Heaven Shining Down Into Bethlehem
First in a Series of Nine “Heaven Shining Down!”
January 5 and 6, 2018
The Epiphany of our Lord
Isaiah 60:1-6 / Ephesians 3:1-12 / Matthew 2:1-12
Behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.
Dear Friends in Christ,
The season of Epiphany is one of the oldest seasons in the church year, second only to Easter. This season of lights begins with a celebration of the Wise Men visiting the Christ child and ends with the Festival of Transfiguration. This Epiphany season is about as long as it ever gets, due to the late date of Easter this year. Today is the first of nine sermons under the theme, “Heaven Shining Down.” Three truths we would emphasize in this series.
First, as we travel with Jesus from manger to his baptism and into his public ministry of performing miracles, we rejoice that God has reached down from heaven to rescue us, even as we admit that we have no way of reaching up to him. Secondly, we explore the obvious reality that mission and ministry happen in specific locations, each with their own significant history and particular opportunities. Third, we reflect on this epic battle between Light and darkness in the past, the present, and the future.
Today we focus on Bethlehem in Old Testament times, Bethlehem in Jesus’ day, and small town living today.
Bethlehem B.C. At this time, I invite you to notice in your bulletin a map of Israel in Jesus’ day. Today, we will be focusing on the little town of Bethlehem in Judea, located six miles or so south of Jerusalem. In coming weeks we will be focused on Jesus getting baptized in the river Jordan, then on Jesus performing his first miracle in Cana of Galilee, then on Jesus reading in the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth / not too far from Cana, then to Capernaum also up there near the Sea of Galilee, then out on the Lake of Gennesaret, then for two Sundays we hear Jesus preaching to the crowds on the level plain, and ending up at the Mt. of Transfiguration, where Jesus reveals his glory in spectacular fashion.
Rachel (dies) Bethlehem was a small village, perched on some rounded hills overlooking the desert to the east. It was six miles south of Jerusalem and an obvious stopping point for those on a pilgrimage to the temple of Jerusalem. The name Bethlehem means “house of bread,” it was a stopping place for supplies / sort of the Kwik Trip of its day, and a place surrounded by wheat fields and shepherds watching their flocks.
You may remember that Jacob was the son of Isaac and Rebekah, he was the grandson of Abraham and Sarah, and eventually his name was changed to Israel. And so Jacob’s 12 sons gave rise to the 12 tribes of Israel. You may also remember that Jacob’s favorite wife was Rachel, and his less favorite wife was Leah. Rachel gave birth first to Joseph, and as she gave birth to Benjamin, she passed away… There in Bethlehem, also called Ephrath, Rachel was buried, and Jacob put a pillar over her tomb.
Ruth (gets married) Bethlehem is also that place where the story of Ruth, the grandma of King David takes place. Ruth was a Gentile woman from the land of Moab who had married into a Hebrew family. When her husband died, she chose to travel with her grieving mother in law back to Naomi’s hometown of Bethlehem, where she met and married Naomi’s relative Boaz – and thus the name of Ruth makes it into Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus – Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king.
David is (anointed king) Bethlehem is also that place, where some time later, one of Israel’s greatest prophets Samuel comes to Bethlehem to visit that family of a man called Jesse. There the prophet passes over seven older brothers and chooses the youngest boy David, who was out shepherding the sheep. David is described as ruddy / attractive, had beautiful eyes and was handsome. There in Bethlehem, Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers. And the spirit of the Lord rushed upon David from that day forward.
From that day forward, Bethlehem was associated with great King David, and as expectations grew that God would send another king like David, the prophet Micah predicted that even though Bethlehem was “small among the clans of Judah,” yet from here would come a ruler of Israel, whose origins are from old. As we move from this little town’s Old Testament history to Jesus’ day, keep in mind, that in this sermon series we explore the obvious reality that mission and ministry happen in specific locations, each with their own significant history and particular opportunities.
