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By Pastor Michael Cofer
Text: James 5

Until I married Alisha, I had never been part of a big family. Growing up, it was my mom and dad and my sister who was 6 years older than me… and that was it. I saw my two living grandparents probably once or twice a year. I met my cousins roughly once each. My concept of family was pretty small, pretty low key, and for the most part we kept to ourselves.

You can understand that becoming a part of Alisha’s family took a little getting used to. All of her family – and I mean ALL of her family – lives within a couple hours’ drive of each other. Most are in the same city.

So, pretty much every month they get together to celebrate someone’s birthday. You know when you go to a restaurant and they’ve rearranged the room to be one giant table full of laughing and animated people that pretty much guarantee you’ll never see your waiter? We were that table.

Now, imagine the first time I sat at that table. I had 5 or 6 conversations going on in earshot, and just sat in a daze – not sure which one I was supposed to be a part of. And as the new guy, everyone was trying to talk to me. Asking me stuff… stuff about my life. How school was going… wanting to be a pastor. That’s so cool. That’s so strange.

My head was spinning, and it took a bit of acclimating, but I felt loved and cared for – even if a bit overwhelmed. They wanted to be part of my life – that’s what family does.

You know, the church is supposed to be a family, too. Brothers and sisters, adopted by our loving Father – brought to the table together in the bonds of mutual love. But I didn’t really grow up understanding that either. And I don’t think I’m the only one.

I think that we’ve lost a lot of that sense of family in the church over the last couple of generations, and we really need to reclaim it. It is much more typical to look at the other people in service on a Sunday as “Fellow Worshippers,” or even “Fellow Members.” “I go here, you go here. We both go here… and then we go our separate ways.”

That sort of thinking makes it easy to keep our private lives… well… private. We aren’t really compelled to share anything with each other. We just share space and go through our Sundays in parallel. I mean, let’s face it, most of us are here for the Worship Service, right?

But in our Epistle today, James really raises the bar on what it means to be a church together. “Is anyone of you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them…” “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other.” “Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way saves them from death!”

These aren’t hypothetical examples to illustrate a point. They are concrete benchmarks for how the church should function. But how do we get there? We need to be in each other’s lives.

Now, before we get any farther into this idea, let’s talk about busybodies and gossips. Churches used to have a reputation for both (though I don’t know if that’s as common today as it once was), but both are unhealthy – and neither are what James is advocating.

You see, a busybody is someone who has no business knowing your business who insists on knowing your business. Usually they want to know your business so they can privately judge you, or pass it around to others. Also, they are much more likely to tell you someone else’s sins and struggles than disclose their own.

We don’t need busybodies. We need to be a family in our church. You need folks who do belong in your business – who will keep your confidence and who will disclose their struggles with you. People who will pray for and with you, and who will ask for your prayers. People who will be honest when it looks like you’re drifting away or living a life that contradicts the gospel – and who are willing to let you do the same for them.

It’s a big ask, I know. And the 15 minutes or so that we allot for “Fellowship” each Sunday probably isn’t enough to really develop those relationships. You may have to spend some time after Bible Study or after Worship. You may need to share a meal. And you may need to rearrange your routine to do it. But we need this, because the Christian life is incredibly easy and incredibly hard.

Christianity is easy in the sense that Jesus did all the hard work of saving us. Salvation is a gift that He offers freely, and it is the work of God even to make us willing to receive it. And it’s easy in the sense that no matter what happens between now and the end, we know how it all ends. We know that nothing can separate us from God’s love and the reward laid up for us in heaven.

But Christianity is hard, too. This world can be a discouraging place and we will wrestle with temptation from the world around us and even from inside our own hearts. We will go through trials, endure suffering, and have crises of faith. That’s why we aren’t meant to go it alone.

There is probably someone here today who needs you to pray for them. There is probably someone here today who wants to pray for you. There may even be someone who is here today who is wandering from the truth and in need of a brother or sister to have the difficult conversation about it in a loving way. Or maybe they aren’t here today, and you noticed that.

If you could save a life, wouldn’t you? If you could forgive sinner, shouldn’t you? If you could pray for the sick or troubled, if you could rejoice with the joyful, if you could be a Christian brother or sister to someone… what’s stopping you?

Recent past sermons:

Aug. 2: The Bread of Life
Aug. 9: The True Bread
Aug. 16: Rise and Shine!
Aug. 23: A Profound Mystery
Sept. 13: Just Outside Your Door

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By Pastor Michael Cofer
Mark 6:30-44

When folks go searching for a church, they usually have a list (whether they know it or not) of things they are looking for. Some are looking for high quality music in a style they enjoy. Some are looking for strong children programs or a healthy youth group. Some are very interested in the theology of the church. Some are looking for a church heavily involved in charitable work and relief for those in need.

All of those things are important.., and there’s one on the list I haven’t said yet, but I hear it more often than not: “I want to go somewhere I can be fed.” What they usually mean is, “I want to go somewhere I will hear the word of God taught in a way that applies to my life and experience.”

I think that’s a great thing to look for in a church, because it suggests that in the first place folks have come ready to hear God speak. In many cases, they are also pointing to having an experience of God – sensing and responding to His presence. This, too, is good because it suggests that they expect and believe that God is present when we gather for worship.

And so, I hope that you came here today because you want and need to be fed.

In the Gospel today, we read about a different kind of feeding. It’s a story about people’s empty bellies being filled to capacity with food to spare. In your Bible, this story is probably titled “The Feeding of the 5000.” And while I DO want to talk about that, I kind of want to talk even more about the feeding of the 12.

If we go back to the beginning of the story, there’s a very easy to miss, but very important detail: the disciple had been so busy debriefing (and getting interrupted) that they never get the chance to eat. So the whole time that Jesus is teaching those folks out in the middle of nowhere, the disciples are just getting hungrier and hungrier.

So, when the disciples say, “Send the people away so that they can [buy] themselves something to eat,” what they really might have been thinking was, “Send the people away so that we can get something to eat.” After all, this was supposed to be a place of rest and refuge with Jesus… but all of these other folks are taking it all up.

This plan of course completely backfires on the disciples. He does not send them away. In fact, He gives it right back to the disciples. “You give them something to eat.” You take care of them.

You can imagine what the disciples just have been thinking. “Great, we’re tired and hungry, and now we’ve got more work to do! There’s like 5,000 people here – can’t some of them handle this food situation? We already do so much. It seems like it’s the same 12 folks always doing all the work…”

Now, Jesus is no dummy. He knows what the disciples need. And it isn’t that He doesn’t care about their needs. Of all the people there, the disciples were perhaps the hungriest of them all. In fact, the plan to feed them and to give them rest is already in full-swing. It’s just that these things work differently in the Kingdom of Heaven.

So the disciples pick through the crowd and nobody – I mean, nobody – has any food, except one boy who brought his lunchbox with him. So, after working their way through a crowd of thousands they come back to Jesus with five pitas and a couple fish.

Can you imagine their shame and disappointment when they handed Jesus that meal? 5,000 people, and this is the most they could come up with. If we had a stewardship drive here at Hope, and all we managed to raise was a kid’s lunch money for one day, I reckon we’d count it as a monumental failure.

Those disciples had to look at this little bit of food and think “Well, there’s probably enough for us each to have, like, almost half a loaf if we cut it right… and then maybe one bite each of the fish… but I don’t know about the rest of those people.”

But Jesus doesn’t shame them or show any disappointment at all. He simply takes the food, gives thanks and blesses it, and then sends the disciples to go pass that food along. Bit by bit, bite by bite, they just keep passing it out. Every time they break off a piece of bread or fish, they find there’s no less there than before. So everyone eats… and eats… and eats until they have had their fill. And then they gather up the leftovers. The leftovers! 12 basketfuls of leftovers.

Now, if you will take a little leap with me and draw a line between 12 hungry disciples and 12 baskets full of food… Who do you suppose got the most out of the feeding of the 5,000? Everyone was fed, but the disciples were fed – and then some. And what do you suppose happened to those baskets of food? They couldn’t keep them… there’s no ziplock, no refrigerators. After feeding the 5,000, they had there fill and still had more to give.

God’s Word is exactly like this. I know that some folks have come today to be fed and to find rest in Christ. Surely, God wants that for you, too. But we aren’t called to be the folks on the grass… we’re called to be the disciples. If you come hoping to have a little word that you can chew on and go home fed… well, I hope that you get that. But the folks who get the most out of church are the ones who come not just with empty bellies but also with empty baskets to be filled.

The Word that God brings to us can’t stop with us. it is meant to be shared with all of them. And the thing is, when you start giving it away, you’ll find that there is no less for you. In fact, there may be more. As the Word of God begins to live on our lips, it grows in our hearts. As we share it more, it becomes more real, more relevant, more effective.

Now, mind you, no one was force fed in this story. So, when we talk about sharing God’s Word, you don’t need to be shoving it down people’s throats… but there are more genuine opportunities all around you than you might think. People who need the hope you have. People who are hungry for a bit of good news. People crushed by sin in their lives, either their own or the folks that they love.

