Freed to Celebrate

Readings for the day (2nd Sunday of Easter – Sunday, April 28, 2019):

Acts 5:27-32

Psalm 118:14-29

Revelation 1:4-8

John 20:19-31

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

Similarly to Christmas, it is believed by the masses that Christmas and Easter are single day celebrations.  That we, the church, celebrate Christmas on December 25th and we celebrate Easter on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox.  Except our Christmas celebration is 12 days long, and our Easter celebration is 50 days long.

And the very first Sunday after Easter, in the midst of our celebration, we have to wrestle with skepticism.  Right out of the gate, we have to face the reality of our own skepticism about Jesus’ resurrection.  In fact some of Jesus’ appearances to His disciples after the resurrection includes skepticism.  At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus appears to the disciples in Galilee.  They saw, worshipped, and some doubted.  In John’s Gospel, it is Thomas who seems skeptical.

During His ministry, Jesus was hard on the disciples at times.  Even calling them out and criticizing them for little faith or a lack of faith because they just didn’t seem to get it.  But after the resurrection, even though those skeptical thoughts were still present, Jesus doesn’t criticize.  Instead He continues to encounter them, where they are, inviting them into a relationship with Him – which in turn is a relationship with the Father.

I feel bad for Thomas.  He often gets made out to be the scapegoat for our own doubts and skepticism.  We call him “Doubting Thomas.”  But what was Thomas actually looking for?  What was he longing for?  Was he looking for proof that the resurrection did indeed happen?  Or was it something more?  In order to know what Thomas is truly wanting, we should look back to the only other time when Thomas speaks – in that all too familiar funeral text of John 14.  Jesus says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.  And you know the way to the place where I am going.”  Thomas said to Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?”[1]

Jesus has told His disciples that something awful is about to happen, at least from their perspective.  He told them that He was going to die.  And they don’t get it.  They don’t understand what He is talking about.  And they really don’t understand what Jesus is talking about when He says that He is going to the Father’s house.  So Thomas says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?”[2]  Thomas longs to be with Jesus – to stay with Jesus.  He desires to have a relationship with Jesus that will last.  He doesn’t want Jesus to go, because from his vantage point, when Jesus leaves, the relationship ends.

Fast forward then to hours after Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene.  Mary has an encounter with Jesus.  And this isn’t just a spiritual encounter.  She saw Him.  She touched Him.  She talked to Him.  So she goes at once to the disciples – those eleven men – to share with them this Good News that Jesus is alive!  That evening, the disciples are hiding in a room with the doors and windows locked.  They fear the people who crucified Jesus might go after His followers next.  But Thomas isn’t with them.  We don’t know why he isn’t in the room with the others.  Maybe he was out getting some food for everyone.  Maybe he drew the short straw to go get takeout.  We don’t really know.  What we do know is that Thomas was not in the room at this time.  And remember up to this point, Mary is the only one who has physically seen Jesus alive.  And then Jesus appears, without even opening the door.  He just appears, to ten of the eleven.  Thomas isn’t there.  He missed it.

When Thomas finds out about this encounter, he’s jealous.  He wants what Mary got.  He wants what the other ten disciples got.  He isn’t seeking proof that Jesus is alive.  He wants an encounter with Jesus.  He wants what everyone else got. 

We want this too!  Above and beyond our own doubts and skepticism, what we long for is this encounter with our risen Lord.  We want to see Him, touch Him, talk to Him.  We want to experience what the disciples experienced.  And we do get that experience.  We do get to encounter our risen Lord, and we don’t have to be skeptical about His existence or His resurrection.  For we have the Word and the Sacraments.  Here, in this place, we hear and see the Word of God.  And then we touch, taste, and smell the Word of God – who is Jesus, the Word of God made flesh who lived among us.  When we come to the table to receive the sacrament; that is our opportunity to encounter Jesus – the Word becoming flesh.  God’s Word and receiving the sacrament of His body and blood brings us into a relationship with Him.

You may think that the resurrection is only a past event; that it is something that only happened a couple thousand years ago.  You may also have hope that the resurrection will come as promised as some future event.  However, God’s future breaks into our present.  We get to have life in the future, but we also get to have life now, in the present, because of Jesus’ resurrection.  The resurrection becomes a present reality.

After Thomas finally gets his own encounter with our risen Lord, the author of John’s Gospel tells us that he wrote these stories and encounters of Jesus down so that we may come to believe.  “And that through believing we may have life in his name.”[3]  This life in Jesus’ name is not only the promised eternal life to come, but life today also.  That this life that Jesus’ resurrection brings to us:

Frees us from worrying about things that are out of our control.

Frees us from the pressure of completing a bucket list before our earthly life ends.

Frees us from the guilt and burden of our sins.

We don’t have to spiritually remain behind locked doors out of fear.  We don’t have to be skeptical and wonder if Jesus really rose from the dead.  We don’t have to doubt the forgiveness of our sins.  Through believing, we are given life.  We are given a relationship with our Lord.  A relationship that sustains us through the ups and downs of this life.  A relationship that allows us to encounter Jesus without fear.  And that is certainly something to celebrate.  Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!  Amen.