Bethlehem in Jesus’ Day In terms of Mary and Joseph traveling from Nazareth in Galilee down into Bethlehem, we could imagine them traveling along with other family members, we could speculate that it was a five or 6 day journey by mule or donkey. In terms of the magi / wise men visiting from the east, scholars suggest they may have come from as far away as Babylon and that their visit was months after, perhaps up to two years after the birth of Jesus.
It’s not so important to figure out exactly who these magi were or where they came from or when they arrived. What matters is heaven shined down with one of the stars of this universes. In Old Testament times, God led his people by day with a cloudy pillar and by night with a pillar of fire. Now God uses a star, Scripture, and a dream to guide the Magi on their way to and from Bethlehem. In our Gospel lesson for today, Bethlehem is both a place of danger and a place of divine reversal.
First, A place of (danger) The story of these first Gentiles visiting and worshiping the Christ child is jam packed with all kinds of joy mixed in with all kinds of tragedy. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh on the one hand and bloody massacre on the other. A great light shining in the darkness on the one hand, and darkness doing its dastardly best to overcome it on the other. Bethlehem on the one hand the birthplace of the very author of life and on the other a little town of 300 people or so crying until there were no more tears as they see with their very eyes a dozen or two dozen or more beautifully created baby boys slaughtered.
Second, A place of divine (reversal) Bethlehem was already a place associated with divine reversal. David had been a child, the youngest son, when God called him to be the anointed king of Israel. God had overturned human expectation in the choice of his king; humans so often look at outward appearances, but the writer of I Samuel comments, “the Lord looks at his heart.” Now in Jesus we see something similar; a humble birth in a tiny village, but the one born here will in due course be spoken of throughout the world. (Isaiah 60 language) Nations would come to his light, and kings would come to the brightness of his rising.
As we move from Bethlehem in Jesus day to small town living today, keep in mind, that in this sermon series we explore the obvious reality that mission and ministry happen in specific locations, each with their own significant history and particular opportunities.
Bethlehem Today is a majority Muslim town cut off from its sister city of Jerusalem by an 8 meter high wall. The old city has a population of 5000 or so, and its chief business is tourism. You could find 30 hotels and 300 handicraft workshops on these streets. Rachel’s tomb is only a short drive from Jerusalem. It is completely walled in, and only bullet proof buses and vans are allowed to pass between the 15 foot high concrete barriers that lead to the Tomb.
In closing today, we note two truths about small town living on the subject of light vs. darkness. Two truths about what it means for this church and school to be like a city of lights set on a hill shining Jesus Christ all over our neighborhoods. Two truths about what it means (Ephesians language) to join the missionary Paul in preaching to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things…
Two truths, one obvious and one not so much. Truth #1 is obvious. Darkness is still causing all kinds of (trouble) The kingdom of darkness is like a country where two political parties engage in debate that is often petty, occasionally poisonous, and increasingly profane. It’s like large cities and small towns alike where unborn infants are aborted and many argue that it’s nobody else’s business. It’s a land where darkness infiltrates our families on a daily basis, it attacks our relationships morning, noon, and night, it hides in the shadows, it lurks around many of our corners, more often than not, it is predictable and surprising at the same time.
Truth #2 should be, but isn’t always obvious to the naked eye Those who look to him are (radiant) This is Psalm 34 language, it’s King David language after he had confessed his transgressions to the Lord, after the Lord had forgiven the iniquity of his sin, and after he had changed his behavior. He writes, “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul makes it boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad. Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together! I ought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed.
The kingdom of light is like sinners who have cried out for mercy, mercy has arrived, and a huge weight has again been lifted from their shoulders. It’s like a marriage where husband and wife say to each other again and again, I’m sorry, I forgive you, I really do want to do better. It’s like classmates and co-workers and church members who have stumbled into self-centeredness and sarcasm and cynicism and worse, who have looked themselves in the mirror, shaken their heads in disgust, and in the quiet of the night they have asked for and received forgiveness. They understand now what Solomon once declared, “the cheerful of heart has a continual feast.” They look around the sanctuary and think about what Isaiah predicts, “Then you shall see and be radiant, your heart shall thrill and exult.”