There are a lot of hungry people out there… and I hope that you are being fed today. But I also hope that you’re filling up your basket for their sake. I believe that Jesus is asking us to try it out – Share the Word of God with someone, and then see if you have less or more.

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By Pastor Mark Nieting
2 Thessalonians 2: 13-17

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

“Soli Deo Gloria!” No, I’m not getting fancy on you; it’s a theological phrase, in Latin, that means “to God alone be the glory.” I cannot think of a better theme for my last sermon than that: “to God alone be the glory!” It really is hard for me to wrap my head around, but forty-five years of ministry is coming to a conclusion this month, and to that the best thing I can say is “to God alone be the glory!”

It IS, after all, about God. It’s ALL about God. God made the marvelous, wonderful, mysterious world in which we live and I, for one, have never stopped being amazed by it! Whether it’s animal, vegetable or mineral, I’m right there with David the Psalmist when he wrote, “The heavens declare the glory of God and the skies proclaim the work of His hands!” (Ps 19). I love God’s creation and can’t to spend more time IN it! I am also blessed by knowing that God made me as well, as Psalm 100 says, “Know that the Lord is God. It is He who made us, and we are His!” I love knowing I belong to God!

One of best things from the past year here at Hope was our study of The STORY. Right from the beginning, in chapter 1, we were reminded that our relationship with God our Creator was broken by sin…..and there was nothing we could do about it. Nothing. But God made it His mission to restore that relationship. It became Christ’s mission to pay for our sins, with His life on the cross. It became the mission of the Holy Spirit to call us….one at a time….back into a relationship with God so that we COULD be with Him again, forever! It was God’s Upper Story that enables us to have anything at all to celebrate about our own stories…..so that we can say “to God alone be the glory!”

This week, as we were planning our services, someone asked me why I “allowed” several baptisms to take place this Sunday….and even next Sunday. Putting the best construction on it….remember how Dr. Luther encourages us all to do that…. they probably wanted to help me to keep focus on “my last Sunday.” I appreciated the concern, but I can’t think of a more fitting ministry tribute to God than to watch Him bring new five new saints into His family yesterday, today and next Sunday! It is through Holy Baptism that God does His first mighty work with each one of us, washing away the guilt of original sin and welcoming us into His family…..so baptize it will be, whenever and wherever I can.

That said, I’m sure you remember Paul’s farewell words to the Thessalonians from this morning’s text: We ought always thank God, because from the beginning God chose YOU to be saved by the sanctifying work of Jesus Christ! “To God alone be the glory!”

In some ways, it is also about “me.” I don’t mean the number of baptisms or weddings or counting up the shut-in calls or meetings I’ve attended. I put most of those numbers in this month’s Highlights, so you can read them if you wish. It’s not about the number of counseling sessions, staff meetings or hospital visits. What I mean is that it has been a great privilege for me to have been your pastor, your encourager, and your friend in Christ for the past 9 years. To God alone be the glory!

I do believe it was God who prepared me through nature AND nurture for this holy task. He did it by borning me into a family steeped in the tradition of serving God as a vocation. Both of my grandfathers and several uncles were LCMS pastors. My mother was a Lutheran teacher, my father a principal of Lutheran schools for his entire career.

God prepared me with 16 years of my life spent attending Lutheran schools. (If you’re doing the math, I didn’t attend Kindergarten because St. Peter’s Lutheran School in Minneapolis didn’t have one!) God laid more groundwork for service with some great Walther League leaders who encouraged me to be “up front” with music, prayer, and teaching. He used farm work and construction work to be sure I wasn’t afraid of hard work. I attended Concordia Teachers College in Chicago specifically to become a Lutheran school teacher. Throughout those years God used dedicated mentors like Lyle Kurth, my supervisor at Good Shepherd Lutheran in Elgin, Illinois and Jim Taglauer, the principal of Pilgrim Lutheran in Baltimore, where in 1972 I started as the second and third grade teacher. I thank God for those men, and for students like Carole Anne Kahl, Melroy Jones, Jonathan Kresken, Tyranni Bright, and hundreds more over the years. I remember their faces and, for most of them, I can still remember their grades!

I have some wonderful memories from all my years in the classroom. (I have some not-so-good memories too, but those stay with me!) I can still remember my last class of 6th graders at Pilgrim. We were watching a movie about Jesus’ passion, and then one after another began crying uncontrollably until the entire room…..me included…..wept for over an hour over how much Jesus must love us! Ministry can be unforgettable.

There were humorous moments too. While teaching in Baltimore, I would take my sixth graders camping on the outer banks. One year, while on the way there, we stopped for a bio-break at a McDonalds in Annapolis, only to have all our vehicles surrounded by half a dozen or more State Police cars with their lights flashing. Turns out, one of my sweet young students had taped a “Help, we’re being kidnapped” sign on the window!

I haven’t said this often, but if you would have asked me “back then” if I was ever going to be a pastor, I would have laughed and said exactly what some of you say when you are asked to serve: “No way! Not me, Lord! Ask someone else!” I was happy teaching and I was happy doing youth work…..would God really ask me to do more? Would he?

You bet He would, all according to His timetable. From Baltimore God led me to Myrtle Beach, where in the summer of 1977 I laid the groundwork for Risen Christ Lutheran School by turning two single-wide mobile homes into classrooms….by myself. From a dozen students that first year to a dozen times that four years later, God brought in the harvest and it was all our little staff could do to keep up with the increase.

Our church grew too, and so Pastor Al Kresken (we used to call him “the Amazing Kresken”) began to challenge me to preach and lead worship services when he was away serving as a Chaplain in the Army Reserve. During those years, people like Arnold and Royonne Rauscher and Helen LaFon encouraged me to consider going to the seminary because our church was experiencing a serve shortage of pastors. So I began the process of application.

I still remember the words of Rich Hinz, our District President way back then. He said, “So, you are considering the pastoral ministry? Fight it off as long as possible. And then, when you can’t fight it off anymore, give it all you’ve got.” So I fought it off for four more years. And then, by God’s grace and with a lot of sacrifice on the part of my family, we moved to St. Louis and I finally became a vicar and then a pastor at Redeemer, in Hyattsville, Maryland. It wasn’t easy. I struggled a lot to master the preaching part of ministry, but in the end, I began to realize that pastors are one of God’s gifts to the church. So are teachers. So are Sunday School teachers, ushers, bulletin folders, lawn mowers and choir members. So is everyone who uses his or her gifts in service to God!

Remember Paul’s words: “It was Christ who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up.” (Eph 4)

I don’t know what your understanding is of the pastoral ministry….or what level of experience you’ve had with your pastors over the years, but I’ll say this: If you understand that God has placed you where you are as His ‘under-shepherd,’ it’s incredible, it’s humbling, it’s exhausting, it’s stressful….and it’s never-ever-“done.”

In his article titled “In a Plain Brown Wrapper,” Greg Cummings explains one of the great challenges of pastoral ministry. I’ll paraphrase rather freely his description of the day to day work of a “seelsorger,” a German term for what pastors do. (a soul healer) There is the single mother, who wonders where she will get the energy to deal with all her kids and the money to feed them. There is the businessman, who wonders if his Christian ethics still work in a world of kickbacks and bribes and he needs someone to talk to. And the high-school sophomore, hearing class after class about evolution and the changes in human sexuality, wonders if God even exists any more. Next to him sits the older man whose body is failing and he’s on the edge of depression. Then comes the couple who just lost a child and wonder WHY God allowed it to happen. Behind them is a lonely single lady who has been praying for the right man for years now….with no apparent response to the positive. Across the aisle is the church president, who gets frazzled by other members complaining about “change”….or the lack of it. Then there is the street person who wanders in during an Oasis service with a long list of hurts and needs. Finally, add in the guilty who need forgiveness; the couples whose marriage is coming apart and want counseling…..but only for free…..and finally, the joyful who simply want to give thanks.

On and on the list goes and as each sermon and each service begins, each of them is wondering if somewhere in the next few minutes God will have a word just for them. If I approached that task alone, without God’s grace and guidance, they would hear just words…….empty, human words; words they might want to hear. But when I approach the task with God’s Holy Spirit firmly in charge….anything is possible! In fact, as Paul reminds the Philippians, with God EVERYTHING is possible! That’s when they just might hear what they NEED to hear……words from God who loves them!

Who gets chosen to do this awesome task? I thank God that He chose me, and as I say that, I will be quick to remind you of St. Paul’s words to the church in Corinth (1 Cor 2) in which he described himself, and, I pray, me, as well: “When I came to you, brothers (and sisters) I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom, as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Christ and Him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstrations of the Spirit’s power so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power!” To God alone be the glory!

God’s work isn’t done in a vacuum. God’s work, to use one of Jesus’ agricultural metaphors, is done in God’s farmyard, where He plants the seeds of His words into millions of people, you all included. Then He nurtures, cultivates, trims and feeds each soul until it is ready for the harvest! Remember Paul’s words? “He called you to this…to faith…through our Gospel so that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ!” To that I’ll add one phrase from Jesus: “Let your lights shine before men, so that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven!” Even when it’s about you who DO let your light shine and you who DO care about the Lost and you who DO care about “the least of these,” ….it’s still about God! To God alone be the glory!