© 2019 Anthony Christoffels.  All rights reserved.


[1] John 14:2-5, NRSV

[2] John 14:5, NRSV

[3] John 20:31, NRSV

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Longing for Hope in the Midst of Holy Saturday

Readings for the day (Resurrection of Our Lord – Sunday, April 21, 2019):

Acts 10:34-43

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

1 Corinthians 15:19-26

John 20:1-18

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

            This week.  This Holy Week is an interesting week of emotions.  Ups and downs.  Twists and turns.  The week begins with Palm Sunday, joyfully waving palm branches with the arrival of Jesus, our Messiah and Lord.  The crowd in Jerusalem is praising God for His mighty deeds of power, but it won’t take long for the crowd to turn on Jesus.

Later on in the week, Maundy Thursday becomes this anxious waiting period.  The time waiting for an event that you dread to happen.  You know the inevitable is upon you.  For me that was waiting around in that armory on an early Sunday morning knowing that we only had moments left before saying goodbye for ten months.  Or it’s like a band aid on a child’s arm.  They know it is going to hurt when it is removed.  They don’t want to go through it, but they have no choice.

And then Good Friday comes.  Whether we like it or not – it comes.  It happens.  Death, grief, despair happens.  We’ve all been there.  We’ve all suffered through those Good Friday moments in our lives when it feels like we just can’t catch a break and the whole world appears to be against us.  We can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel because we are so stuck in our despair.  Maybe that was this winter for you.  Maybe you’re still there.

In John’s account of those Holy Week events, by the time that Jesus dies, His disciples, those faithful eleven men who were willing to die for Him, were nowhere to be found.  They fled the area and it was Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the council, and Nicodemus, a Pharisee, who takes Jesus’ body off of the cross and lays Him in the tomb.  The disciples flee out of fear and despair.  They don’t even stick around to bury their friend.  Good Friday sucks.  Those Good Friday moments in our lives are rough.  They challenge our sanity.  They challenge our beliefs.  They challenge our faith.

And if Good Friday is rough, Holy Saturday is even worse.  Holy Saturday, those moments after death.  Those days, weeks, and months as we try to adjust to the changes that our Good Friday moments brought into our lives.  After a loved dies, we have to adjust.  After a challenging harvest, we have to adjust.  After terrible news from the doctor, we have to adjust.  After an accident, we have to adjust.

Holy Saturday is that moment where the disciples were living, in that in-between phase.  It was post-crucifixion and pre-resurrection.  On Holy Saturday, the disciples hid.  They fled and hid.  Luckily for them it was the Sabbath, the day of rest.  So there wasn’t much for them, or anyone, to do that day anyway.  Holy Saturday is the worst.  That is, if we have no hope of Easter Sunday.  If we have no hope in the resurrection.  If we have no hope that something better is to come, then Holy Saturday is almost unbearable.

And that’s where we find Mary in this resurrection story.  At the beginning of the day, Mary goes to the tomb where Jesus was buried.  Emotionally she is still living in Holy Saturday with no hope of Easter Sunday.  She’s sad.  She’s troubled.  She’s grieving the loss of a close friend.  In other Gospel accounts, we are told that the women go out to the tomb for a particular purpose, to use spices to anoint Jesus’ body for burial.  In John’s version, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus already do that on Friday when they bury Him.  John doesn’t tell us why Mary goes to the tomb.  Maybe she can’t think of anything else better to do.  She is grieving.  She misses her friend.  So she heads to the tomb where He is buried.  And upon seeing the tomb opened, emotionally she gets rushed back to Good Friday.  She is right back where she started.  Her Lord and friend is dead.  And her first thought after seeing the open tomb is not, “Hey, Jesus might be alive!”  No, she thinks of worst case scenario.  Mary says, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”[1]  Now not only is Jesus dead, but someone has stolen His body too.

With how difficult life can be, we sometimes (or maybe many times) wish that we could just skip over the difficult stuff.  Skip over the painful events.  Skip over the Good Fridays in our lives.  Skip over the waiting of Holy Saturday and jump right to Easter Sunday.  But without Holy Saturday there is no growth; there is no faith.  Imagine if Jesus walked out of the tomb within seconds of being placed there.  No one would believe that He actually died.  Maybe He was just faking it.  But you can’t fake death for three days.  Mary and the disciples had a stronger faith in believing that Jesus truly rose from the grave by waiting until Easter Sunday – the day of Resurrection. 

And the disciples believed this to be true.  Although, not right away.  Before the resurrection, they were scared.  They were hiding out of fear.  But after the resurrection, the disciples leave their former, comfortable lives behind.  They leave their careers and their families to be committed to the cause – to share this message that Jesus is not dead, but alive.  That the Messiah lives!  Recently I read a book that sought to put forth evidence for a belief in Jesus and his resurrection.  The primary evidence pointed to the fact that the disciples were willing to die for their beliefs.  “People will die for their religious beliefs if they sincerely believe they’re true, but people won’t die for their religious beliefs if they know their beliefs are false.”[2]  How can we know the resurrection to be true?  Even 2,000 years later, we can believe and hope that Jesus has gained victory over death because those eyewitnesses, those disciples had nothing to gain and a lot to lose in carrying this message to the masses.  And they still did it.  They risked it all for the sake of the Gospel.  They lived their lives knowing and believing that this was true.  That Jesus died and rose again.