Heaven shines down. In the case of the Wise Men, heaven shines down with a star, in Scripture, and in a dream. This week, we pray that heaven would reach out through us, in every one of our relationships, in every one of our conversations, in every one of our actions, that we would be like a city of lights set on a hill, obviously radiant, difficult to ignore. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.
The Gospel According to the Shepherds
Luke 2:8-20 // Hebrews 1:1-6
Sixth in a series of Seven, “The Gospel According to Us”
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. We draw our sermon from Luke 2, especially these words, “’Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us’... and the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”
Dear friends in Christ,
There are places and times in your life where the ordinary falls away and you are lifted into the extraordinary.
One of those places, I remember well, was in the mountains around Salquil-Grande, Guatemala. I was a freshman in college, and we were working to make houses for widows in a little town up there in the mountains. We would sleep in a school overnight and then make our way to the worksite at 6:30am or so to begin our day.
And I remember walking over the last hill before seeing the slope of our worksite. Beyond it, the mountainside dropped off down into the valley full of mist.
And as the sun began to burn off that mist, we started our day of work by singing, “Then sings my soul // my Savior God to thee // How great thou art // How great thou art...” Don Guse, a retired professional singer kind-of-a-guy to my right, Marty Knoll, my sixth-grade teacher to my left, I will never forget the clarity that this scene brought to those words, how they have been burned into my mind with the sentiment of the extraordinary, as if that was their rightful place; that’s where that hymn should have always been sung, and now I know, now I finally know.
And then the ordinary comes around again. But the extraordinary still shines on. For me, in that hymn, now I think of it every time I sing. It hasn’t left me; it’s the opposite entirely. All that is ordinary is transformed.
That’s the idea that I want you to have as you look at the Gospel according to the Shepherds.
Notice this first. They were where they had always been. They were with their sheep. They weren’t too far outside of Bethlehem. They were doing what they always did, but then their ordinary surroundings fell away when the extraordinary glory of the Lord shone around them.
Angels appear. The Savior is announced. Salvation is promised. And all that was ordinary is transformed.
Can you imagine looking after their flocks by night for days and years afterward? Can you imagine if they lived long enough to see Jesus’s ministry what they would think ... what they would tell their children? Can you imagine how everything in their lives was suffused with the extraordinary when they reflected on what they had heard and seen first from the angels and second from their own eyes and ears, how the babe at Bethlehem was just as they had been told.
I can tell you at this point something I have discovered about myself, that I am mostly selfish and unimaginative.... in this way. It took me having a child or two to realize what it means when dads tell the little cute stories about their kids.
You see, a couple of months ago, I was there with two of my friends who have two little kids each, and we were exchanging stories like “Gideon built a tower this high.” “Whenever Benny asks me to go fast in the car, I say that I am going to ‘go as fast as reasonable.’” “Asher learned how to push the chair over to the counter to climb up to get to the cookie jar.”
And they’re all incredibly ordinary stories. None of our kids are astronauts yet. None of them qualified for the Olympics. None of them are prodigies. They’re just ordinary kids. But the difference here is that they’re our kids. Here’s the point, so listen in: when you’re this guy’s dad, you get a front-row seat to this magical journey of seeing a child grow up from nothing into something.
And I tell you that to tell you this: Seeing the extraordinary influences the way you look at everything else. The experience of this extraordinary magic of seeing your child grow up right before your very eyes lends the very same awe every time you see a mom with her baby, every time you see a dad with his toddler.
Here is one of the deepest holes that a life-long Christian can fall into: we turn the extraordinary presence of God into another hum-drum experience. We turn the very precious law of God which tells how to love our neighbor into rules that we have to do to earn God’s favor. We pray “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done” without thinking long and hard about how your hours, your minutes, in every chapter of life, whether you can see it or not, are the ways in which God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is being done. In short, we treat the extraordinary, cosmic meaning and significance that our God bestows on us in Jesus Christ as meaningless and insignificant, chasing after something else for the very same thing we crave.
Three thoughts for you in closing. First, we think about how God had, as Pastor Griffin said last night, for decades and centuries, been planning this plan for his people, to prosper them and not to harm them, to use their joy and their suffering to bring forth the restoration of the universe. So, if he did that for his people then, why would he not keep on doing it for his people today?
