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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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“No matter who we are, rich or poor, famous or obscure, brilliant or a tad below average, we all need Jesus.”

By Pastor Mark Nieting

We’re in a major transition here this morning, and it’s not about Lent. If you haven’t been reading your chapters of The STORY, this morning’s music was the clue. We’re celebrating Christmas this morning. It’s the transition between the Old Testament and the New Testament in the STORY. In other words, we finally get to talk about JESUS! The first 21 chapters have been all about getting us TO this Sunday, all about getting us TO the time when Jesus came into the world. And now, we’re there!

To get a bit more perspective on this, can you begin to imagine talking about the birth, life and passion of Jesus without the having the background and the necessity that the Old Testament provides? That would be a very incomplete story, to say the least. And to have the Old Testament without ever arriving at Jesus? The way I see it, there would be no hope in that whatsoever!

So over the last 21 weeks we’ve looked back all the way back to the Creation in Genesis. Then we worked though the times of the patriarchs, the time in Egypt, the Exodus, the Judges, the Kings, the captivity in Babylon and last week, the Inter-testamental period. We’ve applied several thousand years of hindsight and I think we have all wondered:

- Why God’s people did what they did?
- Why they created and believed in idols, even idols of wood and stone?
- Why they worshiped other gods and ignored THEIR God, when it never went well for them when they did that?
- Why they were so unfaithful?

And, having worked through all of that, you know what we’ve said, or at least thought to ourselves? WE would never be like that!

Right……. By God’s grace, or shall we say with God applying a good amount of Holy Spirit-driven honesty to our introspection, we realize that their story is our story too.

I know we haven’t done this in a while, so this may be the perfect time. Please turn to the person next to you and say “You’ve got problems!” Go!

The stories of all those Old Testament people are stories about people with “sin-problems.” They are, or I should say, they “were” people who couldn’t and didn’t find ways to be perfect before God who IS perfect. God didn’t point this out to be mean or hurtful, it’s just that the Old Covenant was set up this way: God said “I will be your God and you will be my people, and the closer you are to me, the better things will be……and the farther away from me that you are, the worse things will be!”

And despite the Ten Commandments being carved into stone, and despite the very presence of God visible by fire and smoke from the Holy of Holies, and despite the patriarchs, the prophets, the judges and an occasional angel, the people of the Old Covenant rarely really got it right.

That’s why the entire Old Testament points to a NEW COVENANT, not one of laws and rules and ceremonies and regulations, all of which are external, but a Covenant based on a relationship, which is an INTERNAL thing…….a relationship with Jesus!

Who is the New Covenant about? Say it out loud! (JESUS!) Right. 21 chapters (the real Old Testament has 929 chapters), thousands of years, and all of it points to Jesus!

The Jews came back from Persia in 537, rebuilt the temple, restarted the sacrificial system, eventually rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and by 444 BC, everything was ready for the Messiah. Then……for over 400 years…..nothing happened. No prophets came out to speak. No angels brought messages. No miracles delivered them from invading armies, of which there were plenty. No books of the Bible were written. Nothing, unless you count going from bad to worse. They were ruled by the Persians, the Egyptians, the Syrians, the Greeks and the iron fist of the Romans; talk about a progression going from bad to worse, from the light of freedom to total DARKNESS!

When my kids were little I remember sitting in the park on the 4th of July waiting for fireworks to start. We would sit on the blanket and wait as the sun went down and the sky got darker and the kids making us crazy with “when is it going to start???” And just when you were about ready to lose it, that first rocket went up and WHAM, it blew up the darkness with a huge burst of light! In his Gospel, that’s how John described Christ’s coming into the world…….light came into darkness. It doesn’t take much light to break through darkness…..a tiny penlight will do the job because light always wins. Look what happened that first Christmas: the angels in heaven show up singing the praises of the new-born Messiah! If there’s ANY chapter in the Bible that everyone knows, it’s Luke 2: Mary and Joseph and the baby in the manger, shepherds and angels. Even the littlest kids in Sunday School get it!

I’m going to pause us for a moment and reflect on just “who showed up” from the perspective of the world. Who showed up? Shepherds. How long did they stay? Not long. The world around us, the non-believing world looks at that and thinks to itself: shepherds…..not the sharpest knives in the drawer, and little children. That’s who Christmas is for: an evening’s entertainment away from the drudgery of shepherding and, little kids (who also believe in Santa), who eventually will “know better.”

Pagan society looks at Christmas and Christians like that: check your brains at the door if you’re going to believe all the stuff they teach in Sunday School. That’s a sore spot for me: the “we must be pretty ignorant to believe all that stuff” mentality that floats around our society. But from the very beginning God also combated that attitude and here’s how: look who ELSE showed up for Jesus. The Magi. The Wise Men.

They weren’t kings and there probably were more like a dozen of them, and they probably took a year to get to Bethlehem, but look who they were. They weren’t lowly shepherds; they were astrologers and astronomers, scientists and the intelligentsia of their day. They were people of high social status, the crème-de-la-crème of Persia, wealthy beyond anything Mary and Joseph could imagine….who else could afford the gifts they brought and the journey they made? They weren’t “in it” for a one-evening distraction or a mere curiosity; these guys were in it for the long haul. They followed the Star and the followed the Holy Spirit and they found Jesus and WORSHIPED Him. The word for their worship (proskenuow) is even far richer than the word for ours: they fell down on their faces, their foreheads to the ground!