In a world that is constantly stuck in Holy Saturday, we long for hope.  We long for hope in a world full of despair.  Even this year’s Holy Week had its own twists and turns.  At the beginning of the week we saw Notre Dame in Paris burn.  By Monday evening I was seeing posts about oak trees planted at Versailles after the last roof restoration on Notre Dame some 160 years ago.  The post said, “The trees are ready for the next restoration.”  Turns out this was a rumor and not really true.  However, this post shows just how much hope people are longing for in this world.  People are longing for hope and if they don’t find hope in the church or in this faith, they will (and do) turn to others things that can give them hope (even if those other things are false and rumors).  Because we don’t enjoy staying in those Good Friday and Holy Saturday moments.  We long to get to Easter.  We long to get to the Resurrection.  Death is painful.  Despair is painful.

And that’s Mary standing by the empty tomb – unsure of what to do next.  She is longing for hope, but all she feels is pain and despair.  But then this gardener comes by and asks her what she is looking for.  She’s looking for hope.  She’s looking for comfort.  She’s looking for peace.  Peace that will last.  And when the gardener calls her by name and says, “Mary” she realizes that this gardener is no gardener, He is the Good Shepherd.  The Good Shepherd who knows His sheep and calls them by name.  The Good Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep.  And we follow our Good Shepherd because we know His voice.  This voice gives us comfort.  This voice gives us peace.

Since those first disciples knew that Jesus conquered victory over the grave, they shared this Good News about Jesus with everyone.  And this Word continues to change our lives; giving us hope that the Good Fridays and Holy Saturdays in our lives will not last forever.  Today we celebrate Easter, but our eternal Easter is coming.  The Day of Resurrection is coming.  Today we celebrate and give thanks for our Lord is not dead in a tomb somewhere, but He is alive.  He has done it.  He has defeated death and the grave.  And one day the Good Shepherd will call us by name.  So that where He is, we shall be also.  And for that we say…Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!  Amen.

© 2019 Anthony Christoffels.  All rights reserved.


[1] John 20:2, NRSV

[2] The Case for Christ, pg. 334

Truth in Happiness

Readings for the day (6th Sunday after Epiphany – Sunday, February 17, 2019):

Jeremiah 17:5-10

Psalm 1

1 Corinthians 15:12-20

Luke 6:17-26

 

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

 

So apparently we make enough purchases on Amazon throughout the year that they decided that we were deserving enough to receive their holiday toy catalog this past fall.  As I was getting back in the car from picking up the mail, my boys instantly noticed the catalog and immediately began asking to see it.  They didn’t even know what it was.  All they saw were the toys on the cover and they assumed that the catalog had to have been for them.

As soon as we got into the house, they threw off their coats and shoes and ran into the living room with the catalog to begin oohing and awing over all of the nice shiny toys.  With each page they turned, they pointed at almost every single toy (basically any toy that didn’t have the color pink on it, they pointed to).  And as they pointed to a toy, I heard them say, “I want that, and that, and that, and that…”  This continued on for a good 20-30 minutes as they diligently examined every page of that amazing Amazon toy catalog.

So why it is that children instinctively desire to possess whatever they view as cool and fun?  Is it because they think that they are entitled to it?  Is it because they think they deserve it?  I don’t think so.  For the vast majority of children, I don’t think their desire for these toys comes from a sense of entitlement.  I think it is simply a longing for happiness.  The young ones don’t have a concept of money or how much something actually costs.  They see a colorful image on a page and begin dreaming and imagining how wonderful it would be to play with and enjoy that toy.  If you think back to your own childhood, isn’t that what you did when the Sears or the JCPenny catalogs came in the mail?  I didn’t look at the price tag.  I just looked at the image and pictured playing with that toy, and how happy I would be playing with said toy.

As an adult we do the same thing; it just looks different.  Because walking around and pointing at everything that we want that we think will make us happy and saying, “I want that, and that, and that.”  Is not socially acceptable.  But our ultimate goal is to be blessed or to at least consider ourselves to be blessed.  In Jesus’ sermon, He looks at His disciples and gives them four ways of being blessed, and four ways of not being considered blessed according to God.

To be blessed though, according to God, is not the same type of blessing that the world wants us to think that a blessed person looks like.  To be blessed, according to the world, means that we get to have all of the riches and all of the happiness that we want.  To be blessed though, doesn’t mean that we are going to have everything that we want.  Because if we view our blessedness through the lenses of needing to acquire so many riches and possessions, it becomes a never-ending cat and mouse chase.  We think that if only we would have a little bit bigger house, then we will be happy.  If we only get a little bit higher wage, then we’ll be happy.  If we can just get away for a nice relaxing vacation (where there is no snow or cold), then we’ll be happy.  When our happiness is rooted in the possessions and other stuff of this world, we will be striving to reach something that seems to always be just out of reach for us.  And if we play this game long enough, eventually we just give up and give in.  And that is when we figure that the “woes” that Jesus talks about, actually fit us better than the “blessings.”  Because reaching a state of blessedness is simply unattainable.  And by the world’s standards, none of us here are going to reach that ultimate state of blessedness.