Second, we think about the remarkably ordinary entry of God into the world to remember that’s how the Gospel always works. When it does its work, the Gospel makes the most momentous events – forgiveness, peace, life, grace, mercy, self-control, love, kindness – ordinary, as ordinary as the Son of God walking among his people.
Third, did you notice that in the way I started this whole meditation? The ordinary falls away and when it falls away, all you’re left with is the extraordinary. The ordinary of sin and fault and pain and loss fall away in the face of the extraordinary and you find that all of the life that flows from the manger, from the cross, from the empty tomb, from the font, from the Table, it makes all the rest of life a communion with the God of the universe.
Amen and amen.
The Gospel According to Elizabeth
Fourth in a Series of Seven Sermons / The Gospel According to Us
December 22 and 23, 2018
Micah 5:1-5 and Luke 2: 39-45
39 In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, 40 and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, 42 and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be[g] a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”
Dear Christian Friends,
Our sermon series these days is “The Gospel According to Us”, and in our previous three weekends, we have received the good news from the perspective of a donkey (three weeks ago), John the Baptizer (two weeks ago), and last week the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, dead people, and the poor.
About 15 years ago, a group of 40 or so of us from Janesville and West Fargo North Dakota took a mission trip to a remote and mountainous town named Sicachique in the region of Chihuahua, Mexico. There we spent five or 6 days living among and trying to be helpful to and witnessing to the Tarahumara Indians. These Tarahumara were as poor and as hungry and as hopeless as folks can be, and as we drove away, we couldn’t help wonder why we were so blessed with so much and they were blessed with so little, in terms of worldly stuff and opportunity. The next year we returned, and the year after that, and the year after that as well. This was our Sicachique Mission Trip question that we kept asking ourselves – why were we so blessed with so much and they with so little, at least in terms of money and the stuff money can buy.
Which leads us to the question Elizabeth was asking in today’s Gospel lesson - And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? “This” of course refers to the very Messiah of the universe being knit together in the womb of Mary, and here they are in her presence. Leading to our question of the day – Elizabeth wondering out loud why she and not somebody else is being graced with a such a visitation from on high
When Elizabeth exclaims that blessed is Mary among women and blessed is the fruit of the womb, she uses the Greek word eulogamena, from which we get the English word eulogize. To be eulogized is to be blessed specifically by God and for his purposes. When Elizabeth cries out to Mary that blessed are you among women, she is saying that Mary has found favor with God and all generations will be calling her blessed. When she exclaims that blessed is the fruit of your womb, she is recognizing this child as the one long promised to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob etc.
No doubt Mary is wondering with her as well, why would the Lord choose us, among all women, to be favored in such a way? So much blessedness was coursing through the veins of Elizabeth and Zechariah in these days. In those days, not being able to have children was consider a curse from on high. No doubt it seemed to this elderly couple that God was hiding his face from them. Even worse than that, it had been 450 years since the prophet Malachi had spoken the Word of Yahweh to Israel. 450 years, there had been silence from on high until the day Zechariah the priest was performing a once in a lifetime duty in the Jerusalem temple. These were Zechariah’s 15 minutes of fame as he oversees the lighting of incense inside of the priestly part of the sanctuary, and in that hour the angel of the Lord announces that his wife would bear a son to be named John.
Elizabeth had to be wondering why God would use regular and unimpressive and small town people like Zechariah and her. Why should she be blessed with so much joy and other women with so little. Three answers to that question we offer today. First there is the obvious/ short term / simple answer. Secondly there is a deeper / a long-term / comforting answer. Third, there is the ultimate / theological / stop and make you think answer.
The first / obvious / short term / simple answer to the question of Elizabeth of why she and Mary should be so blessed is So that a Savior could be (born) The grace of God is by definition free and undeserved. Throughout all of Old Testament history, God made it clear that he set his affections on the nation of Israel, not because of any merit or worthiness in them, but simply because he was fulfilling a promise that out of this nation a Savior would be born. Abraham and Isaac and Jacob were chosen to be fathers of a great nation not due to their good behavior nor steadfast obedience, but for this obvious reason - a Savior needed to be born. The little town of Bethlehem and the tribe of Judah were chosen not because of their majesty nor their righteousness, but because a Savior needed to be born.