And their gifts? Gold, fit for a king! Frankincense, like a priest would use to offer prayers to God. And myrrh? That’s only good for embalming dead people…….a gift for a Savior who would die. So how did they KNOW all this about this little child Jesus?

God told them! They listened to what God whispered into their hearts! They knew that there was more to life than stars, sand and camels. They knew science didn’t have all the answers. Don’t get me wrong, we are blessed by science, we all are. Where would we be without medical science, just to name one area? I love science. I spent 13 years teaching science. Science can show us the “how” and “what” about stuff around us, but it can’t come close to even scratching the surface of questions like “who” and “why.” It can’t tell us why we are here; it can’t even ask “what is the meaning of life?” That’s the stuff of God, the stuff of faith! It’s the “big picture” of God and HIS STORY!

2000 years ago, the shepherds needed Jesus. The inn-keeper needed Jesus. The Magi needed Jesus. Israel needed Jesus. So did the Romans. And the same holds true today. No matter who we are, rich or poor, famous or obscure, brilliant or a tad below average, we all need Jesus. We need Him so that through Him we can come back into a relationship with God who created us, loves us, and wants us to be in His presence, forever. That’s why we are here. That’s why YOU are here, right? Because of JESUS!

There’s one more part to chapter 22. It happened when Jesus was 12 years old. It was time for Passover, so the entire town of Nazareth packed up for the 3 day journey to Jerusalem. It wasn’t Jesus’ first Passover, but 12 was a special year for a Jewish boy; His ‘bar-mitzvah.’ So Jesus, Mary and Joseph (no, I’m not swearing) went off and when it was all done, they headed north again……but this time, they discovered, Jesus wasn’t with them. He wasn’t with the other 12 year old boys. You know where He was when they found Him 3 days later……..in the temple, with the scribes and Pharisees and all the rabbis. What was He doing? The word used is eperonton, which means Jesus was ‘asking them questions, from a position of authority.’ Like the judge in his courtroom, Jesus “owned” that room, a room that had been filled with the best and the brightest Israel had to offer.

Jesus was a marvelous teacher, but He is far more than that.
Jesus was a great example of moral living, but He is far more than that.
Jesus spoke God’s Word prophetically, but He is far more than that.
He is God, made into the flesh to be our Savior.
He is the One and the only One who can bring us the real answers to the great questions of life: What is our purpose? Where did we come from? And where will we go when it’s all done?

Merry Christmas all over again! Christ, the Savior is born!

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Joy isn’t found in chasing our desires. It’s found in living like children of God.

By Pastor Michael Cofer
Text: Nehemiah 8

We had some pretty incredible weather last week. Snow, sure. I can deal with snow. I even like a bit of snow. It covers the city in a lovely white blanket. It makes everything magically clean looking. You can make snow men and even snow angels!

But what happened to this city last week was not snow. It was white concrete that fell out of the sky. I walked out in to my backyard, and left no tracks. While that sounds pretty cool, it’s no joke when it’s time to shovel the driveway.

So I slapped on my hat and gloves, big heavy boots and big heavy coat. I grabbed the only shovel I own (a spade, if you’re curious), and set to work. I scraped and heaved shovelful after shovelful. In single digit temperatures I was sweating profusely. Dig, Crack, Heave. Dig, Crack, Heave.

And finally, when I thought I was going to collapse, I laid down my shovel and surveyed my work: a tiny winding path that only went halfway down. I felt like I had already done so much, but like it or not, there was still so much more to do.

I can’t even imagine what it must have been like for the good people of Judah trying to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Not only was it hard physical labor, but they were under the constant threat of attack. Can you imagine having to carry a load of bricks with one hand and a sword in the other? Can you imagine having to trade off watches in your own neighborhood?

So, when they finally finish the wall, you can just picture the whole nation issuing one giant sigh of a relief. At long last, we’re back. At long last, we’re safe. At long last, we’re done. Set down the shovel, catch your breath, and enjoy a Lutheran beverage, right?

All the people come together, and Ezra pulls out the Bible and starts reading it to them. And what happens next is really interesting. At first it’s hands in the air, praise and amens! And then it’s bowing down…. and then as they’re taken deeper into the word, as the preachers start explaining and applying it to their lives they start weeping.

They had worked so hard rebuilding the city, you know they had to be tired. Then here comes the laundry list of all the things that still need done. Here comes the list of all the ways they don’t measure up. Hadn’t they already done enough? You can imagine their remorse and piled on top of that a layer of discouragement.

See, when we start taking God’s word and holding up our own lives against it, pretty soon it becomes clear that we are not the righteous, godly people we like to think we are. It convicts us. It frames us as who we really are – flawed and fallible people, who never live up to our own self-image let alone God’s perfect law.