But to be blessed actually isn’t all about being filled with riches and happiness.  Being rich in this world does not equal happiness.  Rather, to be blessed means that we are at peace with our current status.  To be blessed means that we are satisfied with what we currently have.  To be blessed means that we are unburdened by the world’s capitalist and consumerist tendencies.  And maybe you already know this.  Maybe you already know that you don’t need the biggest house, the fanciest clothes, the latest gadgets, in order to view yourself as blessed.  But did you know that to be blessed doesn’t mean that there will be an absence of struggle in your life either?  That just because God considers you blessed, doesn’t mean that instantly your life is going to be easy and that there will be no issues or problems coming your way.  That you have one big force field surrounding you.

There is this movie that I enjoyed watching as a child called The Little Giants.  It is about these children who are not good enough to make the elite peewee football team.  The world would say that are not “blessed” with football skills.  But they really want to play, so they form a team and prepare to play against the elite team.  One of the “unskilled” players gets hurt in practice.  The next day his mom allows him to come to practice again, but she wrapped him up completely in bubble wrap.  Being blessed by God does not mean that we are going to get all of the riches we want, but it also doesn’t mean that we are going to walk around wearing bubble wrap to shield us from any danger.  In fact, Jesus suggests that as we move towards God, that movement is going to create struggles for us.  That because of our belief in Jesus and being associated with His name, struggles will arise for us.  To be blessed, is to live aware that these struggles, on account of Jesus’ name, are only temporary.  The struggles that we face will not last forever.

All of this boils down to where you locate your trust and your happiness.  Do you put your trust in the things of this world?  Do you put your trust in mere mortals, as Jeremiah says?  Or do you put your trust in the Lord?  Jeremiah tells the people that they put their trust first and foremost in God, and God alone.  And it is out of that trust that stems happiness.  Riches don’t create happiness, but trust does.  Trust creates happiness.

Children create and invent and dream.  Their dreams are not rooted in the financial realm.  Their dreams are rooted in pure happiness.  So when they see a toy in a catalog, their dream is not that the toy will create happiness for them.  They trust that happiness comes from the activity itself – the creating, the inventing, the dream.

Jesus says that we are blessed not by the physical possessions or personal worth that we have.  Rather, we are blessed and receive our true happiness from the Lord.  That no matter how many struggles or obstacles we face from day to day or week to week, we can trust that our Lord is with us, now and forever.  Amen.

 

 

© 2019 Anthony Christoffels.  All Rights Reserved.

Don’t Hoard the Good Stuff

Readings for the day (4th Sunday after Epiphany – Sunday, February 3, 2019):

Jeremiah 1:4-10

Psalm 71:1-6

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Luke 4:21-30

 

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

 

Shortly after we got married, my brother-in-law came to live with us for a few months.  I was a recent college graduate looking for a job and Stephanie was still in school.  So we didn’t have a lot of money and when we were at the grocery store and we would treat ourselves with a small bag of treats like M&Ms or something similar, that was a big deal for us.  Normally we only got the essentials that we needed.  Candy and other sweets were not necessary.  So we usually didn’t purchase any.  And when we did splurge a little and treated ourselves to something sweet, I would hide and protect our recent purchase like it was gold.  I would hide these snacks in our bedroom closet instead of leaving them in the kitchen.  I didn’t want to share them.  I certainly didn’t want to share them with my brother-in-law who nearly polished off a box of Girl Scout cookies that was accidently left in the kitchen.  I wanted to keep these treats all for myself.  Any sweets that we had, we hoarded.

When Jesus visits his hometown of Nazareth, the people are left amazed by Him.  They questioned if this man standing before them who read the scripture reading during worship was really Joseph’s son.  He did such a wonderful job that they all spoke well of Him and were amazed by His words.  This Jesus was their hometown boy.  In that moment, they were so proud to say that they were from Nazareth and remember Jesus when He was a child growing up.  They would be famous.  Plus they figured that since Jesus was theirs, He was from Nazareth, that they could keep Him all for themselves.  And He would be able to cure their sick and perform miracles like they heard that He did in neighboring towns.  “Hey Jesus, do that water into wine trick you did in Fairmont.  You’re from Ceylon/Welcome/Trimont.  This is your hometown.  Don’t you think you could give us something too?”  The people of Nazareth thought they could hoard Jesus for themselves.  That God’s promises were exclusively for them and no one else.  They wanted to hoard this Good News.  They liked what they heard in this sermon from Jesus about this Good News that God will be releasing those who feel they are in bondage or who are oppressed or who are unable to see clearly.  The people approved of what they heard.  This was good stuff they were hearing.