As Pam and I prepare to leave you, painfully and tearfully as that will be for both of us, please know these things to be true:

- We will pray for you regularly. We’ve been doing that for nine years, and this is not the time to stop. Even though we will not be able to worship with you, we will pray for you, and we covet your prayers as well.

- We urge you to serve! No one should wear the label of “pew sitter,” because God didn’t save us to sit back and “be church.” This is a wonderful time to step up and say, “What can I DO to help….and do it, joyfully!”

- Finally, we encourage you to stand firm in the faith…..no matter what. In times of change and uncertainty, the evil one is ready, willing and far too able to squirm his way into Hope and wreak his un-holy havoc. Remember with me what our dear mothers taught us, that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” so….keep them folded in prayer…. active in service…. outstretched in hospitality….. raised in worship….and always remember, “To GOD BE THE GLORY!”

Amen.

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By Pastor Mark Nieting
John 15:26-27;16:4b-15
Pentecost Sunday (May 24, 2015)

Grace, mercy and peace….and an extra measure of the Holy Spirit to all of you arrayed in RED this morning, from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

I’ll be quite up front about it, I love Pentecost Sunday. I do. And I also love the way Hope has adopted the practice of confirming our young people on Pentecost Sunday. After all, what looks better over a white confirmation robe than a red stole, right? And there aren’t many texts that bring more joy than the tongues of fire and the disciples preaching in languages they didn’t know themselves and…..hearing that 3000 people came to know Jesus as their Savior in one day!

But as much as we might enjoy this Sunday, I honestly believe that we as Lutheran Christians are a little afraid or a little cautious when it comes to the Holy Spirit. Maybe it goes back to Martin Luther when he translated SPIRIT to “geiste,” which means ghost. Just the word ghost brings up all sorts of images, few of them positive, many of the mysterious and some a bit scary. Maybe it’s because there is a lack of understanding in what the Spirit is and does. Maybe it’s because we associate the Holy Ghost with the “Pentecostal Churches.” Just those mental images we have of people rolling in the aisles and being “slain in the Spirit” make most Lutherans hug themselves a little more tightly so as not to “lose control!”

Or it might be that we’re a bit like that group of believers that St. Paul encountered in Ephesus and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard of the Holy Spirit!”

We HAVE heard about the Holy Spirit, but still, deep within many of us there is a fear, albeit a false fear, of what the Holy Spirit may be up to when we come into contact with Him. Ignoring and misunderstanding the Holy Spirit is tragic, because the Church needs the Holy Spirit today as much as it needed the Holy Spirit in the first century, and every year in between! We need the Holy Spirit. I do….you do. Our confirmands do.

If we take enough time to truly look at who the Holy Spirit IS and what the Holy Spirit DOES, we’ll no longer fear what He does, and I’ll start with this: the way the Holy Spirit worked on that first Pentecost is the same way He is working today. You know the story: 10 days after Jesus’ ascension the disciples were together when the Holy Spirit came with the sound of a rushing wind. Tongues of flame manifested on their heads and they began witnessing about Jesus Christ in languages recognizable to people from all over the Mediterranean world. Three thousand people were so moved by the message of Jesus that they were baptized into the faith. THAT is the Spirit at work, Praise God!

Do we hear anything about them weeping uncontrollably, losing bodily control or hopping around in circles….( I have been to Pentecostal churches where they have done all those things….it’s part of their church-culture.) No! The Spirit doesn’t do things to embarrass us or cause us to be silly or obnoxious. The Spirit simply wants tell other people about Jesus! After all, it’s the Holy Spirit who has told US about Jesus….even if it was through parents, grandparents, friends or missionaries. The Spirit loves to talk about Jesus! The Spirit loves it when people are SAVED!

This morning nine young people are confirming their faith in Jesus Christ. That is the Holy Spirit at work, something that began when He brought them to faith in baptism about 14 years ago. They are each giving their “testimonies” about what Jesus means to them and what a difference He makes in their lives. And then, next year, these nine wonderful kids of whom we are so proud will head out into various high schools.

Think about that for a moment. Think about how much the world has changed since YOU were confirmed. Is it the “same world?” I was confirmed in 1962…that’s 53 years ago for those who are math challenged. I didn’t KNOW a non-Christian person! Everybody I knew went to church almost every week, and the churches were full. I didn’t know anyone who just “lived together.” It was, by all measures, a Christian culture where the biggest religious arguments were about the differences between Lutherans, Catholics and Methodists.

But the bottom line was, I believe, a bit more insidious. Because it WAS such a “Christian culture,” our faith was taken for granted and our witness….our missionary activities were all directed mainly to Africa. We didn’t need to Talk about Jesus here because we assumed everybody KNEW about Jesus!

Is that true today…..even in a fairly conservative area like Tidewater Virginia?

At our District Convention, President John Denninger presented four (4) major areas where our culture has swung so far away from Christianity that we might even wonder if we’re living in the same country. Let me review his points briefly for us all:

1. “Morphing Morays.” As a nation, we used to draw our values, what’s right and what’s wrong, from God’s Word. Today more and more we seem to hand those decisions over to nine lawyers who somehow ended up on the Supreme Court….and we allow them to define things like marriage and the status of babies who are still inside their mothers.

2. “Marginalized Ministry.” Whereas the church used to be the mainstream of culture and society, now it’s been pushed off to the side of the lives of most Americans. Far too many people see the Christian church as irrelevant to them, and to be honest, we need to ask ourselves, would they miss us if we weren’t here? Really? There are plenty of folks who would just love to remove the tax exempt status we are allowed on this property, just for starters.

3. “Missing Millennials.” Praise God that Hope is doing fairly well in this area, but honestly, most Christian churches have far more gray hair in the pews than any other color. Millennials, those born from 1980 to 2000, are staying away in droves….and many of them see “us” as narrow minded, irrelevant and even bigoted, especially when it comes to some of the sexual changes and the beliefs in evolution that are being promulgated in…and on…. our culture.

4. Ok, I’m a big fan of alliteration…. We’re dealing with a “Mortared Membership.” Several surveys, including one done by our own district office of neighborhoods surrounding where our PASTORS live, reveal this: on any Sunday morning, 78% of the residents are NOT in church while we are here inside this beautiful sanctuary. They will not be reached with the saving news of Jesus Christ unless we get out where they are! But if we consider that each of the 67,000 members of our 212 congregations is motivated, inspired and sent out by the Holy Spirit, we will begin to make a difference.

5. Finally, I’m going to add a fifth point: it’s “Minutes till Midnight.” I may be running an app on my i-pad that counts down to the time I can retire, but that’s just for fun. It’s not a life or death issue. But for people who are living with Jesus in their lives, the clock is running, the countdown is happening, and if they die before we can bring them Jesus, it will be too late. They will not go to heaven!

So…what do we do? The other day, listening to some old country music, I heard a song by Ronnie Milsap titled “What a difference you have made in my life.” As I listened, I thought about the difference Christ makes in my life….now, and then eternally. Remember the words of the meaning of the 3rd article of the Creed? It is the Holy Spirit Who brings us to faith. We don’t do that alone. It is the Holy Spirit who moves others to share Jesus with us. It is the Holy Spirit who opens our hearts and takes up residence inside us. It is the Holy Spirit who empowers us to bring others to Jesus.

What does a Spirit-led, Spirit-filled church LOOK like? What does one ACT like? First, it’s a church dedicated to studying God’s Word. That was one of the blessings of The STORY this past year…..hundreds of us in God’s Word every week, not just in worship, but also in Bible classes. If you are resisting the nudge of the Holy Spirit to join in with the rest of us in classes, now is the time to say “Yes! I’ll be there!”

The second mark of the Spirit-filled Church is “koinonia,” Christian fellowship. It wasn’t an “in-the-door for one hour and hit the road” faith. They knew each other, loved each other and cared for each other. When non-believers see Christians doing that, they find it very attractive!

The final mark of the Spirit’s presence in the early church was what we call evangelism, or outreach. Acts 2:47 says the Holy Spirit added to their number DAILY those who were being saved. That means that believers were sharing Jesus with their friends DAILY! And since the time is short…we just called it “Minutes to Midnight,” and since every life matters to God, the Spirit empowers us to do just that: tell them Jesus loves them! He’ll even give you the right words if you need them!

Therefore….as you are confirmed and as you leave Hope today, don’t be afraid of the Holy Spirit. Welcome Him warmly and watch what happens! Amen.

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Pastor Mark Nieting
Acts 1

Grace, mercy and peace from God our Father and Jesus, our Savior and Lord!

Now that we are back in the regular flow of the church year after THE STORY ended, our text for this morning is the second event told by Luke in his Acts of the Apostles. The first event, Jesus’ ascension, which we celebrated that Wednesday evening, had just taken place. Most likely shaken by what had happened, the disciples again went back to Jerusalem. They all went up to the room where they were staying. This wasn’t the Hampton Inn, with a suite for each of them. They were all, Luke records, staying in one room…all ELEVEN of them.