But of course, Christmas is by no means the end of the story, it’s one giant step towards the day on which all of history turned – Good Friday. Although pregnancies and the days babies are born are about as joyful as life can get here on earth, the deeper reality is that those days are entrance into life that is short and full of trouble. John the Baptist’s earthly life was short and full of trouble – he spent his last days in prison and his death came, as you may know, by beheading. So alsoand Jesus, as you well ended up hanging on a cross, which is about as awful a death as you could imagine. So where’s the blessedness of a Savior being born?
The second / the deeper / the long-term / the very comforting answer to the question of Elizabeth of why she and Mary should be so blessed - More than that, so a King might shepherd (His flock). This is the language of Micah chapter 5 where he predicts not only the Christmas story but also the Good Friday and the Easter and the Ascension and the Pentecost stories. Not only does Micah prophesy that the Messiah would be born in a little town of Bethlehem, he fast forwards to the day when the Good Shepherd would lay down his life for his sheep, he fast forwards to that time when that Good Shepherd would rise up on the third day, he would ascend into the heavens and crowned as King on the 40th day, and he and his Father would send forth His Holy Spirit on the 50th day – for this deeper, this long term, this very comforting purpose – that this King would stand in New Testament days, he would stand strong and by means of the waters of Baptism and by means of the preaching and teaching of His Word and by means of the eating and drinking at His Supper, He would shepherd, he would watch over, he would follow around his flock with goodness and mercy.
(Story of recent hospital visit where a much loved husband / father / now grandfather was lying in intensive care, trying to survive a very difficult surgery. Together his bride and I read through Scripture, we prayed, we quietly watched skilled nurses and medical folks do their amazing work, we reminded ourselves to trust in God and not be afraid, and on the way back to the waiting room, Carol said what pastors hear often, “what do people do who have no faith in God?”
Micah long ago predicted it, “They shall dwell secure, for now he / their Savior shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace.”
Answer #1 to Elizabeth’s question of why she and Mary would be so blessed was so that a Savior could be born. Answer #2 was so that all generations of believers could dwell secure and know what it is to have the peace that only Jesus can give.
The third / ultimate / theological / stop and make you want to think answer to the question of Elizabeth as to why she and Mary and we should be so blessed Ultimately, so that the Lord’s Name could be (magnified).
Mary’s response to Elizabeth is to sing a song we know as the Magnificat. She starts out singing, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. She goes on and on about how he who is mighty has done great things for her, and holy is his name.
In our Lord’s Prayer, we pray “Our Father who art in heaven, and then we pray hallowed be thy name. We find ourselves praying for a name that is already holy to be holy. What’s up with that? Luther explains, “God’s name is indeed holy in itself, but we pray in this petition that it may be holy among us also” In terms of how this is done, he explains that we keep God’s name holy when we do two things – first we teach according to his name, and secondly we live according to his name.
Which leads us to our concluding thought for the day. To whom much has been given, (much is required)
Elizabeth did her part in the salvation story, and one more time, we remember that we have a part to play as well. Remember that this sermon series is entitled “The Gospel According to Us.” Along with our Mission Society on those Sicachique mission trips, we ask why God has blessed us with so much money and so much stuff that money can buy? Along with Elizabeth, we ask why God has blessed us with so much grace, with so much mercy, with so much peace, with so many opportunities to let our lights shine?
The answer is simple – We have been blessed so that we might be a blessing to many. That’s another way of saying we have been loved that we might love, forgiven that we might forgive, served that we might serve, strengthened that we might strengthen others, and to say it in a way meant to help you stop and think about it this morning – to whom much has been given, much is required.
And speaking of much being required, I ran across an article regarding Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna and his friend Ignatius in the second century A.D.
“Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong,” said Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, in AD 156 before climbing onto a pyre where Roman authorities would burn him to death. Eyewitnesses reported the local authorities respected Polycarp and begged him to recant his faith in Christ. He would not. The Romans did not even tie Polycarp to a post because they knew he would not flee the fire. Polycarp fed his captors, prayed over them, then climbed the pyre to die.
Authorities carted off Polycarp’s friend Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, and fed him to wild beasts in the Circus Maximus on July 6, 108. Ignatius had refused to renounce Christ. Historians of that time tell us Polycarp and Ignatius were students of the Apostle John.” To whom much is given, much is required.
A Father’s Love
A Funeral Sermon for Orvel Utech
(Pastor Muther preached this sermon December 7th, 2018, at the funeral of his Grandfather, Orvel Utech)
December 7, 2018
Psalm 103 // John 11:21-26a
Grace, mercy and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our sermon text for today is Psalm 103 and John 11, reading again these great words of comfort that Jesus says to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.
Dear friends in Christ,
Today we lay to rest a friend, a father, a great-grandfather, my grandpa, Orvel Utech. As we do that, we see in his life a picture of something greater.
Two simple truths found in our readings, two stories that come together with those truths, two images that emerge, not only from Grandpa’s life but moreso of our Savior, the one who grabbed ahold of him, the one who has taken Grandpa up into his arms.
Truth number one, from Psalm 103, a psalm that Grandpa chose for this occasion, a psalm that goes like this: “Like a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.”
I want to tell you of Grandpa’s clearest memories. He said, at least to me, in his waning days, that in all his ninety-plus years, these are the memories that he remembered more clearly than any other days. It was the days of his middle twenties when Mom and Aunt Lynda were young. He would come home from work and see them there at the door, much like Amos now, saying “Up up up!” and he would scoop them up and read to them. And they, Grandpa would say, “Ya know, they were so smart that whenever I would turn too many pages, they knew.”
The clearest memories from his whole life, the days of being a dad.
From Psalm 103. “Like a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.”
How much has Grandpa’s heavenly father delighted in him! As often as the invocation was said, Grandpa remembered the sign of the cross that had been placed both upon his heart and upon his forehead marking him as one redeemed by Christ the crucified. As often as Grandpa confessed his sins, that often did forgiveness wash over his sorry soul. As often as his lips cried out in prayer, that often did his Lord hear him. As often as he opened his Bible, that often did the voice of the God of the universe speak steadfast love to him.
And all this is – and this is Martin Luther’s touching and heartfelt words – all this is only out of fatherly divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me.
And there’s something more. You see, to hear Psalm 103 is to listen to the awe of David as he sings about a God who is eternal, who is unimaginably great, ineffable, enormous, unchanging God from everlasting to everlasting (whatever that means), doing cosmic works that we could not comprehend from the beginning to the end, and in the face of him, we are like dust, like grass, like the flower that fades.
And yet in the middle of all that there’s this line of the psalm, the only one that touches the earth. Did you hear it? “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.”
As a father opens the door so he can see his two girls waiting for him, so our Father in heaven delights to hear us call out to him. As a father scoops up his two kids to read to them in the easy chair after work, so our Father in heaven longs to gather us into the arms of his mercy and bring us home. As a father’s clearest memories are of his pride and joy, growing up, so much and more our Father in heaven’s chief desire is for us to grow up into our head, Jesus Christ.
Second, I turn to John 11... Jesus, here, culminates this drawn out, heart-wrenching story where he missed the funeral of his very good friend Lazarus, as he says to Martha, leading up to the time when he raises that same Lazarus from the dead, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
I want to tell you a story that Grandpa told to me. It was in March of 2017, right after he’d had what he called “a small heart attack,” and we had visited him up at the Marshfield Clinic. I was sharing stories of a trip to Arizona, driving up the mountains to see my brother John. Grandpa chimed in. He said, “I remember driving in the Bighorns in Wyoming, and it was getting foggy. It got so foggy that I had to stop on the side of the road. I thought, ‘What the dickens?’ but then the fog rolled down the mountainside and as it descended into a valley below, I saw, I found that we had been driving in a thundercloud.”