Later though, they didn’t like Jesus anymore.  They didn’t like what they heard.  They disapproved of what they heard so much that they got up, drove Jesus out of town, and led Him to a cliff to hurl Him over the side of it.  They turned on Him because Jesus told them that God’s promises reach beyond themselves.  That this Good News is not just for them.  It is not something that they can hoard for themselves.  Rather it is intended to be shared, and shared abundantly.

Now as we are called to share this Good News abundantly, we tend to resist this call like Jeremiah did.  We come up with excuses, one after another.  Back in the summer of 2006, I was doing some office work at the campus ministry that I worked at.  The phone rings in the office and on the other end of line is the senior pastor at the neighboring church just a few blocks away.  He asks if I would be interested in being the high school youth director at his church.  Without any hesitation at all, I flat out told him no.  I told God no to doing His work.  And you know what my excuse was?  Besides not having a clue as to what to even do as a youth director, my excuse was that I was already working two jobs – one at the campus ministry (which I enjoyed doing), and the other was a job at a local grocery store (which I despised doing).  So I told God no to doing His work because I preferred to keep a job that I was unhappy in rather than do ministry that I enjoyed.  About a week and a half later I did accept the job offer and terminated my employment at the grocery store.

The excuses that we come up with are usually ridiculous when we take a step back to look at them.  Jeremiah told God that he couldn’t be God’s prophet and messenger because he was just a boy; too young to know how to speak.  Peter told God that he couldn’t follow Him because he was a fisherman.  Moses told God that he couldn’t lead His people out of Egypt because he didn’t have a very eloquent speaking voice.  So Moses pleads with God, “Lord, please send someone else.”  How many times have we said that phrase?  Or even just thought that phrase to ourselves?  “Lord, please, please, please send someone else.”  What are your excuses?  I’m too old.  I’m too tired.  I’ve done my time.  I don’t have enough money.  I don’t have enough experience, or knowledge.

Putting all of our excuses aside, Paul tells us all that we need to know.  Instead of focusing on what love is, Paul focuses on what love must do or not do.  The way Paul describes love is through verbs, words that describe action.  Not just a concept, but actual action.  Love is not just something that is spoken; it is shown through our actions.  Eight out of the fifteen actions that Paul lists are things that love must not do.  If we have love for one another we do not envy or boast.  We aren’t arrogant or rude.  We don’t seek our own way.  We aren’t irritable or resentful when we don’t get our way.  And we don’t rejoice in the wrongdoing of others.

Paul says that if those are the things that love does not do, then to love is to be patient with other people, including your spouse.  To love is to be patient with children.  To love is to act kindly to others.  When we have love for one another we rejoice with each other. We share in the struggles of today and we share with one another our hopes for tomorrow.

Where is God calling you today?  Who are you being called to love today?  What is God calling you to stop hoarding and to let go of today?  When God calls us to do (or not do) a certain thing, He does so with a purpose.  And that purpose is for the betterment of His kingdom on Earth as it is in Heaven.  May we continue to serve Him joyfully with faith, hope, and love.  Amen.

 

 

© 2019 Anthony Christoffels.  All Rights Reserved.

God Delights in You

Readings for the day (2nd Sunday after Epiphany – Sunday, January 20, 2019):

Isaiah 62:1-5

Psalm 36:5-10

1 Corinthians 12:1-11

John 2:1-11

 

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

 

Christmas is over and the decorations are long been down.  If the season of Advent throughout the month of December brought joy to our lives as we prepared for our Christmas celebrations, these weeks in January as we have entered Epiphany is our reality.  December is usually an exciting month.  Joyous music on the radio.  Feel good movies and childhood classics on TV.  We are busy making preparations for our celebrations.  Christmas truly is a joyous time of year.  It is as though Christmas allows us to take a break from reality.  To not think about the work that we need to do the other 11 months out of the year.  To forget about the work that we have to do.  To forget about the loneliness that we feel.  To forget about the struggles that we face each and every day.  Christmas becomes a pause button on our reality.

But as I said, Christmas is over.  Lest we forget that Christmas ended at the beginning of the month.  We’re back to reality.  The decorations are down.  Our homes and churches look empty.  They didn’t look empty in November before the Christmas decorations were pulled out.  But there is a certain emptiness now.  Maybe sometimes you wish that Christmas would last longer.  Or maybe never go away.  Because Christmas leaves as quickly as it arrives.  It is the church’s shortest season.  And then we are back to where we find ourselves today; back to reality.

Our reading from Isaiah needs a little bit more context to fully understand what’s going on.  For about 15 chapters in the book of Isaiah, the prophet is encouraging and empowering the people as they sit exiled away from their homes in a foreign land.  He tells them that things will get better.  You will be going home soon.  You will be able to make a new start, and turn over a new leaf.  This message encourages and excites the people.  They have great anticipation of what lies ahead for them.  After all of these years, they get to go home.  They’re excited.  Yes they’re anxious, but they’re excited.  It’s similar to how we feel at the beginning of a new year.  We let the past be the past and we look forward to what lies ahead in the New Year.  Maybe a little anxious about what this New Year will be for us, but still excited that something in our life will get better.  Maybe a new baby is expected to arrive and be welcomed into your family.  Maybe there’s a wedding, a graduation, a milestone of some kind happening this year.