In fact, we are just beginning the season of Lent – a time to do this very kind of self-reflection, soul-searching, and repentance. A time to recognize just how much we need a loving and forgiving God. A time to recognize just how much we still need to change.

But God doesn’t want them to stew in their sadness. There is a time for weeping, but the people of God are not meant to be joyless, self-loathers. In fact, a story like this one highlights one of the dangers of Lent. It may seem very pious to focus on feeling sorry for our sins. But God isn’t nearly as interested in feeling sorry as He is in righteous living.

God doesn’t want you to be miserable. He wants you to be joyful. Now, that doesn’t mean that God wants you to do whatever makes you happy. That gets the whole things backwards. Joy isn’t found in chasing our desires. It’s found in living like children of God.

Back to Judah. As they’re reading the scriptures they find out that they are supposed to be celebrating the Festival of Booths. So they decide to do it!

Are you tracking this story? Exactly one day after the wall of Jerusalem is completed, they celebrate by living in tents for a week! Not only that, but they have to go forage for wood to make them. That means leaving those nice, safe walls they’ve been working at for a couple months.

They might have been tired. They might have felt as if they had no strength left. But Ezra’s words must have rung true for them, “This day is holy to the LORD. Don’t grieve. The joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to accomplish something when you’re motivated by love rather than obligation? I don’t enjoy grocery shopping. Cooking is not my forte. Washing dishes is not a passion of mine.
But, if I’m planning a special meal for Alisha, then I shop differently… I don’t grumpily navigate the maze of people and illogically laid out aisles as quickly as possible. I smile as I gather the best looking tomatoes. There’s a spring in my step and I’m probably humming a song as I pick through the aisles. All the way, picturing what the meal is going to be like, and how Alisha is going to react.

This Lent, we can focus on our inability to keep God’s commands. We can chastise ourselves and spend 40 days being bummed out. OR we can take this opportunity to appreciate God’s love in spite of our failings. We can reorder our lives on Him, not by the strength of our own willpower (because that never really lasts), but by the strength that godly joy imparts.

You know, God never asks us to do stuff because he needs us to do it. God doesn’t need anything from us. God’s commands don’t come out of what He needs from us, but rather they come from what He wants for us.

So, this Lenten season, let’s not fall into the trap of pious-seeming sulking. Instead, let’s seek the Joy of the Lord as we turn our hearts back to Him.

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“And when it comes to the here and now, we are all at Hope for one reason: to bring the Hope of Jesus Christ to others by serving them any way we can.”

By Pastor Mark Nieting
Transfiguration Sunday

Grace, mercy and peace from God our Father and from Jesus Christ, who revealed Himself in all His glory to Peter, James and John on the Mount of the Transfiguration.

It’s hard to believe that a) we’re at the beginning of the Lenten season and b) we’re on chapter 20 of The Story! Are you enjoying our journey through Scripture? I think what I like the most is that from week to week we get to reflect on the BIG PICTURE of God’s plan for our salvation. I also love that each week we get to meet a new “hero” whom God has lifted up to move The Story along. There was Abraham and Joseph; Moses and Joshua; Deborah and Samson; Samuel and Rahab; David, Solomon, Josiah (my favorite king), Daniel and his buds; all of them placed and equipped by God to do just what needed to be done, how it needed to be done and when. Each and every one of these great servants of God came along not by accident, but on purpose.

You know how things have progressed over the past 20 weeks for each one of these men and women and for Israel collectively. When they focused on God….kept God on the “highest place” of their lives, things went well. And when they became self-focused and forgot about God, you know, it didn’t go well at all. In fact, it could be downright disastrous.

On January 25, as we went through chapter 17, Pastor Cofer focused us on these words of God, spoken to the prophet Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you; before you were born I set you apart!” That’s how God works with ALL His people. Each of the great heroes of the Old Testament was the right person at the right time for the job God had for them. There is a cast of New Testament all-stars as well. And on it goes throughout the history of God’s Story until it includes us. I am one. So are you. None of us is here by accident. None of us exists outside of God’s will. God knew us before He made us and gave us purpose already in the wombs of our mothers.

And when it comes to the here and now, we are all at Hope for one reason: to bring the Hope of Jesus Christ to others by serving them any way we can, through our food pantry, our school, through mission trips and neighborhood conversations. When we focus on God’s word and God’s work, things go well for us too. And when we get self-focused and think this whole thing is about us…..that’s not going to work out any better for us than it did for Israel.

As you all know, this Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Two weeks after that, the Jewish folk in our communities (and around the world) will celebrate Purim, which has its genesis in this week’s chapter: the story of Esther. For us, Lent is penitential and introspective. We spend time examining ourselves, dealing with the sins in our lives that literally cost Jesus, the Son of God, His life. For the Jews, Purim is a joyful celebration of their rescue from a holocaust; this one not under Hitler, but under Xerxes in the Persian empire. They celebrate Purim by reading the Esther scroll twice, by giving to the needy and doing charitable deeds, and they end it all with a happy, over-the-top feast of victory!

