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A covenant requires blood to enter it, and a broken covenant demands blood. The blood required to begin the covenant was that of a sacrifice. The blood demanded by a broken covenant was that of the one who broke it.

By Pastor Michael Cofer
Maundy Thursday 2014
Hebrews 9:11-22

How often have we heard the words of Christ “This is my blood of the Covenant” spoken in worship? Dozens of times every year one of us holds a chalice up and speaks these words before we offer this most precious gift at the Lord’s Table. They are so familiar to us, but as familiar things sometimes do I fear that they can become pure ritual if we don’t pause and take in the full weight of their meaning.

There is no question that Jesus is ushering us into a new covenant, but the concept of “covenant” is wholly foreign to our day and time. You see a covenant is more than a promise. It is more than an oath. It is far more than a contract. It is an inseparable bond – a permanent relationship that is costly to enter and costlier to leave.

A covenant requires blood to enter it, and a broken covenant demands blood. The blood required to begin the covenant was that of a sacrifice. The blood demanded by a broken covenant was that of the one who broke it.

So it is when Israel enters into a covenant with God, much blood must be shed. The blood of the Passover lambs as they are led out of slavery in Egypt. The blood of bulls sprinkled on the people as the Sinai covenant is sealed. The enduring sacrifices day-by-day, year after year as unclean people are made ritually clean.

These animal sacrifices did not and could not forgive Israel. They covered over the outward uncleanness, but they were powerless to cure the root of that uncleanness; they could not forgive sins. God’s wrath and judgment were set aside, but not satisfied. The holy God hid his eyes from their sin, and the Israel hid their eyes from His holy presence. Even the outwardly, ritually clean could only know God at a distance.

This Old Covenant was initiated by God’s grace and power, and asked only for obedience in return. It was God who claimed Israel for His own, even when they were powerless to come to Him. It was God who fed, and watered, and led the people through the wilderness. And so, as God brings Israel into this covenant relationship, He gives Himself to them: “I will take you to be My own people, and I will be your God.” (Exodus 6) “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’” (Exodus 19)

But this covenant would not be upheld. The history of Israel is not a history of obedience. It is the story of a people who run from God until they are lost and broken, when He steps in to bring them home… futile they run away again… And again… And again. And lest I feel more righteous than Israel, I have only to look at my own life to see the same story replayed time and again. God calls me, and I am obedient for a while… but before you know it I have wandered off or run away from God’s will. There is the constant cycle in my own life of sin and forgiveness and sin all over again.

It is an inescapable fact: the Old Covenant is broken, and a broken covenant demands blood – our blood. But our Lord gathers us around His table and says to us, “This is my blood of the covenant, which has been poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

He is saying that He has given his blood for us to satisfy the demands of the broken covenant. He dies in our place. He bears the judgment and wrath of His Father that we deserve. It is not blood that is taken or spilled, like that of ignorant sheep or goats. It is His blood that He knowingly and willingly pours out for us.

Not only so, but this same blood poured out initiates a New Covenant, one that is not like the former. This new covenant does not require the blood of beasts nor demand the blood of sinners. It requires nothing less than the blood of God’s Son – a blood that accomplishes what the old covenant never could. The blood of Jesus doesn’t hide our sins and set aside God’s wrath for a time. It forgives our sins fully, and satisfies God’s wrath forever. Jesus literally takes our sins on his shoulders, and carries them up mount Calvary where they are paid for completely.

And a forgiven people have a new relationship with God that those who were only ceremonially clean could never have. We do not know and worship God from afar. We are welcomed into His presence, and meet God directly. The old tabernacle was a forbidding place with barriers and curtains, but the new tabernacle is open and inviting. The new tabernacle is the body of Christ, and in it we meet and know a loving God.

It is only through the Body and Blood of Jesus enter into this intimate and eternal relationship: this is the new covenant. And this covenant cannot be broken because unlike the old covenant, the new depends on Jesus’ righteousness and obedience, not our own. It is his unshakable love and faithfulness alone that upholds the new covenant between God and man.

Let us, then, approach the table of our Lord with humility, joy, and our deepest gratitude. Today, God is ushering you into His presence, not as trembling sinners but as beloved sons and daughters through Jesus’ blood of the covenant which was poured out for you.

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I do believe that most Christians today understand the “suffering servant” Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. But on Palm Sunday, how does the theological construct of a “king” fit into our lives as 21st century American Christians? We KNOW what a king is. We know what kings….or in some cases queens….do. But, be honest now, is it easy for us to accept the concept of a KING having “life or death” authority over us?

By Pastor Mark Nieting
Palm Sunday
Text: Matthew 21:1-11

[Note: The beginning of this message is given “in character” as a person on the streets of Jerusalem….or Virginia Beach…..who hears the message that the Messiah has come to town.]

(From the rear of the sanctuary) Wait! I don’t want to miss the excitement! I hear HE has come to town! Isn’t that why you are all here? I haven’t seen this many palm branches being waved since…..well, since NEVER! It IS Him, isn’t it? I can’t see….. and I sure don’t want to miss anything. Wait for me! Don’t move on! I’ve heard about the wonderful things He has done……..turned water into wine, healed the sick, fed thousands of people, even brought Lazarus out of the tomb. This is something to get excited about! He’s the biggest thing to come to town since David and Solomon…..and riding on a donkey, no less, just like they did….the symbol of a true Jewish King! I want to be a part of His kingdom, I really, really do! Wait for me………………(puff, puff, puff!)

If only I could move a little faster, but I can’t. This bag is so heavy. There’s so much stuff in here I’ll NEVER be able to catch Him, to see Him….much less keep up with Him.

Let’s stop for a minute and see what I can get rid of; to lighten the load. Hmmm, what’s this? It sure is heavy! (lift out a brick) It’s the “I’ve got too much to do” brick. (turns to the crowd) You know how it is, don’t you? I’ve got yard work, the car needs washed, there’s a honey-do list and a whole lot of other stuff I WANT TO DO! If I pay attention to everything in this list, I’ll NEVER have time for Him.

But, if I don’t put down the brick, I’ll never catch up. What do YOU think I should do with this one? Should I keep carrying my “too much to do” brick, or should I put it down? OK, I’ll put it down…………. Thanks, that lightens the load.

(Moves a few feet down the aisle). Is HE still here? Can you still see Him? I hear some “hosannas” and see some palms waving….. I DO want to be part of his crowd…..but this load is still pretty heavy. If I don’t lighten it some more, I’ll NEVER catch up. Let me put down my bag and look inside again.

Just what I thought….there’s another brick in here. (lift it out) What do you know, it’s my “priorities” brick! This one sure is heavy…..it’s the “what’s more important in my life, the Messiah or…… I know hobbies and sports haven’t been invented yet, but if they were I’d sure be tempted to stay behind and play with them” brick. Don’t YOU struggle with your priorities, or am I the only one? With Jesus coming to Jerusalem, I bet this is going to be a very HOLY week, but where will it come in your priorities? What about the things He is teaching? What about HIM?

What about this priorities brick, do you think we can lighten the load and put this one down? ?? OK.. thanks. (put it down)

That’s better…… now maybe I can catch up…..see Him…..wave my palm branches and join the parade. He’s not moving that fast…it’s just a small donkey after all…….I’m trying….but this baggage is STILL wayyyy to heavy!! I’m going to put it down again and see what’s so heavy that I can’t keep up with Him…..