There were other believers…..our text names “the women, Mary the mother of Jesus and His brothers,” with the total being about 120 (Acts 1:15). There it was….the entire group of believers in Jesus Christ. But counting only the disciples, the number had gone from twelve to eleven. Eleven disciples. Does that sound right to you? Doesn’t sound right to me and it didn’t feel right to them. After all, Jesus had appointed twelve of them since there had been twelve tribes in Israel. Twelve was considered the complete number, the “unity” in the Old Testament and twelve was considered complete in the New Testament. So twelve was the right number, but since Judas had become unfaithful, the unity of the whole was broken and they knew it.

What were they going to do? They did what the church has done ever since, and what churches must do until the time that Jesus returns…..they prayed about it. They studied their Scriptures, the Psalms….and as they read and as they prayed, they listened for direction from God.

Listening isn’t always easy…..and it really doesn’t seem to matter who the speaker is.

The story is told of Franklin Roosevelt, who often endured long receiving lines at the White House. The President often complained that no one really paid any attention to what was said. One day, during a reception, he decided to try an experiment. To each person who passed down the line and shook his hand, he murmured, “I murdered my grandmother this morning.” The guests responded with phrases like, “Marvelous! Keep up the good work. We are proud of you. God bless you, sir.” It was not till the end of the line, while greeting the ambassador from Bolivia, that his words were actually heard. Unfazed, the ambassador leaned over and whispered, “I’m sure she had it coming.”

Just to move this point a bit farther, if the person next to you is from your family, ask them if you are a good listener……now! We’re in church…honesty counts!

Listening to each other is certainly important; and when it comes to discerning God’s WILL, listening to God is obviously just as important. The question that remains is how. How do we listen to God? Who is going to teach us how to do this?

Peter, for once, demonstrates that instead of just opening his mouth and inserting his foot, he had also learned how to listen for God’s will. Peter LISTENED as the believers read Scripture and prayed….in fact, the adverb constantly is used when it describes their prayer life! The Holy Spirit placed words from Psalms 69 and 109 into Peter’s mind, which he shared with the rest of the group. In essence, this is what Peter discerned: “as the nation Israel had been broken and scattered by the sin of the tribe of Dan, the circle of the apostles had been broken by the sin of Judas…..and it must be restored.” (Acts 1:20)

Therefore, Peter continued, it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us beginning from John’s baptism until the time when Jesus was taken up from us, for ONE of these men must become a witness with us of His resurrection. (v 21-22)

Isn’t it rather wonderful to have another attestation that there were more men, more followers of Jesus than what we traditionally think of as “the twelve?” Other men had also left everything they had and followed Jesus. They had sat at His feet for the entire three years of His ministry and…..most important of all…..they were eye-witnesses to His resurrection! That appears to be the key criteria for being an “apostle,” being an eyewitness of Easter.

The church, for that’s what this was, proposed what we today would say was their “Call List.” You will be doing the exact same thing in the near future, proposing names of men whom you know to be capable to answer “the Call” as senior pastor. In our case, you will put forward names of men who are currently holding the pastoral office elsewhere in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, pastors you believe God might ultimately Call to Hope. Our criteria are a bit different: we look for an approved seminary graduate with lots of experience and a proven track record of good leadership, plus the ability to preach excellent sermons, teach good Bible classes, build buildings, inspire confidence in the congregation and all the rest.

Perhaps they looked at some of those things too. Perhaps it was their maturity in the faith. Perhaps it was their willingness to share what they had seen Jesus do. In any case, the church put forward two names: Joseph Barsabbas, also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then came the next step. Remember what we do when we generate a Call list? We forward it to the District President, who, also prayerfully and with great deliberation, can add or remove names as He is guided by the Holy Spirit. Then the list comes back to Hope for a time of decision, when you as the church will prayerfully “elect” the man to whom you will issue a Divine Call.

But in 33 AD this group of 120 followers of Jesus Christ was the entire Christian church on earth! There were no denominations, no districts, no presidents and no voters’ assemblies. It was so simple and so basic: there were 120 believers, who were guided by the Holy Spirit. I’m sure you already noticed that there were no pre-Call interviews, no personal investigations or background checks. These men were known to all of them, so the process of decision was extremely straightforward: they prayed…..you notice how often prayer comes up in just these few verses….they prayed that God would show them the man HE had chosen to fill the 12th apostolic spot…..and then they “cast lots.”

We don’t know exactly how they did that. They may have tossed stones, drawn straws or thrown dice, we don’t really know. What we do know is that “casting lots” was an ancient tradition among the Israelites and that this is the last time it is mentioned in Scripture. Whichever way it was done, it wasn’t about blind fate or good luck: it wasn’t even according to the Will of the People. Rather, it was God who directed the lot to fall where it did, and the lot fell to Matthias. It’s no accident that Matthias became the 12th apostle. His Calling, and that’s what it was, because God did the Calling, became the story of Matthias’ life. He completed the circle that Judas had broken. He became a witness to God’s powers of restoration! We don’t know anything else about him, or Joseph-Justus-Barsabbas either, for that matter, and we most likely won’t, until heaven. All we do know is that they spent the rest of their lives as eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave, one as a part of the Twelve and the other as a part of the body of believers.

Just as it was not an accident that Matthias was chosen “by lot,” it is no accident that YOU are a part of the family of Christ. It’s no accident that today little Hunter Adam Kaczmarek (will) has become a part of the Kingdom of God through Holy Baptism. There’s no randomness about it: however you came to be a part of the Holy Christian Church on earth, whether your parents brought you as a child, a friend brought you to church as a teenager, or you married a believer and then became one, that’s not by accident. That’s not by change. That’s a God-thing, and you will praise Him forever for it!

There is only one more thing to be added to this story and to what we know about Matthias and Joseph. This event took place only a few days…..maybe a week…before the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, just like for us Pentecost is next Sunday (hint….wear RED!). What happened that day changed both men forever. What happened that day changed all 120 believers forever. What happened that day changed the world forever. The Holy Spirit fell on all the believers and filled them with Power from On High, so that in the name of Jesus Christ they proclaimed to all who would hear them that forgiveness of sins was available to all who would repent and be baptized and they would be saved, forever!!

This little story….it only takes a dozen verses….reminds us that Christ is in the business of restoration. He is in the business of changing lives, of forgiving sins, of connecting people one at a time to His resurrection, all by the power of the Good News that He died for the sins of the world and rose again to conquer death, that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but will called into everlasting life. That CALLING IS your life. It IS my life.

In a few weeks I will officially “retire” from my office. Although I will still be a “reverend” by instruction, training and experience, I will no longer officially be a “pastor.” In the larger sense my Calling will change: after all, without a flock, one cannot be a shepherd. But that only means that God has other, different plans for my life, and for Pam’s life, too. And for you, as God’s “church,” know, believe and trust that even now God is busily preparing the one who will follow me.

To God be the Glory!

Amen.

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Let me tell you the story of a man whose whole world was destroyed by grace.  He was a successful man, a rising star in his field.  He was a friend of powerful people.  He had a top-notch education, he had a privileged position in society.  He was everything he had hoped he could be.  And in one swift act of love, God took all of it away.

That man was Saul of Tarsus.  He was a man who knew his Bible forwards and back.  He was a man who ardently and fervently did everything that God’s Law demanded.  And yet he brought grief and sorrow to God’s heart.

Saul was so sure of his own righteousness that he had no room in his heart for Jesus’ message of grace and forgiveness… in fact he was so convinced of his righteousness, that he could watch approvingly as people killed a follower of Jesus, all in the name of doing God’s work!

Saul’s entire life was built on the opinions of his peers and his superiors, and he climbed the ladder of success in the church of his day… never for a moment suspecting that he was and enemy of the God he claimed to serve.

And then, on one fateful trip on his way to Damascus, he finally met Jesus.  And from that day he was never the same.  He was given a new name, a new mission, and – in a very real way – a new life.

This week in the story we read about Paul’s ministry.  And while we could talk about all the different places he went on his missionary journeys, I thought maybe it’d be better to talk about why.

You see, it isn’t that he just had a change of heart about Jesus.  When Saul became Paul, he experienced God’s grace for the first time.  And grace is at the very center of who God is.  If you don’t know God’s grace, then you don’t know God.

You see, Saul thought that God loved him because he was a good person.  Paul learned that God loved him because Jesus died for him… Not only that, but all of the stuff that Saul thought made him a good person, Paul chalked it all up as a loss.  All of that supposed goodness was a in fact a bad thing, because it hardened his heart against Jesus.

But what a paradigm shift!  Moving from thinking of God as a harsh Judge who has his few chosen favorites to coming to know God as a kind and forgiving Father who loves, well, everyone!  Especially the unlovable ones… like Paul.

It’s these simple, basic truths that drove Paul all over God’s green earth.  It’s the simple message of the gospel that Paul is constantly turning people back to.

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”  And again…

“[It] is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Notice how Paul says that he passed this message along as “of first importance?”  That’s because this Gospel message changed his entire life, and when every time it finds root in a new heart, it completely changes their life too.