But then comes reality for the Isaiah’s audience, the people who were exiled.  They finally return home to Jerusalem.  And when they return, their excitement quickly turns to disappointment.  Their home is not the way they remembered it.  The picture that was painted in their mind turned out to be nothing like what was promised.  What was promised and the reality that they were experiencing were not the same.  They were different.  They were totally different.

The same is true for us as we make this transition from Christmas to Epiphany.  Throughout the month of December we have great anticipation and excitement, but then as feel good movies disappear, the tone of the music changes, and all of the decorations get boxed up for another year, reality sets in.  Last year’s harvest was still terrible.  Church attendance is still low.  Our government is still sort of shutdown.  Opened temporarily for three weeks?  The poor are still poor.  The hungry are still hungry.  The loneliness hasn’t gone away.  The struggles.  The pains.  The hurts of this life are still very real.  They haven’t gone away.  Throughout Advent and Christmas, we are reminded that this is exactly why Jesus came; to balance the scales.  To give relief.  To bring peace.  And like the people returning to Jerusalem, we are left wondering, where’s the promised help and redemption?  Lord, don’t you see our struggle?  Don’t you see our pain?  Come to our aid.

And you know what?  Jesus does.  He does know your struggle.  He does know your pain.  And He comes to your aid not with a bunch of flashing lights and blaring trumpets.  Rather He discretely comes like a wedding guest who finds out that three days into a week-long celebration, the host is on the verge of a tragedy.  The host of the party has ran out of wine.  And being made aware of the problem, Jesus doesn’t take center stage, calling attention to the problem and turning this first miracle that He is going to perform into a big production.  Instead, Jesus simply instructs a few servants to fill some jugs with plain, ordinary water.  Nothing special.  Just plain water.  And without anyone knowing what was going on, He turned that ordinary, tasteless water into something extraordinary – the best tasting wine ever.

God knows our struggles.  He knows the church’s struggles.  That’s why He tells the people returning from exile, “You shall be a crown of beauty.”  “You shall no more be termed Forsaken.”  “Your land shall no more be termed Desolate.”  Because “You shall be called My Delight.”  God delights in us.  He delights in His church.  He delights in you.  Now you see yourself as plain, ordinary water that doesn’t have much taste.  But when God gets a hold of us, we aren’t plain.  We aren’t ordinary.  And we certainly aren’t tasteless.  For God changes us.  He changes us to the best – the best that we can possibly be.  And that, is what our God delights in.  He delights in us being our best.

In fact, God delights in us so much that in a way we could think of it as God wants to play with us.  And He wants us to play with Him.  For a child, some of their greatest joy comes when a parent, grandparent, family member or friend sits down and plays with them.  That’s what our heavenly Father desires for us.  He wants to play with us.  He wants to interact with us.  He wants to get to know us better.  He wants for us to be happy.

And it is through the people around us, that God uses to make us happy and help make the struggles in life bearable.  He surrounds us with friends and family to make the loneliness not feel so lonely.  This is the reality that we live in.  And no it isn’t the fulfillment of what has been promised to us.  That day is still coming.  But despite the reality that we are experiencing, we can choose to despair over the struggles of our reality.  Or we can place our trust in God, knowing full well that our Lord delights in us and will do extraordinary things to us and for us because He did do something extraordinary for us.  He died on the cross for us.  He concurred death for us.  He rose for us.  And as He has promised, He will come again for us.  Amen.

 

 

© 2019 Anthony Christoffels.  All Rights Reserved.

Revealing the Winnowing Fork

Readings for the day (Baptism of Our Lord – Sunday, January 13, 2019):

Isaiah 43:1-7

Psalm 29

Acts 8:14-17

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

 

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

 

The season of Epiphany is about revealing.  Revealing what is unknown.  Because if it is already known, it doesn’t need to be revealed.  That’s why there are press conferences – to reveal or make known the things that are unknown.

On Friday I watched and listened to the two press conferences revealing that Jayme Closs was found alive and safe.  What wonderful news!  Most of the time, press conferences and information revealed by the news media is anything but GOOD news.  Usually it is negative information that the news media is wanting to reveal to us.  But on Friday, it was all positive news that the authorities wanted to share with the public and make known to us.

Imagine if Jesus wasn’t born 2,000 years ago, but instead was born this year.  And what is the likelihood of the news media sharing a story about a baby boy born during the winter and having three foreign leaders bringing gifts to Him?  The national media seems a lot more interested in Trump and his wall that I highly doubt they would pay much attention to a promised Messiah being born.

Last week, the church celebrated the day of Epiphany, the traditional day when we celebrate the coming of the magi to visit the newborn King and present Him with gifts.  The wise men who are Gentiles, foreigners from a different land, present the Christ child with three gifts that reveal Jesus’ identity.  Gold revealing that He is an earthly king.  Frankincense revealing that He is God, a heavenly king.  And myrrh revealing that He will die for the sins of the world.  As a child, His true identity has already been revealed.