Hmmm…I thought so, it’s another brick. (lift it out) It’s the “what will people think if I DO follow Him” brick! Look at all you people….waving your palm branches and singing Hosannas……aren’t you worried what you might look like? What are your friends going to say…..losing control of your emotions? It’s not like Bruce Springsteen came to town, you know….. THAT we can understand, but HIM? Aren’t YOU worried that people might think you’re not in control any more?

It’s a heavy brick………..but if I’m ever going to catch up with Him, I’ve got to put it down. Maybe you can help me…… let me know you’re not going to think worse of me if I follow Him….. will you? After all, YOU’RE following Him, aren’t you? Aren’t you?

(put the 3rd brick down) Wow…. Now that I know it’s ok with YOU and you won’t think there’s something wrong with me for wanting to be part of the crowd following Him, my load is a little lighter. I just might get there. Thanks…..

But this bag is STILL heavy. I’m going to have to put it down one more time and see what’s holding me back. (look inside…pull out one more brick). Hmmm… let’s see what this brick is….it’s the “He might want me to DO something” brick. I can just see Him….and there are about a dozen guys crowded right close to Him……aren’t they His “disciples?” They’re the ones who have been with Him for years…. they’re the ones who got the donkey…..they’re the ones who work for Him. If I get too close, maybe He’ll ask ME to do something. Am I ready for that? Are you? He might ask me to give some time to His cause? Or to give some of my money? Am I ready for that? Are you?

This seems to be a really heavy brick. But if I’m ever going to be a part of who He is and what He brings….. I’ve GOT to put it down. Tell you what… I’ll put my “He might want me to do something” brick down…. And you can put yours down too.

Let’s pray about this one: God…. HELP ME put this one down! Help me to get over the fear I have of being a fully dedicated follower, a disciple of Jesus Christ! (Put the last brick on the altar……..and take the pulpit)

Dear Friends in Christ.

We, or at least most of us, know the Palm Sunday story by heart. Jerusalem was packed full of people ready for the annual Passover celebration. Pontius Pilate was in town with enough soldiers to keep order. King Herod from Galilee had arrived with his huge entourage. Rumors were rampant that Jesus, the magical miracle Messiah man, was going to show up. The word on the street was that Jesus had even raised a man from the dead on his way in.

palm_sundayBut what happened next seems so strange to us: Jesus came to Jerusalem…..a riding on a……donkey! Say that, or sing it, if you will, and you can almost see his sandals dragging on either side as he rode down the Mount of Olives, crossed the Brook Kidron and came up into the city. You can bet the lunch money that wasn’t how King Herod came to town. But it’s how KING JESUS DID!

A King on a Donkey may not make a lot of sense to us but if we were first century Jews, it would have. God’s people had been waiting for their Messiah for centuries. They were promised, and they certainly expected someone who would rule over them, a King even greater than David or Solomon, someone who would change the entire world. In the Old Testament book of Zechariah there’s a prophecy about the world’s one-true king and how he would make himself known: Rejoice greatly, o daughter of Zion! Shout, daughter of Jerusalem! See, your King comes to you righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zech 9:9 NIV)

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was his way of saying “That’s Who I Am!”

When the people responded with Hosannas and Palm Branches, it was their way of saying, “We agree!” And if you are a follower of Jesus, you agree too. That’s what we are doing today…..and that’s WHOM we are worshiping.

We know that within days the tone of Jerusalem would change. Jesus would lay down His life, the Great Shepherd sacrificing Himself for His sheep. We will journey with Christ to the table of the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday and bear with Him as we remember His suffering and death on Good Friday. All that is as much a part of the rhythm of our faith as is Palm Sunday and, of course, Easter!

I do believe that most Christians today understand the “suffering servant” Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. But on Palm Sunday, how does the theological construct of a “king” fit into our lives as 21st century American Christians? We KNOW what a king is. We know what kings….or in some cases queens….do. But, be honest now, is it easy for us to accept the concept of a KING having “life or death” authority over us? We are SO used to doing things OUR way, to determining our own truths and managing our own stuff and making our own decisions that the concept of KING rings a little hollow in most of us.

A big part of Christian discipleship is learning how to submit our lives to the rule of Jesus. We KNOW how it turned out in Jerusalem, with “crucify Him” becoming the cry of the crowd. How will His Kingship “turn out” in YOUR life? What must we do? St. Paul addressed this in today’s Epistle, Philippians 2, when he basically said “Imitate Jesus! Be like Jesus. Be humble like Jesus. Be faithful like Jesus. Be obedient to the Father like Jesus was obedient to His Father.”

Our Christian calling is to learn to submit to the authority of Christ by having faith in the Word….the Scriptures….which He has given to us as the standard for our lives. As Christians, there is no such a thing as a private life that is off limits to Jesus. He governs our hearts, our minds, our bodies, our debit cards, our stuff, and our actions. He is king…..and in any decision we say as we pray, “Your kingdom COME, your WILL be DONE….in MY LIFE as it is done in heaven!”

How many times in our lives has “I’ll do it MY WAY” theology and thinking gotten us into trouble? More than I can count in my life. But when I submit my life to Christ, I can trust that His way and His will is going to be far better than mine.

There’s a second way we can accept Jesus’ sovereignty in our lives and it’s one that is so necessary for each of us: it is by finding peace in His protection. “King” is a military idea. In the ancient world, what usually made you a king and kept you a king was the size of your army. It’s what kept the enemy away and allowed your people to sleep peacefully….and that’s still true today. (Thanks to all you who have served and continue to serve in our armed forces!)

To believe that Jesus is OUR KING is to believe that He is THE one who can love us the most, protect us the best, and rescue us from our enemies better than anyone else can. “Hosanna” means “Lord Save Us” and that’s Jesus when He rescues us from our sins; from our worst enemy, Satan, and even from ourselves. Only by submitting to His rule can we have TRUE PEACE, forever.

That’s why Jesus came, ‘….a riding on a donkey.’ A king only rode a horse when he was going to war. Jesus rode the donkey to tell us that life in His kingdom, life under His reign was going to be dominated NOT by war or struggle, but by true peace: peace with God. Yes, Jesus would fight the most important battle, with sin, evil and death, on the cross and defeat them all in His resurrection. As a result, we are offered a life in which these enemies have been conquered.

None of this comes easily, dear ones. Living as Christ-followers is a struggle. Embedded in today’s Gospel is a mini-parable of how it works. It’s not found in the crowds or the disciples, but in the donkey that Jesus was ‘a-riding.’ Luke records that the donkey had never been ridden…ever. Unbroken animals HATE to be ridden. They do everything they can to throw that first rider off. So it is with us. We are by nature un-tamed and immature and prone to reject “a rider.” But praise God, Christ has CHOSEN US, and patiently, humbly and wonderfully, rides US into eternal victory as well. Amen.

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This is one of those crucial times where you need to decide whether or not you take this Bible stuff seriously. If not, then no big deal. You can go back to checking your Facebook or whatever. But if you do then this one fact should profoundly change how you look at everything in your life.

By Pastor Michael Cofer
5th Sunday in Lent
Text: John 11:17-27,38-53

Our story begins in a valley blanketed with the sun-bleached bones of a long-forgotten people. Chances are, this was once a battlefield and what’s left of the defeated army wasn’t even given the dignity of a proper burial. They have lost. They are dead. And no one cared.