But that does beg the question: Do we pass on the gospel as if it’s the most important thing?  And if not, then maybe let’s back up a step and ask a different question, “Exactly what has the gospel changed in me?”

Constantly, Paul talks about doing God’s work “according to the grace given [him].”  Not according to the talents or status he had, but according to the grace he was given by God.  Now usually when we talk about grace, we’re talking about God’s boundless love and forgiveness toward us.  Which is totally true.  But if we don’t work through what that love and forgiveness mean for us, then we’ll likely miss out on the power that they should bring.

So, for example, if you know that God will love you no matter what, there is a huge freedom that comes with it.  Of course, you can use that freedom to make your life all about you – to live for the comforts and privileges you can amass in this life.  And when this life is over, you will have gained very little of value.  But you could instead take that same freedom and use it to live a life that isn’t about comfort.  You can act lovingly to people who don’t deserve it, and won’t love you back, secure in the knowledge that even if no one else loves you, your Father in heaven does.

Learning God’s grace teaches us that the good things in our life aren’t a result of fate, our own abilities, or coincidental luck.  Every good thing is a gift from God.

When I was in junior high, my family bowled together on a league.  And if you’ve ever been bowling, you can probably relate to this… You throw your ball, and it rolls smoothly down the oiled timbers and plows into the pins with a satisfying explosion.  And as the dust settles, you see that you have left a pin behind…just one.  And it’s wobbling pretty hard.  What do you do?  You cross your fingers, jump up and down… I’ve even seen people try to blow it down!  And sometimes, when you’re very lucky, that last pin just tips over!

And that’s where my dad taught me the timeless proverb, “I’d rather be lucky than good.”

But you know what I’ve come to learn?  I’d rather have grace than be lucky.  Luck can cut either way.  Luck owes you nothing, and luck means nothing.  But grace?  Grace only ever goes your way.  Grace means that you are loved, and that God is watching out for you.  You can’t build a life on luck, but the only life that lasts will be built on grace.

By any standard, Paul looks unlucky.  After all of those shipwrecks, false imprisonments, and misadventures, there is no way that Paul could be called lucky.  But he was confident of God’s grace.  And as such, shipwrecks and jail time and any other misadventure was seen as an opportunity.  He may not be where he planned, but he knew that God could redeem his circumstances.  Set backs become opportunities.  Hardships become blessings.

And knowing that Christ had overcome even death meant that no matter what happened to Paul, he could not lose.  “Living is Christ,” wrote Paul, ” and dying is gain.”

That same, life-giving, catastrophe-redeeming, freedom-bringing Gospel that drove Paul is yours, too.  That same grace that God extended to Paul is yours today.  Christ loves and forgives sinners like you and me.  Now, will we keep that love and forgiveness to ourselves, or will we learn to give it away?  Maybe we don’t have to sail all over the world like Paul, but if we aren’t moved at all, then maybe we are takin the gospel for granted.

There is power in the gospel.  There is power in God’s grace.  The time for fear and timidity and complacency is over.  You are being sent by the Gospel today.

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Grace, mercy and peace from our Risen Lord Jesus, on this, the 3rd Sunday of Easter! Thanks to Chaplain Mike Sneath for his great message last Sunday. It’s always fun to preach the Sunday or two right after Easter, you get to see who really loves Jesus! As most of you know, we’re moving through a book called The STORY, which is really the Bible, told in 31 chapters. At the risk of making you feel like you’re in school…..that’s really not a bad thing…. I’m going to go back one last time and do an overview of where we’ve come in the first 28 chapters. For those of you who have missed some of this, this may help you get the big picture, and for those us ‘dyed-in-the-wool’ Lutherans, perhaps we’ll see the dots connecting in a way we haven’t noticed before.

In chapter 1, the “creation chapter,” Genesis says God created the heavens and the earth….and….the Spirit of God hovered over the waters. So right away we have God theFatheractively at work. The Gospel of John would later tell us the Son was there (the Word from the beginning), and so, Genesis says, was the Spirit. From the very start we have the three members of the Holy Trinity present and active in their creation.

Later, sin having entered into the world, God’s STORY involved choosing Abraham and Sarah and making them into a special people called ISRAEL. Three generations later God’s people fell into slavery in Egypt, where they stay for several more generations. Finally God was ready to bring Israel out of slavery and into freedom….into the promised land, so He called Moses to get the job done. Pharaoh, of course, said “NO” and God unleashed a series of plagues on Egypt, ending with the death of all the firstborn sons, a plague which was called the PASSOVER. God instructed His people to sacrifice a perfect lamb and paint its blood on their doorposts. Then, and only then would the angel of death pass-over and they would be saved! Thus, the central focus of Act 1 was the Passover!

This all leads us on to Act 2, where instead of the door and the blood, the focus of the STORY is on the PASSION, which also points back to the Passover, because a sacrifice is again involved and the angel of death again “passes over” people. The heart of Act 2 is the story of Jesus told in the Gospels….Matthew, Mark, Luke and John….and the heart of all of that is the CROSS. It was on the CROSS that Jesus poured out his BLOOD for us, which is God’s love in human form, given for the sins of the world. His BODY was broken for us, sacrificed for us as the Lamb of God. That’s the “John 3:16 story” of Jesus’ sacrifice for us, all of us. And what God started with one family, the family of Israel, now starts to break out into the whole world!

When Jesus began his ministry, the Gospel of Mark tells us He said this: The Kingdom of God is now at hand. It wasn’t just for one nation, for Israel…..it was for the world! God’s love was breaking out through Jesus’ love into the whole world, which leads us to Chapter 28, which I’ll call ACT 3. Before He went back into heaven, Jesus told his followers what would happen next. You might be surprised, he told them, but it’s to your advantage that I go back into heaven, because then the HOLY SPIRIT will come down and be with you.

Back in Act 1, God the Father primarily related to one group of people, to that one nation, Israel. As we move into Act 2, it was Jesus Christ who again related primarily to that same nation…..although others were involved as well. I know that sometimes we think, or at least I do, that it would have been wonderful to have been a part of Act 1, to be there at Creation or when the Red Sea split or when the Commandments were given or at the dedication of the temple? Yes….and even better to have been there when Jesus fed the 5000 or to see a miracle or be a fly on the wall in the upper room?

But what Jesus told His disciples was that after He left; after He ascended, they were going to live in the most exciting time of all. They were going to be a part of Act 3….the time of the Holy Spirit; the time of the Church. In Act 1 the Father played the Key role. In Act 2, Jesus did. But in Act 3 it’s the Holy Spirit, and it all started on the birthday of the Christian Church, the day of Pentecost. I’m in Acts 2, or page 390 in the STORY, where Luke tells us that it was 10 days after Jesus ascended into heaven. ALL the believers were still together, all 120 of them, all in one room, when all of a sudden tongues of fire appeared on their heads and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit!

Here’s why that is so really wonderful. While Jesus was here in the flesh He was limited by space and time. He could only be with one person at one time in one place. But the Holy Spirit…who is truly a SPIRIT…. isn’t limited that way. He isn’t bound by space and time. He truly IS with all of us everywhere; He listens to all our prayers at once. He’s here with us right now but he’s also in all His other churches and He’s even with the people who slept in this morning (who should be here!) and He’s also gnawing on the hearts of those who are yet to know Jesus! He’s not limited at all! He’s present everywhere, inspiring, filling, moving, healing, converting and changing lives all over the world! That’s what the church of ACT 3 is all about…..people who were and still ARE “on fire” with the Holy Spirit bringing the Good News of Jesus to other people in ways that they can’t even begin to figure out, even if they are doing it….….and the disciples speaking in all sorts of different languages, that just a part of it.

But sometimes it’s the Holy Spirit who is the part God that, at least in my opinion, many of us Christians really struggle to understand.

When it comes to God the Father, even though He is a Spirit, we seem to at least “get” how He fits into our picture….our image of Him. After all, creation cries out for a Creator, and God the Father IS the Creator. He’s the God of the Old Testament who sharpens His finger carving the 10 commandments into stone. He shows up in pillars of fire and clouds over the tabernacle. His voice booms out at Jesus’ baptism. We get that.

And we get Jesus even easier, Him being flesh and blood like we are. We may struggle with how He fed the 5000 or walked on water, but we’ve heard those stories so often that they are part of our image of Jesus. So it’s not a big stretch to fit our images of God the Father and of Jesus Christ His Son into fairly neat and tidy mental and spiritual “boxes.” And honestly, we feel fairly comfortable; we feel quite safe when we are able to keep God IN His box…don’t we?

But when it comes to the work of the Holy Spirit, it doesn’t seem to work the same way. We hear stories…..not just back then but even today…. about people speaking in tongues and about demons being cast out and the dead being raised and miracles of healing one after another. We hear these things and even more than that, we are commanded to DO these things and…. they don’t fit into the same kind of boxes where we have the Father and the Son. Do they? In our Oasis service Wednesday evening we looked at Christ’s “Great CommissionS,” note the plural on “CommissionS.” We “get” the make disciples of all nations part of it from Matthew 28. But what about in Mark 16 where Jesus describes the signs of those who believe….those like you and me….like this: “In my name demons will be cast out, they will speak in new tongues,…*.., they will place their hands on sick people and they will be well.” (*Note, because children are listening I left out the picking up snakes and drinking poison from these verses.) Does that fit your “Box for God?”