Can you imagine that? The fog so thick you can’t see, so dark you don’t know what to do. Then the darkness rolls down the mountainside and you can finally see clearly. I didn’t know it at the time, but I found that we had been driving in a thundercloud.
Dear friends in Christ, I don’t know what kinds of thunderclouds you might be driving in these days, and I’m not sure that a person can know all the fog that’s rolling through his or her life on any given day, but this we do know, that as surely as Grandpa stood upon this earth, so surely does his God promise that “he will live even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me (and that’s Jesus talking) will never die.” As surely as we eat this bread and drink this cup, so surely do all the company of the heavenly host, all the saints that have gone on before us, Grandpa and Grandma alike, eat this same meal at the side of their Savior. As surely as the storms of life overtake us, and they will roll down the mountainside, until that final storm of death rolls over us, then just as surely we will know that it is the Christian hope that death is not the end. Christ has wrestled it to the ground for your sake. Christ has won the day.
Rest today on the unshakeable mountain of a truth that our Savior was born for Grandpa’s salvation. He was put on trial for Grandpa’s salvation. He was beaten bloody by those guards for Grandpa’s sake and for ours; he was nailed to the cross for our sins, he was buried in the tomb for our death. He died with a picture of each and every one of us in his heart, and he rose to life again with our name on his lips, and because he lives, so now Grandpa stands by his side. And because he lives, there will be a day when all the dead are raised, and we will see our God in the flesh.
“I am your resurrection and your life. Whoever believes in me will live even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.
One more story in closing. Grandpa lived eight years since the death of Grandma. He has, in my mind, aged as gracefully as a body could possibly age. He willingly sold his house. He willingly gave up his license. He has passed close to the valley of the shadow of death several times, but I’ll tell you this. The most amazing thing that he’ll say, I had skipped over for years now.
The most amazing display of his Christian faith is when he talks about grandma. He’d say, “It still hurts. I still think about her everyday, and I just want to be with her. But I’ll be here as long as the Lord allows.”
He held his sorrow, and he held his joy, and he held them in open hands.
It’s as Paul writes, “To live is Christ and to die is gain.” Or perhaps best of all, God’s own words in Revelation chapter 2, “I know your afflictions and your poverty – yet you are rich. Be faithful to death and I will give you the crown of life.”
Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from hence forth, for they will rest from their labors.
Amen and amen.
The Gospel According to a Donkey
Luke 19:28-40 // Numbers 22 // 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
First in a series, “The Gospel According to Us”
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our sermon text for today is especially the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, as well as the story of Balaam and his donkey, as we explore our sermon series “The Gospel According to Us,” today with the theme, “The Gospel According to a Donkey.”
Dear friends in Christ,
Today’s lessons focus on the minor characters, on the backgrounds. Balaam is being a prophet – albeit a knucklehead – but we think about the part that his donkey plays. Jesus is being a prophet, and more than that, a Savior – the perfect one – and today we meditate on the role of creation serving its creator. Because all that stuff matters.
So, we begin our meditation with a question, a serious but not-so-serious question... If that donkey on that day could talk, what would he say?
In Luke 19, we don’t know. We do know, first, that this was a donkey, not a war horse. A conquering king rides through on his warhorse; the rightful king comes in on a donkey. We know, second, that this was a young donkey, young enough for no one else to ever have ridden. This fulfills what Zechariah prophesied in chapter 9 verse 9. Third, we know that this donkey let itself be ridden for the first time through the massive crowds of Jerusalem, responding to Jesus as you would expect creation to respond to its creator.
We know that in Numbers 22. The donkey could see realities that the human being couldn’t. That’s not particularly strange to us. Homing Pigeons navigate in a way that we can’t. Dogs can hear frequencies that we can’t. Honeybees can see a spectrum of light that we can’t. Cows are pretty much always right when they guess how bad the weather is going to be.
Balaam’s donkey could see the angels standing before him when Balaam couldn’t, and for Balaam’s sake, God opened up the mouth of the donkey and then opened up Balaam’s eyes to see a truth that creation could already see.