He crossed the valley, passing through the ranks of a once proud people. His eyes ranged to this side and that, drinking deeply of the bitter cup of an untold tragedy. Does the sun rise here, or does it only set in so dark a place as this?

Ezekiel trod this sorrowful path as God compelled him to do. Perhaps he did not know what this place was, but it must have felt familiar – even if he could hardly bear the sight of it. This valley was the heart of Israel. It is Israel who says, “Our bones are dried up; our hope is gone…”

Israel had forgotten that their God is the one who breathed life into dust and made man. Their God is the living God and the God of the living. Their God is the one who resurrects the dead. And if their God can raise the dead, then there is always hope.

With nothing but the power of His Word and the breath of His Spirit, God restored life to those dry bones. He made them whole people again. He healed the death of an army with just His Word and His Spirit.

Now, fast forward to today. We read a story like the one in Ezekiel and we get pretty excited. It must have been a cool thing to see the bones cobble together, and then the muscles and tendons and skin regenerate in moments. Still creepy, though, until the Spirit breathed into them and they were no longer corpses – they were an army.

So we read that and it gives us this wonderful picture of the Last Day, right? We can just see the dead stepping out of their graves – whole and healthy and new. And we think about the loved ones we’ve lost or those we would have loved if only we had ever met them. I mean, it’ll be so wonderful to see my mom again, and my grandpa, and have him introduce my great-grandpa to me.

This should excite us. This is a hope that no one else on Earth has like we Christians do. But is it only a hope for the Last Day… or is there something more…?

I was reading through the story of Jesus and Lazarus this week, and it just really shook me deep down. I thought I was going to preach on Ezekiel, but then this story just… I don’t know. I’ve read it plenty of times before, but this time it was different.

The story begins with a messenger coming to fetch Jesus because his friend, Lazarus, was very, very sick. What was Jesus response? “This sickness will not end in death. No, it’s for God’s glory so that God’s Son might be glorified through it.”

Now put yourself in Mary and Martha’s place. You get a message like that back from Jesus and what would you think? Maybe you’d be angry that Jesus wasn’t taking it seriously… “You mean he’s not sick enough? He isn’t getting any better!” or maybe you’d be angry at God… “This is for God’s glory? THIS? What kind of a sick God glories in this kind of suffering?”

It’s possible that Lazarus had already died when Jesus message got back to them. Can you imagine watching him die, and then hearing that Jesus said He wouldn’t? Would that increase their faith in Him?

lazarusMeanwhile, Jesus is explaining to His disciples why He has to go to Bethany. Last time they were there, the people had tried to stone Jesus – so returning seemed like a pretty bad idea. But Jesus told them not to worry and said, “Our friend Lazarus is asleep; but I’m going there to wake him up.”

Pause on that for a moment. We all know what Jesus meant by those words – the disciples didn’t (and we’ll talk about that in a minute) but we do. Jesus was saying that Lazarus had died, and He was just going to wake him up. I mean – it sounds like no big deal! Raising the dead, for Jesus, is as simple as rousing someone from a nap.

This is one of those crucial times where you need to decide whether or not you take this Bible stuff seriously. If not, then no big deal. You can go back to checking your Facebook or whatever. But if you do then this one fact should profoundly change how you look at everything in your life.

This Jesus, who we all say walks with us daily, who hears and answers our prayers, who loves us to death… This Jesus can raise the dead without breaking a sweat. If that’s true, then what can the devil, the world, or anybody at all possibly throw at you that He can’t handle? I mean… even if they kill you, Jesus can handle that.

So, why do we get anxious? Why do we despair? Why do we look at our lives however hard they may be and say, “Our bones are dried up; our hope is gone?” With a God who can raise the dead there is always hope.

That’s not to say that we should never been sad. The fact is that tragedy hurts. Suffering hurts. Death hurts. Even Jesus, when He gets to Lazarus’ tomb weeps. He knows what’s about to happen – He came to town for the express purpose of raising his friend from the dead – but when face to face with the death of a friend He cries.

He cries because death is wrong. He cries because separation hurts. He cries because He was there when the world was created – a world without sin, or heartache, or sickness, or pain. And He, more than any of us, is grieved at how wrong it all is.

But He doesn’t just grieve… He does something about it. “This sickness will not end in death. No, it’s for God’s glory so that God’s Son might be glorified through it… Lazarus, come out!”

And he did. Jesus hadn’t come too late. Jesus is never too late. Things were not hopeless – they can’t be with a God who raises the dead.

I’m not talking about a far-off power. I’m not talking about a hope just for the world to come. Watch the conversation between Jesus and Martha. Jesus says, “Your brother will rise again.”

Now Martha, who is in everyway a typical Lutheran, assumes He isn’t talking about anything special or miraculous… she just falls back on what she knows to be sound doctrine, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

Is she right? Yes! Is that what Jesus is talking about? NO!

He says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Not, “I will be.” Not, “I will provide.” No… I AM. Right now. And still, I’m sure Martha was trying to think in a highly-spiritual way about what He was saying, but what He meant was startlingly, amazingly, unbelievably simple! Jesus was saying that Lazarus wasn’t moving toward the resurrection, the Resurrection came to him!

And that Jesus is saying it to you today. If you’ve heard these words a thousand times before, I hope you’ll hear them again for the first time. Jesus said to her (and he’s saying it to you, “I AM THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE.” Right here. Right now. He is the God who raises the dead, and with a God like that there is always hope.

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“Welcome to the human race, where sin, our natural blindness, always tries to drag us away from God and into darkness….I believe we are being called to look at the times of when have our own ‘spiritual blind spots.’ This is something that has afflicted God’s people since there were God’s people.”

(more…)

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Every suffering, every struggle, every trial that God carries you through cements the reality of God’s faithfulness in us. Because of the hope I have in God I can say with certainty, “I know God will pull me through.”

By Pastor Michael Cofer
The Third Sunday in Lent
Text: Romans 5:1-8

Hymn of the Day: “The Lord’s My Shepherd, I’ll Not Want” Hymn 710, Lutheran Service Book

“The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want;
He makes me down to lie
In pastures green; He leadeth me
The quietest waters by.

“My soul He doth restore again
And me to walk doth make
Within the paths of righteousness,
E’en for His own name’s sake

“Yea, though I walk in death’s dark vale,
Yet will I fear no ill;
For thou are with me, and Thy rod
And staff me comfort still.

“My table Thou hast furnished
In presence of my foes;
My head Thou dost with oil anoint,
And my cup overflows.

“Goodness and mercy all my life
Shall surely follow me;
And in God’s house forevermore
My dwelling place shall be.”

- Psalm 23; John 10:11; Rev. 7:17

Christian joy is one of the things that makes Christianity attractive to people. If we are the church Jesus is calling us to be, the people around us should see how we move through life – confident, hopeful, at peace, and full of joy – and they should say to themselves, “I want some of that.” I think that that is part of what it means to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth and a city on a hill.

Because joy is one of the things that attracts people to Christianity, it can be easy to try to evaluate God’s favor by good we have it. We think, “Yeah! When I come to this church, I feel good. Uplifted. This must be where God wants me.” Or “When I do my job, I feel so fulfilled. This must be what God wants me to do.” Or “You make me so happy; God must be blessing this relationship.”