That’s where we’ll start today. It’s about 490 BC and thanks to Cyrus the Great, the Persian emperor, many of the Jews had gone back to Judea. Nehemiah and Ezra started rebuilding the temple and the city. But many of the Jews didn’t GO back. I think those of us who move around a lot get why: a lot of the Jews had sunk roots into the communities into which they had settled. Some were farmers. Some were merchants. They had homes and they were a generation or even two in their new land. So going home…..for some, not going to happen.

Let’s get into chapter 20. The fourth Persian emperor, Xerxes, held a “Persia is Great” event that lasted 180 days! He invited the military leaders of all 127 provinces to plan the invasion of Greece. At the end, there was a 7 day long mega-party. After drinking his fill, and being rather “full of himself,” Xerxes comes up with the bright idea to demand that his queen, Vashti, come to dance for all the men wearing her crown. She responds by saying “over my dead body,” and Xerxes, disrespected in front of all these leaders, says “that can be arranged.”

Later, missing his queen, they go searching for a replacement. They fill the harem with young girls from all over the empire and, short ending to a long process, a lovely young Jewish girl named Esther ends up as the new queen. Through it all, coached by her cousin Mordecai, who is always at the right place at the right time, she keeps her heritage a secret.

(Interjection: Isn’t it interesting that of all the cultures of the ancient world, it’s God’s people who are blessed with a whole series of strong women. It’s not just Abraham….it’s Abraham and Sarah. It’s Moses and Miriam. Then there’s Ruth, Rahab, and Deborah, just to name a few. In most culture, the women were objectified, but not so with God’s people!)

MEANWHILE (and here, if we had a musical score it would shift to an ominous tone), the anti-Semitic Haman was named prime minister of Persia. We’re going to learn something new here: as the Jews read the Esther scroll during Purim, every time Haman’s name is read, they all stomp their feet and boo. So let’s try it: “Haman!” (stomp your feet and boo). Good… we can go on. Mordecai refused to bow down and honor Haman (boo). This wasn’t a 1st commandment issue: it was because Haman (boo) was an Amalekite, a nation at war with the Jews since the time of the Exodus. The Amalekites hated the Jews and Haman (boo) seemed to get a big dose of this hatred, especially since Mordecai wouldn’t bow to him. So Haman (boo) set up a scheme to have all the Jews in Persia slaughtered. They even held a lottery to determine the day!

Xerxes signed the law: the holocaust was to happen on the 13th day of the 12th month. Every Jew in the empire knew he or she had 11 months to live. It was a terrible time for them.

Mordecai went into action. He set up a meeting with Esther and asked her to intervene on behalf of all the Jews of the empire. Esther was terrified…..she remembered what happened to Vashti. Then Mordecai plays his trump card. It’s our text for today, from Esther 4: 13ff: (Esther) do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?
“For such a time as this!” Hasn’t that been true of every one of the Great Heroes we’ve been studying since the beginning of the Story?

Esther could have kept her mouth shut. She could have been satisfied living as queen of the land in the palace with the finest of everything Persia had to offer. She could have adopted the philosophy of so many: eat, drink and be merry….for tomorrow you die.

Instead, Mordecai’s words touched her heart. She asked him to have all the Jews in the city fast (and pray) for 3 days. Then she invited Xerxes and Haman (boo) to a huge banquet. Haman (boo) went home with his ego flying high…..until he walked by Mordecai, who again wouldn’t bow down. Haman (boo) ordered a huge gallows built just for the hanging of Mordecai.

The next day, at Esther’s second banquet….when Haman (boo) expected to be honored in wonderful ways, Esther reveals her true identity as a Jew and pleads for the salvation of her people who were under the threat of annihilation. Xerxes was furious that his dear queen would be in danger and asked who was behind the plot. In the end, Haman (boo) was hanged on his own gallows along with all ten of his sons and, instead of being killed, the Jews were able to kill all those who were out to kill them!

The chapter and the story of Esther ends with the Jews across the entire Persian empire giving thanks to God for His deliverance not only from Haman (our last boo), but finally and completely from the Amelikites. On the 13th day of the 12th month, the day in which they were to be slaughtered, they began a feast of celebration that continues to this day; and all of it because young Queen Esther remembered that she was “where she was and when she was and who she was” for such a time as this.

I am sure that Queen Esther was tempted to slink back into her chambers with her maids, her makeup, her fancy meals and her pampered lifestyle. After all, she knew what happened to Vashti when SHE spoke up. She could have argued that this was what life was all about: being entertained and staying happy. But Esther, like Jeremiah and all those great heroes before her, realized that life was and still is far more than that. She realized she was made by God for such a time as this. She knew she had a mission. She knew she had a purpose.

You may never be in a position where obeying God is a matter of life and death. I hope you never are! Probably the worst thing that could happen to most of us today is a little ridicule…..someone making fun of us because we obey God and because we love Jesus. People may think we’re fanatics just because we have a pro-life bumper sticker on our cars or because we keep a Bible on our desk or we refuse to do soccer practice on Ash Wednesday. You may even think it’s crazy to wake up in the middle of the night worrying about a friend and wondering if YOU are the one who should talk to him or her.