Then today as we focus on the baptism of Jesus, God the Father reveals Jesus’ identity as His Son by saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”[1]  The rest of the weeks in the season of Epiphany lead us to Lent by continuing to reveal Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and reveal His purpose for being born.  Specifically, Jesus was born to us and more importantly, for us.  For you.

So in a way, Epiphany is not only for revealing unknown things about Jesus, but Epiphany is also about revealing things about ourselves.  When John the Baptist gets on the scene, he is giving a message, a call to repent, to turn away from our bad habits and begin anew.  In a way, if you make a New Year’s resolution, you are taking the first step.  I’m going to eat health, exercise more, doing more things that I enjoy, care for others, make better choices, pray more, read the Bible more.  All of these resolutions are goals that we set for ourselves to repent or turn away from bad or unhealthy practices or choices in life and make better ones.  For John, he calls the people to turn from their wickedness, their ungodly ways.  And to turn back to God.  To care for others.  To be humble.  To put God first in their lives.  John’s call of repentance is a call to turn away from those things that draw us away from God.  To turn away from that which is not helpful in our walk with God.

And then John says that the people would be wise to do this, to repent and change their ways because he is not the Messiah, but the Messiah is coming.  And the Messiah is so much more powerful than he is, that John is not even worthy to bend over and untie the Messiah’s shoes.  That’s the job of a servant and John is saying that he is not even worthy enough to be considered a servant of the Messiah.  That’s how important the Messiah is, and how unimportant, unworthy John considers himself.  And then when the Messiah does come, John says that He will come to baptize us with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  That through the Holy Spirit Jesus will claim us, and with fire He will purify us.

On our own, we too, are like John – unimportant and unworthy to even be considered a servant of the Messiah because of our sin.  All of those things that we do that draw us and our attention away from Jesus makes us unworthy.  And John says that when Jesus comes to baptize us with the Holy Spirit and with fire, Jesus will already have His winnowing fork in His hand.  The fork that will be used to separate the wheat from the chaff will already be in the hands of Jesus.  There will be no mingling or social hour when Jesus comes.  There will be no opportunity to have a drink or two with Jesus.  When He comes, He will not be wasting any time.

Now when I think about the winnowing fork and the separating the wheat from the chaff, I often think that I want to make sure that by the end I’m on the right side.  That I want to make sure that I’m wheat and not chaff.  But I read something this week that got me thinking.  What if the winnowing fork is not necessarily about separating the good people from the bad people, but rather about separating the good parts from the bad parts in our lives?  Martin Luther says that daily we must be drowning our sins and evil desires and coming forth to rise and live before God in righteousness and purity.  If Luther says that this is a daily exercise that happens within our lives, then couldn’t the separating that Jesus does with the winnowing fork also be something that happens daily?

There will be without a doubt the judgement of nations, as we read about in Matthew 25.  The whole separating the sheep from the goats and we want to be sheep and not goats.  But every day when we awake, we have a choice.  You have to choose to love your spouse today.  You have to choose to love your children today.  You have to choose to love God today.  And each day, with His winnowing fork in hand, Jesus is working with you and through you to separate the good parts of your life from the bad parts of your life.  And our prayer is that Jesus would reveal to us what in our lives is chaff that should be burned, so that we can keep the wheat and grow closer to Him.

Now separating is not always easy to do, especially when we really like the chaff.  But no matter how hard it may be, God promises to be with us.  In the reading from Isaiah, the people of Israel are in exile, but God is promising to bring them back home and restore their nation.  He says, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”[2]  So God says, wait a minute, YOU belong to me.  I know you.  I have claimed you.  You are mine.  And since you belong to me, I will watch over you.  I will be with you wherever you go.

And in this same text we get the one place in the entire Bible where God says, “I love you.”  He says that because you are precious in His sight, because He honors you, because He loves you, God promises to be with you and do whatever it takes to help you.  Even if that means having to be born as a child into this world and die hanging on a tree.  He will do it, all for you, because He loves you!  Amen.

 

 

 

© 2019 Anthony Christoffels.  All rights reserved.

[1] Luke 3:22, NRSV

[2] Isaiah 43:1, NRSV

Not Your Ordinary Gifts

Readings for the day (Epiphany of Our Lord – Sunday, January 6, 2019):

Isaiah 60:1-6

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14

Ephesians 3:1-12

Matthew 2:1-12

 

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

 

Did you get everything you wanted for Christmas?  A shiny new car with a big red bow on it?  Well that’s what all the car commercials show us what the perfect gift looks like.  Did you know that our gift giving tradition comes from the Bible?  We say that Christmas is Jesus’ birthday.  We also say that of all the presents that we get, Jesus is the greatest gift we have ever received.  Both of which are true.  Now the tradition of gift giving comes from these wise men or astronomers who follow a star from the Far East to visit the Messiah and bring Him gifts.