But then you are at your church for a few months or a few years and the pastor starts getting on your nerves, and the church isn’t so shiny and exciting as it once was to you. Or you’re at your job and you don’t feel like you’re appreciated or that you make a difference. Or you find that there is someone else in your life who makes you happier than your spouse, and you start to think, “maybe God wants me to be with them, instead of you…”

Why do these thoughts creep into our heads? Why aren’t we joyful all the time? Why is it that some folks who really couldn’t care less about God seem to be so much more blessed? It all seems so backward…

To get at this let’s talk about circumstance, choice, change, and perspective.

Circumstance is where you find yourself right now. Sometimes you caused your present circumstance; sometimes it just happened that way. If you were late to church because you hit the snooze button too many times, you made that circumstance happen. If you were laid off because your company downsized, that might not be your fault at all. Whether you caused it or not, your circumstance is a fact that presents you with a choice.

The big mistake that we so often make is to expect our circumstances to bring us joy. When we do, it’s a natural thing to label joy-bringing circumstances as “of God” and the non-joy-bringing (or joy-stealing) circumstances as “not of God.”

But both of those ideas are fundamentally wrong. God is our joy, and our circumstances don’t have the power to make us joyful or steal our joy away because God never leaves us. Philippians 4 says, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” Does he really mean always – really and truly always?

I think he does.

In Romans 5 Paul writes, “We rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.” That sounds pretty good. I like the idea of glory, and I can get pretty excited over the idea of God’s coming glory. But Paul doesn’t stop there. “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings…”

sufferAnd there we hit upon it: suffering. The uncomfortable topic. The thing we Christians would rather not talk about, because it is unattractive and unpleasant. We’d like to tell about the Jesus who says, “Come unto me all you who are weak and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest,” but maybe we don’t feel as comfortable with the Jesus who says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

During this season of Lent, as we prepare our hearts and minds for the journey to Calvary, let’s not kid ourselves about what those words mean. Following Jesus is not a leisurely stroll through the botanical gardens. You cannot follow Jesus and not suffer. In fact, part of following Jesus means suffering unjustly. If it happened to Jesus, and to the disciples, and to the prophets… shouldn’t it raise red flags if it doesn’t happen to us?

Now, there are two unhealthy extremes here I want you to avoid. On the one hand, you don’t need to seek out suffering. The life that God has in mind for you is not and will not be all suffering. He gives times of rest and healing. We should embrace those times, and use them well – with gratitude and humility. We don’t pursue suffering, not do we run from it. We simply do what God calls us to do, and accept our circumstance as a fact that presents us with a choice.

On the other extreme, you want to avoid martyr’s-syndrome. God doesn’t allow suffering in our lives so that we can use it to extort pity or sympathy from the people around us. Nor is it intended for us to lump guilt on our neighbor or our family. If that’s how you respond to suffering, I promise that you will not find the joy that Paul is telling us about.

Rather, Paul exhorts us to celebrate in our suffering. Why? Because it is a sign that God is at work within us. Christian suffering always has purpose, and it isn’t nearly as mysterious as we might think – it is one of the ways that God produces in us the change that He desires.

Suffering is a circumstance, and circumstances present us with a choice. Do I give up or do I press on? Do I do the same thing I’ve always done, or do I try something new? Do I sulk or do I rejoice? Do I shrink back in fear, or do I act like the stuff I say I believe is really true?

You see, suffering has the unique ability to produce in us obedience and endurance… if we respond to our suffering in the way that God calls us to. This isn’t God toying with us, or testing us to see how we do. He already knows our hearts. But without suffering, I can’t say “Not my will, but yours be done.” Without suffering, there is no need to trust. It is in our sufferings – infinitely more than in comforts – that we see God’s faithfulness, providence, and power manifest in our lives.

Suffering produces perseverance (endurance), perseverance produces character. Now, I hadn’t ever give much thought to the word “character” in this verse before. In fact, I knew that suffering led to hope in the end, but I kind of glossed over these middle things. But, I had missed an awful lot by doing that.

Do you know what character is? When you strip away all of the masks, and the pretense, and façade that we put up to fool the folks around us – what’s left is our character. It’s like when you run ore through the smelter, and all of the dirt and junk gets burned away, what’s left is gold, or tin, or lead. Character is what’s left when only the real, honest heart of you is left – and it’s at that level that God wants to work.

Have you heard the phrase, “practice makes perfect?” Many of the music educators I know don’t like that maxim, because it’s not right. If you practice things the wrong way, the result doesn’t improve… it just becomes harder to change. I prefer this version: “Practice makes permanent.”

It’s just a fact of humanity – if you want something to be deeply ingrained, you have to keep at it persistently. You have to endure. You have to persevere… and doing so affects deep-down change. Character doesn’t change in a matter of minutes. It’s developed over a lifetime.

God wants us to be people with a Christ-like character – hearts and minds that are genuinely like His, not worldly hearts and minds disguised as godly. That kind of change doesn’t happen over night, and it doesn’t happen if we never struggle. This is how the Holy Spirit works change in us – daily denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following Jesus.

Character produces hope. This is where that deep-down change becomes noticeable. With a change in character comes a change in perspective. It’s like the child who musters up their courage for the first time to jump off the diving board at the pool. The inch their way down the gangplank and kind of peer over the edge, and kind of dangle a toe over the side… And then they sit down. And a million fears and doubts are running through their head. Dad’s treading water below, cheering them on. Their friends are telling them how great it will be, but right here and now it looks like a spring board into certain doom.

But they know dad won’t let them drown so they jump. It isn’t graceful or heroic looking. Maybe it isn’t much more than just a lame fall off the board…

What’s the next walk down the diving board going to look like? I’m guessing it still won’t be Olympic – but there probably won’t be tears. There probably won’t be the same crisis. It might still be scary, but there’s also a certainty that it’ll end okay. That’s hope.

And the third time down it’s better. And the fourth. And the fiftieth… each time the hope seems less far-fetched, until what used to be hopeful is now a virtual certainty.

Christian hope isn’t a wishful thing, “I hope God pulls me through…” Every suffering, every struggle, every trial that God carries you through cements the reality of God’s faithfulness in us. Because of the hope I have in God I can say with certainty, “I know God will pull me through.”

When you are equipped with that kind of hope, there is nothing too big, or too scary, or too heavy for you to face. God wants you to have that kind of a hope. But it’s just head knowledge until you put it into practice – and without suffering we never get to. So we rejoice, especially in our sufferings, because we know that through them God is giving us a gift that doesn’t disappoint and that lasts until the end: a sure and living hope.

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“Jesus doesn’t dwell on the trivia. He is interested in souls. Jesus wants Nicodemus to be part of the Kingdom of Heaven. He goes right for the heart by saying, No one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

By Pastor Mark Nieting
John 3:1-17
2nd Sunday in Lent

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, on this, the 2nd Sunday in Lent.