Those are our “Esther moments.” We….as God’s people…..were baptized and called by God for such a time as this. Imagine what our world….our city….or our street would be like if every one of us would adopt Esther’s commitment as our own: Because I am born for such a time as this, I will go to the king, or the friend, or the co-worker, or the neighbor….and if I perish, I perish!

Esther was willing to take her chances because she knew WHO was in charge. Are you?

Let us pray: Lord, I may not be a great hero in Your Story, but I can make a difference. Help me do so!

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“It isn’t about how much you’re giving to God. It’s about whether you trust God to provide for you.”

By Pastor Michael Cofer
Haggai 1:2-12

After about 70 years as a broken and scattered people, Judah was at last allowed to return to Jerusalem. Imagine the excitement… The grandchildren and great grandchildren of those who were hauled off in chains were going back to their homeland. They were going to rebuild, to put their lives back together.

How would you feel if for 70 years we had been forbidden to set foot in a church? For 70 years we hadn’t been able to share the Lord’s Supper, or hear the Word of God read aloud. And then, one day, the doors are thrown open and we’re allowed back in.

That’s what it was like for Judah. It’s not just that they were driven from their homes – but with the temple in ruins their whole religious life was in exile too. But now, at long last they were going home to set it right again.

And they started off strongly. They put the altar together. They laid the foundation of the temple. And then… well… it got hard. Their neighbors harassed and frustrated their efforts until finally the people of Judah gave up. They decided to wait it out, and invest in their own houses first.

Maybe when they got their own houses in order…. maybe when life wasn’t so chaotic… maybe then they could focus in on building the temple. But, as it turns out, there is always a little more work that the house needs. And when the harvest comes around, you find out you’re not going to have as much as you had hoped this year. And that ideal time you’ve been waiting on never seems to come.

So the Word of the Lord comes to Judah, “Is it time for you yourselves to be living in paneled houses, while [My] house remains in ruins?” Now, you and I both know that God doesn’t need a house to live in. The issue isn’t that God is homeless. The issue is that the people of God are more focused on their needs than on what God deserves.

It’s an easy thing to happen because our needs are right in our face, demanding our attention. But, ironically, focusing on our needs usually just leads to dissatisfaction. God goes on to say, “Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much, but harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.” Anyone ever feel like that?

The thing is, if we wait until we “level out” or “get to a better place” before we give to God, we will probably never do it. Expenses will always grow. Schedules will always get tighter. Life is going to stay crazy.

But God doesn’t ask us to give to Him “when it’s convenient” or “when we’re ready.” And the reason why is, He
doesn’t actually need your money. We don’t give to pay bills, or make the church run. If that was why we gave, then the “wait until you have it” mentality would be just fine.

No, God asks us to give Him the first fruits of our income because it is the most basic and concrete act of trust you can do. This is why Jesus makes such a fuss about the Widow’s Mite. “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

It isn’t about how much you’re giving to God. It’s about whether you trust God to provide for you. It’s easy to say, but it isn’t trust until it makes it from your lips to your wallet.

That’s why God asks for first fruits. If He’s paid out of “whatever is left,” it doesn’t require trust. And, in my experience at least, your expenses will always grow to match your income. If we aren’t giving to God off the top, it becomes harder and harder to do.

Today is Grow One Sunday. Today is a day when you can take a step forward in trusting God to provide for you.

The ushers are handing out pledge cards. We’re going to take a few moments to look these over and fill them out.
If you are a visitor with us today, please don’t feel pressured to fill out one of these cards. This is something that our members do once a year.

Of course, it isn’t required of anyone, but let me encourage you with a few thoughts. I know many people feel like their giving is between them and God. I totally agree. If you don’t want to write down the amount you are giving, that is absolutely fine. But please consider checking one of the STEP UP boxes.

This is a way of making a concrete promise between you and God. Sometimes when I have something in my mind, it’s easy to second guess myself, or just plain forget. Putting your commitment on paper takes it “outside of you,” and moves it from being a thought to being a fact.

So let’s take a few moments to make our commitments to trust God.

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“You don’t have to know what to say ahead of time. You just have to trust that when the moment comes, God will give you the words.”

By Pastor Michael Cofer
Jeremiah 1: 1-8

We’ve been reading about prophets these last few chapters. These guys seem like pretty serious spiritual heavy-hitters… And we might be tempted to kind of lump them together as sort of an elite. But they weren’t a special class of people. They were just people like you and me. They were people with the same fears and insecurities as us.

The fact is this: being a prophet isn’t something you’re trained for. It’s something you’re called to, and there are no prerequisites other than listening to God.

And while we’ve spent the last several weeks looking at the Story from an epic scale – watching kingdoms rise and fall, seeing incredible miracles performed – this week we’re going to focus on a very narrow, very personal moment. This week we’re going to focus on the private conversation between God and Jeremiah, the prophet.

Jeremiah lived in a critical time for God’s people. Judah had an on-again-off-again relationship with God – mostly depending on who was king at the time. Jeremiah’s king, Josiah, was doing what he could to call the people to faithfulness. But as soon as he died, the people went back to their old idolatries.

