultimately God has led us there and more.

#3: Make giving a PRIORITY. Proverbs says honor the Lord with your wealth. Paul makes it a priority. Jesus calls it “first fruits.” I call it giving in FAITH. If we wait to see what we have left over before we give, that’s not faith! That’s not trusting God! That’s not a response out of joy….that’s giving God leftovers. It’s when, out of thanks to God and in God to provide everything we NEED that we give to God first that He receives our gifts like the gifts of Abel….not Cain.

Here’s how I want to end this 3 week teaching. Turn the Challenge of Faith “card” to the front. During the offering fill in the top part: name, address, all that. I know you might need to go home and pray through the rest of this as a family. I know you might need to do some budget math. Here’s the challenge. There are 3 “check lines” on the top. The first line asks for your commitment to raise your regular giving from what it is now, especially if you are not giving the full tithe. Estimate what percentage you give now and ask God to help you raise it as you work towards the goal of tithing. Do this knowing you want to give REGULARLY, PROPORTIONATELY and as a PRIORITY, set a goal and ask God to bless it.

The second line is an even greater challenge. It’s not for everyone. It’s a pledge to give God a full tithe, 10%, for 4 months, just to feel the joy! These are God’s words in Malachi 3: “Bring in the full tithe…. test me and see if I will not open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it!” This is God’s challenge, I’m just passing it on to you. You’ll only know God is as good as His Promise if you make that commitment.

Now the 3rd line: sign up for Simply Giving. “Computerized giving” isn’t in Scripture….but it really helps us to keep our giving a priority, to keep our giving regular, and it certainly removes an area of temptation to use “God’s Gifts” for ourselves when we know that our offerings are already committed to God!

The bottom portion of the card completes your commitment in writing. And if you are not already a supporter of Envision Hope, I encourage you to do so.
Let’s close……..with a prayer…….and return these cards either today, on Thanksgiving, or next Sunday…..but please return them! Amen.

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Pastor Mark Nieting
Philippians 4: 11-12

Part 2 in our 2010 Stewardship Series. A short video clip was played from Saturday Night Live. Watch it here.

Grace, mercy and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

How did you like the video clip? Did you get the point quicker than Steve did? What was it? Don’t buy what you don’t have money for!” Based on last week’s message, how many of you went recreational shopping over the course of the week? Did it make a difference in how you approached your use of money?

Jesus started the Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes, the “blessed are” parts, then he taught about loving our enemies, giving to the needy, about prayer, fasting, not worrying, not judging others, about false prophets and finally, in 7: 24 He’s drawing this great sermon to a close with these words: “Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who builds his house on the rock. The rains came down, the streams rose and the winds blew and beat against that house, but it did not fall because it had its foundation on the rock.”

Question: What’s the key phrase there? Hears these Words? Foundation on the rock? Didn’t fall? I believe the key phrase is “puts them into practice.” Which is harder, listening to Jesus or actually applying His teachings to our lives? Yes, the applying part is far harder, because we might have to CHANGE our behavior! Following the “KISS” method, I’ve listed 6 points and some verses to back them up onto your bulletin insert, so please take that out and we’ll walk through them.

1 Remember to keep GOD first in life…..even our financial lives. It’s a 1st commandment issue! Remember Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son? Who was first in HIS life? HE was. He DEMANDED his inheritance and BLEW it without a care for the future. His life was all about pleasure and fun, and it didn’t work!

2 Live according to a budget. Develop a spending plan and STICK TO IT!! Proverbs 7:23 offers the wisdom of a simple shepherd: know the condition of your flocks. It’s another version of “don’t count your chickens before they hatch;” or “don’t spend what you don’t have!” Develop a realistic plan for finances based on what you actually make and stick with it…..especially when you have the urge to do some “recreational shopping,” to buy something you want NOW…..even when you don’t have the money to pay for it! . Budgeting is telling your money what you want it to do, not the other way around!
There are a whole bunch of budget-making products out there, from personal financial planners; there are books and videos from Dave Ramsey and others who can work with you to do this but again, it only works if we DO it!!

3 Simplify your lifestyle: live BELOW your means. (see Matt 6: 19-33) Unless you’re the US government, there is one cardinal financial rule: we cannot spend more than we make. That means living within our means in the present AND the future. Obviously we can’t do this without a budget. We can’t do without a budget. We can’t do it without the discipline to target any unnecessary spending and saying “NO!” to affluenza and saying NO to credititus.

There’s a zillion ways to do this……I’ll just tick off a few easy ones:
- Eat out is one of the biggest budget busters….even a little less helps.
- Use the library instead of the bookstore!
- Use “IT” until it’s worn out…..not just until we’re tired of it.
- Before we buy ANYTHING, ask three brutal questions:
- Why do it need it? Can I do without it? How often will I use it?
These and lots of other ways can and WILL help us live within our means.