Our Gospel this morning contains a verse that most regular church attenders can recite from memory: John 3:16. If we don’t have it memorized, most of us would get the gist of it. It’s short, sweet and to the point, God’s story of man’s salvation, which is why it is often called “the gospel in a nutshell.” There’s truth to that (although as one wag put it: “The only thing that really fits into a nutshell is a nut”), but it can also leave us with the assumption that if we can recite John 3:16, we’ve pretty much got the whole Christian message down, as if the rest of the Bible is just commentary. But John 3:16 wasn’t the whole story. That began when Jesus had gone to Jerusalem for the Passover. It wasn’t his first Passover, and it wasn’t his last one. This time Jesus encountered Nicodemus, late at night. (That’s why this story is also called the “Nick at Night.”)

By this time, Nicodemus was leading a rather fascinating “double life.” By day he was a well-regarded Pharisee and a prominent member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. By virtue of all that, he had to be at the least, skeptical of Jesus, and at the most, downright hostile to Him. But secretly Nicodemus was curious about, if not fascinated by Jesus. Jesus’ miracles that caught his attention; he got that no one could do what Jesus was doing without some connection with God. Jesus had something going that he just couldn’t get out of his mind.

Has that ever happened to you? There are times when I get so fascinated, so intrigued by something or someone that I just have to know more. There are lots of ways to scratch that itch, but Nicodemus did “googling” one better: he went to meet Jesus in person. That, dear friends, is the Holy Spirit at work……remember the meaning of the 3rd article: I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or (even) COME to Him! We’ll pause Luther, but we get the idea: the Holy Spirit led Nicodemus to Jesus the way the Holy Spirit leads EVERY believer to Jesus.

Maybe I don’t remember catching this before, but this time one fact caught my attention: Nicodemus never asked Jesus a question. At least John doesn’t record one. “Nick” comments on Jesus’ miracles. It’s like he was interested in “Jesus trivia.” Maybe he just wanted a few facts about Jesus to help him…..and his buddies…..deal with their skepticism. Maybe he did want more….. his sincerity did seem genuine.

Don’t you find Jesus’ response to him rather amazing? He blows right by the “where do you get the power” stuff. Jesus doesn’t dwell on the trivia. He is interested in souls. Jesus wants Nicodemus to be part of the Kingdom of Heaven. He goes right for the heart by saying, No one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again. What Jesus said to Nicodemus, He says to everyone: I don’t want to dazzle you with God-facts; I want to change your identity. I want YOU in MY Kingdom!

Nicodemus was shocked by Jesus’ words, on two different levels. The “born again” language was something he’d never heard before, so that was obviously a surprise, especially taking it as literally as he did. But let’s also remember that Nicodemus, like most Jews, believed that they were already a part of the Kingdom of God simply because they shared Abraham’s genes. They were in “the kingdom” by virtue of biology.

On a side-note, there’s still some of that false teaching operating today: even today some believe that Jews are somehow “saved” by some different mechanism other than the life, death and resurrection of Jesus; by their biology.

Then and now, Jesus is both crystal clear and cleverly cryptic: You must be born again.

How much do you remember about your own birth? Arguably, birth is the single most traumatic event in our lives. We have nothing to do with our conception. We don’t have a say in any of it. I was “at” my birth and you were “at” yours. I was told later, MUCH later (we Nietings don’t discuss such personal things easily) that I was a C-section baby, but I didn’t make that choice either. Throughout the entire process we have absolutely nothing to do with any of it other than “go along for the ride!” One moment we’re safe and warm and the next moment, well, it’s all different.

And once we are in the world, heaping one indignation on top of another, we still need a piece of governmental paperwork to prove that we are alive: we need a birth certificate. So, just to show that I can, here is my birth certificate.(Dah dah!) It’s a little tattered; after all, it’s endured file folder life for 65 years, but because it is unaccompanied by a death certificate, it proves I am alive!

One thing a birth certificate cannot do, however, is show anyone, prove to anyone, that we are SPIRITUALLY alive. The mystery of our spiritual birth is even more amazing than our physical birth. We had no more choice to be reborn spiritually than we did in becoming our parent’s children. We were born spiritually dead. We could not move toward God. We couldn’t look for God. We couldn’t even call out to God. We became children of our heavenly Father because HE adopted us. It was HIS doing. His calling.

As Jesus taught Nicodemus, so He teaches us 2000 years later: we also need to be born again, this time not of our mothers, but of water and the Spirit. Some of us were carried in by our parents. Others, at an older age, were led by the Holy Spirit. Many of us had the water poured over us out of a gold or silver scallop shell. However it happened for you, God did it. It’s “good news in a scallop shell,” so to speak.

scallop_baptismWhen anyone is baptized into the Holy Christian Church on earth, baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, they may or may not get a “baptismal certificate.” We give some out some nice ones here, but I doubt Nicodemus got one at his baptism just as I doubt that John the Baptist was handing them out with his. But what does happen is that we take on a new identity. We become, as Jesus told Nicodemus, members of the Kingdom of God. We are given an entirely new identity: we belong to Christ.

What does that look like? How are we different? The answer lies in verse 3, where Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be “born again.” The Greek there can, and probably should be translated “born from above.” Our earthly birth is just that……earthly. To be born from above is purely a “God thing.” It’s there that we are reshaped and remolded and recreated into the life, the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is then that we are given a higher purpose: to do those things God has called us to do. It is then and then only that we can even comprehend the “things of God.” And it is then that what we do for God and His kingdom in this world can have eternal consequences for those around us.

The difference, once we have our fingers pried loose from our grip on earthly life, is amazing. It is complete. It is transformational. Sometimes we don’t fully comprehend it. The not-so-great theologian “Kid Rock” was once quoted as saying “Being born again means you come back with a little more love.” No, it’s not a little more love. It’s the love of God for the entire world that caused Him to send His Son, Jesus Christ into this world to live perfectly for us and to die completely for our sins; and then to offer us redemption and adoption into the family of God. That’s complete. That’s total. That’s the gospel in a scallop shell and that’s a whole lot of love.

Amen.

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“We are all, by nature of God’s gift of our human conscience and His revealed Word as well, very much aware of those places in our lives where and when we long to be “king of the wild things.”

By Pastor Mark Nieting
Genesis 3:1-21 and Matthew 4:1-11
Season: 1st Sunday in Lent

It is impossible to miss the theme that our Old Testament and Gospel lessons set for us on this first Sunday morning in Lent. In Genesis 3 it is the temptation of Adam and Eve. In Matthew 4 it is the temptation of Jesus. The first story took place in what was probably the most beautiful setting ever: the Garden of Eden. The second was set in a harsh, rocky desert of Israel. In Genesis, Adam and Eve, who were given the responsibility for all the wild animals, find themselves under attack by the wildest one of them all. In a parallel reading, Mark’s rendition is amazingly succinct: at once the Spirit sent Him (Jesus) out in to the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild beasts and angels attended Him. (Mark 1: 12-13).

After the “mountaintop experience” of last Sunday’s transfiguration event, the (pardon the pun) “temptation” might be to set this Sunday’s lessons rather frightening events aside, blissfully (and ignorantly) looking the other way, except for the scariest fact of them all: by virtue of my fallen and sinful nature, I am a beast. I am a “wild thing.” And so are you. This story is OUR story.

wild-thingsDoes any of this shock you? It shouldn’t. Even kids know it’s true. There are a lot of children’s books that make the point, one of them being Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are.” (At this time we’ll do a brief You-Tube clip or a dramatic reading of the first part of it.) Remember the story? It’s about young Max who runs away from his loving mother for a wild place where he can be the king of all the wild things. Right there is where we find ourselves, Adam’s rebellious descendents, pointy ears, wolf suit, whiskers and all, running hard against the one who loves us the most.