As you can imagine, Jeremiah was called into a difficult context… many of the people he served were nominally God fearing. They had heard God’s word, but it didn’t remain central to their lives. They had the freedom to worship God, but they didn’t know (or maybe didn’t care) that they were just a breath away from losing it. I wonder if we can relate?

So when God approaches Jeremiah, He comes to him with both a tenderness of heart and firmness of purpose. “From before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. From before you were born, I set you apart.”

You know, those words aren’t just for Jeremiah. They are true for every one of us. And some of us need to hear those words today. Are you feeling lost or purposeless? Are you feeling misunderstood? From before you were born, God knew you. You are not an accident. You are not a mistake. God had you in mind since before your great grandparents met.

That also means that He has been waiting for the right time and the right place to put you. He chose you for right here and right now. Your neighborhood, your social circles, your workplace – God was waiting for them all to line up just right so he could put you in them. Shouldn’t that fact transform how we look at our daily routines?

Of course, Jeremiah offers up every good excuse he can think of not to be God’s messenger. “I don’t know how to speak!” How many of us have said or thought the same thing about sharing the Gospel? “I don’t have that training,” “I don’t have that gift,” “I don’t know what I would say.” You know, it seems a lot of God’s prophets say that kind of thing… guys like Moses and Elijah. Does that stop God?

Or, here’s another excuse: “I’m too young.” Which is to say, “Why would people listen to me? I’m nobody special. I have no experience. I’m not well respected. I’m not an expert. Even if I am the right guy, I’m not ready yet.”

Was God persuaded? “You’re right Jeremiah… I’ll come back when you’re better qualified. Actually, better still, I’ll find someone else.” Of course God didn’t say those things.

Instead, His response was essentially, “Don’t worry about that stuff. Just do what I ask you to do. Don’t be afraid, I am with you.”
You know, I think a lot of the fear and hesitation we have in sharing our faith with others comes directly from the fact that we’re concerned about how well we’ll do it and what others might think of us for trying. Those questions are non-issues for God. He talked through a flaming shrub and a donkey. He can use you at least as well as the local flora and fauna.

This is why God reaches out and touches Jeremiah on the lips and says, “I have put my words in your mouth.” You don’t have to be brilliant or charming or whatever. You don’t have to know what to say ahead of time. You just have to trust that when the moment comes, God will give you the words.

This phenomenon is not restricted to some bygone time of prophecy. This is how it works to this day. Jesus himself promises, “Do not worry about how you will defend yourself or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.” God isn’t looking for you to have a well-polished and rehearsed sales pitch. He is looking for willingness to speak and trust that he will take care of it.

And when those opportunities come up, you may go out on a limb and share God with someone else – and it may not go well. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you did it wrong. Think about how many people Jesus spoke to. Sometimes people were moved to repentance and joy. Other times they pick up rocks to stone him.

Jeremiah himself preached and preached and preached and the people of his day did not listen. Does that mean he did it wrong? Does that make him a failure? Of course not. He was faithful to God’s calling, and that’s the only true measure of success a prophet has. But, having said that, think about this: those words he spoke weren’t empty. They didn’t die with his generation. God has and still is using those words to bring hope and truth to people even today.

That’s the amazing thing about God putting words in your mouth… His words are eternal and make an eternal difference. It’s not about your ability; it’s about His words. There isn’t even the pressure of “Getting results.” Results are God’s business.

It’s just about being faithful.

God has chosen you for this time and place, and he is sending you out to bring His life-saving word to folks you already know.

Don’t worry about what you’ll say when you get there… He’ll supply the words. He is just asking to use your mouth.

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Question: how does a little lamb get lost? Does it decide one day to wander off? No, it simply nibbles here and nibbles there, wherever the grass seems greenest and longest, until one day it’s far from where it started and far from where it should be.

Pastor Mark Nieting

Grace, mercy and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, on this the Sunday when we recognize 18 years of youth ministry by Linda Muth…..AND the Sunday when Christopher Kern is being confirmed. Praise God for all that!

We’re also on chapter 16 of The STORY, which…..and this has nothing to do with Linda’s retirement….. is titled “The Beginning of the End (for the Kingdom of Israel).” So we have the pleasure of delivering one message with three parts:

-Thank God for His faithful Prophet and Servant, Linda…aka “Momma” Muth!
-Thank God that Christopher Kern is putting God first in his life;
-Be very aware of who or what occupies the “high places” in our lives.

Let’s start with chapter 16. The northern 10 tribes of God’s people….ISRAEL….under King Jeroboam had left the southern 2 tribes, Judah, led by King Rehoboam. Jeroboam, who had been a Godly young man, had put his own ego ahead of his God. He had set up two golden calves for his people to worship. He allowed altars to false gods to be built on all the “high places” of Israel. (Building altars on hill-tops was supposed to assure that their gods could hear them better, which obviously didn’t happen in the case of Elijah vs the 450 Prophets of Baal!) Israel moved away from God and began to worship false gods and sacred stones and who knows what else! Despite what was written in God’s Word, their bad behavior did not end. It kept getting worse as they kept getting farther and farther from God!