4 Build up an emergency fund. (Proverbs 21: 20) What happens when you have an emergency…..you know….the furnace fails, the dishwasher dies, the plumbing plugs? Is there an emergency fund….or do we turn right to the credit card? Experts like Dave Ramsey recommend building a separate fund JUST FOR EMERGENCIES, so when they come (and they will!) we’re ready!

If it’s been tough so far, it’s going to get tougher: #5: Undergo “Plastic Surgery!” Cut ‘em up, stop using them, hide them….whatever it takes, and as quickly as possible, pay them off. There’s more strategies to doing this than I have time for, but the point is, when we owe money to someone, they rule over us. Solomon said in Proverbs 22: 7: “the borrower is servant to the lender,” and we only want to have one master: Jesus Christ!

6 Finally, save for the future. I’m NOT talking about hoarding….there’s Bible verses and TV shows about how bad that is….but purposeful saving for the future: for emergencies, for special goals…to be able to pay cash for it, and, of course, for retirement. We should all be saving some money every month, which is only possible when we spend less than we spend!

That’s six steps towards being a better money manager. Some of us mastered these steps ages ago and should be teaching classes to the rest of us. I’m sure there are others among us who would be happy crawling under the pews right now……but if you are willing to accept the challenge, I’d be happy to connect you with some folks here who could help things go very differently.
It’s great to remember that the Prodigal Son was warmly welcomed home, was forgiven by his father…..but he did change his behavior as a result!

All of THAT said…..I want to move on in the time I have left to the theme I promised you last Sunday, Cultivating Contentment.

My wife Pam grew up in Pittsburgh. When she was 18 or 19 her parent’s house burned down and she lost every single thing she had growing up….everything. It’s a reminder that nothing we have, nothing ‘physical,l’ lasts forever. It helps Pam echo Jesus’ words when He says “My life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12: 15, paraphrased). I admire that in Pam, especially when I have to move all MY STUFF!

I have to admit that I have another disease, different than the ones we discussed last week….remember, affluenza and credititus? I also have a case of RHS…. Restless Heart Syndrome. It’s not a rare condition, I think most of us exhibit the symptoms quite regularly. It’s kind of like Restless Leg Syndrome, when someone’s leg “twitches” all the time and won’t stay still. RHS is when my heart…..my soul…..won’t “be content.” The primary symptom of RHS is discontent. The moment we get something, we barely take time to enjoy it, put it on the shelf or in the closet and….poof…… we want something else.

Here’s how it works: Buy a new house, flip on HGTV and all of a sudden your new house needs new cabinets, new counter tops, who knows what else! Buy a new car and it’s not long before the new smell is gone and someone else’s car is shinier. It happens with jobs. Sad to say, it even happens with our marriages. We’re madly in love and all we know is how wonderful he or she is. We can’t WAIT to get married and live “happily ever after.” Then one day we notice someone else and think, “If only I had met this person sooner! If only my husband/wife was like so-and-so.” From that moment, unless it is dealt with, RHS can lead to disaster.

Finally, sorry to say, it even happens with churches. We finally find the perfect church and then the pastor preaches about money too much, the services go too long, someone on the end of a pew won’t move down to let us in and before long: RHS strikes and we’re out church shopping because, you know this one: the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence!

This is what discontent does for us. Sometimes I think God must look down on us and feel the way WE feel when we give someone we love a very special gift and, only a few minutes after they open it up, they ask us for a gift receipt! God must think, What IS it with these people? I give them SO much. All they want is more!
I’m sure God thought that way with Adam and Eve and He does with me too!

How do we Cultivate Contentment? To answer this I’m finally going to the text of today’s message: Philippians 4: 11-12. It’s Paul, writing while he was in prison. “I have learned to be content, whatever the circumstances. 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.” Aren’t those amazing words? What was that “secret” Paul had learned?

I don’t think it’s a secret at all. I think all St. Paul had to do was to think back to the days when he went by the name of Saul, to remember when he participated in the death of the first Christian martyr, Stephen, to when he denied Christ. He called himself the “chief of sinners,” and it wasn’t a title he wore proudly.

What Paul remembered was that despite his sinful past, Jesus loved him. Jesus forgave him. Jesus welcomed him into His family. Jesus protected him. For Paul, life wasn’t about possessions. Life was about being thankful for what Jesus had done for him. Ultimately what drove Paul’s missionary heart was the desire that everyone would share in the forgiveness of sins that he knew he didn’t deserve but God had given him anyway, out of grace, mercy and love.

Contrary to what the world would have us believe, the contentment our hearts truly need cannot be satisfied at the mall or the toy store. It cannot come from buying more stuff. The only real satisfaction for our souls comes from Jesus Christ. That reality, my friends, is hard-wired by God into our basic humanity. It’s deep within our DNA! That’s because we were created BY God, in HIS image, to be with Him……and only through Jesus Christ can that happen.

Time after time Jesus reminded His disciples and He reminds us that the two most important things we can do in this life are these: Love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds……and love our neighbors as ourselves. (Matt 22: 37-39) If we keep our focus there….we will truly cultivate contentment in our lives!

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