We are never quite happy with our lot in life, our home, our grace, our God, and we seem perpetually certain that we can have a better Eden than the one God has given us. We are by nature “wild things,” always making mischief of some kind of another. And that, you see, is the scariest fact of all: left to myself, in my heart of hearts, I seem to prefer the wild things. I want to be king. That’s what I am. I am a beast……and so are you.

That’s not how it was meant to be, of course. Creation, you and I included, were never meant for such a disaster. Mutiny wasn’t supposed to be our destiny. But Satan, the “wildest of all the wild things,” has been hard at work ever since his own fall from grace. Remember his words? “Did God REALLY say that???” And the wild thing within each of us is all too quick to agree.

At His baptism, Jesus is named SON. He is anointed to be the Suffering Servant. He was sent by God on a journey that led to our atonement on the cross. At our baptism, our absolution, and our partaking of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus gives us His cross and all that it paid for….for free! He forgave us all. After all, He is the Son, the Savior, the King, the Messiah, offering us Himself: body, blood, forgiveness, grace and mercy as a wonderful gift. What that means is that while we are, as we say in our confession poor, miserable sinners, while we are beasts and wild things: we are FORGIVEN beasts and wild things.

Despite the grace that is so wonderfully applied to me, the fact remains that from time to time I still yearn for places where I can still be king. Sometimes I would rather be strong, wild and free and King of ALL……..instead of forgiven, humble, and an obedient servant.

When I am there, when I am that, then I am really IN the wilderness and a great danger meets me face-to-face: me wanting to be ME. You wanting to be YOU. This is the universal human condition. Then and there the tempter’s words sound SO SWEET: did God really say that? Did God really mean what He said? It’s then that we meet Satan face-to-face, doubling the danger and raising the stakes and increasing our odds of failure. It’s then that we are the most prone to leave “our Father’s house” and head off with the rest of the wild things.

Am I telling you something you don’t already know? I certainly doubt it. We are all, by nature of God’s gift of our human conscience and His revealed Word as well, very much aware of those places in our lives where and when we long to be “king of the wild things.” I have mine. You have yours. We might trivialize them as “bad habits” or “weaker moments.” We might cheapen God’s grace by entering into them knowing that when we are done we can run back home for forgiveness. Ultimately, Satan’s goal is that we wander so far away and plug our spiritual ears so completely that we fail to see and hear the Father calling for us to come home. Left to ourselves, Eden is lost. Our fall is complete.

It is for times like this that Lent was made: our season with the beasts. We can’t ignore sin. We ignore temptation only at our eternal peril. The devil, the world and our own sinful flesh aren’t just going to go away. So we haul out the sackcloth, at least figuratively, don the mark of the ash and try to say at least one honest thing: I am dust and ashes and to dust and ashes I shall return. Say it with me: I am dust and ashes and to dust and ashes I shall return. It sounds so harsh, but it’s meant to be that way. It’s the kind of words that are meant to stop us dead in our tracks. I need that. So do you.

Once a year we have the amazing opportunity to push the pause button on life for 40 days and 40 nights, from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. During that time we can allow God’s Holy Spirit to lead us on our own little Exodus, where we can run away from the wild things, where we can escape the wilderness, our sinful selves and Satan himself and head for the Promised Land. God means us to have all of this, and to bless us by it.

Here’s the catch, however…..there’s always a catch, isn’t there? It’s this: God offers all of this to us, everything we need, but we must receive it. And when we DO…..and being here this morning is a good part of that……. then Lent isn’t only 40 days of finger-wagging LAW, but it can become a wonderful time of “quarantine” (from the Latin word for 40, by the way), a time of isolation set aside for spiritual rest and healing from the toxic world in which we live.

When Pam and I were touring Scotland, we were shown a 16th century winding trail up a long, steep, rocky valley. Scottish soldiers, escaping the (evil!) English, made their way up this long and difficult trail. When they reached the head of the valley, the King named the place “Rest and be thankful.” It didn’t mean the journey was over, but at least they could look back at the steepest part of their journey and rest a bit, knowing that it was passed. They could move ahead with peace and confidence. But they could not let their guard down, because from the top they could still see the enemy pursuing them.

That’s a wonderful illustration for Lent. The Christian life is NOT an easy life. Jesus spent a lifetime being tempted because He was baptized! It starts today with the devil tempting Him to be a devilish sort of king, well-fed, popular, happy…..and cross-free. Jesus rejected all that and held the course. He could “rest and be thankful” when it was over. That’s when angels came and ministered to Him. Lent can be that time for us as well. We can rest, be thankful, and strengthen ourselves for the rest of the journey.

If Jesus spent HIS lifetime being tempted in every way, we cannot expect things to be any different for us. After all, we have been baptized not only into His life and His resurrection, but also into His suffering, His cross, and His grave. And His temptation leads to our temptation.

There are many things that can be said to help us deal WITH temptation, but rather than go there this morning, let’s be led by the text that reminds us that Jesus was “led up by the Spirit TO BE TEMPTED!” This implies, dear friends, that temptation can have a positive role in our lives. It can lead us to an understanding of our core being. It can help us assess what our limits are……and how to stay back from them. It can reveal the strength of our faith, or our lack of it.

You and I pray “lead us not into temptation” every week, if not every day. It’s a good prayer, after all, Jesus taught it to us. But given that temptation doesn’t stop but keeps coming at us, we are well off to remember that this phrase of our Lord’s Prayer really means “when we are tempted, help us not to fail the test!”

We may not be tempted by the same things that tempted Jesus, but at the root, the things that tempt you and the things that tempt me all have the same root: they draw us to mistrust God and His goodness and His plans for our lives. They lead us to the place where the wild things are and want us to be crowned King of them all.

In HIS time of temptation, St. Paul heard God say to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in (your) weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9) That was Paul’s hope. It is mine and I pray it was yours. Max discovered hope too, as he was drawn out of his life of “king of the wild things” and pulled back to the place where someone loved him the best of all and, even better, had supper ready and still warm on the table for him. That is what Jesus offers: someone who loves us more than anyone else…..and a SUPPER that feeds, forgives and strengthens.

That, Paul reminds us, makes us even more than “conquerors through Christ, who loves us!”

Amen.

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You need some 60 grit people in your life if He’s going to shape you into what He has in mind. Your goal isn’t to smooth out the sandpaper. Your goal is to accept that God knows what He’s doing and let Him shape you.

By Pastor Michael Cofer
Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany
Matthew 5:38-48

In some ways, this seems like it should be one of the easiest sermons to write. After all, everybody is familiar with the concept of “turning the other check” or “going the extra mile.” And who can argue with the command to “love your enemies?”

All of those are beautiful thoughts to aspire to… Until you try to map them onto the real world, and then they start to get messy. It’s easy to espouse “loving one’s enemy” as long as you don’t actually have anyone in mind.

But, who of us actually has an enemy anymore? We don’t even think in those terms much. We think of enemies strictly in the sense of people who wish us bodily harm – like criminals, perhaps, or countries we are at war with. But those folks are often at a distance, and our contact with them will probably be limited. How about enemies in your social circles? Relatives that just antagonize you or coworkers who pick fights or that neighbor who just grates on your last nerve…

And you pray, “Dear Jesus, would you please fix them? Show them the error of their ways, the foolishness of their pride, the annoyance of their ‘annoyingness’…” I don’t think that’s quite what Jesus had in mind when he said to pray for those who persecute you.