None of this pleased God, so He sent prophet after prophet to warn His people that they were headed in the wrong direction. Each prophet warned them that if they didn’t change, they would face destruction. Elijah, Elisha, Hosea and Amos, along with companies of other faithful prophets warned Israel for 208 years! Over that time Israel had 19 kings, and not ONE of them listened. Not one of them put God first! Every single one led God’s dear people farther away from God and deeper into idolatry until finally…..and this is where chapter 16 begins (page 219, or 2 Kings 17), in 722 BC, the Assyrians marched in and put an end to Israel. After a 3 year siege, King Schalmaneser deported most of the people to Assyria and resettled the land with folk from other parts of his kingdom. Israel was gone, forever.

Page 219 (2 Kings 17:7) tells us why: All this took place because the Israelites had sinned against the Lord their God, who had brought them up out of Egypt from under the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. They worshiped other gods. They did wicked things that aroused the Lord’s anger. They worshiped idols, though the Lord had said, You shall not do this. The Lord warned Israel AND Judah through all his prophets and seers. We’ll stop here, because I’m quite sure the point is made. After 208 years of warnings, God’s anger reached its zenith and His patience ran out.

A few miles to the south, the people of Judah watched all this happen. After Ahaz and Jezebel, who were the worst of the bunch down there, a 25 year old named Hezekiah took over Judah’s throne. Quoting from 2 Kings 18:3, He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father David had done. He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. The Lord was with him; he was successful in whatever he undertook.

Let’s summarize. Israel failed; Judah remained. What was the difference? What happened? One kingdom had nothing but ungodly kings making ungodly decisions and doing ungodly things. In the other, some faithfulness to God remained.
As you know, there’s a lot more to chapter 16, but it’s time to apply what we’ve learned to the stories of our own lives as God’s people….or, as we like to think of ourselves, as “Jesus’ little lambs.”

Question: how does a little lamb get lost? Does it decide one day to wander off? No, it simply nibbles here and nibbles there, wherever the grass seems greenest and longest, until one day it’s far from where it started and far from where it should be. That’s what sheep do. With people, it’s one bad decision after another that ultimately can lead to failure…..even spiritual failure. That isn’t what anyone wants…..that’s why we pastors do what we do and that’s why we are blessed with people like Linda Muth, who work so hard to keep our young people on the right track.

Since we’re doing our due-diligence about following the ten tribes of Israel into spiritual disaster, here are three steps, three disastrous decisions that can be followed that can GUARANTEE failure.

First, Reject God’s Covenant. Ever since He established His covenant with Abraham, and Moses, God has promised to be loyal to His People! He has promised to guide, guard, protect and SAVE His people. But Israel wasn’t loyal to God and eventually, Judah wasn’t either. They replaced God with golden calves, Baals, Asherah poles, sacred stones and strange gods……none of which can EVER take God’s place. It’s a “first-commandment” issue: God is First or God is nothing.

Second, Reject God’s Word. If you want to fail at driving, just ignore all the signs, ignore all the lanes and ignore all the rules. Don’t do the do’s and do the don’ts and the end result is guaranteed to be disastrous. The same goes for God’s Word. We ignore it at our peril. Israel did.

Third, Reject God’s Messengers. Israel, even Israel’s Kings, rejected God’s prophets and that led to disaster. God still sends messengers to His people today: pastors, parents, youth workers….”Momma Muth” isn’t here by accident; God SENT her to Hope 18 years ago as one of His messengers.

Unfortunately, it’s not hard to crash and burn in life, spiritually speaking. After all, lined up against each one of us is a formidable set of enemies: the devil, the sinful world, and our own fallen human nature…..all of them intent on destroying our relationship with God. All of them are trying to keep God from being #1 in our lives. All of them are hell-bent, so to speak, on keeping us from God….forever. What do we do? We know what’s against us….we’ve already covered that. So, that given, how do we respond? How do we succeed? What’s on OUR side?

Maybe, like good King Hezekiah, the spiritual roots of your family tree aren’t too healthy. You didn’t have friends, teachers or parents acting as God’s messengers. Maybe you’ve come to faith late in life. Could be that right now you’re wrestling with some really difficult issues…..and you’re being pulled in a dozen different directions.

Dear one, remember that God loves you! He wants you to be a part of His eternal Upper Story. All of us are going to take some advice from young King Hezekiah. He was only 25 when his reign began, and it lasted 29 years…..29 GOOD years. 29 blessed years. We read some of the description from the STORY on page 220, but here’s how he did it. It’s found in 2 Kings 18: 5: Hezekiah TRUSTED the Lord, the God of Israel. (The STORY skips this verse.)

Trust is a verb, and, this is important to remember….it’s an ACTIVE verb. It’s not passive. It’s not timid. It’s not afraid. It’s not just an encouragement to drift along……Trust is lived out. Verse 5 goes on: There was no one like (Hezekiah) among all the kings of Judah, before or after. He held FAST to the Lord and did not cease to follow Him; he kept all the commands the Lord had given Moses. (We should read this again!)