So what do we DO with the Holy Spirit? What do we DO with Pentecost? Let me rephrase the question. Instead of trying to fit the Holy Spirit into our normal “God boxes” we’ve all had forever, how different would our lives be if we let GOD be GOD? If we let the Holy Spirit define Himself for us instead of us trying to keep Him in a nice, neat (maybe even “Lutheran”) box? After all, God IS TRI-une: Father, Son AND Holy Spirit!

I’ve wrestled with the Holy Spirit for decades, trying to keep Him into my neat little box so He didn’t “rock my comfortable boat” too much. But every time I turned around, there He was….rocking someone else’s boat, and blessing them in ways that I couldn’t deny. And every time that would happen, the box I kept Him in got bigger and bigger and He kept doing more and more wonderful things. Dear ones, I’ll confess to you this morning that there are times I STILL try to keep the Spirit “boxed up” because there are parts of me that still want to be in control……still don’t want to turn it…me…. all over to Him. That’s a great part of my struggle and I suggest it may be a part of yours as well; with the Spirit persistently trying to expand our view of what an ACTS CHAPTER THREE LIFE and an ACTS CHAPTER 3 Church is about.

Turn to page 392 if you have your STORY (or Acts 2:42). Pentecost has happened. The Spirit not only blew the minds of the people in the Upper Room, He blew out the walls of the room itself, so much so that 3000 people came to faith that one day. In the last para-graph on 392 we read this (read it with me): “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.”

You know what the temptation most of us give in to when we deal with this text, especially down-to-earth, well-grounded and Biblically literate folks like us? To leave off the last sentence! To “trim the Holy Spirit” down to what fits in our boxes! We GET the teaching thing: we have program after program doing that. Same thing with fellowship and yes, we have “breaking of bread” every Sunday in one service or the other, and we pray a LOT! But signs and wonders? We’ve left that stuff off our radar for far too long!

I LOVE our “moments of Hope.” I love it when you stand up and tell us what you have seen GOD DO….when someone is healed or a miracle happens or a prayer is answered in a mighty way! That’s when God’s UPPER STORY begins to mesh with our LOWER STORIES. That’s when lives are touched and changed forever! That’s where God’s ACTION is! That’s where Jesus’ love becomes real!

Dear friends, Pentecost reminds us Christianity isn’t just another program or a series of boxes that need to be “checked” in life: – got my kid baptized? Check. –confirmed? Check. –married in church? Check. –some pastor to bury me? Check. I’m good….NO!

No! Pentecost reminds us that the Holy Spirit, in Luther’s words: calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth and KEEPS it with Christ Jesus in the one true faith! Pentecost set the world on FIRE!

I’ll close on this. We’re going to go through a time of transition here at Hope, and I know that’s as scary for some of you as it is for me. That’s a great time to remember those “upper room Christians” from Acts 2:42. It was only 2 months after Jesus’ crucifixion. Their fears were real….no one is going to come here and crucify any one of you…..but their faith was enormous. They did the normal things we would expect: they worshiped, they prayed, they studied, all good and right…..but they also LET THE HOLY SPIRIT BE THE HOLY SPIRIT and amazing and wonderful things happened! And out of that came tremendous HOPE for people all over…..that same HOPE that will be here if you LET THE HOLY SPIRIT BE THE HOLY SPIRIT.

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I absolutely LOVE standing up here to say “Christ is Risen” and hear you answer “He is Risen Indeed, Alleluia!” This Sunday, this special event of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead has been the goal ever since we cracked open the book called The STORY way back on September 21. Even though we celebrated Christmas on March 1, we wanted to arrive at chapter 27 on Easter Sunday. And so we have!

We’ve read chapter after chapter, story after story about famous (and in some cases infamous) characters of the Bible. Some we know; greats like Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses and Abraham; some have been new to us. One of the challenges has been to connect those people and their stories with us and our stories, all under the great Upper Story of God’s plan of salvation. But connecting our stories isn’t all that easy, and I’ll tell you why. First, there are huge differences in the way we live today from the way “they” lived back then. And even more of a challenge is that we have a tendency to take the “good characters” and build them up into spiritual super-heroes; and do just the opposite with the, well, ‘bad ones.’

Since the Fall into sin, God’s created people basically forgot about God. Their evil festered and grew. God withheld His anger until finally He couldn’t “take it anymore.” He decided to push the ‘reset’ button. He took the best family and the best critters and put them in the ark for a “do-over.” So what does Scripture call Noah? “A righteous man!” Can anyone here claim that moniker?  Then came Abraham, a true “giant” of faith; followed by Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. And can ANYONE live up to what Moses did?

It makes it easier for us to connect with these “stained-glass saints” when we remember that they were just as human and in need of a Savior as we are! Noah may have built the ark, but he had a drinking problem. Abraham lied about his wife. Moses did lead God’s people to freedom, after he murdered someone. King David must have been quite a hero….to Bathsheba, but not to her husband, whom he had killed. All through the STORY, we’ve met real people with real life stories filled with good stuff and sinful stuff, all whom God used in great and wonderful ways; people just like you and me!

What’s YOUR story this Easter Sunday morning? What JOYS are you celebrating? What accomplishments can you list? What frustrates you? What losses are you grieving? What are your struggles? What are you bitter about? It’s in all these parts of our own stories that Easter becomes REAL for us, not just another “bible story.” In fact, these are the places where the reality of the Easter message becomes CRUCIAL!

Can we talk about your STORY? Let me start with this: is there anything in your story that you are ashamed of? Shame is powerful. It hurts. It burns.

Part of the Easter story includes the disciple Peter….the MVP of disciples. He was always there, always ready with an answer, ready to get out of the boat and walk on the water. But just as Jesus had predicted, Peter denied knowing Jesus; not just once, but three times…..all to save his own skin. And when his eyes met Jesus’ eyes, he was filled with shame; so much so that while Jesus hung on the cross, Peter wasn’t even there. Of all the disciples, only John was there. Peter was off somewhere weeping and embarrassed over what he did. But don’t be too hard on Peter; we’ve all got issues.

Then came Easter Sunday Morning and the return of the women with the message that Jesus had risen and OFF went Peter….and John….racing for the tomb…..only to find it empty. There would be no face-to-face between Jesus and Peter yet. That came later: on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, when they did meet. Remember how that went? “Do you love me?” Jesus asked Peter? “Of course I do!” said Peter. “Then feed my sheep!” said Jesus. This happened not just once, but three times.

Here’s the connection for us….and especially those dealing with shame, maybe for those of you struggling to BE a perfect Christian. Did Jesus ask Peter to be perfect? No. Did Jesus ask Peter to be the perfect church leader? No. Did He remind Peter never to sin again? No. When Jesus reconnected with Peter, He gave him what he needed the most: Jesus connected His UPPER STORY, filled with sheep who need feeding and lambs that need caring, with Peter’s Lower Story. He gave Peter HOPE.

Maybe, like Jesus’ mother and Mary of Magdala and many others, your story includes a lot of SORROW. Imagine how Mary Magdalene felt. Jesus had delivered her from seven demons! He gave Mary her LIFE back, so naturally she was devastated by his death. Imagine how hard it must have been for all those who loved Jesus to have to stay in their homes on Saturday….on the Sabbath….and not be able to go and anoint His body! So it’s no wonder they raced out to the tomb early Sunday morning….only to find the stone gone, the grave-wrappings lying there, Angels with messages they didn’t understand and NO body to anoint, prepare and wrap…for good.

Through the tears she sees someone who asks why she is crying and she thinks it’s the gardener….until He calls her name: MARY!  You KNOW when someone you love calls your name….you KNOW who it is…..and Mary KNEW it was Jesus! What the risen Jesus gave to a grieving Mary was JOY!!!   If grief and loss has touched your life, the good news of Easter is that Jesus has conquered even death itself!

The longer I live, the more I realize that there are two distinct truths about life itself: first, the older you get the faster life seems to go! Call it over the hill….and sliding down the other side; call it swirling the drain….and you go faster as you go deeper, life moves faster and faster until truth #2 kicks in: this death thing is real. The rates on mortality are still right at 100%. That’s why we NEED a God who loves us and a Savior who has conquered even death and the grave! That’s why a RISEN CHRIST is crucial! That’s why a LIVING JESUS is so important! That’s why Easter has to be REAL!

Maybe, like the disciple named Thomas, nicknamed “Doubting Thomas,” your story includes doubt. Doubt about who and what Jesus did; doubts about the Resurrection. I’ve preached dozens of Easter Sunday sermons and by God’s grace I may yet preach many more and here’s what I say about those who doubt the veracity of Easter. The evidence about the truth of Jesus’ resurrection is overwhelming. Overwhelming. I know that there are folks who teach or write or blog that it couldn’t have happened or they don’t think believe it happened; I’ve heard and I’ve read their stuff. But evidence?