The gifts these three men bring seem a little odd for us in 2019.  They bring gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Well maybe not the gold.  Because who wouldn’t want some bars of gold.  Especially since right now an ounce of gold is around $1,300.  Which makes a gold bar just over half a million dollars.  Who wouldn’t want that?  These gifts though, that the magi bring, are of significant importance.  These gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh show Jesus’ true identity while He is still an infant.

The first gift is gold and it is presented to the child for His earthly kingship.  Gold is a symbol of power and authority in this world.  You’ve heard the saying, “Whoever has the gold, makes the rules.”  By giving Jesus this gift of gold, the wise men are acknowledging the power and authority that Jesus has in this world.

The second gift is frankincense and it is presented to the child for His heavenly kingship.  Frankincense is a type of incense, that when burnt it gives off a fragrant odor.  During the Old Testament time, incense became an important part of worship to God.  God even makes comments about enjoying the sweet aroma of the people’s incense and offerings.  So frankincense became a symbol of worship to God.  By giving Jesus this gift of frankincense, the wise men are acknowledging the power and authority that Jesus has as God Himself.

With these two gifts, these three foreigners have given recognition to the fact that this child that was born to us is and forever will be the King of both earth and heaven.  The final gift is myrrh and it is presented to the child in preparation for His death.  No one wants to think of a sweet, innocent baby’s death, but this final gift of Myrrh is exactly what comes to mind.  Myrrh is an anointing oil that is used at the time of burial.  I wonder what Mary and Joseph thought when this gift was given.  Where they offended that this gift was given revealing the reality that their child will die someday?  When a child is born, we of course know that death is a realty, we just don’t like to think about that when we are holding a precious little child in our arms.  With this gift though, the magi recognize that this king of both heaven and earth, although just a child, will one day die for the sins of the world.

The story of the three wise men is Matthew’s Christmas story.  And the coming of the wise men and giving their three gifts, is the first part of Matthew’s Christmas story – the part that we tell our children and grandchildren about.  We don’t tell them the next part of this Christmas story because of what comes next.  We prefer to just stick with Luke’s Christmas story because it’s nice, it’s peaceful with Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus in this stable with all of these animals and shepherds surrounding them.  And it is a nice, calm night with the stars twinkling bright.  We picture what we sing about in those dearly loved Christmas carols like O Little Town of Bethlehem and Away in a Manger.  We long to just stay in Luke’s world where there is no arguing, no fighting, no stress.  Just peace and stillness.  But in Matthew’s Christmas story it’s the opposite.  The second half of Matthew’s story is one of fear and violence.

After the wise men visit King Herod looking to find out where the Messiah has been born, Herod gets fearful of another king in his presence.  He is so insecure about the possibility of someone replacing him that he resorts to violence in order to maintain and secure his power.  That’s a lot of power that is given to this Christ child.  The fact that this powerful, authoritative person is so terrified of a child in diapers that he resorts to numerous murders shows the reality of what power and the drive to keep that power, can do to a person.  In order to keep his power, Herod orders the killing of all male children under two years of age.  This way he would be able to sleep at night knowing that he has eliminated the possibility of another king rising to power.  This is the part of the Christmas story that we don’t want to think about.  We would rather stick with Luke’s version.  Luke’s version is nicer.  But if Luke’s Christmas story is nice, Matthew’s story is realistic.  We so desperately want to live in Luke’s world where everything is peaceful and calm, but we keep waking up in Matthew’s world of fear and violence.  We dream of Luke’s version, but Matthew’s is our reality.

So we are left wondering, will Luke’s version ever become our reality?  Will we ever get to the peace and calm without the fear and violence?  We may, but I think it all comes down to the gifts that we bring and what gifts you have to offer to the new born king.

What gifts do you have to offer?  The wise men offer gold, frankincense and myrrh.  What are you offering?  What can we offer to someone who has everything?  You probably have someone in your family or friends that is just hard to get a present for.  You never know what to get them for Christmas because they seem to have everything.  The wise men came to bring gifts to Jesus, the Son of God.  What gifts could we possible offer to our God who already has everything?  There is one gift that we can offer to our God who has everything.  The one gift He desires is for us to love our neighbor.  In loving our neighbor, we are giving a gift to God.  Our heavenly Father gave us His Son and Jesus says that through loving and caring for our neighbors, we in turn are giving a gift to our God who appears to have everything.

Everything that is, except children who love and care for each other.  After all, isn’t that what parents desire for their own children to get along with one another?  We long for our family to be like Luke’s version filled with peacefulness and calmness rather than Matthew’s version that is filled with fear and violence.  Since this is what we desire for our families, we work hard at making this dream become a reality.  We care for each other.  We bring comfort and support when needed.  All of this we do out of instinct because it is our own children, our own family.

God’s desire is for us to get along with one another.  To get along within our families, within our church family, within our community, and throughout the world.  When we do this, we are offering the one gift to God that He desires.  And this is the one gift that He desires because the Christ child who received gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh is the King of both heaven and earth, who died for our sins so that we can be reconciled to God.  And when we are all together at that great heavenly wedding banquet, God wants us to be getting along by joining our voices together in praising our God who saved us from sin and death.  Amen.

 

 

© 2019 Anthony Christoffels.  All rights reserved.