Worried about the state of today’s world? TRUST GOD. Worried about terrorism and radical Islam? Keep God first on the throne of your life! Worried about the sinking moral values of the country and what seems to be a war on Christianity? Remember the words of Elisha (from last week) as he pointed out God’s angel army in their fiery chariots: Those who are with us are more than those who are against us! Trust GOD! Remember that Isaiah the prophet came alongside Hezekiah the King when he needed him the most, just like “Momma Muth” has come alongside some of you when you needed her the most….and given you the very same advice Isaiah did: Trust GOD!

And remember that it is God who wins the victories on behalf of His faithful people!

Mrs Muth has been a faithful “prophet, teacher, counselor and friend” to the people and especially the youth of Hope for 18 years! She has helped scores, if not hundreds of “us” to remain faithful to God. She has reminded us that grace and forgiveness are found at the foot of Christ’s cross. She has been a faithful servant, teaching and leading us to trust in God and then, like good King Hezekiah, to be successful in all we do.

We thank God for her. We thank God for all who have walked and worked with her. We thank God for one He is already preparing to take her place as our youth director. We thank God for His Covenant, His Word, His Messengers, and for including US in HIS STORY.

Amen.

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Jesus isn’t really the type that can be squeezed in as “one more thing” in a busy schedule.

By Pastor Michael Cofer
Luke 1:46-56

Christmas is practically upon us, and so our minds are full of so many wonderful things. The lights are hung; the tree is trimmed. The presents are (almost) all purchased and the ones that have been wrapped are making a lovely pile under the tree. Carols are streaming out of every radio.

We’ve made our lists. We’re checking them for the second time. And we’re running back to the store again, despite the crush of last minute shoppers on the roads and in the aisles. It’s a mad scramble, because we can measure the time between today and Christmas Eve in hours. But, we have to brave the crowds, bake the cookies, wrap the presents, and all that other stuff. We have to, because we want Christmas to be perfect.

Isn’t it funny how our preparation for Christmas is not at all like Mary’s was? She wasn’t buying or baking or scrubbing anything particularly. She was spending time with her family, reflecting upon the mystery of God choosing to come to us in the form of a baby. She even wrote a song about it.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior.” Such personal words… she’s talking about her innermost self. Sometimes, I’m afraid, I magnify the Lord with my mouth but my soul isn’t tuned in. But not Mary; not now. The gravity and scope of what this child will mean for the world has passed through her ears, through her mind, and taken up residence in her soul.

I wonder if in the bustle of Christmas preparations, maybe we haven’t taken the time to really ponder the fact that the fullness of God was wrapped up in a vulnerable little child in the belly of a teenage girl. Maybe we need to take the time to really meditate on all the different ways that God is our Savior – and what it cost Him to be it.

That, of course, isn’t the end of the song… the majority of the song is actually quite surprising – revolutionary, even. In a sense, I think Mary is trying to work through the question, “Why me?” Not in a bad way, obviously, it’s just that she seems so unlikely.

So, why Mary? She wasn’t wealthy. She wasn’t powerful. She wasn’t particularly educated. She wasn’t even married.

Now, usually I’d say something like, “But God chose Mary anyway.” But if we read Mary’s song a little more carefully, I think we might come to a different conclusion. “He has brought down rulers from their thrones, but has uplifted the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty.”

God didn’t choose Mary in spite of her lowly place in the world. He chose her because of her lowly place. Think about this… What if Mary was rich? What if she was powerful? Do you think God would still have chosen her?

I wonder how Mary’s hopes and dreams changed after that visit with the angel. I can imagine as a young girl that she dreamt about living in a fine house, and wearing fine clothes; being popular and respected and maybe even envied.

But God hadn’t chosen that for her. He chose her poor, lowly, and even outcast specifically because of Jesus! That was how she was best able to do what God asked of her. That was her lot, even at the same time that God was giving her the highest honor any mother could possibly receive.

Is that what we aspire to be? Humble, lowly, meek, and poor? Or deep down would we rather be rich and influential and popular?

It seems to be a pattern throughout Jesus life that He is welcome among the lowly, but the proud, the powerful, the wealthy have little patience or room for Him. Jesus isn’t really the type that can be squeezed in as “one more thing” in a busy schedule. I don’t want my life to be like an inn so full of “paying customers,” that it has no room to receive the meek and mild Christ child.

Maybe, in the few days left before Christmas, we should make a deliberate effort to be a little more humble and a little lowlier. Let’s find ways to scale down our plans. Let’s find things to cut out of our schedule. Let’s think about what is really important this Christmas, and commit to make that our priority.

Let’s make peace with doing a little less, even if our Christmas won’t be Norman Rockwell perfect. And maybe with that extra time we can make room to be in awe of God on High, creator of the Universe and King of All That Is, taking the form of a newborn baby.

Maybe we can turn off the TV, and the cellphone and the tablet, and then read the story of Jesus’ birth as a family right out of the Bible. Maybe we can sing Silent Night together. Maybe we can thank God for all that we have… most especially Jesus.
Because Mary’s song should be ours, too. God chose to give us Jesus, even though we don’t deserve it. And our hearts should rejoice in God, our Savior. Because of this Jesus, all generations will call us blessed. Not because we’re wealthy. Not because we’re powerful. But because the God of the universe has come to live inside of us as well.

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