No, God has given that person to you as a gift – not a project, but a gift. See, God wants to form you into the image of Christ, and that will not happen if you don’t have difficult and antagonistic people in your life. 10,000 sermons will never bring you closer to learning who Christ is and growing into his image than one genuine enemy God gives you to love.

sandingSome of you know that I dabble in woodworking. I’m not great, but it’s something I’ve been kind of growing into. And while I have a lot to learn, I know this much: you won’t turn a rough piece of wood into a smooth and beautiful box or chair by just buffing it with a soft rag. It takes sand paper. And 60 grit (that’s the really coarse stuff) will do more for shaping and removing imperfections than 220.

Jesus, the son of a carpenter, understands this. You need some 60 grit people in your life if He’s going to shape you into what He has in mind. Your goal isn’t to smooth out the sandpaper. Your goal is to accept that God knows what He’s doing and let Him shape you.

But how do we make peace with this idea of “loving our enemies” when we want to be sure that they stop being awful? And turning the other cheek isn’t going to get that done, now is it? Well, sometimes it does (more on that later), but there are no guarantees.

Let me ask you this though, in your own life, are you more likely to take correction from an enemy (whose motives you can’t be sure of) or from a friend you know loves you? So what makes you think that someone you haven’t been showing love to is interested in hearing from you what they’re doing wrong?

But let’s get back to the idea of turning the other cheek and going the extra mile. Jesus begins this teaching by rejecting the teaching of “an eye for an eye.” Usually, we think of those words as being a statement about revenge. It’s not. It’s actually kind of the opposite.

Before “an eye for an eye” was established as law, there were no limits on retaliation. So the loss of an eye could be met with the loss of a life, and that life could be paid back 7 fold, and so on until open war or generations long feuds broke out. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was established to stop the cycle of retaliation. The courts would assign a just compensation for the injury suffered. “An eye for an eye” met that the injured had a legal right to be repaid for his injury.

Jesus is saying that the Christian life is about more than what is legal or ethical. It is about setting aside your rights for the sake of showing mercy. If you were struck on the cheek, you would suffer public disgrace in addition to physical pain. To turn the other cheek isn’t to be a door mat, it’s to stand up tall and except the insult for what it is. Not to plead your case. Not to sue. Not to slander your assailant’s character (even if everything you say is true).

Similarly, going the extra mile doesn’t mean, “trying really hard at work.” Not that you shouldn’t do that… Roman soldiers could force civilians to carry their gear for them up to one mile – and no farther. Jesus is saying that you have a legal obligation to go the first mile, but legal obligations don’t demonstrate love. And most Jews had no love for Romans. They were the enemy. Going the extra mile isn’t about offering great service to customers or loved ones. It’s about embodying love for people who don’t expect it, deserve it, or maybe even want it.

Sometimes, when your enemy keeps visiting evil on you, and you consistently give love in response, their hearts will soften and you may win them over. Isn’t this what we see when Jesus is crucified. He doesn’t curse his attackers, but prays for their forgiveness. As a result, one of the soldiers who crucified him and one of the thieves hanging beside him were own over by his love.

Maybe you’ve been on the receiving end of this. Someone has been driving in you crazy, and all day long you’ve been grinding your teeth. You have your tell-them-off speech all worked out. And the moment comes for you to launch into it… You start recounting the history of injuries you’ve suffered and all of their faults and the pattern of disrespect and…. And…. And they don’t defend themselves. They just nod and apologize.

And you feel it slipping away: that delicious self-righteous anger. All of a sudden, it doesn’t feel good to tell them off. In fact, you feel a little bad about it. Maybe you even apologize in return. But your tirade has been cut off by humility and a refusal to answer back injury for injury.

Let me tell you, it doesn’t always work this way. Sometimes you answer evil with love, and the evil continues. They continue to antagonize. They continue to provoke. It’s not that you’re doing it wrong. God sees, and he will vindicate you in His own time. Just accept this person as God’s gift to teach you how to love like He loves.

“God makes the rain fall on the righteous and the unrighteous alike.” This is what sets aside the children of God from the rest of the world. We don’t put limits on who we can or will love. It’s hard. It’s unnatural. But it is love – not worldly prosperity, wisdom, or comfort – that distinguishes God’s children.

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“In today’s gospel, [Jesus] makes it clear that outward signs of righteousness don’t make you righteous. God wants more than just good deeds. He looks at your heart.”

By Pastor Michael Cofer
Matthew 5:21-37
6th Sunday of Epiphany

Imagine with me that you’ve got a plate of fresh out of the oven chocolate chip cookies. And they’re smelling good. You know how you can actually smell the warmth when you first pull them out? And you know you should let them cool, but… well… you have to try one “just to see how they turned out.”

But the cookie is way to hot to eat by itself. You have to plan ahead for these things, you know. Can’t have a molten cookie smoldering in your mouth, right? So you grab a glass out of the cupboard, then go to the fridge for (you guessed it) your carton of milk.

Sour-MilkIt’s sitting there on the top shelf, with the smiling visage of Elsie calling to you. But not so fast! You have to check the date. “February 16.” It’s dicey, at this point, but you’re technically in the window, right? So you pop it open and… And instantly you know that cookie is going to have to cool on its own because your nose is telling you that the contents of that carton have become a biohazard.

It doesn’t matter what the date says. It doesn’t matter if the carton is in good shape and colored beautifully and has been perched radiantly on the top shelf of your fridge. If the milk inside has turned, then that carton is a waste of space and is cutting into valuable cookie time. Even if the outside looks good, it’s what’s inside that counts.

Last week we talked about being salt and light. The point being that your faith should make a difference in the lives of the people around you. God expects and requires good deeds from His children. But Jesus doesn’t leave it there. In today’s gospel, He makes it clear that outward signs of righteousness don’t make you righteous. God wants more than just good deeds. He looks at your heart.

So, let’s first get this clear: one doesn’t cancel out the other. I’m not saying that God only looks at your intentions. I’m saying that God is calling us to be consistent – He wants right behaviors driven by right motivations. He doesn’t want merely a show of love; He wants our actual love.

Did you know that you’re accountable for your feelings? Maybe you’ve never thought about it in those terms before, but that’s how Jesus talks to us. “Anyone is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.” “Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart.”

This seems like an impossibly hard standard, doesn’t it? I mean, most of us have some level of restraint in how we act. This is why, probably, most of you have never murdered someone.

But here’s what does happen: a little seed of anger takes root in your heart. It doesn’t take much, really… maybe it was an off-the-cuff remark that cuts a little to deeply. Maybe you were taken for granted, or snubbed. Maybe you and this other person just don’t see eye-to-eye on some topic – and it just bugs the heck out of you.

However it gets planted that little seed will worm its way down and start to grow. And you’ll find that it gets harder to have a polite conversation. And then it gets harder to occupy the same room. Eventually you find that you’re talking with your friends about this person, and how they’ve wronged you… and now none of you can speak kindly with them.