There are thousands of first and second and third century manuscripts that testify to the resurrection of Jesus and there’s not one document from the same time period that testifies against it.  You’d think there should be, but they don’t exist.

But if your story includes doubt, even a seed of doubt, Jesus’ love for Thomas makes it clear that He wanted ALL of His disciples to believe, and He showed up to love Thomas into the truth. “Here I am, Thomas, check me out!” And Thomas did, and believed.

If your life story includes shame, Jesus came back to wipe it all away.

If your life story includes sorrow, Jesus came to replace it with HOPE.

If your life story includes doubt, Jesus came to replace doubt with faith!

Whatever is going on inside the story of your life, Jesus’ resurrection puts it all in perspective because Jesus’ resurrection changes EVERYTHING. Death is not the end. Death has no power over Easter People, and we ARE Easter People!

Let’s add one more victory; coming to us from page 384 in The STORY (Luke 24). Two un-named disciples were walking seven miles home from Jerusalem on Easter Sunday evening. The miles seemed extra long because they had witnessed the Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. All the hope that they had pinned on Jesus was gone. The women’s stories of angels and rolled away stones did little to help. All of a sudden a stranger appeared on the road and begins to explain everything about “the Christ” and what He had to do. When they arrived home they invited the stranger in and as they ate, He “broke bread” and….the minute they knew it was Jesus….He was gone!

And the seven mile run back to Jerusalem? In a flash….their hopelessness replace with JOY!

That’s what the Risen Christ does for all of us! No matter what “ails us, afflicts us, burdens us, challenges us,” whatever sin, death and satan throws against us, JESUS resurrection changes it all! Christ is Risen! HE is Risen Indeed!

That, dear Easter people, isn’t just HIS Story, it’s also OUR story. It’s YOUR story and it’s MY story. It’s the story of the church that’s resonated for 2000 years offering life and salvation for all who believe! Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia! 

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You can join the crowds and try to reinvent Jesus as…a genie to carry around in your bottle for whenever you might happen to need Him or turn your back on the crowds, pick up your cross and follow Him to His.

By Pastor Mark Nieting
Palm Sunday 2015

passion_week_altar(Notes on the service setting. The front of the sanctuary has one side adorned with palms and a “throne,” complete with a purple robe and a crown. The other side has no palms, only a big rugged wooden cross adorned with a crown of thorns. The pastor preaches from the middle.)

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

Welcome to the beginning of Holy Week! It’s a week we set aside to be special and powerful and meaningful. That’s what happens when we put HOLY in front of something else: not just “baptism,” but Holy baptism. Not just “communion,” but Holy communion. This is not just any week, it is Holy for God and it is Holy for the church and it will be Holy for you if you allow it to be so. In fact, the entire STORY has pointed towards everything that happened during Holy Week! Ever since the fall of Adam and Eve, everything has focused on what God would do for us this week.

We started the service exactly as you expected; a procession lined with children and adults waving palm branches. Palms were an ancient symbol of royalty. Roman coins had palms engraved on them, along with the Caesars. Palms were waved for King David and Solomon and every other new king who came to Jerusalem to take the throne over Israel. The people of Jerusalem understood this and that’s why they came out in droves to wave palms for Jesus….the King who was heading up the road towards Jerusalem. Even the disciples got into the swing of it, arguing over who would be the greatest in the new kingdom. And I’m sure to their embarrassment, the mother of James and John lobbied Jesus to be sure her boys got seats on either side of Jesus’ throne.

We get that: Jesus was special! The miracles showed that He was special. His teaching had a special authority. On the way there, Jesus raised His friend Lazarus from a 4 day stay in the tomb. That was special!!! Why SHOULDN’T JESUS BE KING! So “save us,” they yelled. “Hosanna! Save us militarily. Save us nationally. Save us politically. Fix our religion and our politics and our country! Hosanna, Jesus, come save us!”

Even today there are people who think this was and is the point of Christianity; Jesus coming to set up an earthly kingdom and fix everything that needs fixing here on earth.

So here comes the parade up and over the Mount of Olives: Jesus and His disciples, and the people with the palms can just about imagine the royal robes, kingly rings, victory over the Romans, and power to spare as Jesus enters Jerusalem just like David did; not on a donkey, but on the colt of a donkey! Here He comes, riding in to the shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna. Save us! Fix us! Bless us! Rule over us! Take the throne!!!”

Jesus hears it all, but He knows He’s not heading for the throne. He’s not going where all the people expect Him to go. He’s going to take His parade on a detour to where it is least expected and where no one else wants to go with Him. But it takes Jesus a few days to show His hand. First He cleanses the temple and spends time teaching.

It’s not til Thursday that the first hint of His detour comes. That’s when He’s arrested and taken to trial before Pontius Pilate. “I’ve got the power,” says Pilate. “I can save your life!” Remember how Jesus handled that? “My kingdom is not of this world, because if it was, you would be going down!” (Ok, it’s a paraphrase, but it works!)

Jesus made it crystal clear that He didn’t come for earthly kingdoms and political intrigue: the Upper Story is about FAR GREATER things than that. Jesus’ throne isn’t some fancy, jeweled seat with fancy robes and a crown to go along with it; it’s a gritty, rugged old cross complete with spikes and a crown of thorns and a fresh-cut tomb. That’s how God’s Upper Story plan was going to be accomplished. That’s how “it would be finished.”

Last week we watched as Peter connected the dots…. and got it all wrong. Well, to be honest, at least Peter started out right when Jesus asked him who He was. “Jesus, you are the Messiah, the Christ of God!” To which Jesus responded with a “right you are!” Then Peter tried to steer the whole procession towards the throne. “All right, Jesus, let’s whip up the crowds, arm them, take over Jerusalem and run the Romans out of town and you can take your place on the throne!”

“No,” thundered Jesus! “Get behind me, you satan! If you want to be with me, here’s what you have to do: deny yourself and the things of this world, grab your cross, fall in and follow me where I’m going, and it’s not to the throne, it’s to the cross!”

Is it any wonder that the crowds around Jesus went from thousands on Palm Sunday to a mere handful on Good Friday? They wanted military victories and political turnovers; but Jesus was going to do battle with stuff we don’t even like to imagine: demons and darkness and satan and all his evil forces and death….death itself. And all this is going to take place during Holy Week because He wants us, you and me, to have an eternal relationship with His heavenly Father for one wonderfully simple reason: He loves you.

One of the most powerful books I’ve read in the last year or so is called “Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus,” written by Nabeel Qureshi. It’s the story of a young Muslim man who tried his best to find Allah and ended up falling in love with Jesus. Much of it took place right here in Virginia Beach. God’s LOVE was the key…..and the only place to find God’s love is through Jesus. Jesus IS God’s love come down. Note the direction: down.

Everybody in every other religion other than Christianity seems to be about people trying to ascend to God; people struggling to achieve a relationship with God by doing this or that or whatever. They are trying to climb to some religious pinnacle through living right, even if it’s going to take them an entire series of lifetimes! I study religions. I do my best to understand them. Mormons, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, you name it, in the end they are all the same…..people working their way “up to God.”

On Palm Sunday Jesus came up and over the Mount of Olives and down towards Jerusalem, but it wasn’t to work His way “up” to a throne. Instead, He headed there, towards the cross and into the grave…..all because God loves us. The people of Jerusalem wanted Him to take over the city, but what Jesus took on instead was death, the devil, guilt, shame, evil and hell. And when He went to Calvary, what looked like a Lower Story defeat for Him became instead an Upper Story victory, the victory of God, Who loved the world so much that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish, but have everlasting life!

They thought Jesus was finished. Remember what Jesus said? It is finished!

Here I am, standing between an earthly throne and an ugly, hideous cross. Jesus is coming over the Mount of Olives surrounded by adoring crowds screaming “Hosanna! Son of David, Save us!” What are you going to do? It’s an important question. It’s crucial. You can join the crowds and try to reinvent Jesus as your “miracle-working, bread providing, water-walking” magic man, a genie to carry around in your bottle for whenever you might happen to need Him…..OR….. turn your back on the crowds, pick up your cross and follow Him to His.

I’ll share with you where I am in all this. In the last year or so I’ve been struggling with issues of my own mortality. A year ago I buried my father. Then about every other funeral we’ve had this year, the dearly departed has been younger than I am. My upcoming retirement has played into that, as has a scare over the recurrence of cancer. In those moments when all this piles on me, I am reminded that I am not immortal. My time will come too. And because of that, I know I need a God who does more than just fill an earthly throne. I need a God who comes down from heaven and SAVES me. I need a Savior who did it all; who “finished the job” by Himself! I need a God who’s deepest desire is to have me with Him forever, and made it possible!