Now, I want to take a step back to tell you this: don’t conclude that the point of this text is that all animals can see angels. That’s not the point of the text. We don’t know that. We don’t know if Balaam’s donkey seeing angels was as special as having his mouth opened, or what. That’s not the point of the text. The point is that creation is longing to be right with God, even when Balaam, who is a prophet supposed to be speaking with God’s voice, who is a human being made in the image of God to guard and protect creation, even when Balaam would drive creation in a different way.
“Creation,” St. Paul writes, (and this is our first fill-in-the-blank), “All creation (groans)... All creation groans together in the pains of childbirth until now. Creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. Creation was subjected to futility in hope that it will be set free from its bondage to corruption.”
All creation groans when we treat the earth as a commodity to be extracted rather than a gift from God. All creation groans when we optimize our profits without remembering that we are stewards of creation. All creation groans when we consider embryos as clumps of cells rather than treat them with reverence. All creation groans when we fail to find our calling to cultivate and guard creation as God mandated Adam and Eve in the garden.
Your Christianity is incredibly concerned about the redemption of all things, about the restoration of all things, about the pain that sin causes, not only the lives of human beings but also the way that it makes all creation groan.
Second, all creation (rejoices). Like a violin in the hands of a master, creation rejoices to sing a beautiful song in the hands of its Creator. Like a donkey at the touch of a master-trainer, creation rejoices to trust and serve its Creator. Like Jesus said, “If the crowds stopped praising God that God has come to be their savior, then even the stones will cry out.” Like Isaiah wrote, in that day the “mountains and hills are going to sing for joy. The trees of the field are going to clap their hands.” “No one is going to hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.” Or like Isaiah and Habakkuk both say, “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the seas.”
It may or may not be that donkeys can see angels, but this we do know: all creation knows its Creator in heaven. All creation longs to be made right with its Creator. All creation rejoices when it is led within the will of its Creator.
Here’s the added mystery to it all: when we look with the eyes of the Gospel, we see all kinds of signs of that Gospel throughout creation. Or like C. S. Lewis writes it, in a quote that our faculty book study ran across the other day.... “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” When you look with Christian eyes, you see Christ’s story everywhere. Christianity, we believe as Christians, reenacts the “true story of the whole world.”
Which, leads us to our final point. Third, all creation is (redeemed). We aren’t saying here that every tree needs to believe in Jesus as its Savior.... no, Christ is the Savior of humanity and gives the gift of faith into the hearts of humans... but in the redemption of humanity, all creation is redeemed.
God promised to redeem right at the Garden of Eden, and he doesn’t stop there. He came to redeem us as both fully God and fully Man, and he doesn’t stop there. God redeems us by dying our death, physically and spiritually, and he doesn't stop there. God raises us to life by bodily rising from the dead, and he doesn’t stop there. God redeems you and me, body and soul and all, and he doesn’t stop there. God is coming again to make all creation right.
PG told me a story the other day, of being at Brandon and Michelle’s farm, of dear sweet Gabbie the dog being her dog-self and chasing around the chickens.... well there will be a day when the chickens and the dogs are at peace, when lions lie down with lambs, when grandpas don’t pass away anymore, when ice and snow don’t hurt or harm, when all creation is in harmony with God.
If these walls could talk, what would they say? What kind of prayers have they heard over the years? What kind of color could they give to the lives of our ancestors? I think about the weekends here in this place where I have had the privilege to marry, to baptize, and to bury all in the span of a few days. I think about the rejoicing that happens in this place followed by the tears. I think about the desperate prayers of those who sit next to those who only have cause to give thanks.
I think of how in this place, it most often isn’t one big decision that we need to make... in this Advent season, we think on the hundreds of thousands of small decisions that shape our habits of gratitude and care, of silence and mindfulness, that in turn shape our big decisions in this life.
If the walls of your house could talk, what would they say? I know that mine could catalog my sins, my faults, my flaws. They could talk about my prayers, my hopes, my fears. But, like all creation, they would most tell the story of the God who cares, the God who has come among us, and the God who redeems us.
Amen and amen.
You Are What You Love, James Smith.
Worship Sermons & Letters
Pastor Paul Muther