Meanwhile, they may well be doing the same. And you haven’t killed them… your anger hasn’t flared up like that. Rather, it’s a flame that’s been tended to – a slow burn like coals that glow red under a blanket of ash. It isn’t out there where everyone can see it, but it is almost impossible for you to be loving to that other person.

Why do we do this? Why do we nurse grudges? Why do we seethe and brood and let the gaps between us grow?

Because it makes us feel good. Not happy. Not joyful or at peace. But it makes us feel righteous… at least righteous by comparison. But it’s a lie. No one has ever been made righteous by holding on to someone else’s sins. There is no such thing as righteousness by comparison.

If your heart and mind are right, your feelings and your deeds will follow. Granted, sometimes we have to do what’s right even if we don’t “feel it.” That’s fine. That’s obedience to God, plain and simple. But it is not okay to allow sinful feelings – greed, anger, lust, pride, etc. – to grow inside of us. The more they do, the harder obedience becomes – the farther we drift from loving God and loving our neighbor. And inside our fine looking cartons the milk begins to turn and sour.

And if your carton is full of sour milk, what do you have to pour into others? What do you have to offer to God?

You have probably heard me talk about this before, but there is a myth that we need to dispel. Your religion is not a private, personal thing. There is no such thing as a Christianity that is only between you and God. God has never given us such a thing. How we interrelate – how we show or withhold love from one another – is insolubly linked to our worship of God.

Jesus says that we need to be reconciled to one another before we come to worship God. I think we usually do this backwards: we come to church and “get right with God…” and we hope that So-and-So heard the sermon today, because they need to apologize to us.

I’m going to be really honest and direct here. God doesn’t want you to come to church, singing the praises of his mercy, when you yourself have refused to be merciful. He doesn’t want sour milk praise. “First go and be reconciled to them, then come and offer your gift.” Which is Jesus saying is the more urgent need: going to church to be forgiven or seeking and giving forgiveness with your brothers and sisters? Of course, you don’t have to choose between the two – God wants to accomplish both of these things in you… and He won’t settle for less than that.

Jesus Christ has paid for your every sin: thoughts, words, and deeds. His mercy is sufficient to forgive you countless times – and he does so freely. Pouring out our sourness, and pouring in His sweet grace. Today, He’s asking you to offer a tiny fraction of that grace to the people around you. Today, He is calling us to move from a superficial Christianity of outward appearances to an honest, through-and-through Christianity of love for God and love for our neighbor: thought, word, and deed.

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“If you have the light of Christ, you have the most valuable thing in the world. Most treasures, if given away, are simply gone. But sharing Christ is like lighting one lamp off of another. Yours is not diminished, but a new light is kindled.”

By Pastor Michael Cofer
Matthew 5:13-20
Fifth Sunday of Epiphany

Today’s Gospel has Jesus coming off pretty harsh. “Unsalty salt is good for nothing but trampling!” And “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven!”

What happened to the blessing Jesus? What happened to the loving Jesus? This Jesus sounds really judgmental.

I think people would like to have a Jesus who doesn’t judge; a Jesus who just excepts anything and everything as, well, okay with him. But Jesus isn’t okay with any and everything. He loves us way too much for that!

Ever met one of those parents who really wants to be the “cool parent?” The one that pretty much lets their child do whatever they please? The one that doesn’t say “no,” no matter how hard or far their child pushes? How does that work out for the child in the long run? But, in some bizarre way, there are plenty of “Christians” who think that’s how Jesus ought to act toward us.

They probably wouldn’t say it that way, though. In fact, they may not have thought about it at all… But underlying their life style is the attitude that “it doesn’t really matter how I live. It doesn’t really matter if I’m obeying God, because I know that if I just say I’m sorry, God will forgive me. And I’ll get to go to heaven, and in the end, that’s all that matters.”

Friends, that isn’t how Jesus works. That isn’t what Jesus is about. Jesus says, “I have not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them.” And you say, “he fulfilled them because I could not.” And you’d be right about that… But aren’t we called to be followers of Jesus? And in fact, aren’t we called to be imitators of Jesus? Maybe even us saved folks can’t forget about the law just yet.

sharing-lightLet’s look at it from a different angle. Jesus is the light of the world. He doesn’t shine to illuminate himself, he shines to give light to the folks who were in darkness without him. His ministry on earth wasn’t a vacation he took for his own enjoyment. His whole existence on earth was for others.

But, interestingly, Jesus didn’t chase after people’s praise. When we say that Jesus’ life was lived “for others,” that doesn’t mean he sought their approval, or gauged his performance on whether or not he got positive feedback. He simply did what was right, and loved the folks around Him whether they appreciated it or not. The only approval that Jesus craved was that of His Heavenly Father.

And so he says to us, “you are the salt of the earth.” Salt doesn’t preserve itself. Salt doesn’t taste itself. It is valuable because of how it benefits other things. Now, don’t get me wrong – God loves you apart from how “useful” you are to Him. But He made you to be salt, and I don’t see how one could claim to love God in return, if they refuse to be what God has made them.

“You are the light of the world.” Light doesn’t see itself. As Jesus is our light, we are the light for…well… people who don’t have Jesus. It isn’t enough for you to be a light-receiver. God has made you to be a light-giver.

Jesus is saying that your life isn’t about you anymore. So the whole, “I’ll do what I want because I know I’m saved” thing kind of falls on its face. If you have the light of Christ, you have the most valuable thing in the world. Most treasures, if given away, are simply gone. But sharing Christ is like lighting one lamp off of another. Yours is not diminished, but a new light is kindled. In fact, it seems to me that when folks share the light of Christ, his light grows for within the giver.

And this light of Christ has to be more than just words. Frankly, most folks couldn’t care less what you say about your faith until they know that you genuinely love them. You can only do so much with words. Jesus says, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” Good deeds.

Actually, “good” is accurate, but probably not strong enough. The word Jesus spoke is more like, “beautiful,” or “noble.” Your life as a Christian should be exceptional and attractive – not for your worldly success or your popularity but for the uncommon grace and joy that you demonstrate. It should be outstanding in the unearned love that you have for your neighbor.

That, by the way, is the law to which Jesus points us. Not rigid legalism (which usually ends in a hypocritical game of being “holier than thou”) but in the true fulfillment of the love – loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving your neighbor as yourself.

It seems that every year, as a nation, we become more obsessed with ourselves. We want our “selfies” to be trending on twitter as we watch our on-demand tv shows (commercial-free) and draft our fantasy football teams. Relationships fall apart because “we just aren’t feeling it anymore,” or “we could do better.” We watch or listen to news from whichever media outlet best represents our political view. It seems like every facet of our daily lives is tailored to us!

In the midst of that nation, God’s people should stand out like street lamps at midnight. Our churches should be cities on a hill… Not because of what we protest or boycott… But because we are the “weirdos” who love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves. Jesus is calling you and me to make the word “Christian” synonymous with, “noble” and “kind” and “joyful” and “full of life!” And all of that, not for our glory, but for God’s. Our world should be better because we’re in it.

But just like Jesus, we don’t have to promote ourselves. It isn’t about human approval or accolades. It’s about being doing and being God’s people no matter how it is received.

Your life is no longer about you. And besides, your light is not your own. It’s Jesus’ – so what can you possibly brag about? Jesus has given us his light freely. Now when you leave today, will you hide it under a basket, or will you shine for Jesus?

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