Holy Week begins today for us, just as Passover week began for Jesus some 2000 years ago. Every year during Passover, some 200,000 lambs would be offered up for the sins of the people. As Jesus came over the hill to the Hosannas of the crowds, the lamb’s blood would be replaced by the blood of the LAMB of GOD. Everything in the Old Testament pointed towards the cross. Everything had been planned. When Jesus didn’t defend Himself before Pilate, we remember Isaiah’s words, “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth.” When a Roman soldier pierced His side, again Isaiah had written, “He was pierced for our transgressions.” And who would have thought that of all the disciples, Peter would deny Jesus? Jesus knew it. He foretold it. Nothing took Jesus by surprise. It was all in the Plan…..the Upper Story Plan.

Finally, when Jesus died, the religious leaders must have celebrated as they thought, “HE was finished.” But from the cross, Jesus declared the truth, “IT is finished!”

At that very moment something UNTHINKABLE happened: the curtain in the temple, the six-inch thick curtain….imagine that…..the barrier that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies, the place God’s presence filled, that curtain SPLIT right down the middle. It WAS finished.

Let’s end with the words that the author of the book of Hebrews uses to describe this wonderful event: Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, His body. Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed. (Heb 10:19-22)

Let this be a true HOLY WEEK for you. Let it be different. Let it be special. Don’t just observe it……JOIN it, so that when all is said and done, you can say with the centurion at the foot of the cross, “Surely this was the Son of God!”

Amen.

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Drop your nets, says Jesus and do what DOESN’T come naturally: follow me, and be free!

By Pastor Mark Nieting

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

It was really neat, having two Christmases this year, and the second being a true “white one!” Fantastic, right? In this chapter of the STORY, Jesus’ ministry begins: first He’s “introduced” by John the Baptist, and then He selects his “ministry team,” the disciples. Each one of them…..and you know their names because we did an entire series of children’s messages on them a few years ago….was called to leave whatever they were doing and to do something different. In fact, I would go so far as to say they were called to do something that was completely RADICAL for their day…..and even for ours. It was all about Jesus teaching His disciples….then and now…. how to FORGIVE!

The Old Testament, which we just finished two weeks ago, doesn’t include a lot of teaching about forgiveness on the part of people. GOD is always the one forgiving. But there’s a lot of “an eye for an eye” behavior and plenty of smiting and wiping people out. But forgiving? Forgiving people, especially people who have really done you wrong; that’s tough to do, isn’t it? It’s not natural. What comes naturally are paybacks and grudges and revenge; you hit me, I’ll get you.. that’s the stuff that comes naturally to us.

Last Sunday we all had the chance to tell the person next to us that they had problems. We did it in jest, of course, and even had a laugh doing it, but were we wrong? No! And this morning, if we really got down to it and did a “pass the microphone,” it wouldn’t take long before we could dig up story after story about people we are…..it would be nice if I could use the past tense…..used to….having trouble forgiving. And that doesn’t even begin touching people who need to forgive US for what we’ve done to them! I’ll say it again: forgiving people who hurt us……it doesn’t come naturally.

But that’s the very thing that Jesus came to teach us.

I finished one of the most wonderful books I’ve read in a long time. It’s called “Mission at Nuremberg.” It’s the story of a pastor in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod who served as an Army chaplain during World War 2. Immediately after the war, Chaplain Henry Gerecke was chosen out of all the protestant chaplains in the army at the time to minister to the 21 top Nazis while they were tried for war crimes after the war. These men: Herman Goering, Hitler’s #2 man, Rudolph Hess, Wilhelm Keitel, Hans Frank, Albert Speer and others, men who, just for starters, were responsible for murdering over six MILLION Jews, simply because they were Jews. Chaplain Gereke’s Call was to lead them back to Jesus, to help them find forgiveness, even while some of them would be executed for their actions. Could you have done that? Perhaps you lost a brother in the war? Could you offer the forgiveness of Jesus to those who made it all happen?

Take a moment and think back to the last time someone hurt you in ANY which way, to the last time you were wronged. What did your human nature want to do to them?

Since it’s Lent, and since we’ve just read chapter 23 about Jesus’ ministry, let’s get HIS perspective on the topic, say from about 10 feet off the ground, nailed to the cross. He looks down over Calvary, Golgotha, if you will, and what does He see? There’s a group of soldiers, still sweating from nailing Him up, fighting over His clothes. There’s the Jewish leaders mocking Him. There’s His mother and a few of her women friends, but His disciples? Judas betrayed Him. Peter denied Him and ran off. The rest are all in hiding except John. He’s down there with Mary. And there’s a crowd of onlookers yelling, “You said you are the Messiah. If that’s true, come down and show us!”

And He could. That would come naturally, wouldn’t it? Who stays on the cross when He doesn’t HAVE to? But Jesus looks out over the crowd and what does He say to the men who put Him up there? He doesn’t curse at them. He doesn’t spit at them. He doesn’t call down fire and brimstone…..which He could do. Instead, He speaks what we know are some of His “seven last words:” this time, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.”

He forgives them, and on top of that, He asks His Father to forgive them! ONLY someone who knows what true freedom is can do that. Could you? Or are you hanging on to some grudges because someone hurt you or someone wronged you or someone “disrespected you” or stole from you and you’re hanging on to what comes naturally so tight you just can’t let go. And if you can’t let it go….if you can’t forgive, you’re not free.

Jesus came to set us free. Jesus came to set YOU free. And what sets us free is exactly what doesn’t come naturally: forgiveness….. get this…forgiveness EVEN if what was done to you WAS wrong!

Jesus was serious about this, some serious that He included it TWICE into “his” prayer, the Lord’s Prayer. Say it with me: forgive us our trespasses AS WE FORGIVE THOSE WHO TRESPASS AGAINST US. Jesus wants HIS people to be different: not tied up in grudges, revenge and pay-backs, but freeing others and being free ourselves because we are willing to forgive, and be forgiven.

Be honest now (it’s Lent and you’re in church!). Is there a name that when it’s mentioned you just bristle, and you’re ready to go off about them for about 30 minutes because of what they’ve done to you…and how they’ve “done you wrong?” And you get great pleasure in planning just how you’re going to exact your “pound of flesh” with “an eye for an eye,” a “bruise for a bruise,” some “gossip for their gossip?”

Drop your nets, says Jesus and do what DOESN’T come naturally: follow me, and be free! It’s taken us 23 weeks to get this far into the Story, but when we do what Jesus calls us to do and live the way He calls us to live, it’s amazing!

The disciple John….the one who hung in there at the cross….he was the one who really “got it” when it came to love. In his first epistle, John wrote ”God is LOVE” and he goes on and on about love, til it sounds like the old camp song, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love!” John goes on to say that if you say you’re a Christian and you don’t have the radical kind of love that enables you to forgive EVEN when it hurts, you’re faking it. You’re going through the motions.

After reading my retirement covenant in our meeting last Sunday, this is what has been going through my mind: what do I want for you….for Hope…after I retire? I’ve already promised to pray for you, every day. I’ve already promised to support Hope in every way I can. But what do I WANT for you? I want you to LOVE. I want you to LOVE each other and to LOVE every single new person who walks in those doors so much so when people here the name of HOPE, they say, “that’s a church who knows how to love!”

St. Paul gets into this in 1 Corinthians 13. He’s discussing church work and church life and he puts it like this: you may have the best musicians of any church in Kempsville; and you may have the best Bible teachers east of Concordia Seminary; and you may have money to burn; and you may have 150 kids back there in the school….but if you don’t have love, you’ve got nothing. Zippo. Nada.

Let’s give an example from page 330 in the story….turn there, please. In the Bible it’s in Mark 2. Jesus is in Capernaum teaching and healing and blessing people and He’s slammed with crowds because friends are bringing friends and such. But there’s one guy who cannot get there by himself; he’s paralyzed. So his four buddies take the corners of his stretcher and carry him to the house where Jesus was….now that’s LOVE in action, right? But it’s so crowded they can’t get NEAR the place. There was NO WAY they could maneuver that stretcher through the mass of people and get anywhere close.

Let me ask: what would have come naturally? Hey man, we tried….but look at the time! I love you….but dude, I’ve got soccer practice!!! Gotta run! That’s what comes naturally. But not these guys. Somehow they get him up on the roof without dropping him and go across to about where they think Jesus is right below them. Then they tear a HOLE in the roof and carefully lower their paralyzed buddy right in front of Jesus! Now that will get your attention, right?

What did Jesus do? (Top of 331) He forgave his sins! That’s a man who’s been set free! But the people get all upset, because only God can forgive sins, so Jesus reminds them He IS God…and that’s exactly why He came! To Forgive Sins! And then, just to show them He could, He tells the man to get up and walk and, of course, he does.

That’s the main story in Mark 2…..but there’s another story running, another part of the lower story that applies to His disciples. Maybe Jesus was thinking of Nathaniel, I don’t know, but He said, “Let GO of your nets. Let GO of what comes natural and follow me and you will be AMAZED at what you see!

That’s the STORY: Jesus came to set us FREE. Free from being imprisoned by grudges, by a desire for revenge, from bitterness and anger, even from hatred. That’s what Jesus wants for us…..not eventually in heaven…..there won’t BE any sin there; that’s what He wants for us now. And He was willing to give up His life so what we can have it. Freedom in HIM, now and forever. That’s what I want for you. He does too.

Amen.

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